Science fiction is both an exciting and a vitally important genre of fiction — across literature, film, and video games — for countless reasons.
The best sci-fi books offer writers and readers the opportunity to flex their imaginations, to ask colossal questions about philosophy and existentialism. This is what the best sci-fi books provide us.
Sci-fi is also perhaps the most diverse genre, both in terms of possibilities and inclusion, with writers and readers of every race, gender, and sexual orientation.
For that reason, this list of the best sci-fi books ever showcases the range and breadth of science fiction, featuring writers from all over the world, from different cultural backgrounds.
Diversity is important, as is showcasing the legacy and history of the science fiction genre, from its earliest iterations to where we are right now.
This is also a growing list that will be periodically expanded as we read more and more of the best sci-fi books, both classic and contemporary.
So head back here frequently to see what new gems have been published or re-discovered.
With that said, the best sci-fi books featured here have been divided into two categories: classic sci-fi books and contemporary science fiction novels.
Best Classic Sci-Fi Books
For the purposes of this list, “classic sci-fi books” refers to anything published before the start of the 21st century.
This means we’re covering everyone from Mary Shelley to Dan Simmons.
The “contemporary sci-fi books” section is reserved for the ever-growing library of modern sci-fi books that this century will continue to gift us with.
So, if you’re looking to expand your own library of the best sci-fi books that everyone should read, from both the 19th and 20th centuries, these are the ones to check out.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a lot of things. Written by a girl who, at the time, was not even twenty years old, Frankenstein is considered to be the originator of science fiction literature.
Shelley was the daughter of groundbreaking feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of romantic poet Percy Shelley, and author of (in my opinion) the greatest novel ever written.
Frankenstein is both a classic of the gothic genre and the first ever sci-fi novel. Two hundred years after its publication, it is heralded as a classic and a masterpiece by so many metrics.
The novel tells the story of the titular Victor Frankenstein, a young man obsessed with conquering death after the loss of his mother.
While studying at university, Victor digs up graves and gathers body parts, gradually assembling them into an enormous new creature, into which he hopes to breathe new life.
His experiment is a success, but the creature frightens him into fleeing, leaving our tragic hero to roam the world alone and learn life without a father or a friend to help him.
Thus begins a frightening cat-and-mouse hunt between the arrogant and careless Frankenstein and his confused, lonely, but intelligent creation.
Frankenstein is gothic, it is frightening, and it is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror.
The first ever sci-fi novel is also one of the best sci-fi books ever written (actually, in this writer’s humble opinion, Frankenstein is the very best novel ever written, full stop).
Buy a copy of Frankenstein here!
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Alongside British sci-fi author H.G. Wells (below), French author Jules Verne is considered one of the godfathers of science fiction literature.
His stories have inspired countless readers and writers, and spawned many great adaptations in the form of films, video games, and animation.
Verne’s classic tale Journey to the Center of the Earth is a personal favourite of this writer; one of the best sci-fi books to elicit repeated reactions of excitement and wonder from the reader.
The story follows a German professor and his nephew, who, after translating an old Icelandic text, set out on an expedition to find a crater in Iceland that might lead to the centre of the planet.
What they find is real, and as they journey deeper, they see impossible wonders; the most memorable of which is a vast ocean inside a cavern.
While traversing this subterranean sea, our protagonists come into contact with prehistoric creatures: an ichthyosaurus and a plesiosaurus.
Fun fact: If it swam in the water or flew in the sky, it isn’t considered a dinosaur. Dinosaurs exclusively walked on land.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a thrilling adventure of discovery, a wonderful precursor to so many of the best sci-fi books that followed Jules Verne’s legacy.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells was a prolific British author of science fiction; so many of his books remain widely-read classics of the genre to this day.
While we could have focussed instead on The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, or The Island of Doctor Moreau, we settled on The War of the Worlds for one specific reason.
That is the fact that this classic sci-fi novel is explicitly anti-imperialist; a sharp critique on invasion and colonialism.
This reminds us sci-fi fans that the genre has been politically-charged since its earliest days. Sci-fi can be, and so often is, used allegorically to explore real-world political issues.
The War of the Worlds was also adapted into a celebrated and iconic musical by American composer Jeff Wayne, and this was many fans’ first introduction to Wells’ story.
This novel, one of the best sci-fi books ever written, follows an unnamed narrator in England as he describes a planetary invasion from hostile Martians, using advanced, strange, and terrifying machinery.
It’s an oftentimes chilling story, in which our protagonist and everyone around him feels powerless, running and hiding and simply hoping to survive.
As well as trying hard to understand the whats, hows, and whys of this sudden and terrifying invasion.
Returning to its political allegories, The War of the Worlds manages to put the reader in the shoes of a confused, frightened, and powerless innocent faced with invasion.
Buy a copy of War of the World here!
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Alongside his British counterpart of the same period, Arthur C. Clarke (below), Isaac Asimov was considered one of the mid-century writers to push the sci-fi genre further forward.
He alone wrote some of the best sci-fi books ever, was also a professor of biochemistry, and helped popularise the subgenre of “hard science fiction”.
Foundation, which is the first in a trilogy inspired by the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, is perhaps his most beloved and celebrated work.
The titular Foundation is a fictional institute that exists to collect and preserve the history of a now fallen Galactic Empire into something called the Encyclopedia Galactica.
This first novel of the trilogy is separated into five stories which, together, tell the story of the early days of the Galactic Empire.
The first story introduces us to Hari Seldon, founder of the Foundation. Seldon is a mathematician and psychologist who manages to predict the fall of the empire before it happens.
Seldon argues that the creation of the Encyclopedia Galactica will not stop the empire’s collapse, but it will make the future slightly brighter than what he currently predicts.
Foundation was a novel that pushed the genre of science fiction in bold new directions, and is for this reason regarded as one of the best sci-fi books ever written.
Buy a copy of Foundation here!
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Perhaps best known as the novel that inspired Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? remains its author’s most celebrated work.
While, in this writer’s opinion, Scott actually went a lot deeper into the philosophy that Dick’s original novel presents us with, the film could not have existed without this groundbreaking sci-fi story.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a bleak future world; nuclear war has led to a polluted planet on which many animal species have gone extinct.
For this reason, a large portion of the human race has fled off-world, and on Mars people are provided with an android that will serve their needs.
Occasionally, androids escape from Mars and head to Earth, desperately seeking freedom from slavery. Our protagonist, the iconic Rick Deckard, is an android bounty hunter (or blade runner).
Rick also dreams of one day owning a real animal of his own, as a show of status; right now, all he has is an electric sheep which lives on the rooftop of his apartment building.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was one of the first sci-fi stories to explore the notion of humanity, consciousness, and the soul — as well as who gets to be “free”.
An enormously influential novel, this one is required reading for sci-fi fans who really want to be left puzzling over a few big philosophical questions. One of the very best sci-fi books of its era.
Dune by Frank Herbert
There are sci-fi novels, and then there are sci-fi novels. Some are well-respected, well-loved stories by great writers. Others spawn fandoms and even entire industries.
While Dune isn’t on the same pop-culture level as Star Wars or Star Trek, it is perhaps their nearest equivalent in the world of books and literature.
An enormous space opera full of intricate and political world-building, Dune is a thematically dense creature that explores enormous ideas.
These ideas stretch from those of power and autonomy all the way to tackling the toxic tropes and habits of narratives and storytelling.
Dune is dauntingly large in its scope, both in terms of the galactic world it presents us with, and also the themes it aims to explore and tackle.
Set in a far-distant future, the world of Dune is reminiscent of mediaeval Europe, in which noble houses control certain areas of space.
Our protagonist, Paul Atreides, is the son of one such noble house, and that house has just been given stewardship of the planet Arrakis.
Arrakis is a desert planet rich in something called “spice”, a drug that is vital for so many aspects of life in this world. But Arrakis is also a dangerous and almost inhospitable place.
The novel takes us on a journey across the planet, as we learn about complex political games, subterfuge, manipulation, and Shakespearean backstabbing.
Few of the best sci-fi books are as detailed, well-plotted, well-considered, and well-formed as Dune.
One of the first great political space operas, Dune remains at the peak of this sci-fi sub-genre.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke is one of the great names in science fiction; a legend of the craft.
Childhood’s End, Rendezvous With Rama, and The City and the Stars are all captivating sci-fi classics, but none are as recognisable as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Made most famous by the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name, 2001: A Space Odyssey actually has a curious history.
Kubrick himself originally came up with the concept, and approached Clarke to help him flesh it out into a full story.
