From its pulpy origins, science fiction has blossomed into an incredible genre that seeks to investigate humanity’s biggest questions with a smile. It asks old questions — what are our biggest fears? What are our most cherished hopes? — in new ways to see if the answers are any different. And it’s the best genre of literature. Debate me, lit-bros!
In the best examples of the form, you’ll find alien species that teach us about being human, nanotechnology that pushes us to our physical limits, wars that span eons and galaxies, revolutions, martyrs, and plenty of sentient AIs. Let the list below, organized from the earliest published work to the most recent, steer you toward your next reality-shattering read.
One of the first true “space operas” (epic tales of humanity spanning across entire galaxies, combined with high drama and large-scale battles), Lensman is a direct inspiration for Star Wars. Though it may lack the family drama of that series, Lensman nevertheless keeps readers captivated with its space-hopping series of adventures. Eager to create a galaxy-wide force for good, an advanced alien civilization gifts hero Virgil Samms with a mysterious “Lens,” a device that allows instantaneous telepathic communication with all creatures. Only the worthy are given the gadget, and Simms travels the galaxy in search of members for the Lens-bearing Galactic Patrol — an incorruptible organization desperately trying to bring justice to the final frontier.
Short, terse, and powerful, The Stars is a classic revenge story distinguished by its experimental typography and completely bonkers protagonist. Marooned in a lifeless ship in the middle of space, our hero is transformed into a creature purely motivated by revenge. Think The Count of Monte Cristo in space, complete with an inescapable prison, complex webs of betrayal, and unimaginable wealth. Add in teleportation and time travel, and you’ve got one of the most entertaining and groundbreaking pieces of sci-fi to come out in the 1950s.
Canticle tracks the monks of a fictional California monastery in the wake of a devastating nuclear war. The novel spans thousands of years as the monks fight to keep the last remnants of humanity’s knowledge safe from the hellish landscape outside their walls. It’s a testament to the power of this novel that it has never been out of print, and that the endless cycles of violence, arms races, and totalitarian regimes Miller projected far into the future seem to be coming true.
Delany is one of the most talented and ambitious sci-fi writers: There’s no one else who could invest this slim volume with such heft, both in terms of the ideas that motivate the plot and the virtuosity with which he writes. In the middle of a seemingly unending conflict, the military comes across an enemy code and, unable to break it themselves, turns its over to acclaimed poet, former codebreaker, and all-around badass Rydra Wong for analysis. When Rydra discovers that it’s actually a language that programs your mind when you speak it, it unlocks possibilities she never knew existed. To say more would give the ending away, but if you’re still not sold, know there’s a scene where Rydra drives a man crazy with a poem specifically engineered for his brain.
Righteously predicting and then skewering the culture of the new millennium, this is one of the angriest novels on the list. All of today’s most pressing problems — climate change, population pressure, bioterrorism — are played out with dire consequences and dark, dark humor. Plus, Zanzibar is a unique read for its intense world-building, which can be a bit intimidating for a first-time reader (what, you don’t want to read three pages of population statistics?) but gives the novel a scope few others can approach.
Dick, acknowledged master of the psychedelic sci-fi tale, has his trippy masterpiece in Ubik, a twisty tale set in the then-far-flung future of 1992. Technological and evolutionary advances have released the populace’s psychic powers, challenging individual privacy and creating a whole new world of espionage, while cryogenic freezing allows more and more people to live “half-lives,” telepathically advanced states of being caught between life and death. As the plot progresses, our protagonists are caught in double cross after double cross until they face the ultimate question: Are we alive, or are we dead?
Asimov is rightly considered one of the masters of sci-fi, though more for his ideas than the strength of his writing. Some of his strangest and most interesting concepts are in this novel, which was originally published as three separate novellas and later reworked into a single tome. Sections deal with such disparate ideas as the transfer of energy between parallel universes and the social consequences of an alien race’s sexual trimorphism. Still, Asimov brings together his wide-ranging thoughts on the shape of the universe and humanity’s unique place in it.
One of the most beautifully written sci-fi novels of all time, The Dispossessed reads like poetry even as Le Guin describes interstellar travel, desert farming, and anarcho-syndicalism. Dispossessed splits its time between an anarchist community on the moon (Anarres) and the opulent capitalist society on its Earth-like counterpart (Urras), which is plagued with a series of worker-led uprisings. Our hero is a physicist from Anarres working on a General Temporal Theory that will revolutionize interstellar travel and communication, but he must grapple with the ethics of his work and the societies he finds himself within. No society is perfect, Le Guin argues, just as no revolution is ever truly over.
