19 Best Genetic Engineering Science Fiction Books

If any technology has the best chance of making the world unrecognizable in the next century, it’s genetic engineering. It’s fun to imagine flying cars and spaceships, but we could just as easily end up with migratory buildings and Be a New Species Day in elementary schools.

A Door into Ocean
by Joan Slonczewski – 1986

Combining feminism and strong world-building, A Door into Ocean follows the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future. The Sharers are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and reproduce by parthenogenesis—there are no males. Conflicts erupt when a neighboring patriarchal civilization decides to invade and develop their ocean world.

This sounds very “All Women Are Good And All Men Are Bad,” and while there is some of that, it is balanced by fully-developed characters, occasional twists, and an intriguing ocean world.

by Douglas E. Richards – 2018

When an interstellar probe lands in the heart of the Amazon jungle, powerful nations around the world will stop at nothing to retrieve it its revolutionary technology… Technology that will allow the country that controls it to dominate the globe.

With the probe hidden within the densest rainforest on Earth, traditional military power is useless. So the US chooses to send in a single operative, a man who’s been enhanced to the limits of current technology. He’ll be greatly outnumbered, and with so much on the line, not even the closest of allies can be trusted.

But the true stakes are higher than anyone could possibly know. Because all is not what it seems. And the alien spacecraft has plans of its own…

“Richards is a worthy successor to Michael Crichton.”

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro – 2005

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules, where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

I’d tell you more about how exactly this book involves clones, but it’d give too much away.

Best Novel of 2005
— Time Magazine

Adrenaline Secrets
by Carolyn Reilly – 2017

If you like sexy romance mixed in with your science fiction, this one’s for you.

Freelancing as a soldier for hire, Jake Hanson is ready to take down GovCorp, the ruthless corporation that created the mercenary that he is. But when he gets teamed up in the jungles of Africa with the fiery and determined Kendra Reed, Jake struggles with his mission. After all, he’s not programmed to feel—but he’s beginning to feel a hell of a lot for the feisty ex-soldier.

Kendra Reed works for GovCorp as a translator. But she has a hidden agenda. She’s after the truth—and she’ll stop at nothing to get it. Working with a genetically-engineered bad boy sparks intrigue in her. But the last thing Kendra needs is to be falling for someone like Jake.

As they face a deadly enemy, Jake and Kendra are forced to trust one another, while confronting the heated attraction that burns between them. With time running out and their adrenaline in overdrive, can they find a way to save themselves before it’s too late?

The Atlantis Gene
by A. G. Riddle – 2013

In Antarctica, researchers find a mysterious structure buried deep in the ice. It’s thousands of years old, and something is guarding it. Inside, the team makes a discovery that will rewrite human history—and could set off an extinction level event.

Dr. Kate Warner moved to Jakarta, Indonesia to escape her past. She still hasn’t recovered from what happened to her, but she has made the breakthrough of a lifetime: a cure for autism. But Kate’s discovery is far more dangerous than she ever imagined.

When two children are abducted from her clinic, Kate is thrust into a global conspiracy with far-reaching consequences. A secret society believes her work may be the key to unleashing the next stage of human evolution. It’s an event that will wipe out 99.9% of the human race, and they will stop at nothing to find her and obtain her research.

Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress – 1991

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.

Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton – 1990

Like Frankenstein, Jurassic Park explores the unintended consequences of biological tinkering.

I’m going to assume you know the story, and instead tell you how Michael Crichton realized “there is no pressing need to create a dinosaur,” except perhaps for entertainment. Thus, the idea of an amusement park was born.

The first drafts of Jurassic Park were told from the point of view of a child, but fortunately, the author’s friends told him to change it.

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin – 1969

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

by Charles Stross – 2005

Accelerando moves like a bat out of hell and made me afraid that the future’s going to tear us all a new one.

It’s dense, and author Charles Stross presents enough throwaway ideas for at least a dozen other novels.

Accelerando follows the adventures of three generations as they experience the world just before the technological singularity, during it, and just after.

(The technological singularity is the point where an artificial intelligence begins to create a runaway chain reaction of improving itself, with each iteration becoming more intelligent. Eventually, it is vastly superior to any human intelligence. Is that something to worry about? Maybe. Stephen Hawking once said, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”)

The book is deeply technical in spots, which is fun, but still has good characters you root for (or despise).

Falling Free
by Lois McMaster Bujold – 1988

I’m not a huge fan of the Vorkosigan saga (a few dozen novels, novellas, and short stories), but they have a huge following and have several Hugo awards to their name, so if you haven’t tried it already, start with book one: Falling Free.

