Science fiction is a genre that covers a great variety of novels. From the mind-bending weirdness of Philip K Dick’s work to space operas like Dune.
I’ve created this list for those who want to read some great science fiction and want some suggestions for their next book. It includes novels from a number of sub-genres of science fiction, in an effort to reflect the breadth of awesomeness contained within science fiction literature.
If you think I’ve missed any classics of this list, let me know.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Before it was a middling Amazon Original ‘The Man in the High Castle‘ was a mind-bending novel from the late Philip K Dick. Like much of Dick’s work, the novel forces you to consider the nature of reality and your relationship with it. We delved into the nature of fragile reality as depicted in The Man in the High Castle in this article.
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Set in an even bleaker version of the cold war than the real one, with real super (and not so super) heroes, Watchmen is a cult classic for a reason.
Not only does it completely subvert the concept of the vigilante superhero, it’s also a biting satire that has become only more relevant in the passing years.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Do not be put off by the rubbish Will Smith film that this collection of short stories inspired. I, Robot was one of the first science fiction novels I read and one I would still recommend to anyone.
It was in one of these short stories, Runaround, that the three laws of robotics were codified and it’s still a must-read for anyone wanting to delve into the world of artificial intelligence science fiction.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
This book is very different from the film it inspired and deserves to be considered a classic in its own right. Perhaps even more melancholic than Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is a beautiful novel full of broken things. As we follow Rick Deckard’s attempts to kill androids we can’t help but wonder what it means to be human. As with all of Philip K Dick’s work, Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep is unsettling and thought-provoking in equal measure.
The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson is not a writer to create a novel that looks at just one theme so, fittingly, The Diamond Age considers topics such as education, class and artificial intelligence. This is all set in a world where nanotechnology has run rampant. Stephenson’s style is not for everyone, but those who love it really love it.
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
The Grandaddy of alien invasion literature. If it seems a little cliched to the modern reader, that’s just because it’s inspired so many imitators. HG Wells still casts a long shadow over the science fiction genre. After reading this you will understand why.
The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Aliens don’t always come in spaceships ready to blast humanity from the earth. These aliens are seeds drifting through space, yet are just as deadly. This is the original body-snatcher tale and it’s still a fun read, if perhaps not as groundbreaking as its reputation may suggest. The novel was one of the earliest to play upon the deep-seated human paranoia that those around us are plotting against us.
Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
A novel in which the aliens come in peace, but at what cost? Considered by some to be Clarke’s greatest work, and that’s some claim when you consider he wrote Rendevous with Rama, Childhood’s End is a book that will stay with you long after you have put it down.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
A book that both defined the cyberpunk genre and broke science fiction conventions. Neuromancer is a gut-punch of a book that takes the reader on a tour of a dystopian future that will make your eyes bleed. But in a good way. It’s no understatement to say that reading this book will change you. You can see our full review of this science fiction masterpiece here.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
So cool it called its Hero Protagonist ‘Hiro Protagonist’. Perhaps the only book ever to mix Sumerian mythology with virtual reality. Snow Crash is truly Cyberpunk, with our hero having to navigate a brutal fast-paced society to stop a corporation and save the world. Possibly the most awesome book you will ever read.
Snowcrash is a beautiful mess of a novel full of hackers, killers, and Sumerian myths. If that sounds bizarre, trust me, the reality is weirder. The virtual reality ‘metaverse’ in Snow Crash provides much of the book’s wow factor. If this intrigues you, you can read all about why Snow Crash is such an awesome book in this review.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Perhaps the original cyberpunk classic. Bester’s The Stars My Destination reimagined the Count of Monte Cristo in a truly terrifying way. Its ‘star’ is the terrible and terrifying Gully Foyle. A man inspired by hate and driven by vengeance. The Stars My Destination forces you to view humanity in a different light. You can read our full review of The Stars My Destination here.
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
This is a psychological thriller noir set in a future policed by mind readers. It’s also the first Hugo Award winner.
The novel is set in a time where murder has been eradicated due to the presence of telepaths, called Espers, in society. Making murder almost impossible to get away with. The plot is driven by one of the few men left in society willing to contemplate murder, Ben Reich, who is not willing to let the presence of telepaths deter him from his path.
