13 Science Fiction Stories That Will Blow Your Mind
The best science fiction doesn't just speculate, it makes the reader ask questions about the world. The books on this list range from hard examinations of technology to adventurous romps on other worlds, but they all share a sense that the world is more complicated than it initially appears.
Mind Blowing Modern Science Fiction
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
- Embassytown by China Miéville
- Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk
- Redshirts by John Scalzi
- Feed by Mira Grant
- Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
- Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
- Accelerando by Charles Stross
- Invasive by Chuck Wendig
- Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
- Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
- For Love of Mother-Not by Alan Dean Foster
- The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Ursula K. LeGuin On How Science Fiction Can Change The World
Since the beginning of the genre, the goal of science fiction has been to create compelling scenarios, based in scientific fact, that change the way the reader sees the present world. Whether that was Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell trying to educate people on the wonders of technology, or Mary Shelley exploring a moral dilemma, this holds true. Every era since has had a handful of stories that have the ability to really change the way people think.
In no particular order, this list shows off some authors whose imaginations and craftsmanship have managed to make people think differently about the world. Sometimes that's with a biting satirical look, other times it is with subtle insight into fantastical spaces. And sometimes it is even just by telling a rollicking adventure story that contains a kernel of truth.
At #1 is the science fantasy novel The Fifth Season. Written by N.K. Jemisin, it is a character-driven story that imagines a world with one giant continent. The central concern of the story is how to live in a world that is being devastated by climate change. By building her entire world around the planet's geology, Jemisin is able to shine a light on our own relationship to the Earth and time.
#2 is the linguistics-heavy alien exploration novel Embassytown. An author who has explored a number of different genres, China Mieville has brought a unique look at everything from steampunk to Moby Dick. Embassytown imagines a colonial world full of genuinely strange aliens that speak with two mouths, and only in literal terms. This is used to raise questions about language, biology, and how both influence political formations.
The #3 author is best known for Fight Club, which itself has light science fictional elements. He dove more deeply into developing a dystopian future with Rant. The book is narrated by a dead character, and initially seems to be another realistic novel. Once Rant makes it to the city, everything changes. Palahniuk mixes themes of class-based oppression and sexual adventurousness to create a unique look at our contemporary moral universe.
Our #4 pick is Redshirts. John Scalzi takes a common joke about the television series Star Trek to its logical conclusion. While it is set in its own universe, the premise of the book weaves together concepts like criticism and fanfiction to create a completely reimagined world. It calls into question fictional characters' relationship to the media in which they originate. That in turn opens up questions about what stories do for us.
#5 is the first novel in the Newsflesh series, Feed. After a zombie apocalypse, a blogger documents a Republican presidential campaign. It is full of people who are self-aware of previous zombie stories and other horror media, allowing them not to fall into the obvious traps. Readers more interested in social technologies than hard math tend to find it interesting. It also functions as a satire of journalism from the 2000s.
The #6 novel is Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation. The film adaptation has allowed more people to experience this exploration of a completely alien space by a team of strong women. But Vandermeer's novel is impressive in its own right. As an author of the New Weird subgenre, his books defy easy explanation. The monsters in them are resonant with our fears, but don't boil down to simple sentences. This allows him to capture the complexity of the modern world.
At #7 is an examination of how we replace war with entertainment, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente. It takes Eurovision, or The Olympics, and sets it into an intergalactic context. The somewhat silly premise is capitalized on, but Valente also uses it to explore deeper themes. Questions of what makes a great performance and how international competition plays out through non-violent productions are raised and investigated.
#8 is Accelerando by Charles Stross. It started as a series of novellas that were collected into a single volume, which went on to nearly sweep that year's science fiction awards, winning a Hugo, a Clarke, and a Campbell award, among others. The plot details three generations of a family that occur prior to, during, and subsequent to the technological singularity. It leads the reader to ask questions about the limitations of competition and the nature of intelligence.
#9 mixes mystery and horror with more scientific concerns. Invasive confronts biological engineering and the use of insects as weapons of war. This raises two related moral questions that drive the action of the book: what are the ethics of bioengineering, and who do we trust with that knowledge. Like all good authors, Chuck Wendig doesn't provide a simple answer, but inspires the reader to continue asking questions.
#10 is the short story collection Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho. Best known for her fantasy work, this collection straddles the line between genres. Space exploration stories are used to talk about immigration. But there are also stories with vampire-like creatures called pontianak and boarding schools that get invaded by faeries. What it lacks in hard technological speculation it makes up for in important questions about the value of family and the effects of being othered in society.
#11 is the dystopian cyberpunk novel Moxyland. An exploration of how technology can be used to reinforce oppressive regimes, Lauren Beukes' book weaves its way between four different first person narratives. This allows it to show a number of perspectives, from someone who is making due within the system to someone who wants to overthrow it completely. Set in a futuristic version of Cape Town, South Africa, it updates dystopian fiction for the smartphone and social media era.
#12 is the beginning of the Pip and Flinx series, For Love of Mother-Not. Originally published in 1983, it gives these already established characters a backstory. The writing is what one might expect from pulp science fiction, being primarily interested in telling a rousing adventure story. But as the series progresses it delves into questions of eugenics, governance, and more, all while maintaining a very digestible style.
#13 is the short story collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu. The title story was the first short to win all three of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. Each of the fifteen entries offers something distinct, but as a whole they prioritize a logical consistency in storytelling that can teach the reader something about themselves or the world.