If you know someone who is science fiction-curious but reluctant to take the leap, try giving them one of these books. There’s mystery, thrillers, military, near-future, and hilarious stuff here, hopefully enough to entice anyone down the wormhole of science fiction.
All posts by Dan
Review: Dr. No by Percival Everett
Dr. No reads like the author does not care whether anyone reads this book or not; he had fun writing it, and that’s all that needed to happen. It’s good, absurdist fun with entertaining characters and clever social satire (but didn’t get preachy).
A mathematician who studies the concept of nothing to the point of becoming a world expert on the subject is approached by a billionaire determined to become a Bond villain. The billionaire needs help with nothing, and our mathematician needs the money. Inventive madness ensues.
Recommendation: Read it if you’re in the mood for something a little more literary, inventive, and don’t need aliens or spaceships. I’m definitely planning to read more by this author.
The Best Science Fiction Books Written by Scientists
It’s nice when science fiction authors actually get the science right (or, at least, believable). All the authors on this list have either worked as actual scientists or graduated with a degree in science.
Mike Brotherton graduated magna cum laude in 1990 with a BS in electrical engineering. He then did graduate work in astronomy, studying quasars and earning his PhD in 1996. He is currently a tenured professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming at Laramie.
The SS Cygni probe sent back hours of video, captured by the Biolathe AI, but only a few minutes mattered—the four minutes that showed a creature made of fire: living, moving, dancing in the plasma fire of the double star’s accretion disk. A dragon made of star stuff so alien that only a human expedition to observe and perhaps capture it, could truly understand it.
It’s a perilous journey into the future, however, for SS Cygni is 245 light-years from Earth, and even though only two years’ subjective time will pass on board the Karamojo, the crew will return to an Earth where five hundred years have passed. Captain Lena Fang doesn’t care—she has made her life on her ship, where her best friend is the ship’s AI.
Samuel Fisher, the contract exobiologist, doesn’t care, either. He is making the voyage of a lifetime and in the small world of the Karamojo, he will have to live with the consequences of his obsessive quest for knowledge.
The rest of the small crew all have their own reasons for saying good-bye to everyone they have ever known. As the Biolathe AI said, uncertain five hundred-year round trips don’t attract the most stable personalities, but somehow they’ll have to learn to get along with each other, if they’re to catch their dragon and come home again.
“[A] dramatic, provocative, utterly convincing hard-science sf novel.”
—Booklist, starred review
Poul Anderson earned his BA in physics with honors.
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.
David Brin graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science in astronomy in 1973. At the University of California, San Diego, he earned a Master of Science in electrical engineering (optics) and a PhD degree in astronomy.
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.
This collection of short stories from writers like Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke is dated in spots, but still engaging.
Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. In 1969 he wrote “The Scarred Man,” the first story about a computer virus.
When a young scientist’s ambitious experiment goes terribly wrong, a sphere that is comprised of never-before-seen components remains from the high-energy explosion, and this form opens up a mysterious vista that will shock the world and introduce a new realm of terror.
Robert L. Forward earned his doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1965, with a thesis entitled Detectors for Dynamic Gravitational Fields, for the development of a bar antenna for the detection of gravitational radiation. He then went to work at the research labs of Hughes Aircraft, where he continued his research on gravity measurement and received 18 patents.
In a story of sacrifice and triumph, human scientists establish a relationship with intelligent lifeforms—the cheela—living on Dragon’s Egg, a neutron star where one Earth hour is equivalent to hundreds of their years. The cheela culturally evolve from savagery to the discovery of science, and for a brief time, men are their diligent teachers.
“Forward has impeccable scientific credentials, and… big, original, speculative ideas.”
—The Washington Post
James Tiptree Jr. is the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon. Sheldon worked in the Army Air Forces photo-intelligence group. She later was promoted to major, a high rank for women at the time. As an intelligence officer, she became an expert in reading aerial intelligence photographs. She received a doctorate from George Washington University in Experimental Psychology in 1967.
Known as the Destroyer, a self-aware leviathan roams through space gobbling up star systems. In its path is the planet Tyree, populated by telepathic wind-dwelling aliens who are facing extinction. Meanwhile on Earth, people burdened with psi powers are part of a secret military experiment run by a drug-addicted doctor struggling with his own grief. These vulnerable humans soon become the target of the Tyrenni, whose only hope of survival is to take over their bodies and minds—an unspeakable crime in any other period of the aliens’ history.
“[Tiptree] can show you the human in the alien and the alien in the human and make both utterly real.”
—The Washington Post
Sir Fred Hoyle was an English astronomer who formulated the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis, the idea that heavier elements are created inside stars. He also coined the term “Big Bang” as a way of denigrating the theory, which he rejected.
