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22 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels For Aspiring Sci-Fi Authors

Science fiction is a genre that has evolved in unpredictable and exciting ways. From The Burroughsian Period (named after Edgar Rice Burroughs and beginning in 1901) to today's bestsellers, the genre has moved from hard science to Space Age exploration to a new interest in self-actualization, the dark side of technology, and what it means to be human.

If you're an aspiring science fiction writer, here are some novels—both newly published and classic—that you should add to your reading list. In them, you'll discover how the genre has evolved and where it is heading, both of which will be invaluable to your writing and planning.

Science fiction novels for aspiring sci-fi writers
Below are some must-read science fiction novels for aspiring sci-fi writers. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

Newly published

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan (March 5, 2019)

Infinite Detail is a fast-pasted thriller in which an act of cyberterrorism creates a techno-apocalypse and the Internet crashes, shutting everything as we know it down. Seeking answers for how to live, lost, unplugged souls head to the Croft, an area of Bristol where people who have already unplugged live. The Croft is a digital no-man's-land, without surveillance and Big Data dependence. As a center of creative counterculture, a young woman there named Mary claims she has found other ways of connecting with others without the use of technology. It's the end of the world as we know it, but does the world fare better after the Internet's demise?

Finder by Suzanne Palmer (April 2, 2019)

Finder is an action-packed science fiction caper story that won a Hugo Award and is the debut novel from Suzanne Palmer. Its protagonist is Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder (a name he prefers to con artist or thief). His latest job entails finding the spacecraft Venetia's Sword and stealing it back from an ex-nobleman turned power-hungry trade boss. He finds the ship in the farthest corner of space, in a deep space colon called Cernee. There, he learns that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and must navigate a field of space mines, a small army of hostile mercenaries, and an alien species he once through to be only myth. He thought it would be a simple job—like the others—but it's becoming more apparent that it isn't.

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (February 6, 2018)

Advertised as Inception meets True Detective, The Gone World follows a NCIS special agent on a murder case that involves the fate of mankind. When tasked with uncovering the truth of the murder of a Navy SEAL and the disappearance of his family, Shannon Moss learns that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra—a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. In her search, she encounters Terminus, a mysterious world-destroying event discovered by a top-secret team of government time travelers.

In her search for the SEAL's missing teenage daughter, Moss travels to the future to explore possible versions of what might be in order to solve the present-day case. There, she witnesses the cataclysmic end of humanity itself and is left to determine how to stop it.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (July 3, 2018)

In this alternate history science fiction story, The Calculating Stars imagines an alternate history in which a meteorite falls to Earth in 1952, destroying much of the East Coast, including Washington, D.C. Following the event, space exploration becomes a necessity, as the Earth heads at breakneck speed toward becoming uninhabitable due to the event's impact on the planet's climate. Enter mathematician and World War II pilot Elma York, who sets her sight on flying into the stars to search for humanity's next great hope.

Winner 2018 Nebula for Best Novel, Hugo Finalist for Best Novel, 2019 Campbell Memorial Award Finalist, and 2019 Locus Finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel—The Calculating Stars has a long list of accolades and spots on bestselling lists since it was published in 2018.

Emily Eternal by M.G. Wheaton (April 23, 2019)

Emily Eternal is about Emily, is an A.I. designed by scientists to help people cope with trauma. She has been designed to solve advanced mathematical problems and unlock the deepest secrets of the human mind, including its capacity for empathy. Her work and purpose take on a deeper meaning when it is discovered that the sun will explode 5 billion years before it was originally expected.

With the human race at an existential crossroads, she does the unthinkable and determines a way to solve the problem. However, not everyone trusts her intentions, so her servers are destroyed, leaving Emily and her friends with limited hope—but hope nonetheless—that they can race against time and save humanity.

Famous Men who Never Lived by K. Chess (March 5, 2019)

Noted as a Most Anticipated Book of 2019 at The Verge, Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, and more, K. Chess's debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived gives readers a glimpse of an alternate history in which nuclear war sends 156,000 refugees into modern-day New York City. Among them is Hel, a doctor who has difficulty adapting to the new reality she's facing, so she creates a museum to preserve the memories and stories that would otherwise be forever lost. In the midst of her work to preserve her lost past, she faces anti-immigrant attitudes and hostility. Then, when the only copy of a science fiction story from her world, The Pyronauts, goes missing, she is forced to face what has been lost and determine just how far she should go to recover it.

