A while ago, we came up with a list of the Best Fantasy Novels of All Time. Now we’re doing the same with science fiction! Some of these are classic tales you will surely know, but others are excellent works of science fiction that may have been flying under the radar. So, dear readers, as you make your way down the list, congratulate yourselves on the books you’ve read and add the unfamiliar ones to your TBR list.
Note: This list is organized alphabetically.
Our favorite science fiction tends to use the future to illuminate and discuss issues in our present. 1984 is a prime example of this, a dystopian novel where our culture has become the victim of government surveillance and public manipulation. An important read for any age.
Set in a future where interstellar travel is done by “sleeving” one’s consciousness into new bodies, the story follows a private investigator whose past collides with his present as he attempts to solve a rich man’s murder. A dark and gritty cyberpunk experience. Now a Netflix series!
Vanja is an information assistant in a world where language literally controls reality. After being sent to the ice colony Amatka to gather intelligence for her government, she falls in love with her housemate and decides to extend her mission. She begins to realize, though, that there is something deeply amiss in this colony.
Ammonite, Griffith’s first novel, won the Lambda Award and the James Tiptree Jr Award. A human expedition to the planet Jeep is nearly wiped out by a virus that kills all the men and most of the women. Some centuries later, an anthropologist, Marghe, is sent to test a vaccine on the descendents of the original expedition, themselves all women. As she lives and moves among them, Marghe finds herself changed in profound and unexpected ways.
After their homeworld is destroyed, the surviving members of the Sadiri must find a way for their people to continue, despite the fact that most of the survivors are male. To do so, they make their way across the colony planet of Cygnus Beta under the guidance of a woman from the planet’s Central Government, encountering all kinds of people and cultures in their mission to save their vanishing race.
Anthologies rarely make “Best Of” lists, but this one belongs on here — because it contains stories by many of the great science fiction writers we are discussing in our list. Le Guin, Asimov, Doctorow, Liu, Wells, Clarke, Butler, Vonnegut, and the list goes on and on! A wonderful primer for science fiction readers.
An early work of feminist Utopian fiction and proto-science fiction, The Blazing World tells the story of a woman from our earth who travels to another world via a portal at the North Pole, where she becomes empress of a society made up of fantastical half-animal half-human species. The book, published in 1666, reflects Enlightenment-era theoretical science, with Cavendish imagining submarines, boats with engines, and a universe without end.
Often cited by critics of genetic engineering despite being written before the discovery of DNA, Brave New World imagines a future where people are divided into castes chosen before birth and kept docile through the use of drugs. Heavily relying on references to Shakespeare, it offers scathing criticisms of capitalism, utopian ideals and conformity.
Nuclear war razed the Earth, plunging its survivors into a new dark age in which science is reviled and books are destroyed on sight. A small order of Catholic monks dedicated to a legendary miracle worker hold back the wave of ignorance as best that it can as barbarism swells at its gates. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a bittersweet tale that might make you worry about our future as a species.
Building a premise that feels all too plausible, British author P.D. James crafted a modern classic that continues to feel disturbingly relevant with each passing year. Inspired by the real issue of declining birthrates around the world, James imagines a world where that birth rate declined to zero, and an England under the thumb of an autocratic government. Within this narrative framework James explores themes of human frailty, the societal necessity of procreation, love, and hopelessness. It is a powerful novel lifted by James’ gift for deft, sharp characterization and steadily rising tension.
Combining his fantastic weird fiction with a police procedural, Miéville delivers a tightly-knit story that won the Hugo Award. The novel takes Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, through two very different worlds on the hunt for a murderer. Astounding storytelling by one of the best writers working today.
Bear envisions a world where the next leap in human evolution is not superhero mutations but rather a small step that changes the world. Great characters fighting against bigotry amidst scientific upheaval and government control. Winner of the Nebula Award.
The city of Bellona is not what it once was — most people have fled, leaving behind only the madmen, the criminals, and the desperate. And a young man, a poet known as the Kid. This dense and intricate tale winds its way through issues of race, gender, and sexuality in a near-future, devastated landscape, in a way that simply cannot be missed.
War and pollution have taken their toll on Earth, leaving it very nearly uninhabitable. Those who can afford to do so have fled off-world, leaving what’s left to the not so fortunate, like Rick Deckard. Rick, who makes his living eliminating renegade androids, is prompted to question his work, and even his own identity, during a particularly challenging assignment. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an amazing novel, and perhaps one of the most approachable of Dick’s many works.
Time travel is a reality, and, finally, historians can observe the past as it happened. At Oxford College, a trip to 14th century England has gone awry, stranding a young historian in the midst of the bubonic plague. As a team in the present era works to bring her back home, a new and deadly form of the flu begins to spread through London. Is there a connection between the two epidemics? If you like medical mysteries and historical fiction, you’ll love this book.
