From its pulpy origins, science fiction has blossomed into an incredible genre that seeks to investigate humanity's biggest questions with a smile. It asks old questions -- what are our biggest fears? What are our most cherished hopes? -- in new ways to see if the answers are any different. And it's the best genre of literature. Debate me, lit-bros!
In the best examples of the form, you'll find alien species that teach us about being human, nanotechnology that pushes us to our physical limits, wars that span eons and galaxies, revolutions, martyrs, and plenty of sentient AIs. Let the list below, organized from the earliest published work to the most recent, steer you toward your next reality-shattering read.
This little-read book (in the West, at least) was a major influence on George Orwell's 1984, but written almost 30 years earlier. We serves as the diary of a citizen in a futuristic totalitarian society based upon the eradication of individualism, where every good citizen strives to work as part of a greater organism. Our hero, known only by a number, slowly becomes aware of his gnawing unhappiness, thanks to a secret affair with a revolutionary woman -- and pays the price at the hand of the all-powerful Benefactor. Historically significant, but just as crackling with revolutionary spirit as it was in the '20s.
One of the first true "space operas" (epic tales of humanity spanning across entire galaxies, combined with high drama and large-scale battles), Lensman is a direct inspiration for Star Wars. Though it may lack the family drama of that series, Lensman nevertheless keeps readers captivated with its space-hopping series of adventures. Eager to create a galaxy-wide force for good, an advanced alien civilization gifts hero Virgil Samms with a mysterious "Lens," a device that allows instantaneous telepathic communication with all creatures. Only the worthy are given the gadget, and Simms travels the galaxy in search of members for the Lens-bearing Galactic Patrol -- an incorruptible organization desperately trying to bring justice to the final frontier.
This classic earns its spot with a story that comes closer and closer to real life as we stare down a Trump presidency. Bradbury's warnings about censorship, entertainment-as-distraction, and the power of the written word are needed now more than ever. Written mainly in reaction to the McCarthy era of American politics, this fiery (sorry) novel functions as a desperate plea to all those who would rather let independent thought fall to the wayside because it's easier to let someone stronger do the thinking for them.
Short, terse, and powerful, The Stars is a classic revenge story distinguished by its experimental typography and completely bonkers protagonist. Marooned in a lifeless ship in the middle of space, our hero is transformed into a creature purely motivated by revenge. Think The Count of Monte Cristo in space, complete with an inescapable prison, complex webs of betrayal, and unimaginable wealth. Add in teleportation and time travel, and you've got one of the most entertaining and groundbreaking pieces of sci-fi to come out in the 1950s.
Though Slaughterhouse-Five is better-known, Titan is Vonnegut's pure sci-fi masterpiece, dispensing with the horrors of World War II to fully investigate the horrors of human existence. Time travel and Tralfamadorians form the nexus of this galaxy-hopping story that questions the possibility of free will from a fifth-dimensional perspective. That might sound depressing, but Vonnegut's wild sense of humor and characteristic irreverence keep the story moving at a brisk pace until you're crying from both laughter and terror.
Canticle tracks the monks of a fictional California monastery in the wake of a devastating nuclear war. The novel spans thousands of years as the monks fight to keep the last remnants of humanity's knowledge safe from the hellish landscape outside their walls. It's a testament to the power of this novel that it has never been out of print, and that the endless cycles of violence, arms races, and totalitarian regimes Miller projected far into the future seem to be coming true.
Burgess' exploration of the impact of technology on human consciousness is just as brutal today as it was when he wrote it. Orange is rightfully lauded for its inventive language, which mixes British slang with Slavic influences, but equally powerful is the technology that evinces protagonist Alex's transition from teenage street tough to suicidal vagabond. Black Mirror's takes on the subject may be more up-to-date, but Burgess's Cold War fears about tech and free will are still poignant. Burgess defies easy answers to hard questions, and your opinion might differ depending on which version of the book you read -- the original, with 21 chapters; or the darker American version, which omits the final chapter and was the basis of Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation.
