A Progressive Living Field Guide

The Ten Greatest Humanistic Science Fiction Novels

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Earth Abides
The cover of Earth Abides (1949), perhaps the greatest Humanistic SF novel, by George R. Stewart


What is a Great Humanistic Science Fiction Novel (and Why Should You Care)?

My objective here is to identify and introduce the greatest of the Humanistic science fiction novels, so I had better begin by explaining what a Humanistic science fiction novel is.

Novels of any sort fall into two broad categories:  literature, and entertainments.  The difference between the two lies in the objectives of the author in writing the novel.  The author of literature is concerned, mainly, with telling us something about what it means to be human.  The author of an entertainment is concerned, mainly, with helping the reader while away a few idle hours.

This is not to say that an entertainment can't tell us something about the human condition, nor is it to say that literature can't be entertaining (certainly, it won't be read much if it isn't).  Nevertheless, if an author is mainly concerned to write literature, the additional requirement that he or she also entertain is apt to conflict to some degree with that primary aim.   Similarly, if an author is mainly concerned to entertain, the additional requirement that he or she also tell us something about what it is to be human is apt to conflict with that primary aim as well.  So there are often real consequences when an author adopts one or the other of these two main writerly objectives. 

To continue our characterization, real literature will inevitably make the reader think, to a greater or lesser extent, and the reader who wants an entertainment is apt to set an upper bound on just how much thinking he or she is prepared to do.  Entertainments will commonly trend toward more superficial themes and a faster pace, and assorted wish fullfilment fantasies are often provided, so that a reader who wants a little more substance is apt to be dissatisfied.   And there are further, downstream consequences:  the reader of an entertainment will ideally come away from the experience having been relieved of the tedium of everyday life, while the reader of literature will come away with a better understanding of himself and the world he or she lives in.

There is, obviously, a place in life for both literature and entertainments.  All of us experience life's tedium at one time or another, and a vacation can be just the thing.  And all of us, or nearly all of us, want to understand ourselves and the world around us, and great literature can do more to provide us with that understanding than months, years, or even decades of ordinary experiences typically do.  In the end though, literature, real literature, ultimately has greater value than entertainments, for our greater need in life is to understand.

What all of this means is that a compendium of the greatest literary SF novels should include those novels (specifically of the Science Fiction genre) that do the most to help us to understand ourselves and our society.  They may also be quite entertaining, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but entertainment value should not be the primary criterion of selection in play.

What does it add to say that a literary novel is also humanistic?  Mainly this:  in addition to being a work of literature, the humanistic literary novel is specifically concerned with our lives in the world we know.  For this reason, the reader will not find works of metaphorical theology, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, say, nor will the reader encounter any sort of appeal to authority or tradition.  The world of the Humanist is a world in which one must think through one's values for oneself.  Others can help in various ways, certainly, but no one can impose values on anyone else.  They must arise from one's own understanding.

To answer the other question we began with:  you should care about knowing which novels are the greatest humanistic Science Fiction novels because here you'll find nourishment for both your mind and soul of a kind not often to be found elsewhere.

Without futher elaboration of our criteria, let's move directly to the ten greatest novels of Humanistic science fiction.  My estimation of rank ( for precision in aesthetic judgment is an elusive thing) follows.

1   Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949)

Stewart's only SF novel is a tour de force, successful on every level.  Engrossing, moving, it is one of the greatest of all novels, in or out of any genre.  This is probably a consequence of the fact that his theme — the way in which human nature and the environment in which human beings find themselves interact — is one which held great fascination for him over a period of many years.  Here Stewart has imagined a post-plague America in which nearly all of humanity has been wiped out, with the consequence that the nature of civilization itself comes naturally to the forefront as a subject for dramatization.  Many other authors have felt the fascination of the premise — SF abounds with post-Apocalypse novels — but what sets Stewart's novel apart from these so decisively is the depth of insight he brings to his subject, and deft fashion in which he brings out the many consequences for his protagonists.

Some readers have expressed frustration with the principal character of the novel, whose actions don't always rise to the heroic heights that Hollywood and commercial novels have led us to expect (though sometimes they do).  Frustrating or not, here are real people struggling with a terrible catastrophe, and we live with them through every moment of their struggle.


2   1984 (George Orwell, 1949)



Orwell's novel remains an outstanding dystopia, perhaps the outstanding dystopia, which is to say that it paints a very chilling portrait of a society that is at once horrifying and entirely too possible.  Unlimited police powers in the hands of the state, perpetual warfare and supernationalism, brutal and dehumanizing torture, official lies passed off as "history" — all of these are the stuff of contemporary life.  Here, in his greatest work, Orwell shows us what is so terribly wrong with all of this.  


3   Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1951)

Farenheit 451


Bradbury's novel of a society that positively suppresses thought, and accomplishes this through the burning of books, isn't easily forgotten.  As the US continues in the throes of a culture war, one element of which tends to regard independent thinking with real suspicion, his theme only grows in strength — particularly as Bradbury also seems to hint that the commercialism inherent in corporate capitalism is also complicit.   Written years before such a thing was technologically feasible, Bradbury postulated enormous television screens featuring a hollow and meaningless interactivity (all of which, in reality, takes place on one end).   Less bleak than Orwell's dystopia, Bradbury ends on a more hopeful note.


4   Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes, 1966)

Flowers for Algernon


Keyes is really known almost exclusively for FFA.   It is the story of a man of limited intelligence who is discarded by a society that cares nothing for him, except when he can serve as the butt of "humor".  However, FFA features not one but two twists that take us in directions that the reader doesn't anticipate.  Over the course of Keyes' story, we come to understand in a profoundly moving way the central role of understanding in life — and both the joys and miseries of real insight.


