Science fiction is one of the most debated, beloved and complex genres to have ever blessed the pages and screens. A crowned jewel in the literary world with a firm grasp on my heart, sci-fi has always and will always be my favorite genre. That being said, I am attempting to do the impossible here. I have concocted a list, nay, the list, of the best sci-fi books from each decade.
Like most other science fiction fans, my opinions are firm, and no amount of enlightened commentary will shake my stance on the best contributions to the fantastical world that is science fiction literature. But, the impact the best sci-fi books from each decade have made is far bigger than me or my own biased opinions.
In an effort to infuriate the least amount of people possible, there will be a winner, runner up and dealer’s choice for each decade. It is unrealistic to attempt something of this magnitude with the idea that nothing will be left out. An all-inclusive list of the greatest sci-fi books would be a novel in itself. While you may or may not agree with my view of the best sci-fi books from each decade, every book on this list is a must-read for sci-fi fans and newcomers to the genre alike.
Winner: Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1932)
“Brave New World” is the benchmark for dystopian sci-fi. Ranked by the Modern Library as the fifth-best English language novel (not just science fiction) of the 20th century, this novel can be read at any point in history and still be just as relevant. Huxley holds one of the first mirrors for all to gape at their reflection, and he warns us of what could easily be a reality.
Runner Up: Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis (1938)
The first installment in his Space Trilogy, “Out of the Silent Planet” is kind of like an adult sci-fi version of Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Packed with the perfect recipe for an exceptional sci-fi novel (space travel, alien races and planet exploration), this is a beautifully written work of science fiction. Lewis is a master wordsmith, and if you love adjectives, you will love this book.
Dealer’s Choice: At the Mountains of Madness – H.P. Lovecraft (1936)
I studied English and English Literature in college, so of course, I’m a Lovecraft junkie. An architect of nightmares, H.P. Lovecraft’s virtuosity of language oozes off the pages of this incredible novella. “At the Mountains of Madness” seems to have greatly influenced fan-favorite films like “Alien” and “The Thing,” which on its own is a good enough reason to read.
Winner: 1984 – George Orwell (1949)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell’s “1984” is one of the most well-known books of all time and there is no explanation needed as to why this warning of authoritarianism is the best sci-fi book of the ‘40s.
Runner Up: Red Planet – Robert A. Heinlein (1949)
It would be impossible to talk about science fiction and not mention Robert A. Heinlein. The famous author and aeronautic engineer crafted the perfect entry for young adults to get into science fiction with “Red Planet.” The literal grandmaster of hard science fiction introduces his famous Martian race in “Red Planet,” the same race featured in one of his most famous novels: “Stranger in a Strange Land.” A childhood favorite for many sci-fi fans, and a must-read for all young and adult readers.
Dealer’s Choice: 1984 – George Orwell (1949)
This is the only time my own personal choice will be the same as one of the winners of the best sci-fi books from each decade, and honestly, can you blame me?
Winner: Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)
This is author Ray Bradbury at his best (sorry, “Martian Chronicles”). A book everyone must read once, “Fahrenheit 451” is a timeless novel that transcends the genre. This cautionary tale reminds us of the importance of literature and the power of knowledge. It is a quintessential call to arms that is just as provocative now as it was in 1953. Ironically, “Fahrenheit 451”, a book about censorship, commonly finds itself on the list of books to be banned from classrooms. If that isn’t a showing of how important this book is, then I don’t know what is.
Runner Up: I, Robot – Isaac Asminov (1950)
Asimov is undoubtedly one of the pillars of hard science fiction. “I, Robot” set the stage for so many impactful books, films and shows surrounding the seduction of artificial intelligence. Asimov’s collection of short stories was an introduction to the famous three rules of robotics. A mixture of science fact and science fiction, “I, Robot” and its rules of robotics forever shaped the future generation’s view of A.I.
Dealer’s Choice: The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1959)
I love Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for his dark satire and captivating storytelling. Reading Vonnegut is like listening to your cool older cousin’s war stories after he let you try one of his funny smelling cigarettes. You may be too young and naïve to understand what he is saying, but he definitely won’t sugarcoat his views on how messed up the world is.
Winner: Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)
Dune. No other one-syllable word has impacted science fiction, possibly even literature, in the way that this book has. Rightfully so, “Dune” is commonly regarded as the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. The level of world-building Herbert achieves in this groundbreaking masterpiece is something all writers could envy. Herbert weaves a war-torn tapestry of quarreling dynasties, sociology, politics, economics and, of course, laser guns and giant man-eating sandworms in his glorious space opera that has been translated into 23 different languages.
Runner Up: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Phillip K. Dick (1968)
The inspiration for both iconic “Blade Runner” films, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is a testament to how ahead of his time PKD was. Even non-PKD readers can admire his unique voice and unparalleled ability to intertwine his views on theology and human nature with a compelling story. While PKD is more of a short story writer than a novelist, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is one of his most well-known works.
