26 Science Fiction Books That Will Transport You to a Different Place and Time
If you're a bookworm with an affinity for wormholes (or other science fiction faves), these are the best sci-fi books for you.
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The best sci-fi books of all time
Science fiction as a genre appeals to readers both young and old as it explores possibilities outside our experiences. The best sci-fi books answer “what-if” questions about our societies, species, and existence as a whole. What if an element of today’s society became dangerously exaggerated? What if we had to defend our world against aliens? What if life as we know it isn’t really real?
Science fiction and fantasy books often overlap, but sci-fi generally abides by scientific logic, while fantasy tends to include elements of magic instead. What some call “hard science fiction” has a focus on natural sciences like biology, chemistry, and astrophysics. “Soft science fiction” emphasizes social sciences like psychology, politics, and sociology. The best sci-fi books blend technological elements with subsequent social ramifications.
Sci-fi literature has been popular among readers for hundreds of years. Some say the first sci-fi book was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. Others trace the origin of the genre to the 1600s. With a literary tradition as long and robust as that, it would be difficult to create a complete list of the best sci-fi books of all time, but we’ve come up with 25 to get you started.
Our roundup includes titles that have remained relevant through the years, books that have been lauded by critics and readers alike, the best sci-fi book series that have been turned into films and TV shows, and newer titles that have created buzz and landed on best-seller lists. When you finish the best sci-fi books, be sure to check out our roundups of the best books of all time, LGBTQ books, mystery books, and classic books.
1. The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson
Begin your adventure in the Wormwood Trilogy universe with the first book, Rosewater, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Published in 2016 and set in 2066, this cyberpunk near-future imagining of Nigeria and the “xenosphere” bends minds and genres. An alien biodome said to have healing powers draws the unwell, who set up on its margins in a town called Rosewater. Kaaro, our narrator, has been recruited by the government for his telepathic powers, but soon others with these powers start to die of a mysterious sickness. Exploring alien contact, government conspiracies, and a paranormal plane, this book will send you places you’ve never been. Good news if you enjoy Rosewater: The story continues with its sequels, The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption. Be sure to check out our list of other books by Black authors.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific writer of both sci-fi and fantasy whose long list of accolades includes six Nebula Awards and seven Hugo Awards. Technically, her celebrated 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is part of a series called the Hainish Cycle (sometimes called the Novels of Ekumen). While sharing a universe, each book in the series stands alone, so we’re spotlighting this standout story. For readers interested in anthropology, philosophy, and societal inquiry, Le Guin writes with great depth on themes ahead of her time. Her skillful storytelling brings humanity to the forefront, and her exploration of a planet where gender is fluid challenged the gender norms of the 1960s and remains relevant to gender discussions today. Plus, in a genre saturated with male authors, it’s noteworthy that one of the greats is a female author.
3. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series by Liu Cixin
Whether you refer to it as The Three-Body Problem series or the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, this is one of the best sci-fi book series out there. It begins with The Three-Body Problem, which won literary awards in China when it was published in 2008. In 2014, it was translated into English by Ken Liu and promptly won a Hugo Award, making Liu Cixin the first Asian author to win the prestigious Best Novel prize. The complex story weaves a tale of Chinese history, science, and alien warfare. Set on Earth at the brink of an invasion, we see mankind fracture in its different approaches to the impending danger. Currently being adapted for Netflix with no release date yet, there’s still time to read the books before binge-watching the show.
4. The Marrow Thieves series by Cherie Dimaline
Part of another book series that’s being adapted for television, The Marrow Thieves (2017) and Hunting By Stars (2021) explore a future where the environment is in peril and natural occurrences we once took for granted are no longer possible. People have become unable to dream, with the exception of Indigenous North Americans, who hold the ability in their bone marrow. As dreamlessness leads to madness, “recruiters” will stop at nothing to forcefully take Indigenous peoples’ marrow. We follow a group of young friends navigating a world in which they are hunted, and with them, we ponder themes of displacement, ancestry, and environmental ruin. Written by a member of the Metis Nation of Ontario, this is one Native American book you don’t want to miss.
5. Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
Winner of the 2020 New England Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for a Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award, Riot Baby is the adult fiction debut of popular YA novelist Tochi Onyebuchi. In it, we follow siblings Ella and Kev, born during the riots following Rodney King’s beating and the acquittal of the offending officers. These siblings grow up with a desire to protect each other: Ella wants to protect Kev as he grows into a young Black man in America. Kev wants to protect Ella from the mysterious and growing powers she has. In vivid scenes and searing moments that jump through time, we follow this family story that grapples with systemic racism, loss of innocence, and the impossibly hard choices that come with having powers no one else does. At 176 pages, it’s a short book that will leave you breathless.
6. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three novels by the unparalleled Octavia E. Butler, who in 1995 was the first sci-fi author to win the MacArthur “genius” grant. Set in a time when humanity and Earth have been destroyed, readers awaken with Lilith Iyapo to learn that an alien race called the Oankali is resurrecting the remains of humans. What follows is a merging of species in order for humanity to survive, a hybridization that some humans cannot accept. Themes of social hierarchy and what it means to be human are explored in these three groundbreaking books: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). While you’re adding to your home library, stock your shelves with these feminist books that all women—and men!—should read.
