The Best Xenofiction Books

If you have a non-human point of view, you’ve got xenofiction. Stories can be from the perspective of aliens, AI, robots, sufficiently transformed humans, or even animals, and they’re all in this list.


by Greg Egan – 2005

Greg Egan’s science fiction is about as hard as it gets. A significant chunk of many of his books are math and physics lectures: interesting, but complex.

The Amalgam spans nearly the entire galaxy, and is composed of innumerable beings from a wild variety of races, some human or near it, some entirely other. The one place that they cannot go is the bulge, the bright, hot center of the galaxy. There dwell the Aloof, who for millions of years have deflected any and all attempts to communicate with or visit them.

So when Rakesh is offered an opportunity to travel within their sphere, in search of a lost race, he cannot turn it down.

Roi is a member of that lost race, which is not only lost to the Amalgam, but lost to itself. In their world, there is but toil, and history and science are luxuries that they can ill afford.

Rakesh’s journey will take him across millennia and light years. Roi’s will take her across vistas of learning and discovery just as vast.

Raptor Red
by Robert T. Bakker – 1995

The time is 120 million years ago, the place is the plains of prehistoric Utah, and the eyes belong to an unforgettable heroine. Her name is Raptor Red, and she is a female Raptor dinosaur.

Painting a rich and colorful picture of a lush prehistoric world, leading paleontologist Robert T. Bakker tells his story from within Raptor Red’s extraordinary mind, dramatizing his revolutionary theories in this exciting tale. From a tragic loss to the fierce struggle for survival to a daring migration to the Pacific Ocean to escape a deadly new predator, Raptor Red combines fact and fiction to capture for the first time the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of the most magnificent, enigmatic creatures ever to walk the face of the earth.

“What the real Jurassic Park must have been like…exciting, bold and fun!”
—Publishers Weekly

Watership Down
by Richard Adams – 1972

Richard Adams’s Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Set in the Hampshire Downs in Southern England, an idyllic rural landscape, this tale follows a band of rabbits in flight from the incursion of man and the destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they travel forth from their native Sandleford warren through harrowing trials to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

I’ve always loved this book, and especially liked the depth of the rabbit’s mythology and language.

“A marvelous story of rebellion, exile, and survival.”
—Sunday Telegraph

The Things
by Peter Watts – 2011

In 1938, John W. Campbell, Jr. wrote a short story called “Who Goes There?” about an alien discovered in a crashed spaceship in Antarctica. This has been turned into three movies: The Thing From Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and The Thing (2011).

In the short story “The Things” Peter Watts, one of my favorite science fiction authors, reimagines the story from the alien’s point of view.

“Watts does an excellent job of showing a totally alien way of looking at life, turning our understanding of the alien’s motivations for doing what he does on its head.”

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge – 1999

After thousands of years searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. There are two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds.

But first, both groups must wait at the aliens’ very doorstep for their strange star to relight and for their planet to reawaken, as it does every 250 years. Then, following terrible treachery, the Qeng Ho must fight for their freedom and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below, while the aliens themselves play a role unsuspected by the Qeng Ho and Emergents alike.

A Deepness in the Sky is a 1999 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel and the winner of the 2000 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

“[M]eticulously detailed culture-building and grand-scale sf drama.”
—Library Journal

by Isaac Asimov – 1941

In this novelette (13,000 words), an alien civilization that lives on a planet with six suns is about to experience night for the first time, and everyone on the planet is freaking out about it.

Saturn's Children
by Charles Stross – 2008

Stross has said that Saturn’s Children is “a space opera and late-period [Robert A.] Heinlein tribute.”

Sometime in the twenty-third century, humanity went extinct, leaving only androids behind to fulfill humanity’s dreams. And, having learned well from their long-dead masters, they’ve established a hierarchical society—one with humanoid aristo rulers at the top and slave-chipped workers at the bottom, performing the lowly tasks all androids were originally created to do.