Astronomers in England and America have made a terrifying discovery: an ominous black cloud the size of Jupiter is traveling straight towards our solar system. If their calculations are correct, the cloud’s path will bring it between the Earth and the Sun, blocking out the Sun’s rays and threatening unimaginable consequences for our planet. With the fate of every living thing on Earth in the balance, world leaders assemble a team of brilliant scientists to figure out a way to stop the cloud. But when they uncover the truth behind its origins, they will be forced to reconsider everything they think they know about the nature of life in the universe…
“Without a question the most intelligently written science fiction story I have ever read… A terrific yarn.”
Larry Niven graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and a minor in psychology.
Jerry Pournelle studied at the University of Washington, where he received a B.S. in psychology, and an M.S. in psychology (experimental statistics).
The gigantic comet has slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, and tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization.
But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival—a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known.
Yoon Ha Lee majored in mathematics and earned a master’s degree in secondary mathematics education at Stanford University.
When Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for her unconventional tactics, Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the 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.
“Beautiful, brutal and full of the kind of off-hand inventiveness that the best SF trades in, Ninefox Gambit is an effortlessly accomplished SF novel. Yoon Ha Lee has arrived in spectacular fashion.”
—Alastair Reynolds, author of Revelation Space
Initially an assistant professor at Harvard, Sagan later moved to Cornell, where he spent most of his career. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. Sagan assembled the first physical messages sent into space, the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, universal messages that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find them. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (for his book The Dragons of Eden). His TV show Cosmos (which was one of my favorite things ever as a kid) won two Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award, and the Hugo Award.
When a signal is discovered that seems to come from far beyond our solar system, a multinational team of scientists decides to find the source. What follows is an eye-opening journey out to the stars to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who—or what—is out there? Why are they watching us? And what do they want with us?
“[Sagan’s] informed and dramatically enacted speculations into the mysteries of the universe, taken to the point where science and religion touch, make his story an exciting intellectual adventure and science fiction of a high order.”
S. L. Huang completed a degree in mathematics at MIT before moving to Los Angeles. A two-time survivor of cancer, she experienced Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a child. After moving to Hollywood, she beaome a stuntwoman and weapons expert. She is the first woman to be a professional armorer in Hollywood.
Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price.
As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower… until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Mobius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.
Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved. There’s only one problem…
She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.
“A fast-paced, darkly humorous read with a lot of heart for fans of action and urban fantasy, as well as lovers of Wolverine and other morally ambiguous, gritty superheroes with a mysterious past.”
―Booklist, starred review
Sylvain Neuvel dropped out of high school at age 15 but later received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago.
A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved: its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top-secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
“This stellar debut novel… masterfully blends together elements of sci-fi, political thriller and apocalyptic fiction… A page-turner of the highest order.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
S. B. Divya is the pen name of Divya Srinivasan Breed, who holds a BS degree from California Institute of Technology in Computation and Neural Systems, and a masters in Signal Processing from the University of California, San Diego.
Welga Ramirez, executive bodyguard and ex-special forces, is about to retire early when her client is killed in front of her. It’s 2095 and people don’t usually die from violence. Humanity is entirely dependent on pills that not only help them stay alive but allow them to compete with artificial intelligence in an increasingly competitive gig economy. Daily doses protect against designer diseases, flow enhances focus, zips and buffs enhance physical strength and speed, and juvers speed the healing process.
All that changes when Welga’s client is killed by The Machinehood, a new and mysterious terrorist group that has simultaneously attacked several major pill funders. The Machinehood operatives seem to be part human, part machine, something the world has never seen. They issue an ultimatum: stop all pill production in one week.
Global panic ensues as pill production slows and many become ill. Thousands destroy their bots in fear of a strong AI takeover. But the US government believes the Machinehood is a cover for an old enemy. One that Welga is uniquely qualified to fight.
Welga, determined to take down the Machinehood, is pulled back into intelligence work by the government that betrayed her. But who are the Machinehood, and what do they really want?
“This stunning near-future thriller… tackles issues of economic inequality, workers’ rights, privacy, and the nature of intelligence… Crack worldbuilding and vivid characters make for a memorable, page-turning adventure, while the thematic inquiries into human and AI labor rights offer plenty to chew on for fans of big idea sci-fi. Readers will be blown away.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Joe Haldeman received a BS in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Maryland in 1967. He was immediately drafted into the United States Army, where he served as a combat engineer in the Vietnam War.
This book won the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Conscripted into service for the United Nations Exploratory Force, a highly trained unit built for revenge, physics student William Mandella fights for his planet light years away against the alien force known as the Taurans.
Because of the relative passage of time when one travels at incredibly high speed, the Earth that Mandella returns to after his two-year experience has progressed decades and is foreign to him in disturbing ways.
