There’s a good chance you’ll find your next great read among the best sci-fi books of all time. Science fiction is a broad genre that contains everything from military fiction to steampunk, robots, and alien worlds. There’s a backlog of classics that you don’t want to miss, like “Frankenstein,” “War of the Worlds,” and at least one Jules Verne novel. And new books by authors like Nnedi Okorafor are reshaping the look and feel of the genre.
The novel that qualifies as one of the best sci-fi books of all time is highly subjective, and you can find many great, in-depth debates on the subject. We picked books that represent the best of the best within certain categories. Here’s our list of the best sci-fi books, along with a few tips to help you pick one that’s most likely to transport you to a civilization, planet, or time you’ve never experienced before.
— Best Classic: “Frankenstein”
— Best New: “Remote Control”
— Best Climate Change Sci-Fi: “The Ministry for the Future”
— Best Prophetic Sci-Fi: “Parable of the Sower”
— Best Sci-Fi Turned Movie: “The Martian”
— Best Sci-Fi Graphic Novel: “On a Sunbeam”
— Best Visionary Sci-Fi: “The City We Became”
— Best Series: “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
— Best Fantasy: “Dune”
— Best Young Adult: “A Wrinkle in Time”
How We Chose the Best Sci-Fi Books
There are many fascinating, exciting, and introspective sci-fi books to read that it wasn’t easy to decide on which ones made the list. We’ve been avid sci-fi readers for years, so we based our decisions on the writing and story quality, effect on the genre, and reviews/popularity of the book.
Writing and Story Quality: Writing and story quality can be subjective, but books that continue to remain popular and relevant despite the passage of time highlight quality.
Affect on the Genre: We looked for books that not only had an impact on their readers but on the genre as a whole. Certain books open ideas and writing forms that continue to influence science fiction, both written and visual, for decades.
Reviews/Popularity: The books on the list have been popular in their time and many well beyond their time. Not everyone will like a book, but the book should have at least four stars to make the list. You can read your favorites with the best ereaders.
Best Classic Sci-Fi Book: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Why It Made The Cut: This genre-bending novel made waves when it was first published and continues to shape our understanding of sci-fi and horror, making it the best classic sci-fi book.
— Length: 222 pages
— Series Length: One
— Original Publication Date: 1818
— Familiar story with many film adaptations
— Excellent setting descriptions
— Explores morality and humanity
— Language may feel outdated
The story of Frankenstein’s monster is familiar, thanks to many film and television adaptations. Author Mary Shelley started the book while still a teenager and managed to write one of the first recognized science fiction novels. In the process, she managed to mix it with horror enough to affect the foundations of two major genres.
The story of the mad scientist Frankenstein explores themes we still see today, making it one of the best classic sci fi books . Though Frankenstein can give life to dead tissue, should he? Where are the moral lines in science? He’s unwilling to then accept responsibility for the monster he’s created, leaving the reader to wonder who’s the real monster in the story.
“Frankenstein” came out in 1818, with revisions made in 1831. It can take some time to adjust to the language. Some readers don’t have a problem with that, while others may find it too stilted for their tastes. Or pick up one of the best space gifts instead.
Best New Sci-Fi Book: “Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor
Why It Made The Cut: “Remote Control” is classic Okorafor, which is to say, exciting, surprising, and brilliantly written, making it the best new sci-fi book.
— Length: 156 pages
— Series Length: One
— Original Publication Date: 2021
— Complex main character that’s both relatable and admirable
— Imaginative world
— Intriguing ‘what if’ theory behind the plot
— Heavy emotions can be intense
Nnedi Okorafor continues to create imaginative, insightful science fiction with “Remote Control.” The main character faces the loss of everything and everyone she knows when she becomes the adopted daughter of death. The book, which is relatively short, explores intense feelings, which can be a bit heavy for some readers. However, Okorafor successfully creates a world that’s enough like our own to spark personal introspection but foreign enough to draw inquisitive readers into the plot. In the end, it’s a great story that will leave you thinking long after you’ve flipped the last page. For another great new read, check out "Zoey Punches the Future in the D**k."
Best Climate Change Sci-Fi: “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Why It Made The Cut: “The Ministry for the Future” is urgent science fiction firmly grounded in the present, bending genre to help readers face the terrors of climate change.
