The Best Science Fiction Books with Alien Languages

Still from the movie Arrival

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 Nine Billion Names of God
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1953

In this famous short story, Tibetan monks create a special alphabet in which to list all the possible names of God. Since actually writing down all those names by hand would require 15,000 years, they enlist a couple of computer programmers to help them. Of course, things do not go as planned.

“Quietly remarkable.”
—Kirkus Reviews

Startide Rising
by David Brin – 1983

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 a hostile planet to safeguard her secret—the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.

This book is second in a series, but the consensus seems to be it’s fine to skip the first one.

“The Uplift books are as compulsive reading as anything ever published in the genre.”
—The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Whipping Star
by Frank Herbert – 1970

From the guy who wrote Dune.

In the far future, humankind has made contact with numerous other species: Gowachin, Laclac, Wreaves, Pan Spechi, Taprisiots, and Caleban. Together, they form the ConSentiency to govern among the species. After suffering under a tyrannous pure democracy, the sentients of the galaxy find the need for a Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab) to slow the wheels of government, thereby preventing it from legislating recklessly. BuSab is allowed to sabotage and harass the governmental, administrative, and economic powers in the ConSentiency. Private citizens must not be harassed, and vital functions of society are also exempt.

Jorj X. McKie is a born troublemaker who has become one of BuSab’s best agents. Drafted for the impossible task of establishing meaningful communication with an utterly alien entity who defies understanding, McKie finds himself racing against time to prevent a mad billionaire from wiping out all life in the ConSentiency.

“Herbert is one of the most thought-provoking writers of our time; by focusing on ‘alien’ culture, he makes us examine what the true definition of ‘human’ is.”
―The Pacific Sun

A Desolation Called Peace
by Arkady Martine – 2021

This is book 2 of 2 of the Teixcalaan series, so you might want to start with the first book, A Memory Called Empire.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass―still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire―face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction―and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion.

Or it might create something far stranger…

“A dizzying, exhilarating story of diplomacy, conspiracy, and first contact in the powerhouse sequel to [Martine’s] Hugo Award–winning debut… This complex, stunning space opera promises to reshape the genre.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Color of Distance
by Amy Thomson – 1995
In this seriously underrated book, honor, sacrifice, and friendship between humans and aliens can mean many different things at once.

I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Pushing Ice
by Alastair Reynolds – 2005

2057. Humanity has raised exploiting the solar system to an art form. Bella Lind and the crew of her nuclear-powered ship, the Rockhopper, push ice. They mine comets. And they’re good at it.

The Rockhopper is nearing the end of its current mission cycle, and everyone is desperate for some much-needed R & R, when startling news arrives from Saturn: Janus, one of Saturn’s ice moons, has inexplicably left its natural orbit and is now heading out of the solar system at high speed. As layers of camouflage fall away, it becomes clear that Janus was never a moon in the first place. It’s some kind of machine, and it is now headed toward a fuzzily glimpsed artifact 260 light-years away.

The Rockhopper is the only ship anywhere near Janus, and Bella Lind is ordered to shadow it for the few vital days before it falls forever out of reach. In accepting this mission, she sets her ship and her crew on a collision course with destiny—for Janus has more surprises in store, and not all of them are welcome.

“Spectacular… [Reynolds] has a genius for big-concept SF and fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Larry Niven’s Ringworld will love this novel.”
—Publishers Weekly

by Janet Kagan – 1988

Murder, mystery, and interstellar intrigue! Lassti, a newly discovered planet, is the center of political intrigue. Recently the planet survey team’s physicist was found dead. Was he killed? If so, by who? One of his fellow surveyors? Or by one of the birdlike natives of Lassti? This is, if they are intelligent at all, which is proving hard to tell. Into this mix arrives Tocohl, a Hellspark trader who just wanted to have a vacation. After being attacked, rescuing a young woman, and going before a judge, Tocohl has learned all she ever wanted to know about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now she is seeking answers to mysteries that could save a world.