Delany is one of the most talented and ambitious sci-fi writers: There's no one else who could invest this slim volume with such heft, both in terms of the ideas that motivate the plot and the virtuosity with which he writes. In the middle of a seemingly unending conflict, the military comes across an enemy code and, unable to break it themselves, turns its over to acclaimed poet, former codebreaker, and all-around badass Rydra Wong for analysis. When Rydra discovers that it's actually a language that programs your mind when you speak it, it unlocks possibilities she never knew existed. To say more would give the ending away, but if you're still not sold, know there's a scene where Rydra drives a man crazy with a poem specifically engineered for his brain.
A number of Heinlein's sci-fi stories have not aged particularly well (the man-from-Mars saga Stranger in a Strange Land and the oft-fanatical Starship Troopers, for example), but his best and most polished novel is this invigorating tale of a "Rational Anarchist" revolution on the moon. A supercomputer gradually gains sentience and -- get this -- a sense of humor, then helps members of Earth's lunar penal colony revolt against their capitalist masters and form a workable government free of corruption (well, as free as any government can be).
Righteously predicting and then skewering the culture of the new millennium, this is one of the angriest novels on the list. All of today's most pressing problems -- climate change, population pressure, bioterrorism -- are played out with dire consequences and dark, dark humor. Plus, Zanzibar is a unique read for its intense world-building, which can be a bit intimidating for a first-time reader (what, you don't want to read three pages of population statistics?) but gives the novel a scope few others can approach.
Northwestern University Press/Bantam Science Fiction
I love first-contact stories; they so clearly delineate who we are as a species by contrasting us with a completely unknowable version of society. Lem, a Polish writer best known for the heady and difficult Solaris, invests his with humor and humanity as Earth scientists struggle to decode a mysterious message from outer space. There's plenty of infighting among the group, and Lem treats us to their various arguments on scientific ethics, epistemology, and the nature of God. Action-packed this book is not, but if you're interested in the nature of humanity, there are few better places to search than this masterpiece.
Dick, acknowledged master of the psychedelic sci-fi tale, has his trippy masterpiece in Ubik, a twisty tale set in the then-far-flung future of 1992. Technological and evolutionary advances have released the populace's psychic powers, challenging individual privacy and creating a whole new world of espionage, while cryogenic freezing allows more and more people to live "half-lives," telepathically advanced states of being caught between life and death. As the plot progresses, our protagonists are caught in double cross after double cross until they face the ultimate question: Are we alive, or are we dead?
Sci-fi from late Soviet-era Russia is marked by a heavily philosophic bent and an approach to alien "Others" that could not be more different from the bombastic tales of the West. In Roadside Picnic, an alien species has already visited and moved on, leaving humanity to pick over the evidence of their passage. It's a singular contact story wherein we never meet the aliens themselves -- they don't want to trade with or conquer humans, and it seems like they never even noticed we were here. Our hero Red sees these changes firsthand (broken laws of gravity, strange genetic mutations, impossible artifacts) as he fulfills a perfect Soviet sci-fi job: stealing alien tech to sell on the black market. Picnic was later adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky brothers into the chilling 1979 film Stalker, which also ranks on my (personal) list of best SF films of all time.
Asimov is rightly considered one of the masters of sci-fi, though more for his ideas than the strength of his writing. Some of his strangest and most interesting concepts are in this novel, which was originally published as three separate novellas and later reworked into a single tome. Sections deal with such disparate ideas as the transfer of energy between parallel universes and the social consequences of an alien race's sexual trimorphism. Still, Asimov brings together his wide-ranging thoughts on the shape of the universe and humanity's unique place in it.
Thanks to Einstein, if you want to depict a real interstellar war, you have to deal with the problems of relativity. Most authors sidestep this problem with faster-than-light drives or teleportation, but not Haldeman. Following a group of Terran soldiers fighting an interstellar war, this novel is by turns funny and horrifying as you realize that a two-year term of service for the soldiers in space means decades have passed on Earth. Tossed from one hopeless assignment to the next, the soldiers span hundreds of (relativistic) years of war only to find a brutal, blackly funny ending.
One of the most beautifully written sci-fi novels of all time, The Dispossessed reads like poetry even as Le Guin describes interstellar travel, desert farming, and anarcho-syndicalism. Dispossessed splits its time between an anarchist community on the moon (Anarres) and the opulent capitalist society on its Earth-like counterpart (Urras), which is plagued with a series of worker-led uprisings. Our hero is a physicist from Anarres working on a General Temporal Theory that will revolutionize interstellar travel and communication, but he must grapple with the ethics of his work and the societies he finds himself within. No society is perfect, Le Guin argues, just as no revolution is ever truly over.
First contact is a major theme in a lot of these novels, and for good reason -- it's one of the fondest hopes and most frightening nightmares of the human race. This tale offers tastes of both, introducing us to the "Moties," a race of beings who appear to be the ideal Other: helpful, friendly, and willing to teach us the secrets of their advanced technology. But when a group of shipwrecked crewmen are forced to land on the Mote itself, the Moties' true intentions are revealed -- along with Niven and Pournelle's pessimistic views on the violent cycles of history, human and otherwise.
As one of the lesser-known sci-fi titles, this is partly a sentimental pick on my part, as a close friend gave me the book shortly before he passed away. Still, Monteleone's novel is impressive both in its scope and its detail. The Time-Swept City focuses on the city of Chicago through the eons, as technology improves from cryogenics to spaceflight to self-aware computer systems and self-replicating robots. In fact, City progresses so far into the future that Chicago outlives its inhabitants, leaving the humans behind with the rest of the fossils and continuing its unchanging mechanical perfection into eternity.
OK, this might not be the most accomplished piece of literature ever produced, but for sheer fun and bombast, the Hitchhiker series can't be beat. Adams invests the books with a contagious sense of fun, tempered by a deep cynicism about the state of the universe as a whole. So on the one hand, you have an alien choosing the name "Ford Prefect" to try to fit in with Earth's dominant species (the car); and on the other, the total annihilation of our planet to make way for an interstellar bypass. Both are funny; one is cuttingly so.
One of the weirder books on this list, Shadow reads more like a fantasy, exploring a world of mouldering cities and societal factions with an archaic vocabulary that can be tough to understand at times (and the author deliberately omits a glossary, the bastard). But if you stick with it, you'll find this is one of the most intriguing sci-fi series of the last several decades. Secrets of ancient technology are hinted at throughout the beginnings of Torturer (the first in a four-book cycle), leading to the reader's gradual realization that this is not a Tolkien-esque fantasyland but a far-flung future. Modern culture is a buried legend in this world, and yet bits of advanced technology survive, creating a strange world where robots and magic coexist. Be warned, though: If you pick up the first book, you'll need to read all four for a satisfying ending.
Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel feels a little dated today (a whole 3 gigs of RAM? Golly!), but it still has enough ingenuity and twisty plotting to keep a modern reader invested. This novel set the stage for decades of dystopian literature with its tale of megacorporations, rampant biotechnology, and down-on-their-luck hackers. Read it also for the first use of the word "Matrix" to describe a virtual reality akin to the internet. You're welcome, Wachowskis.
Farmer is perhaps best known for his Riverworld series, but in terms of pure sci-fi thought experiments, nothing in his extensive catalog can beat Dayworld. Overpopulation forces most of the world's population into suspended animation, and each person gets one day a week to be awake. Daybreakers, anti-government activists, dare to stay awake longer, but must assume a different personality each day of the week to avoid suspicion. When one Breaker gets overwhelmed by his fractured identities, he becomes a fugitive from both the establishment and the revolutionaries -- and must fight for every scrap of sanity.
A great movie, and an even better book. Dr. Eleanor Arroway is one of the all-time great scientists of sci-fi -- a strong-willed, take-no-shit kind of woman who risks her life and career in the search for extraterrestrial life. Sagan mixes hard and soft sciences with ease, explaining radio telemetry on one page and staging a debate with fundamentalist preachers the next. Though he doesn't shy away from acknowledging the uglier aspects of human nature, what shines through in Contact is his belief that if humanity could come together for a common purpose, there's nothing we couldn't achieve. This is one of the few books to capture the pure joy of scientific discovery.
Card's seminal Ender's Game is rightfully lauded and highly entertaining, but its more cerebral sequel Speaker for the Dead is by far a better book. Set 3,000 years after Ender's xenocide of the Buggers, Speaker tracks humanity's second attempt to communicate with an alien species, with mixed results. Card gives us an entire world of alien biology, carefully crafted in a way humanity (and readers) never expect. In fact, the scientists who live and work on the planet nearly cause another war with their assumptions and lack of meaningful communication with the natives. It takes an adult Andrew Wiggin, still alive thanks to near-constant relativistic travel, to see the truth of humans and natives alike.
