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 for 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.

The top 10 great sci-fi novels reviewed here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 other great sci-fi novels reviewed here

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

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

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

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney—Clever 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

Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles #1) by Jeffrey A. Carver—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

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

Peter Cawdron, 3zekiel (First Contact #10)A thoughtful treatment of First Contact in this new sci-fi novel

Peter Cawdron, But the Stars (First Contact #11)An alien encounter that questions the nature of reality

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

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

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

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

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?

Darwin’s Cipher by M. A. Rothman—Genetic 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

First Encounter by Jasper T. Scott—Hostile 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

Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg—A science fiction Grand Master gets it wrong about the future

Resistant by Rachel Sparks—Resistant germs threaten humanity in this doomsday thriller

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

Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky—A dismal, dystopian future where the climate has run amok

Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky—In a clever novella, a future of endless war

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

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

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]

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson—An 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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