During the 21st Century, we’ve seen the genre of science fiction expand and evolve in exciting new ways.
Authors are pushing boundaries, blending genres, revisiting classic themes with fresh eyes and perspectives.
There’s so much to be excited about when it comes to modern sci-fi novels.
Essential Modern Sci-fi Novels
Whether you’re an aficionado of classic science fiction and want to know what modern authors are all about, or you are new to the genre and want to start with the contemporary and work backwards, here’s what you need to be reading.
These authors from around the world are redefining the genre and writing some of the best modern sci-fi novels you can read right now.
Disclaimer: For a book to make this list of modern sci-fi novels, it has to have been published this century.
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How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
It’s not a stretch to call How High We Go in the Dark the next step in science fiction.
This is one of the best modern sci-fi novels you’ll ever read; a bold new approach to the genre of science fiction.
Reminiscent of the narratives and themes found in the works of Emily St. John Mandel, with a sprinkling of Black Mirror, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel is essential reading.
We begin with a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, has recently and tragically died while on an expedition to the Batagaika Crater in Siberia.
Cliff heads to Siberia to continue his daughter’s work, with the support of her colleagues.
The work involves investigating the melting permafrost to see if any potentially long-frozen diseases might be uncovered and spread across the world.
And of course, a virus is uncovered and it does spread. From here, we follow a host of different first-person narratives in a world where infected children have their organs slowly mutated until they fail completely.
Multiple sci-fi themes and tropes are explored in new ways here, including the question of human intelligence when a pig that was being used to grow human organs develops advanced intelligence and even telepathic speech.
These disparate themes and narratives all work together so beautifully, like an orchestra of science fiction concepts. It’s beautiful and makes for a very addictive read.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
British author Adrian Tchaikovsky first rose to prominence as a fantasy author, but it’s his debut sci-fi novel Children of Time that had readers sitting up and paying attention.
After its publication in 2015, it won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award the following year, and very deservedly so.
We begin with a scientist who, along with a small team, adventured out to experiment with and terraform a distant planet for humans to colonise.
Things, however, went wrong, and this eventually leads to the dominant intelligent race on that planet being spiders instead of apes.
Fast-forward to a time when humanity’s last arc of survivors have abandoned Earth and are on their way to this new Earth, hoping to find a new home.
What’s so exciting about Children of Time is its wonderful world-building.
The spiders themselves are protagonists as well, and we get to see Tchaikovsky’s mind at work as he imagines what a society of advanced spiders with human-like intelligence might look like.
Then there’s how the arc of surviving humans operates and the problems that arise onboard.
This is a novel that leans on hard sci-fi, bringing us things that are potentially possible, or at least feasible, but also bursting with imagination and big themes to chew on.
Children of Time is near perfect; one of the most exquisite modern sci-fi novels you’ll ever read.
Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang
Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
As things stand right now, Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds feels like the defining sci-fi novel of the decade.
This is a grand, ambitious, considered, philosophical masterpiece of political science fiction, and one of the very best modern sci-fi novels.
Taking place in 2201, Vagabonds is set on Mars and focuses on the tensions between Mars and Earth. Similar to the timeline of the early USA, Mars was colonised (though unlike the US, it wasn’t already lived on and therefore nothing was stolen).
After its colonisation, Mars was dependent on Earth for supplies, but eventually wanted to strike out on its own and a war for independence ensued. After the war, Earth resembles the greatest extremes of capitalism and Mars is something of a communist utopia.
Forty years after the war, our protagonist, Luoying, is a young Martian woman who has returned to Mars after years of living and studying on Earth as part of the Mercury Group (a batch of young people sent over to learn and improve interplanetary relations).
The big question posed by Vagabonds concerns the meaning of freedom. Each planet views the inhabitants of the other with pity, seeing the other as less free.
Terrans are free to pursue different jobs, move cities and countries, and spend their money how they please. Martians are free from the stresses of money, poverty, corporate pressure, unemployment, and unfulfillment.
For their unique freedoms, both planets have their own drawbacks and restrictions. Feeling like she belongs to both cultures, Luoying is seeking answers to the question of what freedom really looks like.
Beyond all of this is the world-building. Hao Jingfang provides us with such a detailed and exciting version of Mars, mechanically, politically, and economically. It’s dense but endlessly fascinating.
Appleseed by Matt Bell
The phenomenal Appleseed is a slow-burn eco-novel spanning multiple timelines and genres, and one of the most revolutionary modern sci-fi novels ever written.
