22 Great Science Fiction Books That Almost Won the Hugo Award

So close! These books were all nominated but failed to win the Hugo.

Since the Hugo has been handed out since the fifties, this list just focuses on books published in 2000 or later.

 

22
Embassytown
by China Miéville – 2011

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak. Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language. When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak—but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.

“A fully achieved work of art.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

21
Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow – 2008

Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works—and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

“A believable and frightening tale of a near-future San Francisco… Filled with sharp dialogue and detailed descriptions… within a tautly crafted fictional framework.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

20
Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer – 2016

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes, he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

“Bold, furiously inventive, and mesmerizing…It’s the best science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while.”
―Robert Charles Wilson, author of Spin

19
Midnight Robber
by Nalo Hopkinson – 2000

It’s Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. To young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival—until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgivable crime.

Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here, monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen’s legendary powers can save her life… and set her free.

“Deeply satisfying…succeeds on a grand scale…best of all is the language…Hopkinson’s narrative voice has a way of getting under the skin.”
—The New York Times Book Review

18
Kiln People
by David Brin – 2002

In a future where disposable duplicate bodies fulfill every legal and illicit whim of their decadent masters, life is cheap. No one knows that better than Albert Morris, an investigator with a knack for trouble, who has sent his own duplicates into deadly peril more times than he cares to remember.

Dr. Yosil Maharal, a brilliant researcher in artificial intelligence, has suddenly vanished, just as he is on the verge of a revolutionary scientific breakthrough. Maharal’s daughter, Ritu, believes he has been kidnapped—or worse. Aeneas Polom, a reclusive trillionaire who appears in public only through his high-priced platinum duplicates, offers Morris unlimited resources to locate Dr. Maharal before his awesome discovery falls into the wrong hands.

To uncover the truth, Morris must enter a shadowy, nightmare world of ghosts and golems where nothing—and no one—is what they seem, memory itself is suspect, and the line between life and death may no longer exist.

“Intricate plotting, unflagging inventiveness, and a judicious sprinkling of puns and in-jokes: Brin keeps the pages feverishly turning.”
―Kirkus Reviews

17
Six Wakes
by Mur Lafferty – 2017

Maria Arena awakens in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood. She has no memory of how she died. This is new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.

Maria’s vat is one of seven, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it can awaken. And Maria isn’t the only one to die recently…

“Lafferty delivers a tense nail-biter of a story fueled by memorable characters and thoughtful worldbuilding. This space-based locked-room murder mystery explores complex technological and moral issues in a way that’s certain to earn it a spot on award ballots.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

16
Provenance
by Ann Leckie – 2017

Though she knows her brother holds her mother’s favor, Ingray is determined to at least be considered as heir to the family name. She hatches an audacious plan: free a thief from a prison planet from which no one has ever returned, and use them to help steal back a priceless artifact.

But Ingray and her charge return to her home to find their planet in political turmoil, at the heart of an escalating interstellar conflict. Together, they must make a new plan to salvage Ingray’s future and her world, before they are lost to her for good.

Provenance takes place in author Leckie’s Imperial Rach world (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy).

“The intricacies and oddities are a delight… A thrill for fans of heists and capers.”
―Washington Post

15
The Collapsing Empire
by John Scalzi – 2017

Our universe is ruled by physics. Faster than light travel is impossible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extradimensional field available at certain points in space-time, which can take us to other planets around other stars.

Riding The Flow, humanity spreads to innumerable other worlds. Earth is forgotten. A new empire arises, the Interdependency, based on the doctrine that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and, for the empire’s rulers, a system of control.

The Flow is eternal, but it’s not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well. In rare cases, entire worlds have been cut off from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that the entire Flow is moving, possibly separating all human worlds from one another forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain, and the emperor of the Interdependency—must race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

“Political plotting, plenty of snark, puzzle-solving, and a healthy dose of action…Scalzi continues to be almost insufferably good at his brand of fun but think-y sci-fi adventure.”
—Kirkus Reviews

14
Parasite
by Mira Grant – 2013

In the future, humans owe their good health to a humble parasite—a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the Intestinal Bodyguard worm protects people from illness, boosts our immune system, and even secretes designer drugs. It’s been successful beyond the scientists’ wildest dreams. Now, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives… and will do anything to get them.

“[A]s wild as Grant’s premise is, the novel is firmly anchored in real-world science and technology.”
―Booklist

13
Leviathan Wakes
by James S. A. Corey – 2011

Leviathan Wakes is a big, fun space opera, has plenty of sequels, and is better-written that it has any right to be.

Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Holden and his crew.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)

12
Accelerando
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).

“Stross sizzles with ideas…whimsical and funny as well as challenging and thoughtful.”
—The Denver Post

11
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass
by Jim Butcher – 2015

Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity. Within their halls, the ruling aristocratic houses develop scientific marvels, foster trade alliances, and maintain fleets of airships to keep the peace.

Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship Predator. Loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is damaged in combat, Grimm joins a team of Albion agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring his ship.

As Grimm undertakes this task, he learns that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake…

“Butcher opens the imaginative Cinder Spires series with this sweeping fantastical epic…[It’s] a fascinating, adventurous, and intricate story. Butcher brings a fresh and exciting perspective to secondary-world steampunk, giving the reader a thrilling ride.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

10
Death’s End
by Cixin Liu – 2010
Death’s End is the concluding book to the excellent Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem. I strongly recommend these books.

Unfortunately, revealing anything about the plot of this book would spoil the first two books, so I’ll just leave you with a testimonial.

