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The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time

Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist
Published Aug 08, 2019

The Essential SciFi Reading List

When you hear Sci-Fi, do your normally think of J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, or George Orwell? Or do some more recent authors come to mind?

We culled some of the biggest reader polls from Goodreads and National Public Radio’s Books. The following top 25 best Science Fiction books ever published were voted on by thousands of devoted science fiction readers. Click on any title below to go to its Goodreads page if you want to know more.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

A must read if: you love an epic quest and fantastical characters.

Frodo the hobbit and his companions set out on an epic quest to destroy the Ring of Power and restore peace to middle earth. Made into a hugely popular motion picture, The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands the test of time and sets the bar for all fantasy/sci-fi.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

A must read if: you want to meet some of the funniest and original aliens in the universe.

First in this comedy sci-fi series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follows Arthur Dent in his adventures through the galaxy. As the only survivor after Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass, Dent runs into a motley cast of aliens including Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy, and Marvin the depressed android.

3. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

A must read if: you love the in-depth strategy of space wars.

In this 1985 military sci-fi novel, Ender Wiggin is a genius who gets drafted to Battle School to train for the interplanetary war against the alien Buggers. Card creates a multi-layered world full of fascinating alien technology.

4. Dune, Frank Herbert

A must read if: you love delving deep into the politics and factions of interstellar noble houses.

Set in the distant future, where life and culture revolve around the use and exchange of the spice melange. Dune follows young Paul Atreides, heir of House Atreides, and explores the complex politics, religion, ecology, and technology among the many factions vying for control of the spice trade.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin

A must read if: you loved the HBO series and want to go deeper.

No list would be thorough without the Game of Thrones saga. Get drawn into the world of the royal Stark family, the Lannisters, and the Neverborn demons, barbarian hordes, and other threats.

6. 1984, George Orwell

A must read if: the ubiquity of technology and government surveillance concerns you.

A futuristic society where a totalitarian government watches over all citizens and orchestrates all activities. With themes of nationalism, censorship, and surveillance, the story is just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1949.

7. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

A must read if: you've ever been horrified by someone wanting to ban a book.

Television dominates and books are outlawed. Sounds like a nightmare, but this popular book is still touted as a favorite. One fireman whose job it is to start fires begins to see the value of printed works.

8. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

A must read if: you've ever worried about technology controlling the masses.

A classic prophetic novel, Brave New World describes the horrors of a future world with no individual freedom at all—one where material comfort and physical pleasure provided by drugs and sex are the only concerns.

9. Animal Farm, George Orwell

A must read if: you want to experience the greatest allegory ever written.

Animals on a farm overthrow their human owners and set up a deeply flawed government that seems weirdly familiar. An interesting and engaging critique of the Russian Revolution of 1917, every kid still has to read Animal Farm in high school.

10. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

A must read if: you love world-saving intrigue and intergalactic coup d'etats.

A band of psychologists led by psychohistorian Hard Seldon, plan a colony that encourages art, science, and technology on the declining Galactic Empire to preserve mankind’s knowledge. The plan is to build Foundations that will reduce the Dark Age from 30,000 years to 1,000 years.

11. Neuromancer, William Gibson

A must read if: you want to know where the terms "cyberspace" and "the Matrix" came from.

Case, a burned-out computer whiz, steals a security code locked in the most heavily guarded databank in the solar system. Neuromancer is complete with the rise of megacorporations and Cold War espionage, military conspiracy and sociopathic hologram creators, and much more.

12. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

A must read if: you want to challenge your social and cultural norms.

Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars, comes to Earth and stuns Western culture with his superhuman abilities. Mike has a claim to legal ownership of Mars, which makes him a valuable commodity to Earth's government.

13. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

A must read if: you want to understand the effects of war and get a few laughs at the same time.

Billy Pilgrim returns home from World War II only to be kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who teach him that time is an eternal present. Billy travels back and forth in time, visiting his birth, death, all the moments in between repeatedly and out of order.

14 Kindred

A must read if: you want a complex story that is part slave memoir, part fantasy, and part historical fiction.

A young black woman living in 1970s California suddenly and inexplicably finds herself in 1815 on a slave plantation in Maryland. When she saves a white child from drowning, she realizes that he is her ancestor and, even though he grows into a despicable, slave-owning man, she must protect his life if she ever hopes to be born.

15. The Handmaid’s Tale

A must read if: you are terrified by the prospect of men controlling women's reproductive systems.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, which was once the United States. Gilead is now an oppressive world where women may not read and are valued only as long as they are viable for reproduction.

16. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

A must-read if: you're interested in intelligent people who care about intelligence.

2001: A Space Odyssey follows two astronauts on their journey into space and how their lives are jeopardized by the jealousy of their computer, HAL. A tense showdown between man and machine results in a mind-bending trek through space and time.

17. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

A must read if: you love young adult literature with a revolutionary appeal.

Katniss Everdeen takes the place of her sister in the Hunger Games where tributes from each of the world's 12 districts fight against each other until only one stands alive at the end. Katniss must weigh her own survival against love.

18. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

A must read if: you're interested in films and games from the 1980s.

Wade Watts feels best when he’s in the virtual world called OASIS. He tries to solve its creator’s complicated game to win the ultimate prize—and to confront the real world he wants to escape.

19. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A must read if: you don't see complicated issues in black and white.

Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz takes a chilling and provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future. The Monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz attempt to preserve remnants of civilization.

20. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

A must read if: you're interested in the relationship between space and time travel.

A British inventor creates a time machine that sends him far into the future, A.D. 802,701, where subterranean Morlocks prey on the childlike Eloi. The Time Machine is a warning that things don't always get better as time goes on; they just become different.

21. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne

A must read if: you want a futuristic (and often terrifying) undersea adventure.

Professor Arronax and his two companions are trapped abroad a fantastic submarine with the deranged Captain Nemo. They get to see exotic ocean creatures and strange sights hidden from those above.

22. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells

A must read if: you like your socks scared off by alien invasions.

The War of the Worlds was broadcast over radio in the U.S. Some people panicked when they thought real aliens from another planet were taking over Earth, not realizing it was Wells’ famous story.

23. Hyperion, Dan Simmons

A must read if: "a creature which defied physical laws and which communicated only through death" frightens or intrigues you.

Seven pilgrims undertake a voyage to the world of Hyperion. Dominated by a fearsome and mysterious creature, the Shrike, the pilgrims hope to learn the secret to save humanity.

24. I, Robot, Isaac Asimov

A must read if: you are worried about the "singularity", the point where artificial intelligence exceeds human capacity.

I, Robot shows the development of robots from their primitive origins to the present where their ultimate perfection in the not-too-distant future might render humanity obsolete.

25. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

A must read if: you like military sci-fi that comments on why we need war and soldiers.

Private William Mandella is drafted into an elite military unit sent through space and time to fight the thousand-year conflict. As he tries to survive and return home, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries.

26. Flowers For Algernon, Daniel Keyes

A must read if: you don't mind ugly crying while reading.

Experimental brain surgery makes a mouse into a genius. Then it works for dull-witted Charlie Gordon, who becomes intelligent and interesting, but soon the mouse begins to regress.

Contents:
  1. Editor’s Choice
  2. Conclusion
  3. Ready to write your own sci-fi classic? Check out how ProWritingAid can help:

Editor’s Choice

Our list wouldn’t be complete without adding our top 5 editor’s choice books:

1. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami

A must read if: you love science fiction, detective stories, and post-modern manifesto all rolled into one.

Tracking one man’s descent into the Kafkaesque underworld of contemporary Tokyo, Murakami unites East and West, tragedy and farce, compassion and detachment, slang and philosophy.

2. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

A must read if: you love quantum physics, fractions, and megaparsecs.

Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin travel through space and time continuum. They're on a quest to rescue Meg and Charles's father who is being kept captive by evil forces. New movie coming in March 2018.

3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

A must read if: you ponder the big questions like what does it mean to be "civilized"?

A father and son walk alone through burned America to reach the coast. Nothing moves, it’s cold and dark, and they have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they’re wearing, and a can of scavenged food.

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

A must read if: you haven't had a good cry in a while and need the emotional release.

Boy meets girl with a fantastic twist: he’s a time traveler who slips in and out of time. Henry and Clare meet each other throughout time as Henry pursues Clare until they’re finally in a place where their ages are right and they can marry. But time travel really takes it out of Henry.

5. The Chrysalids, John Wyndham

A must read if: you're at the stage of life wondering where you fit in this world.

This is a great way to bring older children to the genre. In this 1950s sci-fi classic, a fundamentalist Christian society believes any aberration from normality is a sign of blasphemy. When a group of children show signs of mutation in the form of telepathy, they must keep it a secret to avoid being banished or even killed.

Conclusion

Another long post, but it wouldn’t be complete if we left any of the above books out.

Let us know in the comments below if we missed your favorite Sci-Fi book. Or let us know if the book was better than the movie or vice versa.

Looking for more Essential Reading lists? We've got you covered!

Ready to write your own sci-fi classic? Check out how ProWritingAid can help:

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Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

AE vanVogt, James Blish, Henry Kuttner, William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Karen Haber, Robert Silverberg, Pierce Brown, Neal Shusterman, WD Shipley, Alan E Nourse.
By methosorigins on 11 January 2018, 10:47 AM
And Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov.
By methosorigins on 11 January 2018, 10:48 AM
Day of the Triffids All of Asimov
By Eileenb on 11 January 2018, 10:53 PM
Your list fails to include People of Color. Any list that fails to atleast include Octavia Butler is woefully lacking.
By bjjonesesquire on 12 January 2018, 02:51 AM
You are completely right - how could we have forgotten Kindred!? I'll add it now. Thank you.
By writersneed2 on 12 January 2018, 09:22 AM
Why is nothing from Iain M Banks on this list?
By Lewis1 on 12 January 2018, 08:41 PM
Seriously? Nothing by Dick, Simak, Moorcock, Gaiman, Pratchett?
By Em1234 on 28 February 2018, 03:03 PM
A lot of those will be included in an upcoming Fantasy list!
By writersneed2 on 28 February 2018, 03:33 PM
"The Lord of the Rings" and "A Song of Fire and Ice"? Not to be Mr. Picky, but those are in no way sci-fi. 🙂🙂🙂
By Hoosierfella on 31 May 2018, 05:03 AM
Lafferty's "Past Master" is a must read.
By dan12328 on 15 November 2018, 05:33 PM
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is an extraordinary tale of time travel in an academic setting. Exhaustively researched.
By Margaretlariviere2 on 18 November 2018, 08:22 PM
You obviously dont know the difference between SF and Fantasy.
By moor12 on 23 December 2018, 04:33 PM
yep
By barbarothmetalblade on 29 July 2020, 02:33 PM
Anything by Ursula Le Guin, especially The Left Hand of Darkness
By dufresnel on 10 May 2019, 02:46 PM
Hi! I just finished The City and the City by China Miéville. I've been reading sci-fi for over 6 decades, and though that this book ranks as one of the most brilliant concepts realized in writing that I've ever read.
By msnw07 on 21 June 2019, 06:41 PM
One of the best is The Demolished Man by Albert Bester. And yes, half of you list is either fantasy or anti-utopia/apocalypse books like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
By margarita_1_20001 on 31 July 2019, 05:14 PM
Talking about People of Color (is this the latest eufemism? is asian people included?) latest addition Liu Cixin The Three-Body Problem
By margarita_1_20001 on 31 July 2019, 05:23 PM
And where is Stanisław Lem with his Solaris and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
By margarita_1_20001 on 31 July 2019, 05:28 PM
I liked this list. Never long enough to satisfy everyone. I would consider Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.
By Carrielearn on 04 September 2019, 02:47 PM
You missed one: "Stand on Zanzibar" by John Brunner. This was written in the late '60s and won the Hugo for best novel. It's a unique work, using an updated version of the style created by John Dos Passos for his "USA Trilogy," in which Brunner present two narrative lines interspersed with chapters full of facts, media bit, commentary from a misanthropic sociologist, and snippets of the lives of other characters. It paints a detailed look at what the future might contain—a picture that is now astonishing in its accuracy. It also has one of the best closing lines of any novel I've read: sardonic, hilarious and perfect. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stand_on_Zanzibar
By JCarls on 04 October 2019, 01:42 PM
I agree that The Time Machine belongs on the list. I completely disagree with the stated reason why. The Time Machine was a work of social science fiction that expressed the author’s views on the British class system of the time by setting up a future society as a reductio ad absurdum.
