Science fiction classics: ten of the best

Mary Shelley (1818)
Written when the author was still in her late teens, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster is not only a classic work of Gothic horror, but one of the earliest examples of science fiction. The subtitle - Or, the Modern Prometheus - points to Shelley's concern with the dangers of overweening human ambition during the Industrial Revolution.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne (1870)
Verne had an uncanny knack for anticipating real-life inventions before their time. His fictional predictions include aeroplanes, spaceships and - in the adventures of Captain Nemo - submarines. But early translators of Verne into English were not kind to the Frenchman's genius: overly technical passages were cut and anything deemed offensive to the British empire was bowdlerised.

The War of the Worlds
H G Wells (1898)
With his tale of Martians landing in 19th-century Woking, Wells provoked an onslaught of fictional alien invasions. Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation, with its simulated news-bulletin format, caused genuine public panic. Steven Spielberg's 2005 film of the novel made much less of an impact.

I, Robot
Isaac Asimov (1950)
I, Robot is another science-fiction classic to receive a pallid and disappointing 21st-century cinematic adaptation, directed for the big screen by Alex Proyas and starring Will Smith. In his original stories of robot/human interaction, Asimov unwittingly coined the word "robotics", introduced the highly influential Three Laws and invented the (fictional) positronic brain.

Stanislaw Lem (1961)
This deeply philosophical work explores humanity's futile attempts to communicate with an alien being of huge intelligence on a distant planet, Solaris. Lem thought that western SF authors, with the notable exception of Philip K Dick, were about as foolish and misguided as the researchers of Solaris. But in 1974, Dick, suffering from paranoid delusions, wrote to the FBI insisting that a communist plot lay behind the Polish author's genius: "Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual."

2001: a Space Odyssey
Arthur C Clark (1968)
Clark's novel was developed alongside Stanley Kubrick's classic film. In Hal, an on-board computer that develops a murderous desire for self-preservation, the pair created one of the most haunting voices of science fiction.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K Dick (1968)
First popularised in Ridley Scott's loose adaptation, Blade Runner, this is the dark tale of a bounty hunter who tracks down and "retires" rogue androids. But from the first line, Dick makes his human characters just as machine-like as the robots: "A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard."

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin (1969)
Part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle, which imagines an age after human beings have colonised the universe, The Left Hand of Darkness visits an entirely androgynous race on the planet Gethen. This absorbing and detailed fantasy world confronts humanity's experience of gender division in one celebrated sentence: “The King was pregnant."

J G Ballard (1973)
The Drowned World, The Burning World and Hello America are all more recognisable as "science fiction", but Ballard's finest novel is typical of his own twisted take on the genre. Recasting the present as a dystopia, it hauntingly explores a dark sexuality aroused by car crashes.

William Gibson (1984)
Having coined the term "cyberspace" in a previous novel, Gibson popularised it with this trip around virtual reality. Set in a post-industrial future, his story of a computer hacker became the definitive cyberpunk novel.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken