Blog – Posted on Friday, Feb 01
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Books to Take You to Infinity and Beyond
Fans of science fiction are drawn to the genre for a variety of reasons. If you were to look at some of the best sci-fi books through literary history, you'd see such a range of titles and authors that you'd barely believe that they could be shelved in the same part of the bookstore. But one thing undoubtedly unites them all: the vivid imaginations their authors possess when it comes to thinking about the world.
Maybe you read (or listen to) sci-fi for the intense technological speculation, or because you enjoy how its authors hold a mirror up to modern society, or simply as a means of escaping everyday mundanity. No matter what, you're sure to find some of your favorite books (and hopefully a few titles you've never read before!) in this chronological list of the 100 best sci-fi books of all time.
1. The Blazing World and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
Cavendish might be one of the earliest science fiction writers that you’ve never heard of: born in the seventeenth-century, she was a poet, author, playwright, and trailblazer in an age that was unfriendly to women. In The Blazing World and Other Writings, she crafts one of the first feminist works, telling the story of a shipwrecked woman who’s made Empress of the Blazing World — using her power to ensure that the land is “free of war, religious division and unfair sexual discrimination.”
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The Modern Prometheus, indeed. If there’s a scientist in a science fiction book, you can almost bet that they’re trying to play God. And if they’re playing God, you can bet that they’re going to be punished for it. One of the earliest examples of pure science fiction, Mary Shelley’s debut novel has remained a cultural icon over two centuries later. Just remember: Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster.
3. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)
Though best known as a quintessential adventure novelist, Jules Verne often incorporated shades of science fiction into his work — most notably in his early masterpiece, Journey to the Center of the Earth. This thrilling tale follows geology professor Otto Lidenbrock and his nerve-prone nephew, Axel, as they embark on the titular journey. With the help of their guide Hans, they manage to survive a flammable gas chambers, prehistoric creatures, and a LITERAL VOLCANO ejecting their party. If that’s not adventure enough for you, we don’t know what is!
4. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
Often credited as the work that sparked the concept of time travel via a — drum roll please — time machine! In this seminal novel that launched H.G. Wells’ career, a time travelling explorer visits a future 800,000 years away. Instead of an encountering an advanced and superior society, he finds that Earth is dying and the races that still inhabit it are at war. In order to return home, he’ll have to explore the tunnels where the sinister Morlocks live — and discover the darker side of human nature.
5. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1897)
One of the first stories to be written about human-extraterrestrial conflict, this novel was a hit from the year it was published, but skyrocketed to super-fame in 1938 during Orson Welles’ dramatic radio program. War of the Worlds details a Martian invasion in an area near London — and when people heard about it on the radio, they believed it was actually happening. The story has been firmly secured in our collective consciousness ever since, and has no doubt influenced all subsequent works of alien fiction in major ways.
6. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Hundreds of years in the future, the world is a utopian dream (read: dystopian nightmare) thanks to genetic manipulation, an intelligence-based caste system, heavy medication, and the fact that people now learn in their sleep. What a time to be alive! A classic of the genre, this title is almost always mentioned in the same breath as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
In this age of Big Data, digital surveillance, fake news and “enemies of the people,” Orwell’s post-war classic has never seemed more relevant. Set in a future Britain where the ruling “Party” has placed restrictions over its citizens’ thoughts and individuality, the novel has had an incredible impact on our modern lexicon. Among the terms coined by Orwell are Big Brother, thought crime, and Room 101.
8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
While science fiction authors of the Jet Age were busy imagining what it would be like if Martians invaded Earth, Ray Bradbury was working with a more plausible premise: that we’d be the ones invading Mars. More of a loose collection of stories than a novel united by a central narrative, the vignettes in this book chart the violent conflict between colonizers and natives of the Red Planet.
9. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)
You’ve probably seen the film starring Will Smith, but you should still read the novel — and now more than ever. In this single title, Asimov basically defined his generation’s perception of robots: that they should serve, but never surpass or disobey, humans. This “fix-up” novel is comprised of short stories and essays that detail the origin and development of robots — some of which are mad, and others which have political aspirations or just enjoy a good joke — and humanity’s complex relationship with its own creations.
10. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
This book kicked off Asimov’s genre-defining Foundation series by positing a world in which a huge Galactic Empire teeters on the brink of destruction. Only one man, mathematician Hari Seldon, manages to predict its imminent downfall AND the millenium-spanning dark age it will trigger. Seldon alone has the power to change the Empire’s course — not to save it, exactly, but to limit the fallout (props to Asimov for keeping it real on this front). Henceforth he devises the intergalactic “Foundations”: two groups of scientists and engineers who attempt to preserve civilization and, in the process, instigate a new sort of empire themselves.
11. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Even people from countries who use the Celsius system know the temperature at which books burn — because most of us know Bradbury’s seminal work of dystopian fiction. Much like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World before it, the book tells the story of a reluctant cog in a totalitarian machine who learns to see the system for what it is. In this case, our hero is a book-burning fireman who becomes a part of the resistance over the course of this gripping novel.
12. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Forget the movie (another Will Smith special): the source material is still where it’s at. In the wake of a pandemic that has transformed humankind into vampires, Robert Neville is the last man left alive. He spends his days hunting down the bloodthirsty creatures, and locks himself into his home at night, when the monsters can safely roam the street without being burnt. Featuring a twist ending that rivals anything Matheson wrote for The Twilight Zone, this influential sci-fi/horror novel will keep you hooked from the very start!
13. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
Are you already picturing that one scene from Silence of the Lambs? Well, Wyndham’s take on chrysalids is less creepy-crawly, but definitely still disturbing. The characters of this novel live in a society in which people with mental/physical abnormalities are forcibly sterilized or killed. (You might also be getting Gattaca vibes right about now). Our hero, David Strom, has strange telepathic dreams, and his friend Sophie has a six-toed foot: they’re obvious targets, but they manage to hide their vulnerabilities from the world. Things escalate, however, when David discovers more kids are like him, and they all must band together to defend themselves and escape to sanctuary… if such a place even exists.
14. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
The aftermath of an utterly devastating nuclear war is a modern dark age, where science is vilified and illiteracy celebrated. Only the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz still fight against the swell of ignorance, carefully preserving the remainders of man’s former knowledge in their monastery. All they need is to wait for the day that the world accepts it again… if they ever do.
15. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
Kris Kelvin is going about his day, preparing to study the ocean that covers the planet Solaris. But before he — or any of the others scientists who have arrived to plunge the planet’s depths — can really understand Solaris, he must first confront his own psyche. It appears that Solaris is actually a massive brain that forces people face unconscious, long-buried memories that manifest physically. In Kris’ case, this memory takes the shape of a long-dead lover.
16. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
The titular stranger of this book may not look strange to his human fellows, but he’s quite literally alien on the inside. Valentine Michael Smith has returned to Earth for the first time. Raised on Mars, Smith is the result of a Martian-type situation in which he was abandoned there as a child… except he had more than potatoes for company. This book is the ultimate speculative study of nature versus nurture, with Smith rediscovering his “own” people in countless surprising and moving ways.
17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
Meg Murry is an outcast in school. She has barely any friends and little brother, Charles Wallace, is a child prodigy. And to make things worse, her father is mysteriously missing. After a visit from an enigmatic woman named Mrs. Whatsit, Meg and Charles Wallace are set on a path to adventure that may reunite their family. Between the compelling mix of sci-fi and fantasy and our unexpected heroes performing spectacular interstellar feats, A Wrinkle in Time is an inspiring and exhilarating work for readers of all ages.
18. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
Is it really science fiction if it takes place in the past or present? Philip K, Dick’s alternate history of the post WWII world asks the classic SF question, what if...?, which for our money makes the book eligible. Another masterful example of speculative world-building, the novel is set in 1960s America, where the former US has been split between the victorious Third Reich and Japanese Empire. Fun fact: just as characters in the novel use the I Ching to divine the future, Dick himself also used this Chinese “Book of Changes” to determine plot decisions.
19. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
The spice is life! Frank Herbert’s seminal novel revolves around an intergalactic game of thrones. As the stewards of a planet that is the only source of the critical “spice,” the Atreides family finds themselves under siege from a rival house and an emperor who seeks their downfall. The first of a seemingly never-ending series of novels set in the Dune universe (Duniverse?), this classic of the genre has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions — with a new version starring Timothée Chalamet set to arrive in 2019!
20. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
This poignant, thought-provoking novel follows a mentally disabled man named Charlie, who receives a treatment that will purportedly transform him into a genius. The treatment, tested first on a mouse named Algernon, seems to work… but when Algernon’s health starts failing, Charlie realizes that it may not be the cure he was promised. Flowers for Algernon raises many difficult questions about the nature of intelligence and a life worth living, and will leave you pondering them long after you’ve turned the final page.
21. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
If Ron Swanson were forced to pick up a sci-fi book instead of a steak cookbook or woodworking manual, it would have to be this novel. The story is a futuristic retelling of the American revolution — if the moon were America and England were, you know, the planet Earth. Members of a penal colony on “Luna,” as they call it, grow tired of their foreign rulers and decide to revolt. Only trouble is, they’re vastly outnumbered with very few resources. But what they do have is strong libertarian spirit, and they’ll be damned if they don't fight for their freedom or die trying (needless to say, an all-too-real real threat for humans in outer space).
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)
This landmark piece of science fiction, developed alongside the iconic Stanley Kubrick film, provides a much more intimate perspective on the events of A Space Odyssey. Though the plot remains essentially the same, Clarke breathes new life and insight into every character, theme, and concept that make up the heart of it. Even Hal, the artificially intelligent computer that attempts to hijack the ship’s mission and kill all the people aboard (spoilers?), becomes exponentially more human through Clarke’s transformative prose. Even if you’ve already seen the movie, just know that it’s never too late to read the book.
23. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
1968 was a big year for sci-fi books that became cult films — this one served as the basis for Blade Runner. Dick’s philosophically titled work introduces us to a world in which androids must serve emigrant humans from Earth, which has been ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. These androids are near-identical to humans in almost every way — think the moral quandaries of Westworld — and consequently, many dream not of electric sheep, but of escaping to Earth and to freedom. Now enter our protagonist, Rick Deckard: a bounty hunter hired to track down and dispose of the androids, all so he can make enough money to buy himself a real live sheep. Sound intriguing? We won’t spoil the rest for you, but trust us that it’s an existential doozy.
24. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
The name Ursula Le Guin already has many readers reaching for her books without another thought. But if you need more convincing: The Left Hand of Darkness is about the planet of Ekumen, which houses an alien colony that has no fixed gender. Genly Ai, a native of Terra, is sent to the planet of Ekumen and must confront his own rigid ideas about gender and sex in the process. Published in 1969, this was the groundbreaking and feminist novel that catapulted Le Guin into the ranks of all-time greats.
25. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
The first novel by McCaffrey, Dragonflight began as two separate acclaimed novellas, both of which made her the first female writer to win the Hugo and Nebula awards. Set on the planet Thread, it’s the story of Lessa, the sole surviving member of an old ruling family who reclaims her birthright with the help of her dragon. This may sound familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, but it’s no mere coincidence — rather, it’s a testament to McCaffrey’s enduring influence on genre fiction.
26. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Time may pass differently for all of us, but for none more strangely than Billy Pilgrim. After a supposed encounter with aliens, Billy becomes “unstuck in time,” experiencing all of his life in a non-linear fashion. The reader rides along with Billy on this utterly unpredictable rollercoaster, witnessing his unusually pacifist approach to war (and his capture during it), his marriage and the birth of his daughter, his experience in a “human zoo,” and much more. This wonderfully weird work is no doubt one of Vonnegut’s best, and perhaps his most personal; like Billy, he too survived the bombing of Dresden by hiding in a slaughterhouse, from which the novel takes its name.
27. Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Considered a classic sci-fi book, the first installment of the series introduces us to Ringworld through the eyes of four visitors: Louis Wu, a 200 year-old man bored out of his mind; Teela Brown, a young woman with a lucky streak and on the hunt for adventure; Nessus, an insane and cowardly puppeteer; and Speaker-to-Animals, an orange-furred and dangerous cat-like alien. If only there was a bar for them all to walk into…
Niven’s series has influenced countless sci fi writers, such as Ernest Cline and Terry Pratchett, and is even referred to in the D&D Planescape.
28. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)
After alien touchdown in six areas of earth, areas called Zones begin to exhibit strange, and sometimes dangerous, phenomena. The Zones also contain artefacts with supernatural properties, left behind by the aliens — which teenager Red Schuhart goes looking for in spite of all the warnings to stay out of the Zones.
Through Red’s ventures into the Zone, this collaborative novel compares the aliens’ disregard for human life to humanity’s common disregard for the environment we inhabit.
29. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
If you had to describe this all-time classic to a family member, you might say that it’s “A Tale of Two Cities in space.” Set in the same universe as Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, the narrative is split between the twinned planets of Urras and Anarres. One is a capitalist society, marked by great wealth and inequality, while the other is a socialist/anarchist paradise. In between them is Shevek, a physicist who inadvertently starts a revolution — but in whose favor?
30. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
Called the finest military science fiction novel in recent decades, The Forever War does not shy away from its title. The titular war is set in the stars and its drafted soldiers are young men and women who must participate in an intergalactic war. Yet the years tick on while they are gone… and when they return, their own Earth is an alien planet to them. This anti-war novel rises above the constraints of its genres to become a transcendent epic in its own right, one that’s still relevant today.
31. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974)
This incredible work of science fiction lifts its title from a Biblical allegory that warns against hypocrisy and conceit. And that’s only the tip of the religious, political, and interstellar iceberg! The book, which takes place almost exactly 1,000 years in the future, kicks off when a pair of space-roaming battleships happens upon a group of aliens. These become known as the “Moties,” in reference to a nearby star that resembles — you guessed it — a mote in God’s eye. And though the Moties are nothing but cordial to the ships’ captains, the humans can’t help but feel suspicious of what they don’t know… which, naturally, turns into a showdown of epic proportions (and unexpectedly dark twists).
32. The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Cited by William Gibson as one of his guiding influences, The Female Man bring four very different women together: Jeannine is a librarian waiting to get married, living in a never-ending Great Depression era; Joanna is a feminist trying to make her mark in the 970’s; Janit lives in a utopian version of Earth where only women exist; and Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike claws, living in a version of Earth where females and males live in separate, warring societies. As you’ll discover, it’s not a coincidence that all their names start with J — and when they finally meet, their preexisting notions of gender and femininity will be put to the test in outrageous and witty fashion.
33. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1975)
Something strange has happened to the city of Bellona: it is unreachable through television and radio. People can only enter by foot. And only the madmen and desperate remain in the city — until a young man with partial amnesia enters the picture. One of the most influential (and trippy) books in the genre, Dhalgren is a must-read for anyone who loves science fiction.
34. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1978)
For both a refreshing change of pace and a powerful reminder of America’s horrifying racial history, pick up this “low sci-fi” novel. Kindred is the story of a young African-American woman, Dana, who lives in 1976 but finds herself transported back to 1815 — when most black people in America were still brutally enslaved. She meets her ancestors and witnesses the inhuman cruelty they endured, and experiences much of it herself firsthand. But no matter how much pain she tolerates, she finds herself unable to control her time traveling, which leads to increasingly dire situations that Dana realizes she may not survive.
35. The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
This first work of science fiction from the master of supernatural horror was a smashing success on its release, and continues to be a classic of the genre. The Stand details the occurrence and aftermath of “Project Blue,” a deadly influenza that kills over 99% of the population. It gives rise to number of surviving factions, some of which are more benevolent than others. This thrilling work will have you on the edge of your seat for all 1,000+ pages, wondering and dreading what the people of this post-apocalyptic society are going to do next.
36. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Douglas Adams’ unique cocktail of comedy and science fiction certainly took the road less traveled to becoming a beloved classic. In just a few short years, it went from being a BBC radio series to a novel, to an early computer game. It follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, whose home (Earth) is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. These books have the rare distinction of appealing to the most hardened SF aficionado while still being laugh-out-loud funny.
37. Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta by Doris Lessing (1979)
While it’s usually just referred to as Shikasta, the full title of this book, including the subtitle, is Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta: Personal, psychological, historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Period of the Last Day. The first installment in the Nobel laureate’s ‘Canopus in Argos’ series, it’s not just the title that’s unusual.
Comprised of reports, letters, speeches, and journal entries, the novel is a study of the planet Shikasta (an allegorical Earth). These documents specially look at the planet’s prehistory, its degeneration leading to the “Century of Destruction” (or the 20th century), and the Apocalypse (World War III).
38. Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh (1981)
In this episode of “corporations don’t do super hot in space”: Earth Company is a private enterprise that has one determined goal — to explore space. This is how Pell World, nicknamed “Downbelow” by the stationers, is founded. However, when Earth itself becomes involved, things get a bit tricky. Downbelow Station opens at the war’s end, but there are more revelations to come in this riveting book that wholly deserved the 1982 Hugo Award for Best Sci-Fi Novel.
39. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Perhaps the definitive piece of cyberpunk fiction, William Gibson’s debut novel is one of the most influential titles of the 80s. Case, a washed-up hacker, is hired by a criminal and his cyborg partner to pull off one last job — which involves taking control of a global virtual reality network known as… The Matrix. We told you this book was influential!
40. Contact by Carl Sagan (1985)
The one and only novel from the 20th century’s great science ambassador revolves around humanity’s first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence. Informed by Sagan’s own research and theories, the story centres on Ellie Arroway, a scientist who spearheads the attempt to communicate with (and physically reach) the other side of the universe.
41. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Some consider Ender’s Game to be the most revolutionary genre pieces of the twentieth century. This debut novel focuses on Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a boy who attends Battle School in outer space in order to undergo rigorous military training, and eventually lead the humans in an all-out battle against the alien “buggers” — if he doesn’t crack under the pressure, that is. This masterfully constructed and vividly detailed novel set the bar high for Scott’s contemporaries, and continues to be a landmark work of science fiction.
42. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Shards of Honor is the first installment of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga series, and takes place years before the series’ protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, is born. It follows Cordelia Naismith, an astronomical surveyor who has been taken prisoner aboard a ship from the planet Barrayar, of which Aral Vorkosigan is the commander. However, when a ruthless crew member overthrows Aral, he and Cordelia must rely on one another for survival.
43. Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons (1986)
In 1986, Watchmen landed on the comics world like a giant squid from an alternate dimension. Over the course of a twelve issue series, Moore and Gibbons reinvented and reinvigorated comic book storytelling, and it’s hard to think of any other project that’s had a greater influence on the medium. Set against themes of power corrupting and what the introduction of an actual superman into society would mean, Moore’s deconstruction of superhero tropes relies on elements of sci-fi and alternate history narratives to tell a story that ushered the modern era of comic book storytelling.
44. Watchers by Dean Koontz (1987)
Koontz has made a career out of melding sci-fi and spec-fic trappings with his particular brand of horror. Watchers came during a stretch in the mid-80’s that made him a perennial bestseller. Featuring a super-intelligent Golden Retriever and relentless genetically engineered monstrosity, the novel explores themes that would become common in Koontz’s work going forward — shady government organizations and the ethical quandaries of unchecked scientific advancement. With Watchers, Koontz really found his footing as a master of his craft.
45. Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987)
The first of Butler’s Lilith's Brood trilogy follows the titular protagonist, a human woman who awakes in a cell and realizes that she is much further from home than she though. Earth has become an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland and a few select humans have been plucked by an alien race — who have their own particular interest in humans. A modern sci-fi classic, Butler’s novels are marked by their spotlight on questions of race and class.
46. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
The Culture: a society in which humanoids and machines live symbiotically. In the Culture, machines oversee everything and humans are left to pursue their own interests, such as game playing. Enter Jernau Morat Gurgeh: one of the greatest Game Players ever. He’s conquered every board, which means that the only frontier left for him is the Empire of Azad, which hosts a game so daring that the winner becomes emperor… and so deadly that the most probable outcome is death.
47. Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (1989)
Three million years after a nuclear incident wipes out the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf, the computer revives frozen crew-member Dave Lister: the only man left alive in the universe. Reunited with the hologram of his roommate and the humanoid descendent of his pet cat, Lister goes from being a small fish in a big pond to an equally small fish in an empty ocean.
On the surface, this is an adaptation of the first season of a beloved British sitcom. However, the show’s creators have crafted a funny, affecting novel that marries some of the best parts of the series with the spirit of Douglas Adams.
48. Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)
Based off of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Hyperion is a dreamy, award-winning masterwork that will make you ponder humanity’s fate. In the 29th century, a creature called the Shrike waits for humanity on a world of Hyperion. Enter a crew of pilgrims who are traveling to Hyperion to seek answers. But whether or not they will kill the Shrike or worship it like a god is unknown — along with the vital secrets that each of them hold inside of themselves.
49. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990)
We often forget that Michael Crichton’s most successful novel was derived from his earlier screenplay for Westworld. (Theme park goes off the rails when the main attraction starts killing the visitors.) However, just like the scientists in Jurassic Park, we believe that he merely perfected the formula when it came writing this well-researched, action-packed novel.
50. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. (1990)
To every avid science fiction reader, the name James Tiptree Jr. (the pen name for Alice Sheldon) is unquestionably revered. But though you may know her novels already, are you also familiar with Sheldon’s equally brilliant short stories? Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the definitive collection of her best short stories, from “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” to “Love is The Plan The Plan is Death.” Dive into it to remind yourself again why James Tiptree Jr. was simply one of the best science fiction names to ever publish in the genre.
51. The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson (1991)
Hang onto your (pirate) hats, because this dramatic space opera lives up to its promising name. It begins with a man and a woman in a bar, on a space station, with all the other patrons whispering over how such an ugly swashbuckler could woo such a beautiful woman. Another man quickly frees her from his clutches — but wait, the narrator chides, this romantic tale of a damsel in distress is not “the real story.” What unfolds from there is a complex web of hidden motives and shocking acts of violence and betrayal, all of which builds to a resolution you’d never anticipate. (Though of course, you’ll have to read the whole series to get the REAL story.)
52. The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman (1991)
We couldn’t have this list without just a sprinkle of Gaiman. And his Sandman series, which starts off with this spellbinding installment, is particularly wonderful because it’s not just words; it’s also a comic. (As Gaiman fans will know, his visions can sometimes be difficult to render through prose alone.) In any case, Preludes & Nocturnes takes us on a wild ride back to 1916, in a parallel timeline launched by a foolhardy magician who accidentally causes an epidemic of “sleeping sickness.” The embodiment of the Dream must then restore certain totems to regain his powers, lest the world be without him forever.
53. The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)
Piece of advice when you use time travel to zip back to the 14th century: get your shots for the bubonic plague ahead of time (but literally). This becomes a pickle for Kivrin, a young historian who is sent to the 14th century — only to get stranded there when the plague is at its height. Yet even as her team from the present era desperately tries to rescue her, a strange disease has begun to spread throughout modern-day London as well.
What could it have to do with the 14th century? And what role does Kivrin play in the middle of it all? Medical mystery meets science fiction in this unputdownable book.
54. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith (1992)
An assured, impressive debut novel from Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite focuses on Marghe, an anthropologist sent to a planet whose human colonists had been apparently wiped out centuries prior. On her arrival, Marghe discovers a “native” race of only women who seem to be descended from members of the original expedition. As she learns more about them, her views on society and adaptation begin to change profoundly… as yours may too after reading this book.
55. The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
As in all of the best science fiction books, author P.D. James crafted a world that becomes more believable with each passing year. Set in the year 2021, the human race has not seen a new birth in over a decade — and in much of the western world, autocratic governments have taken control. The plot of the acclaimed film adaptation bears little resemblance to the source material, but such is the power of James’s world-building that the spirit of her novel still carries over.
56. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
Self-aware cyberpunk fans, Snow Crash is for you. It follows Hiro Protagonist (yes, that’s his name), a man who delivers pizza in the “real world.” But in the Metaverse, a next-level internet, he is a warrior prince who tracks down computer viruses that threaten to bring about the “infopocalypse.”
57. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
In the Community of The Giver, every young person receives an assignment which they will carry out for the rest of their lives — all except for Jonas, who receives an assignment no one has ever gotten before. As Jonas learns more about what he’s meant to do, he begins to understand everything the Community has deprived him, and what it truly means to be human… even when that humanity causes almost unbearable pain.
58. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
When the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico detects evidence of extraterrestrial life, humans don’t know what to make of it — especially as the evidence comes in the form of music. While the UN grapples with how to proceed, a group of Jesuits make up humanity’s mind for them: they, the Jesuits, will embark on an independent mission to explore the planet Rakhat, from which the music emanates. The resulting combination of scientific imagination and understanding of the human condition is both engaging and incredibly moving.
59. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card (1999)
Lord of the Flies meets Oliver Twist in this first installment of Card’s Shadow series. Protagonist Bean is a child who lives on the mean streets, begging for food and often ruthlessly fighting other children for a crumb of bread. But Bean has discovered he possesses a special skill: to identify his enemy’s greatest weaknesses. It’s a skill that leads to his enrollment in Battle School — a military training academy that recruits children to fight in the war against the Buggers — and his fateful introduction to his one true friend and rival: Ender Wiggin.
60. Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear (1999)
In the winner of the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novel, Kaye Lang is a molecular biologist who has long predicted that humans’ DNA houses ancient diseases that might one day spring back to life. Her theory is confirmed when a “virus hunter” named Christopher Dicken discovers the source of a mysterious disease that has killed thousands of expectant mothers. It all comes to a head in the Alps, where a horrifying discovery of preserved bodies hints that something long dormant is ready to return. Darwin certainly never predicted this.
61. Valor's Choice by Tanya Huff (2000)
Humans may have been granted membership to the Confederation, but the price is service as soldiers to protect the more “civilized” races. When Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr and her platoon are pulled from leave for a supposedly easy mission, they have no idea that they are about to walk into a conflict greater than any they had faced before.
62. Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (2000)
This bildungsroman blends popular tropes from the best sci-fi books with elements of Caribbean folklore. It begins with Carnival time on the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint. Young Tan-Tan is revelling in the costumed festivities when a crime committed by her own father lands them both in brutal New Half-Way Tree tree world. Here, monstrous creatures from folklore come to life, and Tan-Tan is forced to embody the mythical “Robber Queen” character if she has any chance of escaping alive.
63. number9dream by David Mitchell (2001)
In rural Japan, nineteen-year old Eiji Miyake has just lost his sister and his mother is MIA. His only choice: to go to Tokyo in search of his father. Yet his search uncovers more questions than it answers — most pressingly, what exactly separates his dreams from his reality? And what is the significance of the number nine? Published in 2001, number9dream remains one of David Mitchell’s most ambitious and terrific works.
64. The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson (2001)
Every action has consequences, but if we’ve learned anything from science fiction, this axiom is especially true of time travel. In this Hugo-nominated novel, a young man bears witness one day to a 200-foot stone pillar appearing out of thin air. What’s even odder is that the date inscribed upon it celebrates a military victory that apparently took place sixteen years in the future. Wilson explores the thought-provoking impact of self-fulfilling prophecies, and just what causality means.
65. Otherland: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams (2001)
Before Ready Player One, there was Otherland and its staggering vision of virtual reality. This epic science fiction series begins and ends in the Net and its Otherland, a mysterious golden city that steals and murders souls. The fate of those missing might just fall into the hands of Renie Sulaweyo, !Xabbu, Paul Jonas, fourteen-year-old Orlando, and Mister Sellars: a band of misfits who nevertheless may have to rise up to become heroes for a (literally) lost generation.
66. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)
Though perhaps best known for inspiring the movie Arrival, this innovative anthology has much less to do with aliens than with us. From a young miner’s surreal journey through the “Tower of Babylon” to the story of world in which heaven is a guaranteed reality (if you believe in God), Chiang’s work plays with the boundaries of belief and experience in a way that is distinctly human.
67. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (2002)
In the future, all bodies are merely suits (or “sleeves”) inhabited by human consciousness. People travel between the stars by zapping their minds into new bodies and the rich become immortal through a series of constant upgrades. Takeshi Kovacs is a former special forces soldier who has been hired by a wealthy man to investigate his own mysterious suicide. How can this be? Thanks to the fact that his consciousness was backed up (on the cloud or something), he remains alive but with no memory of how he died. Pretty freaky, right?
68. Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer (2003)
Two lovers are separated in a world of mutant meerkats, decadent cities, and underworld labyrinths full of stitched-together monsters in this classic work of unclassifiable but brilliant literature from the author of the Southern Ranch trilogy. Veniss Underground is like a nightmarish fever dream, but one you won’t want to wake up from.
69. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Though she’s more or less synonymous with The Handmaid’s Tale by now, Margaret Atwood also penned this acclaimed novel that fits most neatly into the science fiction genre. In the world of Oryx and Crake, Earth has been wrecked by climate change and Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy) may be the last human alive. His journey to understand what happened brings one too many answers, revealing the horrifying dangers of genetic engineering and corporate power. Once again, Atwood demonstrates an uncanny knack for creating grimly powerful dystopias that strike a bit too close to home.
70. Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton (2004)
In the year 2380, the Intersolar Commonwealth contains over six hundred worlds and many more inhabitants. Exploration of this sphere is made easy through the use of wormholes — until one day astronomer Dudley Bose observes a star vanishing entirely… and that one small revelation could spell doom for the entire galaxy. Considered one of the greatest triumphs of modern science fiction, Pandora’s Star serves up an amazingly well-drawn world and an incredibly epic plot that plays out over the grandest of spaces.
71. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Kathy is a “carer” who looks after organ donors. As she works, she reminisces about her past experience at Hailsham, a boarding school in England: the school where she met her two lasting friends, Tommy and Ruth. Though the plot might seem to wander at times, the threads come together with a shocking bang to form a revelation that’s much more horrifying than what the placid surface of the book might suggest. Never Let Me Go further cemented Kazuo Ishiguro’s star status — and is today one of the must-read books of the 21st-century.
72. World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)
Max (son of Mel) Brooks’ bestselling book isn’t remarkable for what happens in the plot. After all, it’s a zombie apocalypse story, the same kind we’ve been seeing on screen since the 1960s. What made Brooks’ book a hit is its ground-level, Studs Turkel-esque oral take on a familiar set of tropes. Didn’t like the movie starring Brad Pitt? Don’t worry — treat yourself to the audiobook version that stars the author himself, Carl Reiner and Nathan Fillion.
73. Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)
Raz lives on the planet Arbre. He is part of a hermetic enclave dedicated to the pursuit and preservation of knowledge (while the rest of society remains blissfully ignorant), Canticle for Leibowitz-style. When his mentor discovers an orbiting alien spaceship, Raz’s view of his world is shaken as the alien’s presence threatens to destroy the careful balance of his planet’s society. Featuring detailed discussions of logic, mathematics and philosophy, Anathem is certainly one of the headier titles on this list.
74. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
Twelve districts. Twenty-four contestants. One survivor. This is the premise of The Hunger Games, the YA dystopian mega-hit of 2008. Katniss Everdeen never wanted to get involved in the Games, but after her sister is randomly chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place — entering a battle for her own life. Suzanne Collins’ remarkable worldbuilding both inside and outside the arena, combined with the cutting themes of extreme social inequality and human savagery, makes this a true standout amongst many similar works of recent years.
75. The City & The City by China Miéville (2009)
The winner of almost every SFF award under the sun, Miéville’s novel centers on Inspector Tyador Borlú. As he investigates the death of a student, he finds himself on the trail of a murderer which spans two cities… that happen to share the exactly same physical space. Recently adapted into a BBC miniseries, this slice of weird fiction sees one of genre fiction’s best authors firing on all cylinders.
76. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
A particularly striking debut, Bacigalupi’s Nebula- and Hugo-winning novel imagines the devastating impacts of climate change and corporate control over the global food supply. What Neuromancer did for cyberpunk, The Windup Girl does for a new subgenre based on the power and perils of bioengineering.
77. Redemption of Indigo by Karen Lord (2010)
Science fiction meets traditional Caribbean storytelling in this bold debut novel from Karen Lord. Paama is a woman married to a wreck of a man: her husband Ansige is a foolish, bumbling glutton. So when he makes the mistake one day of murdering livestock, Paama decides that that’s the last time she’ll bear witness to his errors in life. Little does she know that soon she’ll impress the undying ones and be given the legendary Chaos Stick to control the world — or the consequences that she might wreak in the process.
78. Death's End by Cixin Liu (2010)
The stunning finale to an equally stunning trilogy, Cixin Liu’s Death’s End tells the story of the strained truce between Earth and the Trisolarans, two of the last great civilizations in the universe. But everything is thrown back into uncertainty again when Cheng Xin wakes up from hibernation. An aerospace engineer from the 21st-century, she alone knows a secret from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis that could cause the universe to collapse once more.
79. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)
“MacGuyver in Space” could easily be the pitch for this bold, assured debut by self-published author Andy Weir. When botanist astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally abandoned on Mars, he must use his science brain to figure out how to survive long enough for a rescue party to arrive. Acclaimed for its humor and respect for actual science (almost every detail of the story is scientifically accurate), the book has since become a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon.
80. Legend by Marie Lu (2011)
In the Republic (formerly known as the western United States), June is the prodigious teenager who’s being groomed to rise in the military ranks. Meanwhile, fellow teenager Day is a criminal through and through. They have nothing in common until the fateful day that June’s sister is murdered, and Day is Suspect #1. June is hell-bent on avenging her sister’s death, but the game of cat-and-mouse that she’s playing with Day might shockingly end up revealing more than the government ever wanted them to know.
81. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (2012)
In a twist on the typical post-apocalyptic fare, The Last Policeman presents a pre-apocalyptic universe: one in which the United States has six months until impact. While everything is going to pieces, Hank Palace may be the last policeman who cares about investigating a suspicious suicide. After all, what’s the point of trying when all of humanity is just waiting for life to end? If you don’t know the answer, we recommend picking up this book to find out!
82. Amatka by Karin Tidbeck (2012)
When Vanja is sent to collect intelligence for the government in the remote, barren colony of Amatka, she doesn’t expect to feel immediately on edge. There is something strange about Amatka, from its citizens’ behavior to the way that commonplace objects have to be marked. The longer she stays, the more wrong it feels… and when Vanja eventually uncovers what’s wrong, it may already be too late for her. A stunning debut novel, Amatka serves up a terrifying vision of a dystopian world that’s rooted in language.
83. Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)
A loving homage to the ubiquitous red-shirt-wearing phaser fodder on Star Trek, this comic novel centers on Andrew, the newest crew member aboard a starship. He quickly realizes that on every “away mission,” one of his low-ranking colleagues bites the dust — a fact that gets him understandably worried. If you liked Galaxy Quest, then chances are you’ll love this book.
84. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)
If you’re in the mood for a space opera of massive proportions, this is the book for you. In Ancillary Justice, our protagonist is a spaceship’s AI — yes, you read that right. She used to be the Justice of Toren, a starship that served the leading empire in the galaxy. But now she’s been stripped from everything she knows and put into a fragile human body against her will… and you can bet that she’s acquired a thirst for vengeance. This mind-bending novel was such a game-changer that it won the science fiction triple crown in the year that it was published: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke.
85. Dust by Hugh Howey (2013)
Wool was introduced readers to the Silo and its inhabitants, Shift told the story of the inhabitants lives and how the silos came to be, and Dust, the final novel in the Silo series is meant to detail the undoing of the silo society.
Juliette has explored the mysteries of the silos and is done being controlled. But she might be on her own, and the toxic world beyond the silos walls is only one of her worries — a poison has begun to grow within the walls of Silo 18 itself.
86. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (2013)
Set in a somewhat familiar post-apocalyptic world, most of the population has been infected by a zombie fungus. A few children, seemingly immune to the infection’s worst side-effects, are kept in a military facility — where they have become the subject of scientific efforts to combat the plague. Also adapted into a recent film, this book will appeal to fans of the video game The Last of Us (which also happens to feature fungal zombies and a young, headstrong female protagonist).
87. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
When the “Georgia flu” pandemic spreads across the globe, humanity has no choice but to start over. Among the survivors is Kirsten, a young girl who goes on to become an actor in a traveling theatre troupe, “because survival is insufficient” (as they say). Oscillating gracefully between the first days of the pandemic and Kirsten’s life twenty years later in the troupe, this work paints an incredible portrait of a post-apocalyptic world — to such an extent that you’re almost surprised to look up and find that it’s not reality.
88. Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)
Meet the world of Red Rising, where everything is color-coded, including society. Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste: he spends his days toiling in the mines so that Mars is habitable for future generations. But when he discovers that the surface of Mars is already inhabitable and that he and his fellow Reds have been duped, his desire for vengeance sends him to the Institute, the top training institution in the galaxy… and a death ground for anyone but Golds. Red Rising has been compared to everything from The Hunger Games to Lord of the Flies and Ender’s Game, but it’s great enough to stand tall on its own.
89. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2014)
Becky Chambers’ debut novel is a banger. One brave young explorer in the form of Rosemary Harper? Check. A motley and diverse crew that contains multiple alien species? Check. A fast-paced, riotous romp through space as the Wayfarer encounters a lot of mishaps — and we mean a lot? Check, check, check. Enjoyable, fun, and character-driven, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is sure to keep you wanting more even after you’ve finished the last page.
90. Planetfall by Emma Newman (2015)
Renata Ghali escaped an overpopulated Earth because she believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of humanity in space. Since then, she’s worked as a visengineer on an alien world, all the while concealing a secret: that the whole colony has been built on a lie. Time comes to reveal the truth, but it could rip her colony apart forever. Fans of Tiptree and Crispin will take to this exceptionally gripping novel instantly.
91. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
The 2015 Nebula and Hugo winner for best sci-fi novella, Binti introduces us to an unforgettable titular character: Binti, a girl who has just become the first of the Himba people to get an offer to study at Oomza University. It’s the most prestigious universe in the galaxy — but it’s also pretty far from home. And in order to get there, she’ll need to travel between the stars where a fearsome war is taking place. No one ever said that knowledge doesn’t come at a cost — and now it’s up to Binti to risk everything to acquire that knowledge.
92. The Fold by Peter Clines (2015)
The Albuquerque Door seems like the invention of a generation: it’s a device that lets people travel long distances with a single step. Only everyman Mike Erikson is unconvinced. And yet his investigations are beginning to uncover a secret darker than even he feared, and there’s no other way out than to plunge deeper into the puzzle. As the novel itself says: “Step into the Fold. It’s perfectly safe.”
93. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman (2015)
Fans of Marie Lu, gather around! Illuminae is about an Earth teetering on the brink of nonexistence, a plague that threatens everyone’s lives, and a pair of teenagers, Kady and Ezra, who don’t know what else to do but desperately try and survive. The truth may only be found in the data and documents that Kady discovers: a web of emails, chatrooms, and IMs that coincidentally happen to be the frame text of this heart-pounding, immensely readable novel.
94. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Winner of the 2016 Locus Awards, Ninefox Gambit tells the tale of Kel Cheris, a disgraced captain. She’s given a chance to redeem herself if she can recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which is in enemy territory. To have a hope of succeeding, she must partner with the undead general Shuos Jedao. The tiny problem with this is that Shuos Jedao went mad in an earlier life and massacred two armies — one of them his own.
95. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2016)
This first entry in the Broken Earth series transformed Jemisin from a beloved genre darling into a breakout star of mainstream fiction. Set on a planet that’s on the verge of a catastrophic climate disaster, the novel takes place in three different time periods. The narrative follows three female characters who belong to a class that has the power to influence earthquakes and volcanoes. Noted for its incredible characterization, The Fifth Season is a true modern masterpiece.
96. Scythe by Neal Shusterman (2016)
This YA novel imagines a future world free of conflict: poverty, war, hunger, and even mortality have all been solved once and for all. Of course, now the world is seeing overpopulation at unprecedented rates. Enter: the Scythedom, an organization that controls who lives and dies. Join apprentice Scythes Citra and Rowan, who learn not only how Sycthedom works, but the cost of living in this “perfect” world.
97. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)
One day, young Rose was riding her bike when the earth caved in beneath her and she fell through, landing in a giant, metal palm. Almost 20 years later, the mystery of this massive hand remains unsolved — despite Rose’s two decades of obsessively studying it. Now, finally, she is on the edge of uncovering the truth — and potentially discovering that some truths are best left buried.
98. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)
In the world of Six Wakes, when you die, you come back as a cloned version of yourself, with all your memories intact. Which is what makes the “rebirth” of Maria Arena on a lone spaceship so strange: she has no memory of how she died. The streaks of blood adorning her cloning vat? That’s also new. What follows is a race against the clock to find the murderer… before they strike again.
99. Exo by Fonda Lee (2017)
Earth was colonized by aliens a century ago, but it’s been peaceful ever since. Native humans have integrated with the advanced aliens and signs of closer collaboration are beginning to show. Yet everything suddenly hangs in the balance when Donovan Reyes, the son of the prestigious Prime Liaison, is captured by a rebel group. In Exo, Fonda Lee asks what peace really means and thoughtfully explores questions about imperialism and what it means to be under rule.
100. The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (2018)
Shannon Moss is an NCIS agent assigned to investigate a Navy SEAL who has murdered his own family and disappeared. Yet Moss’ determination to solve the case will spur an attempt to travel to the future, revealing to her a terrifying connection to the Terminus: a mysterious apocalypse that can only mean the end of humanity altogether.