Interacting with aliens is always tricky, but when you’ve got a whole new world to worry about, things get much more complicated, whether you’re colonizing, invading, or just visiting.
Robert A. Heinlein, who gave the authors extensive advice on the novel, described the story as “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.”
A 300 kilometer-long stone flashes out of nothingness and into Earth’s orbit.
The Stone was from space–but perhaps not our space; it came from the future—but perhaps not our future. Within the hollowed asteroid was the remains of a vanished civilization. An English, Russian, and Chinese-speaking-civilization. Seven vast chambers contained forests, lakes, rivers, hanging cities, and museums describing both the catastrophic war that was about to occur and the long winter that would follow. But while scientists and politicians bickered about how to use the information to stop the Death, the Stone yielded a secret that made even Earth’s survival pale into insignificance.
“Bear’s creativity provides a richness to an intricate, complex plot.”
— School Library Journal
This Hugo and Nebula winner, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, takes place on a mostly oceanic planet called Tiamat, whose suns orbit a black hole, which facilitates a type of interstellar wormhole travel and connects Tiamat to the rest of the civilized galaxy.
But the wormhole is about to close, and the colonists on Tiamat will likely die if they do not enlist the help of the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen. However, the price of this help is genocide. In response, one of the native inhabitants of Tiamat fights for the survival of her race.
The objective of the mission from Earth: to stop the ruthless Barjarnum of Beaujolais from expanding his empire on the Big Planet and prevent the world from falling under this tyrant’s domination. Then sabotage forces the craft to crash land, and the survivors face an epic 40,000-mile trek across the dangerous landscape.
The alien race Catteni value strength and intelligence in their slaves—and Kristin has managed to survive her enslavement while hundreds of other humans have not. But her trial has just begun, for now she finds herself part of a massive experiment. The aliens have discovered a new world, and they have a simple way of finding out if it’s habitable: drop hundreds of slaves on the surface and see what happens.
If they survive, colonization can begin. If not, there are always more slaves.
“McCaffrey has created another set of winning protagonists and a carefully detailed, exotic background.”
— Publishers Weekly
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The patched-up ship has seen better days, but it offers her everything she could possibly want: a spot to call home, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy and some distance from her past. And nothing could be further from what she’s known than the crew of the Wayfarer.
The crew is offered the job of a lifetime: tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet. Sure, they’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years, but for Rosie, risking her life wasn’t part of the job description.
“[A] joyous, optimistic space opera… A heart-warming debut novel that will restore your faith in science fiction (specifically) and humanity (in general).”
A group of 42,363 Union humans and aliens called azi are dispatched to set up a base on a very rare habitable planet named Gehenna II. Unknown to the settlers, their mission is designed to fail; they are deliberately abandoned in order to create long-term problems for the rival Alliance.
“Once again, Cherryh proves herself a consistently thoughtful and entertaining writer.”
— Publishers Weekly
After thousands of years searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. There are two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds.
But first, both groups must wait at the aliens’ very doorstep for their strange star to relight and for their planet to reawaken, as it does every 250 years. Then, following terrible treachery, the Qeng Ho must fight for their freedom and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below, while the aliens themselves play a role unsuspected by the Qeng Ho and Emergents alike.
A Deepness in the Sky is a 1999 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel and the winner of the 2000 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
“[M]eticulously detailed culture-building and grand-scale sf drama.”
— Library Journal
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. He spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and lush wilds spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
“[A] spectacular adventure.”
— Entertainment Weekly
Sandoz is a part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.
The priest is the only surviving member of the crew and upon his return he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. But the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.
Some readers find this book provocative and compelling, while others were a little let down by the ending.
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.
When human colonists settled the Amarantin homeworld, few of them bothered to question the disappearance of its native population almost a million years before. But in the year 2551, one man, Dan Sylveste, is convinced that solving the riddle of the Amarantin is vital to human survival. As he nears the truth, he learns that the Amarantin were destroyed for a reason. And if that reason is made public, the universe—and reality itself—could be forever altered.
Revelation Space is a sprawling, hard-SF tale with enough original ideas for three thick novels. Seriously, it’s overflowing with the stuff. And it’s written by a guy with a PhD in astronomy, so all the science feels solid.