Matt Bell expertly blends folklore with sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themes with an ending that ties three disparate narratives together in ways that you simply can’t predict.
We spend the majority of our time as readers in eighteenth-century Ohio, as two brothers follow the path of the legendary Johnny Appleseed, planting apple orchards across the US.
As the brothers pass through settlements and forests teeming with myth, their bond is tested over and over.
The second narrative is set fifty years from our present time, in the second half of the 21st Century, when climate change has ravaged the Earth.
Having invested early in genetic engineering and food science, one company now owns all the world’s resources. But a growing resistance is working to redistribute both land and power.
You follow one of the company’s original founders as he returns to the headquarters, intending to destroy what he helped build.
The final narrative is set thousand years in the future, when North America is covered by a massive sheet of ice. One lonely sentient being inhabits a tech station on top of the glacier.
You follow him as he sets out to follow a homing beacon across the continent in the hopes of discovering the last remnant of civilisation.
There are few novels as imaginative and beautifully plotted as Appleseed, a novel of important ideas that need to be paid attention to.
This is one of the best sci-fi novels on the shelves, especially for fans of the eco-novel subgenre.
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
To Be Taught If Fortunate is an original sci-fi novella by Becky Chambers. While her celebrated Wayfarer series is a space opera, this is a harder, quieter, more serious story.
This is one of the best modern sci-fi novels; set in a future where a new public space program has been kickstarted by the funding of ordinary people, with a specific view to exploring and discovering and expanding human understanding of the cosmos.
A crew of four people has been sent to a faraway solar system, in order to examine the planets and moons that are believed to harbour life.
To Be Taught If Fortunate is another novel that flexes the muscles of Becky Chambers’ imagination.
She repeatedly considers what might, reasonably, be found on certain worlds with certain climates.
This is not about imagined civilisations but about biodiversity and small discoveries, about the beauty of life and the magic of exploration.
This is a book that celebrates science and what it can achieve.
Easily one of the most impactful and comforting little sci-fi books by women that you’re likely to read in your life.
Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke
Several People Are Typing is a mind-bending, genre-bending novel presented entirely as a series of Slack messages.
This fantastic piece of comedy horror science fiction for the digital age that would make Franz Kafka proud.
Several People Are Typing begins with Gerald, a man who works in New York City, logging into his company Slack to inform his colleagues that he has been trapped in the app.
Upon learning that his consciousness (or possibly his entire self?) has been uploaded to Slack, his colleagues naturally don’t believe him and it becomes a tired prank to them very quickly.
But, with nothing to do but figure out how to get out, Gerald keeps working and his productivity gradually improves in a hilarious moment of kafkaesque black comedy.
Meanwhile, more creepy events occur with increasing frequency and drama, including the sound of howling outside one colleague’s window and signs that the Slack help bot may be gaining sentience.
What begins as a kafkaesque commentary on modern work culture slowly descends into a creeping sci-fi horror novel, all written like a Slack transcript. Brilliant.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a science fiction masterpiece that tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend (or AF). The purpose of an AF is to be a companion to the teenager who selects them.
Klara begins her story in a store in an unspecified American city. She is put on display and, through her eyes, we learn about the world — or, at least, the world as she sees it. Klara is soon chosen by a teenage girl called Josie who takes Klara home to live with her in the countryside.
This is a novel about love and hope. Klara’s relationship with Josie, and Josie’s relationship to her own mother Chrissie and her best friend Rick, is the glue of this book.
What makes this almost an elevation of Ishiguro’s unreliable narrator trope is Klara’s own unique perspective on the world (literally, how her robot eyes see things, and metaphorically, how she learns and comes to understand people and their relationships).
This is a very sweet and tender novel full of love in all its forms.
It considers class and social groups, but it also deals heavily with love, religion, superstition, and, most importantly, how we hope; how we use hope as a method of survival.
Alongside Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun proves that Ishiguro’s greatest strength is observing human relationships through a variety of lenses; and he is at his best when using science fiction as a tool for exploring that to its fullest.
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
Living in a world that is either a little to the future of, or a possible parallel to, our own, our protagonist Tejo works at a slaughterhouse which deals exclusively in human meat.
A disease is said to have tainted, and mostly wiped out, most non-human animals, and so came a period known as the Transition, wherein human meat production became an accepted norm across the world.
The humans that are bred for slaughter are not considered people, are referred to as ‘heads’, and are kept in much the same condition as cattle are today.
Therein lies the book’s first clear-cut message: to consider how modern-day battery farming, and meat and dairy production, treats non-human animals: the conditions they’re kept in; the ways they are raised, tortured, abused, and ultimately killed.