C.J. Cherryh’s body of work is so expansive that if you asked twenty different people for her best book, you’d get twenty different answers. But it’s hard to argue with a Hugo Award and a Locus shortlist, so for my money, Downbelow Station is the place to start. Set in Cherryh’s Alliance-Union Universe, Downbelow Station is a story of corporate space exploration gone awry as humankind expands outwards among the stars.
The story of a young woman being recruited to telepathically bond with a queen dragon to lead her people and battle Thread on the planet of Pern has been a beloved favorite among all ages of readers for decades. McCaffrey was the first woman to win the Hugo and Nebula Awards — and with great reason.
The first rule of Dune is: do not read the whole series. Frank Herbert’s hypnotic vision of a feudal far future shaped by the mind-altering powers of a substance called spice, centered on the planet, Arrakis, where the spice is mined, is a classic that still feels groundbreaking today.
This is generation ship fiction like you’ve never read before. Artificial intelligence, angels, and humans all coexist (albeit not entirely peacefully) on the Jacob’s Ladder, which has been stuck in orbit for centuries. The story follows a noblewoman, a serving girl, and an angel as they journey through the crumbling ship in an attempt to stop a war between their houses — and in the process, change the order of their world.
When DARPA researchers stumble upon a way to fold dimensions, enabling humans to travel long distances in a matter of seconds, they’re certain their discovery will change the course of human history. But Mike Erikson isn’t so sure. The researchers who test the doorway are coming back… off. And it’s up to Mike to unravel the science and save his team — and everything else. The Fold is an intricate yet fast-paced sci-fi thriller you can devour in a single sitting.
One of the seminal works of hard science fiction, Foundation reimagines the fall of the Roman Empire as taking place on a galactic scale and an effort on a remote planet to protect humanity from a 30,000-year-long dark age. Jumping decades within the narrative and focused on economics and history, Asimov’s most famous book can be a tough read but it’s well worth the investment.
Although it is an unquestioned Gothic classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is among the earliest and purest examples of the science fiction genre. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Frankenstein and its enormous impact on both literature and pop culture. In the 200 years since its initial publication, the narrative DNA of the tale of Victor Frankenstein and his creature can be found in the countless stories that have followed in its considerable wake.
When a Navy SEAL murders his family and disappears, an NCIS agent is tasked with determining whether or not the crime is connected with the Terminus: a mysterious world-destroying event encountered by a top secret team of government time travelers. This dark work of science fiction may be new, but it is on my personal list of all-time great reads.
America has fallen, leaving in its place the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic state with a fatal weakness: a low birth rate. Fearful of what the future will bring, the exclusively male leadership of Gilead has enslaved fertile women to bear their young. Offred is one of these women: a handmaid. This is her story. The Handmaid’s Tale is a perennial classic of feminist literature, and the basis for the Hulu series of the same name.
For sheer absurdist audacity, imagination, bombast, and pure fun, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is tough to beat. It’s an utterly irreverent and wildly imaginative adventure that simultaneously skewers and builds on the tropes and confines of traditional sci-fi. It’s biting satire and pure absurdist humor, all shot through with a vein of cynicism and a surprisingly firm internal logic. Basically, there’s nothing quite like The Hitchhiker’s Guide and you really should read it.
Charles Yu is searching for his father through quantum space-time, while also performing his job as a time travel technician — helping to save people from themselves after time traveling trips gone awry. Assisted by a nonexistent dog and an operating system with self-esteem issues, his journey to find his missing father is at times hilarious, thought-provoking, and truly poignant.
A crew of pilgrims swap stories of love, horror, and religious devotion during a long journey to the home of the Shrike: a spike-covered metal horror worshiped like a god. This science fiction take on The Canterbury Tales is an unforgettable, imaginative work of cross-genre fusion.
Following a pair of teens evacuating Earth during an invasion, Illuminae is a masterwork of young adult sci-fi, a story winding its way through a dossier of hacked documents: emails, chatrooms, classified military files, and more that the protagonists discover during their search for the truth behind the invasion.
The power of science and its role in discovery is oft at the heart of great science fiction. At its heart, Jurassic Park questions how humanity wields the power of science while creating an action-packed story filled with characters just trying to survive science gone wrong.
Hank Palace may be the world’s last policeman: as humanity waits for an impending asteroid impact to destroy them all, Palace begins an investigation of what looks to outside eyes like a commonplace suicide. The Last Policeman is a sci-fi murder mystery that explores one question we hopefully will never need to ask ourselves: why bother solving a murder if everyone’s going to die anyway?
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Le Guin’s novel explores the effect of gender and sex on an alien culture where an individual can be ambisexual, and how one Terran man’s rigid ideas on those topics are confronted. Labeled as one of the most important feminist stories of all time, it is a powerhouse tale written with Le Guin’s wonderful prose.
