29 of the best science fiction books everyone should read

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science fiction books

Looking for a new book to read? Take a journey into the future with this list of the best science fiction novels ever written. Are you looking for your next science fiction must-read? We’ve gathered some of the WIRED team’s favourite science fiction novels, including cyberpunk, space operas, and dystopias. Some are frighteningly plausible, while others are fantastical, yet they all give compelling images of our probable future. For completeness’ sake, they’re listed in chronological sequence. You might also be interested in our lists of the best science fiction films and the finest space films. If you’re looking for additional reading ideas, check out our list of the best fantasy books, or if you’re feeling lazy, check out our list of the finest audiobooks.

The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (1666)

This book is often regarded as the earliest work of science fiction. The Blazing World’s language may be outmoded, but Margaret Cavendish’s courageous feminist text is not only tremendously brave for its time, but also full of creativity. It’s also still immensely relevant, with authors like as China Miéville and Alan Moore citing it as an inspiration. Cavendish’s utopian narrative recounts the exploits of a kidnapped woman who is sent to a society ruled by half-humans, half-animals – fox men, fish men, geese men, and so on. She becomes their Empress as a result of her beauty, and plans an all-out invasion of her own world, replete with physical fire(stones) pouring from the sky.

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)

When Mary Shelley was 18 years old, she began composing the famous gothic thriller Frankenstein. It is a key ancestor of both science fiction and horror genres, exploring major subjects like as the meaning of life and death, immortality, and genetic engineering two centuries later. It is a pro-science fiction in which Dr. Frankenstein is depicted as the callous villain of the story, who created a being but refused to accept responsibility for his crimes. Frankenstein may still teach a vital lesson in an age where the gap between technical life and death is shorter than ever, and scientists are tinkering with the makeup of what makes us human. You don’t have to do anything just because you can.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Asimov was a prolific writer, but many of his best works, such as Nightfall and The Last Question, are classic short stories that read like extended jokes with a punchline twist at the conclusion. In the Foundation series, he’s in a completely different mindset, painting sweeping brushstrokes to depict the development and fall of empires. Although Asimov’s style can be clunky at times, and his portrayal of female characters reflects the views of the day, he has left an enduring impact. The Foundation series follows Hari Seldon, the creator of psychohistory, a branch of mathematics capable of making precise forecasts thousands of years in advance, which Seldon believes is required to save humanity from the dark ages. It’s easy to see why it’s one of Elon Musk’s favourite books (along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which are highly recommended). One of Apple’s new streaming service’s big launch offerings is a long-awaited movie adaptation.

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester (1957)

This groundbreaking tale starts with a simple idea: what if people could teleport? The Count of Monte Cristo for the interstellar age sprawls into a tale of rebirth and vengeance that arcs throughout the Solar System. Gully Foyle, a vicious, illiterate monster who spends six months marooned in deep space and spends the remainder of the novel seeking payback for it, was first published in the UK as Tiger! Tiger!, named after the William Blake poem.

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem (1961)

If you believe you know Solaris from Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 picture, you might be surprised by the original book. This short novel, written by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem in 1961, focuses more on philosophy than plot. It follows a group of humans on a space station as they attempt to comprehend the planet Solaris’ fascinating living ocean, with little success — their research is confined to extensive descriptions that provide a vivid picture of the alien planet but fail to explain how it works.Solaris ends up revealing more about them than it does about itself as they poke and prod it, highlighting the folly of people attempting to fathom something that is not of their world.

Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune was chosen the best science-fiction novel of all time by WIRED US readers in 2012. It’s also the best-selling book of all time, with 18 books set over 34,000 years and a dreadful 1984 movie adaption by David Lynch, which is by far his worst film. Denis Villeneuve is directing a new film that will hopefully be better. The story takes place 20,000 years in the future, in galaxies locked in the feudal era, where computers are prohibited for religious reasons and noble families dominate entire planets. The planet Arrakis is the focus of our attention, as it contains a material that is utilised as a currency throughout the Universe due to its scarcity and mind-enhancing properties. There are also a lot of huge sandworms.

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein (1966)

This riveting story, reportedly one of Elon Musk’s favourite books, provides a convincing depiction of life on Earth’s satellite three years before man first set foot on the moon. Its depictions of the difficulties of living in orbit, as well as the creativity with which humans solved the situation – even among the exiles and misfits that make up the lunar population – are unforgettable.

Ice, by Anna Kavan (1967)

Anna Kavan’s final (and greatest) science fiction novel depicts a horrific, claustrophobic vision of the end of the world, in which the globe is slowly engulfed by an unstoppable monolithic ice shelf, murdering everything in its path. The story’s male protagonist and narrator (who shall remain nameless) is forever chasing after an ethereal and elusive young woman, while contemplating feelings for her that grow darker and more violent as the ice closes in. He constantly runs into the Warden, the young woman’s sometime-husband but also captor, who is always one step ahead of him. He’s running out of time to meet up with them as the ice cuts off practically all land and maritime routes. Kavan takes you on a psychedelic and unnerving voyage, regardless of whether the narrator is dreaming or awake, in his work, which reads like a grown-up, nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. The book’s greatest talent is its language, which depicts a dramatic metaphor crushing anguish of addiction, loneliness, and mental illness. It will not cheer you up, but it will keep your attention.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

Throughout her long career, Le Guin shifted between genres, and this sophisticated novel was published a year after the renowned fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea. The majority of the story takes place on Winter, a distant Earth-like planet where it is always cold and everyone is of the same gender. It was one of the first novels to address the topic of androgyny, as seen through the eyes of protagonist Genly Ai, an Earth visitor who struggles to comprehend this foreign civilization.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick (1977)

A strange tale that reads more like a hallucinated autobiography about the author’s struggle with drug addiction than sci-fi. Vice cop Bob Arctor lives undercover amid a group of drug users addicted to lethal psychotropic dope in a near-future California. Substance D. Arctor had to deal with gradually losing his sense of self while wearing an unique “scramble suit” to mask his face and voice when meeting his fellow cops.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler (1979)

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred was released over 40 years ago, but it still contains lessons and learnings that we may all apply today. Dana, an African-American writer, is sent from 1979 Los Angeles to the pre-Civil War Antebellum south to save her white slave-owning ancestor on multiple occasions, forcing her to confront the horrifying realities of surviving slavery while maintaining her current identity. When she mistakenly travels back with her white spouse, things get much more complex. Power, race, and inequality are all prominent topics in the work. Butler’s contextualization of this period is terrible; the way she contrasts modern-day 1979 with the pre-Civil War period provides a new perspective on the intricate and horrible realities of slavery. Kindred allows you, the reader, to deal with the emotional effects of slavery, which is regrettably lost in far too many of today’s slavery courses.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is the ultimate cyberpunk thriller, following hacker-turned-junkie Henry Case as he attempts one final, very dodgy-sounding job in the hopes of reversing a toxin that prevents him from entering cyberspace. The story, set in a dystopian Japanese underworld, touches on a wide range of futuristic technology, from AI to cryonics, and has a cast of memorable characters who will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Consider Phlebas, by Iain Banks (1987)

Consider Phlebas, a real space opera and Iain Banks’ first of many books featuring the Culture, a galactic utopian civilization of humanoids, aliens, and sentient machines apparently ruled by hyper-intelligent AI “Minds,” was published in 1987, after four outstanding fiction novels. Across the cosmos, a battle rages, with one side fighting for faith and the other for the moral right to exist. Banks combines this battle with something resembling a classic fantasy quest: the hunt for a rogue Mind who has hidden itself on a forbidden realm in order to avoid destruction.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (1989)

Hyperion is a richly woven sci-fi epic recounted in the style of The Canterbury Tales, and it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1990. It is part of a two-book trilogy. Humanity has expanded to thousands of worlds in Hyperion’s universe, none more fascinating or frightening than Hyperion. It’s the home of the Time Tombs, ancient constructions that mysteriously go backward in time, and the horrific creature known as the Shrike guards them. It assassinates anyone who tries to enter the Time Graves, and it has spawned a fanatical religious sect that oversees pilgrimages to the tombs. On the eve of an invasion, a group of pilgrims gather for what is likely to be the final Shrike pilgrimage and recount their stories of how they arrived.

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (1990)

Jurassic Park was a smart, intellectual, and captivating sci-fi classic created by Michael Crichton, author of the similarly excellent Andromeda Strain, before it morphed into the mammoth media franchise “Jurassic World.” Crichton’s story serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the risks of genetic modification (as well as a slightly heady exploration of chaos theory). His descriptions of dinosaurs, such as the T-Rex, are equally brilliant: “Tim felt a shiver, but then he noticed the smaller, muscular forelimb as he moved his gaze down the animal’s torso, away from the big head and jaws. It swung its arms in the air before grabbing the barrier.”

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Snow Crash grabs you from the start – a high-speed race through an anarchic Los Angeles that has been split up into corporate-owned ‘burbclaves’ – and doesn’t let go. The story follows Hiro Protagonist (yeah, really), an elite hacker and swordsman, as he attempts to stop the spread of a deadly virus transmitted by a religious cult. It mixes neurolinguistics, ancient mythology, and computer science, and predicts social networks, bitcoin, and Google Earth with alarming accuracy.

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Vurt, by Jeff Noon (1993)

Vurt is a feather – it’s a narcotic, a dimension, a dream state, and a virtual world all rolled into one.” That’s what the back of this cyberpunk novel from 1993 says, and it’s a great way to get into Vurt’s chaotic and strange universe. Vurt is a dark future Manchester film that follows Scribble on a mission to find his sister Desdemona, who he believes is trapped within a feather called Curious Yellow. A feather, to be precise. Vurt is about virtual reality, but not the sort where you wear a headset. People instead put feathers in their mouths to travel into different dimensions and states of consciousness. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1994 and has since become a cult classic – though it’s not always easy to find a copy. Written in a frantic, dark, and funny style that makes the action feel like it’s bouncing along beside you, Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1994 and has since become a cult classic – although it’s not always easy to find a copy.

Under The Skin, by Michel Faber (2000)

Under The Skin is a film set in Scotland about an alien who is brought to Earth to drug hitchhikers and then return them to her home planet. She’s contemplative about Earth and nature, despite the fact that she’s here to guide people to their deaths. We’re used to imagining what an alien visiting Earth for the first time may think about particular topics, but Faber’s account of Isserley’s adventures feels new, unusual, and, at times, strangely lovely. Under The Skin is a disturbing and difficult book to read at times. It isn’t, however, gratuitous. The work contains satirical elements that address current issues such as how we treat each other, animals, and the environment. We also recommend Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film adaption, which is based on the novel but is a superb and deeply dark film with haunting imagery and a stunning score.

Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky (2002)

In the year 2033, a nuclear holocaust has caused the ragtag remnants of Moscow’s human population to retreat to the city’s underground maze of tunnels. In each metro station, they form independent tribes, exchange products, and fight each other. However, horrific flesh-eating creatures and a voice that is driving people insane are lurking in the tunnels between the stations… This is the idea of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s hugely popular novel, which was eventually adapted into a video game franchise. The translated plot follows a boy named Artyom as he travels to the core of the Metro amid unpredictable hazards in order to salvage humanity’s last vestiges. Expect to be shocked.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (2003)

While The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society that is becoming increasingly conceivable, Oryx and Crake depicts a genetically modified circus of present tendencies brought to their logical conclusion  a “bio-engineered apocalypse,” as one reviewer called it. A number of television adaptations have been proposed, including a now-defunct HBO project with Darren Aronofsky, but this one might be added to the list of impossible-to-adapt books with The Stars My Destination. The book’s world is vivid, weird, and unsettling enough.

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (2008)

When Liu Cixin chose to create a full-length novel in 2008, he was already one of China’s most respected science fiction writers. The result is The Three-Body Problem, a multi-era storey that bounces between the Cultural Revolution, today, and a mystery video game. It’s the first of a trilogy that’s a fascinating departure from Western science fiction conventions, and it’s packed with enough actual science that you could learn something while being entertained.

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

The epic novel Children of Time is set on a fading Earth. People are fleeing, but there is a plan in place to keep some of them safe while the human race thrives elsewhere. However, things don’t exactly work out as planned. This is a long-running saga that spans generations. That’s a difficult thing to pull off while yet ensuring that readers pay attention. Adrian Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, adds intrigue, humanity, and authenticity into each character and tale. Even if they’re just remotely linked to the character you met a few chapters earlier, you’ll find yourself rooting for each new character who appears next. The book covers a wide range of topics, from tiny interactions and feuds to major issues such as belief, artificial intelligence, legacy, discovery, alienness, and more. It’s no surprise that it received the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. There’s a sequel called Children of Ruin in the works, as well as a possible film adaptation (fingers crossed).

The Martian, by Andy Weir (2015)

Andy Weir’s debut novel puts the science in science fiction, with a wealth of well-researched information concerning life on Mars. There are instructions of how to fertilize potatoes with your own faces and hack a Martian rover’s life-support system — in degrees of detail that the film adaptation starring Matt Damon didn’t even come close to achieving. The sarcastic, pop-culture saturated writing style won’t be to everyone’s taste – and this book is unlikely to be taught in English Literature classes – but the first-person perspective works for this narrative of an astronaut stranded on Mars with no way home.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood (2015)

Half techno dystopia, part satire, part sex comedy, and part classic Atwood, this novel is a strange mix. Young lovebirds Charmaine and Stan live in a gloomy, postlapsarian version of the United States, sleeping in their automobile and evading criminals’ blades. Salvation comes in the form of a job offer at the Positron Project, a gated enclave modelled after a 1950s American suburb. What’s the catch? Every other month, all Positron couples must work in a jail, temporarily swapping houses with another pair known as “alternates.” Things take a turn for the worst when both Charmaine and Stan start having strange sexual interactions with their alternatives.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2016)

Margaret Atwood also contributed to this engrossing work, which reverses the concept of The Handmaid’s Tale by placing women in power. Naomi Alderman was mentored by Atwood while writing this innovative thriller about women and girls finding a strong new capacity to generate electricity from their hands, upending civilization in various ways around the world. The Power is paced like a television show, and it will air on Amazon Studios in the near future.

Borne, by Jeff Vander Meer (2017)

Jeff Vander Meer’s gift for the surreal was showcased in the Annihilation series, and in Borne, he takes it even further. Borne begins with an unknown scavenger plucking an object from the fur of a giant flying bear in a post-apocalyptic city, and only gets weirder from there as the main character strikes up a friendship with an intelligent sea anemone-like creature called Borne. The story finally reveals itself to be one of biotechnology gone awry, resulting in the most colorful dystopia you’ll ever see.

Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, by Mike Ashley (2018)

Moonrise, from the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, may have easily been included in this list in the 1950s or perhaps the 1900s. It’s a brilliantly curated anthology of twelve science fiction short stories about the moon – getting to it, exploring it, contemplating it – with lunar-inclined fiction from H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke present and correct, as well as the likes of Judith Merril’s 1954 Dead Centre, which distils all the potential tragedies of space programs into just a handful of haunting images. Mike Ashley is a science fiction novelist and historian.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (2019)

Exhalation is a collection of short stories, not a novel, but bear with us. Ted Chiang is an amazing science-fiction author that incorporates genuine physics and theory into his stories. Despite dealing with a variety of typical sci-fi topics like parallel universes, robot pets, and time travel, this makes them feel like they’re a part of the world. It’s wonderful science-fiction replete with wonder and intrigue, from a circular time-travel doorway in ancient Baghdad to a technology that allows you to meet your parallel self and trade it in at a local store in the current day. Exhalation contains stories and concepts that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them. Chiang has resurrected the science-fiction genre, crafting stories that are invigorating and relatable rather than involving far-flung places and concepts that often lead to disconnection. His short novella Story of Your Life, which served as the inspiration for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, exemplifies this.

The Resisters, by Gish Jen (2020)

Gish Jen’s The Resisters, a speculative dystopia set in a ‘Auto America,’ puts the sport of baseball  of all things – at the center of her universe, which is divided into people who still find work, the Netted, as in ‘Aunt Nettie,’ as in the internet, and the rest: the Surplus. The plot is around Gwen, who comes from a Surplus family but has the opportunity to ascend in status when her baseball skills gain notice, with Jen tackling surveillance culture and the importance of labor and leisure.