Science Fiction & Fantasy novels everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

Originating as a BBC radio series in 1978, Douglas Adams’s inspired melding of hippy-trail guidebook and sci-fi comedy turned its novelisations into a publishing phenomenon. Douglas wrote five parts from 1979 onwards (the first sold 250,000 in three months), introducing the world to Marvin the Paranoid Android, the computer Deep Thought, space guitarist Hotblack Desiato (named after Adams’s local estate agent) and the Guide itself, a remarkably prescient forerunner to the internet.
Andrew Pulver
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)

Aldiss’s first novel is a tour-de-force of adventure, wonder and conceptual breakthrough. Set aboard a vast generation starship millennia after blast-off, the novel follows Roy Complain on a voyage of discovery from ignorance of his surroundings to some understanding of his small place in the universe. Complain is spiteful and small-minded but grows in humanity as his trek through the ship brings him into contact with giant humans, mutated rats and, ultimately, a wondrous view of space beyond the ship.
Eric Brown
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)

One of the first attempts to write a comprehensive “future history”, the trilogy – which also includes Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) – is Asimov’s version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, set on a galactic scale. Hari Seldon invents the science of psychohistory with which to combat the fall into barbarianism of the Human Empire, and sets up the Foundation to foster art, science and technology. Wish-fulfilment of the highest order, the novels are a landmark in the history of science fiction.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)

On planet Zycron, tyrannical Snilfards subjugate poor Ygnirods, providing intercoital entertainment for a radical socialist and his lover. We assume she is Laura Chase, daughter of an Ontario industrialist, who records their sex and sci-fi stories in a novel, The Blind Assassin. Published posthumously by Laura’s sister, Iris, the book outrages postwar sensibilities. Iris is 83 in the cantankerous present-day narrative, and ready to set the story straight about the suspicious deaths of her sister, husband and daughter. In this Booker prize-winning novel about novels, Atwood bends genre and traps time, toying brilliantly with the roles of writing and reading.
Natalie Cate
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)

Anna Blume, 19, arrives in a city to look for her brother. She finds a ruin, where buildings collapse on scavenging citizens. All production has stopped. Nobody can leave, except as a corpse collected for fuel. Suicide clubs flourish. Anna buys a trolley and wanders the city, salvaging objects and information. She records horrific scenes, but also a deep capacity for love. This small hope flickers in a world where no apocalyptic event is specified. Instead, Auster creates his dystopia by magnifying familiar flaws and recycling historical detail: the novel’s working title was “Anna Blume Walks Through the 20th Century”.
NC
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)

A modern-gothic tale of mutilation, murder and medical experimentation, Banks’s first novel – described by the Irish Times as “a work of unparalleled depravity”- is set on a Scottish island inhabited by the ultimate dysfunctional family: a mad scientist and his unbalanced sons, older brother Eric, who has been locked up for everyone’s safety, and Frank, the 16-year-old narrator, tormented by a freak accident that cost him his genitals. Frank’s victims are mostly animals – but he has found time to kill a few children …
Phil Daoust
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)

Space opera is unfashionable, but Banks couldn’t care less. “You get the opportunity to work on a proper canvas,” he says. “Big, big brushes, broad strokes.” The strokes have rarely been broader than in Banks’s Culture novels, about a galaxy-spanning society in which humans and artificial intelligences are united by a love of parties, adventure and a damn good fight. Consider Phlebas introduced the first of many misguided or untrustworthy heroes – Horza, who can change his body just by thinking about it – and a typically Banksian collision involving two giant trains in an subterranean station.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)

Life’s rich tapestry is just that in Clive Barker’s fantasy. A magic carpet is the last refuge of a people known as the Seerkind, who for centuries have been hunted by both humans and the Scourge, a mysterious being that seems determined to live up to its name. When it all starts to unravel, the carpet people’s best hope is a pigeon-fancying insurance clerk and his half-Seerkind companion. Yes, it sounds twee, but as Barker himself said, “the Seerkind fornicate, fart – they’re very far from pure”.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)

Nicola Barker has been accused of obscurity, but this Booker-shortlisted comic epic has a new lightness of touch and an almost soapy compulsiveness. Set in Ashford, Kent, the kind of everytown that has turned its back on history, the novel dips into the lives of a loosely connected cast of everyday eccentrics who find that history – in the persona of Edward IV’s jester – is fighting back. A jumble of voices and typefaces, mortal fear and sarky laughter, the novel is as true as it is truly odd, and beautifully written to boot.
Justine Jordan
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)

In his visionary sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine, Baxter continues the adventures of the Time-Traveller. He sends him back to the far future in an attempt to save the Eloi woman Weena, only to find himself in a future timeline diverging from the one he left. Baxter’s extraordinary continuation and expansion tackles the usual concerns of the time-travel story – paradox and causality – and goes on to explore many of the themes that taxed Wells: destiny, morality and the perfectibility of the human race.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)

Bear combines intelligence, humour and the wonder of scientific discovery in a techno-thriller about a threat to the future of humanity. A retro-viral plague sweeps the world, infecting women via their sexual partners and aborting their embryos. But the plague is more than it seems … What might in other hands have been a mere end-of-the-world runaround is transformed by Bear’s scientific knowledge into something marvellous, as reason overcomes paranoia and fear.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)

“Gully Foyle is my name / And Terra is my nation. / Deep space is my dwelling place / And death’s my destination …” Marooned in space after an attack on his ship, then ignored by a passing luxury liner, an illiterate mechanic plots revenge on those who left him to die. Somehow surviving, he swiftly gets down to it. Bester’s novel updates The Count of Monte Cristo with telepathy, nuclear weapons and interplanetary travel. Those who stumble across it are inevitably surprised to find it was written half a century ago.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)

Brite’s first novel, a lush, decadent and refreshingly provocative take on vampirism told in rich, stylish prose, put her at the forefront of the 1990s horror scene. It’s the story of Nothing, an angst-filled teenager who runs away from his adoptive parents to seek out his favourite band. Along the way he joins up with a group of vampires, finds his true family and discovers what he really values, amid much blood, sex, drugs and drink.
Keith Brooke
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)

Al Barker is a thrillseeking adventurer recruited to investigate an alien labyrinth on the moon. Everyone who enters the maze dies, so Barker’s doppelganger is transmitted there while he remains in telepathic contact. Barker is the first person to survive the trauma of witnessing their own death, returning again and again to explore. Rogue Moon works as both thriller and character study, a classic novel mapping out a new and sophisticated SF, just as Barker maps the alien maze.
KB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)

When the Devil comes to 1930s Moscow, his victims are pillars of the Soviet establishment: a famous editor has his head cut off; another bureaucrat is made invisible. This is just a curtain-raiser for the main event, however: a magnificent ball for the damned and the diabolical. For his hostess, his satanic majesty chooses Margarita, a courageous young Russian whose lover is in a psychiatric hospital, traumatised by the banning of his novel. No prizes for guessing whom Bulgakov identified with; although Stalin admired his early work, by the 1930s he was personally banning it. This magisterial satire was not published until more than 20 years after the writer’s death.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)

In this pioneering work of British science fiction, the hero is a bumptious American mining engineer who stumbles on a subterranean civilisation. The “Vril-ya” enjoy a utopian social organisation based on “vril”, a source of infinitely renewable electrical power (commerce promptly produced the beef essence drink, Bovril). Also present are ray guns, aerial travel and ESP. Ironically, the hero finds utopia too boring. He is rescued from death by the Princess Zee, who flies him to safety. The novel ends with the ominous prophecy that the superior race will invade the upper earth – “the Darwinian proposition”, as Bulwer-Lytton called it.
John Sutherland
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)

