a couple of years ago

Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus 100 runners-up)

great sci-fi novels reviewed: American War by Omar El Akkad

As a teenager, I devoured sci-fi novels, and my addiction resumed for extended periods later in life. I was attracted above all by the sheer creativity the writers demonstrated in speculating about life and reality from new perspectives. And I must admit I was a bit of a nut about space travel, too. I’ve always frustrated my progressive friends by supporting the space program.

From pulp literature to speculative fiction

In times past, including the years of my youth, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which makes sense. The term allows such mainstream authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood to deny vehemently that they write science fiction. Even if they really do.

In the lists below, you’ll find more than 100 great sci-fi novels reviewed in recent years on this site. Some of these titles will be familiar to you if you’re a science fiction fan. You’re less likely to know others. Each title is followed by a link to my review. Within each list, titles are grouped in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

In the first list, I’ve included only the top 10 books I’ve read and reviewed on this site over the past nine years—not any I might have read earlier. Following the top 10 is a list of 100 other great sci-fi novels. Again, those include only books I read and reviewed here. Finally, I’ve listed 42 classic sci-fi novels, most of which I read long ago. Actually, for the most part, when I was one of those 14-year-old boys.

This post was updated on April 12, 2021.

A scene in the American Midwest as Emily St. John Mandel imagined it in Station Eleven. Image: The Portalist

The top 10 great sci-fi novels reviewed here

Omar El Akkad, American WarA chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation. Read the review.

Margaret Atwood, The Maddaddam Trilogy Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian fiction

In Oryx and Crake, Book #1 of the Maddaddam Trilogy, we enter the future world of Atwood’s cruel vision, the late twenty-first century shortly after the Waterless Flood, which virtually exterminated the human species. The most pessimistic projections of climate change have wrought havoc on Planet Earth, and it’s not a pretty picture. Book #2, The Year of the Flood, takes us back to the years preceding the Flood, when the conditions described in Oryx and Crake came about. We learn the nature of the Flood, and how it came to be. Finally, in Book #3, MaddAddam, we encounter once again the principal characters of the first two booksand follow them as the future grimly unfolds. Most of the action is compressed into a few months following the calamity of the FloodRead the review.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl –  One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read

The action takes place in Bangkok sometime in the 23rd century. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen twenty feet or more, and the city survives only because a visionary Thai king has built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. Read the review.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1)This novel shows just how good hard science fiction can be

The Calculating Stars introduces Dr. Elma Wexler York, a mathematical genius with doctorates in physics and math from Stanford University. Elma had gone to high school at age eleven and to Stanford at fourteen. She’s the anxiety-ridden daughter of a Jewish Army general who works as a computer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. (In those days, “computers” were people, not machines, and most of them were women. Using paper, pencil, and adding machines, they wrote the equations for the ballistics calculations used in artillery and, later, in missiles and rockets.) And, yes, you read that right. It’s NACA, not NASA. Because the novel is set in the 1950s in an alternate history of the United States—and the planet. Tom Dewey had defeated Harry Truman in 1948. He has taken advantage of Wernher von Braun and the other former Nazi rocket engineers whisked away to the US. So, Dewey has jump-started the space program a decade before John F. Kennedy did so in reality. And Elma’s husband, Nathaniel, is the lead engineer in the rocketry program. Read the review.

Nancy Kress, Tomorrow’s Kin (Yesterday’s Kin Trilogy #1)Hard science fiction doesn’t get much better than this

Tomorrow’s Kin is genuinely hard science fiction. Evolutionary biology dominates, and Kress manages to make most of it intelligible to a lay audience. The story is set in the near future, when global warming has triggered increasingly severe climate change. Destructive superstorms wreak havoc throughout the United States with little warning. Seas are rising alarmingly. And the US government remains dominated by right-wing politicians with little or no understanding of science. But most of the characters in the novel pay little attention to the world around them. Read the review.

Ira Levin, This Perfect DayA superb tale of a future where artificial intelligence rules

Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. A century and a half earlier, the computers governing the five continents had come together in the Unification. The result was a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day. Read the review.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station ElevenLife on Earth after the apocalypse

St. John Mandel’s story unfolds in a rapid succession of short scenes in the post-apocalyptic world along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan 15 and 20 years after the collapse. “Collapse” is the popular term for the apocalypse brought on by the pandemic. There are frequent flashbacks into the lives of the central characters. Through the twists and turns of the plot, the lives of these characters frequently intersect. One of them dies of the Georgian Flu. We visit the others both in flashbacks to their pre-pandemic lives and many years after the collapse. Read the review.

