50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Science Fiction


Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.

The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.

It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.

That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

“If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”

—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

His Dark Materials Trilogy

Hello again, class.

I started The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, months ago. Within a few chapters, though I barely knew the characters or the world Pullman had built, his writing drew me in—in a way that hasn’t happened with me since I read Harry Potter. Pullman’s teenage fiction novels are written like poetry.

I finished The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the trilogy, a few days ago. The series as a whole is controversial, intoxicating, and jaw-dropping in all the ways sci-fi and fantasy should be—it completely surpassed my expectations. I can think of hundreds of reasons why this book series made the list.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young girl with a propensity for lying and storytelling. She lives in a world a lot like ours, with a few key differences—one being that every person is born with a daemon, a spirit-like animal that acts as a conscience. Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon and her friend Will Parry, gets caught up in a peculiar adventure, involving a kingdom of armored bears, a clan of witches hundreds of years old, a mystical truth-telling compass, a series of otherworldly portals, and a cast of characters with dangerous and obscure motives.

For all the plot over three heart-pounding novels—The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman never forgets the carefully structured theme of innocence in the face of corruption. Of all the enemies Lyra faces, the corrupt Church is probably the most intimidating. The Church of Pullman’s universe is overbearing, manipulative, and full of subservient agents who will do anything in the name of the Authority.

But for Pullman, it wasn’t enough to point out the corruption of religious institutions—his novels attempt to reveal corruption in the existence of God. He writes about the ongoing battle of humanity, between those who humbly submit to a greater power and those who seek wisdom and refute oppression. His novels point out the inherent immorality of a Kingdom of Heaven, like the immorality of any dictatorship in the modern age. The overarching plot of the trilogy goes so far as to use Christian theology (and mythology) to dismantle the Christian story of God—portraying God as the villain of humanity’s ongoing battle.

Naturally, the His Dark Materials Trilogy was met with controversy. Pullman’s story isn’t just atheistic (which can be controversial by nature)—it is also mature, saturated in sci-fi violence, and marketed for a younger audience. It’s probably still banned across the globe.

The trilogy makes a strong case for atheism, which was hard for me to read, but also helpful in my understanding of life outside of religion. I grew up with religion in my life, and I’ve come to accept those that don’t have religion in theirs—it’s simply not for everyone, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I started reading The Golden Compass with something like a religious bias, and it made me read everything Pullman wrote with a grain of salt.

Author Philip Pullman

That doesn’t stop me from agreeing with most, if not all, of Pullman’s criticisms of the corrupt church he is familiar with. Religion has a history of abuse that cannot be dismissed, and those that choose to live with religion must always be aware of the power, and therefore the corruption, that religious institutions have a tendency toward. Aware of that corruption, Pullman pushes back against religious institutions through these novels—through literature, popular culture, and the education of young minds. Children will eventually have to make their own theological decisions in the real world, and books like the His Dark Materials trilogy can be a healthy part of making those decisions.

Like I said, these books were hard to read at times (I work at a church, for crying out loud!) but it certainly helped that these books were well written. It always impresses me when books have strong messages delivered by strong characters, and a fantastic fantasy world to back up big ideas. For a novel to work, all of the separate puzzle pieces have to fit together well, and the completed puzzle has to leave an impression. These three novels did both.

My next read is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I’m diving into this one cold. I can only hope it’s good!

Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Brave New World

Hello again, class.

I’m still a little surprised that I was able to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school—at the time, it was the most sexually explicit required reading that had ever crossed my path. But I had a teacher who made it clear that this was an adult novel . . . it wouldn’t be fun or funny. It would be challenging and disturbing, and probably raise more questions than it could answer. In another teacher’s hands, I would have written this novel off as weird; but as I read it for his class, and as I reread it over the past few weeks, I realize that this book is one of the few that invited me to read more challenging stories, even if I didn’t like them.

And there are parts of Brave New World I don’t like, but the novel is special for that exact reason. You aren’t supposed to like it because it’s not entertainment . . . it’s a warning.

The society of Brave New World runs on a set of rules that everyone happily follows; for instance, solitary actions are as prohibited as possible, and in sexual terms, everyone belongs to everyone else. Extreme emotions have been all but eradicated with removal of the family unit, genetic modification, psychological conditioning, and a drug called soma. Without extreme emotions—passion, rage, fear, jealousy, misery—all that’s left is a mellow contentment. Between universal happiness and ideals like truth, beauty, or knowledge, the populace has overwhelmingly chosen happiness.

And that’s the setting for a rather depressing story, told from the perspective of a handful of individuals in a society where individuals shouldn’t exist. Bernard Marx is the catalyst for the plot—a man shorter than those he is genetically similar to, and therefore made an outsider. He is simple and somewhat shallow, but by being an outsider, he refuses to medicate himself for happiness and wishes society were different. His friend, Helmholtz Watson, is an outsider because of his affinity for poetry—the happiness of their society begins to wear itself thin for him, causing him to challenge social norms for the sake of the beauty of language.

Author Aldous Huxley

But the real outsider is John the Savage, a man born in one of the few Savage Reservations left that are not “civilized” like the rest of the world. His mother was a woman from civilization, but she became trapped visiting the reservation and was left there, unexpectedly pregnant with John. He grew up with a different skin color from everyone else in the reservation, so he had been an outsider his whole life—then the opportunity arose to visit civilization, as a scientific and social experiment. But he soon learns that the “brave new world” of civilization is terrible, where adults act like children, morality and freedom are all but stripped away, and humanity is weighed down under machines and medication.