Vinge's strength is in his alien species (not so much in his prose -- sorry, Vernor), and this book leans on that advantage. Not only does Vinge outline a universe of millions of civilizations and trillions of people, he also personally introduces us to a variety of extraterrestrials who truly feel alien, in everything from their physical bodies to their gestalt consciousness. This first entry in Vinge's trilogy maroons two human children with opposing tribes of "Tines," creatures who appear as multi-limbed dogs and function as packs with group minds. The children must learn how to communicate with the Tines and fashion a way to send messages off-world if they ever hope to return to their own kind. And galaxy-wide destruction looms, just in case that's not enough drama for you.
A poignant piece of speculative fiction that has become eerily close to modern reality. Set in the very near future, Butler describes an America devastated by the effects of climate change, which has triggered a global recession and corporations' stampede to stockpile whatever limited resources are left. One of the eeriest prophesies it presents is the insidious return of indentured servitude and company towns, allowed back into law as a direct result of the faltering economy. Even scarier, the sequel features a conservative presidential candidate who runs (and wins) with a campaign that promises to Make America Great Again.
A searing vision of a world where global warming has overwhelmed the Earth, turning the world's oceans into toxic swamps and forcing the scientific community to research ways to mutate the human race into something that can survive their new planet. Sad and scary, this book that was seen as a outlandish fantasy upon publication is looking more and more likely every day.
Stephenson's follow-up to his excellent cyberpunk adventure Snow Crash follows a young girl from the poorest section of society as she comes into possession of an extremely powerful interactive book, which adapts to her life to teach her everything from basic literacy to self-defense. Also in this book: cyberpunk Victorians, living computers, futuristic theater tech, and mediatronic chopsticks. A coming-of-age tale set in a nanotechnology-saturated world, this is the only book on the list that will teach you the basics of computer programming.
Hopkinson is one of the brightest talents working in science fiction today, infusing her stories with influences and experiences that are fairly foreign to the white- and male-dominated industry. Midnight Robber is set on a planet colonized by ancient Caribbean people, and the inventive ways that Hopkinson plays with the translation of that culture in space is engrossing. In a genre where anything is possible, it takes a book like this to make many people realize that the universe is not just made for middle-class Americans.
Atwood proved herself an eerily accurate diviner of the future with her powerful The Handmaid's Tale. For Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood shows us a future shaped by rampant biological experimentation and an unscalable gulf between the rich and the poor. Walled enclaves of wealth, power, and education are controlled by global megacorporations and exist in contrast to the lawless "pleeblands" outside, while toxic internet culture and the rise of bioterrorism threaten everyone. Yes, it is fiction.
One of the most lauded sci-fi books of the past decade, this intensely mathematical tome from China's foremost sci-fi author deftly balances the twin requirements of a successful modern science-fiction tome: real, hard science; and a deep understanding of humanity's darker impulses. Inspired by a classical physics idea, Liu shows us a world orbiting in a system with three suns, which causes intense and unpredictable changes on the planet's surface. It's not far from Earth, and when an enterprising astrophysicist makes contact, it sparks massive change on both worlds.
One of the most recent entries on this list, Bacigalupi's debut novel is set in the near future of 23rd-century Thailand, where climate change and a lack of carbon-based fuels have forced humanity to come up with new ways to store and create power. It has also given rise to megacorporations who control the world's limited food sources with genetically engineered crops. Questions of biodiversity, ethical terrorism, and population control consume the novel's plot, which has the twists and backstabs of a political thriller but a sci-fi heart.
A debut novel that's equally ambitious as it is fun, this novel's intricate structure weaves together the past and the present to uncover the tale of Breq, sole survivor of a starship's destruction and human vessel for the ship's AI. Not only does Leckie succeed in creating a believable (and readable) AI consciousness, she also crafts a world of staggering scope and dimension, with planet-sized ships and galaxy-wide conflicts tied up in the fate of one lost crew member.
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