Ramez Naam, The Nexus Trilogy – The post-human future explored in an outstanding SF novel

Will the transformation of humanity by artificial intelligence stop there? Is there a step far beyond into post-human abilities so far superior to those of human beings today that a new species will result? This is the premise of Ramez Naam‘s brilliant science fiction trilogy. In Nexus, the first of the three novels, Naam explores the circumstances in which the conflict between humans and post-humans emerges into the open. Although the book is unquestionably imaginative, it is far from fantasy. Naam is a computer scientist and is intimately familiar with contemporary neurological research into using computer interface technology to enhance human cognitive abilities. Read the review.

Annalee Newitz, AutonomousIn 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. Theoretically, indenture is limited to a specified term; in practice, contract owners frequently refuse to honor the commitment. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped in these unbreakable contracts. Only rarely do indentured servants escape, and autonomous robots are rare. This is the world imagined by Annalee Newitz in her intriguing new science fiction novel, Autonomous. Read the review.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time Accelerated evolution is the theme in a superior science fiction novel

Tens of thousands of years after Earth has self-destructed in a horrific civil war, humanity has once again reached for the stars. They have left behind the Old Empire, which spanned Earth and several of the solar system’s gas giant moons. Eventually, near-lightspeed interstellar ships began to spread through the galaxy, terraforming the most likely planets where Homo sapiens might find new homes. Now, the technology of the Old Empire has been lost to time. Mere hints of that technology are accessible only to the classicists who labor to translate the old, dead languages of the meager records that survived the Empire’s destruction. But the toxic wastes the war left behind have gradually rendered Earth lifeless. Now humankind cannot rebuild where it has lived for millions of years. The remnants of the human race have set out to relocate elsewhere in starships, each of which houses a half-million people in stasis. Read the review.

100 other great sci-fi novels reviewed here

Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World WarThe Third World War breaks out in 2034, but not how you think

Kingsley Amis, The AlterationAlternate history by a celebrated mainstream author

M. T. Anderson, FeedA terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

M. T. Anderson, Landscape with Invisible Hand A clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

Poul Anderson, Tau ZeroIn this great example of classic hard science fiction, humankind reaches the stars

Madeline Ashby, Company Town – An imaginative look at a corporate future in a strange sci-fi novel

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s TaleReading “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the Age of Trump

Margaret Atwood, The TestamentsThe Handmaid’s Tale sequel follows the Hulu streaming adaptation

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Drowned Cities SeriesAnother exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water KnifeDystopian fiction that breaks the mold

Eric Barnes, Above the Ether—Welcome to the apocalypse

Greg Bear, The Forge of God (Forge of God #1)Greg Bear’s powerful tale of interstellar conflict

Gregory Benford, The Berlin ProjectAn alternate history of the Manhattan Project

Gregory Benford, TimescapeAn ingenious twist on time travel

Aliette de Bodard, On a Red Station, Drifting – In this remarkable sci-fi novella, we enter a disorienting future reality

Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney, Fata MorganaClever plot twists in a time travel tale

Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr (Vorkosigan Saga #11)The best book in the Vorkosigan Saga?

Sue Burke, Semiosis (Semiosis Duology #1)Can plants think? These colonists on an alien world learn the answer the hard way.

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable NovelsA superb dystopian novel

Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet: Dauntless (Lost Fleet #1)The exciting first book in a military SF series

Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust– A science fiction novel set after the war between robots and humans

Jeffrey A. Carver, Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles #1)Chaos theory triggers an interplanetary adventure

Peter Cawdron, Retrograde (Retrograde #1) What life on Mars would really be like

Peter Cawdron, Reentry (Retrograde #2)A fast-paced science fiction thriller grounded in believable science

Peter Cawdron, Anomaly (First Contact #1)Extraterrestrial contact changes everything in this SF novel

Peter Cawdron, Xenophobia (First Contact #3)The human race comes off poorly in this insightful First Contact novel

Peter Cawdron, Little Green Men (First Contact #3)Is communication between human and extraterrestrial intelligence likely?

Peter Cawdron, Galactic Exploration (First Contact #4)Galactic exploration yields conflicting views of extraterrestrial life

Peter Cawdron, Welcome to the Occupied States of America (First Contact #10)These alien invaders aren’t what you might expect

Peter Cawdron, 3zekiel (First Contact #13)A thoughtful treatment of First Contact in this new sci-fi novel

Peter Cawdron, But the Stars (First Contact #14)An alien encounter that questions the nature of reality

Peter Cawdron, Wherever Seeds May Fall (First Contact #15)One surprise after another in this brilliant First Contact novel

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) — A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development

Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) — Lovable characters in this off-beat space opera

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) — A brilliant invented universe in an unusually good new science fiction novel

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If FortunateAn excellent hard science fiction novella from Becky Chambers

Mike Chen, Here and Now and ThenA novel treatment of time travel in this promising science fiction debut

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous With RamaArthur C. Clarke’s believable First Contact novel

Robert Conroy, 1945What if Japan hadn’t surrendered?

Robert Conroy, Red Inferno: 1945What if the Cold War had turned hot in 1945?

Derek Cressman, RealityTM 2048: Watching Big MotherUpdating Orwell’s 1984: a thoughtful new sci-fi novel foresees a dystopian future

Michael Crichton and Daniel H. Wilson, The Andromeda EvolutionMichael Crichton comes back to life in a new techno-thriller

Blake Crouch, The Wayward Pines TrilogyA truly original work of speculative fiction

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter A journey into the multiverse

J. P. Delaney, The Perfect WifeA psychological thriller in a science fiction setting

Cory Doctorow, Little BrotherTerrorism. Homeland Security. Teenage rebellion.

K. Patrick Donoghue, Skywave (Rorschach Explorer #1) – A private space company threatens a decades-long government coverup

Meg Elison, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife – A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End (Noumena #1)F irst Contact is old news in this sc-fi thriller

Matt Haig, The HumansKurt Vonnegut lives in Matt Haig’s novel

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (Forever War Trilogy #1) – This classic science fiction war novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards

Erik Hanberg, Semi/HumanA fanciful and light-hearted tale of a jobless future

Tony Harmsworth, The Visitor: First Contact Hard Science FictionWhat happens after First Contact

Robert Harris, The Fear Index – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

Robert Harris, The Second Sleep – Robert Harris portrays a dystopian future England

Rob Hart, The WarehouseAmazon on steroids in a grim near-future dystopia

Susan Hasler, Project HALFSHEEP: Or How the CIA’s Alien Got High – The CIA, LSD, and a drug-addled alien from the planet Utorb

William Hertling, Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than it Appears (Singularity #1)A cautionary tale about artificial intelligence

William Hertling, A. I. Apocalypse (Singularity #2)Artificial general intelligence—by accident

Hugh Howey, Wool Omnibus Edition (Silo 1-5) – Hugh Howey’s outstanding science fiction

Stephen King, 11/22/63 – A new take on the JFK assassination

Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male – A great science fiction novel set in a future totalitarian China

David Koepp, Cold StorageA biological thriller that may keep you up at night

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2)An astonishingly good science fiction novel about the first manned mission to Mars

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut #3)The third Lady Astronaut novel doesn’t live up to the promise of the first two

Nancy Kress, The Eleventh GatePolitical philosophies clash in this new space opera

Eugene Linden, Deep PastIs homo sapiens the only highly intelligent species ever to walk the Earth?

Marina J. Lostetter, Noumenon – A visionary science fiction novel with hard science at its core

Nancy Kress, If Tomorrow Comes (Yesterday’s Kin #2)In this highly anticipated science fiction sequel, surprises are the order of the day

Marie Lu, Legend (Legend Trilogy #1) – Far-future teens battling for survival in dystopia

Marie Lu, Prodigy (Legend Trilogy #2)In this YA sci-fi trilogy, Marie Lu imagines a novel future for the United States

Ling Ma, SeveranceLiterary critics loved this novel.

China Mieville, The City and the City – The most original sci-fi novel I’ve read in years

Elizabeth Moon, Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War #1)The launch of a promising military science fiction series

Brandon Q. Morris, Amphitrite (Black Planet #1)Journey to a newly discovered planet far out from the sun

Sylvain Neuvel, The Themis FilesAn entertaining if puzzling sci-fi novel

Sylvain Neuvel, A History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars #1)An alternate history of the space race

Emma Newman, After Atlas (Planetfall, A) – A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

Emma Newman, Before Mars (Planetfall #3) – A psychological thriller in a science fiction setting

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti (Binti Trilogy #1)An African student travels to the stars in the first book of the Binti Trilogy

Malka Older, Infomocracy (Centenal Cycle #1)Does the future of democracy look like this?

George Orwell, 1984Is the U.S. on the road to totalitarianism?

Nathaniel Rich, Odds Against TomorrowA novel about obsession, natural disaster, and business in New York

Matt Richtel, Dead on Arrival – Neurology meets high-tech in this gripping science fiction novel

H. C. H. Ritz, Absence of MindIn an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

H. C. H. Ritz, The Robin Hood Thief – A grim look into the near future that’s all too plausible

H. C. H. Ritz, The Lightbringers The power of positive thinking goes awry in this dystopian novel

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon – China and the US face revolutionary change

Charles Rosenberg, The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George WashingtonWas George Washington truly the indispensable man?

M. A. Rothman, Darwin’s CipherGenetic research goes awry in this chilling science fiction novel

John Sandford and Ctein, Saturn Run – First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

John Scalzi, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasDiabolically clever, and very, very funny

John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) – A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

Jasper T. Scott, First EncounterHostile First Contact in this promising prequel to a new sci-fi series

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart’s dark vision of the future

Robert Silverberg, NightwingsA science fiction master imagines a far future Earth

Robert Silverberg, Across a Billion Years—A science fiction master imagines a uniquely advanced alien civilization

Robert Silverberg, Hawksbill StationA science fiction Grand Master gets it wrong about the future

Rachel Sparks, ResistantResistant germs threaten humanity in this doomsday thriller

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Expert System’s BrotherAn exceedingly clever science fiction story

Adrian Tchaikovsky, FirewalkersA dismal, dystopian future where the climate has run amok

Adrian Tchaikovsky, IroncladsIn a clever novella, a future of endless war

The Ark (Children of a Dead Earth #1 of 3) by Patrick S. Tomlinson—On a starship, an art heist, a murder, a coverup

Trident’s Forge (Children of a Dead Earth #2) by Patrick S. Tomlinson—A suspenseful mash-up of science fiction and mystery

Children of the Divide (Children of the Dead Earth #3) by Patrick S. Tomlinson—This sci-fi novel isn’t credible, but it’s a lot of fun

John Varley, Red Thunder (Thunder & Lightning #1)Wacky science fiction from a master of hard SF

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Player PianoKurt Vonnegut’s warning about automation

Kurt Vonnegut, GalápagosKurt Vonnegut writes about the end of the world, but it’s not science fiction

David Walton, The Genius PlagueThe greatest threat to humanity is . . . a mushroom?

Jo Walton, The Farthing Trilogy – Chilling alternate history: If Nazi Germany had won the war

Andy Weir, The Martian – Hard science fiction at its best

David Wellington, The Last AstronautIn a classic First Contact novel, astronauts meet . . . something very strange

Martha Wells, All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries – A reminder that technology doesn’t always work well in the future, either

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (Murderbot Diaries #2)Far away and long in the future, an augmented human designed to kill

Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol (Murderbot Diaries #3)Sci-fi’s favorite antisocial A.I. surfaces again in the Muderbot Diaries

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin (Spin Trilogy #1) – A Big History of the future in this popular visionary science fiction novel

Robert Charles Wilson, Axis (Spin Trilogy #2)In this sci-fi novel, God is a networked intelligence scattered through the galaxy

Robert Charles Wilson, Vortex (Spin Trilogy #3)The Spin Trilogy concludes with the heat death of the universe [but not highly recommended]

Robert Charles Wilson, Blind LakeAn award-winning sci-fi novelist writes a disappointing book [not highly recommended]

Ben H. Winters, Golden StateA riveting hybrid science fiction mystery novel that questions reality

To these 100 great sci-fi novels I’m tempted to add all the other books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which is perhaps the best-known and most loved of recent ventures into the realm of space opera. (You’ll find links to my reviews of all the books in the Vorkosigan Saga at The pleasures of reading the complete Vorkosigan Saga.) And I’ve listed just the first book in the series, which is in fact one of the best.

Now, I don’t pretend for a minute that this is a list of the best science fiction novels of all time. It just happens to be those I’ve read and loved over the past decade.

Lots of dystopian novels listed here

You may notice that the list above includes a disproportionate number of dystopian novels. That’s no accident. It’s the result of my research. Recently I wrote a book in which I discuss 62 such novels, including several of those listed above. The book is entitled Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. You can find the book here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t list at least some of the classic science fiction novels that I read in years past—in most cases, many years past—that should be included on any list of top science fiction novels. (So should some of the top 10 books listed above. In fact, some of them already appear on one or more such lists that can be found online today.) Here are the 43 older titles that come to mind now.

The classics: 42 great sci-fi novels

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel

Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain

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

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Philip Jose Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Frank Herbert, Dune

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

Larry Niven, Ringworld

George Orwell, Animal Farm

Frederik Pohl, Gateway

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy

Robert J. Sawyer, The Hominids Trilogy

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s-Cradle

H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book

For further reading

For more good reading, check out:

For a journey through some of the early stories of the iconic names in the genre, see The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One 1929-1964 edited by Robert Silverberg (Reassessing the Science Fiction Hall of Fame).

You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.

To check out all 100 of the reading lists posted here, go to Your handy guide to the grouped reviews on this site. And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

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