Whether or not you're an avid sci-fan fan, there's something about the contemporary moment that makes this genre extra compelling—and eerily relevant. So if you're on the lookout for your next read and want something that's simultaneously entertaining, artful, moving, informative, and pertinent, you'll want to adorn your bookshelf with something from this reading list. Comprised of the 13 best science fiction books both new and old, uplifting and disturbing, you'll probably want to devour them all. Click through our curated library below to get a sense of the cautionary tales, valuable lessons, and mind-bending narratives they each offer before you begin your read-a-thon.
Jeff Vandermeer Borne ($13)
Words of Wisdom: "'Am I a person?' Borne asked me. 'Yes… but like a person, you can be a weapon, too.'"
The Timely Tale: In Borne, the protagonist navigates a city that has been destroyed by human conflict and drought. "The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict." One day she finds a creature, Borne, that is something between a plant and an animal, who "reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas."
Philip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ($12)
Words of Wisdom: "Stories written before space travel but about space travel."
The Timely Tale: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired Blockbuster hit Bladerunner. The year is 2021, and after another World War, millions are left dead and many species are extinct, making the earth uninhabitable and sending humans to make a home on a faraway planet. With so few living things, tech companies replicate them. Who is an android? Who is a human? Does it matter? Grapples with what makes a person a person, is it mood? Is it emotional affect?
Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness ($10)
Words of Wisdom: "To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness."
The Timely Tale: Welcome to the feminist utopia of Winter, "an alien world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants can change their gender whenever they choose." The Left Hand of Darkness reveals the absurdity as well as the immutability behind the social constructs that plague our society when an earthling is taken to a society that operates under a very different worldview, and thus, a very different reality, where social equality is accepted is the norm and lived experience.
Gary Shteyngart Super Sad True Love Story ($12)
Words of Wisdom: "Remember this… develop a sense of nostalgia for something, or you'll never figure out what's important."
The Timely Tale: And now, we find ourselves in a bleak United States of the near future toiling in financial ruin, that, depending on where you stand, may sound a little less foreign than the world of Winter in Le Guin's novel. Hilariously written, it follows a Russian immigrant with "an absurdly low—and embarrassingly public—Male Hotness rating" as he falls in love with a Korean American woman. In short, take the title at face value, and expect a Super Sad True Love Story.
Octavia E. Butler Fledging ($11)
Words of Wisdom: "When your rage is choking you, it is best to say nothing."
The Timely Tale: Though it sounds far-fetched, this novel is super easy to get behind: "an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is, in fact, a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire." Beyond the science-fiction and fantasy are lessons about how we define and control or inhibit the "other" in our own communities and lives.
Aldous Huxley Brave New World ($10)
Words of Wisdom: "'I ate civilization. It poisoned me; I was defiled. And then,' he added in a lower tone, 'I ate my own wickedness.'"
The Timely Tale: Described by the Wall Street Journal as an enduring masterpiece and "one of the most prophetic dystopian works of the 20th century," Brave New World is a must-read. In this spooky but orderly, technologically innovative future, "humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order—all at the cost of our freedom, full humanity, and perhaps also our souls." Hegemony and collective oblivion in action. We'll consider ourselves warned (if it's not already too late).
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five ($12)
Words of Wisdom: "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."
The Timely Tale: Kurt Vonnegut is a master novelist, and this science-fiction book is one of his best. At once full of funny, poignant satire, Slaughterhouse-Five is also a disturbing war story full of time travel and alien interference when a veteran reexperiences his life out of chronological order and sometimes simultaneously.
Catherynne M. Valente The Refrigerator Monologues ($8)
Words of Wisdom: "Just slip on something black and low-cut, carve yourself the biggest goddamn slice of whatever cake they said you couldn't have, and be a villain for a night."
The Timely Tale: After hearing about so many dystopic sci-fi novels, you're probably ready for some happy endings. And that's just what The Refrigerator Monologues will do. It shows us the alternate endings of female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes who weren't so triumphant when their fates were in the hands of other comic book writers. In fact, in the originals, they are "killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero's storyline will progress." Powerful women from different walks of life (or different fictional worlds, in this case), come together for the greater good, which we can get behind.
Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under the Sea ($13)
Words of Wisdom: "The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite."
The Timely Tale: Jules Verne is one of the true pioneers of the science-fiction genre (in fact, he predated the actual term itself), making 20000 Leagues Under the Sea a go-to classic for anyone looking to read a thrilling adventure story. It joins three men aboard a ship as they set out to find the lost city of Atlantis, as well as two other underwater kingdoms and ward off dangerous monstrous creatures, discoveries, and human moods.
Cormac McCarthy The Road ($12)
Words of Wisdom: "'What's the bravest thing you ever did?' He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. 'Getting up this morning,' he said."
The Timely Tale: When it comes to post-apocalyptic novels, The Road is legendary, so legendary that you may remember it from your middle school or high school "required reading" list. This masterpiece hones in on a father-son duo trekking across a desolate, ruined America, though the future they're trekking toward is uncertain. It presents a moving and tender take on finding hope without hope and the strength of kinship.
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale ($10)
Words of Wisdom: "What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface."
The Timely Tale: Fertility rates in women are at a staggering low in this patriarchal society of the slight future, which results in a slave trade. Women with the ability to conceive are kidnapped, bought, and owned by wealthy families to keep their lineage alive at violent costs. The scariest part is that Atwood does such an expert job at creating this world with rules that we begin to accept as not at all far-fetched and with the potential to unravel in our reality. How is it that something like this is easier to believe than something involving vampires and wizards?
Haruki Murakami Dance Dance Dance ($12)
Words of Wisdom: "'Even so, there were times I saw freshness and beauty. I could smell the air, and I really loved rock 'n' roll.' 'Dance,' said the Sheep Man. 'Yougottadance.Don'teventhinkwhy. Starttothink,yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop,wegetstuck.'"
The Timely Tale: For the reader who appreciates spellbinding language but also enjoys an experimental, action-packed novel, you will meet your match with Dance Dance Dance. As the protagonist searches for his girlfriend who abruptly disappeared, a story about love, desperation, and self-destruction becomes a full-on thriller with just the right dosage of satire and laugh-out-loud humor.
Sabrina Vourvoulias Ink ($6)
Words of Wisdom: "Nothing comes of the sanitarium-interment center story. The blueprints cannot be located. No public figure or credible sources carries or confirms or acknowledges. Forget on the record, this story's not even on the planet."
The Timely Tale: Ink is a disturbing and emotional though important novel that takes on a form of speculative fiction more than it is full-on sci-fi. It poses the question, "what happens when rhetoric about immigrants escalates to an institutionalized population control system?" Vourvoulias presents one possible outcome: temporary workers, permanent residents, and citizens with recent immigration history are biometrically tattooed. We get to know this iteration of America by zooming in on a rural town through the perspective of four people.