Your Star Chart to Science Fiction, No Not That Kind of Star Chart

Science Fiction can be as expansive as our galaxy and only aims to grow larger and more diverse as time marches inexorably forward. If you’re new to the genre, or even a veteran looking to expand your horizons, it can feel overwhelming to find the right break-in points. Do you think aliens are cool? Or would you rather be stuck on a generational spaceship, hurtling through the stars to a planet waiting to be called home? Are you afraid of robots and want to see those fears realized? Or do you want to communicate with a talking octopus to learn all the wonders of the sea? Maybe you don’t know anything about the genre and are just curious about what’s out there.

Unfortunately for beginners, Science Fiction can be overwhelming and is filled with micro-niches I also find it disingenuous to cultivate a list of “necessary” sci fi novels for beginners. Instead, I’ve tried to put together a giant list that might help you find your entry point. These aren’t the definitive books per se, but I think they are fairly representative of their niche. Most of the books are modern, but there are a few classics thrown in for good measure because they still hold up.

Put on your space suit, open the airlock and gaze upon the myriad of constellations the genre is arrayed into.


A Whole Lotta Aliens

Aliens are everywhere, and you probably think you’ve seen it all. But if you’re willing to venture out once more to shake hands with the unknown, the books below will give you a new look at what life beyond earth might look like.

The Totally Alien: Blindsight by Peter Watts – Watts pulls no punches in his heavily acclaimed first contact novel that features not only aliens but space vampires. Don’t let that fool you, though; he is not playing around. This novel is bleak, scary, and full of compelling questions about the role of consciousness in evolution. Not for the faint of heart, but you’ll never see alien life in the same way again.

Mysterious, But Relatable: Dawn by Octavia Butler – Ever wonder what it would be like to be rescued by aliens after a nuclear war? Pick up this book and gaze upon the incredibly weird yet kind, and possibly dubious aliens Butler imagines as our saviors. It’s a brutal look at what it means to be human and what we may have to give up in the face of extinction.

Climate Change is Here

And it’s here to stay. These books may help you appreciate the world in a new way or help you cope as you stare into the abyss.

A hopeful future:  A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys – A book about what happens after humanity starts to learn its lessons in the wake of climate change. But also aliens make a showing here to save us from the home we’re relearning how to inhabit. Do they stay or do they go?

Learning to live in the end times: Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky – The sun has expanded, turning the majority of the Earth into a vast desert. Shadrapar is the last known city and exists in a jungle along the north pole. The old world is dying, but is there still time for a new one to be born?

Spaceships Are My Thing

Spaceships can be pretty cool. The problem is that there are so many different ways they can be used, and we just don’t have the time or (wait for it) space to dig into them all. Here are some books that do them justice.

Daring Maneuvers, Weird Technology, And Big Battles: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon-ha Lee – If you want to read about the equivalent of a siege in space, Ninefox Gambit is your best bet. Disgraced Admiral Cheris must figure out how to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles, one of the most defensible positions ever conceived. And she has to do it with the help of an undead tactician who went mad. It has interpersonal intrigue, wild technologies, and stunning space battles.

Generational Space Voyage:  Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter – If you want the long view of a generation fleet that is filled with poignant and heartbreaking vignettes, Lostetter’s debut is for you. A fleet of clones derived from the Earth’s top scientists are sent on a mission that would last centuries to discover the nature of a blinking star. What will they discover, and will it matter to the humans they return to?

The Future Is Change

You know, sometimes it’s not good enough to have good tech in a shitty world, if there is even good tech to be had! So if you want that bit of sci-fi flair mixed in with a story about tearing it all down in the search of something better these stories are for you

Violence with a Heaping Dose of Bloodshed: Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine that your whole life consisted of mining rocks under the crust of Mars, subordinated by malicious actors that have divided society into distinct “colors” and reinforce that hierarchy through genetic tampering. Now, you’ve broken out and have been given a chance to break the system by having your body altered to match the highest order of the land, the Golds. Do you take it?

Context, History, and Political Maneuvering: The Wall by Gautam Bhatia – Sumer is a city governed by limits. An impenetrable wall surrounds the city, and no one has been able to leave for centuries. The governing system tries to balance the senate, a fanatical religious order and a group of young visionaries who believe that the caste system is unjust. And amongst them all stands Mithila, a woman who just wants to get beyond the Wall.


The Universe Is Ever Expanding

These series are big, boasting more than the standard trilogy. If you’re the kind of reader who is able and willing to put the time in, these are for you. They have big characters, big themes, and big page counts. Get lost in the exploration.

