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The Best Literary Science Fiction Books?

I’m getting bored of reality. The more books I read, the more it feels as though they are all churning out the same basic stories about love and loss. There are the odd exceptions, but I am increasingly becoming disenchanted with modern literary fiction.

I recently read  The City & The City by China Miéville and found the way it stretched my brain refreshing. I never knew what would happen next and I loved it!

I have always been wary of reading science fiction as I have had many disappointing reads. I blame this entirely on my lack of research. I would never walk into a book shop and just pick the top selling fiction title, so why did I ever imagine the best selling science fiction books would be to my taste? I’m a fan of literary fiction, so I should be looking at literary science fiction if I want to find enjoyable books. I didn’t realise this genre existed until recently, but a brief investigation has turned up lots of books that sound very appealing. I already had a few on my TBR pile thanks to the wonderful world of blogging, but reaching out to science fiction fans has made my list much longer!

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

A few others that caught my eye….

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith

Memory and Dreams by Charles De Lint

The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Many thanks to @ALRutter and @David_Heb for their literary science fiction recommendations on Twitter!

I had a moment of weakness and bought several of the above books – I look forward to letting you know all about them!

Don’t worry I’m not going to switch to becoming a science fiction blog, but I will be including a few more in my reading.

So what do you think?

Do any of these books appeal to you?

Do you know any other wonderful literary science fiction books?

89 replies on “The Best Literary Science Fiction Books?”

White is For Witching is more paranormal than science fiction. I would love to say that I liked it as I loved her other book The Icarus Girl, but I thought this one was pants. It is all over the place and your never quite sure who is talking to you and the house has it’s own voice. Others have enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for me.

I have an Ursula Le Guin book to read, which I am quite excited about and can’t wait to get into.

I have fallen in love with Charles De Lint after reading The Onion Girl.

vivienne, Sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy White is for Witching. I have heard very mixed reviews, but that intrigues me. I own both WIFW and Icarus Girl – I really should read them soon. I hope that I enjoy them soon – I actually like the sound of a house with a voice!

My husbands reads quite alot of Sci-Fi and as a result I end up reading some. Theres a list out there of ‘top 100 sci-fi’ books which is a good list to refer to (enders game I think is number 1)

Anything by Ray Bradbury is recommened as well

Sometimes you just get attracted to something different, lately I’ve been reading the back of alot of books and alot seem to say something like ‘a secret from the past threatens to tear them apart’ or ‘one decision made in the past threatens to tear them apart’ etc etc

Jessica, My husband reads a lot of science fiction too, but he enjoys very different books to me. I keep reading his books and being bored to tears by them! I’m very wary of those lists of best science fiction ever as they will include loads of his dull books!

Ray Bradbury is a great recommendation – I had forgotten all about him!! Thanks :-)

This is a very interesting post. I have been snobby about sci-fi in the past and, like you, thought that there wouldn’t be anything in the genre to suit my reading tastes.

Ursula Le Guin has always sounded interesting, however, so I may try some of her work. I’ll be interested to hear your opinions on the above books.

tea lady, I’m going to try to fit one or two in next month so hopefully it won’t be too long before I try one. I hope you enjoy Ursula Le Guin if you decide to give her a try.

sakura, Thanks for the recommendations! I loved the only Banks that I read (Business) – I have no idea why I haven’t read more of his books.

Dan Simmons has also been on my radar, but I haven’t been compelled to try one of his books before – I’ll have to see if I can find a copy at the library.

I second Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Endymion Omnibus. It’s the best science fiction I’ve read. I love John Keats and he uses him in the novels so it made me love the series even more.

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the dead are also fantastic. I would agree that they are not literary, but the story is amazingly good.

If you want to delve into Fantasy, I highly recommend George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s also quite good!

Ursula K. LeGuin is a great writer. Glad you have her on your list.

Carin, I don’t know much about Keats, so perhaps I wouldn’t appreciate the Simmons books? I have heard wonderful things about his books about Wilkie Collins (I have read The Moonstone) so perhaps I’d be better starting with them?

You don’t need to know anything about John Keats to read the books. The first book is told in a Canterbury Tales type of style. I think I was one of the only ones that had read Keats’ poetry when we read the book for our book club. Most everyone liked the book and almost no one in the club reads science fiction.