— Length: 576 pages
— Series Length: One
— Original Publication Date: 2020
— Extremely relevant to our present situation
— Raises important questions and possible solutions
— Fast-paced narrative
— Some readers may be seeking lighter topics
Similar to the genre of horror, dystopian sci-fi offers a way for people to explore the primal fear evoked by worst-case scenarios. However, because global climate change has been impacting our mental health for years, science fiction dystopias about the issue can hit a little too close to home.
In “The Ministry for the Future”, acclaimed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson erodes the boundary between dystopias and the current moment by setting his story just slightly ahead of where we are now. Details in the fictional story — from home particulate meters to cataclysmic weather events — could easily be found in our current reality.
The book's narrow degree of separation from the present, coupled with vivid storytelling, provides an inventive way for readers to grapple with urgent questions of personal and societal responsibility. You may find both motivation to act and room for hope. And you can start saving energy with some of the best solar panels.
Best Prophetic Sci-Fi: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler
Why It Made The Cut: Written almost three decades ago, in “Parable of the Sower” legendary science fiction author Octavia Butler shows us 2025 with unsettling foresight.
— Length: 336 pages
— Series Length: Two
— Original Publication Date: 1993
— Part of a two-book series
— Insight to apply to modern life
— Philosophical exploration of religion
— A third book was never completed
In September 2020, “Parable of the Sower” was number 14 on the “New York Times” bestseller list of paperback trade fiction. While wildfires altered the sky color in San Francisco and the world struggled during the early months of the pandemic, readers were discovering that Butler’s book, written nearly thirty years before, was proving increasingly relevant.
Octavia Butler’s work is a must-read for any fan of science fiction, and some call her the mother of Afrofuturism. If science fiction is a vehicle for predicting humanity’s worst future impulses and showing how our best qualities can counteract the damage, reading this book in the very time period it was set offers thrilling comparisons and opportunities for introspection. Readers will appreciate following the story in 1998’s “Parable of the Talents,” but unfortunately a third book in the series was not finished.
Best Sci-Fi Turned Movie: “The Martian” by Andy Weir
Why It Made The Cut: “The Martian” will delight sci-fi fans who feel that the strongest representations of the genre prioritize scientific realism over the author’s imagination.
— Length: 387 pages
— Series Length: One
— Original Publication Date: 2011
— Enjoy in multiple mediums
— Conversational style
— Some readers may get tired of the setting
One of the biggest draws of “The Martian” by Andy Weir is the author’s grounding his book in plausible scenarios such as what scientists knew about Mars at the time the book was written. Mark Whatney’s hero’s journey as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet is a classic tale of surviving against all odds while awaiting rescue, told through an informal diary style that helps readers feel like they too could be forced to grow potatoes fueled by their own poop.
In addition to sparking discussions about gardening in space, readers can check out photos of places depicted in the novel (and the subsequent Matt Damon blockbuster) on the University of Arizona’s website. While this book does not have a sequel, our continuing scientific advances (and perhaps the obsessions of Elon Musk) tease the question of whether a real-life sequel of sorts could happen soon. You can get more perspective on the galaxy with the best telescopes.
Best Sci-Fi Graphic Novel: “On a Sunbeam” by Tillie Walden
Why It Made The Cut: “On a Sunbeam” offers an escape into a visually arresting universe, with a love story at its heart that brings warmth to the vastness and unknowability of outer space.
— Length: 544 pages
— Series Length: One
— Original Publication Date: 2018
— Beautiful artwork
— Cinematic storytelling
— Striking color schemes
— Visual medium has less text than a traditional book
Tillie Walden was only 22 years old when “On a Sunbeam” was published, but this graphic novel holds appeal for adults as well as teenagers. While the origins of the queer love story that unfolds across the book’s two timelines take place in a boarding school, we depart from boarding school tropes to revisit the characters after time has passed and their lives have taken different directions.
Nominated for a 2018 Hugo award for best story (given out annually by the World Science Fiction society), some might say it falls under the sci-fi sub-genre of “space opera.” For readers intrigued by science fiction but turned off by the sometimes lengthy descriptions and rules of alternate world-building, this book tells the story through dialogue and illustrations in a way that invites the imagination to freely inhabit other places. Travel virtually to other new worlds with the best space games.
Best Visionary Sci-Fi: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin
Why It Made The Cut: With “The City We Became,” N.K. Jemisin re-envisions New York City through the lens of science fiction and fantasy with striking results.
