8 essential sci-fi books to read

Science fiction is one of literature's richest genres, using space, alien life and technology to comment on the world, society and the human condition.

It's also a vast genre, with hundreds of novels released every year. Here are 8 essential sci-fi books to help you get to grips with this daunting yet hugely rewarding genre.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

The Forever War

The Forever War is a sci-fi military novel set during a major conflict between humanity and a distant race named the Taurans. It follows a soldier named William Mandella, who suffers severe time dilation as a result of his intergalactic travels to the battlefield. Returning home after duty, Mandella finds that the world has changed beyond recognition and struggles to adapt to the occasionally dystopian future.

Like most good sci-fi, The Forever War is a mirror on real life; in this case, the Vietnam war. Haldeman served during the conflict and Mandella's difficulties in adapting to modern society, and the isolation it causes, are reflective of the treatment Vietnam vets received on their return.

The Forever War was critically acclaimed on release, receiving the Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards. It still stands up over 40 years later too!

Dune – Frank Herbert


To call Dune influential is something of an understatement. Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi epic has inspired a legion of novels and movies, one of which you might have heard of: Star Wars.

Dune takes place on Arrakis (also known as Dune), a desert planet that hosts a rare and extremely valuable substance called "˜spice'. The Artimedes family are sent to govern the planet, but are soon overthrown by the villainous Harkonnens in a brutal coup.

Paul Artimedes and his mum Jessica survive, however, and head to the desert to plot their revenge; a plan that involves the planet's massive, ravenous sandworms.

Fun fact: Dune, which won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, was rejected by over 20 publishers. We imagine quite a few people lost their jobs over that one…

Neuromancer – William Gibson


Neuromancer is a hugely influential cyberpunk novel, inspiring a whole movement with its potent mix of grungy hackers and heady technological concepts like cyberspace (it was written a while ago, alright?).

The book follows a lowly hacker named Case who is banned from the world's computer network after stealing from his employer. Addicted to drugs and penniless, Case considers ending it all"¦ until a shady figure offers him renewed access to the network in exchange for completing some seriously dodgy hacking work.

Without Neuromancer, movies like The Matrix probably wouldn't exist. Log out of cyberspace for a few hours and enjoy.

Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut


Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five follows a soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who is captured and sent to Dresden, where he endures the notorious Allied firebombing that killed countless citizens.

Faced with the horrors of conflict, Pilgrim becomes "˜unstuck in time' and reflects on his past, present and future (reflected by the novel's non-linear structure) and is later abducted by a race of aliens, the Tralfamadorians, who can perceive all time at once.

Vonnegut strikes the balance between reality and sci-fi masterfully, using the philosophies of the Tralfamadorians to convey a weary, resigned but oddly uplifting response to the hardships of life. He even manages to sum it up in just three infamous words (which appear every time someone dies): so it goes.

The Handmaid's Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaids Tale

Nominated for both the Nebula and Booker prizes in 1986, The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian future where a fringe Christian group has overthrown the US government and established a totalitarian patriarchal society. Women are stripped of their names and forced to serve their male masters as "˜handmaids', leading to some truly harrowing events.

You've probably heard a lot about The Handmaid's Tale this year thanks to the critically acclaimed TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss. The book is equally powerful and feels particularly relevant given recent developments in entertainment and politics.

Ubik – Philip K. Dick


Ubik is set in a future where humanity has colonised space and psychic powers are the norm, protagonist Joe Chip is sent to Mars to deal with a group of psychics who are invading the minds of "˜half-lifers' – people who are kept alive after death with minimal consciousness.

An explosion during the mission sets off a dramatic spiral of events in which some of Chip's team are killed and the rest are sent back in time and afflicted with a condition that causes them to age rapidly and die. The only cure to this affliction is a mysterious product named Ubik.

Ubik is arguably Philip K. Dick's most difficult and disturbing novel, delivering a disorientating yet gripping tale of life and death with a flexible interpretation of reality.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein


Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human born and raised on Mars, and his return to Earth. Blessed with psychic powers and wealth, Smith soon amasses a following and establishes his own religious movement based on free love and communes (before you ask: yes, hippies loved this book). This doesn't go down well with Earth's elite, however"¦

Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash

Snow Crash takes place in a dystopian United States controlled by a series of private interests after a massive financial crash. That's not the worst of it, though: a computer virus named Snow Crash has got loose and, somehow, it's infecting humans too. It's up to a freelance hacker called Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) to save the day.

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