Best science fiction books

Image: Ryan MacEachearn/Penguin

Science fiction has the ability to both transport us to somewhere unfamiliar – filled with beings we could never imagine on Earth – and see our own world through a new lens.

From exploring the impact of advances in technology to looking at how we treat those who live on the margins of society, here are some of the best classic and new science fiction novels. 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Named one of the BBC's 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is set far in the future, where World Controllers have created the ideal society. In this world, through genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, everyone is happy. Apart from Bernard Marx, who thinks he's alone in wanting to break free. When he visits a Savage Reservation, where imperfect life continues, he discovers what may be a cure for his distress.

Brave New World was first published in 1932, but its vision of a society which uses technology to try and create a happier populace, while not seeing the problems caused, rings true even today. Writing in The Guardian, Margaret Atwood said that on rereading Brave New World she found it was as "vibrant, fresh, and somehow shocking as it was when" she first read it in the 1950s.

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1898)

HG Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds is the first modern depiction of extra-terrestrials attacking the earth, and its imagery of tentacled Martians is still what many people imagine when they hear the word 'alien'.

The book, originally published in serial form in 1897 in Pearson's Magazine in the UK and Cosmopolitan in the US, shows human civilisation threatened when Martians land in England, build killing machines, destroy all in their path with black gas and burning rays and feast on the warm blood of humans. But, as the aliens discover, humans may prove harder to beat than they at first appear.

Since its first publication in book form in 1898, The War of the Worlds has never been out of print, and its enduring popularity can be seen in the numerous adaptations – on TV, film and radio – that it has spawned. 

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

When Bill Masen wakes up blindfolded in hospital and removes his bandages, he realises he's the only person who can see. Everyone else – doctors and patients – have been blinded by a meteor shower.

Masen is trapped in a London full of sightless mobs who prey on those few who can still see, but there's a bigger threat looming… Taking advantage of the chaos are Triffids, walking carnivorous plants with lethal stingers who are feeding on human flesh.

When The Day of the Triffids was reissued in 2001, The Guardian said John Wyndham avoided easy allegories, instead questioning "the relative values of the civilisation that has been lost, the literally blind terror of humanity in the face of dominant nature, and the possibility of regeneration without offering easy answers". 

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)

Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is both a classic of science fiction, and a feminist classic. When it was first released, though, The New York Times said it was "not really a successful novel", although the paper's review did go on to say it was "far from being a bad book, and, once it gets under way, it is both absorbing and exciting".

Piercy's protagonist is Connie Ramos, who is unfairly incarcerated in a mental institution with no hope of release. The authorities view her as a danger to herself and to others, and Connie’s family has given up on her.

But Connie has a secret, and a way to escape the confines of her cell: she can see the future... 

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Nuevel (2016)

Canadian writer Sylvain Nuevel's Sleeping Giants is the first novel in his The Themis Files trilogy.

It follows Dr Rose Franklyn, who as a child discovers a giant metal hand by accident, and a group of scientists as they try and track down and assemble a giant robot of mysterious origins.

But the task of finding the remaining pieces, and discovering where the robot is from, is complicated by a paranoid military desperate for answers, foreign agents trying to get their hands on what Dr Franklyn knows, and the obstacles the hand's unknown makers put in her path. But most puzzling of all is the identity of the cryptic, unnamed interrogator piecing together the story.

Reviewing Sleeping Giants, NPR said the book was "a smart demonstration of how science fiction can honor its traditions and reverse-engineer them at the same time". 

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (2010)

Zoo City is set in an alternate version of South Africa's Johannesburg. In this world, any who commits a crime is magically attached to an animal familiar, a process called being 'animalled'. 

Protagonist Zinzi is a former journalist and recovering drug addict, who is 'animalled' to a sloth. When a little old lady turns up dead and the police take Zinzi's paycheque, she's forced to take on a missing persons case, and is hired by music producer Odi Huron to find a pop star. What should be an easy job and a way out of Zoo City catapults Zinzi deeper into a place twisted by crime and magic.

Combining elements from both science fiction and fantasy, Publishers Weekly said that in Zoo City Lauren Beukes "delivers a thrill ride that gleefully merges narrative styles and tropes".

The book won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2010 Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel.

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada (2017)

This Mortal Coil is the first in a series of the same name, and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2018.

Its central character is Catarina, who is devastated when a lone soldier, Cole, arrives with news of the death of her father Lachlan Agatta. Lachlan was the world's leading geneticist and humanity's best hope of beating a devastating virus.

But all is not lost: hidden in Cole's genehacked enhancements Catarina finds a message that tells her Lachlan created a vaccine. Only she can find the vaccine, if she can unravel the clues her father left for her. 

But the closer she gets, the more a shadowy organisation called Cartaxus, which has a stranglehold on the world's genetic tech, pursues her.

A science fiction novel and a thriller, this is a book that will leave you gasping at its twists and turns.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

Kurt Vonnegut's fourth novel, Cat's Cradle, uses his trademark black humour to explore science, technology, the purpose of religion and the arms race.

Set in the mid-20th Century, the book focuses on a writer called Jonah, who in researching a book comes across Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding 'fathers' of the atomic bomb, whose deadly legacy is the invention of a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet.

Jonah is led to Hoenikker's three eccentric children and an island republic where an absurd religion called Bokononism is practised.

Cat's Cradle earned Vonnegut a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1971, almost 25 years after the institution turned down his original thesis.

This edition of Cat's Cradle is part of the Penguin Science Fiction series, a selection of visionary works from around the world.

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