Huxley’s novel portrays less of a dystopia and more of a parodied utopia; there’s a clear distinction. A dystopia is inherently bad, like 1984 or The Hunger Games, where it’s clear people are suffering due to humanity’s mistakes. But Brave New World actually represents a utopia—an almost unrealistically happy society, without war, poverty, famine, misery, or burden. The only person who cannot bear this society is John, who grew up apart from it.

1984 is about a regime holding power and using ideology, propaganda, and torture to subdue threats . . . humanity’s enemy is more powerful than ever, but it’s the same enemy: an upper class with all the power. Brave New World might even be scarier, because there is no enemy. Humanity simply gave up, surrendered to happiness. All the things we like to think make humanity good—art, morality, intelligence, curiosity, passion . . . all replaced by peace. A numbing, terrifying global peace.

Brave New World is a warning, but not like most dystopian novels, warning us against threats to society. It’s warning to us that if our everlasting search for happiness and comfort continue, we may gain peace, but we will lose what makes us human.

Nothing hits this point more at home than the many Shakespeare references throughout the novel. Shakespeare has been completely removed from this society, because his words are too beautiful and evocative. His stories of revenge, passion, tragedy, and love cause too much instability to the stable World State, so his works cannot be allowed to exist in society.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

But in the reservation, John finds one of the last remaining copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which he uses at a young age to learn how to read. His attraction to Lenina Crowne in the civilized world becomes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, while his contemplation of suicide is mirrored in Hamlet‘s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Most importantly, the title of the book comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which John uses to describe civilization when he sees it for the first time: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

And that, possibly more than anything else, it what makes this future so horrible. To have happiness, we have to get rid of Shakespeare . . . as well as any other good story, along with God and religion, scientific discovery, and anything else that doesn’t serve the greater purpose of providing comfort and stability for society. Welcome to the brave new world.

I honestly don’t like thinking about this. At least with 1984, I can see that abuse of power is something that has always happened and will continue to happen—the current state of the political world does nothing to convince me that that will ever change. But this . . . Huxley’s novel is simply messed up, and I can’t stand the possibility that humanity might surrender itself completely. This is scarier than any horror I can think of.

So I’m just going to move on to the next novel. Hopefully, students, you feel better about this than I do. I’ve got nothing.

Next up, I’m reading Wuthering Heights, another somewhat depressing story, but at least it comes with a better ending!

Until then, be careful with your happiness and beware the future.

Prof. Jeffrey

The War of the Worlds

Hello again, class.

The War of the Worlds already had a lot going for it when I picked it up—I love a good story about aliens. For all of the novel’s pitfalls, it makes up for it by being one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written, inspiring sci-fi for years to come.

The narrator details the horror of aliens attacking Earth—the Heat-Rays, the giant tripods, the freakish shapes of the creatures themselves, the death, the chaos, the destruction of towns and homes . . . it’s all portrayed as graphically as a Victorian-Era novel can be. The narrator spends most of his time trying to get back to his wife, who may be dead already, and his journey shows him the diversity of both the Martians’ attacks and the chaotic human response.

Don’t get me wrong—The War of the Worlds is a little dated. It’s well over a hundred years old, and sounds too much like Charles Dickens describing aliens and battle, which is jarring. Parts of the novel stumble over themselves, like when the narrator tells the story of what happened to his brother. Any modern writer wouldn’t bother explaining why two people are telling the story, but that’s too complicated for H. G. Wells’ audience—Wells’ is very careful in making his narrator explain the leap in the story.

And, of course, the science is more than outdated . . . it’s plain wrong. Your science lesson for today: no Martians like the ones described live on Mars. The science is beyond fringe, and the theory of intelligent life on any planet in our solar system is just shy of impossible. It’s an interesting thought, but we all know the idea of aliens on Mars is closer to fantasy than sci-fi.

Movie Poster for The War of the Worlds (1953)

That doesn’t make The War of the Worlds bad . . . just dated. One of the strongest scenes, occurring over several chapters, involves the narrator trapped in a house with a panic-stricken man who keeps talking about the end of the world. He’s too loud, threatening to give away their position, and the narrator fights him to keep him quiet. The narrator kills him in the process. Wells isn’t just adding to the drama, here; this character’s loss of rational thought is a natural human response, and so is his murder by the narrator’s hands.

Wells is providing a pure account of the story, and letting the scientific, ethical, and horrific implications speak for themselves within each reader—leaving us only with a well-told story. All the best sci-fi/fantasy stories do this; they give us the story purely, and let us debate over scientific and moral hypotheticals. These are the kinds of stories that stand the test of time.

Author H. G. Wells

Like any good sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds speaks through metaphors—aliens in stories are never just aliens. For Wells, a British man at the height of the British empire, the aliens are a distant unconquered people, with the power to vanquish Britsh forces. Wells is showing us that Britain’s treatment of smaller kingdoms and weaker people will come back to haunt them. The Martians treat humans as mercilessly as the British treated, for example, people of African nations.

It is a little too “white man’s burden;” the fear of the Martians can feel a little like fear of the “other-ness” of minority groups and foreign people. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s worth noting how dated a philosophy it is. Even so, it seems to be a message of mercy, which is always good to read.

Next up, I’m jumping forward to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—dropping the science fiction for a little more 1950s American grit. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m always surprised by a good book—I’ll let you know what I find.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey