The 30 Best Science Fiction Books in the Universe

Our resident expert names her top science fiction picks.


When it comes to quality science fiction, there’s quite a lot to choose from. With competing classics from sub-genres like cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s hard to narrow the genre down to the most timeless and all-around best.

That’s why we turned to an expert.

We asked Open Road Media’s own Colleen Lindsay to put her 15+ years of science fiction publishing experience to work—and she came back to us with this extensive list of essential reads. Check out her picks for the 30 best science fiction books below!

Related: The 20 Best Time Travel Books You Haven't Read Yet 

First Contact

Buy Dawn at Amazon


By Octavia E. Butler

Dawn is a post-apocalyptic tale with a twist. Protagonist Lilith Iyapo is here to help rebuild civilization, but she has a little bit of help. In fact, she and the other apocalypse survivors have been held in a cryo-sleep by aliens for hundreds of years. The aliens aren’t in it for charity, though: they genetically merge with the humans, meaning that the humans repopulating our planet won’t quite be human at all.

Still not convinced? Lupita N'yongo gave the book a glowing review, listing it as one of her favorites: "I was stunned by how relevant the themes of the book are to today. I did not imagine that sci-fi would be an enjoyable genre to get into for me, but Butler writes with such a familiarity that the alien is welcome and intriguing. She really artfully exposes our human impulse to self-destruct."

Buy Remnant Population at Amazon

Remnant Population

By Elizabeth Moon

This strikingly imaginative story centers on Ofelia, a space colonist who chooses to live in complete solitude rather than leave her disbanded colony. But Ofelia isn’t quite as alone as she imagines—something she discovers in shocking fashion when a reconnaissance crew arrives and is slaughtered.

Buy The Sparrow at Amazon

The Sparrow

By Mary Doria Russell

Humans have long dreamed of making contact with an alien species. But if we found them, what would we say? In this brilliant and thoughtful novel, Russell tells the story of a Jesuit Priest and master linguist who is charged with communicating with our extraterrestrial counterparts for the first time—and emerges from the event broken and maimed.

Buy The Three Body Problem at Amazon

The Three Body Problem

By Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu is China’s best-loved science fiction novelist—and he’s quickly becoming a favorite all over the world. The Three Body Problem tells the story of an impending alien invasion, but it brilliantly focuses on how the people of Earth react. A TV version of The Three Body Problem was just greenlit, so hurry up and read the book before the spoilers show up on-screen.

Buy Stories of Your Life and Others at Amazon

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang

Science fiction has always been a great genre for short stories. Stories of Your Life and Others continues that tradition with its collection of smart and compelling tales. Any one of these stories will capture your imagination—just as the titular story captured the imagination of Hollywood filmmakers, who turned it into Arrival, the Oscar-nominated film starring Amy Adams.

Related: Universal Language: The Science Behind Arrival, from The Portalist 

Military Science Fiction

Buy The Forever War at Amazon

The Forever War

By Joe Haldeman

Haldeman’s 1970s book ranks among the most famous sci-fi warfare novels ever written. In The Forever War, the reader returns to Earth with conscripted soldier William Mandella. Thanks to relativity and Mandella’s high-speed space travel, the Earth has undergone decades of change over a period that has only felt like two years to Mandella. The Forever War captures the feeling of returning from the front in a way that remains evocative and relevant to this day, and it earned Haldeman both the Nebula and the Hugo.

Buy Midshipman's Hope at Amazon

Midshipman's Hope

By David Feintuch

Midshipman’s Hope features a teenage protagonist with a humble job: a midshipman on a starship. But circumstances can change quickly in space, and soon Nicholas Seafort finds himself in a leadership position that he’s not at all ready for. There’s no time for training, though, because the dangers come fast and furious in this thrilling novel.

Buy Old Man's War at Amazon

Old Man's War

By John Scalzi

Soldiers are usually young. That’s not the case in Old Man’s War, where a mysterious military organization only wants the oldest and most experienced people for their fighting force. Nobody knows what to expect once they join up, but our protagonist—75-year-old widower John Perry—is about to find out.

Buy Ender's Game at Amazon

Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card

In Ender’s Game, mankind is reeling after two assaults from an insect-like alien species. If they’re going to survive a third, the people of Earth need brilliant commanders—tactical geniuses who are raised from a young age to fight and win. That’s where Ender Wiggin comes in: he just might have the right combination of intelligence and demeanor to lead mankind to victory.

Buy The Cold Between at Amazon

The Cold Between

By Elizabeth Bonesteel

Commander Elena Shaw is out to clear her lover’s name in a murder case when her investigations lead her to some shocking discoveries. The victim’s murder is linked to the explosion of a starship a quarter-century before—an explosion that the government has been lying about for years.

Space Opera

Buy Nova at Amazon


By Samuel R. Delany

In Nova, the death of a star represents a huge opportunity. A nova creates Illyrion, a super-valuable element used in interstellar travel. Nova’s protagonist—a rich playboy who has a beef with a rival wealthy family—is after Illyrion, but he soon gets more than he bargained for.

Buy Ancillary Justice at Amazon

Ancillary Justice

By Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s debut novel kicked off a full space opera trilogy. The universe in the book is huge and dominated by the Radch Empire, which uses artificial intelligence in human bodies to bolster its fighting forces. These creatures are called ancillaries, and Leckie’s novel tells the story of one who survived the mysterious disappearance of a starship.

