There’s nothing like a dog-eared (or digital) copy of a classic novel to make the summer feel complete, wouldn’t you agree? Whether you’re sitting on a beach, chilling by the pool, or kicking back in the comfort of your own air-conditioning, there’s no time like the present to futurize your reading list with a gaggle of essential sci-fi novels.
Some of these gems, from genre notables like Orwell and Huxley, hearken all the way back to the early 20th century. Others, such as the best of Stephenson and Gibson, offer a contemporary escape from the everyday. These aren’t just beach reads, though, as all of them will challenge the way you view your world and prepare you for what’s coming next.
Forget that awful David Lynch movie. And forget the SyFy channel miniseries. If you want the full measure of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is widely considered one of the greatest sci-fi yarns ever written, go directly to the source. The original novel was published in 1965, and it told a tale of young Paul Atreides and his transformation into the prophetic savior of the Fremen known as Muad’dib.
Herbert’s masterwork melded environmentalism, politics, and high adventure into a rousing tale that still resonates decades later. Dune also won the inaugural Nebula Award, which is given annually to sci-fi’s best of the best by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Regardless of your political persuasion, we can probably all agree on the fact that it’s getting positively Orwellian out there when it comes to American politics. 1984 is thus a timely read and an essential one, both for its harrowing account of protagonist and unwilling propagandist Winston Smith and its frighteningly plausible fictionalizations like Newspeak and Big Brother.
One part science fiction and two parts political satire, George Orwell’s magnum opus magnified popular culture notions of surveillance and state-sponsored encroachment on individual rights—and it did all of this way back in 1949.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
You’ve no doubt heard of the movie Blade Runner. You may not have heard of the novel on which it’s based. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? debuted in 1968, but it wasn’t until Harrison Ford brought main character Rick Deckard to life in director Ridley Scott’s 1982 big-screen classic that Dick and his substantial body of work entered the popular consciousness.
If you’re familiar with the film and you’re expecting a similar, if more detailed experience from the source novel, you’re in for a surprise. Novel Deckard’s motivations are much more complex than those of his film counterpart, and he spends much of the text questioning everything from his orders to “retire” renegade replicants to the ways in which war and extinction have altered humanity’s philosophical and religious views.
Summing up Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash in a couple of paragraphs is basically impossible, but we’re going to give it a shot. Stephenson is something of a folk hero in the hardcore computer nerd community, and this book is one reason why. It’s also a fun read even if you’re not a super-genius like the author and many of his fans.
Snow Crash posits that the ancient Sumerian language is in fact a sort of programming language for the human brain stem, which in turn functions much like a BIOS chip for the brain. If you think that sounds wacky, just wait until the goddess Asherah shows up as the personification of a virus, the antidote to which is to make humanity speak different languages.
Stephenson doesn’t stop with this retelling of the Tower of Babel story, though. He also gives us a sword-fighting, pizza-delivering main character named Hiro Protagonist and a wisecracking young street urchin named Y.T. who is fond of “pooning” cars (“poon” being short for the harpoon with which Stephenson’s skateboard couriers attach themselves to moving vehicles to travel across town).
Here’s one for those of you who like pictures more than you like words. Technically, Watchmen is a graphic novel, but that didn’t stop Time Magazine from naming the limited edition comic series to its 100 best English-language novels list.
If you’ve seen director Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for should you decide to read the original comic. It’s long, ambitious, and decidedly darker than your average superhero epic. It’s no exaggeration to say that Watchmen is one of those seminal works that transcends the trappings of its genre. Though comics have tackled adult themes and psychological drama in the years following its 1986 publication, Alan Moore’s prose and Dave Gibbons’ illustrations led the way, and Watchmen continues to influence a generation of comic book writers, artists, and filmmakers.
Brave New World
If Orwell’s 1984 was a cautionary tale about totalitarian excess, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a meditation on the opposite extremes of pleasurable passivity and egotism. The novel is set in the year 2540, but it explores hot-button issues that were foremost on the minds of Huxley’s 20th-century readers and critics.
The novel, published in 1932, was seen as Huxley’s reaction to an America that was literally changing the world following the Industrial Revolution. He made no attempt to hide the sources of inspiration for many of the novel’s characters, and fictional individuals such as Henry Foster (modeled after assembly line pioneer Henry Ford) and Bernard Marx (a hybrid of George Bernard Shaw and Karl Marx) served as avenues to explore Huxley’s views on Americanization and social upheaval.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, critic Neil Postman contrasts Huxley and Orwell and arrives at what we feel is a pretty succinct summary of Brave New World as a whole. “Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us,” Postman wrote.
Yes, William Gibson is most famous for Neuromancer and for coining the term “cyberspace.” His works have influenced thousands of artists and engineers, and some critics have even gone as far as to credit him with inspiring the iconography of the world wide web and the internet itself. That said, one of his best novels is 2003′s Pattern Recognition, which is also the first of his books to be set in the contemporary world.
Pattern Recognition, as its title implies, is largely concerned with the human desire to derive meaning from bits of data. This desire is given physical form in the character of Cayce Pollard, a 30-something marketing consultant who is tasked with finding and hiring the creators of a film clip that has gone viral on the internet. The novel is part detective story and part postmodern pop culture meditation. It’s also Gibson’s most affecting and humanistic work to date.
This story originally appeared on Tecca. More from Tecca: