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The liberty to set a story anywhere, in any time period, and in any of our infinite realities gives sci-fi an uncanny power to reshape, or at least cause us to re-examine, our perception of the world. These brilliant authors can take the bare bones of a story, flesh it out with compelling characters and unique settings, and weave a plot whose pattern delights readers; but then go further.
Here we take a look at some of the most powerful philosophically driven stories in scientific fiction. Some cast social norms in a heart-breaking new light, challenge gender stereotypes, or provide a deep, internal examination of our perilous future. Humans are at a point where celebrated sci-fi concepts are beginning to take hold in reality, so each novel displayed here has poignancy and such a presence as to give you pause, even partway through a sentence, just to think and to ponder the profound universe in which we live.
Mentally stimulating and emotionally complex, each novel in our list is famed not only for its masterful storytelling, but held in awe for its ability to set the human brain ablaze with inquisitive and introspective thought.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Now considered a classic of the sci-fi genre, Hyperion—the first in a series of four—tells the exciting and curious tale of seven pilgrims on a long journey to the Time Tombs: monuments capable of propelling us backwards through time. Complete strangers, the pilgrims undertake the perilous journey and pass the time by telling their own unique and passionate stories.
From "The Priest’s Tale" through "The Poet’s Tale" and finally the revealing story of the consul, we journey through time and space learning about their histories and motives as they struggle to survive against the antagonistic Shrike: a menacing and immensely powerful creature guarding the precious monuments.
Each story is unique in both style and content, with a vein of underlying narrative structure which is both compelling and hugely satisfying to read. The multi-prize winning book is a must read for sci-fi lovers.
Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker
Professor Thomas Bible is divorced from the woman he loves, estranged from his two darling children, and his best friend has moved away to California to teach neurology. When his best friend Neil finally returns home and back into Tom’s life, everything has changed: Neil had in fact been working for the NSA on a secret project cracking the minds of suspected terrorists. Now, back home, the tables have turned and it’s Neil that’s cracked and employing his gruesome techniques on the public. Based on "The Argument" that all we do is an illusion, Neil continues his psychopathic trends with the kidnap and torture of those close to Tom, convinced he can control the human mind.
Set during an unspecified future period, the book throws existential questions at the reader and challenges us to confront the idea that everything, each organism and every thought in our entire history, is a simulation. Bakker combines well-researched theoretical evidence with masterful storytelling to make this a true thriller story.
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Blindsight is a mind bender. Asking perplexing questions of free will, consciousness, and the concept of identity, this novel is a philosophical thriller in a league of its own. One day, without warning or seemingly any consequence, the entire planet appears to be scanned in one fell sweep by some extra-terrestrial presence. Some years later, a radio signal is intercepted by one of our space probes. Originating from a comet with a trajectory which never intersects with Earth, there can only be one answer: Extra-terrestrial life is confirmed.
Of course, a crew goes to investigate; A crew comprised of a sociopathic vampire (mission commander) and five transhuman crew members, each designed to be uniquely skilled in case of an accident. And the captain is an AI. The story revolves around their interactions with the signal sender, an incomprehensible and powerfully sentient mind which inhabits the comet.
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Three millennia after the events of Ender’s Game humans have tried to colonize a new planet and discovered an existing alien species is already at home there. Attempting to carefully study this indigenous species from afar, a human ends up being killed and Ender—war hero and celebrity of only 35 years old, having spent his life traveling around the universe at light speed—is summoned to intercede and find out what happened.
Speaker for the Dead is an intriguing story, which Card suggests "consists of talking heads, interrupted by moments of excruciating and unwatchable violence" which sees Ender Wiggin as the only person with the courage—and brain—to confront this new species, with all their incomprehensible ways, and find the truth about what’s really happening on Luisitania.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Book of the New Sun is a series of four science fiction/fantasy novels by the award winning author Gene Wolfe. It’s a series whose reputation precedes it: Hailed as the greatest fantasy story of all time (after Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), it’s set on Earth, but in a time so far removed from our own that our entire civilization is a forgotten part of a distant history.
Set millions of years in the future, Earth is a wondrous and incredible place, but torturer Severian is exiled from his guild for committing the most heinous of crimes: He fell in love. The series tells the fascinating story of Severian’s dangerous adventure across the world.
Written in Wolfe’s spare time as a side-project, Book of the New Sun is a series you absolutely have to read; to gorge yourself on. Severian is a brilliant, deadly character and a superb protagonist for this tale.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Like a futuristic telling of The Jungle Book, Heinlein’s epic tells the story of a young human boy who has been raised on Mars, by Martians, and has now returned to Earth as a grown man. A profound investigation of his interaction with terrestrial culture, Stranger in a Strange Land has been hailed as "the most famous science fiction novel ever written."