Hellspark has some really fascinating settings, a familiar but well constructed plot, and good action scenes.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

The Embedding
by Ian Watson – 1973

Deep in the Brazilian jungle, an isolated tribe faces eviction from their ancestral lands—and the psychedelic fungus that makes their religious language possible.

In a British laboratory, a brilliant linguist conducts cutting-edge experiments, but does his search for answers come at too high a cost?

And in the ultimate test of linguistics, First Contact presents a challenge unlike any humanity has faced before…

(Note that this book is a little divisive; readers tend to love it or hate it.)

The Guild of Xenolinguists
by Sheila Finch – 2007

The galaxy-wide Guild of Xenolinguists handles all cross-cultural communications by sending agents abroad to learn new languages and program translation computers. The travails of novice linguists animate these 11 stories as they face much more than simple translation work, taking on alien parasites and viruses, a mysterious and violent star-faring race, dolphin instructors, and large tyrant ants. As cultures and languages collide, first contact quickly becomes a matter of morality, galactic politics, death, and war.

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden-Elgin – 1984

In 2205, the 19th Amendment has long been repealed and women are only valued for their utility. The Earth’s economy depends on an insular group of linguists who “breed” women to be perfect interstellar translators until they are sent to the Barren House to await death. But instead, these women are slowly creating a language of their own to make resistance possible. Ignorant to this brewing revolution, Nazareth, a brilliant linguist, and Michaela, a servant, both seek emancipation in their own ways. But their personal rebellions risk exposing the secret language, and threaten the possibility of freedom for all.

“This angry feminist text is also an exemplary experiment in speculative fiction, deftly and implacably pursuing both a scientific hypothesis and an ideological hypothesis through all their social, moral, and emotional implications.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Fuzzy Nation
by John Scalzi – 2011

On the human colony planet Zara XXIII, pain-in-the-ass contract surveyor Jack Holloway is fired for letting his dog set off explosives (again). He soon discovers some jewels so insanely valuable that an interstellar corporation kowtows before him just to get a piece of the action.

Jack loves the idea of becoming stupidly rich, but learns that the planet with the jewels is inhabited by an alien species both sentient and ridiculously cute. Their presence means that the giant corporation isn’t allowed to mine the planet for the valuable jewels. Unless, of course, they can exterminate the entire species before anyone notices.

“A perfectly executed plot clicks its way to a stunning courtroom showdown in a cathartic finish that will thrill Fuzzy fans old and new.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Languages of Pao
by Jack Vance – 1958

The young heir to the Pao throne, Beran Panasper, flees his usurping uncle Bustamonte when his father, the Panarch of Pao, is killed. His refuge is the austereworld Breakness, under one of the planet’s ruler-academics: the elderly but immensely powerful Lord Palafox.

Palafox and his peers are obsessed with prestige and dominance, augmenting their bodies technologically, and breeding legions of sons upon indentured women brought from scores of worlds. As years pass, Beran’s suspicion grows that the aging Palafox has his own plans for tranquil Pao. Returning at last, he finds the planet ravaged by war and upheaval, its placid culture fractured by viral languages designed by Palafox, introduced by Bustamonte.

Beran is determined to restore peace, but if Bustamonte finds him, he is dead. And should he win back the Panarch’s throne, he will inevitably face Palafox, who, even if senile, is physically more powerful than ever.

by Max Barry – 2013

They recruited Emily Ruff from the streets. They said it was because she’s good with words.

They’ll live to regret it.

They said Wil Parke survived something he shouldn’t have. But he doesn’t remember.

Now they’re after him and he doesn’t know why.

There’s a word, they say. A word that kills.

And they want it back . . .

“An absolutely first-rate, suspenseful thriller with convincing characters who invite readers’ empathy and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion.”
—Booklist, starred review

by China Miéville – 2011

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak. Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language. When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak—but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.

“A fully achieved work of art.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Battle of the Linguist Mages
by Scotto Moore – 2022

This book stretched the idea of science fiction a bit, but it’s a lot of fun.

In modern day Los Angeles, a shadowy faction led by the Governor of California develops the arcane art of combat linguistics, planting the seeds of a future totalitarian empire in Scotto Moore’s thrilling Battle of the Linguist Mages.

