So, you want some science fiction books that’ll keep you glued to the pages? Look no further.
I’ve compiled a list of my top 5 best sci-fi novels, particularly thinking of what I would recommend to someone starting with the genre. These are some of the very books that I first read in the sci-fi genre; the ones that got me hooked. There’s something here for everyone, though!
For each, I’ve written about: 1) the key issues they explore, 2) a case for why I think you should give it a read, and 3) a top quote or two for each to give you a flavour.
Alright, let’s look at some classic examples of the great science fiction genre (which you should be reading, and here’s why).
The best science fiction books (my top 5 for beginner’s):
1. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
A poignant anti-war novel, heavily based on the Vietnam-America conflict. It warns against the constant, knotted state of war that’s characteristic of the modern world. You know, that distinct kind with no clear beginning, narrative, or ending—just like today’s global ‘war on terror’, I guess. It touches on key concepts: the military-industrial-complex, overpopulation, class-conflict, rationing, and even sexuality. Haldeman envisions a not-so-unimaginable world in which the earth’s economy relies on perpetual conflict.
The Forever War imagines, well, a war that goes on and on… forever. We meet the protagonist, Mandela, as a soldier fighting an installer war against an alien species called the Taurans. Pretty standard, no? Well, just wait a minute. Mandela soon finds himself flying through the solar system, exploiting wormholes to time travel and therefore gain a military advantage over this (past-present-future) enemy.
Mandela becomes estranged from the world he thought he was a part of. Due to the time travel, he watches everything change at an infinitely faster rate than he can comprehend. He ultimately realises he’s become an alien himself. His home becomes a strange land of unrecognisable people, customs, and rules.
This book was groundbreaking when it came out, foregrounding the concepts of alienation and otherness—how fluid, how changeable our understanding of what makes us human really is. It’ll just completely reframe your understanding of the terms ‘enemy’ and ‘the other’ by painting a millennia-long picture of conflict. You can see how topical and illuminating this perspective is when you consider its context: Haldeman fought in the Vietnam War himself.
This was the book that made me realise how transformative science fiction can be.
It’s an incredibly thought-provoking read. It’ll leave you questioning all number of things about how this little world of ours operates. It was the first book in the first SF Masterworks series, and is one of two books on this list that won the prestigious Hugo award.
Overall, by using wormholes as a time-dilating device, Mandella witnesses the unfolding of humanity over thousands of years—yet perceives them as few. In doing so, he can watch human evolution play out in distinct stages—slowly losing his grasp on what makes him human. He’s an insider watching from the outside.
What he sees as humanity transforms through epochs will hook and surprise you. Pick up a copy and find out!
‘But they weren’t aliens, I had to remind myself — we were.’
— Joseph Haldeman, The Forever War.
2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
This novel imagines a post-apocalyptic vision of the United States—specifically San Fransico—in 1992 (or 2021, as it was later revised…). Guess it’s time for another revision now!
Dick paints a world in which the boundary between what is human and what is synthetic breaks down to an indistinguishable thread. Have you heard of Bladerunner? Ok, yeah, silly question. Well, it’s based on this book!
It’s a novel of questions—it’s almost like thought experiments. Dick was a writer of ideas firstly. They flow from his pen into stories that can seem almost frenzied at times. He would take themes and ideas and then write his novels around those, rather than the other way around. But it doesn’t come across as heavy-handed, and his prose is neat too.
It’s also the first example of a cyberpunk novel. Low-life characters and outcomes in a futuristic, high-tech world. You get the picture.
In this post-nuclear world, the protagonist Deckard is commissioned with killing androids gone rogue. The androids he’s sent to hunt down are made of organic matter, but imbued with artificial intelligence to the nth degree. Yet his pet is an electric sheep, made of non-organic matter. You see the dichotomy he’s painting here?
Dick was a prophetic and insightful thinker. He wonders: what is the substantive difference between human and an android with the same intelligence? What difference does it make if your pet is a ‘real’ or not? And why are we so quick to delegitimise people—why do we overlook and dismiss each others’ inner lives?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also touches religion, the human condition, and even introduces new concepts such the ’empathy box’—a virtual reality device for sharing collective suffering, touted by many as a rudimentary 1968 predictor of social media…
After tackling this and you’re ready for more, I’d try Ubik and A Scanner Darkly. Although, they’re slightly heavier in their subject matter.
‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so.’
— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Pick this one up expecting some weird and fantastic tales of what it would be like to live on Mars. But then, find yourself amazed by Bradbury’s profound reflections on human nature and destructiveness.
The book, at its core, is a collection of short stories about humans terraforming mars. But what they find is interwoven with so many themes and ideas, urging reflection on so many issues. It creates a certain mythos around Mars (and planet exploration in general) that are amazingly illuminating. I’ve never looked into the sky or at a picture of a planet the same way since.
It touches on human exploitation, conformity, and xenophobia. One memorable passage sees white people on Earth wondering why every black person has evacuated in spaceships to Mars. ‘I can’t figure out why they left now’, ponders one of the earth-men, ‘I mean every day they got more rights… .’ Still sounds kinda familiar today, right?
One thing I love about science fiction is the way it gives you an insight into the prevailing attitudes towards technologies and social issues of the time.
The Martian Chronicles is shockingly insightful, philosophical, and even alienating. It is a book of treasures. I won’t give any more of those treasures away, but leave you to open up the chest yourself.
But most of all, this book is just beautifully written. You’ll understand if you’ve read anything else by Bradbury, like Dandelion Wine.
