The year 2001 is rocketing toward us like a plutonium-powered DeLorean driven by a cantankerous Vulcan in a damn dirty ape suit. Don’t worry, though. Any minute, the FedEx truck will show up with boxes of goodies to prepare us for The Future — the robots and phasers and antigravity belts promised to us by so many science-fiction visionaries.
It’s not that we humanoids haven’t made progress. But a look at our ranking of the 100 greatest works of science fiction is as clear a sign as any that we still have a long way to travel. Yes, vibrating pagers and the Flowbee are extraordinary innovations, but can they really compare to, say, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber?
Then again, science fiction has always been way ahead of us, and that’s the genre’s greatest appeal. In books, movies, TV shows, comics, and even videogames, sci-fi takes us everywhere we’ve never been: to worlds populated by wiry aliens, and to galaxies so remote they’ve never even heard of The Starr Report. ”The public has an appetite for anything about imagination, anything that is as far away from reality as is creatively possible,” explains Steven Spielberg, one of the master imaginists of our time (see entries 12, 18, 29, etc.). ”This is why, to a degree, science-fiction literature has never not been successful. And cinema was the fortunate beneficiary to all the gifted sci-fi literature spanning a century and a half.”
Make that a rich beneficiary. Sci-fi has lately been one of Hollywood’s favorite subjects: Six of the top 10 movies of all time are science fiction, grossing more than $2 billion domestically. And there’s no slowdown in sight. Paramount releases its ninth Star Trek saga in December; MGM’s Supernova, a 22nd-century interstellar adventure, opens next March; Disney’s big-screen version of My Favorite Martian is due next spring; and that’s just the tip of the asteroid. The 800-pound gorilla out there is the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, which is primed to break all box office records when it opens in May. As Spielberg points out, ”Sci-fi has supplanted the Western as the most popular genre of the 20th century.”
What follows is a fans’ tribute. (Sci-fi’s cousins, fantasy and horror, weren’t considered; that’s another list.) The following were chosen and judged not just by quality and their influence on pop culture but also by their impact on the collective imagination. Science fiction has always been a genre of ideas; as such, it has the capability to appeal not just to our hearts but also to our minds. These are the works that did both.