Linear, Exciting, Action-Packed: The Expanse by James S. A. Corey – Starting with Leviathan Wakes, you’re sure to have heard of this massive series if you’re at all interested in science fiction. We’ve only included it because it really is that good. Featuring a stellar cast that only gets better with age, tight focused arcs that span both the series but can be limited to a single book, it’s hard to go wrong with starting your journey on the Rocinante.

Anthological Story Telling in the Same Universe: The Culture by Ian M. Banks – Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a post-scarcity society managed by benevolent AI? Banks’ Culture novels are written like extended episodes of Star Trek that dive deep into specific dilemmas and how such society would deal with less forgiving civilizations. This is a big series, but luckily for readers, it’s an anthology, allowing you to dip your toes in at will. Check out our guide!


Make My Brain Hurt/ Fuck Me Up with Aesthetics

Maybe you’re one of those types that feels the need to throw around the words “genre” and “literature.” That’s okay, it happens to the best of us. If you want a good melding of those arbitrary categories, these books are for you!

Something Beautiful: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente – I read this back before my wee little brain could fully encapsulate its magnificence, but it still stands out as an artifact worth gazing at again and again. Valente’s vision of the solar system is true aesthetic pulp that dazzles and wonders with every sentence. It’s a love letter to the art of filmmaking, and the art of creation itself. It’s weird and it might be off putting if you aren’t prepared to buy in, but buy in. Dive deep into this beautiful tale of a woman gone missing in a solar system sci-fi writers and readers have dreamed of for eons.

Dystopian Beauty: When The Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson – A beautifully written novel about a totalitarian state for humans run by humans, in a world otherwise shepherded by AI gods. A pencil-pushing agent of the state is tasked with solving the murder of a well known party member who turned out to be an AI. It’s a haunting story that will dig deep into your mind, make your heart ache, and keep you looking over your shoulder.

Fuck Beauty, Toss Me in the Labrynth with a Raw Meat Necklace: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – Technically it starts with The Shadow of the Torturer, but you have to read all four books to really take in Wolfe’s ideas. Featuring a story that is more than meets the eye, and stuffed full of catholic symbolism, fantastical mythology, and an unreliable narrator that says he’s anything but, The Book of the New Sun is not for the faint of heart, and best suited for those willing to put up with glorious, purposeful nonsense.


Military Science Fiction

Not a sub-genre we particularly love, but these are some stories we have encountered that scratch the itch of action, while questioning the purpose of warfare.

Not Big on War, But Curious:  Armor by John Steakley – The first one hundred pages of this military classic is some of the most visceral writing of a battle I’ve experienced. Steakley truly captures the terror, triumph, and hell that is war. The second half baffles most at first blush, but it’s just as much worth your time.

War is Bad, Let’s Discuss: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – You’ve probably heard about this one, and if you haven’t, consider this your much-needed introduction. Featuring a war where soldiers experience time dilation and come home to an increasingly different and indifferent Earth. This book is a masterpiece. Clever ideas mixed with whip smart writing make it a must read.

Tamogotchi’s Revenge 

Robots have held sway over the imaginations of science fiction readers for decades. At this point there aren’t many books that deal specifically with artificial intelligence, it’s just a part of the genre. However, these books deal more closely with characters who themselves are Artificial Intelligence and how those characters interact with their world.

A Ship Named Justice: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – In Leckie’s debut, a ship’s artificial intelligence is not only the physical ship itself, but thousands of bodies connected to it. Breq is one of those bodies, disconnected from the Justice of Toren, in search of answers and vengeance. The book is a delightful slow burn but delivers on representing an intelligence that spans multiple bodies.

Built for War: Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe – This barn burner of a novel is just the first entry into O’Keefe’s Protectorate trilogy and it will keep you on your toes. Featuring a solar system on the brink of war, a ship AI that is both charming and malicious, and siblings that are separated by centuries, this story will keep you hooked.

Jupiter In Retrograde

That’s right, it’s time to take the big, white, every man genius down a notch. Though most of the books on this list don’t feature our favorite science fiction hero, these stories are stronger in making it apparent.

African Science Fiction: Rosewater by Tade Thompson – Something alien comes to Nigeria, causing a portion of the population to become “sensitive.” Kaaro is one of them, able to feel and interpret the thoughts of those around him. When others start to go missing, he’s pulled in to investigate and what he finds is more disturbing than he could have imagined. It’s got a noir aesthetic that comes with a wink, and it’s filled with a detached brutality that is rarely replicated.

Women in the Spotlight: The All Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw – Ever wanted a heist novel about a badass group of infamous women who take no shit, except for all your treasure? Khaw’s novel is about getting the gang back together for one last heist, and obviously everyone is concerned about the endgame. If you’re not at all concerned with foul language (seriously, this has to be a record for the density of the word “fuck”) then pick up this action packed novel with an absolutely stunning cast.