The Martian Chronicles leaves a lasting impression and unique headspace within as you read, causing you to constantly pause and think ‘wow, this guy can write, huh?’, and ‘shit, I’d never thought of it that way!’
And isn’t that what we love when we read a book?
Some of the stories paint amazing, dreamlike futures; some stories are vivid nightmares of human destructiveness. What truly separates Bradbury is his masterful and prescient writing, and this text has some really emotive prose. These stories will undermine all tropes and all you expect from it. It’ll leave you in awe, leave you wondering, leave you reflecting. I guarantee.
Pick this one up, it’s not one you want to miss.
‘Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.’
‘We earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.’
—Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.
4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.— William Shakespeare, The Tempest
If you’re into dystopian novels and are looking for one that will subvert for expectations of what a dystopia should look like, then look no further (although, if you’re into dystopias then you probably already love this one… but let’s ignore that little caveat).
Some people have read this novel and thought ‘huh, that’s not so bad‘, which is in part what makes it so interesting. I think Huxley deliberately left some ambiguity there, but that very ambiguity forms the crux of why this dystopia is so repulsive. Because it strips away everything except…
… No, let me stop there. I don’t want to give too much away. And it might spoil your reading of the text. Ok, ok, I’ll give a tease: expect drug-fuelled happiness, mental conditioning, and a dystopia based on comfort.
Other themes and questions include: how does morality change in a world that’s left tradition and religion behind? What does a world in which everyone’s artificially happy look like? What makes us human, and can it be synthesised? How far will we go to remove aspects of life that are uncomfortable, and how much are we willing to give up? And will we even realise what we are giving up?
Expect plenty of turns, philosophy, and page-turning scenes. Huxley really makes you think about how class operates in society, too.
People love to compare those—and this is a disputable categorisation—’big three’ dystopias: George Orwell’s totalitarian vision of double-speak and governmental hegemony in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s synthetic society of Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s distraction-based, consensual mind-numbing existence of Fahrenheit 451. Critics, commentators, and fans try to dissect who got what right, and squabble over which we’re heading towards. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps we’ll look into dystopia and predictions more closely in the near future!
‘Words can be like X-Rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything.’
‘Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.’
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.
5. Dune by Frank Herbert
Well well, what to say about Dune? It’s quite simply one of the most gripping novels I’ve read, science fiction or not. It analyses the domination of oil (or, at least, of any limiting resource) in society, analogised by the byproduct of giant space desert-worms: spice, which fuels interstellar travel. The spice must flow…
Oh, and spice also happens to have some serious psychedelic properties…
It also warns against the allure of charismatic leaders, considers the ecological impact of humans before climate change was truly a thing, and is an excellent example of writing political intrigue. My favourite aspect is how Herbert writes the things that are so clearly “said” without being spoken—the interplay of power, the language of high government. The way he weaves plots, ‘feints within feints’, wheels within wheels…
Alright, I pretty much love all of it.
Dune was a holiday book for me. Picture the vibrant, cloudless blue skies of Sardinia, lounging by the pool, the sun pouring down like honey. And I read, and I read, and I couldn’t stop reading. I’d read it during bumpy car journeys, on the aeroplane, at breakfast, in the airport—hell, sometimes even while walking. I couldn’t put it down.
There’s something unique about reading a book on holiday that leaves a different impression on you, sticks out in memory more. I think it’s got something to do with that carved-out period—that space—of escaping your everyday life, or reality, combined with how quickly you race through the pages when it’s your sole focus.
Some books just feel magic when you read them. They have that sense of being impossibly immersive, leaving you reading the pages like they’ll disappear if you don’t keep turning. Ya, those ones.
There’s not much more to say. I got suckered, pulled in. I’ll leave the plot out of this, as I think my ravings speak to the quality of the book more than a summary can. But expect alien races, intergalactic politics, humans functioning as computers, and some seriously gripping action.
The reason I’ve put this slightly lower on the list is that it’s dense. Not dense as in hard to read, or boring—but dense as in lots of introduction, some conceptual stuff (and even some ecology, if anyone’s interested!), incredible yet laborious world-building, and interwoven storylines. There’s a reason that Dune’s been voted the best science fiction novel of all time, though, and multiple times at that. It won the Hugo award in 1966, and it’s a must-read.
There isn’t one person I’ve recommended Dune to who hasn’t loved it. As Frank Herbert said himself in this interview, he writes science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction (and people who like science fiction, of course…). It’s just so rich, engaging, and story-driven that people latch on straight away, drawn in, sometimes even against their own will.
I’m jealous of anyone who has the privilege of reading this one for the first time!
‘Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.’
‘There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.’
—Frank Herbert, Dune.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but contains some of the key texts that got me hooked on the genre. I’m no science fiction veteran and am still making my way through the canon. And I’ll be sure to update this list with any sci-fi books that I think are perfect for new and seasoned readers alike.
Sci-fi: honourable mentions
Oh, and what list would be complete without a few honourable mentions? Just in case you’ve read all of those listed or are hungry for more of the novels and science fiction writers.
If you’re looking for a non-western approach to science fiction, check out Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (which was made into a film by Tarkovsky) and Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. And who could forget Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, the mysterious and notorious Shrike?
There some serious classic novels and novellas from the likes of Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, but I wanted to take a bit more of a rounded, less-obvious view in this piece.
Oh, and lastly—from one of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin—comes the Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I’ve just published a long-form article on Le Guin, The Dispossessed, and cognitive estrangement! Worth checking out, particularly, if you’re looking to learn about the theory of science fiction (and how it compares to fantasy books).
Interested in any of these? I thought so!
Check one out, and see if it’s for you. What’s there to lose? (…whole worlds, you could say!).