Connie Willis’s TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is wonderful! It’s all about time-travelling Oxford historians in the Victorian era. It’s fun, funny and literary. I adored it.

Memory, Great recommendation for people who claim they don’t enjoy science fiction! I have read To Say Nothing of the Dog and enjoyed it. It was a bit too sweet for my liking, but I’d still recommend it to a lot of people.

Well, there’s a book that’s just jumped about 500 pages up my TBR. Thanks.

Jackie, I suspect your disillusionment with literary fiction is a temporary ailment, brought on perhaps by a recent overdose. I know I’ve suddenly developed a taste for non-fiction – I expect it’s a phase. I don’t expect it to last. As they say, a change is as good as a rest.

Lizzysiddal, I am sure you will love To Say Nothing of the Dog. I recommend reading Three Men in a Boat first (if you haven’t already) It isn’t essential to understanding what goes on, but it is a parody of it and so you’ll get a lot more enjoyment from the book if you are aware of the plot.

The Prestige was good. I sneaked it in when I heard a movie was in production. I think I read The Time Traveller’s Wife around the same time, so was used to piecing together a timeline by then. Still, it was a little hard to piece together. I’d recommend it.

I haven’t read the others. But Ender’s Game has been on my list for a while.

Since Solar by Ian McEwan was out I’ve been wondering about Scientist fiction, I still haven’t read it yet, but I also have Institution by Allegra Goodman TBR. It is about research scientists, grants, and the relationships in the lab when the big discovery by one of them could have been faked.

David, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time!

I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, so it is good to know that the two books have some similarities. The Prestige is one of the books I bought last week. I spotted that there was a film so I might have to watch it soon after I’ve read it.

I’m a scientist, so would love to read more scientist fiction! The problem is that I think that it is very hard to be a good scientist and a good author – it is mixing two very different personality types. I wasn’t a fan of Solar – the problem is that it is very hard to write about science without confusing half of your audience or patronising the other half. Let me know if you find some good ones though!

Jonathan Carroll, Charles De Lint, Graham Joyce, Helen Oyeyemi and Kelly Link are all really fantasy writers, rather than science fiction writers. Some other suggestions for literary SF:

Light by M John Harrison
Use Of Weapons by Iain M Banks
The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Oh dear, just realised I didn’t include any women. Gwyneth Jones and Tricia Sullivan both write literary SF, although I’m not a big fan of it.

Martin, Sorry – I’m not an expert in the difference between science fiction and fantasy and having not read the books mentioned I have even less clue – thanks for correcting me!

Thanks for the recommendations – I’ll spend some time looking into them later.

Uninterested in the difference between fantasy and SF is probably the best way to be, they are still all good writers. Link and Joyce are particular favourites of mine.

On your list I’ve only read the Ursula K Le Guin, but I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her.

I recommend Dune by Frank Herbert and I would guess it appears on most of the best-of or classic sci-fi lists.

I enjoyed the comment above with the idea of ‘scientist fiction’. I think Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer would fit into that genre.

Marieke, I have a feeling that Dune was one of the books I attempted and hated, but it has been a very long time so perhaps it would be worth trying again.

I didn’t realise that Prodigal Summer was scientist fiction (I love that term!!) I’m currently reading The Lacuna so am Kingsolvered out at the moment, but will keep an eye out for it!

i don’t read a lot of sci fi ,but when i was young read moorcock and enjoyed his work ,also ballard but never sure if he is sci fi more dystopia fiction in a way ,all the best stu

As I mentioned the other day, I loved The Sparrow. I hope you enjoy it too!

I also liked Ender’s Game quite a lot, but I don’t know if I’d call the writing literary. (However, as you know, I find the definition of “literary” to be a little squishy and subjective.) The writing didn’t stand out to me, but it’s solid, and there are interesting ideas addressed in a creative way, which is more than sufficient to make something worth reading, IMO.

Perhaps some classic sci-fi? I’m reading Slaughterhouse Five right now and haven’t made up my mind about it, but it would certainly qualify as literary sci-fi. And there’s more straightforward story-telling, but really fascinating ideas in H.G. Wells and John Wyndham.

