23 Best Hard Science Fiction Books

hard

Hard science fiction is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both. From a movie perspective, think more Blade Runner or Alien than Star Wars.

1
Altered Carbon
by Richard K. Morgan – 2002

Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man kills himself, and when his backup copy is animated, he hires Takeshi Kovacs to find out why.

Morgan creates a gritty, noir tale that will please Raymond Chandler fans, an impressive accomplishment in any genre.

2
Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie – 2013

Praise has fallen on this debut novel like rain: it’s won the Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction, Locus, and Arthur C. Clarke awards.

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

“Leckie uses…an expansionist galaxy-spinning empire [and] a protagonist on a single-minded quest for justice to transcend space-opera conventions in innovative ways.”
-Publishers Weekly

3
Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress – 1993

Originally a Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella, Beggars in Spain follows Leisha Camden, a genetically engineered ‘Sleepless.’ Her ability to stay awake all the time has not only made her more productive, but the genetic modifications have also given the ‘Sleepless’ a higher IQ and may even make them immortal. Are they the future of humanity? Or will the small community of ‘sleepless’ be hunted down as freaks by a world that has grown wary of its newest creation?

Touted as thought-provoking even by its detractors, Beggars in Spain is occasionally criticized for too-thin characters and occasional preachiness.

4
Downbelow Station
by C. J. Cherryh – 1981

This Hugo winner was cited as one of the top 50 science fiction novels of all time by Locus magazine (who hands out a prestigious award every year that’s just a little less recognized than the Hugo or Nebula).

Often described as an excellent novel that just happens to take place on a space station, Downbelow Station is filled with realistic characters under incredible amounts of stress, living on a vulnerable but supremely important space station in the middle of a war.

Downbelow Station is one of Cherryh’s Union-Alliance novels. While separate and complete in themselves, they are part of a much larger tapestry—a future history spanning 5,000 years of human civilization.

“Cherryh tantalizes our minds…captures our hearts and involves us completely…a consistently thoughtful and entertaining writer.”
—Publisher’s Weekly

5
Dragon's Egg
by Robert L. Forward – 1980

In the story, 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.

“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

“Bob Forward writes in the tradition of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity and carries it a giant step (how else?) forward.”
-Isaac Asimov

“Dragon’s Egg is superb. I couldn’t have written it; it required too much real physics.”
-Larry Niven

“This is one for the real science-fiction fan.”
-Frank Herbert

“Robert L. Forward tells a good story and asks a profound question. If we run into a race of creatures who live a hundred years while we live an hour, what can they say to us or we to them?”
-Freeman J. Dyson

6
Fiasco
by Stanislaw Lem – 1986

Fiasco sits on the border of being “hard” science fiction, but focuses on technical accuracy enough that I think it qualifies.

Author Stanislaw Lem is quite likely the best science fiction writer ever, and this is his final novel. His characters and their qualities (and defects) of being human affect his stories so much that some readers don’t consider him a real science fiction writer, despite the presence of spaceships and aliens. Love him or hate him, he’s unique.

The planet Quinta is pocked by ugly mounds and covered by a spiderweb-like network. It is a kingdom of phantoms and of a beauty afflicted by madness. In stark contrast, the crew of the spaceship Hermes represents a knowledge-seeking Earth. As they approach Quinta, a dark poetry takes over and leads them into a nightmare of misunderstanding.

7
Foundation
by Isaac Asimov – 1951

Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.

Foundation covers the beginning of the Galactic Empire’s collapse, and one man’s plan to reignite civilization after years of barbarism.

Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, and this book may feel like Young Adult fare to modern readers, but it’s so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive.

8
Lilith's Brood
by Octavia E. Butler – 2000

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…

9
Manifold: Time
by Stephen Baxter – 1999

This is definitely hard SF—lots of science and what one reviewer called “mind candy,” but not much character development.

