Some science fiction novels fill us with ideas. Some we admire as works of art. And some do it all. At their best, these novels help us understand the social pressures for and consequences of innovation. Here's a short list of books I've recommended to friends, students, and science fiction fans, to scientists, businesspeople, and cousins in New Jersey:
1. The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells, 1896)
This timeless fable of biological manipulation explores scientific power in the hands of an imperialist unbound by community or ethical standards.
2. We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1920)
In this early and perhaps greatest 20th-century dystopia, the mechanization of public and private life motivates a stunning cautionary tale.
3. War With the Newts (Karel Capek, 1936)
This far-ranging satire explores the interplay of industrialization, class, race, and international politics in a world of commodified labor.
4. Limbo (Bernard Wolfe, 1953)
What happens to people and to society when the rich, both wounded and hale, can choose to remake their bodies?
5. A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr., 1959)
Science and religion play against each other in this great post-holocaust novel.
6. Babel-17 (Samuel R. Delany, 1966)
In a world that is awash in future technologies, language is manipulated both for and against the preservation of our way of life.
7. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein, 1966)
Extraterrestrial colonies sound like a fine idea until you begin to ask who goes, who stays, and who controls the relationships with the home world.
8. Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968)
In an overcrowded world, what does personal space mean, and how does its diminution change our mores and our demands on technology?
9. The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969)
We are shaped by the natural and cultural environment we inhabit. How much of that environment is natural, and how much do we make ourselves?
10. The Futurological Congress (Stanislaw Lem, 1971)
The future grows from our imagination, but our imagination is constrained by our expectations, our language, and by invisible technologies.
11. Man Plus (Frederik Pohl, 1976)
If you lose a leg, are you still yourself? And if you gain wings? And what if you remake yourself perfectly for an inhuman environment?
12. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm, 1976)
In a world of exhausted fertility, will the technologies of reproduction bind us together, change us all forever, or separate us from our offspring?
13. China Mountain Zhang (Maureen F. McHugh, 1992)
In a backwater America, outsiders dominate through the strength of their technologies. This novel questions whether American values of individualism can survive.
14. Galatea 2.2 (Richard Powers, 1995)
The arts and the sciences make up two different cultures. Artificial intelligence thrives at the point where they intersect.
15. Calculating God (Robert J. Sawyer, 2000)
If we are not alone, what does the Other make of us? And if the Other is more powerful yet seems to want to help us, what do we make of the Other?
Eric S. Rabkin is a professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan. His next book, Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination, is due out next spring