It’s got aliens, artificial intelligence, megastructures, colonized planets, ancient mysteries, cyborgs, big-ass spaceships, intrigue, betrayal, and murder. Reads don’t get much more satisfying than this.
The Dispossessed is a utopian science fiction novel set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
“Le Guin’s book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.”
— The New York Times
A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L’Engle’s words, “too different,” and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adult’s book, anyhow?”
The book has been in print continuously since its publication in 1962, so apparently it wasn’t too difficult for children. However, it has been too challenging for the more religious adults: it was on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 at number 23, due to the book’s references to witches and crystal balls, the claim that it “challenges religious beliefs,” and the listing of Jesus “with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders.”
The Martian is one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I’ve ever read. An astronaut is left behind on Mars, and must survive by himself for over a year, using only his wits and what was left behind by a few previous missions.
Author Weir does a masterful job in creating his highly likable, intelligent, and deeply human protagonist Mark Watney. The science in The Martian is hard and feels as real as stone.
This book is a great combination of man vs. nature à la Jack London, with the inventiveness of MacGyver, moments of laugh-out-loud humor, page-turning pacing, and plot twists that are surprising but in hindsight feel inevitable.
All in all, a good story well told.
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.
Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers while taking a break on Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert and his wife Virginia Heinlein created the small “Patrick Henry League” in an attempt to create support for the U.S. nuclear testing program. Heinlein found himself under attack both from within and outside the science fiction community for his views, so he wrote Starship Troopers to clarify and defend his military and political views at the time.
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 of course, not 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
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.
The explorers crash on the Ringworld and make some surprising discoveries.
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 the first is the best of the three.
“[A]n action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars—driven by both personal and ideological conflicts—in the early 21st century.”
– Publishers Weekly
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.
In the 22nd century, humankind has colonized the solar system. Starflight is possible but hugely expensive, so humankind’s efforts are focused on Isis, the one nearby Earth-like world. Isis is rich with complex DNA-based plant and animal life. And every molecule of this life is spectacularly toxic to human beings. The entire planet is a permanent Level Four Hot Zone.
Zoe Fisher was born to explore Isis. Literally. Cloned and genetically engineered by a faction within the hothouse politics of Earth, Zoe is optimized to face Isis’s terrors. Now, at last, Zoe has arrived on Isis. But there are secrets implanted within her that not even she suspects. And the planet itself has secrets that will change our understanding of life in the universe.
“Wilson’s most tightly constructed pure adventure tale to date.”
On an alien world, independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage, and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey the new world and the struggle threatens to spread all the way back to Earth.
James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the midst of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail.
The whispers of a dead man remind him that the great galactic civilization which once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed it.
“Combining an exploration of real human frailties with big SF ideas and exciting thriller action, Corey cements the series as must-read space opera.”
― Library Journal (starred review)
The Algebraist is not one of Banks’s 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).
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.
I strongly recommend the entire trilogy: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Of course Dune is high on this list. It’s a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction.”
Just for fun, here are a few things you may not know about Dune.
1. It was inspired by a trip to Oregon
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Dune is that Frank Herbert was inspired to create his all-desert, water-starved planet during a trip to the soggy Oregon coast. He watched people planting grass to keep the shifting dunes from swallowing up vacationers’ houses.
2. It was published by an outfit known for its car repair manuals.
It took Frank Herbert six years to write Dune.
But.. Herbert couldn’t sell his book. Publishers said it was too long. People who read science fiction, they said, don’t like long books (Apparently, neither do fantasy readers, since this was same reason given to J. K. Rowling when she was rejected multiple times for the first Harry Potter book).
After twenty rejections, an editor at Chilton (a publisher known for its car repair manuals) gave Dune a chance. It sold slowly at first, but eventually well enough that Herbert was able to become a full-time writer.
3. It has no authoritative visual
If Dune is so popular, why are there no conventions? Why don’t you see people dressing up as the hero Paul Atreides at various Comic-Cons? Where are the stillsuit costumes?
One possible reason is that there is no authoritative visual. If you wear something from the book, you have to tell someone it’s from Dune or they’d never know. Quick, what does an ornithopter look like?
