A View from Stephen Cass
The Best Hard Science Fiction Books of all Time
Ten titles that inspired Technology Review to publish its own collection of sci-fi stories.
As we announced earlier, Technology Review will publish TR:SF, a collection of original science fiction stories, in the fall. The stories will all be near-future, hard science fiction, inspired by the kinds of emerging technologies we see in our coverage at Technology Review.
While we’re not adverse to, say, a good bit of space opera or New Wave, we’re focusing on hard science fiction in TR:SF, because these types of tales, grounded in the cutting edge of science and technology (albeit with varying degrees of artistic license), are the ones most cited by scientists and engineers as the inspiration for embarking on particular projects, or indeed, entire careers
Even if history later proves it utterly off base, a good hard science fiction story makes you think “That could actually happen!” That’s certainly the case for each of our ten favorite hard science fiction books, listed in chronological order. Do you think we got any wrong? What are your favorites? Tells us in the comments below.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (Jules Verne, 1870) Verne wrote some of the earliest works recognizable as science fiction (even though the term “science fiction” wouldn’t enter popular culture for another 60 years.) Twenty Thousand Leagues is probably his most prescient work, anticipating submarine warfare (not for nothing was the first nuclear submarine called Nautilus) , scuba diving, and even the taser.
- The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895) There’s a little bit of self-plagarism in this book, as the operating principles of the eponymous machine are pretty much directly lifted from an earlier short story written by Wells, called The Chronic Argonauts, published in 1888, seven years before The Time Machine. Still, the 1895 book deserves credit for popularizing the idea that time travel might be done using scientific and technological methods, rather than the magical means used in earlier time travel stories. Its description of time travel in a four-dimensional universe presaged the cottage industry in theoretical space-time machines that has sprung up among physicists in recent decades.
- I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950) Asimov actually invented the word “robotics,” in 1941, and this collection of short stories canonized his most famous literary creation, the Three Laws of Robotics (“A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.”) Although Asimov was very hazy on how the “positronic brains” of his robots actually worked, the idea of a machine operating perfectly, but behaving strangely because of unexpected interactions between its instructions, would become all too familiar to later generations of computer programmers battling subtle software bugs.
- The Shockwave Rider (John Brunner, 1975) The original cyberpunk novel, predating Gibson’ Neuromancer by nine years (and even the word “cyberpunk” by five.) Admittedly, it doesn’t feature a neon-lit virtual reality cyberspace, but it does have a hacker who unleashes a little doozey on the global computer network—a self replicating program that Brunner dubbed a “worm.” In 1982 researchers at Xerox PARC noticed the real work they were on distributed computation doing bore a striking resemblance to Brunner’s fictional creation, and by 1988 the first worm to be released into the wild was happily munching through thousands of computers on the early Internet.
- The Fountains of Paradise (Arthur C. Clark, 1979) If we ever actually build a space elevator—a high tension cable 100,000 km long suspended from a counterweight in high Earth orbit all the way down to the surface of the Earth, which would let people ride elevator cars into orbit—people will look back on this book the way nuclear submarine designers look back at 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Although Clark didn’t invent the concept of the space elevator, he did do some of the real-world calculations showing how such a structure might work, and even speculated that a carbon-based filament would make the ideal material for the elevator cable. Twenty years later, carbon nanotubes were at the heart of NASA first serious study on space elevators.
- Cyteen (C.J. Cherryh, 1988) Set on a harsh world whose settlers have a fractious relationship with Earth, this book looks at an attempt to push human cloning beyond the creation of a genetic duplicate. Scientists try to recreate the personality of one of their society’s most valuable citizens by creating similar childhood experiences, as Cherryh deftly explores the nature vs. nurture debate.
- The Mars Trilogy (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1992-1996) This tale of the colonization of Mars begins in 2026 and ends two hundred years later, with the terraforming of Mars largely completed and humanity making its first steps into interstellar space. Packed with detailed descriptions of the colonist’s everyday lives, and a close attention to the geography of Mars, it’s as close as any of us will get to walking on the red planet. (If, sometime after reading this, you become an actual explorer of Mars, feel free to look me up and berate me for my lack of faith in you. It’ll be something to tell the other people at the old folks home.)
- The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson, 1995) This is the tale of an impoverished young girl who accidentally comes into the possession of one of the most sophisticated devices ever created—an educational primer that can adapt itself to almost any situation that its reader finds herself in. In creating the primer, and the entire world the child lives in, Stephenson has perfectly channeled Eric Drexler’s vision of molecular nanotechnology, where microscopic machines perform near-miracles on a regular basis.
- Rainbows End (Vernor Vinge, 2006) When I first read this book, I thought the setting of 2025 was unrealistically optimistic for the kind of augmented reality technology that is at the heart of the book. Using goggles, digital information from the Internet is overlaid on the world around the wearer. A person’s social networking profile might appear beside their head, or an entire landscape can be mapped to some fantasy world, where a monsters and dragons are painted over cars and airplanes. But real world technology is catching up much more rapidly than I ever expected.
- Incandescence (Greg Egan, 2008) Its far-future setting, and backdrop of a galaxy-spanning civilization, would normally put this book firmly into the category of space opera, but Egan—who has contributed a science fiction story to Technology Review previously—has written a book that could double as a primer on General Relativity and astrophysics. Much of the action takes place on a bizarre pre-industrial world, where the characters need to come up with some advanced physics—fast—if they are to avoid disaster.