When, in informal gatherings, the subject of reading comes up, and I mention science fiction (as I invariably do), I often meet two kinds of responses. The first – common – response is that science fiction (or “SF”) conjures up intimidating images of spaceships, complicated physics or engineering, and a dry writing style. The second response is that SF is the preserve of mid-20th century (mostly) white (mostly) male writers, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. These two assumptions about the genre – which are often entrenched by a quick skim through the often tiny SF collections in bookshops – lead many people to believe that SF is “not for them.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. While SF has its fair share of what is commonly called “hard science fiction,” the imaginative possibilities offered by the genre has long made it a home for writers interested in questions about society and politics, human relations and identity, and alternatives to how we live. Nor is it the preserve of dead (or even alive) white men, even though they continue to dominate bookshelves. SF has always been – and continues to be – a genre characterised by its diversity and plurality.

With this list of books, I hope to communicate some of the astonishing breadth and depth of SF over the last few decades. This is not a “top 15” list, or a “best books” list, or even a representative list of classic and contemporary SF. Think of it as a guide to the variety that the genre has to offer you, should you be interested in dipping your toes into it.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was one of the towering figures of 20th-century SF as well as fantasy (the writer of the famous Earthsea novels), and The Dispossessed is one of her two most famous SF novels (the other is The Left Hand of Darkness). The Dispossessed explores the workings of an anarchist society that exists and survives on the inhospitable moon of Annares, neighboured by the more recognisable world of Urras. Through the novel, Le Guin explores questions of freedom and oppression, and the eternal human impulse to build a society liberated from power structures and hierarchies.

Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko

You might be familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous movie, Stalker. Well, the film is based on the book Roadside Picnic, by the Soviet writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The Strugatsky Brothers were active in the 1960s and 70s Soviet Union, and their work did not go untouched by the repressive Soviet censorship apparatus: some of their books were distributed by the samizdat method (i.e., passed around hand to hand by sympathisers). Roadside Picnic – the most famous among their many excellent works – is a story about “First Contact” (the SF shorthand for the first contact between a human and an alien species), except that we don’t see the aliens: we see only what they have carelessly left behind after a using a strip of earth as a “picnic spot.” It would be simplistic to draw a direct analogy with Chernobyl, but – written at the height of the Cold War – the parallels with the nuclear arms race are hard to miss.

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

Another book that was adapted into a film by Tarkovsky (also bearing the same name), Solaris is Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem’s most famous contribution, and one of the first SF novels to explore themes around environmental destruction. Solaris is both a planet and an ocean that covers every inch of the planet’s surface. It is also, in its own way, “alive”: as humans attempt to investigate the ocean, they find that it is subtly altering their own minds, manifesting their fears and insecurities through hallucinations and apparitions, and driving them to insanity. Solaris has some of the most vivid – and vividly disturbing – imagery that you will ever come across.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Science fiction has always explored the theme of time travel (think HG Wells’ The Time Machine), especially as a vehicle to explore both our society and alternative visions of society. Kindred lies at the intersection of time travel SF, alternate history, and the tradition of African-American writing. The protagonist of Kindred – a young, black woman living in the 1970s United States – finds herself being continuously dragged back in time to a slave plantation in the early 1800s, from where she can only escape back to the present if she is in mortal fear of her life. Butler skilfully deploys the time travel trope to tell a gripping story about the social and psychic monstrosity that was US plantation slavery.

Look to Windward, Iain M Banks

Iain M Banks is most well-known for his Culture novels, exploring a far-future post-scarcity society where human beings want for nothing, and production is coordinated by a group of highly advanced artificial intelligences called “the Minds.” Utopian as this sounds, the Culture novels are hardly free of conflict. They explore the Culture’s interaction with other spacefaring civilisations, and – often – the Culture’s inner conflicts. Look to Windward is perhaps the most reflective and melancholic book in the series: a Mind is compelled to destroy a star, as a result of which, millions die. The novel is set eight hundred years later when the light from that supernova is about to reach the world that Mind maintains – even as an enemy civilisation moves to attack the Culture. Look to Windward is one of the finest examples of the “space opera” subgenre of SF (the name tells you all about the subgenre!).

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Published a little over a decade ago, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice became an instant classic, through its exploration of questions around gender and personal identity, examined through the prism of a sentient spaceship. Ancillary Justice – the first book of a trilogy – is also a space opera novel, although its focus is less on the grand “operatic” themes, and more on the equally fundamental themes of personhood and the other. Leckie has written other novels that explore the limits of our understanding of the self, the most recent of which is the deliciously genre-bending Translation State.

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha-Lee

Military SF meets acute social commentary in Ninefox Gambit, the first book in Yoon Ha-Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. Ninefox Gambit explores the idea of consensus reality – that is, reality is what everyone believes it to be, and exists because of consensus (think groupthink taken to an absolute, literal extreme). Any departure from the “consensus” – which is expressed through a calendar – leads to the breakdown of reality itself (called “calendrical rot”). Cue the existence of a highly militarised, repressive apparatus dedicated to maintaining the consensus, and the inevitable resistance that it gives rise to. This novel has one of the most bittersweet endings that you’ll ever find, and it’s one of my favourites.

