These books are all excellent and I believe they will pass the test of time. The general rule for being a modern science fiction classic is that it was written in the 21st century, or just so good I felt like including it anyway.
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
In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as the Gate has risen to power in the aftermath of the “Disgraceful Events,” a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.
Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun: a revolutionary journalist, a sheikh, a poor woman concerned for her daughter’s health, and even the brother of a security officer killed in clashes with protestors. Among them is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehia’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.
Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehia’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehia and save his life.
“Equal parts dystopia, satire, and allegory… A distinctly Egyptian version of its Orwellian counterpart, much more real and all the more absurd for it…The nature of truth, its official invocations, its power and its danger, lies at the heart of this work.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
When the obituary of legendary computer game architect Matthew Sobol appears online, a previously dormant daemon (a computer program that runs in the background) activates, initiating a chain of events that begins to unravel our interconnected world. This daemon reads news headlines, recruits human followers, and orders assassinations. With Sobol’s secrets buried with him, and as new layers of his daemon are unleashed, it’s up to Detective Peter Sebeck to stop a self-replicating virtual killer before it achieves its ultimate purpose—one that goes far beyond anything Sebeck could have imagined…
“A riveting debut.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
After finishing most books, I’ll put them down and think something like, “That was a good book,” or “The ending was terrible,” or “I’m hungry.”
But with The Ware Tetralogy, I put the big book down and wondered what the hell just happened to me.
My horizons got expanded in weird directions and there’s a little more odd joy in my life.
The four Ware novels (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware) explore consciousness as an information pattern in a fearlessly absurd, awesomely readable way. All together, they’re a Dadaist cyberpunk tour de force that’ll make your brain feel like it’s in a bath of seltzer water. The books all move like a bat out of hell, are packed with enough ideas for forty normal science fictions books, and you can feel beat poetry in the background as you read them.
“Rucker is both witty and serious as he combines hard science and sociology with unrelentingly sharp observations of all self-replicating beings.”
The Culture—a 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 Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, 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.
“An exquisitely riotous tour de force of the imagination which writes its own rules simply for the pleasure of breaking them.”
To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the funniest science fiction books I’ve ever read. It isn’t a silly, knee-slapping romp like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but a calmer story that relies more on character interactions than external craziness.
Time travel exists but is primarily a method for historical research. It’s also exhausting, and Ned Henry has done far too much of it. But instead of getting some much-needed rest, he’s sent to Victorian England to recover something called a bishop’s bird stump. He gets help from Verity Kindle, a fellow time-traveler who has shuffled a cat between timelines, an act that has the potential to completely upset all of history.
Ned and Verity are a great team as they try to patch everything up, and the eccentric Victorians they run across are hilarious.
“Willis effortlessly juggles comedy of manners, chaos theory and a wide range of literary allusions [with a] near flawlessness of plot, character and prose.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting; here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone whose opinion I respect (darn those people) recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s intense, imaginative, and probably unlike anything you’ve ever come across.
“A hero with Huck Finn’s heart and charm, lighting by El Greco and jokes by Punch and Judy… Riddley Walker is haunting and fiercely imagined and―this matters most―intensely ponderable.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful book, which is odd praise for a story about zombies. But it’s surprisingly thoughtful, and at times, even tender, all while managing to be a fast-paced thriller. Every day I looked forward to reading it.
In a post-apocalyptic England, Melanie, along with other children, is imprisoned in a windowless bunker. They are all strapped down and muzzled whenever they leave their cells. No adult is allowed to touch them under any circumstances. Given who these children are, these are reasonable precautions. Then the installation is attacked, and Melanie is freed along with several adults, some who want her alive, some who want her dead, and others who want her dissected.
“Original, thrilling and powerful.”
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is ridiculously fun. If a nerd got three wishes from a genie, experiencing what happens in this book would be one of them.
Bob Johannson sells his software company for a mint and steps off a curb to start spending his money and is hit by a truck. Fortunately, his head is being preserved cryogenically.
Unfortunately, 117 years later, his brain was scanned into a computer and now he’s an AI controlled by a theocratic regime.
Fortunately, he is uploaded to a space probe with the ability to replicate himself.
Unfortunately, plenty of people want him dead.