This dystopian tale of two teenagers is so much more than meets the eye. June is a member of the ruling Republic (formerly the western United States), and on the hunt to find the nation’s most wanted criminal, Day. He’s the prime suspect in her sister’s killing, and she’s determined to get her revenge. But a darker truth has brought them together, and together they begin to realize just what the country is willing to do to protect its secrets.
Andy Weir’s The Martian is the sort of novel that grips a reader from its very sentence — after all, “I’m pretty much fucked” is a pretty great opening line. With his debut novel, Weir deftly balanced a truly thrilling story of survival with laugh-out-loud doses of black humor and real, cutting edge science. It has a surprising ring of authenticity, but more importantly is an ultimately inspiring testament to humanity’s ingenuity, spirit of adventure, and our better angels.
One of the seminal works of cyberpunk, Neuromancer taps into the counterculture movements and excitement about computers found in the 1980s to tell a story of a world where hackers and cyborgs work together to perform daring heists against massive corporations. It’s a must-read for fans of everything from “The Matrix” to Ready Player One.
The works of Margaret Atwood rarely, if ever, fit neatly into the confines of any particular genre. Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the MaddAddam Trilogy, is the closest she’s come to pure sci-fi. Taking issues of inequality, climate change, and corporate power to bleak and terrifying conclusions, Atwood creates a powerfully imaginative and disconcertingly plausible dystopia that is as thought-provoking as it is difficult to put down.
Virtual reality existed long before Ready Player One and one of its best examples is Otherland, a four-book epic SF tale examining corporate control, greed, and an individual’s wish to become someone else. Williams weaves great SF and fantasy settings into his virtual world, making it a fun read for the well-read!
The first in Hamilton’s excellent duology about a future where humans are practically immortal and have used wormholes to colonize hundreds of planets, Pandora’s Star is perhaps most notable for its extremely alien extraterrestrials from the genocidal Prime to the fey Silfen. Combining aspects of a detective novel with hard science fiction, Hamilton explores the perils and pleasures possible in humanity’s future.
When Lee Suh-Mi offered a chance to escape the over-populated, polluted planet of Earth, Renata Ghali followed her into the unknown, along with hundreds of other hopeful colonists. Years later, however, Lee Suh-Mi has disappeared into a mysterious alien structure, and Ren is harboring a secret that may tear the colony apart.
You won’t find The Plot Against America in the science fiction section of your local bookstore, but rest assured, this is a work of alternative history. In Roth’s book, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States. When Lindberg starts a cozy relationship with Adolf Hitler, Young Philip Roth and his family watch as the America they thought they knew swiftly descends into fascism and anti-Semitism. This is a sobering look at the politics of fear and hatred, and a warning of the dangers of demagoguery.
While best known for his Thomas Covenant epic fantasy, Donaldson has also written one of the best science fiction stories. The Real Story and its four sequels are riveting. Nothing is quite what it seems and the gritty, complex characters drive a narrative where anything is possible.
A breakout author in recent years! The story of slave Darrow rising above his status to take on his overlords is new and fresh and is filled with amazingly-wrought characters and action-packed sequences. An instant classic.
The 1970 classic about a crew of humans and aliens investigating a massive ring built around a sunlike star is so influential that theoretical alien megastructures have come to be called Niven rings. Beyond its ideas about how advanced societies might colonize space, it’s also an entertaining adventure story with compelling views about humanity’s place in the universe.
In the course of Doris Lessing’s long Nobel Prize-winning career, she wrote more than fifty books in many genres. Shikasta is the first in her Canopus in Argos series, a sequence of five science fiction novels examining the ways in which societies evolve. Shikasta is written as an archival history of a thinly-veiled Earth and its development through the influences of three advanced alien civilizations, especially the Canopus, who try to steer humanity away from mass destruction and a third World War. The series was strongly influenced by Lessing’s interest in Sufism in the 1970s, and eventually inspired its own religious cult.
Kurt Vonnegut weaved together the disparate strands of science fiction and his personal experiences as a World War II prisoner of war to create Slaughterhouse-Five‘s Billy Pilgrim: a soldier who has become “unstuck in time.” We witness the horrors of war and the uncertainties of peacetime as Billy bounces back and forth across the timeline of his birth, life, and eventual death. Gutsy, strange, and sympathetic, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut at his best.
The first book in The Themis Files trilogy, which was completed this year, examines how the discovery of an ancient alien artifact on earth affects both individuals and the world. It’s true to science fiction’s mission of asking big questions about human nature and the pursuit of knowledge.
Both a spoof on cyberpunk tropes and an entertaining story in its own right, Snow Crash follows the adventures of Hiro Protagonist and Yours Truly as they try to uncover the cause of a virus infecting hackers that may be connected to the Tower of Babel. Stephenson combines excellent world building with research into linguistics and history. Check it out soon as an Amazon television show based on the book is in the works.