As one of the lesser-known sci-fi titles, this is partly a sentimental pick on my part, as a close friend gave me the book shortly before he passed away. Still, Monteleone’s novel is impressive both in its scope and its detail. The Time-Swept City focuses on the city of Chicago through the eons, as technology improves from cryogenics to spaceflight to self-aware computer systems and self-replicating robots. In fact, City progresses so far into the future that Chicago outlives its inhabitants, leaving the humans behind with the rest of the fossils and continuing its unchanging mechanical perfection into eternity.
One of the weirder books on this list, Shadow reads more like a fantasy, exploring a world of mouldering cities and societal factions with an archaic vocabulary that can be tough to understand at times (and the author deliberately omits a glossary, the bastard). But if you stick with it, you’ll find this is one of the most intriguing sci-fi series of the last several decades. Secrets of ancient technology are hinted at throughout the beginnings of Torturer (the first in a four-book cycle), leading to the reader’s gradual realization that this is not a Tolkien-esque fantasyland but a far-flung future. Modern culture is a buried legend in this world, and yet bits of advanced technology survive, creating a strange world where robots and magic coexist. Be warned, though: If you pick up the first book, you’ll need to read all four for a satisfying ending.
Farmer is perhaps best known for his Riverworld series, but in terms of pure sci-fi thought experiments, nothing in his extensive catalog can beat Dayworld. Overpopulation forces most of the world’s population into suspended animation, and each person gets one day a week to be awake. Daybreakers, anti-government activists, dare to stay awake longer, but must assume a different personality each day of the week to avoid suspicion. When one Breaker gets overwhelmed by his fractured identities, he becomes a fugitive from both the establishment and the revolutionaries — and must fight for every scrap of sanity.
Card’s seminal Ender’s Game is rightfully lauded and highly entertaining, but its more cerebral sequel Speaker for the Dead is by far a better book. Set 3,000 years after Ender’s xenocide of the Buggers, Speaker tracks humanity’s second attempt to communicate with an alien species, with mixed results. Card gives us an entire world of alien biology, carefully crafted in a way humanity (and readers) never expect. In fact, the scientists who live and work on the planet nearly cause another war with their assumptions and lack of meaningful communication with the natives. It takes an adult Andrew Wiggin, still alive thanks to near-constant relativistic travel, to see the truth of humans and natives alike.
A poignant piece of speculative fiction that has become eerily close to modern reality. Set in the very near future, Butler describes an America devastated by the effects of climate change, which has triggered a global recession and corporations’ stampede to stockpile whatever limited resources are left. One of the eeriest prophesies it presents is the insidious return of indentured servitude and company towns, allowed back into law as a direct result of the faltering economy. Even scarier, the sequel features a conservative presidential candidate who runs (and wins) with a campaign that promises to Make America Great Again.
Stephenson’s follow-up to his excellent cyberpunk adventure Snow Crash follows a young girl from the poorest section of society as she comes into possession of an extremely powerful interactive book, which adapts to her life to teach her everything from basic literacy to self-defense. Also in this book: cyberpunk Victorians, living computers, futuristic theater tech, and mediatronic chopsticks. A coming-of-age tale set in a nanotechnology-saturated world, this is the only book on the list that will teach you the basics of computer programming.
Atwood proved herself an eerily accurate diviner of the future with her powerful The Handmaid’s Tale. For Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood shows us a future shaped by rampant biological experimentation and an unscalable gulf between the rich and the poor. Walled enclaves of wealth, power, and education are controlled by global megacorporations and exist in contrast to the lawless “pleeblands” outside, while toxic internet culture and the rise of bioterrorism threaten everyone. Yes, it is fiction.
One of the most recent entries on this list, Bacigalupi’s debut novel is set in the near future of 23rd-century Thailand, where climate change and a lack of carbon-based fuels have forced humanity to come up with new ways to store and create power. It has also given rise to megacorporations who control the world’s limited food sources with genetically engineered crops. Questions of biodiversity, ethical terrorism, and population control consume the novel’s plot, which has the twists and backstabs of a political thriller but a sci-fi heart.
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