The point of view shifts regularly, there isn’t a single storyline to follow, and while the ending is good, it’s clear you need to read the rest of the books in the trilogy (this is book one), but none of that matters. It’s a seriously fun ride.
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
The year is 2380. The Intersolar Commonwealth, a sphere of stars, contains more than six hundred worlds interconnected by a web of transport “tunnels” known as wormholes. At the farthest edge of the Commonwealth, astronomer Dudley Bose observes the impossible: over one thousand light-years away, a star… disappears. Since the location is too distant to reach by wormhole, the Second Chance, a faster-than-light starship commanded by Wilson Kime, a five-times-rejuvenated ex-NASA pilot, is dispatched to learn what has occurred and whether it represents a threat.
Opposed to the mission are the Guardians of Selfhood, led by Bradley Johansson. Shortly after the journey begins, Kime wonders if the crew of the Second Chance has been infiltrated. But soon enough he will have other worries. Halfway across the galaxy, something truly incredible is waiting: a deadly discovery whose unleashing will threaten to destroy the Commonwealth . . . and humanity itself.
“Recommended . . . A large cast of characters, each with his own story, brings depth and variety to this far-future saga.”
Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
“We are all a little bit Murderbot… we see ourselves in its skin. And that reading about this sulky, soap-opera-loving cyborg killing machine might be one of the most human experiences you can have in sci-fi right now.”
This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe—is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy’s fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.
Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse’s crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a “data haven” in Southeast Asia—a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe’s tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty… or to universal totalitarianism reborn.
“Electrifying…hilarious…a picaresque novel about code making and code breaking, set both during World War II and during the present day.”
—New York Times Book Review
I’m not usually a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.
A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespeare plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.
Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.
“Possibly the most captivating and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic novel you will ever read.”
—The Independent (London)
A nameless son and father wander a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all life on Earth.
The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and critics have called it “heartbreaking,” “haunting,” and “emotionally shattering.”
In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive.
“Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions… An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking… Read it while it’s still allowed.”
In the dream-like Annihilation, a section of the Californian coast has turned so weird that it’s now called Area X. This happened thirty years ago, and no one on the outside knows why everyone inside Area X died, why there are weird structures inside, or why there’s a border you can’t get through except through one invisible entrance. Is it a slow alien invasion, a mass hallucination, or something else?
Annihilation covers the twelfth expedition into Area X, where the members have given up their names and refer to each other only by profession: the biologist, the linguist, and so on. All the previous expeditions into Area X have ended in death, madness, or cancer.
This book is a gentle ride into subtle weirdness. You don’t get too many straight answers about what Area X is or is even like on the inside. Some things are normal, some fantastical, and most of it messes with your head. It all feels truly alien and you get the sense that this is going to be impossible to understand, no matter how many facts you have at your disposal.
“Successfully creepy, an old-style gothic horror novel set in a not-too-distant future. The best bits turn your mind inside out.”
—The Washington Post
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 book 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.”
Space opera combined with noir. I love this book and the whole Expanse series.
Jim Holden is XO of 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 Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
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 against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
“This is the future the way it was supposed to be.”
—The Wall Street Journal
If you’re a child of the 80s, reading Ready Player One is like mainlining heroin-strength nostalgia. It’s so ridiculously fun that I frequently imagined author Ernest Cline giggling and saying to himself, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this!”
In the dystopian future, teenage Wade Watts searches for a mysterious Easter egg in a worldwide video game called the OASIS. Finding the Easter egg will cause him to inherit the ownership of the OASIS and billions upon billions of dollars. Of course, he’s not the only one looking for it.
I listened to the audiobook version of Ready Player One, and loved it. Narrator Wil Wheaton nailed it.
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
“In The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal imagines an alternate history of spaceflight that reminds me of everything I loved about Hidden Figures.”
―Cady Coleman, actual astronaut
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First, he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So, we fight, to defend Earth and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea of what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine. And what he will become is far stranger.
“Scalzi’s astonishingly proficient first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master [Heinlein]… This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review
Starfish is one of my favorite books.
A huge international corporation has developed a facility along the Juan de Fuca Ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to exploit geothermal power. They send a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater—down to live and work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.
Unfortunately the only people suitable for long-term employment in these experimental power stations are crazy, some of them in unpleasant ways. How many of them can survive, or will be allowed to survive, while worldwide disaster approaches from below?