— Length: 448 pages
— Series Length: Two (thus far)
— Original Publication Date: 2020
— Takes place in a reimagined New York City
— Speculative fiction set in modern times
— Part of an epic series
— The next book is not out until November 2022
So many science fiction books take place in worlds that only exist in the author’s imagination. In “The City We Became,” four-time Hugo award winner N.K. Jemisin creates a visionary new world based on a place where many readers have lived, vacationed in, spent time visiting friends and family, or learned about in the media.
In an interview with “Entertainment Weekly,” Jemisin speaks of capturing the minute details of Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park in person to reinforce the reality of the locale in her prose even as the story utterly transforms that reality. Unlike traditional sci-fi classics where the closest you’ll get to immersion in the story is visiting a movie set or theme park based on the book, with the book’s setting and level of detail readers could find themselves in the very place where an avatar emerged or a tentacle was unleashed.
Best Sci-Fi Series: “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams
Why It Made The Cut: “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” goes beyond cult classic with a witty, fun, galactic adventure that attracts more than sci-fi fans, making it the best sci-fi series.
— Length: N/A
— Series Length: Five
— Original Publication Date: 1979
— Funny enough to attract those who aren’t fans of sci-fi
— Makes fun of but integrates classic sci-fi tropes
— Series takes beloved characters on interesting adventures through to the very end of the last book
— May not appeal to hard sci-fi readers
“The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has been a classic sci-fi hit since its initial release in 1979. The series follows the adventures of Arthur Dent as he makes his way across the galaxy from one humorous situation to another. It’s touted as one of the funniest sci-fi series of all time, attracting readers who don’t usually appreciate the genre. If you’re looking for a laugh-out-loud adventure that lasts for five volumes, this is the best sci-fi book series. However, hard science fiction fans may not appreciate the soft approach to science.
Best Sci-Fi Fantasy: “Dune” by Frank Herbert
Why It Made The Cut: “Dune” is a sci-fi classic that walks the line between genres with a rich world and deep characters, making it the best sci-fi fantasy book.
— Length: 890 pages
— Series Length: Six
— Original Publication Date: 1965
— Complex world with deep characters
— Combines magic-like powers of fantasy with the technology of an advanced civilization
— Six books in the series offers reading for months
— The epic length may turn off some readers
You’d be hard-pressed to tiptoe into the sci-fi section and not run across “Dune,” one of the best sci-fi fantasy books. The cult classic walks the line between science fiction and fantasy, with a religion that borders on magic. However, that religion thrives in a technologically advanced world to put the book firmly in both the sci-fi and fantasy camps. This epic novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Its length and unique setting can take some commitment to get into, but once you do, the powerful writing and rich culture and characters make it worth the effort.
Best Young Adult Sci-Fi: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle
Why It Made The Cut: L’Engle’s classic novel explains complex concepts in ways that children (and adults) love, making it the best young adult sci-fi book.
— Length: 206 pages
— Series Length: Five
— Original Publication Date: 1962
— Makes science approachable and interesting
— Explores children’s feelings of not fitting in
— Encourages children to embrace their strengths to solve problems
— More appropriate for middle-grade readers
“A Wrinkle in Time” is the first sci-fi book that many children read. While we’ve got it categorized as a YA, it more closely appeals to middle-grade readers thanks to the age of the main character, Meg. However, it addresses themes of belonging, family, and friendships that speak to older children and even adults, making it one of the best young adult sci-fi books.
The book was first published in 1962, so there’s definitely a Cold War feel to it. However, the characters’ ability to face and solve problems on their own while trying to understand complex, abstract principles is a great intro to the genre. L’Engle followed it up with four more books that star other members of the family for readers who want the adventures to continue.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Sci-Fi Book
The Book’s Sub-genre
Books are broadly categorized into genres and sub-genres. Science fiction used to be its own genre, but today, it’s considered a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Before grabbing the first sci-fi book you see, consider additional sub-genres that pique your interest. Popular science fiction sub-genres include:
— Military science fiction
— Space opera
— Sci-fi romance
— Hard science fiction
— Soft science fiction
— Time travel
— Superhero fiction
Each of these subgenres follows different tropes and styles that may or may not interest you. For example, military science fiction typically requires a high-level accuracy when depicting military organizations, relationships, and battles, whereas books about our future are left open to the author’s interpretation. Hard science fiction typically goes into the detail of the science, which plays a bigger role in the plot. That’s where to start if you require strict scientific accuracy.
