Science-Fiction books are often underrated and overlooked as ‘genre’ fiction by those who clearly don’t know any better. As a literary category, science-fiction books include some of the most exciting stories ever written, across a fantastic array of sub-genres. Dystopian, Terraforming, Time-Travel, Aliens, Alternative History, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber-Punk, Steam-Punk, Zombies – the list is practically endless.
However, the nature of a list implies that something will always be left out. We have chosen 25 science-fiction books as just a few bright, notable stars in the boundless galaxy of science-fiction written so far. Some old, but mostly new, we will cover a lot of ground, exploring as many topics and themes as possible.
1.The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Set predominantly in Bangkok of the 23rd century, this is a world devastated by global warming and bioterrorism.
The plot expertly weaves a story of espionage, corruption, rebellion, corporate greed and much more. The Windup Girl follows Anderson Lake, a hardened businessman on a covert mission, who, surprising even himself, falls for a bio-engineered sex worker, Emiko. The relationship of Anderson and Emiko as well as Bacigalupi’s skilled world-building abilities, makes this a spectacular, fast-paced read.
Considering that this is a debut novel, we may expect great things from this author in future.
2. Contact – Carl Sagan
Eleanor Arroway (Ellie) is an astronomer obsessed with the search for alien life. It is December 1999, the dawn of the millennium. After years of scanning the galaxy for signs of life. Eleanor and her team believe they’ve found a message from an intelligent source – and they plan to travel into the depths of space to confront it.
Written by Carl Sagan, a giant in the field of astronomy and cosmology this book maybe lean a little heavy on the science side of fiction but it still makes a great read.
3. Dune – Frank Herbert
As far as science-fiction books go, this one is incredibly popular. Dune is the story of heir-apparent Paul Atreides, who is destined to become the mysterious rebel leader, Muad’Dib on the fabled spice planet, Arrakis. He will go on to avenge the traitorous plot against his family and start a revolution that will have repercussions across multiple worlds.
A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undeniably one of the most awesome epics of science-fiction.
4.The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
No science-fiction book list would be complete without this satirical romp through space.
The world is about to be destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. Just moments before the annihilation of planet earth, Arthur Dent is rescued by his friend, and unbeknownst to poor Arthur, also hitchhiking alien, Ford Perfect.
What follows is a hilarious journey across the cosmos highlighted by excerpts from the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ giving advice and handy hints for today’s space traveller – “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”.
5. Revelation Space – Alistair Reynolds
Thousands of years ago, The Amarantin people were about to discover the secrets to interstellar travel – then their civilisation was mysteriously annihilated. Archaeologist Dan Sylvestre is determined to find out what happened to the Amarantin and if humans may face a similar fate.
A galaxy more empty than it really should be, haunted by the ghosts of species long extinct, this is a space opera tour-de-force with gritty characters and a thrilling plot.
6. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
A self-proclaimed writer of ‘weird’ fiction, China Mieville’s novel is a mixture of steam-punk, science-fiction and fantasy (magic is referred to as thaumaturgy).
With mad scientists, mutated aliens races, as well as a nomination for the Arthur C Clarke award, this novel clearly has its place in the realm of science-fiction. This the first book of three set in the filth-ridden city of New Crobuzon where humans, bio-engineered ‘Re-mades’, and arcane races live in fear of their government and its violent enforcers. Isaac, a brilliant scientist, is commissioned by a bird-man Garuda to restore his power of flight. But one lab specimen threatens the security and sanity of all.
7. Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
A multi-million dollar movie may mean you’ve heard of this book before. But let’s forget the movie for a minute let’s talk about the author and the book. Michael Crichton, who passed away after battling cancer in 2008, loved to explore the idea of science and technology gone awry in a thrilling action-packed way – and he was good at it.
Jurassic Park is the story of genetic engineering, dinosaur DNA and the harrowing consequences of man playing God.
This is an exciting, suspenseful adventure book that asks a few tough ethical questions along the way.
8. Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
Marketed as young adult fiction (as many great works of fiction are today), don’t let this stop you from thoroughly enjoying this steam-punk fuelled adventure story.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by what has become known at the ‘Sixty-Minute War’, huge floating contraptions, known as ‘Traction Cities’ have been created to escape the hostility of the world below. London is now a floating city preying on smaller hovering settlements and dismantling them for parts. Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice at the Museum of Natural History finds himself alone and abandoned, flung from the city to the wasteland below and caught in a race to discover a mystery which may destroy the world.
Sounds fun right?
9. Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Mars is the first in a three-part series chronicling the colonisation of Mars.
For centuries, the red planet has beckoned to mankind to come and conquer its hostile landscape. Now, in the year 2026, a group of one hundred colonists is about to fulfil that destiny.
Brilliantly imagined world-building, breathtaking in scope and ingenuity, Red Mars is an epic scientific saga that is a thrilling tale of discovery as well as an introduction to ideas about terraforming and its consequences.
10. Wool – Hugh Howey
The world imagined in Wool is a particularly bleak one.
Set in a toxic landscape, the inhabitants are forced to live in a giant silo underground, Deceit, misinformation and conspiracy are rife and the only options are to obey or face exile and inevitable death.
Originally written as a part-work, each section is a self-contained story told from a different point of view that brilliantly ramps up the tension. The questions and investigation into how this world came to exist and the origins of the silo will uncover history only hinted at before and events no one is prepared for.
11. Soon I Will Be Invincible – Christopher Andrews
Personally, I think every science-fiction collection should include a book about what it means to be a superhero.
This is a story about Dr Impossible, a supervillain accused of a murder he surprisingly didn’t commit and Fatale, a hero who is also a cyborg, female giant with no recollection of her life before now.
This is a humorous and insightful take on good and evil and what it means to be on both sides of the line.
12. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Again, many people may grumble at the inclusion of this Young Adult title in a list of compelling science-fiction but I would argue once more that they may have seen the movie but they just haven’t read this fantastic book.
Set in a dystopian future Earth, children of the 12 former rebel districts are compelled by law to enter a lottery where they may be chosen to participate in the televised fight to the death, the Hunger Games.
A compelling, action-packed vision of harrowing future, this is one to read.
13. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
Originally published in 1954, this is the oldest title in our collection but some may say by far the most gripping and influential. Writers such as Stephen King, Brian Lumley, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch have all praised this book, and its author as an influence in their work.
The story follows Robert Neville, who believes himself to be the last man alive on earth. A mysterious plague has infected humanity and made us into blood-thirsty vampiric monsters. Neville spends his time fighting for survival and trying to solve the mystery of the pandemic that caused the plague.
Thought-provoking and brilliantly written, every science-fiction buff should own a copy.
14. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
I first read this book as a young teen and was captivated by the fact that Andrew Ender Wiggins was a kid like me, who was being asked to fight a war, in space. The military is breeding child geniuses who they are subsequently training via tactical war games to defend against alien invaders known as ‘Buggers’.
Amazing plot, believable characters we care about and really good prose make this one of the greatest works of science-fiction ever.
15. Hyperion – Dan Simmons
In the 29th century, Earth has long since been destroyed and humans have colonised much of the galaxy. However, the humans find themselves under threat once again, so seven citizens set out on a pilgrimage to the planet, Hyperion seeking answers and salvation. On Hyperion lives the Shrike, a mysterious god-like creature with devastating powers. In the past, it was custom for some to make a journey to the place of the Shrike, who when it finds a group of pilgrims, kills all but one member who may then petition it.
A fantastic read of superb science-fiction.
16. The City of Ember – Jeanne DuPrau
A group of scientists decide to take what is left of humanity underground in order to preserve our species, with plans to re-emerge again in 200 years. Over time much is lost, including the memory of the world above. Now the lights of the city, Ember, are going out and it’s a race against the clock to figure out the clues of how to return to the surface before all is lost.
Enthralling, well-paced story with endearing characters.
17. The Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
This is a brilliant foray into time travel science fiction books. The Doomsday books tell the story of a young historian in Oxford, England in 2048 during an attack of an unknown virus.