“Wildly imaginative, really interesting.”
―President Barack Obama on the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy

9
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
by Lois McMaster Bujold – 2012

This is book 15 (!) of the Miles Vorsokigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, so if this book looks interesting, you may want to start at book 1 of the saga: Shards of Honor.

Captain Ivan Vorpatril is happy with his calm, predictable life, but when an old friend asks him to protect an attractive young woman who may be on the hit list of a criminal syndicate, Ivan’s chivalrous nature takes over.

Tej Arqua and her half-sister and servant Rish are fleeing the violent overthrow of their clan on free-for-all planet Jackson’s Whole. Now it seems Tej may possess a hidden secret of which even she may not be aware. It’s a secret that could corrupt the heart of a highly regarded Barayarran family and provide the final advantage for the thugs who seek to overthrow Tej’s home world.

But none of Tej’s formidable adversaries have counted on Ivan Vorpatril.

“Longtime readers will love seeing a new side of Ivan as well as hearing his views on many of the series characters. New readers can enjoy Ivan’s story on its own but will miss many of the nuances that add depth and character; best to begin at the beginning.”
—Booklist (starred review)

8
Anathem
by Neal Stephenson – 2008

In an alternate universe, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians live in seclusion behind ancient monastery walls. That is, until they are called back into the world to deal with a crisis of astronomical proportions.

Readers of Stephenson’s earlier works will not be surprised by this take on Anathem:

“[L]ong stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy.”
—Publishers Weekly

colloquy: a high-level, serious discussion (I had to look it up.)

7
The Dark Between the Stars
by Kevin J. Anderson – 2014

Twenty years after the elemental conflict that nearly tore apart the cosmos in The Saga of Seven Suns, a new threat emerges from the darkness. The human race must set aside its own inner conflicts to rebuild their alliance with the Ildiran Empire for the survival of the galaxy.

“Anderson hits it out of the galaxy again: space opera doesn’t get much more exciting, or much more richly populated with alien races, technologies, and cultures, than it does in this sprawling, engrossing epic.”
—Booklist (starred review)

6
Humans
by Robert J. Sawyer – 2003

The trilogy tells of our world and a parallel one in which it was the Homo sapiens who died out and the Neanderthals who became the dominant intelligent species. This allows author Sawyer to examine some of the deeply rooted assumptions of contemporary human civilization dramatically, by confronting us with another civilization, just as morally valid, which has made other choices. In Humans, Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit returns to our world and to his relationship with geneticist Mary Vaughan, as cultural exchanges between the two Earths begin.

Humans is the second book of Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, so if this sounds interesting, you might want to start with the first book, Hominids.

“As the middle volume in a trilogy, this book doesn’t entirely stand on its own, but it is extremely well done.”
—Publishers Weekly

5
Blind Lake
by Robert Charles Wilson – 2003

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

4
Blindsight
by Peter Watts – 2006

A derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find—but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them…

“Watts explores the nature of consciousness in this stimulating hard SF novel, which combines riveting action with a fascinating alien environment. Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

3
The Algebraist
by Iain M. Banks – 2004

I learned about author Iain M. Banks when I was in San Francisco, swing dancing with a woman, who recommended him to me during a twirl. I paid her back by executing a successful “death drop” dance move on her. Amazingly, she did not end up with a cracked skull.

The Algebraist is not one of Banks’ popular Culture stories, taking place only a couple thousand years in the future instead of ten thousand, but it’s still fun.

An armada of deeply evil bastards is coming, commanded by an entertainingly over-the-top villain (think the Joker with access to a spaceship and genetic engineering). He wants information about a possible secret network of wormholes. The good guys want to get to that information first, and the only person who has any chance is Fassin Taak.

Fassin Taak has dedicated his life to studying the alien Dwellers, who may or may not control this network of wormholes. The Dwellers are a multi-billion-year-old alien species that have colonized nearly all of the Jupiter-like gas planets in the galaxy. With such an ancient species, you’d expect some Yoda-like decorum and quiet wisdom. However, the Dwellers comport themselves like tipsy dilettantes and are consistently untrustworthy just for the hell of it.

Much of the book’s charm is Fassin Taak negotiating the impressively alien society of Dwellers (for example, they hunt their young for sport).

2
All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders – 2016

Written by the editor-in-chief of io9.com, All the Birds in the Sky defies easy classification. It’s a combination of fantasy, sci-fi, and dark humor.

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. The development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine certainly complicated matters.

But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them.

“Into each generation of science fiction/fantasydom a master absurdist must fall, and it’s quite possible that with All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders has established herself as the one for the Millennials… As hopeful as it is hilarious, and highly recommended.”
—The New York Times Book Review

1
Ninefox Gambit
by Yoon Ha Lee – 2016

Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician, Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.

“A tight-woven, complicated but not convoluted, breathtakingly original space opera.”
—New York Times

2 thoughts on “22 Great Science Fiction Books That Almost Won the Hugo Award

  1. His novel isn’t from the 2000’s but from the early 90’s, The Quiet Pools by Michael Kube-McDowell was one of the top five finalists for The Hugo for Best Novel. He’s one of my favorite authors and used to live in my hometown of Goshen, Indiana!

  2. How on earth does The Dark Between the Stars get on this list? I tried to read it when it was nominated, and got bogged down in the massive multi-threading: every eight pages the story stops to introduce some new character. (There are other problems, but that one’s the worst.) Because of how it got nominated, I vowed to give it a fair shake, and read at least 200 pages; but somewhere around page 180 I just could not make myself keep going.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.