This led Clarke to turn 2001 into a full novel of his own, and even write several (increasingly less successful) sequels. In fact, the novel was actually published shortly after the film’s release.
The story of 2001 begins in Africa, with prehistoric man. A mysterious and advanced alien race places a strange monolith on Earth which helps to advance the minds of humans.
The monolith’s influence leads the early humans to develop tools and even use them on each other in acts of jealousy and violence.
We then fast-forward to a future in which a similar monolith has been found on the moon. This one provides coordinates that point towards one of Saturn’s moons.
From here, a dangerous journey out into the deep reaches of space begins, as we wonder what this alien race is and what they want with us.
The scale of excitement and intrigue in 2001: A Space Odyssey is all but unmatched, and the novel features plenty of dread, fear, and big questions about the nature of our existence.
Easily one of the best sci-fi books ever written, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an iconic piece of science fiction literature.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin was an author who did so much for both the sci-fi and fantasy genres; an incredible woman of great moral integrity. She loved art, and felt strongly about giving voices to the voiceless.
There aren’t many authors as revered for their works in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres, but Le Guin was incredibly special.
Her fantasy Earthsea Quartet inspired countless future authors, and her sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness is a vital piece of feminist science fiction literature.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a sci-fi novel which follows protagonist Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who travels to a strange world called Gethen.
Ai hopes that Gethen will join the confederation of planets, which her home planet of Earth is a part of.
Our protagonist, however, quickly becomes shaken and surprised by the fact that Gethen’s population are “ambisexual”, which here means they have no fixed gender.
This concept exemplifies the novel’s core theme of exploring ideas surrounding sex and gender, and how we allow them to impact modern society.
Ai has arrived on a planet entirely unburdened by the societal segregation of gendered groups, a world of Le Guin’s own imagination.
As a transgender writer, this is something that fascinates me personally a great deal.
The Left Hand of Darkness has touched many readers on a deep emotional level, as it asks questions about the impact of gendered society and how gender divides work to isolate us as groups and as individuals.
It’s also, quite simply, an exceptional piece of science fiction; a blend of Star Treke-sque space opera and speculative, philosophical sci-fi, making it one of the best sci-fi books ever written.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
A generation-defining science fiction novel and one of the best pieces of American fiction to come out of the 20th century, Kindred is a true sci-fi masterpiece; one of the very best sci-fi books of all time.
Written by genius American author Octavia E. Butler, Kindred is considered by many to be her magnum opus, a piece of literary science fiction.
Originally published in 1979 and set in 1976, Kindred follows a Black writer named Dana and her white husband Kevin ( who is also a writer) as they find themselves inexplicably tethered through time to a boy and his slave-owner family on a 1815 Maryland plantation.
When the novel begins, Dana and Kevin are unpacking after moving to a new house in California, when she finds herself teleported back 150 years to a plantation in Maryland and the sight of a drowning red-headed boy.
Dana saves the boy from drowning and immediately finds herself facing down the barrel of a white man’s gun, before being yanked back through time to her present.
As it transpires, the drowning boy is Rufus, an ancestor of Dana’s who will father a child with one of his family’s slaves, and Dana is now caught in a loop: any time Rufus’ life is threatened, she is pulled back to save him.
Similarly, if she is put in harm’s way while in the past, she is sent back to 1976. On her third journey back to 1815, her husband is dragged back with her.
Being a Black woman married to a white man, Dana is assumed a slave, and Kevin her owner. Kindred is a sci-fi novel about cruelty and compassion, about the importance of education and empathy.
A true masterpiece of science fiction by one of the US’s most important literary voices, Kindred is one of the most important and best sci-fi books ever written.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Originally written as an epistolary short story, Flowers for Algernon was later expanded into one of the best sci-fi books ever written.
The novel for which Daniel Keyes is best remembered is a true masterpiece of the genre, using science fiction to explore themes of value, intelligence, and human rights.
Our protagonist, Charlie, is an “intellectually disabled” man in his thirties who works in a bakery. Charlie is soon made a test subject for intellectual development.
The first test subject was the titular Algernon, a mouse who underwent experimental surgery with impressive results, and Charlie will be the first human test subject.
As the novel, written as a diary from Charlie’s perspective, progresses, we see his intelligence grow, and with it his observations, his relationships, and even his grammar.
