Since time immemorial, mankind has been looking up at the stars and dreaming, but it was only centuries ago that we started turning those dreams into fiction. And what remarkable dreams they are—dreams of distant worlds, unearthly creatures, parallel universes, artificial intelligence, and so much more. Today, we call those dreams science fiction.
Science fiction’s earliest inklings began in the mid-1600s, when Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin wrote pioneering stories about voyages to the moon. Some scholars argue that science fiction as we now understand it was truly born in 1818, when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the first novel of its kind whose events are explained by science, not mysticism or miracles. Now, two centuries later, sci-fi is a sprawling and lucrative multimedia genre with countless sub-genres, such as dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, and climate fiction, just to name a few. It’s also remarkably porous, allowing for some overlap with genres like fantasy and horror.
Sci-fi brings out the best in our imaginations and evokes a sense of wonder, but it also inspires a spirit of questioning. Through the enduring themes of sci-fi, we can examine the zeitgeist’s cultural context and ethical questions. Our favorite works in the genre make good on this promise, meditating on everything from identity to oppression to morality. As the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing said, “Science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”
Choosing the fifty best science fiction books of all time wasn’t easy, so to get the job done, we had to establish some guardrails. Though we assessed single installments as representatives of their series, we limited the list to one book per author. We also emphasized books that brought something new and innovative to the genre; to borrow a great sci-fi turn of phrase, books that “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Now, in ranked order, here are the best science fiction books of all time.
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The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey
Westworld meets The Stepford Wives in this gripping revenge thriller about the unlikely alliance between a woman and her clone. When geneticist Evelyn Caldwell learns that her husband Nathan is cheating on her, she soon ferrets out the truth—rather than work on their strained marriage, Nathan stole Evelyn’s proprietary cloning technology and replaced her with a more docile substitute. But when Evelyn finds her clone standing over Nathan’s dead body, crying, “It was self-defense,” these quasi-sisters will have to work together to conceal the crime and preserve Evelyn’s scientific reputation. The Echo Wife’s juicy premise runs deep, raising eerie questions about love, justice, and individuality.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Long before Facebook’s Metaverse, Stephenson coined the term in this cyberpunk acid trip of a novel. Snow Crash’s Hiro Protagonist lives a double life: in reality, he delivers pizzas for the Mafia, but in the Metaverse, he’s a hacker and a warrior prince. When he learns about a lethal virus picking off hackers one by one, his race to find its dastardly architect sends him pinballing through everything from technological conspiracy to ancient Sumerian mythology. Sexy, action-packed, and downright prophetic in its vision of our virtual future, you’ll want to strap in tight for this dizzying techno-thriller.
Contact, by Carl Sagan
The great Carl Sagan wrote dozens of works of nonfiction, but just one novel: Contact, a 1985 bestseller that later became a Jodie Foster flick. Sagan’s preoccupations with intelligent life come into view through Dr. Ellie Arroway, a principled astronomer who detects and decrypts a deep-space transmission from a planetary system far, far away. At the transmission’s urging, the nations of the world race to build a mysterious machine, but faith leaders call the enterprise (and the rationality of science) into question. Through this thoughtful, layered story, Sagan plumbs the often antagonistic relationship between science and religion, asking if perhaps both are seeking contact in different forms. After all, disciples from each camp can agree on one thing: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
After World War III, Earth has fallen into a new Dark Age; most of the United States is a radioactive wasteland, and civilization is in tatters. While violent packs of survivors burn books and slaughter those who can read, the monks of St. Leibowitz preserve the heritage of the past by smuggling important volumes into their monastery. As the novel progresses throughout the centuries and a new Renaissance gives way to a second space age, so much about modern life changes, but at the monastery, much remains the same. Miller’s ambitious sci-fi classic captures the human tendency for self-destruction, as viewed through the cyclical rise and fall of civilization, but it’s not all doom, gloom, and nuclear warfare—A Canticle for Leibowitz is a moving paean to the power of knowledge and hope.
