People tend to look to decades past for examples of great science fiction—the works Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But the 21st century is living in its own golden age of sci-fi. Along with film and TV adaptations, novels like Cloud Atlas, The Road, The Martian, and Never Let Me Go are becoming more mainstream, and in some cases, even Oscar-worthy.
But what about the books that aren't blessed by Hollywood's cinematic touch? We rounded up 16 novels from this century with a mix of sci-fi, satire, dystopian fiction and cyberpunk—all offering compelling commentary of our increasingly sci-fi-like lives.
By Sabrina Vourvoulias (2012)
Imagine a future where all immigrants are tagged with colour-coded biometric tattoos that tell the world about their status. Those tattoos separate immigrants from naturally-born U.S. citizens. Other measures, like requiring people to speak English in America, further the abuses heaped against immigrants.
Ink follows several characters in America over a decade, all of whom have different perspectives and ties to immigration. This is an eerily relevant dystopian novel that is a must-read for anyone worried about a future where people are physically marked—and persecuted—because of where they come from. If you look at the current daily headlines—travel bans, deportations, and general xenophobia—it doesn't seem far off.
By Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
If a pandemic wiped out much of Earth's human population, what happens if you're an artist? As a writer with limited wilderness skills, I've often thought about this dilemma, and Station Eleven provides the answer.
In this novel, a traveling troupe of former theater actors perform for a post-apocalyptic word because, as it turns out, the survivors still want entertainment as a line from Star Trek: Voyager, "Because Survival is Insufficient," becomes the group's unofficial tagline. It's surprisingly beautiful and optimistic for a novel that opens with lots of death.
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart (2010)
Super Sad True Love Story arrived during the time when iPhones and social media were just starting to dominate our waking hours. The mandatory data-collecting devices in this dystopian novel, called äppäräti, poked fun at our then budding love affair with tiny, mobile computers.
These devices act as identification and allow users to judge other people based on hotness, personality, and other factors. (It seemed so novel, before Tinder.) Now, as devices that track our every movements and transactions become the norm, äppäräti are a terrifying prediction of our future.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
By Charles Yu (2010)
If you liked HBO's Westworld, you'll like this novel. Yu was one of the story editors for the show's first season, and also co-wrote one of the episodes. Like the widely successful The Martian, the story centers around the perspective of an isolated man, and it's written in a similar diary style. But instead of a botanist trying to figure out how to plant potatoes on Mars, this novel's main character is a time travel mechanic who spends his days fixing temporal mistakes.
How would humans abuse time travel if it existed? What are the consequences of traveling to the past or the future? Who cleans up the mess you leave behind? How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe attempts to answer those questions.
By Jan Morris (2006)
When Morris' Last Letters from Hav was published in 1985, readers called travel agencies about visiting the fictional eastern Mediterranean city-state of Hav. Their confusion was forgivable. Morris, previously a nonfiction writer who covered cities and history, wrote Last Letters from Hav as her first work of fiction. The fact it's written in the style of a typical travel memoir only added to the confusion.
The narrator takes readers on a journey through this mysterious new place, where she encounters cultural events such as a Roof Race. Hav includes the original novel, plus Hav of the Myrmidons, a sequel that revisits the city 21 years later. The book includes an introduction from the queen of sci-fi herself, Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes: "I read it as a brilliant description of the crossroads of the West and East in two recent eras, viewed by a woman who has truly seen the world, and who lives in it with twice the intensity of most of us."
By Vernor Vinge (2006)
Virtual reality is no longer technology exclusive to the pages of science fiction. Although Google Glass never really took off, a similar device will one day become as ubiquitous as iPhones. But it may not come in the same of some dorky glasses, but instead look like a normal pair of contact lenses.
Rainbows End explores a world powered by AR, and what it could mean for the future of humanity. Set in San Diego in 2025, people wear "smart" clothing that connects with special contact lenses. This new world is seen through the eyes of Robert Gu, a poet who isn't super enthusiastic about the new technology. This novel explores the latent fear of anyone who thinks humanity is already a little bit too connected.
By Matt Haig (2013)
This novel is told through the perspective of an alien who is observing humans while on a dark mission on Earth. It's sometimes hard to believe that the narrator is a visitor—and not just a misanthrope, saying things like "the manners and social customers...are a baffling enigma at first. Their conversation topics are very rarely the things they want to be talking about."
In the end, The Humans is a humorous examination of humanity.
By Lauren Beukes (2008)
Like other dystopian novels on this list, Moxyland takes place in a future world where tech is used for surveillance and control. Set in South Africa, technology is a drug snatched away from people as punishment for committing a crime. This novel preys on the dormant fear of developed nations' addiction and dependency on technology and moves at breakneck speed with fast-paced characters and casual profanity. It's a wild ride.
The Quantum Thief
By Hannu Rajaniemi (2011)
Full of action, amusing dialogue, and vivid descriptions, this fun cyberpunk novel will appeal to fans of Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson. It's the first in a trilogy featuring protagonist Jean le Flambeur, a sort of Han Solo space thief. Set in a future solar system, The Quantum Thief deals with the gevulot, a technology that allows people on a mobile Martian city to control their personal privacy, mind transfers, and a digital prison. Yes, there's a lot of concepts and terminology to take in here, but if you can keep up, it's worth it.
By Basma Abdel Aziz (2016)
Take the worst line you've ever stood in, multiply it by 100, throw in a totalitarian regime, and you've got The Queue. In a city in the Middle East following a failed uprising, residents must wait in a long line to ask permission for services such as medical treatments, and the line keeps growing longer and longer. It's the stuff of bureaucratic nightmares.
All the Birds in the Sky
By Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
A witch who can talk to birds and a boy who faces bullies at school but creates artificial intelligence at home—these are the two protagonists of Anders' wonderfully imaginative novel. This engrossing tale combines several popular elements in sci-fi/fantasy novels (magic, technology, the possibility of moving to other planets) with a modern-day setting that is very recognizable to those living in San Francisco and other big cities with growing tech industries. It's also a book for anyone who feels like an outsider. All the Birds in the Sky captures the difficulty of finding friends, love, and your place in life when you're different from everyone else.