Dealer’s Choice: Ubik – Phillip K. Dick (1969)
As I’ve tried to keep personal opinion out of the winner and runner up selections, now is my chance to gush. Phillip K. Dick is possibly my favorite science fiction author of all time. PKD is the king of cerebral sci-fi. “Ubik” explores many of the allegorical themes to which his readers are accustomed. “Ubik” is my favorite PKD novel by a lightyear and forever dances atop my list of all-time favorite books alongside another entry on this list. PKD is one of the greats, and “Ubik” is his best.
Winner: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (1979)
Don’t panic! “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a more humorous take on science fiction, and it is beloved by readers of all ages. Regardless of what you normally read, drop everything you are doing and read this book. Seriously, call out of work and read it—it’s that good.
Runner Up: The Stand – Stephen King (1978)
“The Stand” was authored by one of the best horror writers to have graced the page, and is one of the better post-apocalyptic sci-fi books. Being chosen as one of the best sci-fi books from each decade should come as no surprise for “The Stand”. King could likely take his pen to any genre and produce excellence.
Dealer’s Choice: The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
“The Dispossessed” is possibly my favorite book of all time. And that’s coming from someone that has read all of the entries on this list, as well as a couple hundred more in and out of the sci-fi genre. If PKD is the king of soft sci-fi, then Le Guin is the queen. This novel is damn near perfect.
Winner: Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (1985)
“Ender’s Game” is a giant in the genre, and some die-hard fans consider it to be one of the best sci-fi books ever written. At first glance, it’s just an inventive story of a genetically modified boy genius playing war games on the computer. Considering we’re talking about sci-fi here, one of the greatest vehicles of allegory, “Ender’s Game” is far more than that.
Runner Up: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (1985)
Even if you haven’t read the book, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the hit TV show based on it. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a brilliant dystopian novel that should honestly scare the crap out of you. Most often, sci-fi takes place in a distant future that couldn’t be avoided, or in an alternate reality from our own. “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in a near-future that hasn’t forgotten what it was like before everything changed.
Dealer’s Choice: Neuromancer – William Gibson (1984)
“Neuromancer” is classic Gibson: challenging and inventive terminology, excellent world-building and purely cyberpunk. Once you figure out what he is talking about, you’re in for a stunning technological ride.
Winner: Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton – (1990)
Come on, it’s Jurassic Park. Cloning extinct dinosaur DNA to fill a theme park with a gaggle of history’s most fearsome creatures – what could go wrong?
Runner Up: Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson (1992)
Neal Stephenson’s highly revered, “Snow Crash” is a novel work that’s present on many best-of science fiction lists. Reminiscent of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” “Snow Crash” takes place in an alternate future filled with deteriorated governments, hackers and anarchy. If “Bladerunner” inspired “The Matrix,” then “Snow Crash” is what comes next.
Dealer’s Choice: The Fall of Hyperion – Dan Simmons (1990)
I just had to give Dan Simmons the love he deserves on this one. “Hyperion” was very close to making it for the ‘80s, and there is no drop-off from the original “Hyperion” to the second installment of the series. Simmons continues his exceptional world-building and creativity in “The Fall of Hyperion.”
Winner: The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins (2008)
Very little explanation is needed for why “The Hunger Games” is the best sci-fi book of the decade. This young adult novel paved the way for a new generation of sci-fi fans by introducing the world of Panem as it’s on the brink of rebellion. Not only is this book series great for all readers, but it is also especially beneficial for young female readers looking for a strong role model.
Runner Up: The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)
“The Road,” like most McCarthy, is an experience that everyone should have. Enjoy a spellbinding journey through a world turned to ash, with only the love of a father and son to illuminate it. McCarthy’s simple and poetic prose is mesmerizing, and he shows us the best and worst we are capable of as humans.
Dealers Choice: Altered Carbon – Richard K. Morgan (2002)
“Altered Carbon” is gritty. This hyper-violent, post-modern cyberpunk rollercoaster ride is inventive and a lot of fun to read. You most likely will want to fight while reading this book, and it’s impossible to not marvel at the incredible world Morgan has built for his readers.
Winner: Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (2011)
“Ready Player One” is kind of like every sci-fi geek’s dream. The population escapes from a dilapidated dystopian world by logging into a computer-simulated playground lush with everything video games have ever offered. But playgrounds aren’t always all fun and games. Protagonist Wade Watts must overcome obstacles in the digital world, and the real world, for a chance to save both.
Runner Up: The Martian – Andy Weir (2011)
“The Martian” is unique. Andy Weir’s beautifully written debut novel is a story of interplanetary survival. It’s scientifically accurate, irreverently hilarious and full of excitement. The novel’s protagonist, Mark Watney, is an excellent addition to some of science fiction’s greatest characters. Watney may easily be the most resourceful astronaut of all time.
Dealer’s Choice: Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (2016)
This one was one of the more difficult decisions I’ve made when choosing the best sci-fi books from each decade. I really loved Blake Crouch’s other book, “Recursion,” but I read “Dark Matter” in a single sitting – it’s 342 pages. This was my first Blake Crouch novel and I have torn through several since. Alternate realities, limitless possibilities and poignantly human, “Dark Matter” is an absolute thrill ride.
Have an idea of what the best new sci-fi books are? Or maybe a title that should have made the list of the greatest sci-fi books from each decade? Let us know in the comments below.