For readers a little tired of familiar stories, non-English science fiction is one of their best sources for new perspectives, ideas, and stories. From Polish great Stanislaw Lem (in my opinion, the best science fiction writer out there) to newcomers like Ryu Mitsuse from Japan, Ofir Touché Gafla from Israel, Khaled Towfik from Egypt, and Vandana Singh from India, people who have only read English-native science fiction are in for a treat when they broaden their global horizons.
Original title: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers
While his description of this new thing called a “submarine” is fun even for modern readers, it’s the brilliant but tortured Captain Nemo who steals the show.
Original title: Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru
All You Need Is Kill has been adapted into manga, a graphic novel, and the film Edge of Tomorrow.
When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his 158th iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally–the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?
Original title: Batoru Rowaiaru
The story tells of junior high school students who are forced to fight each other to the death in a program run by the authoritarian Japanese government, now known as the Republic of Greater East Asia.
Battle Royale was adapted into a manga series and a feature film. Like the book, the film was also controversial and successful, with it being condemned by Japan’s National Diet, yet becoming one of the country’s highest-grossing films. The film spawned a sequel, and two more brief manga adaptations were also created.
Original title: La pell freda
Cold Skin is the debut novel by Catalan author Albert Sánchez Piñol.
Shortly after World War I, a troubled man accepts a solitary assignment as a “weather official” on a tiny, remote island on the edges of the Antarctic. When he arrives, the predecessor he is meant to replace is missing and a deeply disturbed stranger is barricaded in a heavily fortified lighthouse. At first adversaries, the two find that their tenuous partnership may be the only way they survive the unspeakably horrific reptilian creatures that ravage the island at night, attacking the lighthouse in their organized effort to find warm-blooded food. Armed with a battery of ammunition and explosives, the weather official and his new ally must confront their increasingly murderous mentality, and, when the possibility of a kind of truce presents itself, decide what kind of island they will inhabit.
Original title: Les Fourmis
Jonathan Wells and his young family have come to the Paris flat at 3, rue des Sybarites through the bequest of his eccentric late uncle Edmond. Inheriting the dusty apartment, the Wells family are left with only one warning: Never go down into the cellar.
But when the family dog disappears down the basement steps, Jonathan follows—and soon his wife, his son, and various would-be rescuers vanish into its mysterious depths.
Meanwhile, in a pine stump in a nearby park, a vast civilization is in turmoil.
Original title: 盛世—中國2013年
To date this novel has never been published in mainland China.
An entire month has gone missing from Chinese records. No one has any memory of it, and no one seems to care except for a small circle of friends who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core.
Original title: Le città invisibili
This is one of my favorite novels of all time, and it’s not really science fiction, but it’s so wildly imaginative that it has the distinct feel of science fiction without involving space or the future or robots.
The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, narrated by Marco Polo.
Original title: Nihon Chinbotsu
A techno-thriller about a killer earthquake and an unseen force in the Japan Trench that threatens to pull the economic superpower under—literally.
A film based on the novel was made in the same year directed by Shiro Moritani, a television show made in 1975, and a remake in 2006.
A parody movie called Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu (Everything Other than Japan Sinks) was released in 2006.
Borges was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in the Spanish language literature.
He became completely blind at the age of 55, and as he never learned Braille, he became unable to read. Scholars have suggested that his progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination. In fact, multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian.
Labyrinths is a collection of short stories.
It is set in the Moscow Metro where the last survivors hide after a global nuclear holocaust.
The year is 2033, and the world has been reduced to rubble. Humanity is nearly extinct and the half-destroyed cities have become uninhabitable through radiation. Beyond their boundaries, they say, lie endless burned-out deserts and the remains of splintered forests. Survivors still remember the past greatness of humankind, but the last remains of civilization have already become a distant memory.
Man has handed over stewardship of the Earth to new life-forms. Mutated by radiation, they are better adapted to the new world. A few thousand survivors live on, not knowing whether they are the only ones left on Earth, living in the Moscow Metro—the biggest air-raid shelter ever built. Stations have become mini-statelets, their people uniting around ideas, religions, water-filters, or the need to repulse enemy incursion.
