Looking for your next read? Take a trip into the future with our pick of the best science fiction novels of all time
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Looking for your next sci-fi must-read? Cyberpunk, space operas, dystopias – we’ve pulled together some of the WIRED team’s favourite science fiction novels. Some are eerily plausible, others are wild trips of the imagination, but all present compelling visions of our possible future.
You may also enjoy our guides to best sci-fi movies and the best space movies, too. If you’re after more reading inspiration, try our selection of the best fantasy books and we have a guide to the best audiobooks if you’re feeling lazy.
The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (208)
Liu Cixin was already one of China’s most revered science fiction writers when, in 2008, he decided to turn his hand to a full-length novel. The Three-Body Problem is the result – an era-spanning novel that jumps between the Cultural Revolution, the present day, and a mysterious video game. The first part of a trilogy, it’s a fascinating departure from the tropes of Western science fiction, and loaded with enough actual science that you might learn something as well as being entertained. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
Though Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred was published more than 40 years ago, it carries lessons and learnings that we can all still use today. When African-American writer, Dana finds herself transported from 1979 Los Angeles to the pre-Civil War Antebellum south to repeatedly save her white slave-owning ancestor, she must confront the horrendous reality of surviving slavery while not losing her modern day identity. This is only more complicated when she accidentally transports back with her white husband. The novel explores major themes of power, race and inequality. Butler’s contextualising of this era is devastating; the way in which she contrasts modern day 1979 with the pre-Civil War age offers a different perspective on the complicated and degrading reality of slavery. Kindred allows you, the reader, to engage with the emotional impacts of slavery, something unfortunately often lost in too many of today’s teachings of the subject. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
Published in 1666, this book by Margaret Cavendish is arguably the first science fiction book ever written. Its language may be dated, but this fearless feminist text packed full of imagination is not just incredibly brave for its time. It’s also still incredibly relevant; cited as inspiration by writers including China Miéville and Alan Moore.
Cavendish’s utopian tale follows the adventures of a kidnapped woman, who travels to another world run by part-humans, part animals – fox men, fish men, geese men, the list goes on. As she is a very beautiful woman, she becomes their Empress, and organises an an almighty invasion of her own world, complete with literal fire(stones) raining from the sky.
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (1990)
Before it mutated into the mega media franchise “Jurassic World”, Jurassic Parkwas a smart, thoughtful and gripping sci-fi classic written by Michael Crichton, author of the equally brilliant Andromeda Strain. Crichton’s tale remains a great parable about the dangers of genetic engineering, (as well as a slightly heady exploration of chaos theory). His descriptions of dinosaurs are also brilliant, like the T-Rex: “Tim felt a chill, but then, as he looked down the animal’s body, moving down from the massive head and jaws, he saw the smaller, muscular forelimb. It waved in the air and then it gripped the fence.” Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)
Mary Shelley started writing classic gothic thriller Frankenstein when she was 18 years old. Two centuries later, it is a major ancestor of both the science fiction and horror genres, tackling huge themes like the nature of life and death, immortality and genetic engineering. It is a pro-science novel that at its heart shows Dr Frankenstein as the callous fiend of the story, who created a being and was not willing to accept responsibility for his actions. In an age where the space between technical life and death is narrower than ever, and scientists are playing with the makeup of what makes us humans, Frankenstein can still teach an important lesson: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov (1951)
Asimov was a prolific writer, but many of his best works are classic short stories such as Nightfall, or The Last Question, which play out like long jokes with a punchline twist at the end. In the Foundation series, he’s in another mode entirely, charting the rise and fall of empires in sweeping brush strokes. Asimov’s prose can be stilted, and betrays the attitudes of its time in the portrayal of female characters, but it has left a lasting legacy.
