The 10 best advanced-level sci-fi classics

It's not all space wars and Big Brother – here's the top ten reads to take you to the genre's outer limits

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Ancilliary Justice Ann Leckie

This weekend marked the 72nd annual World Science Fiction Convention in London, and although the event might have been dismissed by the literary establishment in decades past, now sci-fi (and fantasy) is having a moment. Maybe it’s the fact that the dystopias of the 20th century are sort of becoming reality; maybe it’s the slow-but-sure crumbling of categorization that has so often been the instrument of taste-making in the past. Whatever the reason, more and more readers are recognizing that sci-fi isn’t all space wars and Big Brother (though there’s a fair bit of both). Read on for books to start your own foray into the genre.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE BY ANN LECKIE 

Leckie’s debut space opera won the prestigious Hugo award for best novel at this weekend’s festivities. Although its use of sci-fi tropes – the protagonist is a genderless spaceship, for starters – could seem fairly intense for those unfamiliar with the genre, its deep exploration of consciousness and emotions will appeal to most humans. Lauded for its intelligence, deft handling of multiple perspectives, and sense of humor, Ancillary Justice is a striking example of how contemporary writers are translating elements of “literature” into settings in outer space. 

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Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie

THE DISPOSSESSED BY URSULA K. LE GUIN 

If the rise of sci-fi into “serious reading” from its former relegation to the realm of “fun books” has a poster figure, it’s definitely the icon of the smart-and-sassy retort and amazing name, Ursula K. Le Guin. Considered a good point-of-entry to Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of future-set novels about the humanoid race of Hainish making contact with the planets of offspring they’ve populated, The Dispossessed is staunchly leftist and political, while another often-cited part of the Hainish Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, will appeal to your interests in feminism, sexuality, and L-O-V-E. 

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The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin

LITTLE, BIG BY JOHN CROWLEY 

If you know much about sci-fi, you’ll know that Crowley’s quiet yet expansive epic – which the revered/reviled literary critic Harold Bloom called “a neglected masterpiece” before comparing its achievement to that of Alice in Wonderland – is technically “fantasy”; it’s got fairies and impossibilities where sci-fi is more about improbable (and often horrifying) projections of the future. Still,the complex, emotional narrative incorporates enough elements of sci-fi – and its bed-fellow dystopia – to make for a good introduction to what the genre has to offer. 

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Little, Big John Crowley

STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS BY TED CHIANG 

Chiang’s thoughtful first collection is an experiment in mixing mathematical logic and the unquantifiable questions of human existence. With a particular focus on religion and spirituality, Chiang’s fictions are literary experiments with scientific concepts, and his background as a technical writer lends them all the precision you’d expect, with none of the inaccessibility. 

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Stories of Your Life and Others Ted Chiang

ROADSIDE PICNIC BY ARKADY AND BORIS STRUGATSKY 

The cult novel that became the loose inspiration for Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker follows what happens after abandoned alien artifacts create a thriving black market on Earth. When “stalkers” become obsessed with (illegally) harvesting these objects (many of which have supernatural/dangerous properties) from “the Zones” where they were left behind, things get even more dystopic. 

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Roadside Picnic Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

THE COURSE OF THE HEART BY M. JOHN HARRISON

Fans of the mega, pseudo-intellectual hit The Secret History will find the ease into sci-fi/fantasy positively, well, easy with this one, which covers the ramifications of a vaguely remembered ritual conducted by three Cambridge students in a year long before that of the narrative. Since, their lives have been characterized by psychological torment, which Harrison weaves seamlessly into mythology, romance, and fantastical suspense. 

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The Course of the Heart M. John Harrison

BABEL-17/EMPIRE STAR BY SAMUEL R. DELANY 

Those titles are positively Star Wars, yeah, but this pair of short novels will sit well with fans of Ben Lerner’s meta-fictional poet-protagonist-waxes-about-language style. Although Delaney’s intensely concerned with language, his plots aren’t lacking, either; their energy will have you turning page after page until you stop to realize there’s some serious philosophy going on here, too. 

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Babel-17/Empire Star Samuel R. Delany

FEED BY MIRA GRANT 

The amount of gore and zombie-related death in this book might make you initially think “horror,” but Grant – or Seanan McGuire, under a pen name – has written a post-apocalyptic 21st century that is rooted in political, speculative sci-fi. The word “zombie” always sounds outlandish, sure, but as a figure for biological warfare or other very real threats to life as we know it. Plus, there’s social media. 

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Feed Mira Grant

DAWN BY OCTAVIA BUTLER 

The first volume in Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series deals with a nuclear apocalypse alongside issues of race, sexuality, and “the other.” With aliens seeking to “trade” genes with the desperate, post-nuclear humans, it’s pretty classic sci-fi, but Butler’s elegant treatment of the story’s captive evokes both a dystopic future and the historical past: the book is just as much about 18th-century slave conditions as it is about speculative possibilities for the destruction of our species. 

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Dawn Octavia Butler

SOLARIS BY STANISLAW LEM 

In one of his best-known works (which was also adapted by Tarkovsky in the 70s), the cult Polish sci-fi writer explores the limitations of man and language. He also creates a very emotional, tense narrative, in which scientists studying the ocean on the planet Solaris are forced to come up against painful memories of their pasts and realize there are some things logic can’t explain. 

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