Aliens have always been a great way for authors to explore new ideas or hold a mirror to humanity, reflecting both our brightest hopes and darkest fears.
(Note that there’s already a list of 29 Best Alien Invasion Books, so I tried to steer away from invasion stories in this list.)
No, not that kind of pot. The clay things that hold stuff.
One of Dick’s more absurdist titles (and that’s saying something), the story concerns a man who thanklessly heals pots in a totalitarian future Earth, only to find a job offer floating in his toilet.
He’s been recruited by a godlike alien known as Glimmung, who has recruited the pot-healer as part of a multispecies specialist team sent to Plowman’s Planet for a mystical quest, which is to raise the sunken cathedral of Heldscalla from a surreal alien ocean.
According to the author’s biographer, Laurence Sutin, Dick didn’t much care for this book. See if you agree.
Foreigner is the first of a thirteen-book series, so if you like it, you’re in luck. It’s a little slow-moving and introspective, so if you’re looking for a rapid-fire page-turner, this isn’t it.
Survivors of a lost spacecraft crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race. The humans are relegated to second-class citizen status, and it remains that way for generations, until a human survives an assault by the aliens.
“Three-time Hugo-winner Cherryh’s gift for conjuring believable alien cultures is in full force here, and her characters, including the fascinatingly unpredictable atevi, are brought to life with a sure and convincing hand.”
Charley is an athlete. He wants to grow up to be the fastest runner in the world, like his father. He wants to be painted crossing the finishing line, in his racing silks, with a medal around his neck. Charley lives in a stable. He isn’t a runner, he’s a mount. He belongs to a Hoot: The Hoots are alien invaders. Charley hasn’t seen his mother for years, and his father is hiding out in the mountains somewhere, with the other Free Humans. The Hoots own the world, but the humans want it back. Charley knows how to be a good mount, but now he’s going to have to learn how to be a human being.
“Brilliantly conceived and painfully acute…this poetic, funny and above all humane novel deserves to be read and cherished…”
— Publishers Weekly
In Star Maker, author Stapledon goes big, unlike his previous book, Last and First Men, which only covered the two-billion-year history of the human race.
Star Maker covers the entirety of the history of life in the universe, including watery nautiloids, hyperspiders, and intelligent star clusters. There isn’t much of a plot, or even characters in this slightly encyclopedic exploration of all manner of aliens.
Arthur C. Clarke considered Star Maker to be one of the finest works of science fiction ever written. However, in a letter to Clarke in 1943, C. S. Lewis described the ending as “sheer devil worship.”
It’s 2600 AD and humans are doing great. We’ve colonized the galaxy and improved lives with genetic engineering. Even the giant sentient spaceships are getting rich.
Then, of course, someone screws it all up. On a primitive colony planet a renegade criminal’s chance encounter with an utterly alien entity opens a portal to a dimension, allowing strange creatures to enter our universe. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called the strange creatures “The Reality Dysfunction.” And that Dysfunction is out among us.
It’s also 1,200 pages long. So buckle up for a long ride.
“Elements of space opera, Straubesque horror and adrenaline-laced action make this a demanding, rewarding read.”
– Publishers Weekly
Dragon’s Egg is a neutron star with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of Earth, and inhabited by cheela, intelligent creatures the size of a sesame seed who live, think and develop a million times faster than humans. The cheela culturally evolve from savagery to the discovery of science, and for a brief time, men are their teachers. But not, of course, for long.
“Forward’s book is a knockout. In science fiction there is only a handful of books that stretch the mind–and this is one of them!”
-Arthur C. Clarke
Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three works: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, also called the Xenogenesis trilogy.
Lilith Iyapo is in the Andes, mourning the death of her family, when war destroys Earth. Centuries later, she is resurrected by miraculously powerful unearthly beings, the Oankali. Driven by an irresistible need to heal others, the Oankali are rescuing our dying planet by merging genetically with mankind. But Lilith and all humanity must now share the world with uncanny, unimaginably alien creatures: their own children. This is their story…
Taking place in 10th century Japan, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is possibly the world’s oldest science fiction story.