You might also look into Octavia Butler. If you followed the NTTVBG discussion of Fledgling, you saw that opinions were mixed regarding how “literary” her writing is. (I’ve found it to be similar to Card’s in that it’s solid and straightforward but mostly interesting for the ideas.) I’ve only read Kindred (time travel) and Fledgling (vampires), but I liked them both.

Teresa, I haven’t read Ender’s Game yet, so don’t know if it is literary or not – I just got that impression from a few posts I’ve read. It looks as though I was mistaken though. I have a copy and hope to read it at some point in the nearish future. I hope I enjoy it despite its lack of literary elements!

HG Wells is a good idea and I have some Wyndham in the TBR pile – I can’t believe I missed all these authors from my list!

I have seen Butler mentioned a bit recently. I’m not sure vampires really appeal, but I guess I don’t know until I try – I did love The Strain.

I love fantasy and science fiction (and historical fiction in a way) because I think you’re right; a lot of books set in the modern world are about very similar themes. I live in the real world with all of these things, I don’t always want to read about it. I definitely recommend The Sparrow and anything you can find by Charles de Lint. I think you’d really like them.

Meghan, I find world literarture more interesting for similar reasons. I think I’m going to move away from books set in the modern western world as I think that accounts for some very average reads I’ve been experiencing recently.

I hadn’t heard of Charles de Lint before last week, but I’ll be on the look out for his books now – thanks for letting me know that you think I’ll enjoy them.

I wouldn’t consider Ender’s Game to be literary sci-fi (just plain ol’ sci-fi), but it’s a really fun read regardless. Have you read any Jasper Fforde? He’s so much fun, and given how much you read, you’d probably really enjoy him! You should definitely try Shades of Grey, his latest book!

Steph, I read The Eyre Affair and did enjoy it, but for some reason I haven’t got round to the rest of the series. I’ll have to look out for Shades of Grey now – thanks for the recommendation!

This one sort of leans more literary than sci-fi, but Time and Again by Jack Finney is really great. It’s a time-travel book, but unlike any other I’ve ever read in that it is quite restrained and the time travel mechanism is unique. Also a good choice if you like books about New York City.

Apparently, it’s also one of the great unproduced film-adaptations that have floating around Hollywood, and I can definitely understand why.

I’m really intrigued by Ender’s Game, and I’ve heard a lot about Jonathan Carroll (even if he is more of a fantasy writer!).

Have you read Margaret Atwood’s more sci-fi offerings? (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood)

Lija, Sorry – I’m really bad at grouping SF and fantasy together. I haven’t read the Margaret Atwood books you mention. I wasn’t a fan of The Blind Assassin and so have been reluctant to try her others. I’m sure I’ll get round to them at some point though.

I think the recommendations would depend on what you most enjoyed about Mieville’s novel. If it was the world-building, something like Joan Slonczewski’s Door Into Ocean might interest you, but I think her pacing is quite different. I love all of Le Guin’s writing, and TLHOD might be the best known, but you might actually enjoy The Dispossessed more if you’re new to the genre. It can feel awkward moving into a new Reading Room, but I’m sure you’ll find some new favourites therein!

BuriedinPrint. I loved everything about TC&TC! Thanks for letting me know about The Dispossessed. I hadn’t heard of that one before, but will add it to the list and see if the library has a copy.

I recommend Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

As others have already mentioned, I wouldn’t call Ender’s Game “literary” but it is very entertaining. And I’m not sure how well “science fiction” describes Canticle for Leibowitx (which is excellent, btw).

I LOVE China Miéville, but I would call City & City a thriller more than sci-fi. Genre labels are so slippery!

For books about scientists, try Richard Powers: The Goldbug Variations and Galatea 2.2 (and others) fall into this category.

Isabella, I’m not really bothered about the labels – I’m just after some great writing!

Thanks for the recommendations – The Goldbug Variations sounds good, but it is out of print :-(

Melissa, I read The Hitchiker series when I was a teenager. I really enjoyed them then, but can’t remember that much about them now. It is probably time for a re-read!

Ender’s Game is fantastic. I’d start with that one! The only other on your list I’ve read is The Left Hand of Darkness, and it wasn’t my favorite LeGuin. But still pretty good.

If The Sparrow weren’t already on your list, I would advise you to add it immediately!

I really liked the movie based on The Prestige, but hadn’t realized it was a novel first, so I may have to check that out for myself.

