Science fiction has served as an inspiration for generations of scientists and engineers, as well as a warning for what may happen through abuse of technological advances. The best science fiction stimulates the mind while providing a masterfully written story that you simply cannot put down. Here are my personal recommendations for seven science fiction novels to expand (and blow) your mind.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the first entry in The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series and has become an international sensation since its original publication in Chinese in 2006 and subsequent English translation by Ken Liu in 2014.
The novel opens during the Cultural Revolution, a period of fanaticism where the People’s Republic of China essentially became a personality cult for Mao Zedong. The cult of Mao dominated all facets of people’s lives, seeking to erase all non-Communist aspects of Chinese history and culture, through violent means if necessary. Of course, this also meant tight control over the Chinese education system to prevent the teaching of counterrevolutionary ideas.
Against this backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie’s father is a well-accomplished physics professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is at the forefront of his field, teaching core theories of modern physics such as general relativity and quantum mechanics. His embrace of Western science—including the work of Einstein and Bohr—leads him to be accused of embracing reactionary ideologies. He is beaten to death by students from the Red Guard in front of his terrified daughter. Ye Wenjie herself later becomes persecuted and imprisoned for embracing Western thought. She is saved by two military scientists working at the Red Coast, a top-secret space program by the Chinese government, who recognize Ye Wenjie’s outstanding abilities as a physicist.
The core idea of The Three-Body Problem draws directly from Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi classic, Solaris, which considers whether a planet that orbits two suns can support the evolution of life. In Solaris, the two suns have vastly different intensities, causing the climate of the orbiting planet, Solaris, to vary drastically depending upon which of the two suns is currently closer. The resulting climatic fluctuations cast doubt upon whether Solaris has a climate consistent enough to support biological evolution, which requires relative climatic stability over millions of years.
In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu ups the ante by introducing a third sun to the problem. The orbital path of a planet around three suns poses a complex mathematical problem that has eluded solution for hundreds of years. In The Three-Body Problem, the orbiting planet, Trisolaris, experiences periods of relative stability punctuated by periods of sudden climatic chaos.
Throughout its planetary history, Trisolaris has undergone hundreds of stable periods, where society has achieved varying levels of scientific and technological development, only to be wiped out by sudden climate changes. The Trisolarans have evolved the ability to dehydrate themselves to survive through these periods of chaos, but they have finally determined that the only way their society can survive in the long-term is to colonize another inhabitable planet with a more stable climate. Compared to Trisolaris, the pale blue dot we know as Earth looks rather enticing.
Beyond its excellent treatment of scientific principles, The Three-Body Problem raises several important philosophical questions, the deepest of these being: Is humanity worth saving? As Ye Wenjie becomes one of the leading scientists searching for extraterrestrial life, her experiences during the Cultural Revolution have molded her views on the value of humanity.
Although Solaris and The Three-Body Problem start with essentially the same premise, The Three-Body Problem succeeds in ways where Solaris falters. Whereas Solaris falls quickly into pseudoscience, The Three-Body Problem is built upon largely believable scientific principles. Cixin Liu injects the plot with heavy doses of realistic quantum entanglement, information theory, nanotechnology, and particle physics. One of the most interesting concepts proposed by The Three-Body Problem is a new subatomic particle called a “sophon,” which can change dimensionality as a way of storing information. Beyond the hard sciences, Cixin Liu also brilliantly handles questions of sociology, especially in relation to the Cultural Revolution and its impact on human psychology and the decisions made by individual characters.
The Three-Body Problem is a nearly perfect sci-fi novel, translated vibrantly by Ken Liu. Read my complete review here.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Hyperion, the Hugo Award-winning 1989 novel by Dan Simmons, is one of the greatest classics of science fiction. An interstellar coalition of 29th-century humans known as the Hegemony of Man is allied with the TechnoCore, an association of self-sentient artificial intelligence (AI) beings. The Hegemony and the TechnoCore join forces against the Ousters, a group of genetically modified superhumans bent on intergalactic domination.
The main plot of Hyperion involves seven travelers making a final pilgrimage to the distant planet of Hyperion before an expected invasion by the Ousters. Hyperion is famed for its legendary Time Tomb structures, which are believed to have originated from the future. The Time Tombs are guarded by a fearsome godlike creature known as the Shrike, who has a cultlike religious following.