The year is 2010. More than a century of ecological damage, industrial and technological expansion, and unchecked population growth have left the Earth on the brink of devastation. As the world’s governments turn inward, one man dares to envision a bolder, brighter future. That man, Reid Malenfant, has a very different solution to the problems plaguing the planet: the exploration and colonization of space. Now Malenfant gambles the very existence of time on a single desperate throw of the dice. Battling national sabotage and international outcry, as apocalyptic riots sweep the globe, he builds a spacecraft and launches it into deep space. The odds are a trillion to one against him. Or are they?

10
Mission of Gravity
by Hal Clement – 1953

Mission of Gravity is considered one of the first real hard science fiction stories, and one of the definitive examples of worldbuilding.

Mesklin is a vast, inhospitable, disc-shaped planet, so cold that its oceans are liquid methane and its snows are frozen ammonia. It is a world spinning dizzyingly, a world where gravity can be a crushing 700 times greater than Earth’s, a world too hostile for human explorers. But the planet holds secrets of inestimable value, and an unmanned probe that has crashed close to one of its poles must be recovered. Only the Mesklinites, the small creatures so bizarrely adapted to their harsh environment, can help. And so Barlennan, the resourceful and courageous captain of the Mesklinite ship Bree, sets out on an heroic and appalling journey into the terrible unknown. For him and his people, the prize to be gained is as great as that for mankind…

11
Neuromancer
by William Gibson – 1984

Gibson rewrote the first 2/3 of this book (his first novel) twelve times and was worried people would think he stole the feel from Blade Runner, which had come out two years earlier. He was convinced he would be “permanently shamed” after it was published.

Fortunately for Gibson, Neuromancer won science fiction’s triple crown (the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) and became the seminal work in the cyberpunk subgenre.

12
A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge – 1992

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.

13
Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson – 1993

Red Mars is a great hard-SF read, with enough astrophysics to satisfy a large conference room at a ComicCon. You can tell author Robinson did a huge amount of research, and it pays off.

Red Mars is followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars, but it’s the best of the three.

“an action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars–riven by both personal and ideological conflicts–in the early 21st century.”
-Publishers Weekly

14
Rendezvous with Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1973

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.

15
Revelation Space
by Alistair Reynolds – 2000

Alastair Reynolds’s first novel is “hard” SF on an epic scale, crammed with technological marvels and immensities.

One man probes a galaxy-wide enigma: why does spacefaring humanity encounter so few remnants of intelligent life?

“Reynolds’s vision of a future dominated by artificial intelligence trembles with the ultimate cold of the dark between the stars.”
-Publishers Weekly

16
Ringworld
by Larry Niven – 1970

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 sunlike 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.

17
Spin
by Robert Charles Wilson – 2005

This is one of my favorite SF books.

One night, a boy watches the stars flare and go out. The sun is now a featureless disk—a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain.

It’s a rare author that can start with such an intriguing premise and carry it through, while exceeding expectations. I recommend this book strongly, as well as the other two in the series, Axis and Vortex.

18
Starfish
by Peter Watts – 1999

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.

19
Startide Rising
by David Brin – 1983

Brin’s tales are set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being “uplifted” by a patron race. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind?

The Terran exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in galactic history. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles an armed rebellion and the whole hostile planet to safeguard her secret—the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Startide Rising is the second book in the Uplift series (there’s a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can safely be skipped.

20
Tau Zero
by Poul Anderson – 1970

Hard science fiction with a hell of an idea: what would happen if your light-speed engine malfunctioned and instead of slowing down, you just went faster and faster? Tau Zero does a masterful job of dealing with the consequences of near-light-speed, and the reaction of the humans trapped in the ship.

21
The Martian
by Andy Weir – 2012
The Martian is my favorite book of 2014.

I haven’t enjoyed a science fiction book this much in years. The story is gripping as hell, the protagonist smart and likable, and the writing is excellent. It’s rare to find completely plausible, hard science fiction that still can still focus on character, but author Weir pulls it off with style. His protagonist reminds me of Stanislaw Lem’s Pirx.