Just Around the Corner

These stories aren’t so much here to predict what might happen, but to extrapolate dire scenarios while adding much needed science fiction-fueled introspection.

Spiritually Closer than Temporally: Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi – Do you want an exploration of gentrification as rich folks from space colonies make their way back down to earth after it’s getting cleaned up of their mess? Filled with incredible dialogue and deep insights into the human condition, this book is perfect for a glimpse to where we might be headed.

So Close You Can Touch It: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler – An artificial mind has finally been created, and the world decides to shun it. Pirates operate large autonomous boats in the south pacific, kidnapping coders. A biologist tries to communicate with octopodes that seem to have formed their own language. This debut novel is a puzzle about the nature of consciousness that feels like it’s about to be plopped down on your table in the next decade.

Space Colonies Without the Space Ships

If you don’t care too much about space travel but want to know what life might be like in space, whether it’s on another planet or an orbital space station, these stories will scratch that itch.

Fly Me To The Moon: Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald – How bad can colonizing the moon really be? Pretty fucking awful, according to McDonald. New Moon is filled with political intrigue, family dynasties that control mega-corporations and more alienating capitalism than John D. Rockefeller dreamed of. The book dives into the personalities that would cultivate a society in such an unforgiving environment, and the harshness of the society that is created.

And Let Me Play Among The Stars:  Up Against It by M. J. Locke – Are you deathly afraid of how a single mishandled resource crisis could spell doom for a space colony? Look no further than Locke’s brilliantly paced thriller that examines the social, engineering, and resource allocations systems that go into managing a space colony as it stares down doom or complete subordination to the space mafia.

Nothing Is Recognizable

These books try to create a future that is wholly different from the world we know today. Whether it’s through technology, society, religion or politics, these series will give you something to chew on while you’re trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.

It’s Still On Earth: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer – We constantly sing the praises of this quadrilogy and with good reason. Palmer’s future is exciting and unrecognizable, playing with forms of government, language, and gender in interesting ways. Told through a narrative style that features dense but undeniably fun language, these books tell the tale of a world crisis in which the varying borderless governments approach a war that has never been fought before in the history of mankind.

Into the Deep Reaches of Space: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – This Duology, starting with A Memory Called Empire is a masterclass in taking the recognizable from our world and turning it on its head. Starting with a murder mystery and plunging head first into palace intrigue on a galactic scale, Martine will dazzle you with technology and society that look wholly different from the present.

Goddamn Space Wizards

In 1972, Arthur C. Clarke formalized his third law “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What he didn’t expect was George Lucas kicking down his door and force choking him. This ushered in an era of space wizards and cosmic corsairs on grand adventures who couldn’t give two shits about orbital dynamics. These books have more meat than your average Star Wars ripoff, and pack a seriously entertaining punch.

Magic Makes it Go Faster: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – This book is an action adventure sprint through the stars. It features a delightful and diverse cast of misfits as they hunt down an ancient artifact, so they can keep it out of the hands of fascists.

Science and Magic Collide: Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover – What if actors could slip into parallel universes where magic does exist, only to spread gore and chaos for your entertainment? That’s the central conceit of Stover’s first in the Acts of Caine quadrilogy. The main character is a badass who takes no shit, except when the corporations dish it out. It’s a modern Conan the Barbarian with interdimensional travel.

Bizarre Worlds

Are you a bit tired of the same kinds of worlds in space? Have you ever questioned the possibility of a planet being just one giant desert? Well, look no further as the following books take place in weird and exciting places that don’t fit your normal space geographies.

Lets Get Weird…Steampunk Weird: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – Yeah, I know it’s technically ‘weird’ fiction but it’s impossible not to include it here on this list. Featuring various species living in the same city, including but not limited to frog people, tiny messenger demons, regular ass humans, scarab people and possibly demons from actual hell, Mieville’s novel is a delight for the senses. He also spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the city in ways both material and poetic.

I Want Weird, But Also Fleshy: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley – Hurley is a queen of brutality, and this book showcases it more than others. The book follows a savior with amnesia as they are about to lead a war effort against another planet. The key difference being that each planet is a shell world, populated entirely by women, and made entirely of flesh, blood, and bone. It can be a bit gross if you’re not into it, but Hurley puts the pedal to metal, making sure that the story and the setting work in tandem.

Uh Oh, Moon’s Haunted

One of our favorite combinations of genre is horror and science fiction and these books are great matchmakers. Not too spooky, but not light on the science either, you’ll find something horrible just around the corner on the next page.

