A lot of philosophy seems to boil down to: “So, this life thing. What are we supposed to do with this? And crap, there’s all these other people; that makes it even more complicated! Let’s drink.”
The books below examine what it means to be human, to be part of humanity, and what you would do or sacrifice for what you really loved.
Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
“As with Ishiguro’s other works, the rich inner reflections of his protagonists offer big takeaways, and Klara’s quiet but astute observations of human nature land with profound gravity… This dazzling genre-bending work is a delight.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.
So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.
Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
“A biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after… [Ma] knows her craft, and it shows. [Her protagonist] is a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength… Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience. Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.”
―Kirkus, starred review
This is a love story that could only happen because of an accident of time travel.
Tom and Penny belong to a world so perfect there’s no war, no poverty, no under-ripe avocados.
But when something awful happens to Penny, and Tom tries to make it right, he accidentally destroys everything, waking up in our broken, dysfunctional world.
Only here, Penny and Tom have a second chance.
Should Tom go back to his brilliant but loveless existence, or risk everything by staying in our messy, complicated world for his one and only chance at true love?
“[An] amazing debut novel… Dazzling and complex… Fearlessly funny storytelling.”
—The Washington Post
In a post-apocalyptic world, four men and one woman are all that remain of the human race, brought to near extinction by an artificial intelligence. Programmed to wage war on behalf of its creators, the AI became self-aware and turned against all humanity. The five survivors are prisoners, kept alive and subjected to brutal torture by the hateful and sadistic machine in an endless cycle of violence.
Pissing off science fiction writers everywhere, Ellison wrote the story “I Have No Mouth, & I Must Scream” in a single night in 1966, making virtually no changes from the first draft. He won a Hugo award for it, too. Bastard.
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.
“[G]ripping… thoroughly suspenseful… VanderMeer weaves together an otherworldly tale of the supernatural and the half-human.”
—Booklist, starred review
As you can see by the cover, this story is the inspiration for Blade Runner.
By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies build incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women.
Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.
“A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.”
—The New York Times
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the reach of galactic law, waits a 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.
“An unfailingly inventive narrative… generously conceived and stylistically sure-handed.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Written in 1970 and published in 1975, The Female Man is a feminist novel that combines utopian fiction and satire.
In the book, the character Joanna calls herself the “female man” because she believes that she must forget her identity as a woman in order to be respected.
The novel follows the lives of four women living in parallel worlds that differ in time and place. When they cross over to each other’s worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each other’s preexisting notions of womanhood. In the end, their encounters influence them to evaluate their lives and shape their ideas of what it means to be a woman.
It looks like a good deal at first: a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia.
However, they refuse to answer questions about themselves and govern from orbiting spaceships. Clarke has said that the idea for Childhood’s End may have come from the numerous blimps floating over London during World War II.
Written in 1959, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the first real literary science fiction books, and an enduring, if not exceptionally well-known, classic.
The story takes places several hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse, and civilization barely exists. It’s a leisurely read that thoughtfully deals with the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic world through the lens of the denizens of a monastery in the Utah desert.
In this monastery are bits of scientific knowledge that the monks do not understand, and keep to themselves amid their trials and squabbling.
As the story occasionally skips forward in time hundreds of years, you don’t get to really settle in a consistent group of characters, but you do experience their civilization advancing.
Interestingly, during World War II, author Miller was a tail gunner in a bomber crew that participated in the destruction of the 6th-century Christian monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy, founded by St. Benedict, and recognized as the oldest surviving Christian church in the Western world. It’s generally assumed that this experience heavily influenced his writing this story.
Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.
Foundation is arguably the first time a believable galactic empire was created in print. Unfortunately, Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
“It is possible that Dune is even more relevant now than when it was first published.”
—The New Yorker
Heinlein got the idea for this novel when he and his wife Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child raised by Martians instead of wolves. He decided to go further with the idea and worked on the story on and off for more than a decade.
Despite mixed reviews, Stranger in a Strange Land won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel and became the first science fiction novel on The New York Times Book Review’s best-seller list.
Children are genetically programmed in the womb and sent through indoctrination programs, preparing them for lives in predetermined castes. It’s a utopian society that maintains its peace by removing the humanity of its members, and only one man is brave enough to vocally challenge the status quo.
Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
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.
I’d argue that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. It’s certainly the first transhumanist one (though who knows what Shelley would have made of that term). It delves into the humanity of the monster and those around him, as opposed to the precise methods the doctor used to animate him.
Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.
It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.
The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, is set in a society which is at first presented as utopian, but gradually appears more and more dystopian. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness,” a plan that has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Twelve-year-old Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with its weight.
The Giver is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many challenged book lists and appeared on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of the 1990s.
“Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel.”
—Kirkus, starred review
Across the world, thousands of people are shocked by a notification that they once chose to have a memory removed. Now they are being given an opportunity to get that memory back. Four individuals are filled with new doubts, grappling with the unexpected question of whether to remember unknown events, or to leave them buried forever.
Finn, an Irish architect living in the Arizona desert, begins to suspect his charming wife of having an affair. Mei, a troubled grad school dropout in Kuala Lumpur, wonders why she remembers a city she has never visited. William, a former police inspector in England, struggles with PTSD, the breakdown of his marriage, and his own secret family history. Oscar, a handsome young man with almost no memories at all, travels the world in a constant state of fear.
Into these characters’ lives comes Noor, a psychologist working at the Nepenthe memory removal clinic in London. The process of reinstating patients’ memories begins to shake the moral foundations of her world. As she delves deeper into how the program works, she will have to risk everything to uncover the cost of this miraculous technology.
“A cleverly conceived and wonderfully executed ensemble piece: intriguing, frightening, witty and humane.”
—Wall Street Journal
Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.
Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
“Solomon debuts with a raw distillation of slavery, feudalism, prison, and religion that kicks like rotgut moonshine…Stunning.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires…
The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning, along with the houses in which they were hidden.
Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames. He never questioned anything, until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages.
While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a group of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
“A real gut-wrencher… What makes Butler’s fiction compelling is that it is as crisply detailed as journalism… Often the smallest details are the most revelatory.”
The future is here…in an adventure of cosmic dimension. 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.”
Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.
When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.
As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.
“The book brought me to tears… and bursts with love and insights on food, music, inheritance and transformation.”
―The New York Times
During a time racked by war and environmental catastrophe, George Orr discovers his dreams alter reality. George is compelled to receive treatment from Dr. William Haber, an ambitious sleep psychiatrist who quickly grasps the immense power George holds. After becoming adept at manipulating George’s dreams to reshape the world, Haber seeks the same power for himself. George—with some surprising help—must resist Haber’s attempts, which threaten to destroy reality itself.
“The Lathe of Heaven reminds us of the radical power of collective imagination… the novel puts Le Guin’s distinctively artful combination of psychological and sociological themes with dynamic science fiction storytelling on full display.”
Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite… Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter… From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life… And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a post-apocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
“[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Includes “Story of Your Life”—the basis for the major motion picture Arrival.
Stories of Your Life and Others delivers dual delights of the very, very strange and the heartbreakingly familiar, often presenting characters who must confront sudden change—the inevitable rise of automatons or the appearance of aliens—with some sense of normalcy. With sharp intelligence and humor, Chiang examines what it means to be alive in a world marked by uncertainty, but also by beauty and wonder.
“[Blends] absorbing storytelling with meditations on the universe, being, time and space … raises questions about the nature of reality and what it is to be human.”
—The New York Times