This book is smart, funny, and gave me a sense of wonder that a science fiction book hasn’t done in years. I felt like a kid again, saying, “This is so COOL!”

22
Use of Weapons
by Iain M. Banks – 1990

I’m a huge fan of Banks and his Culture novels, so there’s no way one of them wouldn’t show up on this list.

The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of Special Circumstances’ foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks and military action.

The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him towards his present eminence, but despite all their dealings she did not know him as well as she thought.

The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman’s life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a lost cause. But not even its machine could see the horrors in his past.

23
World War Z
by Max Brooks – 2006

Yes, it’s about zombies, but the book reads more like highly technical and thoughtful science fiction than a splatterfest.

World War Z is a shockingly well-written series of vignettes from a number of different perspectives as humanity is driven to the edge of extinction by approximately 200 million zombies.


 

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15 thoughts on “23 Best Hard Science Fiction Books

  1. Thank you, Dan. I was an early aficionado of the genre, dating back to Arthur C. Clarke and Poul Anderson, but have lost touch with the more recent post-punk. So, thank you! Rg

  2. C’mon, I like Morgan as well but only 3 Takashi Kovacs novels, and in “Hard Sci-Fi” some how out ranks Reynolds who worked for the European Space guys and Asimov at 7? It’s not as bad as putting Skynyrd at #99 for 100 Greatest Bands of All Time– but it is absolutely similar to putting Duran Duran above the Rolling Stones….. C’mon really!?! This smacks of the “Scalzi Inclusivity Scandal” where all sci-fi is redefined so that the most obtuse, politically-correct social justice warriors get to redefine whole genres from within the Sci Fi Writers Guilds, such that lesser works and lesser efforts are given superior billing due to the morphology of the authors, and most importantly “how much the authors may have suffered personally” rather than the excellence and merit of the actual textual work according to the typical systemic bias points of a standard, yet nebulous, term like ” Hard Sci-Fi.” The standard for Hard Sci-Fi is verisimilitude. Peace Out Yo……

    1. Dude, this has been going on since the early 90’s when the “politically-correct social justice warriors” took over SF award conventions. It’s why the Hugos et. al. have been rendered irrelevant.

    2. It doesn’t actually say that the numbers are some ranking system or that #1 is better than #23. It could just as well be an arbitrary order and the numbers are just a way to keep track. So… Chill pill…

  3. These all look good! I can’t believe I haven’t read any, I must be living under a rock. I am just finishing The Cerulean’s Secret by Dennis Meredith, dennismeredith.com for the info. A cool science read with biological elements that staged in the very near future. I recommend!

  4. I wonder why Greg Egan isn’t in this list. All of his books are the hardest SciFi I’ve ever read: they’re basically physics textbooks with characters! And his ideas are extremely original: who cares about yet another way to make Faster Than Light travel, when you can invent a different _kind of space-time_? AND work out the complete physics of it, without needing to write down a single formula!

  5. Your list of best hard SF gave me a few titles I will want to read. Some I have read, with mixed results.

    Writing a good story, with a believable plot and characters, which sticks more or less strictly to the rules of physics as we know them, is HARD. But it satisfies me more than most other forms of fantasy and science fiction. I hope to write some science fiction, and this is the mark I am aiming for.

  6. I’ve read 8 of the 23; gave up reading SF a while back for complicated reasons, but regretting it now. Definitely a list to ponder, and one to plunder.

    I’m looking forward to checking out those on the list I’ve yet to read.

    Thanks.

  7. The author says “Hard science fiction is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both.” I read the #1 recommendation, Altered Carbon and it is NOT hard science fiction, the opposite in fact. Anti Gravity, blasters, high bandwidth FTL communications and of course uploading and downloading human consciousness with no attempt to provide any scientific explanation.

  8. I would remove World War Z. It is not hard Science Fiction. You should include it in an Alternate History category.

    I would add:

    Accelerando by Charles Strauss
    Contact by Carl Sagan
    The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner
    The Fountains Of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
    Rocheworld by Robert L Forward
    The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

    just off the top of my head

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