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For many kids, scientific concepts first come alive through novels or other science fiction. Where science classes can feel dull or repetitive when it comes to memorizing facts, science fiction allows us to reflect on the accuracy of past authors in their predictions of how scientific advances would affect us today and extrapolate the effect of current scientific breakthroughs on the future. In science fiction, we find an elegant interweaving of ideas, creativity, and what feels like fantasy—but might actually be fact if science supports it.
It’s this magic that attracts so many to science fiction and why on January 2, the birthdate of famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, we acknowledge sci-fi’s power to elicit new worlds for readers young and old. To celebrate, we’re going to take a look at 6 of the most influential sci-fi books across the decades.
Many scientific novels point to scientific hubris as the culprit for the downfall following the introduction of a new scientific innovation, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does just that. A young student, Victor Frankenstein embodies the dangerous combination of overconfidence, overambition, arrogance, and pride when he attempts to create life and the results destroy everything Frankenstein cares for.
Fact: As Frankenstein settled into popular culture, his monster has ended up occasionally being called “Frankenstein”—that’s not the monster’s name but that of his creator.
Quote: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”
Written in 1949 with an eye on 1984, George Orwell’s sci-fi masterpiece remains a staple in literature classes. The novel follows Winston Smith, who is a devoted mid-level worker at the Ministry of Truth in Airstrip One (previously known as Great Britain) through which the Party engages in omnipresent surveillance, historical negationism, and constant propaganda targeting the suppression of individuality and independent thinking. But Smith secretly hates the Party; through a relationship with a colleague, Smith’s dreams of rebellion edge toward reality as the two get in touch with the nebulous group called The Brotherhood.
Fact: In an ironic twist, Orwell’s novel makes the list of the world’s top ten most frequently banned books. Some ban it for what they claim are pro-communist points of view, and others have banned it because it is anti-communist. Regardless, it is ironic that a book warning against totalitarianism is often an item for censorship.
Quote: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
Isaac Asimov, author of I, Robot, is considered to be one of the fathers of modern-day science fiction. I, Robot is the first and most widely read book in Asimov's Robot series, which is known for introducing the Three Laws of Robotics, which are:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Fact: Asimov is credited with coining the word “robotics.”
Quote: “Every period of human development has had its own particular type of human conflict—its own variety of problem that, apparently, could be settled only by force. And each time, frustratingly enough, force never really settled the problem. Instead, it persisted through a series of conflicts, then vanished of itself—what's the expression—ah, yes, 'not with a bang, but a whimper,' as the economic and social environment changed. And then, new problems, and a new series of wars.”
The one young adult literature novel in our list, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle follows a young girl and her quest across the universe to save her father. L’Engle expertly intertwines the teenage experience, the navigation of complicated relationships, other worlds, and a touch of fantasy to draw readers into the lives of the Murry family. By the end of the novel, you’ll want to stick around to see what else the Murrys get up to—and you can in L’Engle’s other books in the Wrinkle in Time quintet.
Fact: L’Engle endured 26 rejections before Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally accepted A Wrinkle in Time for publication.
Quote: “We do not know what things look like. We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.”
Now an immensely popular Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. Because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable, Offred hopes to become pregnant by the Commander. Offred reminisces on the years past when she was an independent woman and had a job of her own, a husband, and a child.
The novel explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society, including the suppression of women's reproductive rights, the loss of female agency and individuality, and the various means by which women resist and try to gain individuality and independence.
Fact: Atwood insists the novel is speculative fiction, not science fiction, and that the scenarios she described were simply extensions of things that had actually happened.
Quote: “It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because of what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.”
While it’s true that many sci-fi novels were born of the wonder and fear instigated by the development of technology during most of the 1900s, the 2000s have not been without great sci-fi publications. In Rivers Solomon’s 2017 piece, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon draws in readers who may have been unable to see themselves in other sci-fi lit by creating characters whose previously marginalized identities are not only acknowledged but made central—without tokenization.
In the book, Aster, the novel’s Black protagonist, is an abused passenger on the HSS Matilda, a large spaceship that left the ruins of Earth more than 300 years ago, heading toward a destination now forgotten by its residents called the “Promised Land.”
Fact: All of the central characters in An Unkindness of Ghosts are both gender-variant and neurodivergent.
Quote: “In my language, there is no word for I. To even come close, you must say, E’tesh’lem vereme pri’lus, which means, This one here who is apart from all. It’s the way we say lonely and alone. It’s the way we say outsider. It’s the way we say weak. Everyone always wonders about I love you. In Ifrek you say, Mev o’tem, or, We are together. ‘How do you say, I’m tired?’ people ask. ‘Ek’erb nal veesh ly.’ The time for rest is upon us.”