By eugene_galt on 08 December 2019, 07:47 PM
Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light deserves a mention in your list
By genebild on 22 January 2020, 10:24 PM
Stephen R. Donaldson and the Gap Series is my favorite and should be here.
By Mateocoronado on 25 February 2020, 05:36 AM
CIXIN LIU- The three body problem, The Dark Forest
By irenemathews7 on 03 May 2020, 09:23 PM
Battlefield Earth was a phenomenal book. Major best selling sci-fi novel. Couldn't put it down.
By standubin on 16 May 2020, 12:14 AM
Since you list "copywriter" as a skill of yours, I feel I must comment that your introductory remark: "... do your [sic] normally ..." should likely be: "... do you normally ...". It's a small error, but, nonetheless, it jumped out at me and it distracted me while I was reading your list.
By laurellazar on 29 May 2020, 09:17 PM
Not only missing people of color, (NK Jemisin?) but women who write science fiction, as opposed to fantasy or dystopian fiction. Where's CJ Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, Marion Zimmer Bradley? Disappointing list of the often mediocre.
By Popcornreading on 17 June 2020, 06:31 PM
These lists are always tough to compile and often debatable. Your point is well made - I'm sure we'll update the list!
By writersneed2 on 18 June 2020, 12:50 PM
This would be an OK post - if it was best Science Fiction and Science Fantasy. But the author decided that the two were the same. George RR Martin doesn't exist here (and, is often denounced by readers of the series as a con, as a person likely to die before the last books come out) - If you include 'Game of Thrones' then you need to include Le Modesitt, Robert Jordan, Raymond E Feist, to name a few. Otherwise it just looks like disinformation and depressing click-bait.
By barbarothmetalblade on 29 July 2020, 02:29 PM
Thanks for adding your thoughts - they are most excellent points! We don't like to think of ourselves as those negative things you included, but we know there's always differing opinions regarding these types of articles. In fact, we love that they spark debate! That's part of the goal! Happy reading. <3 :)
By writersneed2 on 29 July 2020, 07:25 PM
Has no one ever read Philip Jose Farmer?
By gerald1253 on 08 August 2020, 12:25 AM
We love suggestions!! Thanks! :)
By writersneed2 on 08 August 2020, 02:19 PM
I have read many of these books suggested but think they are all dwarfed by the rendezvous with Rama series of books and am amazed not one person has recommended them,very strange!!!
By Micky01245 on 26 September 2020, 11:39 PM
Gotta love an underdog! Thanks for the suggestion!
By amy.cohen on 29 September 2020, 04:04 PM
You don’t seem to know the difference between Sci-fi and fantasy.
By jackrthom on 30 September 2020, 06:44 PM
A bit rude! But to the point. Does a ring forged in flame not count as science? ;)
By amy.cohen on 01 October 2020, 01:58 PM
Triple Hugo winner N K Jemisin, Iain Banks, Neal Stephenson, Charlie Jane Anders? Some of your list although obvious is a bit stale.
By Eastside75 on 30 September 2020, 10:14 PM
Stale, you say? Perhaps we need another list! :)
By amy.cohen on 01 October 2020, 01:57 PM
While these are all great books, some of them are patently NOT SciFi. Lord of the Rings? Game of Thrones? Those are Fantasy, not SciFi. Sorry, but no.
By Live4java on 01 October 2020, 03:09 AM
Thanks for the feedback! Definitely something to consider.
By amy.cohen on 01 October 2020, 01:51 PM
While these are all great books, some of them are patently NOT SciFi. Lord of the Rings? Game of Thrones? Those are Fantasy, not SciFi. Sorry, but no.
By null on 01 October 2020, 03:09 AM
Wow, I've basically seen this same list for 20 years. Should have put some new spin on it.
By sholiday on 02 October 2020, 12:52 AM
Ah, yes, there's no doubt this list includes some titles that you've already seen. Maybe it's time to put out that new list!
By amy.cohen on 06 October 2020, 03:49 PM
You mentioned mostly nothing but over touted publishing's and forgot C.J. Cherry's the Chanur series; Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap series and White Gold Wielder series as well as Patricia Anthony's Cold Allies; to name a few.
By martyrivet on 03 October 2020, 08:40 PM
Love the additions - gotta love an opinionated reader! :)
By amy.cohen on 05 October 2020, 04:23 PM
Eon - Greg Bear The Crystal Cave - Mary Stewart The Many-Colored Land - Julian May
By ken.shaffer31 on 03 October 2020, 09:48 PM
