The 30 Best Science Fiction Books in the Universe

    When it comes to quality science fiction, there’s a lot to choose from. With competing classics from subgenres like cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s hard to narrow down any list of the best science fiction books. That’s why we turned to an expert.

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


    First Contact

    Buy Dawn at Amazon

    Dawn

    By Octavia 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. Catch it on the small screen in the upcoming TV adaptation. 

    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.

    Remnant Population

    By Elizabeth Moon

    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.

    The Sparrow

    By Mary Doria Russell

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    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.

    The Three Body Problem

    By Cixin Liu

    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.

    Stories of Your Life and Others

    By Ted Chiang

    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.

    The Forever War

    By Joe Haldeman

    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.

    Midshipman's Hope

    By David Feintuch

    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.

    Old Man's War

    By John Scalzi

    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.

    Ender's Game

    By Orson Scott Card

    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.

    The Cold Between

    By Elizabeth Bonesteel

    Space Opera

    Buy Nova at Amazon

    Nova

    By Samuel 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.

    Ancillary Justice

    By Ann Leckie

    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.

    Leviathan Wakes

    By James S.A. Corey

    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.

    In Conquest Born

    By C.S. Friedman

    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.

    Downbelow Station

    By C.J. Cherryh

    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.

    The Book of Strange New Things

    By Michael Faber

    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.

    The Best of All Possible Worlds

    By Karen Lord

    Buy Embassytown at Amazon

    Embassytown

    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.

    Embassytown

    By China Mieville

    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.

    City of Pearl

    By Karen Traviss

    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.

    The Left Hand of Darkness

    By Ursula K. Le Guin

    Cyberpunk

    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.

    The Shockwave Rider

    By John Brunner

    Buy When Gravity Fails at Amazon

    When Gravity Fails

    By George 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.

    When Gravity Fails

    By George Effinger

    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.

    Altered Carbon

    By Richard K. Morgan

    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.

    Snow Crash

    By Neal Stephenson

    Buy Neuromancer at Amazon

    Neuromancer

    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.

    Neuromancer

    By William Gibson

    Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic

    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.

    The City, Not Long After

    By Pat Murphy

    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?

    The Girl with All the Gifts

    By M.R. Carey

    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?

    The Gone-Away World

    By Nick Harkaway

    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?

    The Last Policeman

    By Ben Winters

    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.

    The Dog Stars

    By Peter Heller

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    Featured Photo: James Joel / Flickr  (CC)

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