7. The Sixth World series by Rebecca Roanhorse
In the Sixth World series, created by New York Times best-selling author Rebecca Roanhorse, everything below 3,500 feet of elevation is submerged in water after an environmental disaster. In Dinétah, what was once a Navajo reservation, a postapocalyptic rebirth has opened the door for spirits and monsters from the past to roam. Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter, is called on to fight and find truth. So far, there are two books set in this world: Storm of Locusts (2019) and Trail of Lightning (2018). Start with the award-winning Trail of Lightning, a story that will have readers pondering how we treat our earth, the limits of technology, and our inner demons. Get great books like this each month by signing up for one of these book subscription boxes.
8. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
The only short story collection on our list comes from Ted Chiang, a writer known for packing tons of sci-fi brilliance into brief and beautiful stories. The Oscar-nominated film Arrival is based on a short story from his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. The success of that first collection made Exhalation (2019) a national best seller and a New York Times Best Book of the Year. The nine stories in this book explore futurism, free will, and artificial intelligence, among many other nuanced themes. Rather than relying on thrill and flash, Chiang is a deep thinker who opens our minds with the worlds he creates. If you enjoy Exhalation, see our list of the most iconic short stories.
9. Dune by Frank Herbert
This 1965 classic is back in vogue, thanks to the 2021 film adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet and Oscar Isaac. It never really fell out of favor, though, selling millions of copies since its first print run. The story takes place in the year 10,191 on the planet Dune, the most valuable planet in Herbert’s lushly imaginative universe. Lauded as the precursor to George Lucas’s Star Wars, Dune includes the stuff of sci-fi and fantasy magic: heart-pounding action, an iconic fictional world, and a main character who is very human in an inhuman universe. Read closely, and you’ll probably spot some similarities between the worlds of Dune and Star Wars.
10. Severance by Ling Ma
After living through a pandemic, you might think Ling Ma’s 2018 book about a worldwide epidemic would hit too close to home. But Severance is a postapocalyptic satire, a humorous and quirky take on our routines and what they can do to us. Candace Chen is a millennial woman so focused on the minutiae of office life that she barely notices when a fever of epic proportions wipes out New York. Her survival (and the future of humanity) depends on what she does next. On more than a dozen lists of the best fiction books of the year and winner of multiple awards, including the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, Severance explores the experience of immigrants in America, challenges capitalist notions, and makes us immensely grateful for what we have.
11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
No list of best sci-fi books is complete without The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a 1979 classic that was later made into a film starring Martin Freeman and Mos Def as Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, the beloved duo of galactic travelers. It’s the book that taught us that time is an illusion, the significance of the number 42, and what defines a learning experience. If you enjoy the first book, there are five others: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless; and And Another Thing (written by Eoin Colfer).
12. 1984 by George Orwell
Written in 1949, George Orwell’s classic 1984 was perhaps his most dystopian novel—and it was also the author’s last. Despite time marching past the titular year, sci-fi fans argue the book is still relevant and one of the best sci-fi books of all time. There’s a chilling familiarity to Orwell’s descriptions of Big Brother, and high school English teachers all over the country enjoy sparking class discussions over parallels between the totalitarian regime in 1984 and political issues of today. Add to your reading list by picking among these great historical fiction books.
13. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series snagged the one and only Best All-Time Series Hugo Award in 1966. Its seven books span 550 years and can be read in order or as stand-alone stories. The first book in the series, Foundation (1951), brings us to the Galactic Empire as it is falling. Hari Seldon, founder of a science called psychohistory that can predict future societal patterns, sees impending doom. He gathers the brightest thinkers to live on a planet together to create a new future, but can they stop what his psychohistory predicts?
14. The Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee
New York Times best-selling author Yoon Ha Lee brings us a trilogy that mixes military sci-fi with space opera. Read the books in order, starting with Ninefox Gambit and following with Raven Stratagem and then Revenant Gun. At the helm of the first story is Captain Kel Cheris, a disgraced leader who must partner with an unpredictable (and undead) general in order to gain redemption. Winner of a Locus Award and nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards, Ninefox Gambit will have you hooked on the whole series. Want more of the undead? Take a bite out of one of these vampire books.
15. Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, a fantasy series, but his sci-fi work has also been widely read and celebrated. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) marks the first chapter in the author’s Space Trilogy, followed by Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945). In this interplanetary tale of mythological proportions, we follow Dr. Ransom as he explores new worlds. Lewis was more a scholar of theology than science, making some of the scientific possibilities in his work questionable but bringing a depth of thought and meaning that can be rare in the genre.
16. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
A pioneer of science fiction writing, H.G. Wells wrote sci-fi classics like War of the Worlds and our favorite, The Time Machine. Both were adapted into films, and both have withstood the test of time. The Time Machine was written in 1895 and includes several of the best sci-fi book themes, like out-of-control technology, a dystopian future, and postapocalyptic human conflict. If this appeals to you, pair your reading with one of these time travel movies that will make you question everything.
17. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Science fiction fans are divided on whether or not Kurt Vonnegut‘s lauded 1963 book fits neatly within the genre, but many critics agree that this is his best work. The postapocalyptic world of Cat’s Cradle focuses on the decidedly sci-fi conflict of technology and chemical warfare. It’s also darkly humorous and at times absurd, following a first-person narrator who sets out to write about one of the creators of the atomic bomb and ends up interviewing a host of strange characters. The way it tackles themes of not only science but also religion makes it a good pick for fans of satire and cultural criticism.
18. The Martian by Andy Weir
This wildly popular 2011 novel was adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon in 2015. Even if you’ve already seen the film, the book is still worth a read. Much of its humor and voice come through the journal entries of our protagonist, left for dead on Mars with no companions and few resources. Through ingenuity, hope, and sheer will to survive, he must figure out how to be the first human living on Mars. Themes of isolation and resilience are strong, which sounds sobering, but The Martian manages to also be riveting and funny. For anyone interested in space, science, and a high-stakes human journey, this book won’t disappoint.
19. Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi
For fans of military sci-fi, there is no greater series than this six-book collection, which starts with Old Man’s War, published in 2005. The books take place in a universe where habitable planets are scarce, and aliens battle one another for a place to live. We follow 75-year-old John Perry, who has just joined the army and has no idea what’s in store for him. Finalist for a Hugo Award and a highly rated book on Goodreads (it has nearly 200,000 ratings and 4.19 stars), Old Man’s War will give you both high-stakes battles and tender moments as Perry reflects on his late wife.
20. Ready Player One series by Ernest Cline
What makes Ready Player One so frightening and enthralling is that it’s set in the very near future, one that seems just on the horizon. In the story, protagonist Wade Watts blurs the lines between the real world and virtual reality—the metaverse, anyone?—as he searches for a hidden fortune that could turn his life around forever. This thrilling best seller keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering if Wade will find the game’s Easter egg before his rivals find him first. If you’re a fan of the first book, which was published in 2011, you’ll fly through the sequel, Ready Player Two. And while it pales in comparison to the books, the 2018 film adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg, is worth a watch.
21. Warcross series by Marie Lu
Like Ready Player One, this 2017 sci-fi series by number one New York Times best-selling author Marie Lu centers around a game with real-life consequences. The game is Warcross, an international obsession where money can be made but security is compromised. Our protagonist is Emika Chen, a teen hacker and bounty hunter who is about to be thrust into dangerous circumstances. Fans of game-based sci-fi and the anime/Netflix show Cowboy Bebop will find the world and stakes of Warcross thrilling and irresistible. Like Lu’s Young Elites and Legend series, the Warcross series is a collection of young adult novels that’ll appeal to adult readers who love to be swept up in a great story.
22. The Space Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke
Most people are familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but you may not know that it’s the first part of a four-book series. Published in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a mesmerizing trip through the solar system. So iconic it is nearly synonymous with sci-fi, this story further solidified its place in our minds with the Stanley Kubrick film that was released in tandem. The sweeping novel manages to stay relatable while also tackling big topics, like evolution, the vastness of the universe, and technology’s unwieldy dangers. Hal 9000 became arguably the most famous and chilling artificial intelligence character in literature or film.
23. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury never set out to be one of the best science fiction authors of all time. He categorized himself as a fantasy and horror writer, two genres well represented in the best-selling 1953 book Fahrenheit 451. The book is about pursuing reading and education in a society that has banned books. Once you’ve read the novel, you’ll appreciate the supreme coolness of this special edition of Fahrenheit 451, which needs to be burned in order to reveal the text.
24. The Ender Saga by Orson Scott Card
In 1985, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game opened a new world to science fiction fans: the world of his young hero’s genius mind. It’s a high-stakes, militaristic twist on sci-fi, and one welcomed by those who enjoy reading historical fiction and novels about war. Ender’s Game won both a Hugo and Nebula award and was followed by Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, and Ender in Exile in 2008.
25. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson is known for complex plots and sci-fi books of great length. His 2008 book, Anathem, is 937 pages! At 480 pages, Snow Crash doesn’t ask for quite a large time commitment. Published in 1992, the novel takes on a plethora of topics, from computers and cryptography to archaeology and anthropology. The book is a self-aware take on science fiction, with a hero named Hiro who is both a pizza delivery guy and a virtual warrior prince. Snow Crash landed on Time’s list of the 100 best English-language novels, and we can see why. It’s the type of novel you’ll want to discuss with your in-person or online book club.
26. The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
A heavyweight in the science fiction genre, N.K. Jemisin has written a library of stellar sci-fi books. But her Broken Earth trilogy, a blend of sci-fi and fantasy, is truly not to be missed. Beginning with The Fifth Season and continuing through The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, the series starts with the end of the world and doesn’t let up for a moment. Though grim, the story of a far future is laced with hope and bursting with imagination. Jemisin masterfully touches on themes of power, identity, and hope in dark times. And in an amazing (and history-making) feat, she won a Hugo award three years in a row, one for each book in this series.