Florinda, I’ve just ordered The Prestige on DVD (ordered the book yesterday – this is an expensive post :-) )I think I’ll read it and then watch it to compare the two.

Whoa, you got a surge of help there! I wouldn’t even know a science fiction book if I had one in my hand. I don’t think I’ve read many of them, but I’m not the least bit against them. I guess when some people hear Science Fiction, they think Star Trek or whatever, but I know it is so much more than that. BTW, I have heard just amazing things about The Sparrow. I’ve had it on my list, but I’m sure a review from you would bring it to the impulsive Kindle purchase list.

kindred by octavia butler was one of my book club’s top picks
i’m about 1/4 of the way through the sparrow and it’s pretty good

Gosh I probably need to come back to read all the comments. I’ve watched The Prestige movie and it’s awesome, but I’m not sure if it’s considered sci-fi, maybe a bit. I didn’t know it’s taken from a book though! I second Kindred as diana reminded me above. And one I’d love to read in Stranger in Strange Land. Why don’t you check out Hugo and Nebula awards and see what’s interesting? Oh if you haven’t, check out Douglas Adams series? Loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy :)

mee, I’ve ordered The Prestige book and DVD so look forward to comparing the two. I have had a look at the Hugo awards in the past, but it is so hard for me to know what I might like – perhaps I’ll just dive in once I’ve run out of recommendations :-)

Jackie, I’m not a real expert on sci-fi either but I have read Orwell and he really is a great author. Also, if you are interested in alternate/alternative fiction there some good books there too. My personal favorite is Children’s War by J.N. Stroyar but I’ve hear that Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle trilogy is good too.

Jonathan Carroll is awesome! Back when I still lived in Poland, I remember people being crazy about him. If you like magic realism, you’ll like him. I wish he were more popular in the States (considering that’s where he’s originally from lol) though.

lilly, I did enjoy 1984, but haven’t read any of his others.

I find magical realism a bit hit/miss, but I am intrigued by Carroll now. I will seek out some of his books – thanks for the enthusiasm!

You know, I’m not sure you’d love Canticle for Leibowitz. It has plot, but the book’s divided up into three parts, and each one has a different plotline, and I dunno, I enjoyed it more for the beauty of the writing and the ideas about cycles of history. Though normally I, too, am a plot girl. I don’t mean to talk you out of it though! It’s very wonderful!

Jenny, Thanks for the warning! I am intrigued by it so hope to get to it at some point, although it is one of the books most likely to fall into my July or August reading. I look forward to finding out about those cycles of history!

The Prestige is incredibly well done. It’s quite different from the movie, although just as entertaining. There are several new characters that were omitted from the film so I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised to realize that if feels like a completely different story.

Happy Reading!

Lydia, I haven’t seen the film or the book yet, but I will be interested to compare the two. It is good to know that they are a bit different and so will feel like different stories. Thanks for letting me know!

I don’t usually read sci-fi… some of them are a bit too ‘out there’ for me (for a lack of better word…)

But I do have The Sparrow and Ender’s Game on my TBR, after reading some blogger reviews.

Can’t wait to see what you think of the books you listed! I am open to reading a new genre!

Christa, It is so hard to know which books from other genres I’ll enjoy, but I’m willing to give it a try – I hope I can give you a few more ideas :-)

I have a few of those. I read Ender’s Game and liked it but didn’t love it. I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness twice and find it pretty dissatisfying both times, but great for book club discussions. I’m stuck halfway through A Canticle for Leibowitz – it’s not really holding my interest and too many other books came along, nudging it back. But I do plan on finishing it.

I only heard of The Sparrow fairly recently but I’ve got a copy of that, and I’d love to read The Prestige. I’ve never heard of White Apples before – I’ve “discovered” so many science fiction classics through Goodreads, it’s amazing how few I was aware of even a few years ago!

Shannon, It sounds as though you know about a lot more science fiction books than I do! I haven’t been active on goodreads yet, but should perhaps try browsing it a bit more. Thanks for all the info!

Great choices! I would also recommend a YA title by M.T. Anderson called Feed. Teens have the Internet wired into their brains and, boy, does it cause problems — both social and physical. I’ve discussed this one with my (adult) college students before, and they were just as keen to discuss it as any teens I’ve ever met.