In this way, Flowers for Algernon uses the epistolary style of prose to great effect.
Charlie’s development from a man of lower-than-average intelligence to one of genius status leads us to question the ways in which we treat one another based on our intelligence.
This is a sci-fi novel with valuable themes to consider, and the ways in which Keyes explores those themes also tug viciously at the reader’s heartstrings.
Like Frankenstein’s creature, Charlie is a tragic hero, mocked and feared and patronised by ordinary people, and his later intelligence embitters him towards the world around him.
A remarkable masterpiece of the genre, Flowers for Algernon is one of the best sci-fi novels ever written, without a doubt.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
There never has been, and may never be an author quite like Kurt Vonnegut. A brilliant satirist who used science fiction to explore deep, dark political themes of the 20th century.
Side note: I actually have a friend who did an entire PhD on Kurt Vonnegut. Now that’s dedication. Anything I have to say here will pale in comparison to his knowledge.
Written during the Vietnam War, and displaying aggressively blatant anti-war themes and messaging, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s most celebrated novel.
Based in part on Vonnegut’s own life as a serviceman during World War II, Slaughterhouse-Five follows the life of a man named Billy Pilgrim.
Pilgrim was an American PoW who experienced and survived the firebombing of Dresden, and who later was abducted by aliens and taken to a planet called Tralfamadore.
We spend some of the novel living through Billy’s experiences through World War II, then his life back home post-war, and finally his abduction and the time-twisting that follows.
It’s a strange novel that throws out surreal and dreamlike concepts about seeing in four dimensions, travelling through memories, and being held in an alien zoo.
Considered a work of postmodernism, Slaughterhouse-Five is an expressly anti-war book that explores this perspective through surreal science fiction and satire.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons is an author whose books are all based on, or influenced by, the works of classic authors like Dickens, Chaucer, and Shelley, as well as the poet John Keats (whose poem inspired the name of this novel).
While he is also known for writing historical thrillers like The Terror and Drood, Simmons also wrote a fantastic sci-fi series called the Hyperion Cantos, and the first novel is a must-read.
Set in a far-future in which a spacefaring human empire exists known as the Hegemony of Man, Hyperion follows a group of pilgrims who have arrived on the planet of Hyperion.
Hyperion is home to strange Time Tombs which move backwards in time, and are guarded by a strange native creature called the Shrike.
Modelled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Simmons’ Hyperion presents us with each pilgrim’s backstory, and what led them to the titular planet of Hyperion.
A wonderful exercise in world-building and sci-fi storytelling, Hyperion is a classic of American science fiction.
Best Contemporary Sci-Fi Books
Written by a diverse selection of incredible authors, these contemporary sci-fi books were all published after the turn of the 21st century.
This means the list will continue to grow as time goes on, and more new and exciting science fiction literature comes our way.
If you want to know what great sci-fi books are coming to define this century, this list of the best contemporary sci-fi books is for you.
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, this incredible sci-fi novel won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award the following year.
Children of Time begins with a scientist who, along with a small team, adventured into the far reaches of space to experiment with and terraform a planet for human colonisation.
Things, however, went horribly 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 makes Children of Time stand out amongst even the best sci-fi novels of all time is its imaginative and enthralling biological world-building.
The spiders themselves are protagonists as well, and we get to see Tchaikovsky’s sharp and wild mind at work.
The author imagines what a society of advanced spiders with human-like intelligence might look like, and it is wonderfully fascinating. So many “wow” moments page after page.
Then there’s how a generation ship full of humans who are clinging to hope operates, and the problems that arise onboard.
This is a novel that leans on the subgenre of “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 best sci-fi books you’ll ever read.
Buy a copy of Children of Time here!
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This is How You Lose the Time War is a stunning short sci-fi novel, co-written by two celebrated and award-winning science fiction authors.
Primarily, this sci-fi book is a love story. Our protagonists, known only as Red and Blue, are deadly agents who operate for rival factions which are fighting for control of multiple timelines.
While roaming the aftermath of a battlefield, Red finds a letter left by Blue; the letter taunts and flirts with and teases Red, and also reveals that Blue is becoming disenchanted by this ceaseless and seemingly cyclical war between their factions.
From this point, we move between Red and Blue’s perspectives, and those perspectives are divided by letters sent back and forth between the two.