Isobel is the Queen of the medieval rave-themed VR game “Sparkle Dungeon.” Her prowess in the game makes her an ideal candidate to learn the secrets of “power morphemes”―unnaturally dense units of meaning that warp perception when skillfully pronounced.

But Isobel’s reputation makes her the target of a strange resistance movement led by spellcasting anarchists, who may be the only thing stopping the cabal from toppling California over the edge of a terrible transformation, with forty million lives at stake.

Time is short for Isobel to level up and choose a side―because the cabal has attracted much bigger and weirder enemies than the anarchist resistance, emerging from dark and vicious dimensions of reality and heading straight for planet Earth!

“This is a stand-alone novel with material enough for six… By the halfway point, it had blown my mind twice… an audacious, genre-bending whirlwind.”
―New York Times

by Samuel R. Delany – 1966

A famous poet is bent on deciphering a secret language that is the key to the enemy’s deadly force. This task requires she travel with a splendidly improbable crew to the site of the next attack.

“[Delany is the] most interesting writer of science fiction writing in English today.”
—The New York Times Book Review

by Karin Tidbeck – 2012

Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

Everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted.

“Tidbeck’s haunting world made of words is undeniably disturbing and provocative.”
—The Chicago Tribune

His Master's Voice
by Stanislaw Lem – 1968

By pure chance, scientists detect a signal from space that may be communication from rational beings. How can people of Earth understand this message, knowing nothing about the senders—including whether or not they even exist?

This classic novel shows scientists grappling with fundamental questions about the nature of reality, the confines of knowledge, the limitations of the human mind, and the ethics of military-sponsored scientific research.

“This thorough, intellectual take on a classic hard sci-fi trope is Lem at his best.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

Stories of Your Life
by Ted Chiang – 1998

In this short story collection, the title story “Stories of Your Life” is the basis for the movie Arrival, where an alien species arrives and a linguist is tasked with deciding if they pose a threat or not.

“Chiang writes seldom, but his almost unfathomably wonderful stories tick away with the precision of a Swiss watch—and explode in your awareness with shocking, devastating force.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Children of Time
by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 2015

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age—a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

“The novel’s clever interrogation of the usual narrative of planetary conquest, and its thoughtful depiction of two alien civilisations attempting to understand each other, is an exemplar of classic widescreen science fiction.”
―New Scientist

Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir – 2021

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?

“Readers may find themselves consuming this emotionally intense and thematically profound novel in one stay-up-all-night-until-your-eyes-bleed sitting. An unforgettable story of survival and the power of friendship—nothing short of a science fiction masterwork.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell – 1996

A charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings derails its good intentions.

“A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.”
—The New York Times Book Review

by Peter Watts – 2006

Two months since the stars fell…

Two months of silence, while a world held its breath.

Now some half-derelict space probe, sparking fitfully past Neptune’s orbit, hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever’s out there isn’t talking to us. It’s talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer, something en route.

So who do you send to force introductions with unknown and unknowable alien intellect that doesn’t wish to be met?

You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won’t be needed. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist—an informational topologist with half his mind gone—as an interface between here and there.

Pray they can be trusted with the fate of a world. They may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find.

“Watts explores the nature of consciousness in this stimulating hard SF novel, which combines riveting action with a fascinating alien environment. Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story. ”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

4 thoughts on “The Best Science Fiction Books with Alien Languages

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Cherryh’s “Hunter of Worlds,” from 1977; her five “Chanur” novels, published from 1981 to 1992 and her ongoing “Foreigner” series of novels, which began in 1994.

  2. I have read “The Nine Billion Names Of God” (sent a shiver down my back), “Startide Rising”, and the wonderful “Project Hail Mary”.

    I have “Fuzzy Nation” in my SBR (strategic book reserve). “Little Fuzzy” was the original of this book which I have read a couple of times.

    Of course there is the excellent Perry Rhodan series where the majority of the Milky Way speaks Arkonide and Earth is transitioning to Esperanto.

    And David Weber’s Mutineer’s Moon has the Fourth and Fifth Imperiums speaking Imperial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.