Science fiction is a genre that spans the length and breadth of the universe — literally, in some cases. It allows writers to tell tales of fantastic futures, technologies that we could only dream of and encounters with alien life far different — or maybe not so different — from our own. It can be a cautionary tale of what might happen in the distant future if we don’t change our ways. If you need a break from dystopian fiction, especially since we’re basically living it, here are 15 sci-fi books that you need to read right now.
1. “Crystal Singer” by Anne McCaffrey
Can you really go wrong with space travel, harsh alien environments and an interstellar economy that relies on crystals mined on a single planet? “Crystal Singer” is the first book in a trilogy of the same name. It follows Killashandra Ree — a skilled singer who has just had the rug pulled out from under her when she’s told that she’s not good enough to be a soloist.
Instead of giving up, she follows a handsome stranger across the galaxy and becomes a Crystal Singer. She is one of the few people capable of harvesting the crystals that keep the galactic economy running. It’s a story of love, heartbreak, finding your place in the universe and learning to stand on your own two feet. “Crystal Singer” might not be as well known as some of McCaffrey’s other books — such as the “Dragonriders of Pern” series — but it’s one that we keep going back to again and again.
2. “The Martian” by Andy Weir
Are you looking for contemporary science fiction? Join Mark Watney on Mars while he “sciences the shit out of this thing.” Yes, “The Martian” by Andy Weir was turned into a blockbuster starring Matt Damon, but it doesn’t hurt to read the original.
The awesome thing about this book is the sheer amount of research that Weir put into it. All of the solutions that Watney comes up with after being trapped on Mars aren’t just possible — they’re plausible, and astronauts could use them once we get to the red planet.
3. “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan
After you’ve binged the newest season of “Altered Carbon” on Netflix and processed Anthony Mackie’s fantastic performance as Takeshi Kovacs, check out the source material. “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan is the first book in the series named after the main character. Set 400 years in the future, humanity is essentially immortal. Our minds have been uploaded to stacks, and we can move that stack from body to body, called sleeves.
Takeshi is an ex-envoy — a freedom fighter and rebel leader — who is woken up after decades of cold storage and tasked with figuring out who killed a billionaire. Fair warning — the book is a lot darker than the show. It’s worth the read, but it might not be the best option for younger audiences.
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4. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller
The world has ended, and those that survived are forever changed. Set centuries after a nuclear apocalypse knocked the human race back to the Dark Ages, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” follows a group of monks. They work to unearth scientific discoveries from the old world and guarding them. Their ultimate goal is to find these things in honor of their saint, Isaac Leibowitz, and help restore humanity to its former glory without giving it the tools to repeat its mistakes.
First published in 1959, this science fiction story might seem a little dated. However, it’s a great tale of finding hope in the darkest of times.
5. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Can you write a list of science fiction books without including at least one piece from prolific writer Philip K Dick? “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” follows Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner tasked with hunting down robots so human-like that a special investigator needs to determine who is human and who isn’t. If that title sounds familiar, it’s because this book is the source material for the Harrison Ford movie “Blade Runner.”
Dick was predicting that, by 2019, we’d have robots so advanced that we wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the real thing. While we haven’t quite reached that level of advancement, the story still stands as a tale that leaves us all questioning our humanity and wondering whether we’d pass the Voight-Kampff test.
6. “Dune” by Frank Herbert
Everyone is talking about “Dune” right now because it’s about to be back in theaters again. Still, nothing compares to the epic science fiction series created by Frank Herbert. The first book follows Paul Atreides, a noble uprooted from his comfortable life on water planet Caladan. He’s thrust head-first into the most dangerous game in the universe — mining the spice melange, which is only on one planet in the galaxy — Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.
We’re suggesting reading this now before Denis Villeneuve’s movie hits theaters because no matter how careful directors are, there is no way to encompass the massive “Dune” universe on the silver screen. If you want a science fiction epic that expertly weaves together politics, survival and the nature of humanity, pick up “Dune.”
7. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams
Get your towel ready. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is an epic piece of British satire. It follows Arthur Dent, a perfectly average human being who starts the book lying in front of a bulldozer that wants to tear down his house. He doesn’t pay any mind to the alien bulldozers that want to tear down the planet until his friend, Ford Prefect, drags him aboard an alien spacecraft, making him one of the last humans alive in the universe.
If you haven’t read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” what are you waiting for? We could all use a good laugh. If nothing else, it might inspire you to create your own incarnation of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.
8. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
While “Frankenstein” is often billed as a horror story — especially when it made the transition to the silver screen — it actually belongs to the science fiction genre. In fact, Mary Shelley is often hailed as the writer who invented the science fiction genre. If your only experience with the story is through its various movie incarnations, why not head back to the beginning and read the book?
“Frankenstein” is about a scientist trying to transcend death, but it’s also a story that leaves us questioning our definitions of life and sentience. If we can create life, who are we to define or control it? It’s an interesting ethical question that has left us puzzling for decades.
9. “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein
Fitting in at a new job or school is always challenging. We have to find our niche and figure out where we belong. Now imagine doing that on an entirely new planet. Valentine Michael Smith is a human being who was born and raised on Mars among the Martians that live there. Despite belonging to the species, Valentine feels alien and struggles to adapt to the human way of life.
It’s a gorgeous allegory for our ingrained prejudices and the things that we need to do to overcome them. It’s also a heartwarming story of two different peoples learning how to live alongside one another.
10. “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey
Often, sci-fi books take us to strange and alien worlds at the edge of the known universe. “Leviathan Wakes,” however — the first book of “The Expanse” series — keeps things a little closer to home. As a species, we’ve spread out into the solar system. There are colonies on the Moon, Mars, in the asteroid belt and on some of the moons of the outer planets. The books follow James Holden, an Earther working on a water hauler in the Belt when he stumbles on a massive conspiracy.
This book touches on racism — the division between Belters, Martians and Earthers — classism, ethics and many other poignant topics. The show’s casting is fantastic, but you can’t go wrong with James S. A. Corey’s prose.
11. “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
“War of the Worlds” was originally published in 1898 and detailed an alien invasion. Martians in massive three-legged machines landed in England, laying waste to everything in their path. Nothing the humans throw at them seems to have any sort of impact until the aliens find themselves defeated by the smallest of things.
In 1938, Orson Welles read “War of the Worlds” as a radio play. Of course, at the time, no one knew that it was a work of fiction. It actually started a panic, with people afraid that aliens were invading England. If you’re interested, give it a listen yourself — the remastered broadcast is on YouTube.
12. “The Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov usually makes people think of “I, Robot” or the three laws of robotics. However, he was also a prolific science fiction writer that took it upon himself to predict what might happen to humanity. “The Foundation Trilogy” became a what-if kind of story. What would humanity become if we left barbarism behind and created a new empire based on art, science and technology?
“The Foundation Trilogy” was initially published as a series of short stories between 1942 and 1953, but the message still rings true today.
13. “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card
What do you do if you’re fighting a war that you can’t win because you can’t find anyone to make the hard decisions? You find someone who can — even if they don’t know they’re doing it. Ender Wiggin is a Third — a third child, one more attempt to have a kid who can succeed in Battle School. The human race is recovering from a war with the Formics, an insectoid race, and is trying to prevent a second war that could wipe out the human race.
“Ender’s Game” is all about the horrors of war, but it’s through the eyes of a child. In a way, that makes it even more horrifying. Card paints a picture of a world that’s seen war and is willing to do whatever it takes to stop it from happening again.
14. “The Legacy of Heorot” by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
What will it take to get humanity out into the stars, and what would we do if there was no way home? “The Legacy of Heorot” follows the crew of a colony ship that’s spent years in cryosleep traveling to their new home — Avalon. It seems perfect — idyllic even — until their arrival upsets the delicate balance of the island’s ecosystem and awakens the grendels, reptilian killing machines.
“The Legacy of Heorot” is a fantastic Man vs. Nature story, but at the same time, it’s an allegory for our impact on the world around us. The grendels were few and far between until the settlers gave them a new food source, upsetting the ecosystem simply by our arrival. It’s a great story about the hazards of being human and what we might face when we finally start exploring the universe.
15. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
“Ready Player One” might have brought the idea of an immersive virtual world onto the silver screen, but “Neuromancer” did it first. This story follows Henry Case. He’s a data thief in the virtual world known as The Matrix, until a job for a previous employer destroyed his nervous system. Now he’s racing against time to defeat a powerful AI that could kill him.
Gibson described cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation” in 1984. This was long before we started building our current data infrastructure. Today, everyone is on the internet, and Gibson’s description is more poignant than ever.
Which Sci-Fi Books Are On Your To-Be-Read List?
Science fiction teaches us to dream of the future, something especially important in dark times. Which of these excellent sci-fi books are on your to-read list? Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.