Like other genres of fiction, science fiction has its share of classics, books that have stood the test of time and provide a foundation for all works that have followed. While most other genres in the world of literature have their origins centuries earlier, science fiction is comparatively young, first emerging in the early 1800s.
So what makes classic science fiction? As with other genres, a good place to start looking is in the beginnings of the genre. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is one of the first books that can be recognized as science fiction, as it includes themes such as advanced technology for the time and, more importantly, using that fantastic premise to provide a new look at the world.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that science fiction, as a genre, is about trying to speculate on new technology, and new sciences. Certainly, space travel, aliens, and alternate worlds are the typical setting of science fiction. But the kind of science fiction that will endure as classics are less concerned with telling people what the future holds, and more concerned with using those settings to reflect on the world as it is now.
Science fiction is also unique as a genre in how easily it becomes dated. The rate of technological growth in the real world, tends to result in older science fiction becoming out of date, and thus less likely to be taken seriously.
H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were two of the pioneers in the genre, and also represent the divide in the genre that has existed since they were published. Verne focused on the technology in his novels, which was either based on or extrapolated from current technology. Wells, on the other hand, glossed over the science to make points about the world at the time.
For example, Verne, in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, created a plausible submarine to give his characters a setting for adventure. By contrast, Wells, in The Time Machine, created a largely unexplained time machine in order to comment on the division in then-contemporary English society.
Reaching into more contemporary times, books like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are considered classics of the genre, as the technology and fantastic themes are used to present the messages that each author wished to depict. Admittedly, like other literature, there is considerable controversy as to the validity of the messages.
What you may regard as a classic of science fiction literature will depend largely on where you stand on this question: Is science fiction better when it presents plausible technology in order to tell stories of romance and adventure, or when it glosses over the technical aspects to send a message to its readers? Ideally, a classic science fiction novel will feature aspects from both sides, with a story that still applies in spite of the book’s age.