Every few years someone big (Time, etc., Esquire here) takes a stab at making a list of the best sci-fi books of all time. I mean, I guess. Certainly many of these are good. But I would say that more often they represent the “most influential” rather than the “best”. Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? It’s okay. But is it there because it’s one of the best books or because Dick was a mad genius and it spawned Blade Runner which changed the face of pop culture sci-fi for movies? Frankenstein? The first sci-fi, arguably, the one that birthed the genre. But is it better than the prose of NK Jemisin or Octavia Butler or Ursula LeGuin or Kazuo Ishiguro? No, it isn’t. So don’t take any of these lists as definitive. There’s probably as many different top 50 lists as there are people with spare time enough to make them. Certainly my list would be different.
Science fiction’s earliest inklings began in the mid-1600s, when Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin wrote pioneering stories about voyages to the moon. Some scholars argue that science fiction as we now understand it was truly born in 1818, when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the first novel of its kind whose events are explained by science, not mysticism or miracles. Now, two centuries later, sci-fi is a sprawling and lucrative multimedia genre with countless sub-genres, such as dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, and climate fiction, just to name a few. It’s also remarkably porous, allowing for some overlap with genres like fantasy and horror.
Sci-fi brings out the best in our imaginations and evokes a sense of wonder, but it also inspires a spirit of questioning. Through the enduring themes of sci-fi, we can examine the zeitgeist’s cultural context and ethical questions. Our favorite works in the genre make good on this promise, meditating on everything from identity to oppression to morality. As the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing said, “Science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”