Appeared orginally in Science Fiction Age.  Copyright 1997, by John Kessel.

Twenty-Nine Years, Twenty-Nine Books:

The Works that Most Influenced Science Fiction, 1963-1992

by John Kessel



At a recent Clarion Science Fiction writing workshop, a place where aspiring sf writers get together to hone their craft, a poll revealed that out of a class of twenty serious sf students, the only classic of SF all of them had actually read was Dune. Which only goes to demonstrate that itís pretty hard to say what books are likely to have an influence on current writers. let alone future ones.

Nonetheless, if we didnít make such lists, what would we have to argue about?

What Iím not giving you here is a "best" list. These are my choices for the 29 most influential sf works. These are not what I would consider the most "literarily ambitious" (though some are breakthrough originals); theyíre not the "best" (though many would be on my best list); not my "favorite" (though some I still enjoy after 20 years); not the "most popular" (though some were notable best sellers), not the most likely to be remembered in 50 or 100 years (some are already forgotten).

What youíve got here is a list of those books that I estimate have had the greatest effect on the science fiction section of your local bookstore and the contents of the SF magazines. Often this effect has been indirect, through several generations of influence. And although Iím looking at the effect on science fiction, a fantasy book may be on this list if it has, in my opinion, had a major effect on sf.

Some other caveats: Iíve probably left off some obvious choices, books that, if you pointed them out to me, Iíd slap my forehead and go, "Oops!" Iíve leaned toward short stories, because I think thatís often where the influences first manifest themselves.

Also, I havenít read everything. But given the necessarily subjective nature of this list, here, in rough order of their publication, is my best shot. Let the games begin.


Catís Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963) Despite his outsider status, Vonnegutís wild apocalypse was nominated for the Hugo Award. No one in the field had wielded gonzo satire as well as this 191-page book containing 127 chapters. Introduced ice nine, Bokonism. Its influence can be seen in writers from Norman Spinrad to Rudy Rucker to James Morrow to John Kessel.

The Man in the High Castleby Philip K. Dick (1963) Complex characters, multiple story lines, intricate plotting, reality breakdowns. The breakthrough Dick novel. Along with Ward Mooreís Bring the Jubilee, popularized the alternate history as a part of the genre.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) Whatís to argue about? Epic scope, historical sweep, godlike characters, ecology, sandworms, precognitive drugs, desert culture, nobility and intrigue on a distant future world in an ancient galactic civilization.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien ("1965") Although the trilogy originally appeared in the mid-fifties, it didnít gain a wide readership until the competing Ace and Ballantine paperback editions of the mid-sixties. This landmark quest fantasy fostered a whole genre of epic fantasy that has for better or worse exerted a magnetic pull on science fiction. History & language, quest framework, band of heroes, series, idealized reality, conservatism.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (1967): The shotgun blast of the American new wave; stories, according to Ellison, that could not get published in the SF magazines of the day. All the best new writers, and old ones trying new stuff. Memorable works by Philip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber, Frederik Pohl, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny.

Picnic on Paradise, by Joanna Russ (1968): Russís later The Female Man was more controversial, but this early series of stories about her female adventure heroine Alyx effortlessly and without polemics demonstrated that women could be heroes too. Russís pioneering influence cannot be overestimated.

Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner (1968): The 1968 Hugo winning novel, a mammoth multi-faceted view of the overpopulated future, media-meltdown, technological and social change. Popularized mainstream techniques borrowed from Dos Passosí USA trilogy and showed how they worked just fine in SF. A little-acknowledged forerunner of cyberpunk.

Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny (1968): Zelazny had made his reputation already with a series of innovative stories and short novels, but this one blew the doors off the competition with its wit, scope and literary ambition. Uses a mythological framework for a science fiction conceit. The extraordinary man as hero. Some hints of the Amber series to come, though unkind people say the rest of his career hasnít lived up to this beginning.