A Planet for Rent, Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye

Yoss is a Cuban biochemist, punk rocker, and science fiction writer (there, you can now dispel your image of SF writers being inveterate geeks). His books – translated from Spanish – are rip-roaring fun. A Planet for Rent is a mosaic novel of interconnected short stories, with the common premise that Earth has been turned into a vacation resort for highly advanced alien species, and we are the exhibits. Think Roadside Picnic, except that we actually get to meet the aliens, and they don’t think much of us. What results is a darkly comic, melancholically funny set of interactions (including one wild story about an indescribable alien sport).'

The Queue, Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Any “list” of SF stories would be incomplete without at least one dystopia – perhaps the most well-known sub-genre of SF. The Queue is written by the Egyptian writer and doctor Basma Abdel Aziz, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Egyptian Arab Spring, and the rise of the al-Sisi dictatorship. The eponymous “queue” is a literal queue in a fictional country (a thinly-veiled Egypt), snaking towards an unknown – but essential – destination and everyone is obliged to stand in the queue for an unknown amount of time. The queue, thus, becomes its own world, defined by acts of courage and kindness – and also, of brutality. The looming shadow of the authoritarian State that has imposed the queue is, of course, never far away, but the success of the novel lies in how it shows us only the shadow and leaves the rest to the imagination.

Vagabonds, Hao Jingfang, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu

Say “Chinese SF”, and the immediate response is likely to be Liu Cixin’s worldwide bestseller, The Three-Body Problem (recently adapted into a Netflix series). In the last two decades, however, there has been an efflorescence of Chinese SF, with its distinctive identity and tradition (for an introduction, check out the anthologies edited by Ken Liu or Regina Kanyu Wang). One of the outstanding contemporary Chinese SF writers is Hao Jingfang, whose short story, “Folding Beijing”, won a Hugo Award. She is perhaps most well-known for her novel, Vagabonds, which features an attempt to build a utopian society on Mars, and the interactions of that society with our more familiar Earth. The parallels with The Dispossessed are evident, although Jingfang’s Martian society is more State-led than anarchist, with all its attendant problems.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the most prolific – and consistently brilliant – SF writers active today. His SF novels are invariably epic in scope, passing through deep time and deep space. Children of Time is a haunting story about the accelerated evolution of a race of highly intelligent spiders, who build their own society, and their inevitable clash with their (original) human creators, adrift in space, and scouring the galaxy for a home. Children of Time explores themes of First Contact, whether there exists a “human nature”, communication and understanding between species, and the inevitability – or otherwise – of conflict. If you want to read an example of cutting-edge, contemporary SF, this is a good place to start.

The House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds

Out of all the writers on this list, Alastair Reynolds perhaps comes closest to the trope of the “hard science” fiction that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Reynolds’s novels – in particular, the Revelation Space series – are full of scientific speculation (Reynolds himself had a successful career as an astrophysicist before turning to fiction), but for all that, they are immensely readable. The House of Suns is a stand-alone novel that features a race of cloned humans (“the Gentian Line”) who circle the galaxy in immense sweeps of time, and meet once every two hundred thousand years to exchange notes. In the meantime, civilisations and entire planetary system rise, decline, and are destroyed. The House of Suns stretches our imaginative boundaries to the maximum, asking us to imagine what life would be like if our memories stretched to millions of years. The House of Suns is one of those books that most stunningly communicates the sense of awe that characterises the best SF.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson

British-Nigerian writer Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is by part wickedly funny, and by part deadly serious story about the arrival of an alien species on the outskirts of Lagos, with seemingly benign intentions (it has magical healing powers) – except that those intentions might just be a cloak for something far eerier. SF has always had a generative conversation with facets of horror writing – especially body horror – and Rosewater is an accomplished novel at the intersection of the two.

The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler

Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea – a finalist for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year – belongs to the growing body of “climate fiction” literature – ie, SF that, in various ways, explores the climate crisis. The Mountain in the Sea is also a story of First Contact, and the limits of language and communication. Climate change, combined with the pressures of the deep ocean floor, has created a race of highly evolved, sentient octopi. These octopi have accomplished what seems to be social organisation and a language. The novel’s protagonists race to communicate with these octopi, even as large corporations and interests are threatening to engulf the sanctuary for their own purposes. Part haunting, part melancholic, and part hopeful, The Mountain in the Sea is another personal favourite, and one of the finest exponents of climate fiction SF.

Palestine +100, edited by Basma Ghalayini

Palestine +100 is a part of the +100 series (others include Iraq +100 and Kurdistan +100), which asks its writers to imagine a future one hundred years after a particular event. In the case of Palestine, it is the 1948 Nakba (that is, the mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland): Palestine +100 is, therefore, a collection of short stories that imagines Palestine and Israel in 2048. There are stories from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Palestinian fiction has already given us immortal works such as The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, A Time of White Horses, Passage to the Plaza, and much else; in Palestine +100, we have the finest examples of contemporary Palestinian SF.

Gautam Bhatia is a constitutional law scholar and science fiction author. He publishes a fortnightly newsletter on science fiction. His third science fiction novel, The Sentence, will be published in September, 2024.