Hyperion adopts the same narrative structure as The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth century epic featuring stories told by a group of pilgrims who journey together to visit the Saint Thomas Becket shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. In Hyperion, six of the seven travelers share their stories leading to their current pilgrimage to see the Shrike. Dan Simmons adeptly adjusts his writing style for each of the six novellas within the outer framing story, spanning everything from horror to romance. The ominous, omnipotent presence of the Shrike is felt in the background of each story, haunting each of the narrators.
Oh, and one of the narrators is actually a spy in league with the Ousters.
The line between humanity and AI is blurred in Hyperion, most notably with the development of cybrids, AI-controlled beings with bodies grown from human DNA. In this sense, cybrids are the opposite of cyborgs, which have a biological consciousness but with a machine-enhanced body.
Hyperion is an astoundingly prescient book given its publication date of 1989. Beyond the usual science fiction tropes of space travel and intergalactic politics, Dan Simmons nailed the ubiquitous role of artificial intelligence. Simmons also postulated the development of the WorldWeb, a network granting instantaneous travel and universal access to information. The actual invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee occurred in the same year as Hyperion’s publication.
Reading Hyperion is a transcendent experience. It is science fiction of the highest caliber and a multi-layered allegory of human existence in all its beauty and horror. Read my complete review here.
One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence
One Word Kill is Mark Lawrence’s science fiction bildungsroman set in London in 1986. The first-person narrator, Nick, is a 15-year-old boy who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. He has, at best, a 50% chance of surviving until his twentieth birthday.
Nick is a mathematical prodigy and a social outcast with a small circle of close friends who love playing Dungeons & Dragons and discussing the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics. The sci-fi elements come when Nick is approached by a visitor from the future with an important message that could rescue him from cancer, but more urgently for Nick, save his troubled new friend, Mia.
Mark Lawrence’s writing in One Word Kill is superb, as always. He brings out Nick’s voice perfectly, accurately capturing the mind of a boy growing up in the 1980s. The prose is polished and concise, with every word carefully chosen. As with Lawrence’s other books, there is no filler here. To give you a sense of the writing, let me quote Nick’s description of his first chemotherapy treatment in the children’s oncology ward:
“These kids behaved like old men and women, lying exhausted in their beds, eyes bright in dark hollows. When they looked at you it didn’t take much imagination to see the skull beneath the skin.
They had us arranged by length in treatment so the ward looked rather like an assembly line, taking in healthy children at one end and spitting out corpses at the other.”
One Word Kill strikes a perfect balance between stimulating the reader’s mind and heart. The way Nick handles his cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy, and the subsequent interactions with his friends, are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. As a scientist, I also loved the discussions of quantum mechanics and the implications of its many-worlds interpretation.
One Word Kill is such a pleasant surprise and a great entry point for readers new to Mark Lawrence. Read my complete review here.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
The Unseen World is Liz Moore’s beautifully written coming-of-age novel of Ada Sibelius. Ada is the daughter of David Sibelius, a pioneering researcher in artificial intelligence during the early 1980s. David is the director of a computer science laboratory at the fictional Boston Institute of Technology, or “The Bit” as it is affectionately known.
Ada is named after Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, who is generally acknowledged as the first programmer—she programmed Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer and also published the first algorithm. Lady Lovelace was one of the most famous female mathematicians of the 19th century.
David is a quirky but responsible father, that is, until his mind starts to fail with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Ada has no other family and must rely on Liston to navigate these most difficult years of her life.
Ada also has a friend in ELIXIR, David’s artificial intelligence program built for natural language processing. ELIXIR is meant to be a solution to the Turing test, i.e., the creation of a machine that converses so naturally that the user is unable to distinguish it from a real human being. ELIXIR learns by having conversations with people to help train it. Ada converses with ELIXIR every day, sharing her experiences with the program. ELIXIR becomes her main confidant during her tumultuous teenage years, almost like a brother to her.
In The Unseen World, Liz Moore has captured the academic environment perfectly. I’m surprised by how many authors give unrealistic portraits of life in academia—an especially common problem in so-called “dark academia” books, many of which bear no resemblance to real academic life. But Liz Moore has portrayed academic life so perfectly in all its detail. She has also adeptly captured life growing up in the 1980s.