Nova, by Samuel R. Delany (1968): Whatever mythological allusions werenít exploited by Zelazny you could count on Delany to allegorize into the galaxy. A jazzy space opera full of quirky characters, literary conceits, speculative physics and the most evocative language this side of the French symbolist poets. In 1968 Zelazny and Delany were the future of science fiction, todayís cyberpunks owe a debt to this novel, among others.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969): Would have to be near the top of any list of the most influential SF novels. Science Fiction that works on almost every level: anthropological detail, multiple complex narrators, characters that stand up and cast shadows, beautiful prose, effective plot, gender exploration. Fulfills genre traditions while pointing to new possibilities for the future.

Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg (1970): I might have selected a number of other Silverberg titles of this era: A Time of Changes, The Book of Skulls, Downward to the Earth. Dying Inside revisits the classic story of the mind-reading superman, adds existential angst and places him in a very real New York City. Silverberg at his most serious and literate, showing the way for a later generation of writers.

Chronopolis, by J.G. Ballard (1960s, collected 1971) Ballardís deracinated heroes wander through blasted landscapes full of technological artifacts shorn of their original purposes. Some of the chilling distance of Wells or Clarke; human beings are very small. Even the titles resonate with anomie: "The Voices of Time," "The Drowned Giant," "The Terminal Beach," "Billenium," "Now Wakes the Sea." Writers as various as Bruce Sterling and Connie Willis have spoken of their debt to Ballard.

Ringworld, by Larry Niven (1971): Idea makes setting makes story. Pioneers what Roz Kaveny has called the "Big Dumb Object" sf novel. The science may be a little wobbly in places, but the concept of the ringworld is so large that it almost doesnít matter what characters or story Niven yokes to it. But Louis Wu, Teela Brown, and their companions remain colorful, and the implications of the discovery of such a cosmic artifact have powered many another sf novel.

334, by Thomas Disch (1972): In this series of linked stories, Disch brought New Yorker literary polish to future sf, and in the final long story he creates a netsuke of characters, plot and setting so intricate it has never been equaled in the genre. Hip to all levels of New York life from the street to the penthouses, Disch sets his ordinary 21st century people forth with heavy irony. The humanist sf writers of a later generation were all Disch readers, and though none of the cyberpunks ever mention this book as an influence, I wonder.

The Mote in Godís Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974): Space opera, galactic empire, fascinating aliens, hard science mind twisters, military heroes, evolutionary competition and humanity triumphant by the skin of its teeth. What more could a boy ask for?

The Iron Dream, by Norman Spinrad (1973): A science fiction novel written by an Adolf Hitler who, instead of becoming a dictator, moved to the U.S. and became an sf writer. An alternate history trope that has since become corrupted to the point of triviality?famous people in other careers. But more important as a satire on sfís political/social illnesses, a penetrating view of certain forms of SF as an acting out of psychological disease.

The Infinity Box, by Kate Wilhelm (1973): Although the issue of her commitment or lack of commitment to feminism distracted some, Kate Wilhelm, along with Disch, demonstrated the value of contemporary mainstream techniques in the SF short story. Three dimensional characters, fine prose, intriguing plots, political awareness and emotional power. Influence writ large in the work of Kress, Fowler, Kelly, Robinson, Rusch, Goldstein, Murphy and a host of others.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe (1973): Wait a minute! Doesnít Cerberus have only three heads? Mystery, culture, complex characters. Wolfeís breakthrough. An intricate novel comprised of three interwoven novellas. Creates at least two completely believable alien worlds, a labyrinth of personal identity and moral ambiguity. Proustian sf.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (1974): Military sf by a Vietnam veteran. Cynical about the military structure, sympathetic to the common soldier, personally optimistic and socially disillusioned, Haldeman draws his anti-heroes through a millennium of drastic change. For a brief time, when these stories appeared in Analog in the early seventies, readers thought there was life in the old girl yet. Haldeman brought literacy to a new generation of hard science fiction.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr. (1970s, collected 1990): James Tiptree Jr., a pseudonym for Dr. Alice Sheldon, in a decade or so of brilliant stories explored themes of biological determinism, psychological evolution, and a feminism based on a dark view of the evolutionary imperatives of male and female behavior. Some of the trickiest sf stories ever written, her best start at mundane point A and arrive, after a series of clever turns, at some harrowing paradox. Explosive with implication, they move from discomfort to revelation?and from there, frequently, to death.