One of a flurry of novels written by Burgess when he was under the mistaken belief that he had only a short time to live. Set in a dystopian socialist welfare state of the future, the novel fantasises a world without religion. Alex is a “droog” – a juvenile delinquent who lives for sex, violence and subcult high fashion. The narrative takes the form of a memoir, in Alex’s distinctive gang-slang. The state “programmes” Alex into virtue; later deprogrammed, he discovers what good and evil really are. The novel, internationally popularised by Stanley Kubrick’s 1970 film into what Burgess called “Clockwork Marmalade”, is Burgess’s tribute to his cradle Catholicism and, as a writer, to James Joyce.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)

In one of the first split-screen narratives, Burgess juxtaposes three key 20th-century themes: communism, psychoanalysis and the millennial fear of Armageddon. Trotsky’s 1917 visit to New York is presented as a Broadway musical; a mournful Freud looks back on his life as he prepares to flee the Nazis; and in the year 2000, as a rogue asteroid barrels towards the Earth, humanity argues over who will survive and what kind of society they will take to the stars.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)

John Carter, a Confederate veteran turned gold prospector, is hiding from Indians in an Arizona cave when he is mysteriously transported to Mars, known to the locals as Barsoom. There, surrounded by four-armed, green-skinned warriors, ferocious white apes, eight-legged horse-substitutes, 10-legged “dogs”, and so on, he falls in love with Princess Dejah Thoris, who might almost be human if she didn’t lay eggs. She is, naturally, both beautiful and extremely scantily clad … Burroughs’s first novel, published in serial form, is the purest pulp, and its lack of pretension is its greatest charm.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)

Disjointed, hallucinatory cut-ups form a collage of, as Burroughs explained of the title, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. A junkie’s picaresque adventures in both the real world and the fantastical “Interzone”, this is satire using the most savage of distorting mirrors: society as an obscene phantasmagoria of addiction, violence, sex and death. Only Cronenberg could have filmed it (in 1991), and even he recreated Burroughs’s biography rather than his interior world.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)

Butler’s fourth novel throws African American Dana Franklin back in time to the early 1800s, where she is pitched into the reality of slavery and the individual struggle to survive its horrors. Butler single-handedly brought to the SF genre the concerns of gender politics, racial conflict and slavery. Several of her novels are groundbreaking, but none is more compelling or shocking than Kindred. A brilliant work on many levels, it ingeniously uses the device of time travel to explore the iniquity of slavery through Dana’s modern sensibilities.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)

The wittiest of Victorian dystopias by the period’s arch anti-Victorian. The hero Higgs finds himself in New Zealand (as, for a while, did the chronic misfit Butler). Assisted by a native, Chowbok, he makes a perilous journey across a mountain range to Erewhon (say it backwards), an upside-down world in which crime is “cured” and illness “punished”, where universities are institutions of “Unreason” and technology is banned. The state religion is worship of the goddess Ydgrun (ie “Mrs Grundy” – bourgeois morality). Does it sound familiar? Higgs escapes by balloon, with the sweetheart he has found there.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)

It is 1767: a boy quarrels with his aristocratic parents and climbs a tree, swearing not to touch the earth again. He ends up keeping his promise, witnessing the French revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath from the perspective of the Italian treetops. Drafted soon after Calvino’s break with communism over the invasion of Hungary, the novel can be read as a fable about intellectual commitments. At the same time, it’s a perfectly turned fantasy, densely imagined but lightly written in a style modelled on Voltaire and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Chris Tayler
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)

Campbell has long been one of the masters of psychological horror, proving again and again that what’s in our heads is far scarier than any monster lurking in the shadows. In this novel, the domineering old spinster Queenie dies – a relief to those around her. Her niece Alison inherits the house, but soon starts to suspect that the old woman is taking over her eight-year-old daughter Rowan. A paranoid, disturbing masterpiece.
KB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The intellectuals’ favourite children’s story began as an improvised tale told by an Oxford mathematics don to a colleague’s daughters; later readers have found absurdism, political satire and linguistic philosophy in a work that, 140 years on, remains fertile and fresh, crisp yet mysterious, and endlessly open to intepretation. Alice, while reading in a meadow, sees a white rabbit rush by, feverishly consulting a watch. She follows him down a hole (Freudian analysis, as elsewhere in the story, is all too easy), where she grows and shrinks in size and encounters creatures mythological, extinct and invented. Morbid jokes and gleeful subversion abound.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

The trippier sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, like its predecessor, illustrated by John Tenniel. More donnish in tone, this fantasy follows Alice into a mirror world in which everything is reversed. Her journey is based on chess moves, during the course of which she meets such figures as Humpty Dumpty and the riddling twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. More challenging intellectually than the first instalment, it explores loneliness, language and the logic of dreams.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)

The year is 1899 – and other times. Fevvers, aerialiste, circus performer and a virgin, claims she was not born, but hatched out of an egg. She has two large and wonderful wings. In fact, she is large and wonderful in every way, from her false eyelashes to her ebullient and astonishing adventures. The journalist Jack Walser comes to interview her and stays to love and wonder, as will every reader of this entirely original extravaganza, which deftly and wittily questions every assumption we make about the lives of men and women on this planet.
Carmen Callil
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)

The golden age of the American comic book coincided with the outbreak of the second world war and was spearheaded by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants who installed square-jawed supermen as bulwarks against the forces of evil. Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning picaresque charts the rise of two young cartoonists, Klayman and Kavalier. It celebrates the transformative power of pop culture, and reveals the harsh truths behind the hyperreal fantasies.
XB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)

Clarke’s third novel fuses science and mysticism in an optimistic treatise describing the transcendence of humankind from petty, warring beings to the guardians of utopia, and beyond. One of the first major works to present alien arrival as beneficent, it describes the slow process of social transformation when the Overlords come to Earth and guide us to the light. Humanity ultimately transcends the physical and joins a cosmic overmind, so ushering in the childhood’s end of the title
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

Chesterton’s “nightmare”, as he subtitled it, combines Edwardian delicacy with wonderfully melodramatic tub-thumping – beautiful sunsets and Armageddon – to create an Earth as strange as any far-distant planet. Secret policemen infiltrate an anarchist cabal bent on destruction, whose members are known only by the days of the week; but behind each one’s disguise, they discover only another policeman. At the centre of all is the terrifying Sunday, a superhuman force of mischief and pandemonium. Chesterton’s distorting mirror combines spinetingling terror with round farce to give a fascinating perspective on Edwardian fears of (and flirtations with) anarchism, nihilism and a world without god.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)

Clarke’s first novel is a vast, hugely satisfying alternative history, a decade in the writing, about the revival of magic – which had fallen into dusty, theoretical scholarship – in the early 19th century. Two rival magicians flex their new powers, pursuing military glory and power at court, striking a dangerous alliance with the Faerie King, and falling into passionate enmity over the use and meaning of the supernatural. The book is studded with footnotes both scholarly and comical, layered with literary pastiche, and invents a whole new strain of folklore: it’s dark, charming and very, very English.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)