My personal favorite book on this list. The Sparrow is a profoundly empathetic novel about a Jesuit mission to an inhabited planet. Russell demonstrates a preternatural understanding of human behavior while at the same time building an alien civilization with an anthropologist’s eye. Her characters grapple with faith in a way I’ve rarely seen in science fiction. This book moved me to tears.
Stephen King’s sprawling apocalyptic opus is a long-time favorite among his devoted fans — it’s also one of his finest novels. Beginning with a computer error in a laboratory that releases a global pandemic, King builds an epic story of survival, resilience, and the ultimate struggle of good vs. evil. It melds elements of horror, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi into a 1,100 page doorstop of a novel that cemented Stephen King as the pre-eminent horror writer of his generation.
A flu pandemic devastates humanity, killing off almost everyone and bringing modern civilization to a grinding halt. Station Eleven explores the first days of the epidemic, as well as the future it created. This oddly optimistic work of apocalyptic literature teaches us that survival alone is insufficient, and that we must have art to give it meaning.
Despite his relatively small body of work, Ted Chiang has made a serious impression on the science fiction landscape. The best-known story in this collection is, of course, the titular one, which was the basis for the film “Arrival,” but the other stories here are absolutely not to be missed. Chiang does what the best sci-fi writers do — he doesn’t invent for solely for invention’s sake, but rather uses his remarkable imagination to tell poignantly human stories that cut straight to your heart.
A seminal, genre-defining work and a perfect distillation of the ways in which speculative fiction examines what it is to be human. This is the story of a human man raised by Martians, entirely isolated from his own species — and on his return to Earth, he finds he has just as much to learn from humanity as he does to teach them.
Czerneda is a prolific author with a dedicated fanbase — it’s hard to choose just one book from her oeuvre. Survival, the first book in the Species Imperative trilogy, is the story of a Mackenzie Connor, a biologist in the Pacific Northwest who finds herself drawn into an interstellar interspecies conflict when an envoy from an alien species who hopes she can help him determine the fate of a mysterious dead zone in space known as the Chasm.
Ky Vatta is the only girl in a family of sons, and the only one to ditch the family business of trade in favor of a military career. When an error in judgment forces her back to Vatta’s Transport Ltd., she decides to make the best of a bad situation and take on a risky trading contract that could bring enormous profit to the business — of course, she’ll have to survive the mission first.
Humans may have been granted membership to the Confederation, but the price is service as soldiers to protect the more “civilized” races. When Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr and her platoon are pulled from leave for a supposedly easy mission, they have no idea that they are about to walk into a conflict greater than any they had faced before.
Two lovers are separated in a world of mutant meerkats, decadent cities, and underworld labyrinths full of stitched-together monsters in this classic work of unclassifiable but brilliant literature from Southern Reach trilogy Jeff VanderMeer. Veniss Underground is like a nightmarish fever dream, but one you won’t want to wake up from.
Viriconium is the story of a city, or rather, versions of the same city. Reminiscent of the works of Jack Vance and even Michael Moorcock, this classic of the “New Weird” revels in ambiguity, subverting the reader’s expectations of how fantastic settings are supposed to work.
Who can forget this classic tale of alien invasion? As the widely-told story goes, the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds briefly incited panic among millions of American listeners as they believed the nation was truly under attack by alien invaders (although it might not have happened exactly like that). Regardless, the tale now holds a firm place in our pop-cultural history, and has inspired countless adaptations and original works of science fiction throughout the hundred years since it was published.
Dean Koontz has made a career out of infusing sci-fi and speculative trappings into his particular brand of horror. Watchers came during a stretch in the mid-80’s that made Dean Koontz a perennial bestseller. Featuring a super-intelligent Golden Retriever and relentless genetically engineered monstrosity, Watchers explores themes that would become common in Koontz work going forward — shady government organizations and the ethical quandaries of unchecked scientific advancement. With Watchers, Koontz really began to find his footing as a writer.
In the 1970s, Connie Ramos finds herself wrongfully imprisoned in a mental institution, where she is contacted by Luciente, an emissary from a utopian society in the year 2137, who shows her a classless, highly individualistic future focused on social justice and self-actualization. But this is only one possible future — the other potential timeline is a hypercapitalist, class-stratified nightmare, and Connie’s actions alone will decide which eventuality comes to pass.
World War Z is a chronicle of the end of the world — or, as its subtitle indicates, an oral history of the zombie apocalypse. The novel’s written style is unlike many zombie stories in that it’s written not as narrative prose, but as a series of recordings of witnesses during the war. The audiobook edition is especially compelling: it’s performed by a full cast, making it an incredibly immersive reader experience.