Click to viewSpring equinox will be here in just a few weeks, and there's no better way to get ready for the seasonal change than to dig into some great science fiction books. io9 wants to help you get in the mood for transformation by offering this list of twenty science fiction novels that could change the way you see the world, and maybe even change your life. Whether it's because they've altered the course of science fiction writing, or simply provide a genuinely alien perspective on ordinary life, these are novels that will rearrange how you think. Check out our list below.
These are in chronological order by publication date, not in order of importance.
Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley
This is the first modern mad scientist novel, which set the stage for so many mad scientist tales of the next 200 years. You've got the lab full of bubbly stuff, experiments with lightning, stolen body parts, humans brought back from the dead, monsters, and a man who wants to play god. Just try to name a mad science story that doesn't have a little Frankenstein in it. This book changed your life already by creating an entire subgenre of science fiction devoted to science run amok.
The Time Machine (1895), by H.G. Wells
Another genre-shaping novel, Wells' Time Machine was one of the first stories to link time travel with science rather than magic or spiritualism. Plus his depiction of the underground-dwelling, industrial Morlocks and the willowy, surface-dwelling hippie Eloi shaped the way many people imagined the future for the next several decades.
At the Mountains of Madness (1931), by H.P. Lovecraft
This longish short story by H.P. Lovecraft brings together all of Lovecraft's greatest and most memorable obsessions. When a group of explorers discover a lost Antarctic city, they learn that the Earth was once the home to many alien races, some of whom still lurk under the ocean (Cthulhu's spawn), and others of whom can be summoned (the Shoggoths). Reading this book will take you deep into the subterranean imagination of Lovecraft, full of lost civilizations and slimy monsters who haunt our dreams. Lucky for us, Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) is working on a movie version.
I, Robot (1955), by Isaac Asimov
This collection of linked short stories quite simply changed the way we think about robots. Asimov invented the "three laws of robotics," which are included in so many subsequent tales of humanoid robots and also in the work of robotics engineers. So this book has already changed your life, by changing robot history — reading it, you'll be surprised how much this work of fiction has become accepted wisdom about the way real robots will function.
The Dispossessed (1974), by Ursula LeGuin
LeGuin pulls no punches in this novel about an anarchist-feminist society that broke away from an oppressive, consumer-driven world to live on its barren moon. Out of this vivid portrait of two flawed societies, and one brilliant physicist, comes a story about how no culture can completely erase injustice.
Kindred (1979), by Octavia Butler
A black woman living in 1970s America finds herself sucked back in time to protect the life of her distant ancestor: a white slaveowner with a perverse crush on one of his slaves. Expect no political correctness, but a lot of tough questions about racial identity, in this seriously action-packed story about how the people you trust least may be the source of your existence.
Wizard (1979), by John Varley
A schizophrenic man falls in love with a centaur who has three sets of genitals and lives inside a giant cyborg in orbit around Saturn. You want to change your perspective on the world? This book will do it for you.
Consider Phlebas (1987), by Iain M. Banks
A good way-in to Iain M. Banks series of Culture novels, Consider Phlebas deals with a war between a posthuman culture of game-loving anarchists, and a hierarchical civilization of religious zealots. Beautifully-written and action-packed, the book never allows you to get complacent about what it means to be ethically right and wrong.
He, She, and It (1991), by Marge Piercy
A woman and her cyborg warrior lover fight to protect a free Jewish town from being taken over by a neighboring corporate city-state in this cyberpunk homage to the Jewish myth of the Golem. The most fascinating part of the book is what happens when the cyborg, who has been programmed to love combat, realizes that his pleasures are morally wrong. What would it feel like for a weapon to grow ethics?
Sarah Canary (1991), by Karen Joy Fowler
A mysterious alien who doesn't understand humans very well lands in nineteenth century California, blundering her way towards San Francisco with the reluctant help of a Chinese railway worker, an escaped lunatic, and a Suffragette preaching free love. Haunting and funny, this novel is as much about the alienness of human history as it is about aliens.