“[P]art undersea adventure, part psychological thriller, and wholly original.”
I strongly recommend this entire trilogy (The Dark Forest, Death’s End).
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. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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 surfs a wave of ideas and information that seems always on the brink of collapsing into incomprehensibility, but never does—a careening plunge through strangeness in which every page contains something to mess with your head.”
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.
“An excellent first novel… Weir laces the technical details with enough keen wit to satisfy hard science fiction fan and general reader alike [and] keeps the story escalating to a riveting conclusion.”
—Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
Kindred is one of the most intense, anxiety-inducing books I’ve ever read. It’s a tightly written, unconventional thriller.
A black woman living in 1970s California is snatched from her world and transported in time to a slave-owner’s plantation in the antebellum South. She spies a white man drowning, and saves him. She skips uncontrollably back and forth in time, spending longer and longer at the plantation, doing her best to figure out what’s happening to her while trying to survive the horrors of slavery.
“Kindred is as much a novel of psychological horror as it is a novel of science fiction… a work of art whose individual accomplishment defies categorization.”
—The Austin Chronicle
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.
“[A] sci-fi tour de force… Clearly intoxicated by cutting-edge scientific research in bioengineering, space physics, [and] cybernetics, Reynolds spins a ravishingly inventive tale of intrigue.”
8 thoughts on “The Best Modern Classic Science Fiction Books”
Player of Games is Bank’s easy read story – but not his most accomplished, in my view.
My vote for that would be either
Look to Windward – or
Use of Weapons. Oh my goodness – the chair!
But all his sci-fi are good to verging on great.
What about Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series? I’ve been reading sci-fi since the 1960’s and that is possibly the best work I’ve ever read. Absolutely stunning.
I whole-heartedly agree with Steve. The Red Rising series was just amazing and what a scrumptious on-going tale of complex and fascinating characters with wild twists and turns. And talk about cool as hell ideas for space wars, weapons, space ships, gadgets, creatures, worlds, societal structure, governing , skills in hand to hand combat and so much more. You find yourself rooting for the hero Darrow, his family and his allies in this remarkable journey. If there’s better all around sci-fi than this I haven’t found it yet. And it’s ongoing. I’m patiently ( sort of) waiting for Book 6. Thank You, to author Pierce Brown.
So many marvelous books out there, but only so much time to find and read them. Meanwhile, I couldn’t agree more with what Steve B. had to say. The Red Rising series is the best I’ve ever run across. Like somebody else mentioned, I’ve waited years for the 6th novel in the series, almost to the point of giving up and forgetting about it. But on this very evening or morning, if you wish to be accurate, I went to Amazon looking for something else and a new novel from Pierce Brown by by the name of Light Bringer. Well after reading the details of the new book I come to find out it’s none other than book #6 in the Red Rising series. My reaction? OH Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy!!! After the gloomy situation we find Darrow in after The Dark Age, this sounds like just what the doctor ordered.
I’m surprised you have nothing in the list from Larry Niven, try reading “Ringworld” or “The Mote in Gods eye” but there’s many others.
Land O’Goshen by Charles McNair. Nothing like it, wonderful to read and even more to read aloud if you have the patience. One might compare it a wee bit to Ridley Walker.
You obviously haven’t read Greener Than You Think (Ward Moore, 1947) or The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956) — in the “just so good I had to include it anyway” category.
Also, actress Claire Danes performs The Handmaid’s Tale in audiobook form, and she absolutely nails it; it’s better than the Elisabeth Moss TV series, better than the movie, even better than reading it with your own eyes. Honestly. (Audible)
Another one you must’ve missed is Qualityland (Marc-Uwe Kling, 2017). I heard it as an audiobook, and it blew me away. (Audible)
I’d vote for The City and The City by China Miéville – a police procedural set in twin cities, divided like Berlin, Belfast or Nicosia, but so fractally that you can’t “see” or otherwise acknowledge the existence of half the.people or buildings in your street. A cop in the city emerging from communism is allowed to “travel” to the westernised one to solve a boundary-crossing murder: but finds different mysteries to the ones he was expecting. Part whodunit, part Ballardian dystopia, part blackly comic political critique of divided communities and the elites who keep them divided.