If this were the only message the book carried, it wouldn’t be adding anything new to the popular discourse. Fortunately, Tender is the Flesh offers a broader scope than that.
While Tender is the Flesh treads dangerously close to being gratuitous and unnecessarily violent at times, and its exposition never ceases to feel disconnected from the plot.
The questions and warnings it raises are ones genuinely worth sitting with and pondering on as our planet continues to diminish in a frightening multitude of ways.
Tejo’s personal story is also aggressively compelling, and it carries the book’s messages and morals expertly. It is, ultimately, those messages that make this book worth reading, and what makes it one of the best modern sci-fi novels.
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
What do you get when you cross the political wisdom and boundless imagination of Terry Pratchett with the knowledge and experience of Stephen Baxter?
One of the most essential modern sci-fi novels on the shelves, that’s what.
One of the simplest pleasures that good sci-fi novels can provide is eliciting that “wow” feeling when confronted with a big idea or event.
The Long Earth is full of these moments:
- When you follow protagonist Joshua to his first parallel world
- When you learnt that there are no people on any other world
- When you learn that they are potentially infinite
- When you learn of a strange human-like race of natural “steppers” that move between parallel worlds
- When you learnt that a catastrophe is wiping out these worlds
There’s a healthy helping of surrealism here, as well as a big dollop of political intrigue. But there is also that blissful sense of wide-eyed discovery and adventure.
The Long Earth is a novel in which scary and dangerous ideas coalesce with the human urge for adventure, discovery, and doing something risky for the sake of it.
While it lacks the wit of Pratchett’s Discworld series, it makes up for that with a mind-opening feeling of discovery and intrigue.
The Employees by Olga Ravn
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Set on a massive spaceship in the 22nd Century, this is a satire of hypercapitalist workplace culture. It is one of the very best modern sci-fi novels.
The Employees is structured as a series of interview statements with various workers about a ship which has just picked up a collection of unknown objects from a newly discovered planet.
The objects are slowly and subtly changing the minds and feelings of the workers, both human and humanoid (robot AI).
And the company is observing these changes through a series of interviews with both groups.
This Danish sci-fi novel explores the theme of AI and the meaning of life in truly fresh and original ways. It also satirises the cold and uncaring relationship between a company and its workforce.
The company sits silent and invisible as its human employees grow increasingly nostalgic about life on Earth, while its robot employees feel lost, wistful, and even angry as they too become nostalgic, but for what?
The concept of AI and the ethics behind it are considered from new angles, such as when one humanoid observes that it has been programmed to behave faithfully, but all it sees are hypocritical and unfaithful humans all around it.
The Employees is one of the most original and unique science fiction novels to come along in years, and an absolute must-read amongst sci-fi books by women authors.
Tower by Bae Myung-hoon
Translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu
Tower is a truly unique and boundary-pushing piece of modern science fiction.
As its name implies, this piece of Korean sci-fi is set entirely in an enormous tower. This titular tower is a nation unto itself, home to 500,000 people.
Bae implies that it was built on Korean soil but this is never explicitly stated.
The book is divided into a series of interconnected speculative tales, all set within this solitary tower nation known as Beanstalk.
The world-building is fantastic, as the tower needs to be a believable place in order for the author’s disparate tales to work. Infrastructure, economy, politics, and daily life all need to be accounted for and designed in a way that the reader can understand and appreciate.
The six stories in Tower are tied together by the place itself and by recurring characters and events. And each story serves to further build the world while also telling an entirely self-contained tale.
In that sense, this is a unique piece of Korean fiction that blends the concepts of the novel and the short story collection.
And each tale also, as all good science fiction does, poses an ethical, political, or philosophical quandary for us to muse over.
What an amazing book amongst the best modern sci-fi novels.
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
The Echo Wife is a grounded piece of speculative science fiction. A deeply personal and human tale of love and loss and betrayal and desperation and death.
Our protagonist, Evelyn, is a research biologist who has seen breakthroughs in the field of human cloning. Her ex-husband, a fellow biologist named Nathan, has recently remarried.
After receiving an award for her work, Evelyn is asked out to tea by Nathan’s new partner, Martine, who turns out to be a clone of Evelyn, grown by Nathan.
Martine also happens to be pregnant, which is something that Evelyn, the leading expert in cloning, believes to be impossible.
To say more would be to spoil a novel full of twists and turns. This is an intimate science fiction thriller, a true page-turner.