Designed as a concubine for a species that hasn’t existed for two hundred years, femmebot Freya Nakamichi-47—one of the last of her kind still functioning—accepts a job from a stranger to deliver a package from mercury to Mars. Unfortunately, she’s just made herself a moving target for some very powerful, very determined humanoids desperate to retrieve the package’s contents…

“One of the most stylishly imaginative robot tales ever penned.”

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?

“This is superior stuff, tackling big themes—gods, messiahs, artificial intelligence, alienness—with brio.”
―Financial Times

Dragon's Egg
by Robert L. Forward – 1980

Dragon’s Egg is a fun, clever look at life evolving on the surface of neutron star, where one hour of human time is the equivalent of a hundred years on the alien star.

While the extreme physics of the story may be accurate, Dragon’s Egg contains some of the most stilted dialogue I’ve come across in a long time, especially in the beginning. I found myself thinking that author Robert L. Forward must have talked to a human woman at some point in his life, but if so, that knowledge did not find its way to his book.

However, this is not a story you read for its character development. Dragon’s Egg is all about examining an alien race evolving on a sphere with a gravity of 67 billion Gs, and living at a million times the speed of humans. The story is most believable when it’s dealing with aliens, and it’s still a fun ride.

“In science fiction there is only a handful of books that stretch the mind—and this is one of them.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

by Stephen Baxter – 2003

Sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, there lived a small mammal, a proto-primate of the species Purgatorius. From this humble beginning, author Baxter traces the human lineage forward through time. The adventure that unfolds is an odyssey governed by chance and competition, a perilous journey to an uncertain destination along a route beset by sudden and catastrophic upheavals. It is a route that ends, for most species, in stagnation or extinction. Why should humanity escape this fate?

“Magisterial and uplifting… A brilliant, grandscale sampling of sixty-five million years of human evolution… It shows the sweep and grandeur of life in its unrelenting course.”
—The Denver Post

Nor Crystal Tears
by Alan Dean Foster – 1982

Before Man and insect-like Thranx had become allies, when the reptilian AAnn were just occasional raiders of Thranx colony worlds, one young Thranx agricultural expert lived a life of quiet desperation.

A dreamer in a world of sensible, stable beings, Ryo buried himself in his work—reclaiming marshland from a tenacious jungle—until he came across a letter describing a relative’s encounter with horrid, two-legged, soft-skinned space-going beasts…

The Faded Sun Trilogy
by C. J. Cherryh – 1978

They were the mri—tall, secretive, bound by honor and the rigid dictates of their society. For aeons this golden-skinned, golden-eyed race had provided the universe mercenary soldiers of almost unimaginable ability.

But now the mri have faced an enemy unlike any other—an enemy whose only way of war is widespread destruction. These “humans” are mass fighters, creatures of the herb, and the mri have been slaughtered like animals. Now, in the aftermath of war, the mri face extinction.

It will be up to three individuals to save whatever remains of this devastated race: a warrior—one of the last survivors of his kind; a priestess of this honorable people; and a lone human—a man sworn to aid the enemy of his own kind. Can they retrace the galaxy-wide path of this nomadic race back through millennia to reclaim the ancient world that first gave them life?

“Carefully wrought… Cherryh demonstrates an almost clinical eye for detail, creating an alien race in depth.”
—Publishers Weekly

The Crucible of Time
by John Brunner – 1983

On a planet besieged with cosmic dust, where meteors of all sizes frequently hit, wiping out entire civilizations, a strange alien species struggles against extinction over the course of millennia. As their star grows hotter, melting ice caps and causing more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, higher levels of radiation lead to higher rates of mutation. Plants that had been edible become poisonous or die off altogether. Watching their dire situation only get worse, the planet’s scientists finally acknowledge that to survive long-term, the inhabitants will have to abandon their fraught home world and become a space-faring species.

“[I]impeccably detailed and beautifully thought out.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

by Hal Clement – 1950

A manhunt within a man. The hunter from space’s depths chose Robert Kinncaid as his “host” and invaded his body, controlled his thoughts, and began the search. The Quarry was lurking in another human being somewhere. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack—a needle that carried death and destruction.