Original title: Gniazdo światów
Every 35 years, all residents of the world must move to a new “Land,” each a rigid caste society based on hair color, and each person bears a Significant Name that foretells the manner of their deaths.
The protagonist finds himself at the center of an epidemic of deaths, though he himself remains suspiciously unharmed. He discovers a book titled Nest of Worlds, populated by characters busy reading their own versions of Nest of Worlds—and the key to solving the mysterious epidemic may lay within this even more mysterious novel.
Original title: Papurika
Surreal and quirky, Paprika was adapted and published as magna in 2003. An animated film adaptation appeared in 2006, which was itself adapted into a second manga the following year by Eri Sakai.
When prototype models of a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, it transpires that someone is using them to drive people insane. Threatened both personally and professionally, brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba has to journey into the world of fantasy to fight her mysterious opponents. As she delves ever deeper into the imagination, the borderline between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred, and nightmares begin to leak into the everyday realm. The scene is set for a final showdown between the dream detective and her enemies, with the subconscious as their battleground, and the future of the waking world at stake.
Original title: Пикник на обочине
Roadside Picnic was refused publication in book form in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship and numerous delays. Heavily censored versions published between 1980 and 1990 significantly departed from the original version written by the authors. The original Russian-language novel was finally published in the 1990s.
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the Zone and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.
Original title: Hyakuoku no Hiru to Sen’oku no Yoru
Ten billion days: that is how long it will take the philosopher Plato to determine the true systems of the world. One hundred billion nights: that is how far into the future Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha, and the demigod Asura will travel to witness the end of all worlds.
Named the greatest Japanese science fiction novel of all time, Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights combines hard science fiction with the cosmologies of Christianity, Hindu, and Buddhism. It’s a bizarre, dense book, but one of the amazon reviewers said the book cover glows in the dark, so maybe that makes up for it.
Original title: Die Haarteppichknüpfer
The Carpet Makers is set on a planet whose sole industry is weaving elaborate rugs. The carpets are made of human hair and require a lifetime of work to complete. The book is a series of inter-related stories that give increasingly more detail on the nature and purpose of the rugs and why the universe has tens of thousands of planets solely devoted to making such a thing, each thinking they are the only one.
The Carpet Makers was brought to the attention of publisher Tor Books by Orson Scott Card, who provides a foreword.
Original title: La Planete des Singes
Unlike its cheesy TV adaptations, The Planet of the Apes is an intelligent, ironic, and literate work by Pierre Boulle, the author of The Bridge On The River Kwai. The Planet of the Apes has inspired a media franchise comprising eight films, two television series (one animated), and comic books.
In the not-too-distant future, three astronauts land on what appears to be a planet just like Earth, with lush forests, a temperate climate, and breathable air. But while it appears to be a paradise, nothing is what it seems.
They soon discover the terrifying truth: On this world humans are savage beasts, and apes rule as their civilized masters. In an ironic novel of nonstop action and breathless intrigue, one man struggles to unlock the secret of a terrifying civilization, all the while wondering: Will he become the savior of the human race, or the final witness to its damnation? In a shocking climax that rivals that of the original movie, Boulle delivers the answer in a masterpiece of adventure, satire, and suspense.
Original title: Dzienniki gwiazdowe
The Star Diaries is a 1957 collection of short stories by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, expanded in 1971 around the character of space traveler Ijon Tichy (who has further adventures in the excellent Memoirs of a Space Traveler).
In the title story (this is a collection of short stories), a woman tells her husband of her curious discovery: that she is inhabited by small alien creatures. In another, a young girl making her way to college through the streets of Delhi comes across a mysterious tetrahedron. Is it a spaceship? Or a secret weapon?
The first well-known Indian female speculative fiction writer, Singh has said that her genre is a “chance to find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning in the greater universe.”
Readers who like Singh tend to really like her, so I recommend giving this book a shot.
One bullet to the brain, and Ben is in the Other World. He’s there to find his deceased wife, and discovers a vast and curiously secular existence utterly unlike anything he could have imagined: a realm of sprawling cities where the deceased of every age live an eternal second life, and where forests of family trees are tended by mysterious humans who never lived in the previous world. But Ben cannot find his wife.
