Science fiction has experienced something of a literary renaissance over the past decade. The genre has become more expansive, more diverse, and pushed the boundaries of what we expect from stories of the speculative. There’s seldom been a more exciting time to read sci-fi. Here's a sampling of our most beloved and transformative science fiction books of the 2010s.
Fledgling was the final novel published by the late great Octavia E. Butler, one of the true masters of modern science fiction. With this book, she jumped head-first into the world of vampires, albeit with her unique twist. Our protagonist is a 53-year-old genetically modified vampire trapped in the body of an 10-year-old girl. She has lost her memory and must uncover what happens to her. Along the way, she encounters an adult human who immediately falls for her and is forced to confront ideas of otherness, desire, and who can truly describe themselves as human.
Breq is the sole survivor of a destroyed starship. To be more specific, she was the starship—the artificial consciousness of the Justice of Toren. Once, she conquered the galaxy, but now she seeks revenge. Stuck in a fragile human body, Breq must uncover the truth of what happened to the starship, the former powerhouse of the Radch empire. Doing so will lead to a major crisis of conscience and a chance for her to come into her own as a being independent of the empire.
On the same night that a celebrated actor dies on stage while playing King Lear, the world changes. A devastating epidemic wipes out the vast majority of the Earth's population. Among the remnants, humanity tries not only to survive but thrive. A troupe of actors travels the wasteland of North America performing Shakespeare, eager to keep art and hope alive. Station Eleven, which was recently adapted into a HBO Max series, follows five seemingly disparate people as their stories intertwine across the decades and pave the way for a perilous future.
This Is How You Lose the Time War
Red and Blue are enemies, agents from opposing sides of an endless war. Their battlefield is space and time itself. As they constantly run into and avoid one another across the vast recesses of the universe, a curious correspondence begins. What starts out as taunting turns to banter and then to love. But they're nemeses, and they've been tasked with killing one another. How can their bond survive such things? Red and Blue's love surely cannot survive a war, one where a winner must be declared and the other side shall suffer?
A Memory Called Empire
Arkady Martine took home the Hugo Award for Best Novel with her debut, which explores the endless reverberations of colonialism. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is sent to the heart of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire to ensure that diplomacy between them and her home, an independent mining station, can continue. But upon arrival, she discovers that her predecessor has died under shady circumstances, and Mahit could be next. She must navigate the treachery of court life, and an alien culture she can't help but be seduced by, while uncovering the truth of the ambassador's death. Her quest could put not only her own life at risk but that of her entire station.
Area X is a mysterious patch of land that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Free of humans, nature has reclaimed this space, but darkness lurks amid its Eden-like landscapes. Several expeditions to Area X have ended in violence, death, and mass suicide. The twelfth expedition, made up of four women, have been tasked with mapping the terrain. Get in, do the work, and get out without being contaminated by the foreboding force that has consumed Area X.
Gideon the Ninth
It's not hard to see why Gideon the Ninth, the debut novel by Tamsyn Muir, became an instant online sensation. Combine kitschy '70s sci-fi with a haunted house (in space!), necromancy, and a snarky lesbian protagonist and you have one of the decade's most exciting reads. Gideon is the indentured servant of Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, much to her chagrin. Before she can escape a life surrounded by skeletons and corruption, she’s forced to accompany her boss to the home of the Emperor. There, she will battle with the other royal heirs to become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection. Gideon just has to keep Harrowhark—and herself—alive.
Few short story writers in any genre have managed to capture the imagination and win as many awards as Ted Chiang. Perhaps best known for “Story of Your Life” and its film adaptation, Arrival, his most recent collection Exhalation sees him at his cerebral, empathetic, and imaginative peak. The stories include a time travel portal in ancient Baghdad, a chance to glimpse into alternate universes, and a philosophical conundrum in a world where the existence of God has been proven.
All Systems Red
Martha Wells’ Murderbot series has won multiple awards and become one of the most hyped sci-fi novella series of the past decade. Murderbot is a security droid with a pretty self-explanatory name. But having gained sentience, it mostly wants to spend its hours watching TV and ignoring all those pesky humans. Alas, it has been tasked with protecting a team of scientists conducting tests on a distant planet. When the mission takes a dark turn, Murderbot must join the humans to fix the problem, whether it likes it or not.
Binti is the first of the Himba people to be accepted into the prestigious Oomza University, the galaxy's most celebrated institute of learning. She prepares for interstellar travel and a new life but things come to a halt when her ship is hijacked by the Meduse, an alien race that is in the midst of a bloody war. Binti will need to use all of her smarts to get to her destination and prevent total annihilation.
Trail of Lightning
Most of the planet has been devastated by the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse. The exceptions are Native lands, including Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation.) Now, their gods and heroes have been reborn and walk the land. Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter cursed with dealing with the demons who plague the remnants of humanity. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is called upon to track her. This stranger's disappearance is tied to her own past and confronting it is crucial.
The Fifth Season
N.K. Jemisin made history when all three books in her Broken Earth saga won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. The series takes place on a planet with a single supercontinent called the Stillness. Every few centuries, its inhabitants endure the eponymous "Fifth Season", a period of seismic climate change. Among this society live Orogenes, people with the ability to control energy that can lead to earthquakes and dangerous weather. One of them, Essun, discovers her husband and son have been brutally murdered and must dig through the wreckage of the planet to find her kidnapped son.
The first book of The Expanse series establishes the world that would later become an acclaimed TV series. Humanity has colonized the solar system, replicating the smothering caste system of Earth beyond its atmosphere. The asteroid belt is populated by miners, outcasts, and the wretched hive of scum and villainy that the old world Earth residents heap scorn upon. Mars is trying to position itself as an indomitable military power, whether Earth likes it or not. Amid this chaos, ice miner Jim Holden and Detective Miller are forced together to look for a missing girl and a secret that could lead to all-out war among the stars.
The Three-Body Problem
A massive hit in its native China, Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy became a surprise Hugo winner once translated and is set to be adapted into a Netflix series. Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. The signal is captured by a species of extra-terrestrials on the brink of extinction who decide to respond by invading Earth. A divide grows between humanity. Do we welcome these beings as saviors from our corrupt governments or do we fight back?
The Calculating Stars
What if women were at the forefront of the space race? That’s the basic set-up for Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo Award-winning Lady Astronauts series. After a meteor hits Earth and creates a climate disaster, humanity is forced to accelerate its battle to journey into the stars. Elma York is a pilot and mathematician who goes to work at the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. She wants to be an astronaut but she and many other skilled women are denied the chance to prove their stuff. So begins a battle to make the space race a woman's place and for Elma to become the first Lady Astronaut to lead humanity's colonization of the galaxy.
A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. The end is nigh and the human race must either find a way to avert disaster or ensure their survival far beyond their own planet. But such processes do not happen overnight. It takes generations to unfold. Five thousand years later, humanity has spread across the universe, and now the three billion strong populace must embark on another immense journey. This time? They're returning to Earth.
The third novel in the legendary Margaret Atwood’s speculative trilogy topped off one of her most ambitious pieces of fiction. Set in a world where unmonitored genetic engineering accidentally ushered in a new plague, MaddAddam follows a small group of human survivors as they try to live among the Crakers, a gentle species bio-engineered to replace their species. There are many threats that could wipe them out at a moment's notice, from giant pigeons to Painballer attacks to the ever-present dangers of man.
This post first appeared on The Portalist.