Buy Leviathan Wakes at Amazon

Leviathan Wakes

By James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is a throwback space opera that fans of classic sci fi will love. The story kicks off with a distress signal and a rescue mission, but after a sudden attack, the stakes rise quickly and galaxy-wide war seems imminent. This story is getting the TV treatment courtesy of the SyFy network, which is basing a series called The Expanse on the book and its sequels.

Buy In Conquest Born at Amazon

In Conquest Born

By C.S. Friedman

Everything in In Conquest Born is on a huge scale: the universe, the plot, and the action. This book features two huge civilizations locked in a serious conflict. The stakes are high, but Friedman still makes her readers care about the fates of her individual characters.

Buy Downbelow Station at Amazon

Downbelow Station

By C.J. Cherryh

Downbelow Station has it all: a vast universe, a civil war, brilliant action, and a deep connection to the planet where it all began: Earth. C. J. Cherryh weaves a compelling narrative that makes her world feel complete and relevant in every way.

Class of Cultures

Buy The Book of Strange New Things at Amazon

The Book of Strange New Things

By Michael Faber

Faber’s novel is about faith, loyalty, and fear. His protagonist, Peter, is a deep space missionary. But the love of his life is back on Earth, and when her letters take an upsetting turn, Peter is forced to question everything.

Buy The Best of All Possible Worlds at Amazon

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds begins with catastrophe: a native homeland destroyed, and an indigenous alien species left homeless. Together with nearby humanoids—distant genetic relatives—they work to preserve their culture. Lord’s unique voice is the draw here, as her writing blends a science fiction flair with the Caribbean storytelling tradition.

Buy Embassytown at Amazon


By China Mieville

Embassytown’s alien species, the Ariekei, have a way with words: they speak a unique language that few in the universe can understand. Still, they manage to get along with human colonists—at least until faraway politics bring big changes to Embassytown. This smart book imagines the difficulties of working with an alien species that humans can never truly understand.

Buy City of Pearl at Amazon

City of Pearl

By Karen Traviss

One planet. Three alien societies. That’s already more than enough to keep Shan Frankland busy, but things get even more complicated when a near-omnipotent planetary protector takes notice of Shan and her fellow humans.

Buy The Left Hand of Darkness at Amazon

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is smart and psychological. It follows the story of an emissary to Winter, a strange planet where the local species can change genders at will. This thought-provoking novel earned Le Guin both the Hugo and the Nebula.


Buy The Shockwave Rider at Amazon

The Shockwave Rider

By John Brunner

The Shockwave Runner is an essential science fiction book in our era of big data and surveillance. Our protagonist is a fugitive, and the enemy is the government. This is a book about the freedom and privacy that we surrender to government bureaucrats.

Buy When Gravity Fails at Amazon

When Gravity Fails

By George Alec Effinger

The world of When Gravity Fails grabs you: it’s a world with a divided West, rising Arab nations, and unheard-of technology. But the setting is just one part of the book’s appeal, and its fast-moving action/thriller plot is what really sucks you in.

Buy Altered Carbon at Amazon

Altered Carbon

By Richard K. Morgan

In Altered Carbon, immortality is achievable. All it takes to live again is to have your mind downloaded into a new body. Our protagonist has just that experience—but his new body and his new job put him light years away from home, in a city that was long ago called San Francisco.

Buy Snow Crash at Amazon

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash embodies everything we love about the cyberpunk genre. Our hero is a pizza delivery man, but in this strange future America, even a job like that entails mafia ties. Throw in the “Metaverse”—a virtual reality internet—and a mysterious virus taking out hackers, and you have the makings of a weird and wonderful book.

Buy Neuromancer at Amazon


By William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of the science fiction genre’s greatest classics and one of the first examples of the cyberpunk genre. This story of a hustling “cyber-cowboy” who makes his living in a virtual reality called the “matrix” recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, but it feels as fresh and relevant as ever.


Buy The City, Not Long After at Amazon

The City, Not Long After

By Pat Murphy

San Francisco has long been a center of art and pacifist ideals. After the apocalypse, survivors rebuild the city with those values in mind. But when a power-hungry general sweeps across California with his sights set on the Golden Gate Bridge, the artists and idealists of San Francisco will have to use their creativity to defend their home.

Buy The Girl with All the Gifts at Amazon

The Girl with All the Gifts

By M.R. Carey

The Girl With All the Gifts is a moving and personal thriller. In a world where mankind has reached the brink of extinction thanks to a zombie-like infection, one girl represents the hopes of our whole species. But in the process of saving the human race, what are scientists and people in power willing to do to her?

Buy The Gone-Away World at Amazon

The Gone-Away World

By Nick Harkaway

You’ve never read a book quite like The Gone-Away World. It’s a bizarre apocalyptic novel that’s funny, heartwarming, and—for some reason—full of kung-fu scenes. Are you ready to save the world?

Buy The Last Policeman at Amazon

The Last Policeman

By Ben Winters

The Earth is doomed, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your job. In The Last Policeman, an oddball detective refuses to give up on his final case. His job is to solve a murder, and he’s determined to get it done. So what if a meteor is destined to obliterate the Earth in a mere six months?

Buy The Dog Stars at Amazon

The Dog Stars

By Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is one of those science fiction books that seems to be bigger than the genre without even trying. The novel is set in post-apocalyptic Colorado, where a lone protagonist defends a secluded airstrip and flies an aging plane with his dog as copilot. It’s a quiet, beautiful, and thoughtful book.

Featured Photo: James Joel / Flickr  (CC)

Published on 27 Oct 2016