This classic by an unjustly neglected writer tells the story of Drove and Pallahaxi-Browneyes on a far-flung alien world which undergoes long periods of summer and gruelling winters lasting some 40 years. It’s both a love story and a war story, and a deeply felt essay, ahead of its time, about how all living things are mutually dependant. This is just the kind of jargon-free, humane, character-driven novel to convert sceptical readers to science fiction.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)

Coupland began Girlfriend in a Coma in “probably the darkest period of my life”, and it shows. Listening to the Smiths – whose single gave the book its title – can’t have helped. This is a story about the end of the world, and the general falling-off that precedes it, as 17-year-old Karen loses first her virginity, then consciousness. When she reawakens more than a decade later, the young people she knew and loved have died, become junkies or or simply lost that new-teenager smell. Wondering what the future holds? It’s wrinkles, disillusionment and the big sleep.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)

It’s not often you get to read a book vertically as well as horizontally, but there is much that is uncommon about House of Leaves. It’s ostensibly a horror story, but the multiple narrations and typographical tricks – including one chapter that cuts down through the middle of the book – make it as much a comment on metatextuality as a novel. That said, the creepiness stays with you, especially the house that keeps stealthily remodelling itself: surely that long, dark, endless corridor wasn’t there yesterday …
Carrie O’Grady
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)

It wasn’t a problem at first: to be more voluptuous, to have a firmer, more rounded bottom and breasts, to be pinker and more healthy-looking is far from a disadvantage to a girl working in a massage parlour in a sex-crazed dystopian society. But the changes don’t stop there: her hunger dominates (her preferred foods are now flowers and raw potatoes), her pleasant plumpness becomes rolls of fat, her glow turns ruddy. A curly tail, trotters and a snout are not far off. Darrieussecq’s modern philosophical tale is witty, telling and hearteningly feminist.
Joanna Biggs
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic future, long past the age of humans. Aliens have taken on the forms of human archetypes, in an attempt to come to some understanding of human civilisation and play out the myths of the planet’s far past. The novel follows Lobey, who as Orpheus embarks on a quest to bring his lover back from the dead. With lush, poetic imagery and the innovative use of mythic archetypes, Delaney brilliantly delineates the human condition.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Dick’s novel became the basis for the film Blade Runner, which prompted a resurgence of interest in the man and his works, but similarities film and novel are slight. Here California is under-populated and most animals are extinct; citizens keep electric pets instead. In order to afford a real sheep and so affirm his empathy as a human being, Deckard hunts rogue androids, who lack empathy. As ever with Dick, pathos abounds and with it the inquiry into what is human and what is fake.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Much imitated “alternative universe” novel by the wayward genius of the genre. The Axis has won the second world war. Imperial Japan occupies the west coast of America; more tyrannically, Nazi Germany (under Martin Bormann, Hitler having died of syphilis) takes over the east coast. The Californian lifestyle adapts well to its oriental master. Germany, although on the brink of space travel and the possessor of vast tracts of Russia, is teetering on collapse. The novel is multi-plotted, its random progression determined, Dick tells us, by consultation with the Chinese I Ching.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)

Foucault’s Pendulum followed the massive success of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and in complexity, intrigue, labyrinthine plotting and historical scope it is every bit as extravagant. Eco’s tale of three Milanese publishers, who feed occult and mystic knowledge into a computer to see what invented connections are created, tapped into the worldwide love of conspiracy theories, particularly those steeped in historical confusion. As “The Plan” takes over their lives and becomes reality, the novel turns into a brilliant historical thriller of its own that inspired a similar level of obsession among fans.
Nicola Barr
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)

A woman drives around the Scottish highlands, all cleavage and lipstick, picking up well-built male hitchhikers – but there’s something odd behind her thick pebble glasses … Faber’s first novel refreshes the elements of horror and SF in luminous, unearthly prose, building with masterly control into a page-turning existential thriller that can also be read as an allegory of animal rights. And in the character of Isserley – her curiosity, resignation, wonderment and pain – he paints an immensely affecting portrait of how it feels to be irreparably damaged and immeasurably far from home.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

John Fowles: The Magus (1966)

Determined to extricate himself from an increasingly serious relationship, graduate Nicholas Urfe takes a job as an English teacher on a small Greek island. Walking alone one day, he runs into a wealthy eccentric, Maurice Conchis, who draws him into a succession of elaborate psychological games that involve two beautiful young sisters in reenactments of Greek myths and the Nazi occupation. Appearing after The Collector, this was actually the first novel that Fowles wrote, and although it quickly became required reading for a generation, he continued to rework it for a decade after publication.
David Newnham
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)

“Nourishing to the soul” was Michael Chabon’s verdict on Gaiman’s novel, in which ex-con Shadow gets a job driving for a conman who turns out to be a Norse god. Before long, he is embroiled in a battle between ancient and modern deities: Odin, Anansi, Anubis and the Norns on one side, TV, the movies and technology on the other. A road trip through America’s sacred places is spiced up by some troublesome encounters with Shadow’s unfaithful wife, Laura. She’s dead, which always makes for awkward silences.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)

The author of such outstanding mythical fantasies as Elidor and The Owl Service, Garner has been called “too good for grown-ups”; but the preoccupations of this young adult novel (love and violence, madness and possession, the pain of relationships outgrown and the awkwardness of the outsider) are not only adolescent. The three
narrative strands – young lovers in the 1970s, the chaos of thebetweenalcoholics, English civil war and soldiers going native in a Vietnam-tinged Roman Britain – circle around Mow Cop in Cheshire and an ancient axehead found there. Dipping in and out of time, in blunt, raw dialogue, Garner creates a moving and singular novel.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” From the first line of Gibson’s first novel, it was clear that a major talent had arrived. This classic of cyberpunk won Nebula, Hugo and Philip K Dick awards, and popularised the term “cyberspace”, which the author described as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions”. A fast-paced thriller starring a washed-up hacker, a cybernetically enhanced mercenary and an almost omnipotent artificial intelligence, it inspired and informed a slew of films and novels, not least the Matrix trilogy.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)

When three explorers learn of a country inhabited only by females, Terry, the lady’s man, looks forward to Glorious Girls, Van, the scientist, expects them to be uncivilised, and Jeff, the Southern gallant, hopes for clinging vines in need of rescue. The process by which their assumptions are overturned and their own beliefs challenged is told with humour and a light touch in Gilman’s brilliantly realised vision of a female Utopia where Mother Love is raised to its highest power. Many of Herland’s insights are as relevant today as when it was first published a hundred years ago.
Joanna Hines
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)

The shadow of the second world war looms over Golding’s debut, the classic tale of a group of English schoolboys struggling to recreate their society after surviving a plane crash and descending to murderous savagery. Fat, bespectacled Piggy is sacrificed; handsome, morally upstanding Ralph is victimised; and dangerous, bloodthirsty Jack is lionised, as the boys become “the Beast” they fear. When the adults finally arrive, childish tears on the beach hint less at relief than fear for the future.
NB

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)

When Haldeman returned from Vietnam, with a Purple Heart for the wounds he had suffered, he wrote a story about a pointless conflict that seems as if it will never end. It was set in space, and the enemies were aliens, but 18 publishers decided it was too close to home before St Martin’s Press took a gamble. The book that “nobody wants to read” went on to win many prizes. It’s not perfect – it’s hard to take seriously a future in which hetereosexuality is a perversion – but the anti-war message is as powerful as ever.
Phil Daoust
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