The Foundation series follows Hari Seldon, who is the architect of psychohistory – a branch of mathematics that can make accurate predictions thousands of years in advance, and which Seldon believes is necessary to save the human race from the dark ages. You can see why it’s one of Elon Musk’s favourite books (along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein – also recommended). A long-awaited screen adaptation is one of the flagship launch offering’s of Apple’s new streaming service. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester (1957)
This landmark novel begins with a simple proposition – what if humans could teleport? – and sprawls into a tale of rebirth and vengeance that winds across the Solar System: The Count of Monte Cristo for the interstellar age. First published as Tiger! Tiger! in the UK, named after the William Blake poem, it follows Gully Foyle – a violent, uneducated brute who spends six months marooned in deep space, and the rest of the book seeking retribution for it. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
If you think you know Solaris from the 2002 Steven Soderbergh film, the original book may come as a bit of a surprise. Written by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem in 1961, this short novel is heavier on philosophy than plot. It follows a team of humans on a space station who are trying to understand the mysterious living ocean on the planet Solaris, with little success – their research is limited to lengthy descriptions that paint a vibrant picture of the alien planet but fail to elucidate how it works. As they poke and prod, Solaris ends up exposing more about them than it does about itself, with the book demonstrating the futility of humans trying to comprehend something not of their world. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
In 2012, Wired US readers voted Dune the best science-fiction novel of all time. It’s also the best-selling of all time, and has inspired a mammoth universe, including 18 books set over 34,000 years and a terrible 1984 movie adaptation by David Lynch, his worst film by far. A hopefully better effort is currently in production, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The series is set 20,000 years in the future in galaxies stuck in the feudal ages, where computers are banned for religious reasons and noble families rule whole planets. We focus on the planet Arrakis, which holds a material used as a currency throughout the Universe for its rarity and mind-enhancing powers. Lots of giant sandworms, too. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein (1966)
One of Elon Musk’s favourite books, apparently, this gripping novel paints a plausible picture of life on Earth’s satellite, three years before man set foot on the moon for the first time. Its depictions of the challenges of life in orbit, and the ingenuity of human solutions to the problem – even among the exiles and misfits who make up the lunar population – are memorable.
Ice, by Anna Kavan (1967)
Anna Kavan’s last (and best) sci fi novel provides a haunting, claustrophobic vision of the end of the world, where an unstoppable monolithic ice shelf is slowly engulfing the earth and killing everything in its wake. The male protagonist and narrator of the story (who is nameless) is eternally chasing after an elusive and ethereal young woman, while contemplating feelings that become darker and more violent towards her as the ice closes in. He frequently crosses paths with the Warden, the sometimes-husband but also captor of the young woman, who is always one step ahead. And as the ice closes off almost all paths by land and sea, he is running out of time to catch them up.
The novel reads like a grown-up, nightmarish version of Alice in Wonderland: Kavan takes you on a journey that is hallucinogenic and unsettling, with no regard to whether the narrator is dreaming or awake. But the true genius of the book is its language – depicting a powerful allegory crushing pain of addiction, loneliness and mental illness will do little to cheer you up, but will capture your attention. Buy on Amazon
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Le Guin alternated between genres during her prolific career, and this intricate novel came out the year after the classic fantasy book A Wizard of Earthsea. The bulk of the action takes place on Winter, a remote Earth-like planet where it’s cold all year round, and everyone is the same gender. It was one of the first novels to touch on ideas of androgyny – which is viewed from the lens of protagonist Genly Ai, a visitor from Earth who struggles to understand this alien culture. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick (1977)
A curious novel that reads less like sci-fi and more like a hallucinated autobiography detailing the author’s struggle with drug addiction. In a near-future California, vice cop Bob Arctor lives undercover with a community of drug addicts hooked on devastating psychoactive dope Substance D. Arctor, who needs to don a special “scramble suit” to hide his face and voice when meeting his fellow cops, has to grapple with gradually losing his sense of self. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)
The definitive cyberpunk novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer follows hacker-turned-junkie Henry Case as he tries to pull off one last, rather dodgy sounding job in the hope of reversing a toxin that prevents him from accessing cyberspace. Set in a dystopian Japanese underworld, the novel touches on all manner of futuristic technology, from AI to cryonics, and features a cast of creative characters that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. View on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Consider Phlebas, by Iain Banks (1987)
