Defining “science fiction” (so that one can say, definitively, this book is a sci-fi book) is a little like defining “spiritual” or some other vague belief category that includes so many contradictory and peripheral and quasi-mystical tenants and offshoots that your friend who swears by it probably has no idea what it really is. “Sci-fi” is a term that says everything and nothing simultaneously. We know what it means, intuitively, but not so much definitionally. It involves, we think, kombucha.
Some works that seem obviously sci-fi (like Star Wars) are really not (Star Wars is a space western inspired by myth and samurai films, damnit. Fight us.) While other works that seem far from sci-fi (the early nineteenth-century’s Frankenstein, for instance) are the genre’s very DNA.
At its core, science fiction is a conceit. It’s a thought experiment beginning with a “what if X” or an “imagine a world in which Y.” It has something we might call a Device. And the Device cannot be peripheral, some incidental feature of the world. No, the narrative must turn upon this make-believe conceit. It must be its axis, it’s inciting incident, its reason for existence. The story cannot be the story without the Device. (You might then say, well isn’t “the Force” this Device? Or is more of a “power,” closer to the superhero genre. But would you not call something like X-Men science-fiction? Yes? You can see how tricky this becomes.)
The Device can be both a Thing or an Event. And so works centered on some “extinction-like event”—books like The Road, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Leftovers—do, in effect, count as science-fiction. (Though, we’ve included far less of this type of sci-f, what we’ll call “naturalistic sci-fi,” versus other, more traditional tech-driven sub-genres.)
And while loosening the sci-fi definition may open up just about the entire library, we’ve narrowed a list down to (in no particular order) some amazing reads. Here are the best sci-fi books for all readers, whether you haven’t touched a book since high school or you daily burn incense to the alter of Arthur C. Clarke.
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‘Ubik’ by Philip K. Dick
If you’re gonna take a trip down the sci-fi rabbit hole, there’s no better guide than PKD. Dick may not appear on college syllabi (for whatever reason, “sci-fi” tends to get caught in the academic’s throat when discussing essential literature), but make no mistake: Dick is as great and important an American novelist as there ever was. Prolific, prophetic, and hilarious. Start with Ubik, one of his best.
‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert
Dune is epic sci-fi. Operatic sci-fi. It’s the sci-fi of world (nay, universe) building, and in that sense it shares much with the fantasy genre—those works inspired by myth, geopolitics, and Arthurian romance. Maybe we call Dune “fantasy sc-fi”? Also, if you can judge the strength and epicness of a book based on the number of failed adaptation attempts, Dune is certainly up there. Need another incentive? Look at how cool Timothée Chalamet looks in the upcoming movie version, and picture him in your head the entire time reading. You’re welcome.
‘Labyrinths’ by Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges is your favorite writer who is not yet your favorite writer, simply because you haven’t yet read him. While Labyrinths is actually a short story collection (Borges’ preferred form), each story is as expansive and brain-prodding as any massive or epic work of literature. Sci-fi’s debt to Borges deserves to be proclaimed.
‘1984’ by George Orwell
In a sense, 1984 has become increasingly more difficult to even consider science fiction—it’s Device (complete and utter surveillance of an entire state during war) no longer feels, well, like fiction. The work helped launch a thousand similar sci-fi stories in the “dystopian” sub genre. It’s a goddamn classic.
‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson
Neuromancer IS cyberpunk. The dystopian hacker hero who faces off against the underworld and the artificial intelligence therein—yep, Neuromancer brought that genre westward. Add it to the sci-fi syllabus.
‘The Ghost in the Shell’ by Masamune Shirow
Just as Star Wars owes debt to the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, so does The Matrix (that other seminal and largely imitated American film series) owe it’s basic narrative conceit to Eastern cinema, and, in particular, Japanese anime: the film, Ghost in the Shell. That film was adapted from the manga. And given the impact The Matrix had on global sci-fi storytelling, The Ghost in the Shell is maybe one of the most influential pieces of sci-fi literature in recent memory.
‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick
Yeah, we weren’t gonna just put one PKD book on here. Androids is a property you probably know by another name: Blade Runner. Which is a cool title. But not as cool as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If the answer is “yes,” boy are we in trouble.
‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami
Like all great novelists, Murakami is his own genre. Only after he has written, does “Miruakami-like” become a term; he creates his own predecessors. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is thus its own unique sub-genre of sci-fi we might call “surrealist detective sci-fi.” It’s amazing. And totally original.
‘Akira’ by Katsuhiro Otomo
Before it became one of the best anime films ever, Akira ran as a manga between 1982-1990. The manga falls in the cyberpunk (that’s cyberpunk before even Gibson), and features a teenage biker gang leader in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The work also helped popularize the manga medium in the United States.
‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro
Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro charges into the sci-fi genre with this one, about a group of children synthetically grown to have their organs later harvested. It was ranked by Time as one of the best English language novels since 1923.
‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang
In the spirit of Borges, here’s another fantastic collection of short stories. It features Chiang’s most well-known and award winning work, including the titular piece, the inspiration for the breakout film Arrival. Let this be a hint, Hollywood: adapt more Chiang.
‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley
Yes, Frankenstein, a work published in 1818 and well before the “tech” of modern “sci-fi“. Still, it’s the story of a scientist synthetically creating a sentient being whose existence throws into question social, political, and physical identity—and, yeah, that’s some archetypal sci-fi stuff right there.
‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka
While we’re riffing on sci-fi a bit, we might go into the surreal. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis resists most categorization, but its absurd and impossible conceit (waking up one day as a giant beetle/cockroach/something your father will throw fruit at) is pretty much what we mean by “Device.” It’s the perfect example of a thought experiment novel: simple and affecting.
‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu
‘Solaris’ by Stanislaw Lem
From China to Poland. Lem’s Solaris (the basis for the famous Tarkovsky film) is an endlessly-dissectible novel seemingly about orbiting astronauts confronting a strange planet, but also really about our failure to confront foreignness and artificial intelligence, which itself might be a stand-in for communism, the USSR, or just everything.
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams
Hitchhiker’s Guide is, in short, a phenomena, something between outright parody and philosophical opus. It also provides the answer to everything you will ever need to know, all in a nice two-digit number.
‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir
The Martian was published serially through author Andy Weir’s website. Literary agents that had scoffed him then came calling and the book soon took shape, became a New York Times best seller, and turned into a fun movie in the series of People Trying to Rescue Matt Damon.
‘The Children of Men’ by PD James
Children of Men exists in that same subgenre of world-ending events and what we might term “naturalistic science-fiction”— the Device acts as a kind of deprivation, a return to nature. In this case, the Device is sudden, widespread infertility. Of all the books on the list, this one has by far the best film adaptation.
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut
Perhaps more than any other novel, Slaughterhouse-Five showcases how sci-fi is best used. Here, time travel (the Device) isn’t employed as a plot convenience or drama-inducing spectacle; it’s used in the service of character and as a means to better understanding everything that’s very much not fiction: here, war.
‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley
In the same spirit: Aldous Huxley. Brave New World reads more as cautionary allegory than an other-worldly drama. Published during an age of eugenics fever and developing European genocide, its conceit of hierarchies and castes feels, in all eras, too close to home.
‘V for Vendetta’ by Alan Moore
Alan Moore’s V exists within the 1984 dystopian genre, and, given the Guy Fawkes mania it helped inspire—the image against all forms of supposed totalitarianism—the graphic novel may just be equally iconic.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ by Arthur C. Clarke
Written concurrently with Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001 is just one of author Arthur C. Clarke’s massive array of sci-fi novels. Clarke was so prolific and essential in the sci-fi cannon, there’s even an award named after him. And many books on this list have won that award.
‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury borrows from Orwell for his surveilled police state, focusing, however, on one consequence: the erasure of knowledge. He takes the image of thought suppression (book burning) and turns it into the motivating drama. While it can be, at times, overly moralistic, Bradbury’s prose make it something we’d grab and save from any inferno.
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