M John Harrison: Light (2002)

Known for his intricate short stories and critically acclaimed mountaineering novel Climbers, Harrison cut his teeth on SF. In typical fashion, he writes space opera better than many who write only in the genre. For all its star travel and alien artefacts, scuzzy 25th-century spaceports and drop-out space pilots, Light is actually about twisting three plotlines as near as possible to snapping point. This is as close as SF gets to literary fiction, and literary fiction gets to SF.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Amateur stonemason, waterbed designer, reformed socialist, nudist, militarist and McCarthyite, Heinlein is one of the most interesting and irritating figures in American science fiction. This swinging 60s bestseller (working title: The Heretic) is typically provocative, with a central character, Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after the death of his parents and questions every human assumption – about sex, politics, society and spirituality – on his arrival on Earth. Smith’s religion, with its polyamory, communal living and ritual cannibalism, inspired the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)

Set on the desert world of Arrakis, this complex novel combines politics, religion, ecology and evolution in the rise to power of Paul Atreides, who becomes a revolutionary leader and a prophet with the ability to foresee and shape the future. Epic in scope, Dune is primarily an adventure story, though Herbert was one of the first genre writers convincingly to tackle the subject of planetary ecology in his depiction of a drought-stricken world.
Eric Brown
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)

Set in the fictional country of Castalia, Hesse’s last novel tells of a young man’s rise through the hierarchies of an elite boarding school. Step by step, young Josef Knecht is initiated into the mysteries of the “glass bead game” that forms the focal point of Castalian social and academic life – until he starts to question its rules and falls out with the order. That we never find out exactly how this game is meant to be played is part of Hesse’s plan: with its characteristic mix of the arcane and the esoteric, the novel sketches out a timeless allegory about the ivory-tower mentality of communities devoted to a single intellectual cause.
Philip Oltermann
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)

After the Bomb – long, long after – humanity is still huddled in medieval-style stockades, cold, ignorant, superstitious and speaking in degraded English, the patois in which this book is written. It takes some getting used to, but Riddley’s misspelt narrative is astonishingly rich and rewarding. As he circles burnt-out Kent, trying to make sense of the fragments of modern-day knowledge that have passed into folklore (a “saddelite” bird flies very high, the “Pry Mincer” is an authority figure), the mythical/religious/scientific allusions whirl so fast that we are left as gobsmacked as he is. Yet his story is still poignant. Will this be us in 2,500 years’ time?
Carrie O’Grady
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

Suppose you discovered that you were one of the elect – predestined to an bookseternity in paradise not because of the goodness of your actions or the strength of your faith, but by God’s grace. This is what happens to Robert Wringhim, who is brought up in the Calvinist belief in predestination. When he encounters a devilish figure known as Gil-Martin, Wringhim is easily tempted into undertaking a campaign to purge the world of the Reprobate – those not selected for salvation. After a series of rapes and murders, and seemingly pursued by demons, Wringhim yields to the ultimate temptation of suicide. Hogg’s novel, an early example of unreliable narration, was a strong influence on Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Adam Newey
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)

Sexist, racist, snob, Islamophobe … Houellebecq has been called many things, with varying degrees of accuracy. The charge of misanthropy is hard to deny, given his repeated portrayal of humankind as something that has lost its way, perhaps even its right to exist. Atomised – set in the world we know but introduced by a member of the superior species that will supplant us – provides two more examples of our inadequacy in half-brothers Michel and Bruno, an introverted biologist and a sex-addict teacher. It is Michel’s work on cloning that will eventually free the world of the burden of humanity.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Huxley’s dystopian vision of a “stabilised” world, based on the philosophies of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. Conflict has been eradicated with the aid of sexual hedonism and the drug Soma; babies are factory-bred in bottles to produce a strict class hierarchy, from alpha to epsilon. It is the year AF (After Ford) 632. “Alpha plus” Bernard Marx takes a “pneumatic” secretary on holiday to an Indian reservation in New Mexico, and brings back with him a native, John Savage. Savage is disgusted with the “civilisation” he finds, making an ultimately suicidal case for self-determining misery.
John Sutherland
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)

A man arrives in a central European city, where he is greeted as a VIP, though he’s not sure why. Eventually he recalls that he is an eminent concert pianist, scheduled to perform. Ishiguro’s most extraordinary novel gives us not only an unreliable narrator but an unreliable city and even unreliable laws of time and space. The man is shepherded through an expanding and contracting world, his own memories and moods changing like the weather. Yet the dream-logic is rooted in real, poignant, human dilemmas. One for readers who have grown out of Philip K Dick.
CO
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Hill House is haunted, but by what? The ghosts of the past or the people of the present? Here is a delicious, quietly unnerving essay in horror, an examination of what makes us jump. Jackson sets up an old dark house in the country, garnishes it with some creepy servants, and then adds a quartet of intrepid visitors. But her lead character – fragile, lonely Eleanor – is at once victim and villainess. By the end, the person she is scaring most is herself.
Xan Brooks
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)

In this most suggestive of ghost stories, James set out “to catch those not easily caught” – and critics have argued over the meaning of his novella ever since. Are the ghosts that a new governess in a country house believes to be steadily corrupting her young charges apparitions, hallucinations or projections of her own dark urges? The Times called it on publication “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern”, and it has lost none of its power to disturb.
Justine Jordan
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

PD James: The Children of Men (1992)

A blend of the literary mainstream (Oxford don going through unhappy divorce) and well-worn SF elements (human end times, advancing sterility, civilisation’s collapse and the rise of an authoritarian government), The Children of Men gained a fresh lease of life in 2006 with the bleak, compelling film staring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. The book divides SF critics and puzzles fans of her crime novels, but remains one of the great British dystopias and a trenchant satire on our times and values.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)

This environmental fable is set in the vague distant future (our “now”?). After a mysterious disaster (“the event”), society has relapsed into barbarism, and the countryside has reverted to idyllic wilderness. In the centre of England, a vast crystalline lake has formed. Felix Aquila sets out in a canoe on a voyage of discovery and finds London “utterly extinct”, surviving only as a pestilential swamp. The novel continues with him moving west – “ever towards the sunset” and his idealised dream-love, Aurora Thyma. A strong candidate for the most beautiful of all Victorian novels.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)

A near-future, rock’n’roll retelling of the Arthurian myth featuring Ax, a paradigm of Englishness contained within a postmodern, bisexual, half-Sudanese guitarist, and Sage Prender, a bear-like technowizard. Owing debts to Jimi Hendrix and offering a decidedly 60s summer festival vibe, Bold as Love is the first in a series of novels that mix politics with myth, counterculture and dark age sensibilities. It deservedly won Jones the 2001 Arthur C Clarke award.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Josef K is arrested by two sinister men in dapper suits. What for? K doesn’t know and can’t find out as he is sent on an increasingly absurd wild-goose chase through the labyrinthine sub-faculties of the legal system. A year later, he is executed – “Like a dog!” – for a crime he still cannot name. Incomplete and published posthumously, like all Kafka’s three big novels, The Trial captures the essence of moral guilt like no other novel in the 20th century. Watching Orson Welles’s film adaptation (with Anthony Perkins as K) is no substitute for experiencing what one critic memorably described as “not the literary presentation of a nightmare, but its literal transcription”.
PO
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)