Great suggestions! :)
By amy.cohen on 05 October 2020, 04:23 PM
I’m really surprised that Edgar Rice Burroughs was not included (John Carter, Tarzan)
By Raul_chang on 04 October 2020, 12:58 PM
It's always tough compiling this list! Thanks for the feedback. :)
By amy.cohen on 05 October 2020, 04:25 PM
It annoys me when I see people, especially people who should know better, who include books like, "The Lord of the Rings" and A Game of Thrones" into the Science Fiction category. They are Fantasy, not Science Fiction. If they have dragons, magic, frost giants, etc, they are Fantasy. Science Fiction revolves around dealing with the sciences for the story. Magic is not a science.
By Wesomniman1 on 04 October 2020, 10:00 PM
A point that has been brought up a lot lately! We'd better take a look.
By amy.cohen on 05 October 2020, 04:27 PM
I futilely echo the other comments suggesting LOTR and GOT have no place on this list of Sci-fi. After 2 years, we can only conclude that you actually believe these to be SF. If so, you really could do with some explanation of your definition of SF and why you think it includes magic unexplained by science. If you insist on having your cake and eating it, I point you in the direction of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series or Terry Brooks's Shannara series. How have you managed a list of supposed Top Sci-fi without any mention of Larry Niven? Ringworld. Or his collaboration with Jerry Pournelle - "The Mote in God's Eye". Also check out Becky Chambers "The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet" Peter F. Hamilton's Nights Dawn series also deserves to be on this list. Greg Bear "Blood Music" should be included for its prescience. This list is not complete without Neal Stephenson - My pick would be Cryptonomicon/The Baroque Cycle but really any of Anathem, Seveneves, Snow Crash or The Diamond Age. David Brin's "Uplift" series which could be followed neatly by Adrien Tchaikovsky's Children of Time.
By b122are1 on 05 October 2020, 04:16 AM
I love these suggestions! Maybe it's time to update the article.
By amy.cohen on 05 October 2020, 04:29 PM
Some are good, but all that fantasy stuff does, not belong on a best sf list, and the list seems to focus on hoary old "accepted choices" and not new works that are just as good or often better than the "old masters". And you don't even get all the old masters. Anyway. Thanks, there are things on here I should probably read, anyway.
By cwbutler on 05 October 2020, 06:09 PM
There's always room for debate on these lists! We're glad some of the titles have sparked your interest. :)
By amy.cohen on 07 October 2020, 06:40 PM
Tolkien and Martin? What planet are they from?
By sgilbert on 22 October 2020, 11:23 PM
Middle Earth? The Seven Kingdoms? ;) Point taken. Thanks for joining the discussion!
By amy.cohen on 23 October 2020, 01:55 PM
This is a great list of good reads, but a lot of them I wouldn't characterize as science fiction.
By Scott.Bordelon on 24 October 2020, 11:25 PM
Fair point! Thanks for the feedback. :)
By amy.cohen on 26 October 2020, 03:42 PM
I was recommended “Red Rising” a few years back by a friend who said it was kind of a cross between “Enders Game” and “Hunger Games”. I never liked The Hunger Games but the Enders Game/Shadow books were some of my favorites for a long time. Now the Red Rising trilogy is. If you like great world building, character development, cool future tech, planet hoping, space battles, fantastic world building, teens being forced to fight to the death, genetically enhanced humans, a thrilling plot, and (not sure if I said this yet) glorious world building you’ll love this!
By Santasatan6969 on 28 October 2020, 11:21 AM
Love this suggestion! Thanks so much!
By amy.cohen on 28 October 2020, 06:13 PM
You are mixing sci to with fantasy. It is a fundamental error!
By Rybkapof on 01 November 2020, 08:58 AM
Thanks for the feedback! This seems to be a roundly supported opinion by our readers, and has been brought to the attention of our editors. :)
By amy.cohen on 04 November 2020, 07:24 PM
You mix science fiction and fantasy; totally different genres.
By Warpdad on 06 November 2020, 12:25 AM
Lot's of those are only on this list because they were "the first" with a particular idea. Compare to some of what is being written in the last decade, lot's of those old favorites don't pass the test of time
By null on 22 November 2020, 07:03 PM

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