When engineer Leo Graf arrives at a free fall station circling a mining planet to teach welding, he’s in for his first shock: the genetically engineered inhabitants have an extra set of arms in place of legs. A second shock comes when the company that owns these four-armed “quaddies” decides to abandon them, and Leo must use all his ingenuity to respond to this new crisis. Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and a Hugo finalist.

“Superb far-future saga.”
— Publishers Weekly on the Vorkosigan series

Pandora's Star
by Peter F. Hamilton – 2004

Over one thousand light-years away, a star vanishes. It does not go supernova. It does not collapse into a black hole. It simply disappears. Since the location is too distant to reach by wormhole, a faster-than-light starship, the Second Chance, is dispatched to learn what has occurred and whether it represents a threat. In command is Wilson Kime, a five-time rejuvenated ex-NASA pilot whose glory days are centuries behind him. He comes across a deadly discovery whose unleashing will threaten to destroy the utopian Commonwealth… and humanity itself.

“Hamilton’s exhilarating new opus proves that ‘intelligent space opera’ isn’t an oxymoron.”
— Publishers Weekly

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 are a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can safely be skipped.

by Octavia E. Butler – 1987

The first book in the well-regarded Xenogenesis trilogy, Dawn is often called both brilliant and disturbing. The protagonist goes through serious hell, so if you’re after a light read, this probably isn’t it.

Lilith Lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali (creatures covered in writhing tentacles), who had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth—but for a price.

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood – 2003

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.

The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi – 2009

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

“This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best, will garner Bacigalupi significant critical attention and is clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year.”
— Publishers Weekly

by Neal Stephenson – 2015

A catastrophic event renders the Earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain.

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

“No slim fables or nerdy novellas for Stephenson: his visions are epic, and he requires whole worlds—and, in this case, solar systems—to accommodate them…Wise, witty, utterly well-crafted science fiction.”
—Kirkus Reviews

Altered Carbon
by Richard K. Morgan – 2002

Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man dies unexpectedly, 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.

“[A] fast-paced, densely textured, impressive first novel.”
— Publishers Weekly

The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks – 1988

Iain M. Banks is my second-favorite SF author (after Stanislaw Lem), and The Player of Games was my first Banks book, so I’m always happy to recommend it.

The Culture—a utopian human/machine symbiotic society—has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer, and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the cruel and incredibly wealthy Empire of Azad, to try their fabulous game…a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life—and very possibly his death.

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley – 1932

Children are genetically programmed in the womb and sent through indoctrination programs, preparing them for lives in predetermined castes. It’s a utopian society that maintains its peace by removing the humanity of its members, and only one man is brave enough to vocally challenge the status quo.

Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

6 thoughts on “19 Best Genetic Engineering Science Fiction Books

  1. I deeply enjoying this book list. I was pleased that Left Hand of Darkness was included; I consider it LeGuin’s masterwork. I was also very taken by the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon.* You’ve also told me about a few novels I’d never heard of, and will now track down and read as time permits.

    I also thank you for including Brave New World. I think it has aged very well, and seems to pose a mirror image of our current era, which is so mired in everyday entertainments. I should know; I watch Netflix daily. But thanks to you, I have a few books I can read now which will stimulate my mind far better than Netflix ever could. All the best, and thanks for writing such engrossing reviews of such masterful (and mistressful) science fiction.

    *But . . . yes, I do have one ‘but’ about your review of Altered Carbon. Why did you say the tycoon killed himself? Doesn’t telling us that partially spoil the mystery? (If, in the novel, he admits to killing himself outright, I apologize; the Netflix version leaves uncertain ’til the very end whether he was offed, or offed himself.)

  2. Dear Mr. Dan
    Please correct the name of authoress Nancy Cress to Nancy Kress. By the way, some of the novels’ ideas in this review are marvellous, others are mid- brow! Thank you for everything!

  3. Thanks for the list – I’ve read about half and enjoyed all of them, so that’s a good sign!

    Some on my list that I really loved (I kept a list before the web, so some are old) that aren’t on yours:

    “Emergence” by David Palmer
    “On my Way to Paradise” by Dave Wolverton
    “The Postman” by David Brin (I liked it better than Startide Rising, but see that you wouldn’t include two from the same author – also, not to be confused with the god-awful Kevin Costner movie).

    Also, one that isn’t on the list that I’ve been meaning to read and is a classic:
    “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

  4. Actually… what does ACCELERANDO say about genetic engineering? There’s a lot of things in the story, but I don’t remember that.

    I’m also not sure about some others…

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