Andi, I have seen Feed mentioned a few times, but I have a very hit/miss relationship with YA books – I’ll read the first few pages in the library and see if it grabs me. Thanks for the recommendation :-)

I’ll echo the recommendation of Kindred by Octavia Butler. I just read it a few days ago and adored it.

Also, I recommend Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. I feel like I’ve been recommending this book all over the place, but I just really liked it. The premise involves aliens who crash their ship in medieval Germany, near the time of the Black Plague. The interactions between the villagers, especially the priest, and the aliens are fascinating. The combination of historical detail and sci-fi imagination works very well. There is a smaller parallel narrative that takes place in the present-day and I didn’t care for those parts that much, but the majority of the book is the medieval storyline so it’s not a huge detraction. Anyway, if you enjoyed all the painstaking world-building of The City & The City (as I did), I think you would like Eifelheim.

I’m a huge science fiction fan and I absolutely love the stuff you have on this site. Please keep up the good work and I’ll keep checking back. If you get more information on The Event I would love to read it. Thanks

A good place to start for anyone curious about Sci-fi is the short story collection”The secret history of science fiction” edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, it contains writers such as, Margaret Atwood, Don Delillo, Ursula .K. Le Guin & Steven Millhauser. The premise of the book is, what if Thomas Pynchon had won the 1973 Nebula award by the science fiction writers of America for “Gravity”s Rainbow” although it was nominated, the award went to Arthur. C. Clarke. This point was considered by some as the point Sci-fi lost any chance of entering mainstream literature. But apart from that this is a good place to find out about some of Sci-fi great writers, some of whose names you already know.

This is an old post but a topic I’m always interested in!

I see The Sparrow on your list. I can highly recommend it and its sequel, Children of God. I wouldn’t call Ender’s Game literary, but I did enjoy it (though not as much as most).

I’ve also enjoyed We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I actually collect different translations of it, too. “We” might be considered light sci-fi and more dystopian but I really think you would enjoy it, particularly if you read and enjoyed 1984. Speaking of another dystopian, The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood is superb.

The movie Solaris with George Clooney is one of my favorites of all time. I also enjoyed the Russian version. I think I enjoyed the book version because I saw it after the movie, though. Usually it’s the other way around for me.

I just have to add two YA titles.

House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Both excellent. I don’t know if I’d call them literary, though — maybe House of the Scorpion. I’d say I enjoyed both of these more than Ender’s Game. (Not bashing it, I did give it 4 stars, but I believe I gave these two book 4.5 or 5 stars.

Michelle, I did enjoy Ender’s Game, but the fighting got a bit much for me in the middle. The beginning and ending were fantastic though :-)

I haven’t read either of the YA titles you mention, but have heard of them. I’ll keep my eye out for both of them.

I’ve just looked up We and it does look good. Thank you for all the recommendations!

I found my way to this site by twists and turns through Google Reader and I’m very glad I did! I recently read “The Sparrow” and found it very thought provoking–one of those that woke me up to think about the tragedies. I strongly suggest the sequel, “The Children of God,” to explain some of the horrors the protagonist goes through (and let me sleep again).

I didn’t see listed here the trilogy that started me down the path of SciFi many years ago: C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, made up of “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength.” When I read them again a couple of years ago, I was still amazed by Lewis’ creativity. Does anyone else agree with me?

Probably because of my love of Science Fiction, my first full-length novel, “Pieces of You” (yet unpublished) is about time traveling. Hopefully, it will be added to this list someday…

Joyce, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

I had no idea that CS Lewis wrote any science fiction – I only knew his Narnia series. I will see if my library has a copy and let you know what I think.

Good luck with the novel :-)

What is with the SCIENCE in science fiction? We know have computers everywhere and our smartphones are tracking us and we don’t even know it.

Ender’s Game is a great story but it is scientifically weak. Hyperion is NOT science fiction. It may be worse than Star Wars. A Tree of Pain? What is with that? A woman aging backwards and turning into a baby? This is SCIENCE?

Try Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan. It may not be literature by some people’s definition. There are no references to Shakespeare that I recall. It does say some interesting things about technology, psychology and economics. These cheap powerful computers are taking us in unknown directions.

But our schools can’t make 700 year old double-entry accounting mandatory. BRILLIANT!

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