Begun as a short story, expanded to a novella, and finally published as a novel, Keyes’s science fiction fable has won numerous prizes and been successfully adapted into drama, film, and popular music. The story has two central characters. Algernon is a mouse, whose intelligence is surgically enhanced to the level of rodent genius. The same technique is applied to Charlie Gordon, a mentally subnormal fast-food kitchen hand. The narrative, told by Charlie as his IQ soars, traces the discontents of genius. Alas, the effects of the surgery are shortlived, and the end of the story finds Charlie back in the kitchen – mentally challenged but, in his way, happy. Being smart is not everything.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Stephen King: The Shining (1977)

The most powerful, and in places interestingly autobiographical,
of King’s horror stories is based, as are many in the genre, on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and failed schoolteacher, racked with remorse for breaking his son Danny’s arm while drunk, takes the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in remote Colorado. The hotel is haunted by unexorcised demons from brutal murders committed there years ago. Torrance is possessed and turns, homicidally, on his wife and child. Danny, gifted with telepathic (“shining”) power, saves himself and his mother. Jack is beyond salvation. The film was brilliantly filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)

A young married woman, Melanie, scours antiques shops to furnish her new home and comes back with an old chaise-longue, which is perfect apart from an unsightly reddish-brown stain. She falls asleep on it and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar time – and an unfamiliar body. At first she assumes she must be dreaming. But gradually she starts to piece together the story of Milly, the young Victorian woman in the last stages of consumption whom she has apparently become, and the nature of the disgrace she has brought on the household run by her fearsomely stern elder sister. Why does the sight of the doctor make her pulse beat faster? And can she find a way back to her own life? Laski’s chilling little novel crackles with a darkly erotic electricity as Mel/Milly confronts the intimate connection between sexual ecstasy and death.
AN
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

This is frequently judged the best ghost story of the Victorian period. On the sudden death of her father, Maud, an heiress, is left to the care of her Uncle Silas, until she comes of age. Sinister in appearance and villainous by nature, Silas first plans to marry Maud to his oafish son, Dudley (who is, it emerges, already married). When this fails, father and son, together with the French governess Madame de la Rougierre, conspire to murder their ward with a spiked hammer. Told by the ingenuous and largely unsuspecting Maud, the narrative builds an impending sense of doom.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)

Popularised by Tarkovsky’s masterly film adaptation (and Soderberg’s rather more stolid second attempt), Solaris is by far Lem’s best-known novel – a humane, intriguing attempt to posit the nature of alien intelligence, and how contact with it might actually play out. Lem’s faraway world of Solaris is a sea of psychoactive imagery, making it an effective tool to plumb the contradictions of human consciousness as it reacts to those who would study it. Lem never liked Tarkovsky’s treatment of his story: not enough of the science made it to the screen.
Andrew Pulver
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Set in a near-future in a disintegrating city, where lawlessness prevails and citizens scratch a living from the debris, this dystopia is the journal of an unnamed middle-class narrator who fosters street-kid Emily and observes the decaying world from her window. Despite the pessimistic premise and the description of civilisation on the brink of collapse, with horror lurking at every turn, the novel is an insightful and humane meditation on the survivability of the species.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

A Voyage to Arcturus sold only a few hundred copies at the time of its first publication, but has subsequently been recognised as one of the most striking novels of imaginative fiction, Colin Wilson ranking it the “greatest novel of the 20th century”. On the surface it tells of Maskull’s travels on the planet Tormance, passing through exotic landscapes, finding love, murder and monsters, but through these themes Lindsay explores the meanings and origins of life and the universe.
Keith Brooke
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)

The world has entered the Second Enlightenment after the Faith Wars. In the Republic of Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson investigates the murders of religious leaders, suspecting atheists but uncovering a plot involving artificial intelligence. MacLeod’s police procedural is a wise indictment of fundamentalism of all kinds and a stark delineation of how belief systems can corrupt, as well as being an incisive character study of a man coming to terms with the brutalities of his past.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)

Mantel’s ninth novel is a beyond-black comedy about seedy, exhausted millennium-era Britain and an obese, traumatised medium called Alison who is cursed with the gift of second sight. Her familiars are the torturers – or projections – of her abusive childhood; they and the other lost souls of the spirit world clamour for Alison’s attention as she tries to record her life story. It’s a shocking, upsetting, often painful read; but Mantel’s rich capacity for amusement and the sheer power of the writing save it from unremitting bleakness.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)

Before his current incarnation as a thriller writer specialising in conspiracy theories and psychopathic gore, Marshall Smith wrote forward-thinking sci-fi which combined high-octane angst with humour both noir and surreal. His debut features a bizarre compartmentalised city with different postcodes for the insane, the overachievers, the debauched or simply those with unusual taste in interior design; as well as adventures in the realm of dreams, a deep love of cats and a killer twist.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)

Robert Neville is the last man standing, the lone survivor in a world overrun by night-crawling vampires. But if history is written by the winners, what does that make Neville: the hero or the monster? Matheson’s pacey fantasy charts its protagonist’s solitary war against Earth’s new inhabitants and his yearning, ongoing search for a fellow survivor. The ending upends the genre’s moral assumptions, forcing us to review the tale through different eyes. Clearly this was too much for the recent Will Smith movie adaptation, which ran scared of the very element that makes the book unique.
XB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

In Maturin’s extravaganza of transgression, beloved by authors from Byron and Balzac to Wilde and HP Lovecraft, the supernatural terrors of the Gothic novel begin to bleed into the psychological dread of Dostoevsky or Kafka. Melmoth ranges the earth, looking for some poor soul to take over the pact he’s made with the devil in exchange for extended life, as the narrative zips from London madhouse to Spanish dungeon to deserted Indian island. It’s a fascinating mix of wild ideas threatening to run away from the author, and a new realism that takes in poverty, social depredation and very human cruelties.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)

Francie Brady is a rambunctious kid in 1950s Ireland. He likes his best mate, Joe, and he hates his neighbour, Mrs Nugent, and he’s always getting into trouble, and this is mainly because of Mrs Nugent. McCabe leads us on a freewheeling tour of a scattered, shattered consciousness, as Francie grows from wayward child to dangerous adult – nursing his grievances and plotting his revenge. Chances are that old Mrs Nugent has a surprise in store.
XB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)

McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel is a tale from the near-future and a possible foretaste of things to come. In stark, bare-bones prose, it describes a father and son’s trudge across a nation devastated by an unspecified environmental calamity – an endless valley of ashes dotted with desperate, deadly survivors. These two figures are pushing south towards the sea, but the sea is poisoned and provides no comfort. In the end, all they have (and, by implication, all the rest of us have) is each other.
XB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)

Mercurio’s first novel, Bodies, which he adapted for TV as Cardiac Arrest, lifted the lid off the NHS; his second makes a stellar leap to relate the adventures of Soviet flying ace turned cosmonaut Yefgenii Yeremin. During the Korean war and then the space programme, Yeremin closes down his emotions even as his horizons expand, from the Arctic skies to the moon itself. The prose is suitably chilly yet strangely beautiful, with Mercurio’s technical know-how lending the flight scenes a compulsive believability that lifts the reader, along with Yeremin, to the bounds of space and beyond.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

China Miéville: The Scar (2002)

