Science fiction has been my go-to genre for about two decades now. For a number of years, it was the only genre of books that I read. What’s nice is that there are plenty of sub-genres, so you can still get plenty of variety. I’ve decided to put together my personal guide for science fiction staples.
This list is focused on books for those who haven’t read much, if any, sci-fi. These won’t always be the best books out there, but they’re good introductions to popular sub-genres and will give readers a good idea of what they’re about. I’ve also tried to keep this list to books I’ve actually read (so if you see a book you think would fit, let me know in the comments).
There are plenty of sub-sub-genres in regards to aliens (first-contact, invasion, etc.), but they all share the basic idea that humans have come in contact with extra-terrestrial beings. Some of them are more advanced, some less, some just differently.
Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
Full review here. Solaris is a nice introduction to alien sci-fi in that the alien isn’t the focus. This is a novel about how humans deal with facing the unknowable (very different from facing the unknown). Recommended for: those who want an alien book without any aliens.
A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge
A Deepness in the Sky is a first contact novel, but where the humans are the technologically superior race. The aliens are the real protagonists here, as they try and survive their unusual planet and understand the space battle taking place in their sky. Recommended for: those who want the humans to be the more alien creature.
These novels rarely take place in the future, instead they are historical or contemporary, but something about the world differs from the one we know. That change, whether big or small, ripples throughout history and gives the world a very different look. It’s hard to find really good alternate world novels as there are so many variables that need to be accounted for.
Seventh Son – Orson Scott Card
More fantasy than sci-fi, this is still a nice introduction to alternate history. In Card’s America, folk magic is very real which led to a very different United States. Set in the early 1800s, the story follows a young man who has a very rare talent. Recommended for: history and fantasy buffs.
Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon imagines a reality where Israel was never a nation, and the Jewish refugees from World War II settled in Alaska. It’s set in modern times and follows a homicide detective who falls into a massive web of deceit during an investigation. Recommended for: mystery fans who don’t mind a lot of Yiddish slang.
The are sci-fi classics, and classics that are sci-fi. This sub-genre is intended to be more of the latter. The golden age of science fiction is widely considered to be in the 1940s and 50s, when it really took off as a popular genre. I’m considering classics to be anything published before then.
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
The unnamed protagonist in this novel explores the future of mankind over millions of years. It’s a true classic, and is very different from the film versions. Recommended for: those who want to read one of the most influential sci-fi works.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Not my favorite, but is a great introduction for people who prefer literary fiction. Huxley takes the idea of Utopia and turns it on its head in this early dystopian novel. Recommended for: literary fiction fans who want to see how good things go wrong.
Most science fiction is rather serious in tone, but there’s a good number of books that put a humorous spin on the genre. This is one sub-genre that crosses over with all the others.
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Really, all five books in the trilogy should be read, but the first is probably the funniest. This is absurdist sci-fi at its best. If you’ve seen the 2005 movie, don’t let that prevent you from reading the novel (the movie pulled a lot from the audio play, the 1970s TV series, and from Adam’s notes, so the book is a very different experience.) Recommended for: anyone who wants to know the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Redshirts – John Scalzi
Redshirts is a novel that focuses on traditionally minor characters in sci-fi. It doesn’t really care about the officers of the starship, but the grunts that are normally thought as background or expendable characters. It plays a lot off of established clichés and is incredibly meta. Recommended for: Star Trek fans.
This sub-genre really started taking off in the 80s, but it hasn’t really slowed down. Initially, it was based off the punk and grunge movements, but has really transformed into stories where humans blur the lines between themselves and technology.
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
A great intro to cyberpunk as it has all the key elements, but incorporates the 80s grunge/punk aspects as nostalgia rather than prediction. Having the human/computer interface be a video game also helps. The Spielberg movie doesn’t do the book justice. Recommended for: those very familiar with 80s pop culture.
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
The main reason this is a good intro to cyberpunk is because it’s a bit of a loving parody on the genre. Snow Crash makes fun of a lot of the clichés, but does it in such a way that you’re only aware that it’s mocking them if you’re familiar with the genre. Recommended for: those who can appreciate some humor in their dystopian novels.
Dystopian books all start with the basic premise that things go horribly wrong for humanity. Some are set just a few years in the future, others may be hundreds or thousands of years down the road. These stories often focus on how the core values of humanity survive devastating circumstances.
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
While the books are better than the movies, this is one series where the movies hold their own. The oppressed people in this dystopian world rise up against the elites as they watch a young girl fight for her life in gladiatorial combat. Recommended for: those who liked the movies.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Whether or not you read this in school, then it’s still a nice intro to dystopia. It’s set in a world where censorship goes to far and any books found are immediately destroyed. Recommended for: those who think books are sacred and want to be horrified.
Humans reaching into the unknown is the hallmark of this sub-genre. Where that unknown is varies greatly, it can be anywhere, or anything, where no humans have been before (including places on Earth).
Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
An object from far beyond the solar system starts making its way towards our sun and a small group of astronauts are charged with exploring the alien vessel. The explorers have to use the few resources they have to learn as much as they can about an alien object before it passes out of reach. This is a fantastic book that keeps the exploration close to home. Recommended for: anyone that wants to read one of the greatest closing lines in sci-fi history
Ringworld – Larry Niven
This exploration novel sends the human protagonist on a journey with several alien species to explore a strange phenomenon, a planet that rings its sun (hence the name Ringworld). This is a book that can be a lot of fun if it’s not taken too seriously, as the story is excellent, but the writing is just okay. Recommended for: those who want cool aliens, cool ideas, and adventure without a lot of depth.
Hard sci-fi is the general term for works that emphasizes the science over the fiction. This sub-genre is really geared towards people who love technical descriptions and accurate science, but also want to see where technological advances could lead.
The Martian – Andy Weir
One of the most technically accurate books in years, the Martian follows an American astronaut on one of the first manned missions to Mars. After an accident, he’s accidentally abandoned and struggles to survive on the barren planet. It’s funny, scientifically sound, and genuinely tense. Since it’s set in the very near future, it’s also a great introduction to scientifically accurate fiction. Recommended for: those who are ready to branch out from non-fiction.
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
While I personally didn’t like this book at all, I recognize that it’s a very realistic view of how Mars could be colonized. The focus of the story is on the people and their relationships, but the science is mostly sound. Recommended for: engineers who like soap operas.
The focus of this sub-genre is conflict and resolution. The source of the conflict is varied, as are the technologies and strategies used in resolving them. Many of these books are commentaries on similar struggles that were occurring during the author’s life.
Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
Whatever you do, don’t think that this book is anything like the 1997 movie. The similarities between the book and the movie end at the character’s names (the director has even admitted that he didn’t read the book). The book isn’t as action packed as you would expect, as it’s more a commentary on people’s rights. There are still plenty of space battles, but don’t be surprised by Heinlein’s far-right political views. Recommended for: those looking to start political discussions that involve space battles.
Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Often considered one of the best science fiction books ever, Ender’s Game is a must read, even for non sci-fi fans. This book has been taught in US military academies because of how it portrays leadership skills. It also deals with some really heavy subjects like child soldiers, genocide, and PTSD. Recommended for: everyone, it’s that good.
This is the term I’m using for books that are far more about ideas than character or story. Don’t get me wrong, those both play a large role, but they are tools the author uses to play with a concept. Philosophical sci-fi tends to have lots of exposition and is easily prone to bias.
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
The idea explored in this book is contrasts economic philosophies. One culture goes extreme socialist, to the point where they remove all possessives from the language. The other culture goes extreme capitalist. The protagonist is one of the first people in decades to move from one society to the other. Recommended for: economics enthusiasts who want to fall down a philosophical rabbit hole.
Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
There are two big questions that are posed by Childhood’s End. First, How would humanity change if we were constantly observed by a benign, but overpowering alien organization? Second, How would humanity respond to the knowledge that our time on the planet was limited? Recommended for: those who are anxious about where humanity is headed, and those who want to be anxious about where humanity could be headed.
This sub-genre deals with humankind’s interactions with robots, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, etc. Some of them will have the robot as the hero, some as the villain, while others try and focus on the interactions between the two.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K. Dick
This is the basis of the movie Blade Runner, and the story is similar (though the book is better). Some android workers escape and try and blend in with humans. A bounty hunter tasked with hunting the rebellious androids down. Recommended for: those who like reading about people questioning their reality.
I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
This is a collection of short stories that detail how humans use robots. This is one of the most influential science fiction collections of all time, and introduced the world to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Recommended for: those who want highly influential short fiction
Space opera sci-fi is the general term for works that emphasizes the fiction over the science. Technology is usually very advanced, but isn’t always based on real science (occasionally it outright ignores the laws of physics). Space operas tend to be fast paced and full of adventure where a good story is the focus, even if it means stretching scientific credibility.
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Why waste youth in wars when you can put old people’s minds into artificial bodies and have them fight instead? That’s basically what happens in Scalzi’s humorous space opera. The book is just the right amount of silly and thought provoking. Recommended for: those who want the book version of an action-comedy like RED or The Expendables.
Shards of Honor – Lois McMaster Bujold
The first book in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan as they try and survive being marooned on a newly discovered planet. Recommended for: those looking for the beginning of a long and entertaining series.
Time travel sci-fi can be really hard to do correctly because there are so many paradoxes and complexities to the very idea. But, when it is done well, these can be fantastic books that blend sci-fi, history, politics, futurism, and many other sub-genres together.
To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I’ve described this book as a Victorian-era, sci-fi, romantic comedy. Basically, a time-travelling researcher is sent to Victorian England on a mandatory vacation, and while he’s there, chaos ensues leaving him far more stressed than he was to begin with. Recommended for: fans of historical fiction or regency romance.
Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
When the Earth is enveloped in a time-dilating field by some outside force, humanity has to decide what to do as they discover that in just a few decades the sun will die. This is a bit of a twist on time-travel sci-fi as it’s not individual characters that travel through time, but the entire planet. Recommended for: anyone who has heard someone say ‘what’s it matter, some day the sun will burn out and we’ll all die.’