A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), by Vernor Vinge
This novel was the first great epic of the internet age, leapfrogging over cyberpunk and into a posthuman future where UNIX is thousands of years old and newsgroups span the galaxy. A powerful computer virus that transforms matter is attacking civilization, and our only hope may lie with two kids marooned on a medieval planet full of dog-like creatures with collective consciousness. This is quite simply one of the most inventive, astonishing, and humane space operas you'll ever read.
The Bohr Maker (1995), by Linda Nagata
One of the first novels to explore the revolutionary potential of nanotech, this globe-spanning epic is mind blowing on many levels. When a Sudanese prostitute learns to manipulate a molecular foundry better than its Western inventor can, the balance of power in the world is turned on its head.
The Sparrow (1996), by Mary Doria Russell
Everything you learned about first contact between humans and aliens was wrong. This strange and sad book chronicles what happens when the Catholic Church sends missionaries to a planet where astronomers have discovered life. The two species of aliens our protagonist priest meets are terrifying in their difference from humans — and make the priest an alien to himself. Hauntingly written, this is literary science fiction at its best.
Cryptonomicon (2000), by Neal Stephenson
This dense, multi-layered story jumps around in time, space, and consciousness, exploring the interconnected forces of money and science that brought humans to the twenty-first century. Warning: reading this book will rearrange your brain permanently.
The Mount (2002), by Carol Emschwiller
After human civilization is destroyed by a group of invading aliens, the survivors become the ponies of their new alien overlords. Generations later, our hero is a happy mount to the alien prince, but slowly begins to realize that the life of a pampered pet is not all he wants.
Perdido Street Station (2002), by China Mieville
Set in on a planet where a strange weather system called The Torque periodically destroys the fabric of reality, Perdido Street Station is about a scientist, a man who has lost his wings, a woman with an insect head, and a city full of people whose dreams are being eaten by moths. As the dreamless city slowly goes insane, only the scientist can stop the moths — with the help of a sentient garbage heap and a cross-dimensional spider who loves wordplay. Nothing can truly capture the sublime beauty and weirdness of a Mieville novel. But it might change your life.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), by Cory Doctorow
Not only did this novel usher in a new wave of postcyber writing about downloadable brains and uploadable desires, but it also changed the way science fiction writers thought about books. Doctorow has always insisted on making his novels available for free online, and has helped popularize the idea of questioning traditional copyrights in the scifi world. So this novel has changed your world already, by helping to make the business of scifi writing as tomorrow-minded as scifi itself.
Pattern Recognition (2003), by William Gibson
One of the best novels in Gibson's new cycle of science fiction tales set in the present day (which is to say, novels that feel like science fiction but aren't by strict definition actually scifi), Pattern Recognition is a masterpiece about consumer capitalism, mass-produced illusions, and video-sharing technology. Read and be dazzled.
Newton's Wake (2004), by Ken MacLeod
From the first moments in this novel, when a group of Scottish organized criminals (erm I mean "combat archaeologists") jump through a wormhole with their "search engine" — a giant machine for finding and pillaging cool treasure — you'll be hooked. Funny, bizarre, and politically-savvy, this novel is about treasure hunters and rapture fuckers out to get a little cash and have a little revolution. You won't be able to forget it.
Glasshouse (2006), by Charles Stross
Stross has said he had the Stanford prison experiments in mind when he wrote this far-future tale of drifters who sign up for a "glasshouse" experiment to recreate the twentieth century in an isolated space habitat. They'll be arbitrarily assigned genders, and forced to engage in certain kinds of conformist behaviors for points. Our heroes, ill-at-ease in the genders they've been given, figure out that there's a deeper plot at work and must try to outsmart the glasshouse prison game while fighting mind viruses that can reorganize your whole consciousness. With unexpected twists and turns, this book is the very best mindfuck you've ever had.