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
No one writes about intelligent life quite like Stanislaw Lem, who scoffed at little green men and instead put the alien in alien. In this dense and brainy novel, scientist Kris Kelvin lands on the planet Solaris to study the mysterious ocean enveloping its surface. Kelvin and his crew soon discover that this massive ocean is sentient: aloof, unknowable, and mysterious, it explores these explorers, reflecting their most painful memories back at them. What if aliens don’t care to know us, and what if we can’t possibly dream of understanding them anyway? Lem never tired of asking these questions, but of all his novels, Solaris makes our list for its perfect encapsulation of his singular vision.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
“Cyberspace: a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” This is the setting of William Gibson’s Neuromancer—sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? The winner of Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards, Neuromancer is often called the definitive novel of the cyberpunk genre (it went on to heavily influence the creators of The X-Files and The Matrix). Our hero is Case, an ex-cyber cowboy banished from cyberspace by his former employers. When a criminal syndicate comes knocking, promising to restore Case’s uplink in exchange for his hacking services, the novel transforms into a kaleidoscopic espionage thriller. Trippy, surreal, and slick as hell, Neuromancer is a ride you won’t soon forget.
The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor
Science fiction and magical realism collide in this imaginative prequel to Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. Here we meet Phoenix, an “accelerated woman” grown in New York’s Tower 7. Though she’s only two years old, she has the mind and body of a middle-aged adult, along with superhuman abilities. Phoenix suffers a painful awakening when her lover takes his life under dubious circumstances, proving that Tower 7 is less of a home and more of a prison. Her daring escape leads her to Ghana, where she learns brutal truths about colonialism, and vows to fight back against her oppressors. Blistering with love and rage, Phoenix’s fight for justice is downright electrifying.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
In the many decades since its 1962 publication, A Clockwork Orange has become such a high school curriculum fixture that it’s easy to forget just how damn good it is. Burgess’ transgressive dystopia is the story of Alex, a teenage gangster who leads his fellow droogs in shocking acts of “ultra-violence”—until he’s apprehended by the draconian police. In prison, Alex is subjected to a brutal reconditioning, leaving him a changed and diminished man. Told in high-flying, pyrotechnic patois that’s since bled into the cultural lexicon, A Clockwork Orange is a postmodern triumph.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Few science fiction novels can claim to have inspired their own holiday, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t your ordinary science fiction novel (the holiday is Towel Day, if you must know). Adams’s signature work has cast a long shadow over popular culture, and for good reason. This absurdist comedy is the story of Arthur Dent, a hapless everyman who wanders the universe after Earth is destroyed to make way for the galactic highway. As he romps through space with alien travel writer Ford Prefect and a crew of android oddballs, Dent’s adventures illuminate how “utterly insignificant” our “little blue green planet” truly is. In the face of absurdity, Adams reminds us, what else can we do but laugh?
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Structured as a poetic correspondence between two time-traveling spies, this forbidden romance puts the “distance” in “long-distance relationship.” As Agents Red and Blue hopscotch through the multiverse, altering history on behalf of their respective military superpowers, they leave behind secret messages for one another—first taunting, then flirtatious, then flowering with love and devotion. “There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?” Blue muses. “Letters are structures, not events,” Red replies. “Yours give me a place to live inside.” Amid the dangerous chaos of their circumstances, Red and Blue find constants in one another. Playful and imaginative, told with lyrical grace, this is a dazzling puzzle box of a novella.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein
Though Heinlein is considered one of “The Big Three” science fiction writers (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), he’s arguably the least well-known among casual sci-fi readers. If you’re new here, start your Heinlein odyssey with his best novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In the year 2076, a penal colony on the moon rises up against the tyranny of Earth, declaring themselves the Free State of Luna, and themselves “the loonies.” It’s a parable for the American Revolution, but instead of tea dumped in the Boston harbor, we’ve got electromagnetic catapults hurling moon rocks at Earth with the force of atomic bombs. Fun fact: the phrase, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” originated in this novel.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Who says science fiction is only for adults? L’Engle’s enduring young adult classic is the story of tweenage siblings Meg and Charles Murray, who travel through the universe by way of a space-time-folding tesseract. In search of their missing father, Meg and Charles encounter galactic marvels of all kinds, from a utopian planet to the source of all evil in the universe. A Wrinkle in Time never makes the mistake of assuming that young readers can’t handle all the brainy concepts and mature themes that science fiction has to offer. Though it’s an unforgettable read at any age, it’s perhaps best-loved by the generations of readers who remember it as their gateway to sci-fi.
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
Published way back in 1895, The Time Machine was one small step for H.G. Wells, but one giant leap for science fiction. The novel popularized the concept of time travel by vehicle, lighting the way for everything from Back to the Future to Doctor Who. The Time Machine is the story of the Traveler’s journey 800,000 years into the future, where he discovers that mankind has evolved into two races: the ethereal Eloi and the predatory Morlocks. Through the Traveler’s exciting, nail-biting adventure, we see an entire generation’s fin-de-siècle anxieties about industrialization and the future of humanity. This short, seminal book is a must-read for any sci-fi fan.
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
Tade Thompson’s award-winning Wormwood Trilogy opens in Nigeria circa 2066, where the town of Rosewater has formed around a mysterious alien biodome rumored to have extraordinary healing powers. Enter Kaaro, a government security officer known as a “sensitive”—essentially, a bioengineered race of psychics with access to an alien informational network called the xenosphere. When sensitives start dying off mysteriously, Kaaro embarks on a hardboiled detective mission, bringing the true nature of sensitives’ existence into the cold, hard light of day. A work of dazzling cyberpunk imagination and visionary Afrofuturism, Rosewater masterfully fuses a story of postcolonial trauma with a first contact narrative.
The Stand, by Stephen King
Horror, fantasy, and science fiction converge in The Stand, a master storyteller’s doorstopper about the eternal struggle between good and evil. After a bioengineered influenza virus escapes from a government laboratory, mankind succumbs to the deadly pandemic in just weeks, leaving survivors scattered across the barren United States. Two communities coalesce around very different leaders: Mother Abagail, a benevolent holy woman seeking utopia, and Randall Flagg, the human personification of violence and chaos. As the communities fight to wipe one another out, King weaves an epic tale about theology, morality, and human nature. In the wake of our own pandemic, The Stand has only grown in resonance and prescience.
The Children of Men, by PD James
Before it was a grim Alfonso Cuarón film, The Children of Men was a grim, remarkable novel. The year is 2021: with all men inexplicably sterile, no child has been born for 25 years, and the human race faces extinction. England is ruled by the Warden, a despotic leader who prizes the youngest generation above all others. Theo Faren, the Warden’s estranged cousin, sleepwalks through life as an Oxford historian until he receives a visit from a group of dissidents, whose company includes a pregnant woman. Packed with prescient insight about politics, power, and tyranny, The Children of Men will rattle you for years to come.
Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente
When documentary filmmaker Severin Unck fails to return from her latest project on Venus, so begins a metafictional odyssey into her life, work, and disappearance. Constructed in patchwork fashion from scripts, depositions, and interviews with people who knew Unck, Radiance ushers us into Valente’s pulpy alternate universe, where Hollywood is an interplanetary system with backlots on the moon, but cinema never progressed beyond silent black and white films, thanks to the Edison family’s tight grip on the patent process. Hopscotching through this kaleidoscopic universe of beauty, adventure, and artistry, Valente tells a moving story about why we tell stories at all.
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Plenty of writers have contemplated the colonization of Mars, but few have done it with such extraordinary granularity as Robinson, who dug in with gusto through his Mars Trilogy. Arthur C. Clarke himself called Red Mars “the best novel on the colonization of Mars that’s ever been written.” The novel takes place in 2026, when colonists fleeing an overpopulated Earth touch down on the red planet. Carefully selected and trained, they set about the task of terraforming hostile, sandswept Mars, but establishing a viable settlement will demand everything they have to give. Robinson looks at planetary colonization through every conceivable lens: politics, biology, ecology, medicine, psychology, and morality, just to name a few. The result is speculative fiction that feels astoundingly real.
The City & The City, by China Miéville
That this novel won a constellation of awards spanning science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction is proof of Miéville’s gift for straddling genres. The City & The City is set in two fictional Eastern European cities occupying the same physical space; from birth, residents are trained to “unsee” the opposing city, under the threat of criminal penalties. When a murdered woman is found lying in the wastelands, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to the scene, but the crime defies logic: this woman was murdered in one city, and her body was dumped in the other. Borlú’s investigation exposes startling secrets about this strange way of life, taking us on a noirish metaphysical journey through the doors of perception.
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos begins with this story of seven pilgrims sent on a potentially fatal mission to the Time Tombs of Hyperion. There, they hope to confront the Shrike, a cosmic being with the power to bend space and time. Throughout the journey, they share their stories of suffering under the Hegemony of Man, the intergalactic government that sold humanity out to a civilization of AIs. From aging in reverse to encounters with immortality, each story is a cerebral fable, rich in Lovecraftian terror, mythological import, and breathtaking worldbuilding.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
Philip K. Dick once called Dhalgren “the worst trash I’ve ever read,” while William Gibson described Delany as “the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.” Read it yourself, and you can be the judge. This cult classic opens when a man without a name wanders into Bellona, a midwestern city razed by a space-time continuum-altering disaster. Strange phenomena abound: two moons burn in the night sky, time moves in loopy circles, and electronic signals can’t reach the city, cutting it off from the outside world. To borrow a phrase from our narrator, Dhalgren “has more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear”; written in a circular structure, it’s a novel with multiple entry points, which will test your patience and bend your brain. Dense and psychedelic, packed with transgressive ideas about race, sex, and gender, it’s a work of singular vision, but not for the faint of heart.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
The first volume in Chambers’s Wayfarers series is pure, rip-roaring fun—a space opera with a big, gooey heart. Running from her mysterious past on Mars, Rosemary Harper joins the multi-species crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship that creates wormholes to connect distant trade routes. En route to their biggest job yet at the edge of the Galactic Commons, the eclectic crew has ample time to bond, and bond they do. Plot takes a back seat for the majority of this character-driven narrative as Rosemary learns deeply humane truths about what makes us human (or, rather, what makes us alien): identity, sexuality, race, tradition. Chambers proves that spacefaring needn’t be all about the destination. Sometimes, it’s about the journey.
The Body Scout, by Lincoln Michel
In Michel’s cyberpunk New York of the future, climate change and repeated pandemics have ravaged the city; meanwhile, cybernetic body modification is de rigeur, and Neanderthals roam the earth again. In this dystopian milieu, we meet Kobo, a down-on-his-luck baseball scout who recruits genetically engineered talent for Big Pharma-owned teams. JJ Zunz, Kobo’s adopted brother, is the souped-up superstar of the Monsanto Mets—but when Zunz drops dead on the field, Kobo smells foul play. Kobo’s transformation into an amateur sleuth sends him pin-balling through a web of corporate espionage, making for a breathlessly paced techno-thriller characterized by stunning, spiky world building.
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
After a zombie pandemic decimates American life, separating humanity into the living and the living dead, who cleans up the wreckage? In Zone One, we meet the janitors of the undead: “sweepers” like Mark Spitz, who are tasked with taking out zombie stragglers to prepare Manhattan for resettlement. Inspired by the horror fiction of Stephen King and the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Whitehead’s foray into zombieland delivers gallows humor and nightmarish gore in spades; at the same time, this post-apocalyptic elegy for the modern world elevates the genre to new heights.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
This epic descendent of George Orwell’s 1984 covers that fateful year in two storylines—one fictional, one “real.” Bridging that gap are two long-lost lovers: Aomame, an assassin targeting domestic abusers, and Tengo, an aspiring novelist ghostwriting a dyslexic teenager’s bestseller. When Aomame discovers that the world is not what it seems and works to take down a dangerous cult leader, she and Tengo are drawn into a distorted reality, searching for one another across the chasm. It’s often said that a novel should contain the world; in 1Q84, Murakami makes good on that promise, weaving everything from recipes to music into this mammoth tale of love and longing in a contemporary Tokyo lit by two moons.
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdich
In this chilling dystopian triumph, an American master warns against a world gone mad. When evolution runs in reverse, leading to babies born with primitive traits, government squads begin imprisoning pregnant women; meanwhile, religious extremists plot to take control of the nation. Enter twenty-something Cedar Hawk Songmaker, four months pregnant at exactly the wrong time, whose search for her Ojibwe birth parents leads her into the maw of danger. Like The Handmaid’s Tale before it, Future Home of the Living God’s nightmarish vision of theocracy and reproductive dystopia rings all too true.
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
When anthropologist Marghe Taishan touches down on the mysterious planet Jeep, she soon finds that she’s in over her head. Centuries ago, Earth colonized the planet; then, a fatal virus wiped out all the men, and contact with the remaining colonists was lost. Generations of radio silence later, Marghe arrives to test a promising vaccine while a greedy corporation waits in orbit, hoping to ransack the unspoiled planet. As Marghe’s stay progresses, she becomes fascinated by Jeep’s powerful women, and ever more enmeshed in its tribal mythologies and conflicts. When Marghe endangers her life to unravel the biological mystery of how Jeep’s inhabitants procreate, Ammonite asks: when does a human become an alien? Gripping and gutsy, rich in layers of feminist and queer thought, Ammonite gleefully throws a stick of dynamite into the sci-fi firmament.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
“Last man on Earth” narratives are rarely as taut and morally provocative as Oryx and Crake, the first volume in Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. Our protagonist is Snowman, the lone survivor of a plague that destroyed mankind. Now living among the Crakers, a bioengineered race of childlike humanoids, Snowman mythologizes their origin story, with some creative embellishments. The tale takes him back to the Before Times, when life was a corporatocracy characterized by genetic engineering and consumer culture. Oryx and Crake isn’t for the faint of heart (here there be child pornography, ritualized killings, and animal abuse) but if you can stomach it, reading this prescient novel is like looking in a funhouse mirror of our own failings.
The Resisters, by Gish Jen
Welcome to AutoAmerica, where AIs have put many people out of work, the privileged Netted live on high ground, and the rest of the population, known as Surplus, live in swamplands wracked by consumerism. Teenage Gwen plays baseball with fellow members of the Surplus in an underground league, but when the government takes notice of her talents, she’s shipped off to the Olympics in ChinRussia, playing in dangerous territory alongside the Netted. Like Brave New World before it, The Resisters explores our consent in our own subjugation. “No one would have chosen the extinction of frogs and of polar bears… and yet it was something we humans did finally choose,” Jen writes. In this funny and tender novel, she makes the impossible look easy, grafting a heartfelt story about family onto big questions about freedom and resistance.
Shikasta, by Doris Lessing
Though it was likely Doris Lessing’s long and varied career that netted her the Nobel Prize for Literature, we like to think that her ambitious excursion into science fiction, via her Canopus in Argos: Archives series, also had something to do with it. The first installment, Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, is a visionary work of imagination. Compiled from ephemera like documents, letters, and journal entries, the novel is structured as a history book for residents of the planet Canopus, who long ago colonized a little blue marble they call Shikasta. Shikasta is clearly the planet Earth, shaped from Genesis to World War III by the Canopians and their colonial rivals. Lessing’s perspective on history is downright cosmic in scope, but occasionally cheeky, too. (When Earthpeople complain that their heavenly leaders have abandoned them, the Canopians retort, “We’ve regularly sent people to guide and comfort them! Well, except for a brief period during the last fifteen hundred years.”) Lessing’s ambitious vision of human life—and human folly—offers alternate history on an eschatological scale.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Solomon’s intricate and imaginative debut novel takes place on the HSS Matilda, a generation ship carrying survivors of a destroyed Earth toward a new star system. Throughout the generations, life on the ship has become harshly segregated, with people of color confined to a grueling routine of hard labor on the lower decks. Here, we meet Aster, a brilliant and rebellious healer whose search for answers about her mother’s suicide stands to galvanize a shipwide uprising. Peopled with a rich array of queer and neurodiverse characters, An Unkindness of Ghosts makes dazzling use of science fiction’s trappings to tell a gutting story about slavery and intergenerational trauma.
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
In this spectacular blend of science fiction and climate fiction, VanderMeer sets his sights on Area X, a lush and remote landscape that has turned against humankind, producing brain-bending effects on scientists who venture into the territory to investigate. As the secrets of Area X reveal themselves not just to the scientists, but to the disorganized agency that monitors these expeditions, the bureaucratic and ecological consequences pile upward. Dreadful, Lovecraftian, and downright existential, Annihilation is a dizzying descent into a metaphysical wilderness leagues away from our lived reality.
The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Perhaps you expected to see Slaughterhouse Five on this list instead, but bear with us. The Sirens of Titans takes Slaughterhouse’s science fiction slant and leans into it full throttle, making for something even more spectacular, strange, and side-splittingly funny. In The Sirens of Titan, Malachi Constant, the richest man on a future Earth, hopscotches across the solar system, suffering the slings and arrows of fortune at every turn. Constant has come into the crosshairs of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a malevolent space traveler who’s become “chrono-synclastic infundibulated” by his voyage. Now, like a vindictive god, Rumfoord is determined to teach the entire human race a lesson by pitting them against the belligerent Martians. Pulpy and surprisingly poignant, The Sirens of Titan trafficks gracefully in some of sci-fi’s most enduring questions about fate, free will, and predestination.
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Sci-fi godfather Arthur C. Clarke wrote dozens of acclaimed novels, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous With Rama, but he considered Childhood’s End to be one of his favorite works. Who are we to disagree with him? In this formidable novel, the space race grinds to a halt when vast alien spaceships appear over Earth’s major cities. The Overlords (or, as they prefer to be known, The Guardians) have arrived on what seems like a mission of peace, determined to end war, ignorance, disease, and poverty. A new golden age begins, but utopia has a price: creativity stagnates, science loses forward momentum, and the human race, by and large, is stifled. As the Overlords’ secret motives come into view, Clarke reflects on the messy striving that makes us human. (Nominated for a Hugo Award in 1954, Childhood’s End ultimately lost to Fahrenheit 451, but the novel remains timeless.)
The Complete Robot, by Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s landmark Foundation series could easily have landed on this list—awarded the one-time Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series in 1966, it’s certainly made a mark on science fiction. But Asimov was at his best, both as a fiction writer and a conceptual thinker, when he wrote about robots, those rascally bags of bolts. The Complete Robot contains 37 of those stories, including the famous I, Robot. Here, Asimov laid down the highly influential Three Laws of Robotics, which would go on to shape both a genre and a field of study. From hostile to heroic to everything in between, the robots in these stories evolved as Asimov’s vision did. The world hasn’t been the same since.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
National Book Award winner and Westworld writer Charles Yu is one of today’s most exciting speculative fiction talents. His metafictional debut centers on Charles Yu, a lonesome time machine mechanic for Time Warner Time, which turns a profit by operating alternate universes. Charles oversees Minor Universe 31, a science fiction phantasmagoria where he encounters Linus Skywalker (who offed his famous father), but all the while, he’s deep in mourning for his own father, a time travel pioneer who vanished. When Charles shoots his future self in a kneejerk moment of panic, he’s soon stuck in a time loop that may see him colliding with his long-lost parent. Trippy and clever, playful and full of heart, this bittersweet novel speaks volumes about our all-too human desire to change the past.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley wrote dozens of far-out books, but Brave New World rises above the pack for a reason. In this nightmarish vision of the future, Huxley imagines a world of mood-flattening pharmaceuticals, information overload, and on-demand sex. The masses are mollified by this endless cycle of consumption, allowing the totalitarian World State to rule unchallenged, but sleep scientist Bernard Marx is unsatisfied by life without passion or pain. When he dares to fight back against the World Controllers, Brave New World veers headlong into a thrilling story about nonconformity and individuality that still rattles us today. In 2002, the novelist JG Ballard said it best: “1984 has never really arrived, but Brave New World is around us everywhere.”
The Employees, by Olga Ravn
The Employees accomplishes more in 136 pages than some sci-fi novels do in 500. On a ship hurtling through deep space, humans and humanoids work together under a rigid corporate hierarchy. When they land on New Discovery, crew members retrieve mysterious objects that exert a strange power over man and machine alike, awakening dreams, memories, and longing. Humans mourn their lost connections on Earth, while their humanoid colleagues yearn for connections they’ve never known. Constructed as a series of witness statements from the crew, gathered after tensions with their oppressive employer boil over, The Employees is an unforgettable novel about the psychic costs of labor under capitalism. Yet it also reaches deeper to explore science fiction’s animating questions: What makes us human? Which of us is more human, person or robot? Is a synthetic life still a life? Dreamlike and sensual, The Employees shouldn’t be missed.
1984, by George Orwell
In a world where concerns about privacy, government overreach, and freedom of information are more relevant than ever, 1984 continues to frighten and astound. Published in 1949, Orwell’s masterpiece is the chilling story of a rebellious Ministry of Truth bureaucrat; through his eyes, we glimpse a terrifying, tyrannical society, where independent thought is a crime and truth is a fiction. All these decades later, 1984 still looms large in our cultural imagination, from its perch in our curriculum to its pervasive influence on our language. It’s difficult to imagine any science fiction novel with more influence.
