Some great books never get the public love we think they deserve. The books below are what I consider the best science fiction out there that keeps flying under the radar of public perception.
This is classic Vance: a carefully thought-out world, a stratified society, and a man in conflict with its rules. During the space of twelve generations, the descendants of a crash on a water-covered planet have managed to adapt to the marine culture. But they are always at the mercy of the kragen, giant, squid-like monsters. The colonists can communicate with the biggest of these, King Kragen, and must appease him. But finally, one man has had enough of this life of slavery and sacrifice. Can he convince his fellow citizens that they must kill King Kragen? And how can they do it in a world without weapons?
This is the second book of a trilogy, but you’ll catch up quickly if you start here.
Ultra-light American diesel gunwings can hold their own against Australian human-powered battle computers and a tram-based net. But they are helpless against the ultimate doomsday machine: The Miocene Arrow.
In a fortieth-century America of ancient kingdoms with opulent courts, hereditary engineering guilds, and rigid class distinction in warfare, a centuries-old balance of power is shattered by a few dozen Australian infiltrators. Against a rich backdrop of war, chivalry, conspiracy, and a diesel-powered arms race, a dangerous secret alliance has formed. Now the unlikely trio of an airlord, an abbess, and a fugitive are joined together in a desperate race against time to stop the Miocene Arrow from being launched—and save the world in the process.
“[T]he author’s inventive use of several oddball technologies is particularly noteworthy.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Ler are an artificial race created from human DNA. Individuals have five fingers and two thumbs on each hand, as well as different reproductive cycles. In 2550, they live in their own society, surrounded by twenty billion humans. Both the Ler and humans have bizarre societies, so it’s a little tricky to really connect with some the characters. The plot concerns itself with rescuing a missing girl, but The Gameplayers of Zan is mostly about the human-but-alien Ler.
There are several sequels, but none of them are as good as this book.
Seeing humans from an alien point of view is a well-worn trope, but author Matt Haig gives it new, interesting life in the darkly funny The Humans.
When an extra-terrestrial visitor arrives on Earth, his first impressions of the human species are less than positive. Taking the form of Professor Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, the visitor is eager to complete the gruesome task assigned him so he can hurry home to his own utopian planet, where everyone is omniscient and immortal.
He is disgusted by the way humans look, what they eat, their capacity for murder and war, and is equally baffled by the concepts of love and family. But as time goes on, he starts to realize there may be more to this strange species than he had thought. Disguised as Martin, he drinks wine, reads poetry, develops an ear for rock music, and a taste for peanut butter. Slowly, unexpectedly, he forges bonds with Martin’s family. He begins to see hope and beauty in the humans’ imperfection, and begins to question the very mission that brought him there.
“[S]illy, sad, suspenseful, and soulful”
— Philadelphia Inquirer
The war had been going on for nearly a year, and the Sirian Empire had a huge advantage in personnel and equipment. Earth needed an edge. Which was where James Mowry came in. If a small insect buzzing around in a car could so distract the driver as to cause that vehicle to crash, think what havoc one properly trained operative could wreak on an unsuspecting enemy. Intensively trained, his appearance surgically altered, James Mowry lands on Jaimec, the ninety-fourth planet of the Sirian Empire. His mission is simple: sap morale, cause mayhem, tie up resources, and wage a one-man war on a planet of eighty million.
“[I] can’t imagine a funnier terrorists’ handbook.”
— Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels
Covered by a lush rainforest, Midworld is home to a primitive society that lives in harmony with the natural world. But the arrival of an exploitative human company, whose workers know nothing of Midworld’s delicate ecosystem, sparks a conflict. Should Midworld’s villagers aid the humans or stand against them? The hero of Foster’s addictive page-turner, Born, decides to lead two humans across the perilous jungle. His choice propels Midworld toward annihilation—and leads him headlong into a battle for survival.