Miéville was a near-miss for the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003, but his “weird fiction” transcends genre pigeonholing. The second of his sprawling steampunk fantasies detailing the alternate universe of Bas-Lag follows Armada, a floating pirate city, in its search for a rip in reality. Miéville relishes the magic, the monsters and the limitless possibilities of the genre – from the vast “avanc” towing Armada through uncharted waters to the surgically altered “Remade”, plus horrifying mosquito women and underwater ghouls – but his books are also stylishly written, politically engaged, daring and always surprising.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)

Miller breathes new life into the Gothic antihero with his beautifully written Impac-winning first novel. “Cold-blooded and apparently indestructible”, James Dyer is born into the Enlightenment dawn without the capacity to feel pain; he becomes first freak-show then fearless surgeon, as immune to human compassion as he is to bodily fear. Moving from rural England to Bedlam, Russia’s snowbound tundra to the surreal court of Catherine the Great, the novel is at once a glittering tour of medicine and madness, cruelty and art, science and magic; and a delicate fable about how strange we are to one another.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

The most influential SF novel of the cold war era, chronicling the rise and fall of human civilisation, Miller’s tripartite novel opens (“Fiat Homo”) with a post-atomic dark age. Dead Sea scroll-like fragments of Isaac Leibowitz’s shopping list have survived, around which a monastery cult forms amid the universal barbarism. The second section (“Fiat Lux”) chronicles a new Renaissance of learning, growing out of the Leibowitzian monasteries. Technology emerges. The third section (“Fiat Vountas Tuas”) foresees another cataclysmic atomic war terminating civilisation yet again. In an epilogue, a spaceship leaves Earth with a cargo of monks, children and the Leibowitzian relics. The Wandering Jew makes recurrent and enigmatic appearances.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

A great palindrome of a novel, Mitchell’s third book begins with the unfinished journal of an 18th-century mariner and hops through time, space and genres right up to the distant post-apocalyptic future. Then it hops all the way back down again, resolving each story in turn. These include a camp Ealing-style misadventure, an American thriller and an interview with a clone, all connected by a mysterious comet-shaped tattoo. Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, but it’s a lot more fun than the literary plaudits on the back cover might suggest.
CO
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)

Moorcock spills out such varied books that he often feels impossible to nail down, which is probably the point. Mother London, his most literary – it was shortlisted for the Whitbread – shows him at the height of his powers. Three mental patients as flawed as the city they inhabit tell their own and London’s recent history through the voices they hear in their heads. It’s a touching and humanistic novel in the best sense of those words.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)

Morris’s late-life vision of the future socialist utopia was strongly influenced by the American Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular Looking Backward (1888). Having gone to sleep on the London underground, the narrator awakes to find himself in 20th-century Hammersmith. He bathes in the now crystalline Thames and spends a day in what used to be the British Museum, airily discussing life and politics. He then travels up the river to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, going on from there to some idyllic haymaking in Oxford. “Guest” (as he is called) returns to dingy present-day Hammersmith with the sense that what he has experienced is “a vision, not a dream”.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)

Sweet Home is a deceptive name for the Kentucky plantation where horrific crimes have been committed, as Beloved is for this shocking and unforgettable account of the human consequences of slavery. Sethe lives in Ohio in the 1870s; she has escaped from slavery, but cannot escape the past, which quite literally haunts her. In the 20 years since publication, Nobel laureate Morrison’s novel has achieved classic status, and in 2006 the New York Times named it best American novel of the previous quarter-century.
Joanna Hines
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)

You could hardly call this a cult classic – it’s too popular for that – but you almost wish it was, so you could tell people about it. At the start of Murakami’s story, a young man receives a mysterious phone call. It sparks off a 600-page adventure that sees him trapped at the bottom of a well, marked with a strange blue stain and taken on many otherworldly adventures, all in search of his missing wife. Murakami has the Japanese trick of writing about surreal events in a matter-of-fact way, making them all the more disturbing.
CO
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)

How to sum up Nabokov’s last great novel? Ada or Ardor is part sci-fi romance, part Proustian memoir. It plays out on a fantasy planet, a marriage of contemporary America and pre-revolutionary Russia, and details the love affair of precocious Van Veen and his sister Ada, chasing them from lustful puberty to decrepit old age. It is a gorgeous display of narrative wizardry, at once opulent, erotic, playful and wise.
XB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

“I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true,” explains Henry, who is afflicted with chrono-impairment and thus liable to vanish and reappear without warning to his wife Clare. As a device for thwarting the course of true love, unintentional time travel might wear thin, but Niffenegger’s humour and conviction keep the reader enthralled; and like all the best fantasy, it is grounded firmly in the details of everyday reality. A moving affirmation of the continuities of love against unusual odds.
JH
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)

Niven’s later career has been dominated by bloated collaborations with lesser writers; you might almost say he has spread himself too fat. But this novel, which won Hugo and Nebula awards, reminds us he was once one of the most exciting names in hard sci-fi. Part of the Known Space series, it follows a group of humans and aliens as they explore a mysterious ring-shaped environment spinning around a star like a giant hula-hoop. Science fiction fans sometimes describe such structures as “big dumb objects”, but Niven has thought every detail through.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)

Set in Manchester in the near-future and in a phantasmagorical virtual reality, Vurt is the story of Scribble, his gang the Stash Riders and his attempt to find his sister Desdemona, who is lost in a drug-induced VR. It’s a postmodern rollercoaster ride, nodding to film, literature and contemporary culture. Linguistically pyrotechnic and stunningly imaginative, it’s been described as the spawn of Alice in Wonderland and A Clockwork Orange. Noon’s first novel, it won the 1994 Arthur C Clarke award.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)

O’Brien’s publisher rejected his 1940 follow up to At Swim-Two-Birds on the grounds that “[we] think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so”. It was eventually published posthumously a quarter-century later, and this bizarre union of Dante’s Inferno and Father Ted – inspiration for the TV show Lost – is indeed fantastic in every sense. Set in a rural Ireland that is also a vision of hell, it features policemen turning into bicycles; that SF standby, the universal energy source; and any number of scientific and literary in-jokes. It’s also gleefully dark and properly creepy.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)

According to Yoruba tradition, a spirit child is one who has made a pact with his fellows in their other, more beautiful world, to rejoin them as soon as possible. Azaro breaks the pact, choosing to remain in this place of suffering and poverty, but the African shanty town where he lives with his parents teems with phantoms, spirits and dreams. Okri’s masterpiece is a powerful novel of sustained brilliance and vision, which draws the reader into a vibrant world both claustrophobic and without limits.
JH

Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)

An angry, impassioned fantasy of how to take down corporate America, and an ingenious modern version of the myth of the double. Palahniuk’s unnamed narrator, in revolt against the nesting instincts of modern consumerism, goes looking for the intensity of primal male experiences, and finds the maverick prankster Tyler Durden. It’s with Durden’s “Project Mayhem” and his army of “space monkeys” that Palahniuk’s visionary side takes flight; that there are white-collar “fight clubs” to this day is testament to his book’s impact.
Andrew Pulver
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)

A series of amiable conversations are strung together on a flimsy but suitably romantic plot in the most literary of Peacock’s Right: Audrey Niffenegger. Below left: Scene from David Fincher’s film Fight Club “novels of ideas”, as he gently lampoons the fashionable gloom of his friends Shelley, Coleridge and Byron, and all manner of associated “romantic transcendentalists and transcendental romancers”. Thwarted in love, the hero Scythrop reads The Sorrows of Werther and considers suicide, but settles for the comforts of madeira instead.
Joanna Hines
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)