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
One of China’s most acclaimed science fiction writers opens his Hugo Award-winning Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy with The Three-Body Problem, a gripping first contact thriller set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution. When a young physicist comes to work at the government’s secretive Red Coast Base, she soon learns that frontier scientists are communicating with extraterrestrials—and they’re planning to make a hostile visit. Enormous in scope, rich in both twisty-turny mysteries and big ideas about progress, The Three Body-Problem marks the ascension of a writer bound to become every bit as canonical as Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. This series will soon become a Netflix series from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, so get in on the ground floor while you still can.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? famously became the basis for Blade Runner, but if you’re a movie fan who hasn’t read the novel, you’re in for something new, as it’s more of a complement than a faithful adaptation. Some of the familiar bones are here, like bounty hunter Rick Deckard and his mission to retire rogue androids, but you won’t find the term “blade runner” anywhere. Set in an abandoned San Francisco after World War Terminus’ radioactive fallout has destroyed the earth, this short gut-punch of a novel finds its central theme in empathy. Can androids experience it? Are humans who lack it any better than machines? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks more questions than it answers, reveling in ambiguity about just what separates man from machine. Like all the best science fiction, its weighty foray into what makes us human will linger with you for a long time.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Set before, during, and after the lethal Georgian Flu snuffs out 99% of the world’s population, taking the familiar contours of human civilization along with it, Station Eleven is the incandescent tale of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare for the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region. Along the road, they encounter a violent cult leader known only as the Prophet, who preaches that the virus was an act of God—a divine cleansing of the unworthy. Where so many post-apocalyptic novels traffic in the forces that divide us, Station Eleven celebrates that which allows us not just to survive, but to live: making art, belonging to something bigger than ourselves, searching tirelessly for what it means to be human. Haunting and lovely, Station Eleven is at once an elegy for a lost world and a paean to the human spirit.
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
In this stellar collection of short stories, one of the most award-winning science fiction writers of our time tees up nine brilliant tales of time travel, artificial intelligence, and alternate universes. The collection opens with a Hugo Award-winning parable set in ancient Baghdad, where a merchant traveling through an alchemist’s portal learns a familiar lesson about the impossibility of erasing the past. In another standout, a software tester spends an emotional two decades raising an artificial intelligence as if it were a digital pet (Tamagotchi users, take note). The remarkable title story, structured as a journal entry by a mechanical scientist dissecting his own brain, offers profound wisdom about consciousness: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.” Through lean, thought-provoking prose, Chiang renders stories about man and machines deeply felt—and deeply human.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
One can’t say too much about Never Let Me Go without spoiling the novel’s gut-wrenching twist. But here’s what we can reveal: in Ishiguro’s chilling magnum opus, we meet three students of Hailsham, a quixotic English boarding school where sheltered children are educated in the arts and taught nothing of the outside world. Only when they become adults do they learn the shocking truth about Hailsham’s nefarious activities, and the reality of their terrible purpose. At once an arresting mystery, a Gothic romance, and a tear-jerking work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go is a masterpiece of tension and tone, as well as a powerful indictment of a future shaped by science without ethics.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
In 1969, Le Guin put feminist science fiction on the map with The Left Hand of Darkness. According to The Paris Review, “No single work did more to upend the genre’s conventions.” This barrier-breaking first contact narrative opens on the planet Gethen, where Earth-born emissary Genly Ai is dispatched to broker an interplanetary alliance. The ambisexual Gethenians live without gender binaries, meaning that they’ve developed a world without war, where children are raised communally. Ai’s inability to think beyond his own misogyny and homophobia threatens his mission, imperils his life, and endangers his growing connection with Estraven, Gethen’s disgraced prime minister. In this visionary work of radical imagination, Le Guin explores a world beyond the constraints of gender and sex, and takes us to the heights of love without limitations.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler’s contributions to science fiction and Afrofuturism are legendary, meaning that selecting just one of her works for this list was a tall order. But Kindred, perhaps her best-known novel, stood out above the rest as a master class in the ability of science fiction to speak to the contemporary moment. This is the story of Dana, a Black woman in Los Angeles circa 1976, who finds herself violently transported back in time to the antebellum plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. Each time she pinballs through past and present, Dana’s stays at the plantation become longer and more dangerous, forcing her to confront the gruesome legacies of slavery, misogynoir, and white supremacy. As Harlan Ellison once said, “Octavia Butler is a writer who will be with us for a long, long time, and Kindred is that rare magical artifact… the novel one returns to, again and again.” Almost like time travel, we keep coming back to it.