Within a world that is foreign to her, and as she seeks to assimilate while grieving what has been lost, Hel's character offers a fresh perspective on what it means to be an immigrant facing the end of one's culture. In this important debut novel, readers will find parallels with today's news in a world that is both different and familiar.

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett (January 29, 2019)

Robert Jackson Bennett's Vigilance takes readers on a dark and twisting ride in what can only be classified as a science fiction action parable of an America that has accepted gun violence as the norm. It's satire at its best and spins the idea of "Hunger Games" in an even darker direction.

Set in 2030, the story follows the life of executive producer John McDean, who produces "Vigilance," a reality game show designed to ensure American citizens remain alert and vigilant to all threats, both foreign and domestic. In the reality game environment, an active shooter is introduced to public spaces and prize money is given to anyone who is armed and ready to take down the shooter. Then, McDean ends up on the other side of the camera, and his whole reasoning for the show is seen through new eyes.

The science fiction genre has evolved significantly, from the classics to modern bestsellers.
Much like the worlds depicted in the stories, the science fiction genre has evolved significantly, from the classics to modern bestsellers. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

The Classics

1984 by George Orwell

Nominated as one of America's best-loved novels by PBS's The Great American Read, 1984 is a chilling, dystopian tale that will ring strangely familiar in modern times, despite having been written in 1948. It is the story of Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth and lives in one of the three totalitarian super-states that rule the world. At first, Winston does what he's told and tows the Party line; however, he begins to see through the lies built around government surveillance, controlled narrative, and serious loss of civil rights. Meanwhile, "Big Brother" is always watching, so he must hide the fact that he is beginning to think for himself.

From revised dictionaries attempting to control human thought through language, to the concept of using perpetual war to keep citizens in their place, this story has become a manual of sorts for describing the course of modern political movements getting dangerously close to the dystopian world that Orwell foretold.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Although written in 2003, Altered Carbon has already found its place among the classics and has been reimagined into a popular Netflix series, created by Laeta Kalogridis. It shows a world in the 25th century, where humankind lives throughout the galaxy and is monitored by the U.N. There is also an expensive procedure available where one can store his or her consciousness in a cortical stack at the base of the brain, which can then be downloaded into a new body (called a "sleeve"), thus escaping death itself.

The main character is ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs, who has been dispatched 180 light-years from his home into another body living in Bay City, in what was once San Francisco. In the shady underbelly of the city, in a decidedly cyberpunk world, he discovers how existence can be bought and sold as he attempts to solve a rich man's murder.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Written in the 1930s and influenced by political fascism, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World offers dystopian world that is both prophetic and terrifying. While addressing 21st-century issues such as the domination of mass-entertainment, technology, medicine and pharmaceuticals, and elitism, it offers a glimpse into a future world where humans are genetically bred and indoctrinated into castes chosen for them before birth by an authoritarian government.

With heavy references to Shakespeare's work, it is sometimes a biting criticism on capitalism, and often a glimpse of the potential horrors that come with the power of genetic engineering getting into the wrong hands. It's a must-read for anyone wanting to see how modern political movements can inspire classic science fiction bestsellers.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller

First published in 1959, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel depicting a planet ravaged by nuclear war razed the Earth, as its survivors return to a type of dark age where science is hated and books are destroyed. In this setting, a small order of Catholic monks seeks to fight against the ignorance and barbarism that now faces humanity. Having won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, it explores the themes of religion and church versus state in a world where civilization has severely decayed.

The Children of Men by P. D. James

Also released as in a film adaptation, The Children of Men is a dystopian novel published in 1992 set in a time of mass infertility. The story takes place in the United Kingdom, which is under autocratic rule, and explores themes of human frailty in a narrative voice that alternates between first and third person points of view.

While the beginning is set in the year 2021, the narrator reveals events that occurred in 1995, which is referred to as "Year Omega," where the sperm count of males fell to zero and a feminist civil war broke out, threatening the mass extinction of humanity. There is an elite class known as the Omegas, who are young and the last-born humans on earth, but they are both spoiled and violent. They treat their elders, the non-Omegas, with contempt, and live in a world where newborn animals are treated like infants, dressed in infant clothing, and pushed around in strollers.

Theo, the protagonist, who is known as a dissident, encounters a revolutionary group known as The Five Fishes, who task him with helping to protect a woman who is an anomaly because she is pregnant. Beautifully written with poignant characterization, Children of Men explores themes of politics and power in times when the fate of humanity is grim.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

First published in 1968 and the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where nuclear global war has severely damaged the planet and humanity's way of life. Those who are able have already fled the planet, ravaged by war and pollution, and those who remain exist in a world that is nearly uninhabitable.