Based in part on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, The Forever War is regarded as one of the greatest military science fiction novels ever written, capturing the alienation that servicemen and women experience even now upon returning home from battle.
Alastair Reynolds earned a PhD in astrophysics from the University of St Andrews and worked for the European Space Research and Technology Centre (part of the European Space Agency) until 2004 when he left to pursue writing full-time.
Nine hundred thousand years ago, something annihilated the Amarantin civilization just as it was on the verge of discovering space flight. Now one scientist, Dan Sylveste, will stop at nothing to solve the Amarantin riddle before ancient history repeats itself.
With no other resources at his disposal, Sylveste forges a dangerous alliance with the cyborg crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity. But as he closes in on the secret, a killer closes in on him. Because the Amarantin were destroyed for a reason, and if that reason is uncovered, the universe and reality itself could be irrevocably altered…
“[A] tour de force… Ravishingly inventive.”
Isaac Asimov finished his B.S. at Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus (later the Columbia University School of General Studies). He then completed his Master of Arts degree in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD degree in chemistry in 1948.
Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians and robots who secretly run the world, all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.
The three Laws of Robotics:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.
Andy Weir studied computer science at the University of California, San Diego, though he did not graduate. He then worked as a programmer for several software companies.
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone.
Or does he?
“An epic story of redemption, discovery and cool speculative sci-fi.”
In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke proposed a satellite communication system using geostationary orbits. Although he was not the originator of the concept of geostationary satellites, one of his most important contributions in this field was his idea that they would be ideal telecommunications relays. He also attained a first-class degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College London.
An enormous cylindrical object has entered Earth’s solar system on a collision course with the sun. A team of astronauts are sent to explore the mysterious craft, which the denizens of the solar system name Rama. What they find is astonishing evidence of a civilization far more advanced than ours. They find an interior stretching over fifty kilometers; a forbidding cylindrical sea; mysterious and inaccessible buildings; and strange machine-animal hybrids, or “biots,” that inhabit the ship. But what they don’t find is an alien presence. So who―and where―are the Ramans?
“Something for everybody—politics, religion, and all kinds of science wrapped up in a taut mystery-suspense.”
The Best Science Fiction Books with Alien Languages
Communication is part of what makes us human, and boy, we have a ton of ways of doing that. But how would aliens communicate, if they even have that concept?
I’m playing fast and loose with the definition of both “alien” and “language” here. The goal is to have a bunch of books with cool science-fictiony linguistic stuff going on as opposed to sticking to rigid definitions.
Also, if a book description doesn’t mention language, it’s because I didn’t want to give away a plot point.
The Best John Scalzi Books
John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors, consistently writes fun, inventive, thoughtful, and fast-paced science fiction. If you haven’t picked up any of his books, I strongly recommend you fix this disastrous state of affairs.
Review: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story is an engaging, literary love story that takes place in a near-future dystopian society where things like books and reading are so unfashionable as to be considered gross. But its characters, for all their flaws (or maybe because of them) feel very real, and are caught in a situation out of their control.
Lenny, the son of Russian immigrants, is a man on the cusp of middle age in a society pathologically obsessed with youth. He falls in love with a younger Korean woman who puts him through the emotional wringer on a daily basis. They’re both doing their best to be together, despite their wildly different worldviews.
And what a world: everyone’s lives are completely driven by social media and embarrassingly public rankings of appearance. It’s a future society so shallow and stupid that you can’t help but feel it’s more realistic that you want it to be.
Recommendation: Read it. If you’re in the mood for a satirical take on the direction society is going and how one mismatched couple tries to navigate it, definitely check this one out.
Best Science Fiction Thrillers
Science fiction thrillers are fast-paced yarns with aliens breathing down your neck, nanobots already cruising through your bloodstream, and world-killer asteroids that just entered the atmosphere.
Best Post-apocalyptic Book Series
If the world’s going to end in a big, messy apocalypse, surely we need more than one measly book to battle through the ruins of our civilization.
(All the descriptions below are for the first books in the series.)
Review: Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Shards of Earth hits everything I love about space opera. Great characters, a grand scale, interesting technology, aliens that are actually alien, Big Mysterious Things, and general fast-paced awesomeness.
The Architects are moon-sized aliens that, inexplicably and unstoppably, tear inhabited planets apart and turn them into flower-like structures, killing everything on the planet. This has already happened to Earth. However, a ragtag group of scavengers stumbles upon a floating, wrecked spaceship that may have an answer to stopping the Architects. If they can survive long enough to attempt to stop them, that is.
Recommendation: Read it, if space opera is your thing. Author Adrian Tchaikovsky is fantastic.
The Best Mad Scientist Science Fiction Books
We’ve loved mad scientists ever since we invented science. We love stories about people going too far, breaking too much, and doing it with a wild grin on their face.