Science Fiction is 'Literary Marmite' for most readers. Either you love it or you hate it - although, curiously, any scepticism about the genre disappears once it is dressed up as 'literary fiction', e.g. 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Never Let Me Go, Cloud Atlas, The Road, anything by the great J.G. Ballard.
The perception that science-fiction is primarily badly-written, wish-fulfillment pulp was addressed by the writer Theodore Sturgeon who, when challenged about the low quality of most sci-fi writing, responded that 'ninety percent of everything is crud'. At its best, science-fiction is thought-provoking, political, imaginative and, most importantly, exciting. Brian Aldiss offered an unsurpassed definition of sci-fi as 'Hubris clobbered by Nemesis'. So if you are bored senseless by the latest Booker shortlist or...yawn... yet another jaded sub-McGahern study of the rural/urban/generational divide in Ireland, find the escape hatch in your mind and expand your horizons...
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
If there is one sci-fi book I would press on cynics it is Walter Tevis's most poignant novel. Thomas J. Newton, an 'alien human', visits earth in order to save his dying homeland. After amassing a fortune through licensing advanced alien technology, Newton slowly abandons his mission and descends into alcoholism (a subject Tevis unfortunately knew all too much about and the novel itself is one of the most sensitive literary treatments of the disease). Although overshadowed by Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation featuring the inspired casting of David Bowie, the novel is one of the most sadly beautiful books you could read.
Consider Phlebas (1987) by Iain M. Banks
Use of Weapons (1990) by Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks re-energised British science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s with his series of 'Culture' Novels. The 'Culture' is an egalitarian, technologically advanced society where deprivation of any kind is unheard of. Banks' series of seven 'Culture' novels to date explore what happens when this utopia is stress-tested by non-conformists. The novels are endlessly inventive and funny (ships have names like No More Mr Nice Guy, Its My Party And I'll Sing If I Want To, and The Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival) but when Banks decides to get dark, things get pitch-black. The ending of Use Of Weapons is still one of the most harrowing and vicious things I've ever read.
Childhood's End (1954) by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most respected writers of 'hard science fiction', i.e. fiction that emphasises scientific accuracy. His Fall of Moondust (1961) and Rendezvous With Rama (1972) are classics of the genre. Childhood's End is distinctive in that Clarke deals seriously with the paranormal - he was later somewhat embarrassed about his interest in, what he called, 'mind-rotting bilge'. Nevertheless, it is one of his most enjoyable and imaginative publications. A giant starship appears above earth and brings peace and order to the planet. Its mysterious passengers - known as the Overlords - are preparing humanity for an event. Then a child starts dreaming of distant worlds and a process begins that means the end of humanity as we know it. Despite the fact that the imagery of Childhood's End has been co-opted ad nauseum by Hollywood for hackneyed sci-fi schlock (e.g. spaceships looming over cities), the novel remains a powerful study of the breaking of bonds between parents and children.
Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
John Wyndham is one of the great figures of British science fiction although Wyndham baulked at being described as a 'sci-fi' writer. The success of Wyndham's Day Of The Triffids (1951) was instrumental in Penguin setting up a science fiction imprint. Click here for a mesmerising account of Penguin's science fiction catalogue. Chocky is told from the perspective of a somewhat distant father whose adopted son Matthew has an 'imaginary friend' with an interesting line in questions, e.g. 'Where is the earth?', 'Why is there twenty four hours in a day?'. As Matthew's behaviour gets odder, the child is subjected to a series of clinical trials in order to root out the problem of Chocky. The story builds through Wyndham's precise prose to an impressively bleak conclusion about the failings of humanity. An irrelevant but interesting anecdote about Wyndham was that he liked nothing more than to go down to his local pub on a Sunday and quietly sip a glass of sherry. He once turned down an invitation to attend a conference in Rio de Janeiro because 'he might have the company of heavy drinkers like Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss'. Also check out Wyndham's novels of New Englanders in peril (The Chrysalids) or Little Englanders going insane (The Midwich Cuckoos). He's an absolute hoot.
The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester
Generally regarded as one of the true classics of science fiction, The Stars My Destination is essentially The Count of Monte Cristo set in space. The protagonist Gully Foyle is a moron devoid of energy or ambition. After he is left to die on a starship, he is suddenly reinvigorated with a zeal to kill all those responsible for his predicament. The novel which follows Gully's madcap revenge odyssey is a masterpiece of high-concept sci-fi and brilliant bad taste. One can only stand back and applaud the sheer energy of Bester's pulpy writing, wild imagination, and his disregard for conventional pieties. The Stars My Destination stands apart and deserves every accolade it has received from the elder statesmen of sci-fi.
Hothouse (1961) by Brian Aldiss
Brian Aldiss has been described as 'the godfather of British Science Fiction'. His Science Fiction Omnibus remains a classic compendium of sci-fi short stories and his Trillion Year Spree is a definitive account of the development of science fiction writing. He made his name as a talent worth watching with his second novel Hothouse. The novel is set on a far-future earth at the end of the planet's life. The earth and moon are frozen and locked together in space. The world no longer spins on its axis and half the planet is in permanent darkness. On the day side, the vegetable kingdom rules and vegetable creatures have replaced animals. The book's most lasting image is that of giant, mile-long, spider-like creatures who travel to the Moon on interplanetary cobwebs. Aldiss focuses on the trials of the few final descendants of humanity as they struggle in their hostile environment. It is a world where life is nasty, brutish, and short. Aldiss kills off characters at a hand's turn without reflection. The individual is unimportant. It is the survival of the species that counts for all. As a meditation on the processes of evolution, Hothouse is remorseless. But at its heart is also a cracking adventure story about the journey of the man-child Gren and the creatures he encounters. Their names - the tummybelly men, crocksocks, killerwillows - remind us of nothing less than Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland. Hothouse is a deeply strange and disturbing - almost psychedelic - novel. You will have read nothing like it.
Bring The Jubilee (1952) by Ward Moore
Alternative histories are a mainstay of science-fiction. Notable examples include Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle in which Germany has won the Second World War and Keith Roberts' Pavane which imagines an England where the Reformation didn't happen. Ward Moore's Bring The Jubilee is in this vein, presenting an America in which the Confederacy won the Civil War (or what is now termed 'The War of Southron Independence'). The novel imagines a world in which the United States is the poor relation of the prosperous Confederate States of America. New York is a provincial backwater and the Southern States have built an empire in Central and South America. The novel tells the story of a historian from the 1950s who, intent on bringing down the Confederacy, travels back in time to the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 to try and change the course of the war. There is an excellent twist in the tale.