As they move through various strands of time that move back and forth through possible pasts and futures, each finds a letter left by the other, and these letters steadily take on a different, more poetic and romantic tone.
From flirtatious taunts to passionate declarations of love, the letters steadily spell out the intense addiction that these two opposing women have developed for one another.
The world-building is also thrilling.
Larger-than-life concepts involving time manipulation and riding the threads of time, taking us from Shakespeare’s London to mecha wars on distant planets.
This is a wildly exciting modern sci-fi novel that shows us how, no matter the scale of the world, no matter the advancements in technology, love still wins out in the end.
I’m Waiting for You by Kim Bo-young
Translated from the Korean by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu
Kim Bo-Young is a legend of Korean literature, and even worked as a script editor on Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer movie.
With I’m Waiting for You, readers can see first-hand why she’s such a spectacular sci-fi author.
This collection of four stories is essential reading for fans of modern sci-fi, and it stands tall amongst the best sci-fi books of all time.
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 god whose prophets, disciples, and children all separated from them like cells. Individually, they spend entire lifetimes on Earth, learning and growing 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 wrong (and an awful lot goes wrong).
The same is true in On My Way to You, only here the bride has her own hurdles to jump. These two stories are heartbreaking. You’ll root for them, cry for them, hope against hope that things will work out for them.
Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang
Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
As things stand right now, Chinese author Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds feels like one of the best sci-fi novels of the century.
Vagabonds is a grand, ambitious, considered, philosophical masterpiece of political science fiction.
Taking place in 2201, Vagabonds is set on Mars and focuses on the tensions between Mars and Earth. Similar to the timeline of 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.
While it is a long and slow book, Vagabonds is one to get lost in. A genius work of Chinese sci-fi and one of the best sci-fi books of this century so far.
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
To Be Taught If Fortunate is a hard sci-fi novella from the incredible mind of Becky Chambers.
While her Wayfarer series is a sweeping space opera, this is a harder, quieter, more serious story.
This short sci-fi novel is 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 modern sci-fi books that you’re ever likely to read.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is the first in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and this modern sci-fi novel was also adapted into a film by Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and Men.
While it is the first of a trilogy, Annihilation also works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, and it is also smartly short.
A novel as strange and surreal as this one choosing not to outstay its welcome is a very savvy decision by the author.
Annihilation is set entirely within the limits of “Area X”, an abandoned and marshy part of US coastline which was officially designated a place of ecological disaster.
Our protagonist is a nameless biologist who is part of the twelfth expedition into Area X; the purpose of these expeditions is to explore the strange area and learn as much as possible about what it is and what caused it.
Most expeditions end with disaster: insanity, disease, tragedy. And as our protagonist ventures deeper in, stranger things emerge.
The strangest thing being a tower/tunnel which burrows into the Earth.
There is a staircase inside and the walls are lined with biblical-sounding gibberish made out of moss, flowers, and other living stuff.
The thing that wrote this gibberish is a possibly extraterrestrial humanoid creature dubbed by our protagonists as the “Crawler”.
Annihilation is a sci-fi eco novel of sorts that explores the concept of ecological change and adaptation in the face of difficulty and things beyond our understanding.
Lovecraftian, feverishly strange, but also beautiful in a way that only the best sci-fi can be, Annihilation is one of the most addictive and strange sci-fi novels ever written.
Buy a copy of Annihilation here!
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
It’s not too hyperbolic to call How High We Go in the Dark the next step in science fiction.
This is one of the best sci-fi books 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.
This is a very real issue that scientists fear, and that is part of what makes How High We Go in the Dark so compelling and chilling.
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.
The Hierarchies by Ros Anderson
With her indie sci-fi novel The Hierarchies, Ros Anderson has managed to do something fresh and new with the well-trodden themes of consciousness and machine learning.
All the while, she is also taking a bold, modern approach to contemporary feminist writing.
Our protagonist, Sylv.ie, is a sex robot. She exists to simply please the man who owns her. Sylv.ie’s owner is a married man whose wife is pregnant, and she gives birth soon after the novel begins.
Sylv.ie must stay upstairs, sit idle, browse the internet (here called the Ether), and wait for her husband to come to her with his needs — be they sexual, intellectual, or social.
Sylv.ie’s moral code is governed by a short list of four “hierarchies”, similar to the three laws of robotics by Isaac Asimov (above), and she is able to learn and develop by plugging herself into the internet.
