Science fiction has always asked what comes after Homo sapiens. A superhuman version of our species, or a dying planet devoid of intelligent life? This list of 35 essential posthuman novels will get you started answering the big questions too.
I've arranged these stories and novels in roughly chronological order.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Sometimes called the first science fiction novel, this classic early-nineteenth century story is told from the point of view of Frankenstein's monster. Who is the first synthetic human. Cobbled together out of body parts from dead people, he's a composite creature built by science. And like the many cyborgs, synthetics, and robots who come after him, the monster is both really smart and really pissed off.
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
Wells' often-retold 1895 tale is less about time travel than human evolution. When our protagonist arrives in a far-future Earth, he discovers Homo sapiens has evolved into two separate species: The peaceful but aimless Eloi, and the industrious, subterranean Morlocks. This is a dark vision of posthumanity, with our progeny locked into species warfare that appears to have grown out of class divisions.
Slan, by A.E. Van Vogt
This novel, serialized in the early 1940s, is about a group of engineered humans called "slan." Some have tendrils and are psychic, while others look perfectly human but are superstrong as well as hyperintelligent. Humans hunt these constructed beings to near-extinction, and the novel deals with one psychic slan's fight to stop the genocide.
Dying Earth, Jack Vance
A series of linked stories set in and around the city of Almery, Dying Earth speculates about what happens to humanity in a far-future age when the sun is slowly dying and the planet is plunged into cold twilight. A mixture of fantasy and scifi, the stories focus on the magical powers possessed by a dwindling population scrabbling to survive among weird monsters. The collection, first published in 1950, has been incredibly influential among SF writers and gamers. Many attributes of magic users in Dungeons & Dragons are taken from Dying Earth. And if you've ever killed a Grue, you can thank Vance for inventing that legendary creature.
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
This 1953 novel, based on some of Sturgeon's short stories, is about the first Homo gestalt - an entity created by the "bleshing" of several humans with psychic powers. Possessing telepathy, teleportation, and other superpowers, the humans of the gestalt are crazy and helpless without each other. But together, they are the next step in evolution.
Slave Ship, Fredrick Pohl
One of the first novels to explore species "uplift," this 1956 anti-war satire is about humans who have developed psychic powers and are using them to speak with animals. Using this psychic link, the military is training animals (the slaves of the title) to fight alongside humans in a global war being fought over religion.
The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey
People born with disabilities are wired into the command systems of spaceships, which become their new bodies. Published in 1961, this is one of the earliest novels to explore the idea that disabled people will become the first true posthuman cyborgs.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
In the far future, AI has been outlawed so humans have taken over the roles that computers once held in their society. Heavily modified by technology and drugs, these humans form guilds responsible for space travel and political futurism.
"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree Jr.
In this prescient 1960s short story, Tiptree explores the emotional life of an ugly teenage girl who is recruited by a company to control the avatar of a beautiful young starlet. Locked in a high-tech closet, the girl ports her mind into a gorgeous, manufactured meatsack who cavorts with rich men and does product endorsements. Things go wrong when she tries to veer off the corporate script for her avatar.
Aye, And Gomorrah, by Samuel Delany
The posthumans in this famous 1967 short story are Spacers, humans whose sexual characteristics are removed at birth because cosmic rays in space will destroy their gametes anyway. A group of humans calling themselves frelks develop a sexual fetish for Spacers, and thoughtful weirdness ensues.
Uplift Series, by David Brin
The books and stories in Brin's series, which began in 1980, all deal in one way or another with what happens to humanity when we begin "uplifting" creatures like dolphins and apes, giving them human-equivalent intelligence. What it means to be human is called into question when we're surrounded by other intelligent species, including aliens who have their own uplifted companion species.
Marooned In Realtime, by Vernor Vinge
Vinge has written several novels about posthumans, notably Fire Upon The Deep. But Marooned In Realtime, which he wrote at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, is possibly his most interesting. Humans time-traveling into the future by preserving themselves in stasis fields called "bobbles" come out of stasis to find that most of humanity has gone, leaving an empty planet behind. They decide to go back into stasis for thousands of years at a time, hoping to find more humans, or to meet another species with evolved intelligence, but they never do. As the sun dims, and all traces of humanity fade away, we reach a kind of Dying Earth scenario without the magic.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is a gorgeous, literary novel about a family where the parents expose their children to toxins in order to make them circus freaks. The family, including Siamese twins, a dwarf, and a boy with flippers, makes its money from freak show tours. Told from the point of view of the mutant children, this is like X-Men set in the realistic family psychodrama world of Jonathan Franzen. And it's incredible.
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
In a world where genetically-engineered superhumans called Sleepless can outperform human Sleepers, one of the raging moral questions is how to treat the relatively unproductive "beggars in Spain." When part of the population is engineered to always contribute more to society, what kinds of welfare should those people provide to the non-engineered, non-contributors?
Hyperion Series, by Dan Simmons
Set in the far future, this series is - among other things - an exploration of what happens when some humans evolve into a godlike state.
Permutation City, by Greg Egan
Most of Egan's novels take place in a posthuman universe where human and machine have merged, but Permutation City tackles head-on the question of what it means to be a person in a world populated by so-called artificial life. Like all of Egan's work, the novel is half-philosophy, half-rip roaring storytelling.
The Bohr Maker, by Linda Nagata
An impoverished woman accidentally stumbles upon "the bohr maker," a piece of nanotech that turns its possessor's body into a nanofabrication machine. She's now at the heart of a struggle between posthumans trying to guide evolution in different directions.
Nanotech Quartet series, by Kathleen Ann Goonan
In this mind-blowing series, humanity has been completely rewritten by nanotech viruses that emerge from sentient cities bent on recreating masterpieces of American literature.
Patternist series, by Octavia Butler
This wide-ranging series explores what happens when humanity evolves into two different species: the animalistic Clayarks, mutated by an alien virus; and the Patternmasters, psychic humans who exist in collective minds like Sturgeon's Homo gestalt.
Vurt by Jeff Noon
In this surreal alternate history, humans have been transformed by taking a drug called Vurt, which completely blurs the line between virtual and real life.
Blue Light, Walter Mosley
Exposure to a mysterious "blue light" of alien origin turns several humans in Northern California into superpowered posthumans. The main character receives a blood transfusion from one of the blue lighters and becomes their hybrid, part-superpowered companion, devoted to studying the new forms of culture that these mutants create.
Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks
Part of Banks' Culture series, which deals with a galactic civilization of posthumans, aliens and their AI companions, Look to Windward contemplates the ultimate posthuman problem. What happens to a war machine that has decided to turn itself into the Mind that runs an Orbital, or human habitat. How does PTSD affect an AI who has returned to the homefront, and how do its struggles overlap with the humans around it?
Revelation Space series, by Alasdair Reynolds
In this series of books and stories, which span millions of years, Reynolds tells the story of humanity's evolution into transhumanity among many alien species. Like Iain M. Banks, Reynolds takes for granted the idea that humans may gain what amount to superpowers, but they will still fall prey to human foibles like anger, jealousy, and deception. The series began publication in 2000.
Black Hole, written and illustrated by Charles Burns
When teenagers start mutating in this dark graphic novel, they run away from their suburban homes to create a weird, unhappy subculture of outcasts living in the forest. It's like a grunge version of Geek Love.
Blindsight, by Peter Watts
A group of heavily-augmented posthumans, including an ancient vampire resurrected via genetic engineering, attempt to make first contact with alien life at the edge of the solar system. What they find is a form of intelligence that causes them to question the nature of consciousness itself.
Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod
MacLeod has made a (brilliant) career out of exploring posthuman society, especially the transition from human to posthuman. But in Learning The World, a gentle, strange far-future tale, he gives us a bizarre picture of human society so far evolved that it's almost unrecognizable. Except for the fact that teenagers still keep journals online - while they learn to build their own space habitats using geoengineering techniques.
Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross
Many would argue that Stross' great posthuman epic is Accelerando. But for my money, it's Saturn's Children, because here he tells a truly posthuman tale of what happens after humans go extinct - but the robots they create live on, self-replicating and wondering about the biological creatures who created them.
The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness
Set on a planet colonized by Christian separatists, Ness' novel is about what happens when a virus makes all human men psychic and kills all the women. Except it seems that some women may have survived, and they've been discovered by a boy and the dog he's connected with telepathically.
Postsingular, by Rudy Rucker
A blindingly surreal, clever exploration of different ways in which the world could become cyber. After nanites almost consume the entire planet and plunge us into a "virtual Earth," a genius decides to protect the planet by giving every single object on Earth a form of artificial intelligence and expanding human abilities to include telepathy and telekinesis. And that's just the beginning of the weirdness.
Uglies Series, by Scott Westerfeld
In the far future, humans use plastic surgery and brain alteration to enforce peace by making everyone Pretties who look equally beautiful - and think the same conformist thoughts. But some of the pre-surgery Uglies are getting ready to rebel.
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
A futurist thought experiment, Weisman imagines what would happen to the planet if Homo sapiens disappeared tomorrow. Based on research and interviews, this work of narrative nonfiction reads like apocalyptic SF about the posthuman world.
Natural History, by Justina Robson
Humans have divided into the Forged, human-machine hybrids capable of spaceflight and other feats, and the Unevolved, or unchanged, wild-type humans. The Forged want to strike out on their own and colonize another world, but political machinations among the humans may prevent them from continuing their evolution beyond Homo sapiens.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
A mad genetic engineer has created a virus that destroys humanity. He's also engineered a new kind of intelligent hominid that's immune to the virus. He hopes to restart humanity using his new species, which he believes will never experience sexual jealousy nor war.
Wess'har War series, Karen Traviss
Human evolution is altered forever when aliens draw humanity into a war between several competing species. Start with the first novel, City of Pearl.
Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
In this magic realist eco-thriller, Bacigalupi imagines a world where genetically-engineered crops are ravaged by viruses and humans scrabble to survive on the few foodstuffs that remain. Gene-tweaked "New People," scorned by many, may be humanity's only hope.