The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks (1976): Thereís gold in them thar hills. This no-doubt sincerely intended Xerox of Tolkien showed publishers the way to the bank, and they havenít stopped since. Multiplies the deforming effect of The Lord of the Rings on SF by a factor of ten. Apres moi, le deluge.

Star Wars, by George Lucas (1977): Apres moi, le swamp. Reinvents thirties space opera for the late seventies, hugely expanding SFís audience while setting the genre back forty years. Heroes and villains, derring-do, rubber science or no science at all. Ask yourself why sixty percent of sf today arises out of the media.

The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley (1978): Varley hit the field like Heinlein reborn for the seventies. On the surface were stories of can-do citizens of the solar system, but beneath the glitter was a somber future history of humans evicted from the earth by aliens and still managing to cope. One of the first writers to explore the psychological and sexual implications of cloning. The title story won the Nebula and Hugo awards, "Air Raid" was made into the film Millennium.

Hammerís Slammers, by David Drake (1979): Along with Pournelleís Falkenberg stories, this book established the commercial popularity of military sf. Vietnam vet Drakeís hard bitten mercenary soldiers have no illusions about the virtue of the causes they fight for, but they know how to get the job done. From this comes an entire subgenre of combat sf books, much of them bloody Rambo fantasies with laser cannon, written by people with none of the direct experience of Drake.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984): Another automatic choice. Itís getting hard to remember the size of the risks Gibson took when he wrote this one. Glitz, polished crammed prose, anti-heroes, a cosmopolitan background, a new future, and for all its energy in the end a remarkably sad and evocative loneliness. Noir sf. What it feels like to live on the edge of the technosphere with no connections to anyone; a lot of people found romantic images of themselves in Case and Molly.

Schismatrix/Crystal Express, by Bruce Sterling (1985/89): In the Shaper/Mechanist series,"Chairman Bruce" set forth his version of cyberpunk. Sterling had published two novels before Schismatrix, but when this one appeared, Norman Spinrad hailed it not as future shock, but "future blitzkrieg." Cyborgs vs. bioengineers in a solar system where the earth is a backwater and the human race is fragmenting into multiple sub-races. More ideas per page than anyone since Stapledon, and he can write. Engaging characters, irony, and humor adorn fundamental challenges to humanist pieties.

Fire Watch, by Connie Willis (1985): Humanist pieties, with the knife hidden beneath the velvet surface. Somehow Willis convinced everyone she was just like their big sister, when sheís really a deadly unsympathetic observer of humansí mutual destruction?when sheís not writing the deftest comedy since P.G. Wodehouse. Brilliant plotting, slight of hand, subtle characters. "All My Darling Daughters," "Fire Watch" "A Letter From the Clearys" "Blued Moon."

The Jaguar Hunter, by Lucius Shepard (1987): Magic realism, hothouse exoticism, street life, the third world; hustlers, losers, politics, hallucinations, and sf. In stories like "R&R," "A Spanish Lesson," and "Salvador," Shepard wielded ornate prose to probe the moral dilemmas of complex people living completely outside of middle class America. Struggles for physical, emotional and moral survival in a world where you canít have all three at once.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992): This oneís so recent itís hard to predict, but Iíll put my money on it (and its sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars) as the most likely of the recent spate of Mars novels to have a lasting influence. Using the latest in scientific research, Robinson sets forth a multi-generation epic of the terraforming and political transformation of Mars. Hard sf, epic scope, politics, real characters. Most notably, Robinson gives us a Martian landscape so lovingly realized you wonder if heís been there.


So there it is. It might be interesting to select non-genre books that have influenced the field (from William Burroughs to Gabriel Garcia Marquez), or non-fiction books (from Future Shock to The Engines of Creation). Fortunately, that's not my job.

Looking at this list I can see the case for writers I've left out: Aldiss, Benford, Card, Bear, many others. And if you're talking influence, what about the older writers whose late novels, though no innovation over their work of thirty years earlier, in the 70s and 80s reached an entirely new audience? A generation of readers has arisen who've never read Clarke before 2001, for whom Time Enough for Love is earliest Heinlein novel they know, and The Robots of Dawn is the first encounter they ever had with Asimov's Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw.

As for the shape of things to come?what, you expect me to predict the future?

John Kessel

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