Sinister and sensual, overwrought and overwritten, Titus Groan is a guilty pleasure – a dank, dripping Gothic cathedral of a novel. Titus himself is a minor character – literally: he’s only a year old by the end. He inherits Gormenghast castle and its extraordinary household: emaciated Flay, with his whip-crack joints; the morbidly obese cook, Swelter; feverish, moody young Fuchsia; cackling Dr Prunesquallor, and many others. They are so exaggerated, and Peake’s imagery so super-saturated, that this may seem like a children’s book, or a joke. But at its heart is a chilling glimpse of the nature of evil.
Carrie O’Grady
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)

With this gargantuan novel, Powys set out to take a location he knew well from his boyhood and make it the real hero of the story. It tells the story of Glastonbury through a year of turmoil, setting mystic mayor John Geard against industrialist Philip Crow. Geard wants to turn the town into a centre for Grail worship, while Crow wants to exploit and develop the local tin mines. Complex and rich, this is a landmark fantasy novel.
Keith Brooke
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)

This is the story of the bitter feud between Victorian master-magicians Angier and Borden, who attempt mutual sabotage in the quest to learn the secret of each other’s ultimate stage act: both, by different means, can transport themselves through space. The novel is as much a study of their obsession as a brilliant examination of magic and rationalism. The winner of the World Fantasy Award, it’s been described as urban fantasy with a science fictional explanation.
Eric Brown
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)

A Benedictine monk who gave it up to study medicine, Rabelais wrote this satirical tale of the giant Pantagruel and his even more monstrous and grotesque father Gargantua on the cusp between eras. In his portrayal of Gargantua, a belching, farting scholar given to urinating over the masses below his ivory tower, he satirises medieval learning as well as the emerging Renaissance thirst for knowledge. “Give me a drink! A drink! A drink!” he roars. Remind you of anything more contemporary?
Nicola Barr
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Orphaned Emily St Aubert is imprisoned by her evil guardian, Count Montoni, in the castle of Udolpho, deep in the Apennines. So often is this novel cited as inspiration for de Sade and Poe, so well known is Jane Austen’s parody in Northanger Abbey, that it is good to be reminded that the reclusive Radcliffe created a brilliant and much-loved Gothic tale, full of terror, foreboding, emerging sexuality and complex destructive psychology.
NB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)

Fermi’s paradox asks: “If they’re out there, why aren’t they here?” Reynolds supplies answers that are plausible, entertaining, clever and occasionally just plain weird. This was the novel that brought the one-time astrophysicist to the attention of the SF mainstream. A huge space opera, with enough hard science and aliens to keep everyone happy, it sets up the framework for most of Reynolds’s later books. Spectacular.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

One of the best “what if” setups in alternate history. Robinson asks: what if the Black Death destroyed 14th-century European culture and the Mongols reached the Atlantic shores? What follows is a history of our world with Islam and Buddhism as the dominant religions and the major scientific discoveries and art movements we take for granted happening elsewhere. Necessarily schematic in places, but a stunning achievement all the same.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

Every now and then, a book comes along that is so influential you have to read it to be part of the modern world. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may have its faults – it’s a magpie’s nest of bits and bobs borrowed from more innovative writers – but it occupies that space. It’s the fantasy sequence that made readers of a generation of children; it’s the cliffhanger that united adults and children, creating a new crossover market with an unprecedented reach. It is also a truly global phenomenon, and a nice little earner for the tribe of British character actors who have had the good fortune to be cast in the films.
Claire Armitstead
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)

If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, as Lincoln called it, the novel by a little lady which started a great war, Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece of magic realism added substantially to the clash of civilisations. In February 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (ie hunting licence for all devout Muslims) on the “apostate” author. Had he read the novel (which he didn’t) and its satirical vignette of his holy self, he might have issued two. The offensive core of the novel depicts, under thin disguise, the prophet Muhammad, and wittily if blasphemously questions the revealed truth of the Koran.
John Sutherland
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)

Stranded in the Sahara, a pilot meets a boy. He claims to have come from an asteroid, which he shared with a talking flower, and to have visited many other worlds – one inhabited only by a king, another by a businessman, a third by a drunkard … On Earth, he has chatted with a snake and tamed a fox. Is The Little Prince a children’s book? The dreamlike tone and Sainte-Exupéry’s watercolours give that impression. But it’s not only kids who need to be told how, what and why to love.
Phil Daoust
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

José Saramago: Blindness (1995)

Blindness is black, says an onlooker to the man who has suddenly ceased to see while sitting in his car at the traffic lights; but this blindness is white, a milky sea in the eye. Soon everyone is affected and the city descends into chaos. Like the city, Saramago’s characters are nameless, being known by some attribute – the first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses. His flowing, opaque style can be challenging, but this parable of wilful unseeing, which resists reductive interpretations, is full of insight and poetry.
JH
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)

In Self’s irrepressible, motormouthed third novel, you take your emotional baggage with you into the next life – literally. When Lily Bloom dies, she simply moves house: to a basement flat in Dulston, north London borough for the deceased, which she shares with a calcified foetus and her surly, long-dead son. There’s the usual druggy underworld and dazzling wordplay – the book is worth reading for its linguistic fireworks alone – but it’s Lily who gives the novel its emotional resonance and profundity. She’s a wonderful creation: sarcastic, frightened, smart, infuriating and humane.
Justine Jordan
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

The classic Gothic tale of terror, Frankenstein is above all a novel of ideas. Shelley drew on her father William Godwin’s radical social philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Young Werther and the new science of “electricity” for her plot. Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss student who resolves to assemble a body from dead parts and galvanise it into life. His “creature” is both superhuman and monstrous; shunned by humankind, it turns murderous and misanthropic. As well as an exploration of nature and nurture, the book can be read as a reaction to motherhood and a comment upon creativity. Astonishingly, it was written when Shelley was in her late teens; there has been dispute about her husband Percy’s input into the work.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)

High SF at its best. The world is gone, destroyed in an accident that gave humanity farcasters, controlled singularities that enable instant travel across galactic distances. (And houses with rooms in different worlds, if you’re really rich.) The internet is now a hive mind of advanced AIs that control the gates and keep a vast empire in existence. But someone or something is playing with time, and all is not as it seems. Hyperion won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)

Not so much a novel as a treatise on the nature and evolution of intelligence in the universe, Star Maker takes an unnamed Englishman on a tour of space and time as he observes human and alien civilisations rise and fall over a period of one hundred billion years. Considered Stapledon’s masterpiece, Star Maker embodies, among many other philosophical ideas, his belief in the need for a co-operative community to bring about a fulfilled individual. A short, dense book, it repays several readings.
EB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)

Fast, furious and containing more ideas in a single sentence than most writers manage in an entire book, Snow Crash has been credited with helping to inspire online worlds such as Second Life and established Stephenson as a cult figure. Featuring SF’s most ironically named character, Hiro Protagonist, plus skateboards, mafia-employed pizza delivery men, weird drugs, computer hacking and a thousand other cyberpunk tropes, it showcases the raw talent that Stephenson was to refine for Cryptonomicon and his later, less frenetic books.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

This classic novel of horrific possession is supposed to have come to the author in a nightmare. It takes the form of a posthumous confession by Dr Henry Jekyll, a successful London physician, who experiments privately with dual personality, devising a drug that releases his depraved other self, Edward Hyde. The murderous Hyde increasingly dominates the appalled Jekyll, who finally kills himself to escape his double. Stevenson’s novel is plausibly taken as a fictional parallel to Freud’s contemporary investigations into the unconscious. Others have seen it as a depiction of ineradicable dualisms in the Scottish character.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