Kivrin Engle, a history student (historians being one of the only citizens permitted to time travel) is sent back into time to complete her doctorate. Kivrin is accidentally transported to 14th Century England during the Black Plague. Not only is there a struggle to get back to 2048 but she must struggle to stay alive in a village that is ravaged by the horrors of the black plague.
Riveting and filled with characters you will grieve for, you’ll thank me for introducing you to Connie Willis.
18. Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
“John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First, he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.”
Humans have finally taken to interstellar space travel but resources are scarce and bitter wars are fought to secure them. The Colonial Defence Forces have begun to recruit soldiers on their 75th birthday and grant them youth again and using their lifetime of experience in the fight for galactic survival.
19. Blindsight – Peter Watts
In the year 2082, everyone on Earth becomes aware of an alien presence when thousands of micro-satellites, nicknamed “Fireflies”, survey the Earth in a bright planet-wide flash.
Blindsight may initially seem like your classic first contact story, with a special team sent to the edge of the solar system to make contact with alien intelligence. But in this imagined future, humanity has modified itself to the point where none of the characters involved is recognisably human.
Prepare for an amazing mix of action, terror, and philosophy in one compelling story.
20. Robocalypse by Daniel H Wilson
At some moment in the near future, modern technology, will unite and turn against us. An artificial awareness known as Archos manages to escape his primitive electronic prison and proceeds to exterminate the scourge of the planet: humans.
This end-of-the-world narration is also darkly humorous in places (an elevator that cheerfully lures the elderly to their death), with all the elements of a breakaway blockbuster.
Perhaps not as resonant or deeply affecting as World War Z, Robocalypse is certainly an entertaining and well-written thriller.
21. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
This science-fiction book has been described as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix”.
It is 2044 and Wade Watts is escaping his terrible life on a daily basis by jacking into OASIS, an online virtual world. The story revolves around the search for a digital “easter egg” hidden in OASIS by its creator, Jame Halliday. The search for the hidden clues becomes increasingly dangerous, with some players even willing to kill for the prize.
Loaded with pop culture references, this is one for the gamers and geeks among us.
22. World War Z – Max Brooks
As another major motion picture blockbuster, the joke often told by those who have both seen the movie and read the book is, “What do they have in common? They’re both called World War Z of course.”
The book follows the story of the pandemic viral outbreak through the collected accounts of various characters affected by the fateful near-apocalypse.
It is a brutal, terrifying and profoundly impactful book written superbly in a way that will change the zombie sub-genre forever.
23. Snow Crash – Neil Stephenson
In reality, Hiro delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse (the successor to the internet) he lives the life of his avatar, a warrior sword fighter. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new virtual drug and computer virus (Snow Crash) striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the dimly lit virtual streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy villain threatening to bring about an apocalypse.
Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a bizarre and outrageous future world.
24. Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
Juan Rico signed up with the Federal Service on a whim, but despite everything he has had to endure, Rico is determined to make it as a trooper.
This is a military science-fiction novel that has had its fair share of controversy attached to it since it was first published. It is undoubtedly a classic work of science fiction, however, well worth reading.
This is Heinlein’s commentary on human motivations and politics but it has spades of tech, aliens and action to keep you entertained along the way.
25. The Host – Stephanie Meyer
Before you get out the rotten eggs and tomatoes, hear me out. YA fiction is becoming a force to be reckoned with in literature today and writers such as Stephanie Meyer are amongst its leaders. That’s why it’s really great to see authors like Meyer leaving the realms of paranormal/fantasy romance for a bit to explore other avenues such as science-fiction.
The Earth has been invaded by a species known as The Wanderers, who take over the minds of human hosts while leaving their bodies intact. The alien “soul” who has been given Melanie’s body, didn’t expect to find its former tenant refusing to relinquish possession of her mind.
While the story lacks some detail about the invasion and its stunning aftermath, it is filled with enough human and romantic intrigue to keep readers interested.
It’s safe to say that even if you’re a fan of science-fiction books, not every title on this list will appeal to you. It only takes one book, however, to grab you by the imagination and drag you across space and time.