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10 Science Fiction Books I've Read More Than Once

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965)

Where to start with this, the king of epic science fiction novels? Well, frankly, I avoided it for years. The 1984 film adaptation flat-out didn’t work for me in all the ways Star Wars did. It was messy, weird, and not much fun. The idea of wading through a doorstop novel stuffed with that kind of incoherent nonsense was about as appealing as sharing a sauna with Baron Harkonnen. But when someone bought me a great-looking hardback edition as a present – the giant sandworm artwork on the cover really fired my imagination – I’d just read a string of classic SF books from the same collection (Orion’s SF Masterworks) and found them to be some of the best books I’d ever read, in any genre. Besides, all those legendary SF writers extolling the genius of Herbert’s mammoth opus must know something, right?

I discovered pretty early on that Dune plays by its own tune. The worldbuilding is dense but fascinating, and oh-so expansive. Arthur C. Clarke likened it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and it really is that layered, that detailed. The amount of head-hopping (switching from one character’s POV to another) could have been confusing, but I found I could follow it perfectly well. One of my least favourite genre tropes is the prophesied messiah, but Herbert made young Paul Atreides complex enough that I was rooting for him and his mother, Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit witch and concubine of Duke Leto Atreides (newly appointed sovereign of the crucial spice world, Arrakis), the whole way through.

Despicable villains, huge action scenes, mysticism, interstellar politics, espionage, romance, rebellions, and a classic coming-of-age odyssey: it could have been an incoherent mess like Lynch’s movie, but Herbert is a superb storyteller. You have to get in tune with his offbeat rhythms and his sometimes stiff, retro prose, and it’s certainly not a book you can casually dip in and out of. You have to delve into it, let the depth of world-building draw you in, and the scale of the meta-universe enwrap you. But the rewards are breathtaking. I loved everything about it. Strangely enough, I’ve never read the sequels, but I’ve re-read Dune three times.

I’m curious to see what Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation does with it. His Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are sublime sci-fi movies, so who knows? He might finally be the one who cracks it.

The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956)

I’d heard of Bester by reputation—a titanic reputation—and of his two most revered works (the other being The Demolished Man), I chose this one first because I loved the title. It smacks of the grandiosity and mystery Star Trek purports to pursue but rarely does: exploring the unknown regions of the universe, etc. Well, as it turns out, neither does The Stars My Destination. Bester’s anti-hero, Gully Foyle, begins the story marooned in the wreckage of his spaceship. After subsisting for weeks on his own, he sees another ship approach. But rather than stop to help, the vessel speeds away and leaves him for dead. From that moment on, Gully is a man driven by revenge—an insane, unquenchable revenge that transforms him from an illiterate janitor to a sophisticated criminal and phenomenal “jaunter”.

Jaunting is the most ingenious use of teleportation I’ve ever come across. It’s a part of human evolution in Bester’s future. Some can do it and some can’t, but the idea of mass teleportation, entire populations migrating across the world by the power of thought, frankly blows my mind. Gully’s such a single-minded anti-hero, his quest is so dangerous and nuts, you can’t help but root for him. I love the unpredictable story. The prose takes huge creative risks and becomes more and more mesmerizing. The story, too, follows through on all its early promise and keeps going. By the end, I was ready for anything. Bester scored a knockout.

And the second time I read it, I was floored by the sheer audacity of the unhinged narrative leaps it takes. If I could write something half as original as this, I’d die a happy author.

War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)

H.G. Wells’ classic needs no introduction. Written when the European colonial powers were ramping up the mechanisation of their armed forces and sabre-rattling on the brink of war, his alien invasion horror was very much a product of its time. Interestingly, Orson Welles’s legendary radio dramatisation in 1938, and the two most successful screen adaptations, Byron Haskin’s seminal film in 1953 and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster in 2005, all channelled the political angst of their respective eras into Wells’ science fiction premise. In 1938, it was the threat of another global conflict that caused jittery Americans to freak out when they thought Welles’ broadcast was actually reporting the arrival of hostile Martians. In the 50s it was the threat of a communist invasion, the onset of the Cold War. In post-millennial America, the trauma of 9/11 raised public fear of terrorism to a febrile level. War of the Worlds is applicable to any age because its main theme, fear of aggression by a hostile superior force, strikes deep into the human psyche. Indeed, it can be said to have politically shaped much of the twentieth century, with famously tragic results.

I’ve heard people grumble about the ending, saying it’s anticlimactic. But to my mind it’s one of the most profound endings in all of fiction. Wells was a biologist, a philosopher, and a humani