The Dune movie by David Lynch was, well, awful. Various TV shows have tried to capture the essence of Dune, with limited success. One movie had the potential to become this vision, to declare This Is How Dune Looks, but sadly, it was never made. This film was documented in Jorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating film in its own right. The specter of what might have been—the marvelous, surreal spectacle of a true Dune movie (e.g., designs by H.R. Giger, the man who created Alien, and starring Salvador Dali as the Emperor) is almost overwhelming to consider. (However, one of Jorosky’s other movies featured a literal golden turd, so maybe it’s for the best.)
4. It has seventeen sequels and prequels.
The success of Dune allowed Herbert to create a number of sequels, each slightly more disappointing than the previous. To enjoy these books after reading the original, lower your expectations. See the other novels as children playing around the feet of a wise old grandpa, and you’ll have a good enough time of it.
The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson are more typical page-turners than heavy opuses like the original, but they’re still a lot of fun. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
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: 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.
17 thoughts on “27 Best Alien World Science Fiction Books”
Not sure why everyone seems to diss Lynch’s DUNE. Suppose if one were only looking for the visuals, that might be sorta okay, except for me…thought, with a range of acceptability of technology for the time, the visuals were great.
My thoughts, during the the 50 or so times I’ve watched Lynch’s DUNE–he NAILED the characters–and the actors who played the characters…Kyle MacLachlan, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones…perfect.
However, there were four characters that the casting was, to my way of thinking, were just flat sheer genius
* Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck
* Sting as Feyd-Rautha
* Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica
* Max Von Syndow as Dr. Dr. Kynes
Francesca Annis–WAS Lady Jessica–right down to the widow’s peak..
The original DUNE series was always about characters–the science and the fiction was secondary…SPOILER…I’d figured Arrakis was Mother Earth from about half-way into the novel at first reading…
So, I agree this novel belongs in either # 1 or #2 spot on this list. I just think the David Lynch film is sorely under-rated and gored for all the wrong reasons…
Arrakis is earth? Not sure I agree with that.
Agreed. Lynch’s style is not to everyone’s taste, but that element needs to be divorced from the judgement of the movie objectively. Lynch’s Dune only has one shortcoming – it doesn’t last long enough to really give us a feel for how the human empire actually works. Dune actually needs its own series, much like Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Couldn’t agree more. Love everything about Lynch’s Dune although we would would love to see the original cut including Lynch.
Thank you. I’ve been reading science fiction since the1950’s, Analog and its interestig to read what you feel about the books that made up, like precious bricks, a part of my cultural memory. mike burke
Here’s something you didn’t know : you’ve confused Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With a Thousand Faces with John W Campbell, editor of Astounding, later Analog Magazine.
You are correct. I did not know that. Thanks!
Dune was serialized in Analog by legendary editor John W. Campbell, not by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the book that laid out the concept of the hero’s journey.
I have the edition of of Analog in which “Dune World” appeared. I am the original owner and was a subscriber to Analog at that time, and a freshman in high school, as I recall. It’s one of my dearest possessions.
What? Mission of Gravity didn’t make the cut? Hal Clement’s description of a high Gravity planet with an insane rotational vector is about as cool as it gets. Much as I appreciate the influence of Starship Troopers, there isn’t much world building in it, so I’d swap the two.
What about “God themselves” from I. Asimov and “Speaker for the Dead” from O. Scott Card?
The Well World by Jack L. Chalker should be in this list.
I would have also included Araminta Station by Jack Vance
How could you omit the best books that bring alien species to life —
Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and
Amy Thomson’s The Color of Distance
Most of the books listed here do not take you deeply into an alien’s world. These do.
Speaker for the dead is one of the very best. Why was it omitted?
I have read probably 1/2 of the books on this list an love them all. So, I’m guessing that I’ll love rest of them also!
One thing I have to say though, people; do NOT Make the mistake of only reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Make sure that you read ALL of his books set in that universe.
Hyperion is just the beginning. Then there is the Fall of Hyperion to complete the first to couplet. After that, MAKE SURE you read they Endymion couplet. There are 4 books in the series after all.
Dan is friggen amazing!
Speaking of other amazing authors: Tad Williams – Otherland books are great! It’s not space travel scifi but, VR. I rank Tad and Dan neck in neck for how good of authors they are.
Eifelheim by Michael Flynn is fantastic.
So is Karen Traviss Wes’Har War series, starting with City of Pearl.