The Bestselling Science Fiction Books of All Time

These books have all stood the test of time, and continue to be popular.

 

14
Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley – 1818

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.

13
Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1961

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.

Mars is just part of the backstory to this book—the reader never travels there.

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.

12
Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson – 1992

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s Cosa Nostra Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.

“Brilliantly realized… Stephenson turns out to be an engaging guide to an onrushing tomorrow.”
—The New York Times Book Review

11
Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury – 1953

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.

10
Ender’s Game
by Orson Scott Card – 1985

Criticized for its violence (and possibly popular because of it), Ender’s Game shows children on a military space station, playing combat games and training for the war against the evil alien Buggers.

It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, even though the New York Times felt that the plot resembled a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.”

9
2001: A Space Odyssey
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1968

This allegory about humanity’s exploration of the universe—and the universe’s reaction to humanity—is a hallmark achievement in storytelling that follows the crew of the spacecraft Discovery as they embark on a mission to Saturn. Their vessel is controlled by HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent supercomputer capable of the highest level of cognitive functioning that rivals—and perhaps threatens—the human mind.

8
Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline – 2011

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.

“Ridiculously fun and large-hearted… Cline is that rare writer who can translate his own dorky enthusiasms into prose that’s both hilarious and compassionate.”
—NPR

7
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams – 1979

If you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet, then it’s perfect for a happy afternoon, toes in the sand (or by the fire), and perhaps a nearby Mai Tai (or hot chocolate).

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.

6
The Martian
by Andy Weir – 2011

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.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

5
Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut – 1963

Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet’s ultimate fate, it features a midget as the protagonist, a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer, and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny.

“A free-wheeling vehicle… an unforgettable ride!”
—The New York Times

4
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells – 1895

A great old classic that invented the phrase “time machine.”

Just don’t watch the modern movie, because that ends in a fistfight for some reason.

3
Foundation
by Isaac Asimov – 1942

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.

2
1984
by George Orwell – 1949

Ideas from science fiction don’t often make it into the public consciousness, but 1984 has been referenced in Supreme Court cases, and “Big Brother” has a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.

1
Dune
by Frank Herbert – 1965

Written over 50 years ago, Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel. As recently as 2012, the readers of Wired magazine voted it the top science fiction novel of all time.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, it’s a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction” and has inspired countless other science fiction novels.

The comparison to high fantasy is particularly apt given the small part technology plays. There are no robots and no computers. Spaceships are treated as transport vessels, not objects of wonder. There are castles, emperors, witches, dukes, dragons (sandworms), and a substance that bestows astounding powers when you eat it (spice).

“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

25 thoughts on “The Bestselling Science Fiction Books of All Time

  1. Please can I add the 12 Sector General novels by James White. I have always thought they would make a good film or series of programmes and have read them many times.
    Also, Andy Weir’s Hail Mary is up there with the Martian.

  2. Can’t argue with any of them but the last five could be substituted with so many others that could be knocking on the door I really could not choose with any certainty.

  3. Thanks for this! These are all ‘best-selling’ classics of course, but as a list it’s very white male-centric, reflecting western culture in the 20th C. Would be nice to see more gender and ethnic diversity in terms of authors, stories and characters in the next list. Not sure it’s a ‘best-seller’ but presently I’m very much enjoying reading the world created by Maureen F McHugh in “China Mountain Zhang”.

      1. I’m a big fan of both Butler and Le Guin, but unfortunately, their books didn’t make the “bestselling” cutoff. You’ll see them in a lot of my other lists, though.

  4. Hail Mary by Andy Weir is epic, original, thought-stimulating and should be on this list.
    Especially if you listen to the audiobook with Ray Porter narrating.

  5. Assuming it qualifies as SF I would add Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”. I also loved the early Honor Harrington books, including the prequels and the treecat book.

  6. People saying “What about this book?” or “Too many white males” seem to have missed the theme of this list.

    It’s not “must-reads” or “best books.” It’s simply “highest volume of copies sold.” There’s nothing subjective about it.

    The stats are what they are.

  7. Where did this list come from ? I am surprised that “Lucifer’s Hammer” by Niven and Pournelle is not on the list. Pournelle used to say that “Lucifer’s Hammer” put all five of his kids through college, paid off his California house mortgage, and paid for a beach house in California. You could find the MMPB in airport bookstores until recently.

  8. I am shocked that “Dune” is number one. And this list does not address the Fantasy side of SF (speculative fiction). “Harry Potter” rules over there.

  9. Surely Larry Niven should be in this list? Ringworld is probably the best known but there are so many more.

  10. The SFF All-Time Sales List (revised in 2018):
    https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2018/12/the-sff-all-time-sales-list-revised.html

    Larry Niven is 59 on this list.

  11. By far NO! There are tens of books that should be here, and others that shouldn’t One that should be: Timetraveler’s Wife. Another one: Klara and the Sun.
    One that shouldn’t be: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (because it’s a very specific type of book, and what’s “best” about it is the so called humour, which should actually set it into another category altogether.
    Also, in my list Dune is the first.

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