Soon enough, however, Silv.ie wakes up in hospital for a “routine” check. She gets a shiny new vagina and a simple software update. But upon returning home, she realises that a large section of her memory is missing.
When she finds a coded diary from her past self, a self she no longer remembers, she learns that she has already attempted to escape once, and she must do again.
The Hierarchies is a very nuanced and captivating exploration of consciousness, learning, personal growth, freedom, and purpose. It tackles themes that sci-fi has been tackling since its inception but in bold new ways.
One fresh and fascinating aspect of the novel is the inclusion of an angry group which call themselves “bio women” who protest the existence of female sex robots.
These women are allegorical of conservative bigots who look down their noses at transgender women and sex workers, and their inclusion makes this one of the most bold and dynamic sci-fi books you’ll ever read.
Buy a copy of The Hierarchies here!
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes
Written by Scottish author Martin MacInnes, In Ascension is a literary sci-fi masterpiece that has the potential to change the way you think and feel about the world around you, about what we are, where we came from, and where we might go.
Set in the present day, In Ascension follows a Dutch biologist named Leigh, who grew up in Rotterdam and is captivated by sea life.
In the novel’s first part, Leigh joins an expedition to the north Atlantic ocean, to explore a deep sea vent that might tunnel deeper than the Mariana Trench, and therefore house life never seen before.
The life in this undersea vent, untouched for billions of years, has the potential to behave like a time capsule, taking us back to the earliest forms of life on this planet.
What Leigh discovers in the vent takes her to the Mojave Desert, to a job working with a NASA-like space agency that is using a newly-discovered form of fuel to send people to the furthest reaches of our solar system and beyond.
The questions that In Ascension poses, and the incredible discoveries made, ask the reader to deeply consider that old cliche: we are all made of star stuff.
In Ascension is a modern sci-fi novel that takes us from the most inaccessible parts of the deepest darkest ocean to the furthest point in our solar system.
And, as we explore these places old and new, big and small, we ask ourselves what we are, where we came from, where we will go, and how it is ultimately all the same. We are all star stuff.
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Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
American author Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars is a blending of genres that mixes queer science fiction with urban fantasy.
Here, we have three protagonists: a transgender violin prodigy, a space alien who sells donuts at a California diner, and an ambitious musician who made a faustian deal with the devil.
This is one of the finest modern sci-fi books by women; emphasising migration and found family.
Our three protagonists are all running from something: an abusive home, hell itself, or a galactic empire.
It’s an experimental novel about love and music and kindness and growth. It reminds us to love one another and, maybe even more importantly, to love ourselves.
Ryka Aoki celebrates music with this novel, emphasising its power, its healing properties, its ability to bring us together and bring out the best in us.
It’s also a sci-fi novel with a focus on everyone who isn’t a white man. Set in California, its protagonists are all queer women from other places: Japan, Vietnam, outer space.
In this way, Light from Uncommon Stars is a perfect American novel; one that reminds us of who and what created the US as it exists today.
The Employees by Olga Ravn
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, The Employees is a short sci-fi novel by Danish author Olga Ravn. Set on a massive spaceship in the 22nd Century, this is a satire of hyper-capitalist workplace culture.
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 fascinating Danish sci-fi novel explores the theme of AI and the meaning of life in truly fresh and original ways.
The Employees 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 even the best sci-fi books of this century.
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The Seep by Chana Porter
Chana Porter’s short novel, The Seep, is a unique kind of sci-fi that pushes the genre in new directions while also harkening back to the golden age of the genre.
In spite of how modern and boundary-pushing this novel is, it also has strong John Wyndham vibes, which is fun.
The titular Seep is an alien lifeform which invades Earth in a very quiet way.
It literally seeps into our water supply, into our minds, and our lives. It causes capitalism to fall and life to become far more hedonistic for all.
Under the thrall of the Seep, all is possible. People live longer, pursue their dreams, change their physiology, and live free.
Our protagonist is a fifty-year-old trans woman who, after many years of living with the Seep, creating art, and retraining as a doctor, is suddenly floored when her wife says she wants to use the Seep to be reborn afresh, as a baby with no memory of her life.
The Seep is a novel about what a world of infinite possibilities might look like, when we still retain our need for companionship and love and kindness.
It’s a book of uncomfortable juxtapositions and a real twist on the alien invasion concept.