Writers and scientists name science fiction books that should be called classics

Monday, November 1, 2010; 5:12 PM

From "The War of the Worlds" to "1984," some science fiction goes down in history. What about the brilliant books that got away? New Scientist magazine asked scientists and writers to nominate lost sci-fi classics.

'FLOATING WORLDS' (BY CECELIA HOLLAND)

Nominated by Kim Stanley Robinson, science-fiction writer: " 'Floating Worlds' was published to acclaim in 1976, but has not been remembered as much as it should be. But Holland's immense power as a novelist, and her new take on old science fiction themes, turn everything to gold."

Outline: A story about Earth and other colonies in the solar system, some hundreds of years from now, when humans have begun to evolve into separate species and Earth is a mess. "Floating Worlds" is the only science-fiction book by historical novelist Cecelia Holland.

'THE CYBERIAD' (BY STANISLAW LEM)

Nominated by Sean Carroll, cosmologist: " 'The Cyberiad' is actually very appreciated among experts, but not well known in the wider world. It's a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation and social structures. Very mind-expanding, with a fantastic sense of humor."

Outline: Trurl and Klapaucius are constructor robots who try to out-invent each other. They travel to the far corners of the cosmos to take on freelance problem-solving jobs, with dire consequences for their employers.

"The Cyberiad," published in 1967, is by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, best known for his novel "Solaris."

'Random Acts of Senseless Violence' (BY JACK WOMACK)

Nominated by William Gibson, cyberpunk sci-fi novelist: "It's a book you really have to read to see why."

Outline: Set in a near-future New York, this dark book describes a disintegrating society where the air is toxic, gangs roam the streets and tuberculosis is rampant. In vivid language worthy of "A Clockwork Orange," the story is told through the diary of 12-year-old Lola, who descends from a life of privilege and private schooling into a deadly gangster underworld as her family struggles to survive.

'Dark Universe' (by Daniel F. Galouye)

Nominated by Richard Dawkins, biologist: " 'Dark Universe' is hauntingly imaginative and uses the medium of science fiction to let the reader reconstruct how myths can start."

Outline: Deprived of light in their refuge far underground, the descendants of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust have heightened hearing. They navigate using the echoes from clicking stones and develop a religion around the memory of lost light. Then the protagonist, Jared, begins to question his tribe's beliefs. "Dark Universe," published in 1961, was nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award for its ability to draw readers into this strange underground world.

'Journey of Joenes' (BY ROBERT SHECKLEY)

Nominated by James Lovelock, futurologist and originator of Gaia hypothesis: " 'Journey of Joenes' is a mid-20th-century version of Voltaire's 'Candide.' I like it because I am often asked to predict the future state of the world, and authors like Voltaire, Wells, Orwell and others of their kind appeal more than purely technical prophets. Both are needed, but as an inventor I assume that I know how unknowable the technological future is."

Outline: Perhaps more sociopolitical fiction than science fiction, this satirical tale (also published as "Journey Beyond Tomorrow") takes place after the world as we know it has ended. The few survivors, living on Pacific islands, tell folk tales of mythical remembrances of 1970s America, through the travels of a legendary character called Joenes.

'We' (BY EUGENE ZAMIATIN)

Nominated by Margaret Atwood, novelist: " 'We' contains the rootstock of two later streams - the creepy, too-smiley Utopia, as in 'Brave New World,' and the Big Brother Dystopia, as in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.' It isn't well known because it hasn't been available in an up-to-date translation until recently."

Outline: Set in the 26th century in a glass-enclosed city of absolute straight lines, ruled over by the all-powerful Benefactor, the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState live out lives devoid of passion and creativity - until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: He has an individual soul.

'Last and First Men' (BY OLAF STAPLEDON)

Nominated by Stephen Baxter, science-fiction writer: "I suspect most general readers won't have heard of Olaf Stapledon. He knew H.G. Wells and influenced Arthur C. Clarke, and so was an essential link in the development of the genre. And his own greatest novel, 'Last and First Men,' a kind of god's-eye-view survey of the human far future, is as bracing and original today as it was when it was published around 80 years ago - and in terms of technique it pushes the form of the novel about as far as it can go."

Outline: "Last and First Men" is one of the most ambitious novels of the 20th century. It imagines how humans might evolve in the next 2 billion years, covering 18 distinct human species. It was first published in 1930 and speculates about evolution, terraforming and genetic engineering.

'The Listeners' (BY JAMES GUNN)

Nominated by Seth Shostak, astronomer: "I read this book two decades ago as I was first becoming involved with the search for cosmic company - at the suggestion of a colleague at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute. This year, the SETI endeavor passed its half-century mark, and 'The Listeners' rings particularly true. If only we could find that signal . . ."

Outline: For 50 years humankind listened to the stars and heard nothing. But one day an answer came. An answer no one was expecting, and almost no one wanted. "The Listeners," published in 1972, is credited with inspiring the real-life hunt for extraterrestrial life, and perhaps even Carl Sagan's more famous book, "Contact."

'Earth Abides' (BY GEORGE R. STEWART)

Nominated by Freeman Dyson, physicist: "It's a sensitive human drama, with California providing the enduring natural environment as background."

Outline: When a deadly epidemic almost wipes out the human race, Isherwood Williams, one of the few survivors, ventures into a world without people. A classic tale of life after global disaster, "Earth Abides," published in 1949, was novelist George R. Stewart's only venture into science fiction.

This article is excerpted from one that appeared in New Scientist magazine. The original is available through www.newscientist.com.

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