Psychological Horror: We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen – This is a go to recommendation for me whenever someone wants science fiction horror. Nguyen’s debut novel weaves a big mystery into the slowly unraveling tapestry of a ship psychologist’s mind with flair and grace. It also digs deep into the nature of consciousness and agency in the way only science fiction and horror can do together.

A Haunted Cruise Ship, but in Space?!: Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes – Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly into this book, but it might be a good entry point if you’re not totally stoked about being scared in a vacuum (who needs the extra stress?). A murder mystery on a mass scale as scavengers discover and explore the remains of a long lost luxury space cruise liner.

Fucking in Freefall

Okay, not all of these take place in space, and only one explicitly has sex scenes, but it’s hard to find heat in the cold reaches of the void. Science fiction has never shied away from “eccentric” displays of copulation, but we think these books explore the relationships, as well as the libidinal desires of their characters for that added “oomph.”

All Your Favorite Romance Tropes, In Space: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell – This book gives us queer fake dating, only one bed, and more but set in a massive sprawling galactic setting. Two elite princes of different space empires must get married to preserve an alliance when the previous sacrificial lambs mysteriously die. Will they be able to figure out what happened and keep themselves alive?

Sex Sells, Literally: Docile by K. M. Sparza – Quick note, this book features many detailed and graphic sex scenes. If you’re still here, give this one a whirl. A country boy sells his soul to the first trillionaire to work off his family’s debts and a passionate but deeply unbalanced relationship forms. The story works through some heavy stuff about the nature of domination and the masks people wear in order to keep up appearances while eschewing true connection.

Add a Dash of Imperialism: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. A scientist and a conqueror both end up trapped on a contested planet and must cooperate over a many mile trek in order to both survive. What will happen? Will they fall in love? Will they have to share a tent? Can love beat both science and imperialism? But also the book has stunningly complex characters and insightful dives into the human mind, fun for all.

“The Year Is 3000; Why Am I Still Depressed?”

As Close to Heartwarming as Depression Can Get: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez – Capitalism has not only destroyed the world and the means of escaping earth but the new worlds beyond it. So of course a lonely space captain and some of her errant crew are tasked to watch over a boy who has mysterious powers that could change the future forever.

Bleak and Hopeful: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin – What happens when you send an anarchist scientist as an envoy to the capitalist planet his forebears come from? Le Guin has an answer, and she has a lot of them. Both deeply clever and human, Le Guin asks readers to look at themselves through another’s eyes and dream of worlds that can be if we only recognized the human needs of others.

Ideas Disguised As Plot

Science fiction prides itself on its investigation of “big ideas”™. Whether or not that’s true is besides the point because these books really do deliver on those ideas. And because of that, sometimes the characters may take a little bit of a backseat.

One Big Character, An Even Bigger Idea: Foundation by Isaac Asimov – Obviously, this one is a classic, and you’ve probably found it on other lists. But if any story ever fit the bill of “big idea is the point,” Foundation would be it. Following the creation of the Foundation by psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, the story catapults itself through the centuries of dark ages that follow the fall of a massive galactic empire.

The Characters Act as Metaphor: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson – If you want a “big idea” like what if all the stars disappeared from the sky one night, then Spin should be your first stop. Wilson digs deep into the psyche of humanity as they try to sort out where the hell the stars went. Told from the perspective of someone adjacent to the problem solvers, the story is compelling, deep, and fruitful.

Short Stories; Ease Me In 

Make Me Sad and Introspective: all of Ted Chiang – Chiang has two major collections, Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. You can’t go wrong with either one as they both feature meticulously and masterfully crafted examinations of the human condition through incredibly varied stories. They run the gamut from the near novella length, to one of the most moving four page stories about parrots you will ever read.

Stories from China: Broken Stars edited and translated by Ken Liu – Boasting sixteen stories from contemporary Chinese science fiction authors, this book has not only the stories but contextual set up and analysis from both Liu and other Chinese authors. The ideas run the gamut from small and personal to galactic and unfathomable. The added commentary highlights the current state of science fiction within China and the tightropes the authors must walk when it comes to themes and content. A truly fascinating array of stories.

Stories from Africa and the Diaspora: Africa Risen – Edited by Sheree Renee Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Zelda Knight – This collection features 32 short stories written by both Africans and descendants of the diaspora. It is chock full of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories and some that blend all three. The book is excellently planned out so that each story feels wholly its own and doesn’t exist within the shadow of the previous, or tower over the story that follows. Pick this up if you’re looking for maximum variety while seeing the world through a plethora of perspectives.


Though there are still many constellations out there for us to chart, we hope this map will get you started!

4 thoughts on “Your Star Chart to Science Fiction, No Not That Kind of Star Chart

    1. Perfect, don’t worry, we’ll keep adding even more esoteric niches to explore 🙂

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