The Most Influential SF Books of All time


Well, what leaps to mind?


Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

Those are what occur to me first. Also, possibly classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and that bunch. Fahrenheit 451. Generally I think of those in lists of classics rather than lists of influential SF, though of course they’re SF.

What were the seminal works for space opera? EE Doc Smith, of course, with the Lensmen series and others. I never actually read any of those. I think space opera was reinvigorated with the publication of the Vorkosigan series. Probably there was some space opera being published all along, but it seemed to me that this subgenre was pretty much in eclipse for some time and then there was a resurgence of space opera, with LMB’s series either at the forefront or at least coming out at about the time that started. I should do a post on that, as I think I define space opera more strictly than some people — at least, I’m always seeing lists of space opera that include titles I don’t think belong to the category at all.

What was a foundational work for military SF? Starship Troopers, probably, and The Forever War. But I’d personally also say that Ender’s Game later became an influential work.

Let me see what the Book Riot post considers the most influential SF novels ever…

Ah! All the old classics. That’s almost this whole list. With their dates of publication — wow, did you realize Starship Troopers came out in 1959? (???!) I didn’t realize it was that old.

Yes, I’m seeing almost all the ones I thought of, plus a few others. Oh, here’s Psion by Joan D Vinge. I liked that novel a lot. I wouldn’t have thought of it as particularly influential.

Recognized by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults, this 1982 release has inspired generations of young sci-fi fans to delve deeper into the genre.

I didn’t know that. Good for Psion. Hey, look, it turns out Psion is the first book of a trilogy! I didn’t know that either! I have the first two, but I must have missed the third, Dreamfall, when it came out. Vinge must have tied up the story enough in Catspaw that I didn’t really look for a third book. Well, how about that. I need to re-read Psion and Catspaw and see if I still like them enough to read the third book.

Okay, next on the list, let’s see … oh, it’s the Oankali series by Octavia Butler. I don’t know that I agree. This may be my favorite work on this entire list, but influential? I’m not so sure.

I was very, very impressed by what Butler did here with alien behavior and human behavior; with how she handled alien instinct and human instinct. I’ve always regretted not having a chance to talk to her about that, see if she was actually thinking about instinct and what instinct is when she wrote these books. I would love to know if she realized that the main difference between the oankali and humans is that the former have important instincts that are much more hardwired and inflexible than humans. Did she do that on purpose?

Regardless, not many other authors have ever tried to write something like this. Not that I can think of. CJC is in the same broad niche. Not many other authors are anywhere close. I wouldn’t say this work of Butler’s was influential. If anything of hers was, it’d be the Parable duology, which is squarely the dystopia subgenre. Parable of the Sower was first published in 1993. That places it before the recent massive flowering of YA dystopian SF. I don’t know if Parable was influential in that trend, but it could have been.

Returning to the Book Riot post …

Oh, interesting, here’s Ammonite by Nicola Griffith! By no means my favorite of her works. I think Griffith’s later books are much better than this one. Influential? I don’t know. Interesting, sure. In the tradition of The Left Hand of Darkness; that one was influential, while Ammonite — it seems to me — was one of the titles inspired by that influence.

I’m getting the impression that the Book Riot post has now shifted from Most Influential SF Novels to a list of SF Novels That Impressed Me Personally. It’s trying to stuff recent titles into the category of Influential, when really nothing recent can be considered influential. For example, The Imperial Radch trilogy may prove to be a seminal work, but it hasn’t been out long enough to tell, imo. Eight years since the first book. That’s not very long. I would therefore hesitate to include it on a a list like this. I’d put it down a step, in the last and perhaps most interesting category of this post:

Books which may become truly influential

I love predictions. I vote for the Imperial Radch trilogy. I’m not sure what works inspired by this trilogy would even look like. There’s a lot more going on here thandefault-female pronouns. That was a trivial component of this trilogy imo.

I haven’t read any of the books the post puts in this category except the Murderbot stories. I agree there. I think we may well see more robot/cyborg/construct stories that draw on what Martha Wells is doing in her series. I doubt I’ll like them as well. The Murderbot protagonist really hit a sweet spot for me. And for lots of other readers, obviously; hence the enormous popularity of the series. I suspect a lot of works will be inspired by Murderbot, but will mostly tend to be too gritty and nihilistic for me. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to pause and look back in ten years, or fifteen, or twenty, and see if we can parse out a subgenre inspired by Murderbot — and perhaps by the Imperial Radch trilogy.

In fact, now that I type this post, I could see Murderbot as inspired by the Imperial Radch trilogy. I never thought of that before. All Systems Red came out four years after Ancillary Justice. I wonder — I wonder very much — whether Martha Wells read Ancillary Justice before she wrote her first Murderbot story? Breq is no more a gendered person than Murderbot is. They’re both thoroughly nonhuman, even though they have human components. They’re even nonhuman in some ways that are sorta-kinda similar.

Now I’m imagining a line from the Imperial Radch series through Murderbot and on into the near future of a subgenre of SF. That will be extremely interesting to look back on in 20 years.

If you were going to pick out one recent-ish work that might prove to be thoroughly influential in the next couple of decades, what would it be? Anything leap to mind?

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7 thoughts on “The Most Influential SF Books of All time”

  1. The Imperial Radch trilogy for sure! I think a lot of the latest wave of space opera like Murderbot, Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, etc have been influenced by it, I feel like it swung the space opera pendulum from the post-cyberpunk transhumanism of books inspired by the Culture back into a more social speculation space a la Le Guin and Cherryh (which makes sense, given that The Left Hand of Darkness and Foreigner were influences on the trilogy) but also one specifically focused on empire, imperialism, and their consequences. (Of course others have been writing about similar issues at roughly the same time, e.g. Aliette de Bodard’s very sharp story “Immersion” came out a year or two before, part of her Xuya setting, which also made space for that kind of space empire story–short fiction I think tends to be ahead of the curve of novels a bit.)

    About Vinge’s Dreamfall–it’s a bit of a downer, from what I recall, and also left things somewhat open at the ending. I think Vinge must have planned another novel or more about Cat before health issues interfered…

  2. “nothing really recent can be considered influential”! Indeed. And yet, I’m old enough now that the the overlap between “old books” and “novels that impressed me personally when they came out” is way bigger than I normally like to think about! A few of the things on the list still struck me as relatively recent, until I looked at the publication dates, and then I just felt old…

  3. Smith is really vital. Not only for inventing FTL, but for, basically, inventing the peaceful interaction between humans and aliens. Before his time, War of the Worlds was the typical thing if done with more skill than most SF.

  4. I feel like Roger Zelazny should be somewhere on that list. Maybe A Rose for Ecclesiastes? Also Harlan Ellison. Apparently not the nicest guy but he could write.

  5. I liked a lot of Zelazny’s work, but that’s a story I never read. Thinking about Zelazny … I’m not sure I see him as influential. But he did write a lot of books; maybe he was. Ellison surely was influential in the realm of short stories, which I never think of because I was never into short stories. “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” turned me off Harlan Ellison forever. Very effective story; the sort of effective that menas I’m sorry I read it and try never to think about it. But I’m sure he was influential.

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