How Great Science Fiction Works

Sonia Akavan
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How to write of the most important and influential genres of the 20th and 21st centuries?

For all the physical settings that science fiction describes, its most powerful ones are mental. The backdrop of a story has to be realistic and relatable, but the characters have to buy into what’s happening.

This is the core idea behind what writer Ken Liu calls the “marvelous marriage” of science fiction. “In order to be effective, the science part should be based on some solid work, but the fiction part has to be on the side of imagination,” says Liu. And that fusion is what makes science fiction great.

Take Liu’s story “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.” It’s a science fictional work based on a real philosophical question — is the choice to commit an atrocity enough to retroactively erase that atrocity from the timeline? “That’s a framework that can be used as a science fiction story,” says Liu, and it’s also worth reflecting upon.

NameCategoryProduct
The War of the WorldsBest OverallThe War of the Worlds
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's GuideBudget PickThe Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide
The Stand: The Complete and Uncut EditionUpgrade PickThe Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition

1. The War of the Worlds

Our rating: 9 / 10

The War of the Worlds

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Is it a ludicrous scare story? Is it a clever critique of humanity in the modern age? Is it two of the greatest genres, science fiction and horror, bursting with earnest energy? The War of the Worlds has been criticized for these very qualities. Is it a ludicrous scare story? Is it a clever critique of humanity in the modern age? Is it two of the greatest genres, science fiction and horror, bursting with earnest energy? The War of the Worlds has been criticized for these very qualities.

Why is it so great?

Well, for one thing, the aliens, with their tripods and heat rays and black smoke, are really frightening. We are now so squishy, fragile, and delicate that anything so big and powerful as the Martian cylinders (five stories high, they are!) would likely kill all of us instantly. The tripods were designed not only to fight but to extinguish life on Earth, which suited our purpose admirably. A single cylinder lands and begins shooting radiation at a small town in southern England… The tripods are really nasty when they seem to disintegrate you with the heat ray, and the fighting scenes are intense, thanks to the tripods’ sheer enormousness.

2. Jurassic Park

Our rating: 7 / 10

Jurassic Park

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Pros:

  • Full of action
  • Eye-catching cast
  • A great coming of age story

Jurassic Park is a science fiction/thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a best-selling novel by Michael Crichton. The film follows a small group of scientists who create a theme park featuring cloned dinosaurs from DNA found in mosquitoes preserved in amber.

Jurassic Park is the best selling film to date. It won the Academy award for visual effects and it produced 3 sequels, all of which were also directed by Steven Spielberg. The books of the franchise have also sold well and have been translated into 42 languages.

How Great Works discusses the entire series, which is one of the more varied franchises of books, films, and television shows. Each component, from the books to films, to its no-longer-running television show is explored in great detail. People who want to know more about this amazing work of fiction will love How Great Works: Jurassic Park.

3. 1984

Our rating: 7 / 10

1984

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Pros:

  • Catchy story line
  • A classic
  • Compelling characters
  • Harsh reality
  • Intense feelings of anger, fear, and sadness
  • Makes an excellent gift

Cons:

  • Too political
  • No current relevance
  • No freedom
  • Some overly harsh language
  • Limited character development

We first read 1984 in our high school literature class. As I recall, we didn’t really like it. It was an ugly, frightening book that we didn’t understand. How could it even be fiction? Didn’t we live in a country that had freedom? We didn’t see anything like what was described by Orwell in our lives.

It was years later, after a longer exposure to the world and a greater life experience, that we reread 1984. It is a profoundly powerful story, a compelling book that cannot help but evoke your strongest emotions and create your most intense feelings.

It’s a book that is literally chilling to read. It is a classic. It is a compelling, fascinating story. But it is not one you want to read in a dark mood.

4. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition

Our rating: 7 / 10

The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition

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Pros:

  • Very Gory and Brutal
  • Excellent Story
  • Multiple Story Lines
  • Interesting Characters
  • Tons of Symbolism

Cons:

  • Gore and Brutality can be off putting to some readers
  • Slow to Start
  • Takes a while to really get into

The Stand is a post-apocalyptic horror novel from American writer Stephen King.

The book is about the survivors of a plague that has wiped out most of the world's population. Writing the book, King was inspired by the potential risk of nuclear warfare.It was published in 1978 and was nominated for the National Book Award.

5. I Am Legend

Our rating: 7 / 10

I Am Legend

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44-year-old Dr. Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth after a man-made virus killed most of mankind and transformed the rest into bloodthirsty mutants. Will Neville face his demons ‪ or lose his humanity?

I Am Legend is the novel that inspired the hit 2007 movie starring Will Smith as Neville. It was also the first to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In some ways, it is the progenitor of the zombie apocalypse (although the infected in I Am Legend are not zombies, per se) and its most thorough explorations of the genre.

Published in 1954, it is difficult to get into the mindset of the time period. The Cold War is raging, and while people are focused on the bubbling nuclear pot, the government is covertly testing a deadly virus microbe that they hope can be weaponized for warfare. The exposure of personnel testing it in New York results in a scientific breakthrough in which most of the world falls ill.

6. Stephen King: 11/22/63

Our rating: 6 / 10

Stephen King: 11/22/63

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Pros:

  • King’s best novel
  • High likability factor
  • Fascinating characters and plot

Cons:

  • Fully obsessed with the JFK assassination
  • Antagonist isn’t entirely likeable

The story takes place during the year leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas in 1963.

The novel is written as a fictional account, with the main character Jake Epping, a high school teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, taking a portal into the past created by his friend Al, in order to prevent the assassination and perhaps save the world.

Stephen King has written many novels, but few reach the acclaim of 11/22/63.

7. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

Our rating: 6 / 10

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

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Pros:

  • Has influenced other works
  • Story continues beyond the main books

Hitchhiker's is a series that centers on the comedic adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman, following the demolition of the earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Arthur is, for the most part, an ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary situations.

Film and TV versions of Hitchhiker's have been produced, but the books are much better. The first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was published in 1979 and is the most famous. Unfortunately, it's also the least funny.

The story revolves around the titular guide book, which matches people with the ideal destination based on their personality and desires. The earth is demolished to make way for the bypass to a destination where the answers to "Life, the Universe and Everything" are held. Arthur, Ford Prefect, a researcher for the Guide, and Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed President of the Universe, are the only characters to travel with the answer.

8. Dune

Our rating: 6 / 10

Dune

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Pros:

  • Associated with positive memories of childhood
  • Simple and fun to read
  • Easy writing style for both children and adults
  • Shattering portrayal of societal norms
  • Literary value
  • Philosophy

Cons:

  • Time consuming to read to children
  • Interesting but tough to get through for adults
  • Not much of a plot

With their growing interest in science fiction at the age of 13, both my older son and I had read Dune by Frank Herbert. After two weeks of reading the book, I had made it through the first quarter of the book and couldn’t keep reading.

But my son managed to finish the book by himself within two days. Had I know this before I bought the book, I would have given it to my son instead of to myself to read.

I viewed a large number of flashlights before making our list of best tactical flashlights. They came in all sizes and all costs, but all were powerful and well made. It is clear that nowadays mankind is becoming more and more accustomed to darkness and become more dependent on artificial sources of light.

9. The End of Eternity

Our rating: 6 / 10

The End of Eternity

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Pros:

  • A Great Story
  • Realistic Characters
  • Time Travel on a Universal Scale

Cons:

  • Difficult to Follow
  • Long Story
  • Some Implausible Themes

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov. It was the first novel of a trilogy known as the “Foundation Trilogy.” The story takes place in the nations of the Galactic Empire at the end of the Foundation Era. It is the first novel of Asimov’s Foundation series. It is the only piece of the trilogy to deal with the series’s Time travel plot element.

This book was published after Asimov had already published two of his most popular works. As such, it is often regarded as his first major literary disappointment.

It was written whilst Asimov was researching the historic fantasy trilogy and while he was writing his other Foundation stories.

10. I ROBOT PB

Our rating: 6 / 10

I ROBOT PB

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Pros:

  • Well-written book for the layman on the topic of science fiction
  • Well-organized, with clearly laid out chapters
  • "Asimov's Guide" not just for Asimov

I thought this book was very well-written and did a good job of giving an overview of the different writers and their works. Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and others are followed through their careers, and their stories discussed and analyzed.

In fact, "Asimov's Guide" goes beyond just the writers, and talks about the different social and political movements of the past century leading into space and science fiction.

The book focuses mostly on the United States and Europe, but does mention Japan's influence into the genre. It also touches a bit on Asia but not in enough detail if that is your main interest. The earlier works are covered more than those outside the 20th century.

Conclusion

Science fiction has existed for about as long as fiction itself; however, it wasn’t until the 1900s that we began to develop the genre into what it is today. This is when we began to see science-fiction begin to take place in the future and exploring phenomena like outer space. The genre grew significantly in the 1960s with television, more advanced film technology, and improved special effects. Science fiction has then been seen in movies, books, and television since, and while a lot has changed, the principles and ideas at the core of it have remained the same.

Our Recommendation

NameCategoryProduct
The War of the WorldsBest OverallThe War of the Worlds
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's GuideBudget PickThe Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide
The Stand: The Complete and Uncut EditionUpgrade PickThe Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition