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Best Hard Science Fiction Books

Best Science Fiction That's Full of Realistic Developed Science (i.e.Hard)

Are you the type of person that likes your science fiction heavy on the science? Get annoyed by the hand-waving attempts to allow for faster-than-light travel or inter-species breeding? We've got a run-down of the top twenty five hard science fiction books that are exactly what you're looking for.

For those who don't recognize the term, hard sci fi is a subgenre of science fiction that puts the focus on the science - lots of technical detail, realistic explanations and maybe if you're lucky, one or two equations! 

Now that's not to say it doesn't invent anything new, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to reject anything that might conceivably throw a spanner in the works (speed of light constant, I'm looking at you) but whatever it does, it has to be theoretically possible and make sense given known constraints. Sound like your sort of thing? Right, on with our list!

Why is this our number one choice, you ask? Well, if you've heard of science fiction, you've heard of Arthur C. Clarke. And if you haven't, what are you doing here? Go fix that! Clarke is a giant of hard sci fi, probably because as well as writing science fiction, he actually went and did science. So, after lots of thought (well, closing of eyes and pointing at a list of his books), we've placed Rendezvous with Rama firmly at the top of our list 25 hard science fiction books. Rendezvous with Rama starts with the most predictable of premises. No, really. Strange non-earth object spotted in space? Been there, done that. Hell, it sound like something people tell you after their 8th shot of vodka. But in Clarke's hands, it becomes something special. Rama is a world unto itself, and the descriptions every bit as mesmerizing as they are believably scientific. Don't get into this work expecting high drama and detailed character arcs - the cast aren't 2D by any means, but there's only one real main character here, and that's the spaceship. It's a work of exploration, discovery and strange new worlds - what more could you want?

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And if you like Rendezvous with Rama, check out some more of his work â?? we recommend 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's End for starters

A crumbling interstellar empire, rebels and space battles, a mutant warlord, and a secret base that remains hidden away for millennia. It is said that Isaac Asimov based this groundbreaking space epic on Edward Gibbons's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but really it's just a rumbustious space adventure that took all the scale and wonder of the old space operas and turned them into something far better than anyone might have expected.Originally published as a series of short stories during the 1940s, then collected as three volumes, Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation in the early 50s, the trilogy has a grandeur and a scope that has been rarely matched even today. The writing can be stodgy, but it's still a great series to read. Just don't bother with Asimov's belated prequels and sequels, which try and tie all of his Robot stories and others into the same future history, they're not worth the effort.Why It Made the List At number 6 on our list of top hard science fiction books is Foundation by Issac Asimov. Why number two? Because we couldn't have a joint number one, that's why. Many of Asimov's books would have fitted the bill, but given Foundation is part of the original foundation (sorry) of modern science fiction, we thought it the best starting point. With it's sprawling, space-opera like setting, it's focus on science and history and Asimov's classic turn of phrase, it's no wonder this novel has remained popular for decades after it was first published. Foundation takes the familiar starting point of the fall of an Empire, sets it in space and adds in that vital ingredient - hope. Mixed together, we get a soaring epic that spans both space and time. Not only is the technology realistic, but so are the characters and society. Asimov is master of both story and science, and it's evident throughout this. The best part is, this is the first in a series! So you can read even more! The Foundation Trilogy won a one-off Hugo Award as the All-Time Best Series. It probably wouldn't win a similar award today, but it is still a wonderful example of the ambition and the scope of space opera at its very best.

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Forty years after the first of the stories that became Foundation was published in Astounding, Asimov returned to the series with a sequel, Foundation's Edge, followed by a further sequel, Foundation and Earth. After this he wrote two prequels to the trilogy, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. To be honest, they're not a patch on the original trilogy, despite the fact that Foundation's Edge won both a Hugo and a Locus Award.

If you LOVE hard science fiction, there's been a lot that stands out since Foundation. For hard science fiction that's highly regarded, check out the Ringworld series by Larry Niven. For space opera science fiction with grand ideas about alien civilizations, read A Fire Upon the Deep

You might also want to check out the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds. Both of these are not 'hard' science fiction, but some of the ideas are certainly realistic about space travel, alien civilizations, and contact.

Tempted as we were to place this at number one, it's at number three of our top 25 hard science fiction books because this isn't just hard science fiction, it's diamond hard. Challenging to read, and filled with actual mathematics and physics this is hard science fiction at both it's best and most difficult! Even it's title, Tau Zero, is part of an equation that is used throughout the book. Seriously, it's pretty much a textbook with plot. Of course, you're here looking for good hard science fiction novels, so this should be right up your street. Poul Anderson takes a simple premise - a ship that can't stop accelerating - and weaves it into a masterpiece of storytelling and scientific explanations. It's a testament to his skill with the mathematics and principles at hand that what could seem like bullshit in the hands of a lesser writer reads as believable, logical and justifiable science. Just don't attempt this as a light read, and you'll be fine.

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If you like Tau Zero, try Timescape by Gregory Benford and The Haertel Scholium by James Blish

This is, without question, the best realistic portrait of Mars to date, as well as being one of the best works of science fiction from the last few decades. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, take us from the first Spartan colony on Mars through the slow transformation of the planet as the colony grows and prospers. There are internal divisions over whether Mars should be terraformed or left in its pristine state; there's murder and terrorism, there's a war with Earth, there are major catastrophes, and through it all we watch as Mars changes from being a desert planet to being a world that can support its population in comfort. It's an amazing work, huge, slow moving yet never less than gripping, so you feel that this is exactly how the colonisation of Mars will happen in the years to come.   The three books in the trilogy collected just about all of the major awards going, including the Nebula and BSFA Awards for Red Mars, and the Hugo and Locus Awards for both Green Mars and Blue Mars. And the trilogy has never been out of any list of the best sf ever since they first appeared.

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Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of the best and most consistent writers of science fiction, and practically everything he's written is worth checking out.

The Orange County Trilogy offers three separate visions of the future of California. The Wild Shore is a post-apocalypse story in which the survivors start again in small rural communities. The Gold Coast is a dystopia in which California's love affair with the car has run to excess. While Pacific Edge is a utopia in which ecological ideas are put in place to create a better world.

The Years of Rice and Salt is a striking alternate history in which most of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death. The novel traces the social, political and scientific developments in a world in which Middle Eastern, Asian and Native American cultures dominate.

If you want more books about mars, check out The Martian by Andy Weir which is a near-future novel about a man who gets stranded on mars for a couple years. If you want an old school space opera about mars, check out Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And finally, if you want a pulpy science fantasy about mars, read the Barsoom novels by Burroughs starting with The Princess of Mars.

The Color of Distance makes the top five of our top 25 hard science fiction novels thanks to it's innovative use of biology and anthropology instead of the usual physics and engineering. Now, we love some good future tech as much as the rest of you, but sometimes you just want to branch out and find something a bit different, and that's exactly what The Color of Distance does. Don't let any of this 'soft sciences' nonsense filter into whether you read it or not - this is most definitely hard science fiction. Starting with the idea that Juna, it's lead character, must adapt to the native alien species - through changing both her body, and the way she interacts with the society - it builds into a tale of what it means to be human. This is a world that feels alien - none of this earth-but-in-different-colours crap, but distinctly and terrifyingly alien. Thomson is a relatively unknown name compared to some of the contenders on this list, but trust us when we say that's a oversight on science fiction's part, and not a comment on her talent.

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In a move that most of us would think is unprecedented in the science fiction world of famous authors, Larry Niven has done something unheard of: admitted to an error in his plot. Niven wrote, 'If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it's the one with the mistakes in it. It's worth money.' Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday at the start of the novel. It's 2850 AD, so this age isn't particularly unusual. But as the vampires in Ann Rice's world found, when one gets to this age, one gets rather fucking bored with life and its experiences. Louis decides to take a trip beyond Known Spaceship on his own. Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, offers him a spot on an exploration voyage with Speak (a Kzin) and a young human female, Teela Brown. They travel to Ringworld, an artificial ring about one million miles world and the diameter of Earth's orbit.They unsuccessfully try to contact the Ringworld but their ship is disabled by its defense system. With important systems on their ship destroyed, the crew has to find out how to get back into space as well as explore Ringworld. Forced to land due to sickness, they encounter Ringworld's indigenous people who seem to be human and living in a primitive human manner. They mistakenly think the crew is the creators of the Ring, treating them as gods. Proving it's never good to get in with fundamentalists, the Ringworlders go a bit feral. If you think things are already intense, plots, secrets and machinations are revealed and inter-species love happens. This is definitely one of the most intriguing space opera novels written and well worth your time. And did we mention that Ringworld won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards?

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Niven wrote three sequels to Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, which is the best of them, The Ringworld Throne and Ringworld's Children, but as usual none of them have the thrill or the sense of wonder that the original generated. There's also a bunch of related novels that Niven co-wrote with Edward M. Lerner, but unless you're a completist you can probably leave these alone.

However, some of the earlier Known Space works, such as The World of Ptaavs, Protector and the collection Neutron Star are well worth reading.

However, our Alternative Choice is the first novel Niven co-wrote with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye. This is one of the great stories of first contact, a big, rambling space opera full of twists and sudden discoveries that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through a long book. An encounter with an alien craft sends a human expedition to the sun known as the Mote, where they discover a curious race of technologically advanced aliens who, at first, seem very peaceful. Slowly, however, we discover the devastatingly violent secret that lies behind this fa�§ade.

If you love the idea of the Ringworld, you should also try Orbitsville by Bob Shaw. The Ringworld is essentially a slice taken out of a Dyson Sphere, but Orbitsville is a full Dyson Sphere. The story, which won the BSFA Award, and its two sequels, Orbitsville Departure and Orbitsville Judgement, concern the mystery of a habitable shell completely surrounding a star, and what it might mean for the humans who discover it.

Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite. It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred. The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale. Why It Made the List The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book. Alternative Choice Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

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House of Suns is another epic, set six million years in the future, with long-lived clones who regularly circumnavigate the entire galaxy and a race of sentient robots, there are ambushes and betrayals, and a high-speed chase that lasts thousands of years and takes us as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. If that's not enough to excite your sense of wonder, you really shouldn't be reading science fiction.

Reynolds's most recent work is also on a grand scale. The Poseidon's Children trilogy starts, in Blue Remembered Earth, in a near future when Africa is the world's leading technological power, and two members of a powerful African clan gather cryptic clues that lead them to the outer reaches of the solar system. By the time of the second volume, On the Steel Breeze, it is 200 years later and a fleet of generation starships are approaching a world where mysterious signals have been observed, but there's treachery afoot, while the legacy of events from the first volume still linger. The third volume, Poseidon's Wake, takes us yet further into the future and out to other stars to encounter the mysterious aliens hinted at in the first two books.

If you're in to space opera, don't forget the granddaddy of them all, E.E. "Doc" Smith, whose seven volume Lensman series begins with two galaxies colliding, and just gets bigger. By the end of the series suns and planets are being tossed about as weapons in a massive interstellar war.

Rainbows End, for all it sounds like the title of a children's fantasy book, is some incredibly relevant sci fi. Sitting at number eight on our top 25 hard science fiction novels, it's the tale of a world firmly in the information age, where Homeland security watches your every move. Wait, it is a work of science fiction - we promise! It's just a scarily accurate one. Moving into the realms of augmented reality, with massive advances in medical technology, the world Vinge presents to us is wholly believable. And whilst 2025 may seem awfully close for all these predicted technologies, it's pretty scary when you look around at the leaps and bounds tech is taking. Published in 2006, this is one of the more recent books on our list and it's well worth a read if you have any interest in future tech. Or, you know, in your own future. It's genuinely that prophetic. Plus, with him being a current writer and all, there should be plenty more from him to come!

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If you liked Rainbows End, check out William Gibson's Neuromancer and Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling

By the 1990s, the world was changing more rapidly than ever. The digital age foreseen by the cyberpunks was already becoming more complex as writers began pushing the ideas forward into areas of posthumanity and nanotechnology among others. At the forefront of this advance was Neal Stephenson, whose vision of the world incorporated a vast slew of notions ranging from economics to artificial intelligence to social structure and more. All of these various elements came together in The Diamond Age.In a future that has been radically transformed by nanotechnologies and ever greater advances in computing, tribes or "phyles" have now become the dominant social structure. Phyles are groups of people brought together by shared values, ethnicity or cultural heritage, while old groupings like the nation state are withering away. To be outside a phyle, therefore, is the lowest of the low. That is the fate of Nell, until she acquires a copy of an interactive book, The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which was intended for someone else. By following the advice in the book, Nell is able to rise in the world until, by the end, she has founded her own phyle.Following Nell's story gives Stephenson the chance to show us all the various workings of this world, and how different it is both in technological terms and in its assumptions, from our own. If you want a vision of the future that will stop you dead in your tracks, a vision that is so brilliantly interconnected that it is absolutely convincing, then look no further. From hive minds linked by nanotechnology to the limits of artificial intelligence, this is a world that is different from our own at every point, even though we can see how we might get there from here. Why It's on the ListThe Diamond Age won both the Hugo and Locus Awards. But really it glitters like the title, this is a diamond of a novel, filled with incalculable riches. Stephenson has many fantastic and ambitious works, but The Diamond Age is perhaps his best work to date.Alternative ChoiceFor alternative choices, we'll stick with Stephenson's 3 other most regarded works. Each of these could take this spot on the list, and truth be told, your preference will depend on your personal taste as each of these books offers quite a different experience.Make sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre for MORE cyberpunk book recommendations.Alternative Choice 1: Snow Crash is almost the apotheosis of the cyberpunk novel, the book that took the idea about as far as it could possibly go, then sent it spinning off in an entirely new direction. Set in our near future, and perhaps 100 years before The Diamond Age, this is a story of a computer virus that affects people, because the virus is language itself. This is 'early Stephenson' but of his his works, it's probably his most easily digestible, most action-packed and 'fun' to read. If you want to start reading Stephenson, this is a good book to start with. It's also a seminal work in the Cyberpunk genre. Alternative Choice 2: Cryptonomicon. Is this even science fiction? Who Knows? Who cares? It's big and fat and brilliant. Ranging from code breaking during the Second World War to the establishment of a data haven in the present day, and including an entirely mythical island, it's a novel that's all about the ways that digital information and cryptography insinuate their way into our very lives.Alternative Choice3 : Anathem is set on the world of Arbre, where technology is strictly controlled and knowledge is limited to the inhabitants of highly regimented secular monasteries. But when an alien spaceship appears overhead, a revolution in ideas is precipitated. Okay, the writing is baggy at times and the made-up words can be infuriating and silly, but if you want ideas-driven science fiction, look no further, this is the place. Philosophy, mathematics, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, this is heady stuff. This is his 'best' most recent work. Stephenson recently released in 2015 his Seveness -- an ambitious work but also overly dry. Anathem is a better work in every regard.

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Neal Stephenson's novels have got bigger and bigger as his career has gone on. It's like he's trying to squeeze an entire world between the covers of a book. But however much detail you'll find in there, there's always a strong story that just keeps you turning the pages. There are several books that could equally well command a place in our Top 100 list.

Make sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre.

For similar recommendations, you should look at other cyberpunk works that have proved influential.

William Gibson's Neuromancer is the gold standard in cyberpunk and pretty much the founding father of the movement in science fiction.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep -- a highly influential work by PKD that's touched literature and film. The futuristic noir dystopian metropolis setting of the film has inspired generations of sci fi movies and video games. Truth be told, there have been few science fiction books as influential on pop culture as THIS work. As such, you absolutely should read it. 

For a modern violent take on the cyberpunk genre, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. It's brutal, violent, dark, and has a mystery-detective tale that keeps you hooked from start to finish. This is one of the most exciting cyberpunk thrillers in the genre.

Downbelow Station is well known among science fiction readers. It's part of a sprawling set of novels - though each reads as a standalone, it's worth reading a few should you find out that it really is your thing. And trust us when we say it will be. This is a tale of conflict, drama and political intrigue. Of course, plenty of books tell these stories, but what makes it such a special piece of fiction that we've placed it at number ten on our list of top hard science fiction novels? Cherryh's solutions to colonising planets - or rather, making use of planets that we can't quite colonise - are ingenious and the world she builds is totally believable (though that fact may well turn you into quite the cynic!). That, combined with a vibrant and varied cast pushes this novel into our top ten. Also, there's a board game based on it, so you multi-fandom geeks can have even more fun with this universe!

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Iain Banks burst onto the literary scene with his controversial first novel, The Wasp Factory, the violent story of a girl who had been brought up as an emasculated boy. He followed this with two novels that both displayed an awareness of and interest in science fiction, so it was no surprise when he added the middle initial and produced a straightforward science fiction novel. What was surprising was that it was a full-blooded space opera, full of battles and last minute escapes and epic explosions. What caught everybody's attention, however, was that the novel introduced a vast, interstellar, left-wing utopia, The Culture. The Culture was an immediate hit, and over the next 30 years he produced nine more novels and a bare handful of short stories about the Culture, which grew into one of the most popular and interesting of all science fiction series. Typically, he would look at this post-scarcity universe obliquely while concentrating on the edges, where the Culture rubbed up against other space-faring societies, and the Culture's most disreputable organisation, Special Circumstances, operated. Occasionally we would be shown what it is like in a society without money, because everything is freely available, a society in which people could be whatever they wanted, changing sex freely and even, in one instance, taking on the appearance of a bush. It's a world of dangerous sports and comfortable living, but mostly we saw it only from the outside, through the eyes of those who did its dirty work. The best example of this is Use of Weapons. Zakalwe is a mercenary, a bloody and effective soldier, who has worked for Special Circumstances on a number of occasions before, but now is called on for one last mission. In the odd-numbered chapters we follow this final mission; but in the even-numbered chapters we go backwards in time through his earlier missions and back towards the secret of his childhood. The final revelation about Zakalwe's true identity is brutal and breathtaking.The unique structure of the novel is what makes this an especially powerful story. And it is told with a combination of cruel, unflinching violence and sparkling wit that is typical of Banks, and helps to explain his extraordinary popularity.Why It's On the ListThe Culture is one of the great inventions of science fiction, a communistic utopia that actually works. It is also a universe absolutely stuffed with amazing inventions, including the ships that are characters in their own right and have typically witty names (in Use of Weapons, for instance, we meet "Very Little Gravitas Indeed" and "Size Isn't Everything"). All of the Culture novels are worth reading, and Use of Weapons is easily the most rewarding of them. Some will recommend Player of Games as the 'best' intro to Bank's Culture novels as it's an exciting, action packed read that takes place a very personal level between characters. It's also introduces you to the  greater world at large without being too overwhelming. Consider Phlebas is another good intro, and as Culture goes, is Bank's classic "Space Opera' entry into the series.

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Basically, anything with Iain M. Banks's name on it is going to be action on a massive scale, great ideas, laugh out loud humour, and soul-searching darkness, all rolled into one. You're not going to go wrong picking up any of his books. But these are some you'll really want to pay attention to.

The Player of Games stars the Culture's top games player, Gurgeh, who is blackmailed to go on a secret mission for Special Circumstances, taking on a brutal alien empire at their own particular game, and the stakes are far higher than he could ever imagine. This is a novel where you just have to take a deep breath every so often before plunging back into the action, because it really will screw with your mind. This is recommended as a good introduction to the series -- it's action packed, it's faced paced, and it's a rewarding story.

Excession mostly concerns the ships who are called on to investigate a strange intrusion into Culture space, and which gradually reveals a whole level of reality they weren't even aware of before. This won the BSFA Award.

Look to Windward describes an attempt to blow up an Orbital, an artificial world where millions of people live, as revenge for the Culture's interference in a long-ago war. It's the novel where you realise that the Culture isn't a static society but is actually evolving, growing older, maybe beginning to contemplate its own death.

The novels of Iain M. Banks helped to kick start the British Renaissance of the 1990s and also the New Space Opera, so if you love his books you're also advised to look out for some of the other books that emerged out of those movements.

The Fall Revolution Quartet by Ken MacLeod, Banks's childhood friend, is an obvious place to start; each volume takes a different version of Trotskyist politics as an underlying theme in a story that starts in a near future Britain and ends with a war against uploaded beings around Jupiter.

The Quiet War Quartet by Paul McAuley covers thousands of years of human habitation across the solar system, starting in the relatively near future when energy and enthusiasm are driving people ever further out but their efforts have to be directed towards trying to prevent a war between the colonists in the outer system and the authoritarian regimes left behind. But by the end of the series humanity is retreating as the various human habitats crumble and decay, but a mysterious message from the stars could reinvigorate things.

The Xeelee Sequence by Stephen Baxter, one of the most consistently reliable of hard sf authors, whose monumental series of novels and stories range from the present day to five billion years in the future when the solar system collides with the Andromeda nebula, during which time humanity becomes one of the most powerful races in space.

For big space opera with grand ideas and exiting action, give Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series a read. It's got it's own thing going on -- a different sort of story than the Culture, but in my opinion, just as exciting.

Science fiction isnât always meant to be comfortable or easy reading. Quite the opposite, any literature so based on ideas must challenge the reader, make them think differently (if only for as long as it takes to read the book), and that is what Octavia Butler did with her fiction. Being both black and a woman shines out in her work, which constantly makes us rethink our notions of gender and race. This pattern of daring us to think the unthinkable comes out particularly in the three volumes, Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago that make up this sequence, later retitled Lilithâs Brood. It starts with military adventurers unleashing a nuclear war that wipes out most of Earth. The few survivors are rescued by an alien race, the Oankali. The Oankali are physically repulsive, instead of eyes, ears and other familiar sense organs, their bodies are covered with tentacles with which they perceive the world. Moreover, they have three sexes, male, female, and a third sex, ooloi, who are able to directly manipulate genetic material. When, centuries later, the humans are roused from stasis, they find the Oankali have made the Earth habitable again. The Oankali are ready to help the humans survive on the planet without their old technology, but in return they want to interbreed and raise a hybrid race. The balance between the repulsiveness of the aliens and the survival of humanity lies at the heart of the work. When the Oankali and the humans do settle on the renewed Earth, the ooloi make sure that humans are infertile so that the only children born are hybrids. This leads to inevitable tensions between the two races until, by the end of the trilogy, the genetic value of the hybrid race is proved.  Why It Made the List Octavia Butler received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center and a MacArthur Genius Grant, which shows how highly regarded her work was. And this really is a genius of a story that makes you think harder than just about any other science fiction.

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The themes that run through all of Octavia Butlerâs work are perhaps at their clearest in Kindred, a time travel story in which a black woman from the present finds herself back in 19th century Maryland, where she meets Alice, a black woman who was born free but forced into slavery, and Rufus, a vicious white slaveholder, both of whom prove to be her ancestors.I

f you are interested in the ways that biology can shape us, you should also try A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. Set on a world entirely covered by water, the inhabitants of Shora are all women, who use genetic engineering to control the ecology of their world. But when contact with an alien race threatens their society, they have to find out if someone from outside can adopt to their way of life in order to protect their world from invasion. A Door into Ocean won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Ever since the computer became a fixture in the ordinary life of every one of us, it has been one of the most potent images in the idea of posthumanity. Whether it is flesh and blood humans interfacing directly with computers, or the essence of our individuality being rendered in digital form, the computer has become the key to posthumanity. And no one has rendered the process that gets us from here to there with as much detail and conviction as Charles Stross does in this extraordinary novel. Through a series of linked stories, the novel takes us from the near future, where everyone is permanently connected to the internet (so much so that when the hero’s memories are stolen he has difficulty finding out who he is), to alien contact aboard a spaceship the size of a Coke can where the crew are stored as digital information, to a point where the planets of the solar system are dismantled to form a vast solar-powered computer to provide a digital home for infinitely more advanced intelligences than humanity. Why it’s on the list: Winner of the Locus Award, this is one of the very best accounts of a digital future.

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This novel has been hailed as one of the best hard sf stories written this century. It's an awesome novel, packed with invention and new ideas and challenges to the way we think. You have to keep your wits about you when reading it, but it is well worth the effort.In the near future, all sorts of genetic engineering and viral plagues have created a variety of posthumans, including Vampires, an ancient but very intelligent predator, and Zombies, who are highly effective and very obedient as soldiers. Then, signs start to be detected of an alien presence on the outskirts of the solar system. The story mostly concerns the journey of a ship, the Theseus, to investigate the aliens. The ship is captained by a vampire and crewed by transhumans with an AI, plenty of opportunity for intercrew conflict along the way. But things really hot up when they reach the Oort Cloud and find a vast starship whose crew have no individual consciousness, but who operate as a sort of hive mind which makes them far quicker to respond and therefore far more dangerous than the humans.Consciousness, it turns out, is bad news. Human self-awareness generates a noise that threatens the normal intelligence of the universe, so the aliens are here to quarantine the Earth as they would for a plague. The book as a whole raises a host of intriguing questions about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities and cost of transhumanity. I guarantee, you'll come away from this book with your mind buzzing.Why It Made the ListCutting edge ideas, challenging questions, a stunning action-packed story: what more do you want from your science fiction? This is the true quill, and pretty damned good it is too.

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Echopraxia is a kind of sequel to Blindsight, though it shifts our attention to characters who played little or no part in the first book. What we get is one of the biologists who unleashed the zombie plague is on a field trip in a remote wilderness when intruders force him to retreat to a strange monastery. Then, when the monastery is attacked, he finds himself aboard a spaceship heading towards a spacestation near the Sun. When we discover that this, too, has been infected with an alien slime mold, we start to question how much of the first novel we can really believe. (Incidentally, Blindsight and Echopraxia have now been published together in one book under the title Firefall.)

Carl Sagan was a prolifically talented astronomer, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, as well as being one of the best science popularisers of his age. He was particularly important in considering questions relating to extraterrestrial life: his work was central to demonstrating how hot the surface temperature of Venus is; he demonstrated that amino acids could be generated from base chemicals by radiation; and he was responsible for the messages intelligible to extraterrestrial intelligence that were aboard Pioneer and Voyage. And all of that experience he poured into his only work of fiction.Contact is about what might happen if humanity starts to receive messages from more intelligent extraterrestrial life. Ellie Arroway is a researcher on SETI when she discovers a message coming from the Vega system. Gradually, Ellie and her colleagues learn to decode the message, and find it is the plans for a space vehicle. When it is built, Ellie is one of the five passengers who are transported via wormholes to a place near the heart of the Milky Way, where she meets an alien who appears to her as her dead father. On her return to Earth, Ellie is able to prove that intelligence is built into the structure of the universe itself.This really is science fiction: that is, fiction with real science built in. Reading this is like getting a glimpse of how interstellar communication might actually work, and what the actual ramifications of contact with another race might be. It's the sort of novel that makes you thrilled about science again. Contact won a Locus Award for First Novel, but it's not really about awards. It's on the list simply because this is the best example of how science and fiction can meet and work together.

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Science fiction is crowded with stories about first contact with aliens, but from The War of theWorlds by H.G. Wells onwards, they've mostly been about which side can most effectively destroy the other side. Stories about learning to understand the alien are much rarer.

You might, however, want to check out Stories of My Life by Ted Chiang. It's a collection of short stories, all of which are excellent, but the title story, "Story of My Life", is about a language specialist brought in to learn to communicate with aliens. The aliens have two languages, one spoken and one written, and when the specialist finally learns to understand the written language it actually affects the way she perceives time. The story won both a Nebula Award for Best Novella and a Sturgeon Award.

Beggars in Spain sounds like some awful pulp fantasy - or even worse, some heartwrenching modern societal tale designed to make us all feel guilty and concious of the dreadful state of the world. Well, it's not. Beggars of Spain is good old hard science fiction, this time with genetic modification and a nice dose of biology. It began life as a novella, before being expanded due to its just how well received it was. The premise is simple, and one we're sure you've all thought of - what would we be like if we didn't need to sleep? Of course, what we expect science fiction to do here is to show the horrible effects of a lack of sleep, and have the world spiral into some dystopia. And that's exactly what happens, except it isn't. The horrible effects of a lack of sleep? Entirely social. This is a great book for examining society on a large scale, intertwined with some incredibly intriguing and forward thinking technological advances, hence why we've placed it in our top 25 hard science fiction books. The author has described it as attempting to wrangle with Ayn Rand and Ursula Le Guin, so if political science fiction is your thing, make sure to pick this up! While science has proven the science behind Tau Zero as not possible, the book can still be appreciated as a great science fiction book without the actual pure science part being correct.

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Dragon's Egg by Robert L Forward is the story of a civilisation that grows fast enough for humans to observe - with each day of the new civilisation being equivalent to a mere 0.2 human seconds. It's also been described by it's author as 'a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel', so you can be sure that when we say it's hard science fiction, we mean it.  Typically of hard science fiction, it's not really about the characters - this is a story of a world, and hence it's the world-building that's important. And what world-building! We see the evolution of mathematics, writing and religion, before it spirals upwards into the realms of technologies far beyond us. This is a book which is epic in scope, and all through a tiny lens. It comes it at number seventeen on our list of top hard science fiction books thanks to its recommendations by the big league writers - Niven, Asimov and Herbert are all fans. If that recommendation doesn't appeal to you, then why on earth are you trusting us?

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The best way to start is by diving in at the deep end, and when it comes to posthumanity you won’t find deeper. Uploaded personalities, clones, advanced technologies, extraordinary developments in biology, a person born with no parents: what can it possibly mean to be human in among all of this? When even humans who have been enhanced so that they can live longer or live under water are looked upon as rather old fashioned, we are in a future where posthumanity has become more established and more diverse than us. The result is a dazzling, at times confusing display of the different ways of being human that technology and biology might open up to us. Why it tops the list: No-one writing science fiction is more alive to the ideas of posthumanity than Egan. He approaches the idea, sometimes tangentially sometimes directly, in a lot of his work, including Permutation City, Distress and Schild’s Ladder; but nowhere does he deal with the subject so directly and with such startling invention as he does in Diaspora.
Manifold: Time is part of an interesting series. It's the first in a series where order doesn't matter, because they're set in a multiverse. Which might just be the best sci fi series concept we've heard in a while. Seriously, you should probably read it just for that. Starting with an Earth ravaged by ecological damage but looking up to the stars, this is a tale of daring exploration and the hope of colonisation. Baxter is, luckily for this list, an engineer. So he knows what he's talking about when it comes to modern technology. Manifold: Time makes good use of this knowledge - talking about the technology needed to explore our solar system in a thoroughly convincing way. It's sitting just inside our top twenty of our twenty five best hard science fiction novels thanks to its intriguing premise - the idea that the last survivors of the humanity race decide to change the past in various ways, and the plot of this novel is one of those ways. Sound interesting? Get reading!
The films of Sam Fuller were seen as so visceral, they were banned from many municipalities. Haldeman’s novel The Forever War is the science fictional equivalent of Fuller’s films, and carries so much more weight. The violence is frank, clear, unambiguous. The story of William Mandella and his travel through time ad battlefields is brutal at times, and the use of concepts like post-hypnotic suggestion leading to massacres, makes the book a strong commentary against war. Haldeman’s own Vietnam experience is evident throughout, as William Mandella is nearly as autobiographical a character as Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim. The way Haldeman writes of the thousand year-long war is much like he would write of the Vietnam, and he pulls no punches.  He questions not only the reasoning and effect of war, but the very stresses that humanity carries within it that we believe leads to warfare. In The Forever War, there is brutality, but in the end, it is brutality that is screaming at the reader that we must never look away, and never accept as reasonable. Why it’s on the list Many vets consider this to be the most direct and honest portrayal of war ever, genre or not.

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Some years later, Haldeman wrote two other novels linked to The Forever War, though only one is a direct sequel.

The sequel is Forever Free, in which Mandella, with his wife and children, is now a colonist on the icy world of Middle Finger. When they try to use time dilation effects to escape the post-human hive mind known as Man, things go wrong, and they end up returning to a depopulated planet, meet an alien shapeshifter that has coexisted on Earth throughout history, and end up in a face to face meeting with God. It is nowhere near as good as the original, but it is interesting as a sequel.

Much better, but only tangentially connected to the original, is Forever Peace, which also won the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. This is another novel which argues that war is an aberration, but in this case it is a war here on Earth fought by armies of robotic "soldier boys" who are controlled by plugged in operators. However, it is discovered that being plugged in like this cures all warlike impulses, so that the very act of fighting the war ends war.

If you love the military action (and suit to suit combat) of Forever War, read the classic Starship Troopers by Heinlein. While Forever War is an argument against war (and specifically, the Vietnam War), Starship Troopers is the celebration of all things war. Both have a shit load of action. And if you want a novel that straddles the middle between Starship Troopers and Forever War, then give John Steakley's Armor a good read.

For a somewhat different take on future wars, you should also check out Old Man's War by John Scalzi in which it is old people who have already lived productive lives who are recruited to fight and are then given enhanced bodies. But this is still an anti-war novel, the characters are psychologically damaged by their experiences and it is far from clear that the humans are fighting on the right side.

Sticking with cyberpunk, but moving beyond it, we come to Everyone in Silico. Written in 2002, it rose to fame because it's author invoiced the companies mentioned for product placement (which must take balls of steel, and dammit, you should read it just because of that!). It stuck around being famous, however, because it's just that good. It's those balls that made us place it at number 21 on our top 25 hard science fiction books. Everyone in Silico is the tale of a society where the cyberworld becomes more important than the real one. Once, that would've sounded stupid, but these days, where the image you present on facebook is the most important thing to people, not so much. That said, it's not as depressing as some of the other near-future works on this list - the characters are engaging and fully human. Often described as reminiscent of Philip K Dick, this is a work you don't want to miss. Also, you can get it for free! Legally! That's pretty awesome.

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Synners are jacked-in outlaws, hooked on the astonishing worlds of virtual space as an escape from the grim, depressing industrial reality around them. But, hot-wired in to cyberspace, they have unleashed a wildfire virus that doesn't just trash the system; it can trash your brain as well.The battle between streetwise cyberpunks and the emergent AI that is starting to kill off their friends and colleagues makes for one hell of ride. It's a world overwhelmed by the sheer noise of what is going on, an incessant pounding of information and rock music and advertising that makes for the dark, mean, dystopian streets of this thriller. A vision of the future that feels far too close to reality today.Intricately plotted, fast paced, utterly convincing, this is the epitome of the cyberpunk thriller. Synners won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It is everything that cyberpunk set out to be but so rarely achieved, a brilliant thriller and a chilling vision of a digital world not that far from our own.

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Pat Cadigan is one of the most important science fiction writers of the last 30-odd years, so it is, frankly, a disgrace and a mystery that she didn't win a Hugo Award until she picked one up for her novelette, "The Girl Who Went Out For Sushi", in 2013. But at least she made up for this oversight by being the first person to win two Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Which brings us to our Alternative Choice.

Fools was the novel that Cadigan wrote after Synners, and it is filled with the same dense detail, the same confident handling of its digital future, and the same ability to whip up a gripping adventure plot. It's set in a world in which memories can be bought and sold. When one woman wakes up with a memory of a murder that she didn't commit, she has to find out who's memory she has, while trying to dodge the assassins who are now chasing her. But in this world everyone can have several different personalities lodged in the brain and it's not easy even for Marva to know who she is.

One night, when he is 12 years old, Tyler Dupree and two friends witness all the stars in the sky suddenly disappearing. It turns out that a membrane has been placed around the Earth. An artificial sun allows daily life on Earth to continue as normal, but the membrane has had a profound effect upon time: one year passing within the membrane is equivalent to one hundred million years outside. So people on Earth don't have too long before the sun grows big enough to destroy the planet.It's a bravura opening, the sort of startling, big concept idea that creates a genuine sense of wonder. And Wilson really follows through. All the way through Spin and its two sequels, Axis and Vortex, there are moments that just stop you dead in your tracks.At one point a ship penetrates the membrane and delivers colonists to Mars. Just two years later Earth time, Mars has a sophisticated technological civilisation, and a membrane is thrown around that planet too.Eventually we discover that the membrane is the work of intelligent von Neumann machines, dubbed Hypotheticals, who do it to slow down time for societies close to collapse to allow time for a solution to be found. No sooner do we discover this than in another brilliantly vivid moment a massive arch opens up in the Indian Ocean which serves as a gateway to another world.Axis takes us to that other world, but more puzzles about the Hypotheticals soon emerge, and with them more time dilation. Which becomes extreme in Vortex, where the storylines alternate between 40 years after the events of Spin and 10,000 years after the events of Axis. Spin won the Hugo Award, and was one of the most widely talked about novels of the day, simply because it is so awesome at creating amazing vistas and startling events.

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Julian Comstock is a post-catastrophe story in which America has become rigidly hierarchical, with an hereditary president and fundamentalist Christianity ruling the land. Julian is the nephew of the President who is spirited away as a child to escape assassination. Raised in a rural community, he becomes a war hero and, following a coup, is declared President. In that position he immediately starts to ease censorship, reintroduce the ideas of Darwin, and downgrade the influence of the Church, all of which raises powerful forces against him, which become even more powerful when he comes out as gay. It's a fable about illiberality in Aerica that is one of the best things he has written.

Burning Paradise is yet another very different story. In this instance it is an alternate history in which the discovery of a "radiosphere" has resulted in a less technologically oriented but more peaceful world. But the radiosphere turns out to be a kind of alien hive mind.

The Quantum Thief is the story of a heist. However, it's a heist set in a posthuman future, so expect something special. Coming in at 24 of our top 25 hard science fiction books, The Quantum Thief has one of the best descriptions in the start of it's blurb ever - "Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first." Now that's awesome, and that's totally not why we've put it in here at all. No, the reason we've put this here? There are a race of advanced humans which began as a MMORPG guild. Let that sink in. This is a book for geeks, by a geek, clearly. Hannu Rejaniemi manages to create a world full of surprising ideas that feel totally realistic, and that's no mean feat. Word of warning though - this is not an author who likes to guide you through. This isn't an author who will even give you a map. This is an author who will abandon you somewhere you've never been then throw things at you until you give in and go along for the ride. But what a ride!

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The Zombie Apocalypse has become one of the most pervasive themes in sf and horror over the last few years, so much so that it has escaped genre and become a commonplace idea. What dread is being disguised by this is hard to say, but more and more writers have taken up the theme. But this is where it really started.Max Brooks has structured his novel like a report by the United Nations Postwar Commission. It consists of a series of interviews, conducted by an agent of the commission called Max Brooks, which piece together the story from the initial outbreak until the devastating end of the conflict.Zombies are the victims of an incurable virus. They have no intelligence but an uncontrollable urge to eat living flesh, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain. The outbreak is traced back to a boy in China, but it spreads rapidly. Wars of steadily increasing ferocity break out as different countries react differently to the situation: there's a civil war in Israel; Pakistan and Iran blow each other up in a nuclear war; millions flee to the Arctic because the zombies cannot survive the cold, only to die of hypothermia. Eventually the US military goes on the offensive against the zombies, with limited success. By the end of the novel many of the old political problems in the world seem to have been resolved, but at the cost of nearly wiping out life on Earth. When published, World War Z became an international best seller, and revitalised a tired sub-genre of very limited appeal.

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Following on from World War Z, the idea of a zombie apocalypse has become common, and a number of writers from both genre and non-genre backgrounds have written well received novels on the theme.

One of the most interesting is Zone One, by Pulitzer Prize nominated novelist Colson Whitehead. It is set after the apocalypse, when the zombie threat has been contained, and tells the story of the people patrolling New York, eliminating any remaining zombies and making the city inhabitable again.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey is the story of a 10-year-old girl who has been infected with the zombie virus but who has retained her genius-level IQ. When the base where she is kept is attacked, she and her teachers have to escape across country, learning devastating details about the infection along the way.