5   Science in theCapital (Kim Stanley Robinson, 2007)

Blue Mars


There is something quintessentially Californian about the writing of Kim Stanley Robinson.  (Among his earlier works was the "Three Californias" trilogy, which envisions three quite different futures for California.)  Often lurking somewhere in the background is his love of the physical beauties of the state, and still more often his enjoyment of physical engagement with nature (he is a hiker, and admirer of Thoreau and Emerson). 

But Robinson really shines when he gives thought to what is perhaps his favorite theme:  the nature of utopia — utopia, of course, meaning the best reality we can reasonably imagine for ourselves, not a hopeless and naive fantasy.  Curiously enough, his trilogy "Science in the Capital" (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting) deals with global warming, which has the clear potential to destroy the planet as we know it — and yet, at the same time, Robinson also examines issues that go beyond addressing global warming to building a better — indeed a much better — society.  In many ways, the two issues are intertwined.

This is truly a landmark undertaking that may deserve the number one place here.  As I've only recently read it, I'm letting it simmer here in 5th place until I can stand back from it a bit.   Beyond any doubt, however, this trilogy is a must read.


6  If This Goes On — (Robert Anson Heinlein, 1953)

If This Goes On -


When he aired his political views, Heinlein presented something of a paradoxical face to his readers.  In his contempt for racism, his thoroughgoing rationalism, his understanding of the importance of the environment, and his understanding of the ways in which the large corporation can wreak havoc on society he is very much representative of the liberal tradition.  But some of Heinlein's most formative years were spent at the US Naval Academy, and he took enormous pride in his military service, with lifelong consequences:  anyone and anything that seemed to smack of disparagement of the military invariably struck a very sensitive nerve with him.  The events of first the Cold War and then the Vietnam War led him into something approaching a hatred of what he (rather confusedly) conceived to be liberalism.  Up through 1960 or so, the semi-liberal face was usually in evidence, but over the next decade he became increasingly, and rather gratingly more strident and more overtly conservative, while in the 1970s his writing became gassy and his plotting thin (this may have been in part a consequence of poor health).

The short novel "If This Goes On—", reprinted in Revolt in 2100, puts us in company with Heinlein the rationalist, and altogether more appealing company it is.  Here Heinlein vividly envisions a theocracy — absolutist political rule by a priesthood — and an attempt to overthrow it.  In one of those strange and ironic flukes of history, Heinlein resided in Colorado Springs at the time he wrote the story, and Colorado Springs is today the residence of James Dobson, perhaps the man who has done the most to attempt to create an American theocracy.  In any case, Heinlein was at the peak of his powers at the time of writing, and this is among his most engaging pieces — and perhaps also his most important.


7  Necessary Doubt (Colin Wilson, 1964)

Necessary Doubt


Colin Wilson is another paradoxical writer.  He began on the political left, but has now wandered close to the edge of rationality on the right.  He has written one of the most important summations of psychology (New Pathways in Psychology), and yet a year earlier published a study of the occult (The Occult) that sometimes treads uncomfortably close to the crackpot.  The novel commended here conveys tremendously important ideas concerning human psychology — at the same time that it credulously mentions other crackpot ideas.  I should say that it's not entirely clear that this novel is science fiction — many of the trappings are those of a mystery novel.  Yet all of the concerns addressed are science-fictional in nature, and turn on a science-fictional device.  So perhaps it's actually a science fictional mystery novel.  Whatever it is, it is certainly a novel concerned with the rather paradoxical nature of freedom, a subject one might expect to be exceptionally difficult to dramatize, and yet that aim is carried off brilliantly here (the crackpot ideas excepted).  Wilson has written several other worthwhile SF novels (The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher's Stone, and the Spider World trilogy), all of which provide fascinating and rewarding reading, and yet the first two also run afoul of Wilson's strange and unfortunate fascination with the occult.  As I said, a paradoxical writer.


8  The Sleeper Awakes (H. G. Wells, 1910)

Sleeper Awakes


Wells has today been "sanitized".  One would never guess, for example, that his novel The Time Machine is essentially political in nature from a viewing of  the movies loosely based upon it.  But Wells grew up poor and economically exploited, and later became a social reformer (and in all of these senses is reminiscent of Charles Dickens).  The Sleeper Awakes is very much in what has become the tradition of the dystopia — but it is easily the most prophetic of all of them, if indeed it is not the most prophetic novel ever written.  Authored almost a century ago, the style of the novel feels a bit musty today.  Not so the ideas, which deal with plutocracy taken to its logical end point.  (Interestingly, and rather ironically, Heinlein long considered his autographed copy of Sleeper his most prized possession.)


9   A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain, 1889)

Connecticut Yankee


Written 20 years before Wells' novel, A Connecticut Yankee is also beginning to exude a bit of stylistic must.  Yet, like Wells' book, the force of its ideas hasn't waned.  Intending comic effect, the novel rambles a bit in the beginning (and is only occasionally amusing), but Twain is ultimately concerned with dramatizing a rebellion against the twin evils of monarchy and theocracy, and in this he is enormously successful.


10 Davy (Edgar Pangborn, 1964)



Pangborn has long been recognized by a handful of readers as a master of the SF form, but wider recognition has been slow in coming.  This is unfortunate, as his virtues are many, and the quality of his writing was consistently high (the one exception being the mediocre West of the Sun).   Davy is the novel that did the most to win him fame (though not much fortune), and perhaps understandably so.  It is concerned with a personal coming of age, in an era slowly coming of age following a nuclear holocaust.  Rich, somewhat ribald, and packed with insights, it is undoubtedly Pangborn's most accessible novel, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

See also our multimedia companion site vMeme21, which is exists to publish Humanistic literary science fiction.