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
Like many science fiction writers, it’s impossible to categorize Jemisin in just one genre. Many of her works belong to the hybrid genre of science fantasy, including this paradigm-shifting first installment in her Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. The Fifth Season introduces a characteristically Jemisinian feat of astonishing worldbuilding: the Stillness, a dangerous continent wracked with volcanoes, earthquakes, and tectonic chaos. There live the orogenes, who have the power to manipulate the elements, but face persecution and lynching. Through the linked narratives of three extraordinary women, Jemisin depicts the tragedy of an orogene’s life with brutal, unsparing detail. As these unforgettable characters seek safety and agency, Jemisin weaves a shattering story about systemic oppression, where gritty glimmers of hope shine through the bleak edges.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
If you expected to see Fahrenheit 451 on this list, then you haven’t spent enough time with The Martian Chronicles, undoubtedly Bradbury’s masterpiece. Radically poetic and rich with metaphor, The Martian Chronicles was an astonishing leap forward for a genre until then not considered sufficiently “literary.” Bradbury’s succession of linked stories opens on an Earth ravaged by nuclear warfare. In search of a new beginning, Americans pack up their manifest destiny and blast off to conquer Mars, but little do they know, the red planet will conquer them in return. Bradbury’s Mars is a dreamlike landscape of wasted cities, populated by a dwindling race of ancient, unknowable beings. In glimmering stories that swing from dark tragedy to pure comedy, Bradbury showcases mankind’s exploration and desolation of Mars, all while dismantling midcentury mythologies of American exceptionalism. Told in language at once elegiac and sinister, fantastical and fable-like, The Martian Chronicles transforms and transcends its genre.
Where would we be without Dune, the granddaddy of contemporary science fiction? The world’s bestselling sci-fi novel of all time paved the way for Alien, Blade Runner, Stars both Wars and Trek, and countless other cultural tentpoles. Set far into the future, Dune envisions an intergalactic feudal society where powerful noble houses vy for control over resources, armies, and planetary power. At the center of it all is Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet home to giant sandworms, a mysterious indigenous population, and the valuable natural resource spice. When young Paul Atreides is targeted as a potential messiah to lead the planet—and the galaxy—toward a new future, an epic story of war, betrayal, and mysticism unfolds. Frighteningly original and thematically ambitious, Dune offers a master class in the power of science fiction not just to entertain, but to examine the cultural landscapes and ethical questions of our time. Religion, colonialism, and environmentalism all come under Herbert’s microscope, as do the limitations of the hero’s journey. “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a hero,” Herbert warns ominously. No science fiction hero has stepped lightly since.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
On a stormy summer night in 1816, eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley sat down to write a ghost story. What poured from her pen that fateful night would change the world, revolutionizing our understanding of artificial life, bewitching generations of readers, and pioneering science fiction as we now know it. Even the uninitiated reader knows the story’s familiar bones: Dr. Victor Frankenstein builds a creature out of scavenged body parts, recoils from his creation, then sees all that he loves destroyed by his spurned progeny. In this landmark novel, Shelley fused a primordial parable with the upheavals and anxieties of the Industrial Revolution, and in doing so, laid the foundation for the themes and constructs of science fiction. The weighty questions she poses in Frankenstein continue to animate the genre to this very day. Why do we harbor such fear of the other? How responsible are we for our creations, and what does it mean when they develop agency of their own? Where’s the line between what science can do, and what it should do? Frankenstein strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. It also rewards repeat readings—so much so that, even two centuries later, we’re still peering at it through new lenses, as queer, transhumanist, and feminist readings locate new depths within the familiar text. Plenty of imitators have tried to match the heights of Frankenstein, but none have come close. We owe everything to Shelley’s ur-textual story of modernity, morality, and progress’ great and terrible cost.
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