Are you looking for an epic (long) novel or a short story? Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick wrote many short stories, anthologies, and novellas, whereas “Dune” by Frank Herbert is an epic commitment. Consider the time you have and if you enjoy diving into a different world for a few hours or are willing to devote a few days or weeks to a single book.
Publication Date and Format
The only reason I suggest you look at the publication date is to get a better idea of the societal norms that might be present in the book. Sci-fi novels are known for pushing ideas and boundaries, but they can still have outdated notions and ideas. A book that’s had many printings since its publication date may also stand the test of time better than one that’s only been printed once. Authors and publishers can, if they choose, make small changes at each printing.
Also, consider the book’s available formats. Do you prefer reading on a tablet or ereader, or would you rather listen to an audiobook? There are many more formats than there once were, from a 12min micro book library to novellas and flash fiction, which usually keeps the word count under 3,000 words.
Q: Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was based on a book by what celebrated sci-fi author?
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The book addresses the question of what if androids had feelings as deep and complex as a human’s.
Q: What was the first sci-fi book?
Elements of science fiction appeared in early literature among several cultures, making it difficult to pinpoint the first official sci-fi book. “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish, written in 1666, often gets the credit. However, the themes we’re most familiar with today appeared for the first time in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” She explored not only the abilities of science but the ethics behind what could or should be done with those abilities. The book also sheds light on the human condition through the eyes of the creature and the creator’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his creation’s actions.
Q: What is the best sci-fi book ever?
The best sci-fi book ever is largely a matter of opinion. No matter which novel gets the top award, there will be a hot debate with valid reasons for choosing a different novel. However, the classic “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley wins out for story, themes, and writing, though the language is a bit dated at times. That does not discredit other sci-fi greats that didn’t make our list, such as Jules Verne, Orson Wells, and Isaac Asimov.
Q: What makes a book sci-fi?
Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction, which contains elements that are not found in real life. Specifically, science fiction asks and explores “what if'' questions. What if a scientist created life from death (“Frankenstein”)? What if robots felt as deeply as humans (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)? However, science fiction can but doesn’t have to take place in space, the future, have robots, include time travel, or many of the other more common sci-fi settings and plots. Science or technology typically play a role in a science fiction plot though it doesn’t have to drive the plot or characters.
Q: What sci-fi fantasy book should I read?
We suggest “Dune.” Sci-fi and fantasy are interrelated speculative fiction sub-genres that frequently mix and mingle. “Dune” offers one of the most popular and poignant examples. A mystical religion that bestows its followers with near magical powers, yet the world is built on technology that impacts the plot and characters. This book also explores the psychology of the human existence, an aspect of science that makes this a great book to span the gap between sci-fi and fantasy. You can also explore new worlds with the best VR games.
Q: What is the number one sci-fi book?
“Dune” by Frank Herbert is still one of the most popular science fiction books of all time. However, it’s not for everyone. “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, explores sci-fi themes a little closer to home and can be enjoyed by teens and adults.
Q: What are the best children’s sci-fi books?
“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle is beloved by children and adults and offers a great introduction to science fiction. The science underlies a story that spans the universe. It explores themes of acceptance, love, and the power of friendship and family.
Q: Why do sci-fi books rarely make best book lists?
Sci-fi is genre fiction, which it’s laden with tropes (as are all genres). Those tropes (literary devices or norms) can bring down criticism on books within the genre when compared to other genres. For example, science fiction often takes place in the future, an alternate future, or a different planet. The author has to spend time ‘info dumping’ to explain the who’s, what’s, and why’s of these foreign elements that the reader needs to know to give context to the story. Many sci-fi authors info dump without readers even knowing it. However, info dumping is looked down upon in other genres, yet in sci-fi it’s expected to a certain degree. The use of tropes that make sci-fi what it is often gets it excluded from best book lists.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley is one of the best sci-fi books of all time. If you’re building your home library or want to dive deep into books that have affected the genre for centuries, you can’t go wrong with Frankenstein. For kids who love sci-fi or are ready to try it for the first time, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle offers an adventure they’re likely to love.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.