The Best Science Fiction Books of All Time
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College is a time to explore literary genres, and science fiction is no exception. Both today and historically, the unique imaginative scope of science fiction has given authors license to explore boundaries, predict the future, and even challenge social norms.
In the last few decades, science fiction has also come to dominate popular culture. In literature, science fiction is flourishing with some of the most innovative and interesting writing year after year.
In honor of National Science Fiction Day, we've compiled a list highlighting 15 of the best science fiction books out there.
THE BEST CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION BOOKS
The Best Classic Science Fiction Books
Science fiction as we understand it has a lineage stretching back to the 1600s, growing more popular as books like "Frankenstein" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" garnered both acclaim and controversy while becoming bestsellers. We've selected five of the classic sci-fi books below.
Consistently ranked as one of the best science fiction books of all time, Frank Herbert's "Dune" (published in 1965) was the first book to ever win the Nebula Award for Best Novel. The story takes place on a desert planet called Arrakis, which is rich in melange — also known as "the spice" — a resource which people use to live longer and alter their mental capacities. "Dune" is a timeless narrative about how far people will go to extract the resources they want, no matter the cost. Herbert and his son wrote several books in the "Dune" universe, and the book was adapted by David Lynch in 1984 with a forthcoming Dennis Villeneuve adaptation scheduled for 2020.
Like "Fahrenheit 451" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" — first released in 1932 — is an early example of dystopian fiction. The story takes place approximately 500 years in the future in a world controlled by a totalitarian government, one where people are modified genetically and assigned castes based on their intelligence. This utopia — initially conceived by Huxley as a parody of utopian novels from decades prior — proves too good to be true for the novel's protagonist, Bernard Marx, who fears he doesn't fit in with the members of his caste. The book has appeared on "best books of all time" lists from Modern Library, BBC's The Big Read, and The Observer.
Originally published in 1896 by the same author who wrote "The Time Machine" and "The War of the Worlds," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is a lesser-known but nonetheless classic work of science fiction. In the book, a shipwrecked man finds himself on a remote island where a mad scientist (the titular Dr. Moreau) has been conducting experiments where he tries to fuse human and animal bodies. This notion of human modification opened the door to an entire subgenre of science fiction called uplift, to which stories like "Planet of the Apes," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and even video games like "Mass Effect" belong.
In one of the great science fiction books of the 20th century, a woman from 1970s California finds herself repeatedly traveling back in time to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. Fusing the science fiction aspect of time travel with research conducted from slave narratives, Butler's bestselling novel explores the legacy of slavery in modern American life while offering commentary on race, gender, and family ties. The book makes use of a nonlinear narrative, asking readers to consider questions about how we perceive history, too.
Ursula K. LeGuin, one of the masters of the classic science fiction genre, created a number of sprawling, complex universes in her oeuvre. "The Left Hand of Darkness," among her most popular novels, is part of the Hainish Cycle. It details the efforts of Genly Ai, an ambassador, to persuade the ambisexual people of Gethen to join a federation of planets called the Ekumen. This book is often named one of the earliest pieces of feminist science fiction and was LeGuin's breakout success, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel after its publication in 1969.
The Best New Science Fiction Books
In the last couple decades, science fiction authors have explored both diverse perspectives and innovative approaches to create some of the most compelling, thought-provoking books being written today. Below, we've curated a list of five of the greatest contemporary science fiction books published since 2000.
"Everfair," Nisi Shawl's debut novel, is an alternate history where a group of missionaries and political activists found a new nation in Africa called Everfair, which gives enslaved people and colonized Africans a place to live outside of the oppressive structures they want to escape from. The book's alternate history introduces steam technology to the people of the Congo earlier than our own historical reality, infusing the novel with steampunk elements. Shawl, an accomplished short story writer, uses a polyphonic narrative style that captures dozens of voices as she explores the implications of what this new version of history would look like.
Fantasy and science fiction writer Ken Liu translates Cixin Liu's 2008 novel, "The Three-Body Problem," from the original Chinese. Here in the United States, the book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was nominated for Locus and Nebula awards in the same category. Unfolding during the Cultural Revolution in China, "The Three-Body Problem" is a mind-bending story about contact with alien beings. It weaves complex theoretical physics into its narrative, making this the hardest sci-fi book on our list. "The Three-Body Problem" spawned several sequels, including one authored by another writer.