Back in 1987, after four acclaimed fiction novels, Iain Banks published his first sci-fi book, Consider Phlebas, a true space opera and his first book of many to feature the Culture, an interstellar utopian society of humanoids, aliens and sentient machines ostensibly run by hyper-intelligent AI “Minds”. A war rages across the galaxy with one side fighting for faith, the other a moral right to exist. Banks melds this conflict with something approaching a traditional fantasy quest: the search for a rogue Mind that has hidden itself on a forbidden world in an attempt to evade destruction. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (1989)
Winner of the 1990 Hugo Award for Best Novel and part of a two-book series, Hyperion is a richly woven sci-fi epic told in the style of The Canterbury Tales. In the world of Hyperion, humanity has spread to thousands of worlds, none more intriguing or dangerous as Hyperion. It’s home to the Time Tombs, ageless structures which are mysteriously travelling backward through time, and guarding them is the terrifying creature known as the Shrike. It kills anyone who dares encroach on the Time Tombs and has inspired a fanatical religious group who control pilgrimages to the tombs. On the eve of an invasion, a group of travellers convene what’s likely to be the last Shrike pilgrimage and share their tales of what brought them there. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (1992)
Frantic, fun and almost suspiciously prescient, Snow Crash grabs you from its opening sequence – a high-speed race through an anarchic Los Angeles that has been carved up into corporate-owned ‘burbclaves’ – and barely lets up. The book follows main character Hiro Protagonist (yes, really), an elite hacker and swordsman, as he tries to stop the spread of a dangerous virus being propagated by a religious cult. It combines neurolinguistics, ancient mythology and computer science, and eerily predicts social networks, cryptocurrency and Google Earth. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky (2002)
It’s 2033, and a nuclear apocalypse has forced the rag-tag remains of the human population of Moscow to flee to the underground maze of tunnels below the city. Here they develop independent tribes in each metro station, trade goods and fight against each other. But hidden in the tunnels between the stations hide terrifying flesh-eating mutants and a voice that is driving people mad… This is the premise of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s wildly successful novel, which was later made into a series of video games. Part epic tale, part thriller, the translated story follows a teenager called Artyom, who has to travel to the heart of the Metro through unpredictable dangers to save the remains of humankind. Expect to be shocked. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (2003)
While The Handmaid’s Tale describes a world that seems more plausible by the day, in Oryx and Crake Atwood spins a genetically-modified circus of current trends taken to their absolute extreme – a “bio-engineered apocalypse,” is how one reviewer put it. A number of television adaptations have been mooted, including a now-defunct HBO project with Darren Aronofsky, but this might be one to place alongside The Stars My Destination in the impossible-to-adapt file. The world of the book is vibrant, surreal and disturbing enough. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The best sci-fi movies everyone should watch once
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood (2015)
An odd cocktail of a novel: part techno dystopia, part satire, part sex comedy, part classic Atwood. In a bleak, postlapsarian version of the US, young lovebirds Charmaine and Stan endure a miserable existence sleeping in their car and dodging criminals’ knives. Salvation arrives under the guise of an offer to move to the Positron Project – a gated community modelled after an American 1950s suburb. The rub? All Positron’s couples must spend every other month working in a prison, temporarily swapping homes with another couple, called “alternates”. When both Charmaine and Stan start developing oddball sexual relations with their alternates, things move rapidly south. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The Martian, by Andy Weir (2015)
Andy Weir’s debut novel literally puts the science into science fiction, packing in tonnes of well-researched detail about life on Mars. There’s descriptions of how to fertilise potatoes with your own excrement, and hack a life-support system for a Martian rover – in levels of detail that the movie adaptation starring Matt Damon came nowhere near to reaching. The sassy, pop-culture laden writing style won’t be to everyone’s taste – this book probably won’t get taught in English Literature lessons – but the first-person perspective makes sense for this story of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet with no way to get home. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2016)
Margaret Atwood also had a hand in this gripping novel, which inverts the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale, and puts women in the ascendancy. Atwood mentored the author, Naomi Alderman, as she wrote this story about women and girls discovering a powerful new ability to emit electricity from their hands, up-ending civilisation as a result. The Power is paced like a television series, and it’s coming to screens soon after a fierce 11-way auction for the rights. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2017)
The Annihilation series showcased Jeff VanderMeer’s gift for the surreal, and he turns it up a notch in Borne – which starts with an unknown scavenger plucking an object from the fur of a giant flying bear in a post-apocalyptic city, and only gets weirder from there as the main character strikes up a friendship with an intelligent sea anemone-like creature called Borne. The story is, it eventually transpires, one of biotechnology run amok – which makes for the most colourful dystopia you’re likely to come across. Buy on Amazon or start a 30-day Audible trial
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