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Seminal Works

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

I have talked before about reading books you loved as a child; the books that made us. I have talked about rereading books which I have loved in the past to see if they still hold up. Today I want to briefly touch on the idea of reading the seminal works in the genres you love.

If we have the books that made us, each genre has the works that made it.

Science fiction for example is an older field of literature than usually thought about. Genres certainly bleed one into the other, but in many ways Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is certainly science fiction. Published in 1818, people may think of it as old but the influence it holds is vast.

Journey to The Center of The Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, are downright modern in comparison, clocking in at 1864 and 1870 respectively. Every one of these could be considered seminal.

What makes an author or a work important enough to read today when they are 100 or 200 years old? Especially in science fiction where what is fiction and fact change with the date, we can readily ask why care what a previous generation thought was fanciful? In this case, I am going to draw on an idea I have used once before. In scientific literature an article is judged by its importance on how many citations it receives. How much has it directly influenced other papers? Similarly, we should in many ways try to judge a book by the same metric. A book is more important the more it has influenced other books and writers as well as popular culture at large.

It would be a monumental undertaking to determine in a strict empirical manner how each book measures up. How would you weight the work of an author who has influenced other authors who then had a movie made about their own piece for example? The ability to turn modern culture on a single blockbuster movie is surprisingly high and can easily add up to the influence of a lifetime of writing from previous generations.

That said, I want to put forth what I think are the top ten most influential authors of the science fiction genre. I won’t say they are the best. That is a very different question though there is some overlap.

- Frederik Pohl

- Larry Niven (If you haven’t read Ringworld, you are missing out. It is the popularization of a Halo Ring, like from the games.)

- Ray Bradbury (You can’t get much more influential than Fahrenheit 451. Ironically a dystopian science-fiction novel in which television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction.)

- H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds anyone? The Time Machine?)

- Frank Herbert (I am not a fan of the Dune series, but I can’t deny their influence.)

- Philip K. Dick (Multiple movies, a missing android’s head, and a ton of modern takes well ahead of his time.)

- Arthur C. Clarke (I can’t let you not read this … get it? 2001... anyway)

- Robert Heinlein (My personal favorite and a bizarre one, Time Enough for Love)

- Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game and the books which follow were among the books that made me…)

- Isaac Asimov (Topping many people’s lists, I wouldn’t dare to leave him out! I, Robot and Bicentennial Man being my favorites.)

If you haven’t read any of them, or even one piece from all of them I will recommend you do so. And recommend it highly. We cannot truly understand where the modern tropes come from, why we read what we read, or why something is fresh if we don’t fully understand what used to be cutting edge, and maybe one day, will be again.

Get reading.

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