The Unseen World is a success in every respect. It is a touching coming-of-age story and family saga, coupled with a realistic account of the early days of artificial intelligence and an extrapolation to a sci-fi near future. I feel such a strong emotional connection with The Unseen World, which is a tribute to Liz Moore’s outstanding work as author. Read my complete review here.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber is a literary science fiction novel about a Christian preacher who is selected by an American corporation, USIC, to act as missionary to an alien race on the planet Oasis.
USIC is leading colonization efforts on Oasis and seeks to build a positive relationship with the Oasans. However, the previous missionary has gone missing, and the Oasans are demanding that a new missionary be sent without delay.
This book is a subtle masterpiece concerning contrasting theologies and the breakdown in human relationships. The author, Michel Faber, is not particularly concerned with the sci-fi aspects of the novel. So if you are looking for hard sci-fi, you’ll need to look elsewhere. But if you are looking for beautifully written, thought-provoking literary fiction, consider picking up The Book of Strange New Things, which will expand (and blow) your mind with its subtle ruminations on what it means to be human.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
…and this is why Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Never Let Me Go is hauntingly beautiful and eerily disturbing.
The novel begins at a boarding school somewhere in the English countryside. On the surface, it seems like it will be a standard coming of age novel in a school setting.
But gradually we understand that something is not right at this school. Some of the teachers seem to pity the students. Some are even afraid of them. And why don’t they seem to have any families?
I won’t give away any further details about the plot, as it’s best to go into this one cold. This will let you enjoy Ishiguro’s storytelling power, which is in peak form in Never Let Me Go.
Everything in this book is so well done: the beautiful writing, the character development, the emotional impact on the reader, and the big questions it raises. Never Let Me Go is matched only by Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, in terms of expertly written science fiction that will expand your mind. I highly recommend both.
The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan
In The Ten Percent Thief, Lavanya Lakshminarayan immerses us in Apex City, formerly known as Bangalore, once the Silicon Valley of India and now governed by a technocapitalist meritocracy. The Big Brother of the tale is Bell Corp, a corporation that has created its own technocratic caste system by ranking individuals on its signature bell curve. Individual productivity and the virality of social media posts help to improve one’s score, propelling them toward the upper tail of the bell curve. But it’s not enough to reach the top percentile: citizens must continually strive toward perfection to maintain this privileged ranking. Bell Corp has a zero-tolerance policy toward failure: anything less than perfection is unacceptable.
The harshest dichotomy in the neo-caste system of the novel arises between “Virtual” citizens at the upper end of the curve and “Analog” individuals at the lower tail. The Virtuals enjoy a technologically privileged, purportedly utopian lifestyle. But in reality, this existence has taken the humanity out of humankind. Despite numerous technological luxuries, being a Virtual is a stressful existence, with the constant fear of becoming unproductive and sinking to a lower caste. Moreover, Virtuals are implanted with a chip that monitors their thoughts and nudges them toward making decisions favorable for Bell Corp.
In the lowest caste, Analogs of The Ten Percent Thief live an existence similar to our own with (gasp) face-to-face conversations, trips to the grocery store to buy food, and newspapers that are printed on actual paper. The Analogs are the new untouchables, treated like zoo animals by the Virtuals who observe them through glass but are forbidden from interacting directly. In a further act of dehumanization, Virtuals even refer to Analogs with the pronoun “it.” The Analogs who fall to the lowest part of the curve are considered beyond saving and are ultimately harvested for their organs.
The Ten Percent Thief is constructed as a set of interconnected short stories, shifting perspective among a diverse set of characters from both the Virtual and Analog worlds. Lavanya Lakshminarayan employs both first- and third-person narration to show us different facets of Apex City. My favorite chapter is actually told in the second person by an AI algorithm implanted in the brain of a Virtual news reporter, addressing the reporter as “you” from within her own brain. She struggles against the AI algorithm as it tries to optimize her as an individual. It is difficult to separate her own genuine thoughts from the whispers of the AI.
The Ten Percent Thief has an undeniable Orwellian flavor, with citizens constantly monitored and punished for any views that oppose those of their tyrannical government. It is especially interesting to read how the Virtual people attempt to control their own minds, pushing out any nonconformist thought and focusing their attention on corporate-approved ways of thinking.
The Ten Percent Thief is a deeply thought-provoking and timely novel that updates the traditional notion of castes for a near-future meritocratic society infused with artificial intelligence. The future caste system is every bit as rigid and frightening as the old system India discarded decades ago. Read my compelte review here.