A failed Martian landing saw everyone killed except for this newborn boy, who was then raised to adulthood in exile, completely unbeknownst to anyone on Earth. His first encounter with a fellow human was during a landing years later. The story walks us through his adjustments back on Earth and the close relationships he fosters there. Armed with psychic powers and a profound intellect, as well as being one of the richest humans on Earth, this Martian-human must try and find his way in the new world.
Adiamante by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Technology, including genetic manipulation, continued to skyrocket on Earth and eventually its population was scattered across the galaxy, leaving a single human race at home that lived in a non-aggressive and peaceful way.
Ten thousand years later, the genetically advanced and exiled "superhumans" appear in Earth’s atmosphere in 12 ships that are virtually indestructible, being made from Adiamante. L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s Adimante tells a thrilling and believable story of what our planet could well resemble in future. It’s a terrifying and fascinating journey which explores artificial intelligence and makes you wonder the point at which the thrill of technological advance is outweighed by its potentially uncontrollable repercussions.
Earth is now governed by a set of morally-guided rules which have enabled a longstanding peace and simplicity to be developed. How will this civilization react to a powerful, hostile threat hovering just outside its planet?
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
A speculative fiction novel set in an advanced future, Anathem is narrated by the main character, Fraa Erasmus. A simple man who lives in a concent—essentially a monastery—where no forms of advanced technology are permitted, Erasmus and his brothers live in seclusion in order to survive the wars and turmoil of man. Members of the concent are only permitted to leave its walls every one, 10, 100, or 1,000 years, according to their vows.
Having survived many disasters on Earth, a new threat has arrived in the form of a powerful spaceship lingering above Earth which threatens to destroy them all. Follow Erasmus’s journey away from the concent, across the planet and through—possibly—multiple universes as he attempts to save his planet from destruction.
The use of parallel universe theory leaves the reader somewhat perplexed at points, but the work is skillfully done and each narrative is excellently told. It’s a complex and invigorating story and deserves its status as an award-winning sci-fi piece.
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Exploring Asimov’s idea that science fiction was a "flavor" that can be applied to any genre, rather than being one outright, the book is a detective story which follows a NYC police detective and a robot who must work together to solve a murder.
The story is set in the midst of a terrible struggle between those content to live on Earth and the "spacers" who wish to continue colonizing new worlds. In a slightly dystopian Earth, the tale of the stalwart policeman and the robot (made in the exact likeness of Dr. Sarton, the murdered man) forces us to consider the realities of living in an overstuffed and draining planet Earth. Is continued colonization the way to go?
Add that to the uncomfortable "caves of steel," where humans are crammed together like sardines and the growing discord between humans and robots and you’re left with a philosophical rollercoaster which is both compelling and fascinating.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
In a society where thieves and bandits maraud the streets and resource scarcity has everyone at each other’s throats, Lauren Olamina and her family live behind the tall, closed walls of their gated community. Venturing outside the walls means taking up arms for protection against those who have nothing and who will do anything to change that.
There is a place which offers total sanctuary and peace of mind. The cost? The company town of Olivar will control every aspect of your life. The third choice is to strike away somewhere new and try to find a new home, away from it all.
Join Lauren and her fellow virtual slaves and their bitter fight for survival as they strive to create a new and better life for themselves. Lauren’s poignant and empathetic religious character may pave the path for her, though it will take all of her wit to survive at all.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
What we all know could happen, but pray will never happen, has finally come to pass in this sci-fi masterpiece by Walter Miller: nuclear war. The devastating power of this war has rent the world in two and the story is set in a Catholic monastery in the Southwest US, where monks are dedicating their lives to the preservation of mankind’s scientific knowledge. They wait for a time when man is once more ready to hold such power.
The novel takes place over thousands of years as civilization recovers and rebuilds itself back up from the gutter. Witness the growth of mankind as they struggle back through millennia of development, repeating many critical mistakes as you’re forced to acknowledge a great many flaws in our species.
With confirmed status as a sci-fi masterpiece, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a stunning piece of fiction which makes the reader take a deep look inside as they consider the realities of a post-apocalyptic human race.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is set in a space-age future where the noble houses of the galaxy not only control the wealth, but also control the individual planets to which humankind has cast itself. Owing their allegiance to House Corrino, the family of Paul Atreides is given ownership of the highly coveted planet Arrakis.
Arrakis is the only source of the "spice" melange in existence—a highly valuable and sought-after substance—and so control of that planet brings with it all of the danger, political intrigue, and complexity that the galaxy can provide.
At the offset of this grand adventure, Paul is only a young boy and he must struggle to meet the responsibilities of a man grown. The novel explores politics, religion, technology, and the empathetic nature of human beings as Herbert—a master storyteller—weaves an epic tapestry across space. A must read for sci-fi fans anywhere, and a perennial front-runner on any "best of sci-fi" lists.