The best pre-1935 science fiction novels for modern readers

Alan Dean Foster Author Of Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera
By Alan Dean Foster

Who am I?

I started collecting science fiction as a teenager. As a collector, as opposed to just a reader, you come in contact with stories that considerably predate what you find for sale in stores. This led me to books from the 1930s and much earlier. John Taine was one of only two SF writers I encountered from the 1920s and 30s whom I still found enjoyable (and exciting) to read (the other was E.E. “doc” Smith).


I wrote...

Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

By E. E. 'Doc' Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

What is my book about?

The argument rages: did Dune influence Star Wars and if so, how much? Or was the primary influence on Star Wars the Flash Gordon movie serial? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? The question is moot, since the granddaddy of them all was the Lensman series of novels.

The first of these, Triplanetary, appeared in the Jan-April 1934 issues of Amazing Stories. It’s all there: multiple intelligent alien species, an evil empire bent on galactic domination, people with heightened mental abilities, gigantic battles in space; all set against a vast galactic background. The science is primitive and so are some of the characters, but the action and scope carries you along. When much of science fiction was struggling to tell stories inside the solar system, Smith was ranging across the entire galaxy. Adjusted and fixed up, all six of the main Lensman novels are still readily available—and for a reason.

The books I picked & why

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The Lost World

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,

Book cover of The Lost World

Why this book?

Okay, we know there are no dinosaurs living on the tepuis (steep-sided mountains in Venezuela and Guyana). But in 1912 such a discovery was not outside the realm of possibility because this part of South America remained largely unexplored. Doyle, better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was fascinated by the latest discoveries in science at a time when anything seemed possible. Couple that with an interest in far-off places and you have an expedition to South America to verify a series of outrageous claims by arguably his second-greatest character, Professor George Edward Challenger.

Well-researched by Doyle, the book further kindled in my young self a burning interest in both science and travel. The characters are unforgettable and the book will take you back to an era of courtesy and comfort in a vanished England (albeit one with typical period condescension to non-Anglos). I thought of Doyle while taking a swim at the base of Angel Falls, but sadly was not dive-bombed by a pterodactyl while gazing up at the looming tepui cliff-face overhead.


The Greatest Adventure

By John Taine,

Book cover of The Greatest Adventure

Why this book?

To take a break from his day job as Professor Emeritus of Higher Mathematics at Caltech, Eric Temple Bell (John Taine was his pen name) wrote a series of science fiction novels that dealt, not with mathematics, but largely with biology. Any of these are still quite readable today, and notable for their discussion of biology and related fields when most writers of science fiction were focused on physics and space travel.

The Greatest Adventure deals with mutated dinosaurs in Antarctica, which sounds like something out of a 1950s horror film but which Bell uses as the basis for an investigation into science and not schlock. I suspect he utilized the pen name John Taine so as not to embarrass his supercilious colleagues in the math department (or possibly himself).


At the Mountains of Madness

By H.P. Lovecraft,

Book cover of At the Mountains of Madness

Why this book?

Horrors in Antarctica again, but this time designed to frighten. Along with a detailed description (maybe too detailed) of what the well-equipped Antarctic expedition needed to survive a journey to the Southernmost Continent back in 1930, Lovecraft introduces us to gibbering horrors from beyond the stars. What differentiated much of Lovecraft’s fiction from that of his contemporaries was that his space aliens were neither friend nor foe. Reflecting the author’s view of a terrifyingly vast and cold cosmos, they were largely indifferent to us. Mostly, they could care less if we chose to interact with them or their minions or their artifacts. When we did, it never ended well.

No matter how intelligent or well-intentioned or just plain curious the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories might be, in his tales humans were just something to be swept aside like so many microbes. John W. Campbell later made use of a similar alien in an Antarctic setting for his story Who Goes There?, later adapted more than once into a film called The Thing. I hope the director Guillermo del Toro eventually gets to film his intended version of At the Mountains of Madness.


Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

By Jules Verne,

Book cover of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Why this book?

Thanks to the efforts of more than one fan, the awful original translation of this seminal SF adventure novel has long since been corrected. While there is much Sfnal speculation in the novel by the man considered to be the father of modern science-fiction (electrically-powered submarines, self-contained diving suits making use of air under pressure, and much more), its real attraction rests on its inventive description of underwater environments and one of the great characters in the genre: Captain Nemo.

Often lost in modern discussions of the book are Verne’s interests, as conveyed via Nemo, in ecology and the poor and oppressed of the world. In this he presages many of the non-tech concerns of contemporary science-fiction. That a science-fiction novel published in 1869-70 still can hold our attention speaks not only to Verne’s skill as a futurist, but as a writer.


Triplanetary

By E.E. Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary

Why this book?

E.E. “Doc” Smith took science-fiction out of the solar system and into the galaxy. Prior to Triplanetary, work by authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne had been restricted to our immediate spatial neighborhood. With Triplanetary, the first of the Lensman series, and subsequent books, writers of SF could let their imaginations run wild.


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