It primarily details the life of a mysterious girl called Kaguya-hime, who was discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant. It is later discovered that she is from the moon and must return to her people (sorry for the spoiler, but this story’s been around for hundreds of years).
“Masayuki Miyata’s bright, bold illustrations perfectly complement this elegant bilingual edition, and Keene has outdone himself in finding English equivalents for the outrageous puns that punctuate the story.”
-The New Yorker
Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships). This androgyny feels entirely alien, since our language has “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.”
“A jewel of a story.”
— Frank Herbert
Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, composed not entirely of humans, must rescue the children—and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
“Vinge offers heart-pounding, mind-expanding science fiction at its best.”
Ringworld is considered a science fiction classic, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards while spawning three sequels and four prequels.
An expedition’s goal is to explore a ringworld: an artificial ring about one million miles wide and approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit (which makes it about 600 million miles in circumference), encircling a sun-like star. It rotates, providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s gravity through the action of centrifugal force. The ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares, which are connected to each other by thin, ultra-strong wire.
Author Atwood does not consider Oryx and Crake to be science fiction because it does not deal with “things that have not been invented yet.” Instead, she categorizes it as “adventure romance.” So you’ve been warned.
It does, however, feature the effects of genetic engineering, climate change run wild, and primitive semi-humans.
When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.
Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race. In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.
On the human colony planet Zara XXIII, pain-in-the-ass contract surveyor Jack Holloway is fired for letting his dog set off explosives (again). He soon discovers some jewels so insanely valuable that an interstellar corporation kowtows before him just to get a piece of the action.
Jack loves the idea of becoming stupidly rich, but learns that the planet with the jewels is inhabited by an alien species both sentient and ridiculously cute. Their presence means that the giant corporation isn’t allowed to mine the planet for the valuable jewels. Unless, of course, they can exterminate the entire species before anyone notices.
“A perfectly executed plot clicks its way to a stunning courtroom showdown in a cathartic finish that will thrill Fuzzy fans old and new.”
― Publishers Weekly (starred review)
An uncontested sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke’s best novels, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards.
A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears. The astronauts given the task of exploring the hollow cylindrical ship are able to decipher some, but definitely not all, of the extraterrestrial vehicle’s puzzles. From the ubiquitous trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama’s secrets are strange evidence of an advanced civilization. But who, and where, are the Ramans, and what do they want with humans? Perhaps the answer lies with the busily working biots, or the sealed-off buildings, or the inaccessible “southern” half of the enormous cylinder. Rama’s unsolved mysteries are tantalizing indeed. Rendezvous with Rama is fast-moving, fascinating, and a must-read for science fiction fans.
During an interstellar war, a famous starship captain/linguist/poet discovers a new enemy weapon: a language, called Babel-17, that can be used as a weapon. Learning it turns one into an unwilling traitor as it alters perception and thought. The change is made more dangerous by the language’s seductive enhancement of other abilities.
The only way to fight the weapon is to understand it. But once you start learning it, you start to become a traitor…
Babel-17 was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966 (with Flowers for Algernon).
“The most interesting writer of science fiction writing in English today.”
– The New York Times Book Review
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well-intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction as well, because they are profoundly human. They screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
Satirical, surreal, and darkly funny, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s most important (i.e., influential) and popular work. One can argue that there are real aliens since the main character (in addition to the narrator) is an unreliable witnesses to his own life. One can also argue “Who cares?” It’s a great story.
“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…”
Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and has spawned a huge franchise (I think we’re past “series” at this point). Dune’s sandworms remain one of the most fascinating alien species in science fiction literature.
Oddly enough, no one’s been able to tell Dune visually (no, I’m not counting Lynch’s Dune. He tried, but it wasn’t good).
Whoever can crack the Dune visuals and create a film or show that fans embrace will make shocking amounts of money. In the meantime, enjoy Dune and God Emperor of Dune (the others are iffy). The other books by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson lack the depth of the original Dune, but are all entertaining reads.
This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.