Stoker claimed that the inspiration for this novel – which has spawned fiction’s most lucrative entertainment industry – arrived in a dream. A more plausible source is JS Le Fanu’s seminal 1872 tale of vampirism, Carmilla. Stoker’s undead hero is, historically, Vlad the Impaler, who tyrannised Wallachia in the 15th century. The solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent to Transylvania on property business with Count Dracula and is vampirised by his client (an interesting reversal of the normal estate agent-purchaser relationship). The count sails to England and embarks on a reign of bloodsucking terror, before being chased back to his lair by the Dutch vampirologist Dr van Helsing, and decapitated. He would, of course, rise again.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)

This unusual writer excels at the creation of skewed, dreamlike parallel worlds. In his fourth novel, the rootless, emotionally frozen Martin Blom is blinded by a stray bullet: his doctor warns of hallucinations of vision, and indeed he soon finds that he can see – but only in the dark. A new nocturnal existence and highly charged affair with a nightclub waitress follow, in a phantasmagorical meditation on repression and transgression, absence and invisibility. It’s one of those rare novels whose afterglow never entirely fades.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)

Hank Morgan, an engineer from 19th-century Connecticut, is knocked out in a crowbar fight and mysteriously transported to sixth-century England. “The Boss”, as he becomes known, sets about modernising its technology and culture, but finds himself struggling with the forces of conservatism, like a medieval Tony Blair. Thousands will die in his showdown with the church and feudalism … Twain’s satire was largely aimed at Walter Scott and his romanticising of battle and olde-worlde squalor. But you don’t need to know that to enjoy the thought of knights advertising soap, or riding bicycles instead of horses.
PD
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)

Vonnegut considered Sirens of Titan to be one of his best books, ranking it just below Slaughterhouse-Five. Featuring a dimension-swapping ultra-rich space explorer who can see the future, a robot messenger whose craft is powered by UVTW (the Universal Will to Become) and the newly established Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, Sirens of Titan manages to be classic 50s pulp, a literary sleight of hand, a cult novel of the 60s counterculture and unmistakably Vonnegut all at the same time.
JCG
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)

Young Jakob von Gunten enrols in a sinister academy (that touchstone of Germanic fiction) in which students learn how to be good servants. In a series of diary entries, we read about the authoritarian leader of the institute; angelic Lisa Benjamenta; the monkey-like Kraus; and Jakob’s increasingly bizarre dreams. The chilling effect is heightened by the incongruous cheeriness of Jakob’s tone, conspiring to make this a cult classic. Kafka and Hesse were big fans of the Swiss writer; film-making duo the Brothers Quay turned the novel into a mesmerising stock-frame feature in 1995.
Philip Oltermann
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)

“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives.” It is to forge an adventure of her own, rather than the “existence doled out to you by others” as the lot of the spinster aunt, that Laura Willowes leaves her astounded London family for a country village and a pact with the devil. In this sly, charming commentary on women’s emancipation and the soul’s need for solitude, the supernatural is delicately handled – especially Satan, “a kind of black knight, wandering about and succouring decayed gentlewomen”.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)

Waters followed the rollicking Tipping the Velvet with this sombre, beautifully achieved meditation on love and loneliness set in the milieu of Victorian spiritualism. Her bored, unfulfilled heroine is introduced to a grim women’s prison as a nervous “lady visitor”, and to the world of seances, spirit guides and repressed passions bursting forth when she falls under the spell of one of the inmates. Waters exploits the conventions of the ghost story to moving, open-ended effect, recreating a world of fascinating detail and beguiling mystery.
JJ
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)

Wells’s first title for this primal text of science fiction was The Chronic Argonauts. The Time Traveller (never named) outlines to friends his plan to explore the “fourth dimension”. On his return he reports that he has travelled to the year 802,701. Mankind has evolved into hyper-decadent Eloi and hyper-proletarian Morlocks, who live underground. The Eloi fritter, elegantly, by day. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi cannibalistically by night. Before returning to his own time, the Time Traveller goes forward to witness the heat death of the Solar System. At the end of the narrative, he embarks on a time journey from which he does not return.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)

The most read, imitated and admired invasion fantasy of the 19th century. The Martians, a cold-bloodedly cerebral species, driven by the inhospitability of their dying planet and superior technology, invade Earth. Their first cylinders land at Horsell Common and are followed by an army of fighting machines equipped with death rays. Humanity and its civilisation crumple under the assault, which is witnessed by the narrator, a moral philosopher. Finally, in the wasteland of “dead London”, mankind’s salvation is found in the disease germ: “there are no bacteria on Mars”. The novel can be read as an allegory of imperialism. As the narrator muses: “The Tasmanians were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years.”
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)

The Sword in the Stone was initially published as a stand-alone work, but was subsequently rewritten to become the first part of a tetralogy, The Once and Future King. Conceived by White as “a preface to Malory”, it deals with the adventures of a young boy called Wart and his education at the hands of the magician Merlin. Only at the end of the book is it confirmed that the boy will grow up to be King Arthur. JK Rowling has described Wart as a “spiritual ancestor” of Harry Potter, and many have commented on the similarity between Albus Dumbledore and White’s Merlin.
Kathryn Hughes
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)

Originally published in four volumes, this far-future story presents a powerfully evocative portrait of Earth as the sun dies. Using the baroque language of fantasy to tell a story that is solidly science fiction, Wolfe follows Severian, a professional torturer exiled to wander the ruined planet and discover his fate as leader and then messiah for his people. Complex and challenging, this is perhaps one of the most significant publications in the last three decades of sci-fi.
KB
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)

Wyndham’s first novel written under his own name posited a mobile plant so deadly that it seems set to wipe humanity out. Triffids are possibly escapees from a Soviet laboratory; their takeover begins when a meteor shower blinds everyone who witnesses it. Bill Masen owes his survival to the fact that he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged at the time. Wyndham crossed the post-apocalyptic tradition of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds with the emerging fiction of cold war paranoia to create a monster with a mythic power that far extends beyond the novel itself.
CA
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)

A prime example of what the father of modern British SF, Brian Aldiss, has called “the cosy catastrophe”. In an inexplicable phenomenon, the village of Midwich is cut off from the rest of the world for a whole day, and its inhabitants rendered temporarily unconscious (an idea lifted from Conan Doyle’s classic novella, The Poison Belt). It emerges, six months later, that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Their offspring are extraterrestrial, clone-like, superhuman; “cuckoos” in the English nest. As they grow up with terrifying psychic powers, a perceptive Midwich citizen, Gordon Zellaby, contrives to blow them up and save humanity. The novel has been twice filmed as The Village of the Damned, Wyndham’s original title being deemed too “cosy”.
JS
Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Written in 1920, this dystopian satire shaped Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988 (the first English translation was in 1924). What did the Soviet censors find so offensive? This “enemy of the working classes” imagined the world of the 26th century as a soulless place of straight lines and identical lives, a glass city ruled by an absolute dictator known as the Benefactor, whose subjects have security and comfort, but no liberty, privacy or dreams. Until, that is, the mathematician D-503 falls in love.
PD

3 thoughts on “Science Fiction & Fantasy novels everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s