The beginning to Leckie's Imperial Radch series, "Ancillary Justice" is a murder mystery with a science fiction flavor. Breq is a soldier whose body harbors the artificial intelligence consciousness of a downed starship. She discovers a dead body on a barren, icy planet and sets out to understand how her former comrade came to die. Leckie's novel pushes against conventional storytelling ideas by interlacing narrative threads that move between the past and the present while using female pronouns for all characters in the book. "Ancillary Justice" won Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Arthur C. Clarke awards after its publication.
Sam J. Miller's 2017 novel "Blackfish City" is one of the best science fiction books this decade. It belongs to an emerging genre called cli-fi (short for climate fiction), and the plot unfolds after a climate apocalypse has restructured society, forcing people to live in a floating city on the Arctic Circle. When an old woman who rides an orca and keeps a polar bear for a companion arrives, she begins to weave together a web of connections between the protagonists of this book, setting in motion a revolution intent on upending the balances of power at the heart of this new society. Rich in details sure to spark any reader's imagination, "Blackfish City" is a masterwork of worldbuilding.
When the first issue debuted in 2012, the ongoing comic "Saga" was described as a mashup between "Star Wars" and "Romeo and Juliet." Indeed, it's the story of star-crossed lovers of different species from enemy planets who go on the lam to avoid persecution for birthing a child. The series is full of action, conspiracy, and bloodshed, though most of all "Saga" is an emotional exploration of love and family. Fiona Staples' breathtaking art pairs beautifully with Brian K. Vaughan's story, the writer behind other sci-fi comics like "Y: The Last Man" and "Paper Girls."
Science Fiction Lite
Especially for novices to the genre, science fiction can feel inaccessible and overwhelming with its use of complex scientific concepts and unfamiliar worlds. We've selected five books that, while perhaps not science fiction outright, make use of elements of the genre. These books can serve as an entry point for readers who are curious but don't want to commit to the books we've already described.
"Friday Black" is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's debut collection of short stories, originally published in 2018. Many of his stories use science fiction elements to explore questions of race in America. In one, the narrator works in a simulation where people can enact their most violent gunplay fantasies on him. In another, a man on his way to a job interview tries to control the visibility of his race (which is able to be quantified on a numerical scale) following the conclusion of a high-profile murder case. Adjei-Brenyah's collection of gruesome, unsettling tales proves he is a voice capable of chronicling our modern times and is a writer to watch.
Everyone in Jasper Fforde's most recent book, "Early Riser," hibernate for four months of the year to survive the brutally harsh winter. Everyone, that is, except for a police force called the Winter Consul who ensure the safety of the sleeping citizenry. Fforde's trademark wit and humor are found in spades in this novel, in which Charlie Worthing, a new Winter Consul recruit, must navigate the bureaucracy of the Consul, investigate a viral nightmare plaguing the hibernating people, and survive the possibly mythical monsters that roam during the winter. As compelling as it is funny, "Early Riser" is a great entry point for those looking to dabble in popular science fiction books.
"More Happy Than Not," Adam Silvera's debut novel, has been compared to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" for its world in which memory erasure is possible. The main character, 16-year-old Aaron Soto, is happily in love with his girlfriend Genevieve. Or so he thinks, until Thomas comes along and he starts to feel things he doesn't understand. Afraid of the backlash he might receive for his burgeoning sexuality, he contemplates the memory erasure procedure as a way to escape his possible future. This is a story of young love and the very adult consequences it can have on our lives.
Alissa Nutting's most recent novel, "Made for Love," satirizes the technocracy of our modern lives. Hazel wants out of her marriage with Byron, the CEO of Gogol Industries, after he suggests implanting microchips in both of their brains to allow them to perform a mindmeld. She escapes to her father's senior citizen trailer park, trying to hide from Byron and his all-knowing technology. Irreverent, absurd, and deeply funny, Nutting's book is both a cautionary tale and a ripsnorting good time. "Made for Love" is being adapted as a miniseries for HBO Max, slated to debut next year.
Another collection of short stories, Diane Cook's 2014 "Man v. Nature" blends environmental disasters with heartbreak: Pieces like "The Way the End of Days Should Be" and the titular "Man v. Nature" explore how people behave in apocalyptic scenarios. "The Not-Needed Forest" is like "Lord of the Flies" with the volume turned all the way up. Each story is an exquisite, precise examination of human nature in the face of despair and destruction, merging cli-fi elements with delicately rendered emotions.
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