Desperate for a reunion, he enlists an unconventional afterlife investigator to track her down, little knowing that his search is entangled in events that continue to unfold in the world of the living.
Don’t rush Trafalgar Medrano when he starts telling you about his latest intergalactic sales trip. He likes to stretch things out over precisely seven coffees. No one knows whether he actually travels to the stars, but he tells the best tall tales in the city, so why doubt him?
Fans of Trafalgar enjoy its refreshing change of pace, with its local, Argentinean take on interstellar vastness and its combination of science fiction and magic realism.
Original title: يوتوبيا
Utopia is a compelling tale of dystopian Egypt in the year 2023 populated by wretched people. The decadent rich live in secured compounds while the poor are trapped outside in a dog-eat-dog world. In this setting, a young man and a young girl venture out of their gated communities to see for themselves what their country is really like.
Utopia, where technology fades into the background and the hunting is done with a knife, highlights the revolution’s human dimensions. Hopefully, Utopia represents the first of many translations of Towfik’s novels.
—Los Angeles Review of Books
Original title: Válka s mloky
Čapek is the guy who invented the term “robot” in his play R.U.R. (It’s from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor”).
War with the Newts is a satirical story and concerns the discovery in the Pacific of a sea-dwelling race, an intelligent breed of newts, who are initially enslaved and exploited. They acquire human knowledge and rebel, leading to a global war for supremacy.
Along with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, We is generally considered to be the grandfather of the satirical futuristic dystopia genre.
In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued. Even nature has been defeated, banished behind the Green Wall. But one frontier remains: outer space. Now, with the creation of the spaceship Integral, that frontier — and whatever alien species are to be found there — will be subjugated to the beneficent yoke of reason.
One number, D-503, chief architect of the Integral, decides to record his thoughts in the final days before the launch for the benefit of less advanced societies. But a chance meeting with the beautiful I-330 results in an unexpected discovery that threatens everything D-503 believes about himself and the One State. The discovery — or rediscovery — of inner space…and that disease the ancients called the soul.
Original title: 三体 (or sān tǐ)
This excellent book is set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.
An English translation by Ken Liu won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It’s the first book of a trilogy, and I strongly recommend reading all of them. Ingenious and well-written.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy
The Thee-Body Problem
The Dark Forest
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
8 thoughts on “23 Best Non-English Science Fiction Books”
Great list! I’ll have to read up on some of these.
If you haven’t yet, read something by Janusz Zajdel – I’ve really enjoyed his stuff.
Also, Adam Wiśniewski (Snerg) – Robot (from 1973).
Off topic, since he’s English, but J.G. Ballard’s short SF stories impressed me very much.
Since you’re familiar with the work of Karel Čapek, you should look into “The Earth is Near” (1974) by fellow Czech author and artist Lukěk Pešek. It’s a brilliant foreshadowing of the unexpected problems with Martian exploration such as seen in Weir’s “The Martian,” and an all-around good read. Pešek was best known for paintings and panoramas of astronomical vistas in addition to his half-dozen or so SF novels; the asteroid 6584 Ludekpesek is named for him.
Cool! I’ll check it out. Thanks.
Fantastic list! I would add a couple more books by Jules Verne, one or two in Italian like Zambrotti, and something in Spanish like Abcalia or the Aleph (they are the top ones at all the rankings for Science Fiction novels in Spanish). Thanks!
Very good selection. I am trying to improve my science fiction collection and it helped me a lot!
Great list, and good to see the Strugatskis 🙂
Suggestions: Gerd Prokop’s Wer stiehlt schon Unterschenkel? Who does steal lower legs? (dystopia set in Chicago, but critizising East Germany – not sure this has been translated into English) and the series Perry Rhodan (some of which exists in English).
Great list, there is a few authors/novels I have never heard here before.
Another good SF author who didn’t write in English was Unno Juza, who was active in the early part of the 20th century. He was considered one of the founding figure of Japanese SF. He has a few books translated into English but I would recommend “Eighteen O’Clock Music Bath”.
(Disclosure: I am the translator and publisher for several of Juza Unno’s works.)
I LOVE THIS LIST. I love it when people forward stuff like this.