What makes this novel so crisp and tight, however, is Evelyn herself. Written as a true scientist, she is clinical and logical in her view of people. She is kind and helpful, but not warm and passionate.
The world of The Echo Wife is also wonderfully well-realised. While perhaps not hard sci-fi, it is grounded enough to feel believable — or, at least, conceivably.
Tightly plotted, elegantly written, and populated with sharp, unique characters, The Echo Wife is a modern masterpiece of speculative science fiction that explores big moral and ethical questions, as all good speculative sci-fi should.
I’m Waiting for You by Kim Bo-young
Translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu and Sophie Bowman
With I’m Waiting for You, readers can see first-hand why she’s such a special sci-fi author. This collection of four stories is essential reading amongst modern sci-fi novels.
The four stories in this collection actually work as two pairs. The first and fourth stories — I’m Waiting For You and On My Way to You — are the same tale told from two perspectives: a bride and groom each making their way home to Earth for their wedding ceremony.
The second and third stories — The Prophet of Corruption and That One Life — which are also the longest and shortest tales respectively, are a blend of religion, mysticism, and science fiction.
In these two middle tales, the characters are a set of gods, and it is quickly revealed that they created Earth as a school in which they themselves can learn and grow.
The main protagonist of The Prophet of Corruption, Naban, is a single god whose prophets, disciples, and children all separated from them like cells.
Individually, they spend entire lifetimes on Earth, learning and experiencing and dying.
Naban believes in asceticism as a school of learning; their children are reborn in low roles; they suffer and toil and eventually return home. But some are rebelling against this approach to living and learning.
What makes these stories so tantalisingly addictive is both Kim’s world-building and also her attempt at writing gods as characters, with motivations and behaviours different from our own.
The stories that bookend this collection are each written in an epistolary fashion, as letters to the other. In I’m Waiting For You, our nameless groom is trying to make it to Earth, and is updating his bride each time something goes awry (and a lot goes awry).
The same is true in On My Way to You, only here the bride has her own hurdles to get over. These two stories are heartbreaking.
You’ll root for them, cry for them, hope against hope that things will work out for them.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
The Three-Body Problem poses questions that are familiar in science fiction:
- Can science be a path to truth?
- Do humans deserve to occupy a planet – essentially a rotating Eden in a barren universe – that they are needlessly destroying?
- What would it take for a single person to betray the entire human race?
The questions are familiar, but the execution is a page-turning, uniquely Chinese epic, and one of the best modern sci-fi novels out there.
The author, Cixin Liu, is an engineer who moonlighted as a writer for more than three decades while working at a power plant in China’s Shanxi Province.
Liu’s knowledge of science and engineering permeates The Three-Body Problem, which is bursting with detailed explanations of astronomy and abstract physics — challenging, but illuminating passages that are well-worth the effort of reading.
It is, without a doubt, one of the most mind-bending, contemplative and inspiring pieces of fiction you’ll ever read.
The Three-Body Problem, appropriately, contains three intertwining plots: The first, in the early 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution; the second, in the early 2000s; and a third set inside of a virtual reality game centred in an extraterrestrial world terrorised by its three-sun system.
The protagonist of the early 2000s plot is Wang Miao, a well-to-do nanomaterials scientist who teams up with the loud-talking, chain-smoking police officer Shi Qiang to investigate the mysterious deaths of local scientists, premeditated events that they will discover are inextricably linked to the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution.
This is a revolution of science fiction and one of the most essential modern sci-fi novels on the shelves.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
The Space Between Worlds is the debut novel by author Micaiah Johnson; a multiverse-spanning journey of mystery and discovery, and one of the most original and affecting modern sci-fi novels on the shelves.
Our protagonist is Cara, a young traverser who moves through 380 different versions of Earth in order to observe and gather data.
Her job is simply to report on what makes each version of Earth unique.
What makes this premise fun is that a traverser can only set foot on an Earth if that Earth’s version of them is dead, and Cara is dead in all but eight Earths, due to the difficult circumstances of her birth and youth.
Despite its impressive and ambitious world-building, The Space Between Worlds is actually a rather intimate character-focussed sci-fi novel.
Through this sci-fi novel, Johnson offers us both questions and answers on the themes of identity, nature vs nurture, and the lasting impact of trauma. She gives us satisfying character writing, powerful plot twists, and some nice genre-bending.
Cara herself is the driving force of this novel. A damaged, angry young woman with too much on her shoulders.
She is relatable in a tragic kind of way, and someone to watch with unblinking eyes as her journey of discovery becomes more personal than professional.