The Humans
by Matt Haig – 2013

The Humans is an excellent dark comedy that sticks an alien, who hates humans, in a human mathematician’s body, and gives it several assassinations to carry out. Advanced math is unexpectedly involved.

The alien experiences the wretchedness and wonderfulness of humanity mostly via the mathematician’s family, who have no idea that their husband and father is now an immortal, nearly omniscient, and very lethal alien with murder on his mind. Hilarity ensues.

“[S]illy, sad, suspenseful, and soulful.”
—Philadelphia Inquirer

All Systems Red
by Martha Wells – 2017

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.”

Speaker For The Dead
by Orson Scott Card – 1986

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

In the aftermath of his terrible war, Ender Wiggin disappeared, and a powerful voice arose: The Speaker for the Dead, who told the true story of the Bugger War.

Now, long years later, a second alien race has been discovered, but again the aliens’ ways are strange and frightening…again, humans die. And it is only the Speaker for the Dead, who is also Ender Wiggin the Xenocide, who has the courage to confront the mystery…and the truth.

“Told with compassion and keen insight, this powerful sequel to Ender’s Game is highly recommended.”
―Library Journal

by Iain M. Banks – 1996

Excession is the fifth book in Banks’s excellent Culture series.

Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared.

Now it is back.

This book is xenofiction because it follows Minds, which are AIs with huge intellectual and physical capabilities (some of them are spaceships hundreds of kilometers long).

“Banks has created one of the most enduring and endearing visions of the future.”
—The Guardian on the Culture series

10 thoughts on “The Best Xenofiction Books

  1. I love Sci fi, especially Space and I believe in this the 21st century, the space race will continue with Boeing, SpaceX, Blue origin, Dynetics, Virgin Galactic and British Reaction Engines building reusable advanced space vehicles. Despite a global pandemic, an Exciting time to be alive.

  2. What about The Mote in God’s Eye, and its sequel The Gripping Hand. The Moties are some of the most interesting aliens I’ve read about, with a specialized physiology that’s most definitely not symmetrical.

  3. Glad to see several of my favorites in the list, particularly Speaker for the Dead. Card has been somewhat vilified for his religiosity, but the Ender books are eminently readable, carefully constructed, and imaginative.

  4. Fantastic list. I’m particularly intrigued by Peter Watts’s The Things. When I read your description of the types of works that would be included on the list I immediately thought of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. So happy to see you include another of his titles instead as MoG tends to overshadow the rest of his work. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Watership Down as it completely slipped my mind when I was trying to guess at what you might include here. Really eager to discover some of these works. Thank you.

  5. I’ve been having problems with your lists Dan. One thing I would like to see, which I think is essential, are your criteria. WHY is novel X one of the best examples of sub-genre Y? I realise this means a lot of work, but at least 3-4 criteria which you use to choose books would be helpful and (a) avoid flames and misunderstanding, (b) keep the list short and short-circuit “This should be there as well” discussions. Some of the ones you have included fail for one or more of many reasons, some I would include too. I might add that I’m writing from the POV of someone who has addressed the issue of ETI professionally (that is, not as fiction). Some glaring omissions (by no means all, but certainly selections that I can defend strongly):
    Serpent’s Reach (CJ Cherryh)
    Demon Seed (James H. Schmitz)
    Mission of Gravity (Hal Clement)
    Pride of Chanur (CJ Cherryh)?
    Polity series (though not all of them, Neil Asher)

    1. I choose the books based on what I’ve read before and research I do online. It’s wildly subjective and I don’t adhere to tight, precise criteria. If, as you say, you have a problem with my lists, then why not make your own and ignore mine? I’m not being sarcastic; I’m serious. It sounds like you care about the subject, are well-read, and have strong opinions. I bet you’d make great lists.

  6. I love CJ Cherryh, Faded Sun in particular; but I adore Excession, my very favourite Culture novel, because it’s Iain M Banks most spaceship AI -heavy novel.

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