The city is winched along tracks through a devastated land full of hostile tribes. Rails must be freshly laid ahead of the city and carefully removed in its wake. Rivers and mountains present nearly insurmountable challenges to the ingenuity of the city’s engineers. But if the city does not move, it will fall farther and farther behind the “optimum” into the crushing gravitational field that has transformed life on Earth. The only alternative to progress is death.
And yet the city is in crisis. The people are growing restive, the population is dwindling, and the rulers know that, for all their efforts, slowly but surely the city is slipping ever farther behind the optimum.
Helward Mann is a member of the city’s elite. Better than anyone, he knows how tenuous is the city’s continued existence. But the world—he is about to discover—is infinitely stranger than the strange world he believes he knows so well.
A nice, horrifying book for kids. Five teenagers are trapped in a house filled with no walls, no ceiling, and no floors: just an endless landscape of stairs and a strange red machine.
The machine is not their friend and its effect on them is insidious. The teens eventually turn on each other.
Author Alastair Reynolds is well-known enough that this book is only kinda-sorta underrated, but it still hasn’t received the attention I think it should.
Six million years ago, at the dawn of the star-faring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones, which she called shatterlings. But now, someone is eliminating the Gentian line. Campion and Purslane—two shatterlings who have fallen in love and shared forbidden experiences—must determine exactly who, or what, their enemy is, before they are wiped out of existence.
“A thrilling, mind- boggling adventure.”
— The Times (UK)
If you look online, the descriptions of this book are so dissimilar it sounds they like they’re about completely different stories, which is a good indication of the breadth of craziness of this story.
Written by the son of thriller writer John le Carré, The Gone-Away World has been described as a “beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure.”
“[T]hose intrigued by works that blur genre boundaries will find this wildly original hybrid a challenging and entertaining entry in the post-apocalyptic canon.”
— Publishers Weekly
Like every other family, the Gaunts are devastated when, in an instant, every female on Earth is mysteriously transported to a different plane, forced to live apart from the males, who have been left behind. Suddenly trapped in two parallel realities—with the bonds of love, trust, sex, and stability that formed the foundation of their relationship abruptly severed—Bill and Paula Gaunt must separately reexamine who they truly are and what they are capable of as existence itself becomes a struggle in one world that descends into violence and brutality, and another that is soon plagued by famine and despair.
The Anubis Gates is a steampunk classic that feels more fantasy than sci-fi, but it has time travel and won the Philip K. Dick award in 1984, so that’s good enough for me.
The book features a sorcerer, a millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, a mystery from ancient Egypt, and finally, the protagonist Professor Brendan Doyle, who wanted none of this nonsense.
At Blind Lake, a large federal research installation in northern Minnesota, scientists are using a technology they barely understand to watch everyday life in a city of lobster-like aliens upon a distant planet. They can’t contact the aliens in any way or understand their language. All they can do is watch.
Then, without warning, a military cordon is imposed on the Blind Lake site. All communication with the outside world is cut off. Food and other vital supplies are delivered by remote control. No one knows why.
As with his other books, author Wilson does a great job combining exciting science fiction and characters that feel true.
“Thoughtful and deliberately paced, this book will appeal to readers who prefer science fiction with substance.”
— Publishers Weekly
It’s easy to be a hero when you’re saving the entire world or galaxy or species. Which is why the hard-boiled detectives are the most heroic characters out there. They’re not out to ram the bad guy’s spaceship. More likely, they’re trying to find justice for a murdered little nobody, or get an intensely offensive (but innocent) man out of jail.
This dogged deathgrip on principle directs the actions of private detective Conrad Metcalfe in a bizarre future world populated by talking animals, drugs for all, and the most authoritative state I’ve ever come across. It’s dark, funny, fast-paced, clever, and chilling.
Emotionally damaged people are sent to work next to a giant rift in the ocean floor, harvesting energy for surface dwellers. The workers are a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater to work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.
This book taught me that you can make a protagonist as crazy as you want, as long as what she’s battling against is even crazier.
Brilliant, twisted fun by an ex-marine biologist. Go read it.
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting. Here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone whose opinion I respect (darn those people) recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.