The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is one of the not-so-fortunate. He makes his living as a government-sanctioned bounty hunter destroying renegade androids, which have been built in the dearth of living creatures (along with realistic animals). The androids are so life-like and sophisticated, that they are indistinguishable from real humans, prompting the Earth's government to distrust them. However, Rick's interaction with one android in particular forces him to question what it means to be a human.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Published in 1965, Frank Herbert's Dune tied with Roger Zelazny's This Immortal for the Hugo Award in 1966 and won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. It imagines a feudal interstellar society of planetary fiefs controlled by noble houses and tells the story Paul Atreides, whose family are stewards of the planet Arrakis.

Despite the planet being a desert wasteland that is mostly inhospitable, it is the only source of mélange, commonly known as "the spice"—a drug that enhances mental abilities and can extend life. With themes of politics, religion, ecology, and technology, Dune explores common topics within a very uncommon place and is often considered to be one of the best and imaginative science fiction books ever written.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

First published in 1951 and nominated as one of America's best-loved novels by PBS's The Great American Read, Foundation contains five interrelated short stories and is often considered to be one of the most important works in hard science fiction. Within the five stories—"The Psychohistorians," "The Encyclopedists," "The Mayors," "The Traders," and "The Merchant Princes"—Asimov reimagines the fall of the Roman Empire taking place on a galactic scale. With themes focusing on economics and history, and a notoriously tough read, it is considered to be one of Asimov's best works.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Published in 1823, Frankenstein is one of the earliest examples of science fiction and allegedly was written in a contest of sorts among some of the literary greats of the Romantic period to see who could write the most horrific tale. Considered to be a classic in Gothic and Romantic literature, it tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, whose efforts to cheat death lead him to the creation of monstrosities. Its narrative framework consists of letters written by Captain Robert Walton, who details the events taking place at an unspecified time in the 18th century and the story, as told to him by Victor Frankenstein himself.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Originally published in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has also been adapted into a film, an opera, and a TV series on Hulu.

Set in the near future the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist theocratic state with a low birth rate, the men in charge enslave fertile women known as handmaids and force them to have their children. As a seminal work of feminist literature, it explores the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, and is told through the point of view of Offred, a handmaid for a Commander who is suspected to be infertile.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Published in 1979, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy follows the misadventures of the last surviving man, Arthur Dent, after the Earth has been destroyed by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It was first broadcast as a radio series on BBC radio in 1978, and later became known as a "trilogy in five parts."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is absurdist, bombastic, and a lot of fun. It is a wildly imaginative adventure building off multiple science fiction tropes, but retains enough cynicism to be appreciated as a work that is much deeper than it initially appears on the surface. Simply put, it is a must-read for any science fiction enthusiast, and has been adapted into comic books and stage shows, and earned Douglas Adams a spot as "Guest of Honour" at the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention, held in Brighton, England.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Published in 1984, Neuromancer, one of the best-known works in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, was written by American-Canadian writer William Gibson as his debut novel. It was the first novel to win the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.

Its protagonist is Henry Case, a washed-up computer hacker and hustler surviving in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan. The story imagines a world where hackers and cyborgs work together to against massive, nefarious corporations, and is a must-read for fans of the more recent Ready Player One.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel containing equal amounts of science fiction and anti-war sentiment. Its protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who has become "unstuck in time," and bounces back and forth in a nonlinear fashion on his personal timeline in a time-traveling narrative that explores the horrors of war through an unreliable narrator. Billy believes he was held in an alien zoo on the fictional planet Tralfamadore as he experiences post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences as a soldier. With extensive use of irony, black humor, and didacticism, Vonnegut's signature simplistic style of writing makes Slaughterhouse-Five one of his best-loved works.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Written in 1961, Stranger in a Strange Land is speculative fiction set in a post-Third World War United States, where organized religions control politics. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who was born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians, only to come to Earth as a young adult. He must learn what it means to be a man, while simultaneously teaching Earthlings about Martian concepts such as grokking and water-sharing.

It won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Published in 1898 and first serialized in 1897 by Pearson's Magazine in the UK and by Cosmopolitan magazine in the US, The War of the Worlds is a classic tale of alien invasion. As one of the earliest stories depicting conflict between humanity and an extraterrestrial race, it is told via first-person narration by an unknown protagonist living in Surrey, and his younger brother living in London as Martians invade the Southern part of England.

The War of the Worlds is a seminal work in the science fiction classic canon, and has been reimagined for feature films, radio, comic books, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories written by other authors.

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