Top 10 Classic (Pre-20th Century) Science Fiction & Fantasy
It’s been a long, long looong time since we last did a top ten science fiction novels piece. We are still 60 away from completing our top 100 goal from three years ago. Not good! So here it is, the latest installment in our quest for the top 100 science fiction novels: Classic Sci-Fi (Pre-20th Century). Now, to be fair, not all of these novels could be classified as science fiction. I mean, how many space ships do you remember in Through the Looking Glass? But according to the British Library it is indeed scifi and we’re not gonna argue with the British Library.
Many of these works you’ll be already familiar with, some you may not. Feel like we missed one for the list? That’s what the comments are for!
War of the World by H.G. Wells
Choosing a single H.G. Wells novel to acknowledge on this list was a difficult task. But considering he already has one sitting in our time travel section, we decided to just give him one go on this list, and what better book to choose than War of the Worlds. A book about a martian invasion in Victorian England. You can’t really get much more science fiction than alien invasions. Not only has this book gone on to influence many other novels but the War of the Worlds story has been told repeatedly via film and radio.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Picking just one Jules Verne novel was almost as hard as picking just one H.G. Wells novel as both are prolific authors. Having said that, Twenty Thousand Leagues stands out for many reasons as a science fiction classic. For one thing, it is the perfect representation of steampunk, a sub-genre that Verne practically created. The Nautilus is just as prolific a vessel as the Enterprise, and Captain Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus, remains one of literature’s most interesting antiheroes (although some may argue that he’s actually a Byronic hero).
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Science gone awry remains a great trope of science fiction, so it comes as no surprise that Frankenstein should make the list of greatest classic science fiction novels. In it, Dr Victor Frankenstein, an early example of the mad scientist that also pervades science fiction, believes that he can create life. And he’s successful in creating his monster, but again, like any good science fiction story, his creation brings about Dr. Frankenstein’s own destruction.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Okay, so we cheated and snuck another Jules Verne in there. Journey is a classic adventure novel except instead of explorers looking for lost continents, you have scientists journeying deep within the bowels of Earth. What do they find at the center of the Earth? Dinosaurs, of course! The sense of adventure that the novel conveys along with the scientific sense of wonder is just one of many reasons why A Journey to the Center of the Earth remains a popular science fiction novel to this day.
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Here we have another mad scientist tale. A man uses science to separate the good part of him from his darker side, only to end up turning into a much more evil, alter ego. Like Frankenstein, we also eventually see Jekyll destroyed because of what he has created. Don’t believe that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be on this list? Consider this: Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has helped to create such comic book characters as Two-Face and the Hulk.
MicroMegas by Voltaire
We cheated a little here. Technically this tale by Voltaire is a short story, but frankly a story that involves an alien visitation, and discusses alien civilizations and interstellar space travel, while also commenting on Earth society, surely has to make this list of classic science fiction literature.
Across the Zodiac by Percy Greg
This early science fiction novel follows a trip to the planet Mars where the human narrator discovers an alien race living on Mars who cannot believe that the narrator is actually from another planet. This in itself makes the novel very significant for its time, but there are still more reasons why we included this book on the list. For one thing, Gregg uses the word “astronaut” for the name of the traveller’s ship. For another, Percy utilizes a form of anti-gravity space travel that has inspired many a science fiction story since.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
One science fiction trope we haven’t covered yet is time travel. Since we already listed The Time Machine in a previous list, we decided to give this coveted spot to Mark Twain’s classic about Hank Morgan, a 19th Century man from Connecticut who finds himself in King Arthur’s Britain. In some ways, this story subverts the usual time travel tropes. For instance, whenever you introduce time travel into a story you are faced with the whole idea of whether or not the protagonist should utilize future technology for fear of changing the past. Twain’s Morgan has no such concern, to great comic effect.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift’s whimsical story of Lemuel Gulliver as he journeys the Earth is another classic proto-science fiction tale. In many ways it is the classic pulp adventure story, with the hero finding himself in strange new lands with equally strange people. Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps not as obviously science fiction as many of the books on this list, there are no little green men, but it does offer social commentary that satirizes seemingly utopian societies.
Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
Finally, we decided to include Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland stories. The story of Alice is a classic fantasy tale in which young Alice finds herself in a strange world populated by mythical creatures and anthropomorphic animals. More correctly the Alice stories should perhaps be considered an example of the literary nonsense genre, but the idea of a young person sucked into a strange and magical world has so pervaded the fantasy and science fiction genre that it would be a travesty not to include it.