Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
An angry, impassioned fantasy of how to take down corporate America, and an ingenious modern version of the myth of the double. Palahniuk’s unnamed narrator, in revolt against the nesting instincts of modern consumerism, goes looking for the intensity of primal male experiences, and finds the maverick prankster Tyler Durden. It’s with Durden’s “Project Mayhem” and his army of “space monkeys” that Palahniuk’s visionary side takes flight; that there are white-collar “fight clubs” to this day is testament to his book’s impact.
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
A series of amiable conversations are strung together on a flimsy but suitably romantic plot in the most literary of Peacock’s Right: Audrey Niffenegger. Below left: Scene from David Fincher’s film Fight Club “novels of ideas”, as he gently lampoons the fashionable gloom of his friends Shelley, Coleridge and Byron, and all manner of associated “romantic transcendentalists and transcendental romancers”. Thwarted in love, the hero Scythrop reads The Sorrows of Werther and considers suicide, but settles for the comforts of madeira instead.
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Sinister and sensual, overwrought and overwritten, Titus Groan is a guilty pleasure – a dank, dripping Gothic cathedral of a novel. Titus himself is a minor character – literally: he’s only a year old by the end. He inherits Gormenghast castle and its extraordinary household: emaciated Flay, with his whip-crack joints; the morbidly obese cook, Swelter; feverish, moody young Fuchsia; cackling Dr Prunesquallor, and many others. They are so exaggerated, and Peake’s imagery so super-saturated, that this may seem like a children’s book, or a joke. But at its heart is a chilling glimpse of the nature of evil.
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
With this gargantuan novel, Powys set out to take a location he knew well from his boyhood and make it the real hero of the story. It tells the story of Glastonbury through a year of turmoil, setting mystic mayor John Geard against industrialist Philip Crow. Geard wants to turn the town into a centre for Grail worship, while Crow wants to exploit and develop the local tin mines. Complex and rich, this is a landmark fantasy novel.
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
This is the story of the bitter feud between Victorian master-magicians Angier and Borden, who attempt mutual sabotage in the quest to learn the secret of each other’s ultimate stage act: both, by different means, can transport themselves through space. The novel is as much a study of their obsession as a brilliant examination of magic and rationalism. The winner of the World Fantasy Award, it’s been described as urban fantasy with a science fictional explanation.
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
A Benedictine monk who gave it up to study medicine, Rabelais wrote this satirical tale of the giant Pantagruel and his even more monstrous and grotesque father Gargantua on the cusp between eras. In his portrayal of Gargantua, a belching, farting scholar given to urinating over the masses below his ivory tower, he satirises medieval learning as well as the emerging Renaissance thirst for knowledge. “Give me a drink! A drink! A drink!” he roars. Remind you of anything more contemporary?
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Orphaned Emily St Aubert is imprisoned by her evil guardian, Count Montoni, in the castle of Udolpho, deep in the Apennines. So often is this novel cited as inspiration for de Sade and Poe, so well known is Jane Austen’s parody in Northanger Abbey, that it is good to be reminded that the reclusive Radcliffe created a brilliant and much-loved Gothic tale, full of terror, foreboding, emerging sexuality and complex destructive psychology.
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
Fermi’s paradox asks: “If they’re out there, why aren’t they here?” Reynolds supplies answers that are plausible, entertaining, clever and occasionally just plain weird. This was the novel that brought the one-time astrophysicist to the attention of the SF mainstream. A huge space opera, with enough hard science and aliens to keep everyone happy, it sets up the framework for most of Reynolds’s later books. Spectacular.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
One of the best “what if” setups in alternate history. Robinson asks: what if the Black Death destroyed 14th-century European culture and the Mongols reached the Atlantic shores? What follows is a history of our world with Islam and Buddhism as the dominant religions and the major scientific discoveries and art movements we take for granted happening elsewhere. Necessarily schematic in places, but a stunning achievement all the same.
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Every now and then, a book comes along that is so influential you have to read it to be part of the modern world. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may have its faults – it’s a magpie’s nest of bits and bobs borrowed from more innovative writers – but it occupies that space. It’s the fantasy sequence that made readers of a generation of children; it’s the cliffhanger that united adults and children, creating a new crossover market with an unprecedented reach. It is also a truly global phenomenon, and a nice little earner for the tribe of British character actors who have had the good fortune to be cast in the films.
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, as Lincoln called it, the novel by a little lady which started a great war, Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece of magic realism added substantially to the clash of civilisations. In February 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (ie hunting licence for all devout Muslims) on the “apostate” author. Had he read the novel (which he didn’t) and its satirical vignette of his holy self, he might have issued two. The offensive core of the novel depicts, under thin disguise, the prophet Muhammad, and wittily if blasphemously questions the revealed truth of the Koran.
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
Stranded in the Sahara, a pilot meets a boy. He claims to have come from an asteroid, which he shared with a talking flower, and to have visited many other worlds – one inhabited only by a king, another by a businessman, a third by a drunkard … On Earth, he has chatted with a snake and tamed a fox. Is The Little Prince a children’s book? The dreamlike tone and Sainte-Exupéry’s watercolours give that impression. But it’s not only kids who need to be told how, what and why to love.
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Blindness is black, says an onlooker to the man who has suddenly ceased to see while sitting in his car at the traffic lights; but this blindness is white, a milky sea in the eye. Soon everyone is affected and the city descends into chaos. Like the city, Saramago’s characters are nameless, being known by some attribute – the first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses. His flowing, opaque style can be challenging, but this parable of wilful unseeing, which resists reductive interpretations, is full of insight and poetry.
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
In Self’s irrepressible, motormouthed third novel, you take your emotional baggage with you into the next life – literally. When Lily Bloom dies, she simply moves house: to a basement flat in Dulston, north London borough for the deceased, which she shares with a calcified foetus and her surly, long-dead son. There’s the usual druggy underworld and dazzling wordplay – the book is worth reading for its linguistic fireworks alone – but it’s Lily who gives the novel its emotional resonance and profundity. She’s a wonderful creation: sarcastic, frightened, smart, infuriating and humane.
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
The classic Gothic tale of terror, Frankenstein is above all a novel of ideas. Shelley drew on her father William Godwin’s radical social philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Young Werther and the new science of “electricity” for her plot. Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss student who resolves to assemble a body from dead parts and galvanise it into life. His “creature” is both superhuman and monstrous; shunned by humankind, it turns murderous and misanthropic. As well as an exploration of nature and nurture, the book can be read as a reaction to motherhood and a comment upon creativity. Astonishingly, it was written when Shelley was in her late teens; there has been dispute about her husband Percy’s input into the work.
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
High SF at its best. The world is gone, destroyed in an accident that gave humanity farcasters, controlled singularities that enable instant travel across galactic distances. (And houses with rooms in different worlds, if you’re really rich.) The internet is now a hive mind of advanced AIs that control the gates and keep a vast empire in existence. But someone or something is playing with time, and all is not as it seems. Hyperion won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel.
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Not so much a novel as a treatise on the nature and evolution of intelligence in the universe, Star Maker takes an unnamed Englishman on a tour of space and time as he observes human and alien civilisations rise and fall over a period of one hundred billion years. Considered Stapledon’s masterpiece, Star Maker embodies, among many other philosophical ideas, his belief in the need for a co-operative community to bring about a fulfilled individual. A short, dense book, it repays several readings.
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
Fast, furious and containing more ideas in a single sentence than most writers manage in an entire book, Snow Crash has been credited with helping to inspire online worlds such as Second Life and established Stephenson as a cult figure. Featuring SF’s most ironically named character, Hiro Protagonist, plus skateboards, mafia-employed pizza delivery men, weird drugs, computer hacking and a thousand other cyberpunk tropes, it showcases the raw talent that Stephenson was to refine for Cryptonomicon and his later, less frenetic books.
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
This classic novel of horrific possession is supposed to have come to the author in a nightmare. It takes the form of a posthumous confession by Dr Henry Jekyll, a successful London physician, who experiments privately with dual personality, devising a drug that releases his depraved other self, Edward Hyde. The murderous Hyde increasingly dominates the appalled Jekyll, who finally kills himself to escape his double. Stevenson’s novel is plausibly taken as a fictional parallel to Freud’s contemporary investigations into the unconscious. Others have seen it as a depiction of ineradicable dualisms in the Scottish character.
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Stoker claimed that the inspiration for this novel – which has spawned fiction’s most lucrative entertainment industry – arrived in a dream. A more plausible source is JS Le Fanu’s seminal 1872 tale of vampirism, Carmilla. Stoker’s undead hero is, historically, Vlad the Impaler, who tyrannised Wallachia in the 15th century. The solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent to Transylvania on property business with Count Dracula and is vampirised by his client (an interesting reversal of the normal estate agent-purchaser relationship). The count sails to England and embarks on a reign of bloodsucking terror, before being chased back to his lair by the Dutch vampirologist Dr van Helsing, and decapitated. He would, of course, rise again.
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
This unusual writer excels at the creation of skewed, dreamlike parallel worlds. In his fourth novel, the rootless, emotionally frozen Martin Blom is blinded by a stray bullet: his doctor warns of hallucinations of vision, and indeed he soon finds that he can see – but only in the dark. A new nocturnal existence and highly charged affair with a nightclub waitress follow, in a phantasmagorical meditation on repression and transgression, absence and invisibility. It’s one of those rare novels whose afterglow never entirely fades.
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Hank Morgan, an engineer from 19th-century Connecticut, is knocked out in a crowbar fight and mysteriously transported to sixth-century England. “The Boss”, as he becomes known, sets about modernising its technology and culture, but finds himself struggling with the forces of conservatism, like a medieval Tony Blair. Thousands will die in his showdown with the church and feudalism … Twain’s satire was largely aimed at Walter Scott and his romanticising of battle and olde-worlde squalor. But you don’t need to know that to enjoy the thought of knights advertising soap, or riding bicycles instead of horses.
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Vonnegut considered Sirens of Titan to be one of his best books, ranking it just below Slaughterhouse-Five. Featuring a dimension-swapping ultra-rich space explorer who can see the future, a robot messenger whose craft is powered by UVTW (the Universal Will to Become) and the newly established Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, Sirens of Titan manages to be classic 50s pulp, a literary sleight of hand, a cult novel of the 60s counterculture and unmistakably Vonnegut all at the same time.
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Young Jakob von Gunten enrols in a sinister academy (that touchstone of Germanic fiction) in which students learn how to be good servants. In a series of diary entries, we read about the authoritarian leader of the institute; angelic Lisa Benjamenta; the monkey-like Kraus; and Jakob’s increasingly bizarre dreams. The chilling effect is heightened by the incongruous cheeriness of Jakob’s tone, conspiring to make this a cult classic. Kafka and Hesse were big fans of the Swiss writer; film-making duo the Brothers Quay turned the novel into a mesmerising stock-frame feature in 1995.
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives.” It is to forge an adventure of her own, rather than the “existence doled out to you by others” as the lot of the spinster aunt, that Laura Willowes leaves her astounded London family for a country village and a pact with the devil. In this sly, charming commentary on women’s emancipation and the soul’s need for solitude, the supernatural is delicately handled – especially Satan, “a kind of black knight, wandering about and succouring decayed gentlewomen”.
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
Waters followed the rollicking Tipping the Velvet with this sombre, beautifully achieved meditation on love and loneliness set in the milieu of Victorian spiritualism. Her bored, unfulfilled heroine is introduced to a grim women’s prison as a nervous “lady visitor”, and to the world of seances, spirit guides and repressed passions bursting forth when she falls under the spell of one of the inmates. Waters exploits the conventions of the ghost story to moving, open-ended effect, recreating a world of fascinating detail and beguiling mystery.
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
Wells’s first title for this primal text of science fiction was The Chronic Argonauts. The Time Traveller (never named) outlines to friends his plan to explore the “fourth dimension”. On his return he reports that he has travelled to the year 802,701. Mankind has evolved into hyper-decadent Eloi and hyper-proletarian Morlocks, who live underground. The Eloi fritter, elegantly, by day. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi cannibalistically by night. Before returning to his own time, the Time Traveller goes forward to witness the heat death of the Solar System. At the end of the narrative, he embarks on a time journey from which he does not return.
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
The most read, imitated and admired invasion fantasy of the 19th century. The Martians, a cold-bloodedly cerebral species, driven by the inhospitability of their dying planet and superior technology, invade Earth. Their first cylinders land at Horsell Common and are followed by an army of fighting machines equipped with death rays. Humanity and its civilisation crumple under the assault, which is witnessed by the narrator, a moral philosopher. Finally, in the wasteland of “dead London”, mankind’s salvation is found in the disease germ: “there are no bacteria on Mars”. The novel can be read as an allegory of imperialism. As the narrator muses: “The Tasmanians were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years.”
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Sword in the Stone was initially published as a stand-alone work, but was subsequently rewritten to become the first part of a tetralogy, The Once and Future King. Conceived by White as “a preface to Malory”, it deals with the adventures of a young boy called Wart and his education at the hands of the magician Merlin. Only at the end of the book is it confirmed that the boy will grow up to be King Arthur. JK Rowling has described Wart as a “spiritual ancestor” of Harry Potter, and many have commented on the similarity between Albus Dumbledore and White’s Merlin.
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Originally published in four volumes, this far-future story presents a powerfully evocative portrait of Earth as the sun dies. Using the baroque language of fantasy to tell a story that is solidly science fiction, Wolfe follows Severian, a professional torturer exiled to wander the ruined planet and discover his fate as leader and then messiah for his people. Complex and challenging, this is perhaps one of the most significant publications in the last three decades of sci-fi.
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
Wyndham’s first novel written under his own name posited a mobile plant so deadly that it seems set to wipe humanity out. Triffids are possibly escapees from a Soviet laboratory; their takeover begins when a meteor shower blinds everyone who witnesses it. Bill Masen owes his survival to the fact that he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged at the time. Wyndham crossed the post-apocalyptic tradition of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds with the emerging fiction of cold war paranoia to create a monster with a mythic power that far extends beyond the novel itself.
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
A prime example of what the father of modern British SF, Brian Aldiss, has called “the cosy catastrophe”. In an inexplicable phenomenon, the village of Midwich is cut off from the rest of the world for a whole day, and its inhabitants rendered temporarily unconscious (an idea lifted from Conan Doyle’s classic novella, The Poison Belt). It emerges, six months later, that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Their offspring are extraterrestrial, clone-like, superhuman; “cuckoos” in the English nest. As they grow up with terrifying psychic powers, a perceptive Midwich citizen, Gordon Zellaby, contrives to blow them up and save humanity. The novel has been twice filmed as The Village of the Damned, Wyndham’s original title being deemed too “cosy”.
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)
Written in 1920, this dystopian satire shaped Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988 (the first English translation was in 1924). What did the Soviet censors find so offensive? This “enemy of the working classes” imagined the world of the 26th century as a soulless place of straight lines and identical lives, a glass city ruled by an absolute dictator known as the Benefactor, whose subjects have security and comfort, but no liberty, privacy or dreams. Until, that is, the mathematician D-503 falls in love.