Unlike The Stars My Destination, this isn’t a true cyberpunk novel. It is, however, worth its place on this list due to its proto-cyberpunk elements and future-noir plot. You can read our full analysis of this novel here.
Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement
One of the very first hard science fiction novels. Mission of Gravity takes place on an inhospitable world, which has surface gravity that varies between 700 g and 3 g. Despite the exotic location one of the key themes of the novel is that the physical rules of the universe are constant.
Rendevous with Rama, by Arthur C Clarke
A hard science fiction novel where the sense of wonder comes very much from the scientific focus of the prose. A slow burning plot follows a group of intrepid explorers as they try to uncover the truth of a passing alien spaceship.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The one book we can confidently say everybody in the galaxy should read. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction classic and has entered the cultural zeitgeist. Characters like Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Arthur Dent and, of course, Marvin the paranoid android are some of the weirdest and funniest ever committed to print.
Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown
The Martians have invaded and, unfortunately, they’re jerks. Earth finds itself home to billions of wise-cracking Martians. They’re not so much interested in invading as they are getting in the way and making a nuisance of themselves. It’s a humorous classic science fiction novel for anyone who liked Mars Attacks!
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s not a comedy in the same way The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Martians, Go Home are, but it’s darkly funny in its own tragic way. Slaughterhouse-Five deals with the British bombing of Dresden, which was witnessed by Vonnegut. That it’s also a humorous non-linear classic science fiction novel gives you an idea of Vonnegut’s genius.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The defining book of the military science fiction genre. The Forever War takes the author’s experiences of Vietnam and examines them through the prism of an interstellar war. Like many great anti-war works, it is more about the bits in between the battles than the battles themselves. While some of the attitudes in the novel have dated badly, The Forever War is still rightly considered a classic science fiction novel. You can read our full review and analysis of The Forever War here.
The hard science fiction element to the story is the focus on time dilatation. The human theme of the novel is the effect of war on the soldiers who are trained to fight.
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Leviathan Wakes is a military fiction intertwined with a noir detective tale and a political drama. Because of this, the novel is a genuine page-turner as well as being a cool work of science fiction. The plot is intricate and clever and the characters compelling. This multilayered novel has now been made into an excellent TV show that we’d recommend to anyone.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
A military science fiction novel with a twist. The super tough space army in this book is made up of geriatrics. Geriatrics who have been given new super-advanced bodies, but geriatrics none-the-less. This dad’s army is then sent out to fight some of the more vicious aliens in science fiction. Although the novel is clearly inspired by The Forever War and Starship Troopers, it is more than a simple homage to these two classic science fiction novels.
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
The novel that takes the current VR gaming trend to its ultimate conclusion. Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where much of humanity has retreated into a particular VR game. This is a plot that will particularly please lovers of RPGs and, weirdly, 1980s entertainment trivia. Although the rest of us will still enjoy it because it’s a sprawling, heartwarming tale of adventure and friendship. At its heart, Ready Player One is a great treasure hunt novel, but just way cooler and in VR.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was released in the mid-60s and still has the power to make you think. This classic science fiction work explores libertarian ideas through a plot involving a human colony on the moon revolting against their masters on Earth. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was highly commended for its believable portrayal of a lunar colony on its release. It’s one we’d recommend to lovers of classic science fiction or those looking for a book to challenge their thinking.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin.
This strange novel is a work that readers will come back to repeatedly in the search for greater understanding. The plot of the novel revolves around George Orr, whose dreams can rewrite reality. While George is happy to suppress his ability, his court-appointed psychiatrist Dr Haber forces him to exploit it. This classic work of science fiction explores both behaviorism and utilitarianism, all in a compelling and mysterious narrative.
We discussed the theme of passivity in our review of The Lathe Of Heaven.
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Flowers For Algernon will be loved by successive generations until the sun dies. Our narrator, Charlie Gordon, has his intelligence raised from 68 to genius levels with the help of an experimental procedure. Unfortunately his new found intelligence does not lead to greater happiness. Flowers for Algernon raises many ethical questions with its simple, heartbreaking plot. You can read our review and analysis of Flowers for Algernon here.
A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Possibly the most ambitious first novel ever written. A Canticle For Leibowitz begins in the ashes of a post-nuclear war earth and spans 1000s of years. The story follows an order of Catholic Monks, who’ve vowed to preserve knowledge for eternity. By following the order we see the interplay of religion and scientific endeavor. And, perhaps more pertinently, what happens when the scientific endeavor is not coupled with a moral compass.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Seven pilgrims all journey together to the mysterious planet of Hyperion. During their journey, each pilgrim tells the others their story. As they do, a vast universe opens up to the reader. Each story is written in the style of a different subgenre of science fiction. This makes Hyperion multiple science fiction novels in one. If this sounds interesting to you, you might be interested in our full review of Hyperion.
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
A space opera with a dash of biopunk. Revelation Space is gritty, brutal and awe-inspiring. The plot contains an archaeological dig on an alien planet, mercenaries ttravelingacross space in light-hugger spaceships, and humans so altered they are almost indistinguishable from aliens.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A tale that brings some old school derring-do to the space opera. It’s effectively a tale about a sailor that is shipwrecked and ends up going on an adventure with pirates. But in space and with shape-shifters, godlike incorporeal beings and visits to strange worlds. A stunning, thrilling read.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Leviathan is set in a version of World War 1. In this universe’s Great War the Austro-Hungarians have armed themselves with diesel machines loaded to the gills with weapons. The British, on the other hand, have created an army of bioengineered animals to fight their battles. The Leviathan itself is a huge whale airship, which is pretty damn cool. A steampunk classic from the moment it hit the shelves. Leviathan is a great book to read if you’re intrigued by steampunk.
The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
The Difference Engine codified many of the conventions of the steampunk genre. The novel is set in a 19th Century Britain where Babbage actually built his difference engine. This led to a technological transformation of a society also in the throes of an industrial revolution. Gibson is famed for writing thought provoking novels wrapped up in exciting plots. The Difference Engine is no different.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Ringworld follows the permanently bored 200-year-old Louis Wu, the genetically lucky Teela Brown, and two very different aliens as they travel to a giant object deep in space.
The novel is a thought experiment that details alien architectures and cultures with scientific detail. I’m not sure it’s possible for travel writing to meet hard science fiction but, if it is, Ringworld manages it.
Inverted World by Christoper Priest
Any novel that opens with the line “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” has to be worth a read.
Inverted World takes place in a city that is constantly being moved in an attempt to reach something called the ‘Optimum’ while they hope for a rescue mission from the planet Earth. It’s an intense read, full of mystery, that will ask you to rethink any preconceptions you may have. You can read a further analysis of this novel here.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids is often considered a ‘cosy catastrophe’ where people of Britain fret about the end of the world while sitting around and drinking tea. But John Wyndham’s novel is actually much darker than that. If you can get past the inherent Englishness of the writing, in many ways it can be seen as a precursor to later zombie movies. You can read more about how the Day of the Triffids is still a relevant, and dark, novel here.
Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
Odd John considers how the next step in human evolution would view its predecessors, i.e us. We may not be comfortable with the answer. Odd John is a challenging novel from one of science fiction’s great philosophers. You can find a fuller analysis of Odd John here.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Gateway takes place in a grim version of humanity’s future. The rich have almost perfect health due to expensive healthcare, but the poor live short brutish lives in mines.
Far above this divided Earth hangs an alien space station built into an asteroid and filled with working ships. The space station and ships having been abandoned by an advanced race called the Heechee. The novel is told through one of the prospectors who did manage to strike it rich: Robinette Broadhead. It’s a brooding novel, in which the pressure builds as much on the reader as it does on Robinette. Gateway is a tense read, but a truly compelling one.
Dune by Frank Herbert
A dense, and complex, space opera. Set in the far future, when humanity has spread across the stars, Dune immerses you in a vast galaxy full of intricate cultures and political intrigue. The novel also asks you to consider themes of predestination, religion, politics and basic human nature.
Herbert’s descriptions of the desert planet of Arrakis, the Fremen who populate it and their culture and the sandworms have become a part of science fiction heritage. The novel won the Hugo award in its year of publication and is often cited as the best science fiction novel of all time. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but it is certainly a fantastic read and well worth its place on this list.
I’ll keep this list updated with books I come across/remember. If you’ve got any suggestions for books I’ve missed off this list that deserve to be there, let me know in the comments.