Introduction to science fiction: The best sci-fi books for newbies to the genre

Science fiction doesn’t have to be intimidating. Whether you usually read literary fiction or crime thrillers, here’s our edit of the best science fiction books for readers who are new to the genre. 

01/09/2020
5 minutes to read

If you’re new to reading science fiction, all the talk of wormholes, advanced technology and space warfare can be daunting. But science fiction offers plenty of accessible, immersive writing for every type of reader. Here Petrik Leo, reviewer at Novel Notions, guides us through the genre and shares his recommendations for the best science fiction books for readers new to sci-fi. 

Science fiction is one of my favourite genres.  It delves into the implications – both good and bad – of progress and technology, extraordinary adventures, fascinating world-building, relatable social commentaries, vivid action sequences and well-developed characters that you can really root for . . . Sci-fi offers true escapism while also encouraging introspection regarding our society. However, this can be an intimidating genre for those unfamiliar with it; I was in a similar situation a few years ago. Plus, With thousands of sci-fi novels and many sub-genres, choosing which book to begin your adventure with can be a daunting task. Here are several magnificent but accessible sci-fi books that are sure to spark your passion for the form.

Before I get to the recommendations though, let me explain what sci-fi is.

What is science fiction?

Personally, I classify sci-fi as a genre of speculative fiction that focuses on science, technology and futuristic premises or concepts. It’s not always the case, but a sci-fi story often takes place in our universe or galaxy. It is a genre brimming with narratives that usually combine several if not all of the following: advanced technologies, weaponry, space exploration, space warfare, extraterrestrial beings (aliens), artificial intelligence, time travel and parallel universes. At the same time, sci-fi can offer deep present-day social commentary and a study of the human condition, be it in the future or in an alternate world that has been changed or influenced by science. As you’ve probably guessed, science fiction is a vast genre. To make things easier to categorize, it is divided into multiple sub-genres. Here are some of the most popular:


Soft science fiction 

The rules of how science and technologies are used in soft science fiction are often flexible. The story and characters in a soft sci-fi novel usually have a wider focus than scientific concepts. 

An example of popular soft sci-fi is Star Wars.


Hard science fiction 

The opposite of soft sci-fi. The basis of how technology and advancement work relies heavily on scientific rules and/or mathematics. Most of the time, hard sci-fi places a lot of emphasis on scientific concepts and theory; science and technology are very important in the narrative and are explained in great detail. 

An example of popular hard sci-fi is Interstellar.


Military science fiction

This sub-genre usually involves main characters who are enlisted in an army. Space warfare using advanced weaponry or technology are the basis of this type of fiction. 

An example of popular military sci-fi is Edge of Tomorrow.


Space opera 

The name of this sub-genre says it all. There’s been a lot of debate over the definition of this sub-genre, but personally, as long as either space travel, space warfare or intergalactic conflicts are in the narrative, I classify it as space opera.

Some examples of popular space-opera are Star Wars, Star Trek, The Expanse and Mass Effect.


Cyberpunk

Usually taking place in a dystopian future, cyberpunk often features cybernetics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence as key points of the narrative. 

Two examples of popular cyberpunk are Blade Runner and Altered Carbon.


The best science fiction books for readers new to the genre


The Doors of Eden

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Book cover for 9781509865888

To say that Tchaikovsky is prolific is an understatement. He has more than thirty novels under his belt, and by the time you’ve finished reading this article he’s probably already finished writing another novella. Reading his backlist of books could be a mission on its own, so where to start? I highly recommend Tchaikovsky’s most recent novel, The Doors of Eden, as the gateway to his works, for three reasons. First, The Doors of Eden is a grand adventure brimming with scientific concepts that are much easier to access than his previous sci-fi novels. Secondly, the main characters – Lee, Mal and Kay Amal Khan – are effortlessly easy to empathize with. Finally, this is a satisfying standalone: there’s no cliffhanger and you don’t have to commit to reading a whole series. 

Reasons you’ll like it: Wonderful world-building, or to be more precise, multiverse-building. Diverse characters. Bizarre creatures. Filled with great ideas. Imaginative and cracking adventures. Standalone novel. 

Children of Time

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Book cover for 9781447273301

Although The Doors of Eden is my favourite of Tchaikovsky’s books, this list would not be complete without recommending one of his most critically acclaimed novels, Children of Time. This is space opera and hard sci-fi in one. Intelligently crafted, Children of Time focuses on biological evolution, space travel, survival and cooperation. The climactic sequences are action-packed and memorable.

Reasons you’ll like it: "Brilliant science fiction and far-out world-building.” That’s what James McAvoy said about this book. If Professor X said so, I think it would be wise for us to listen.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for 9781529034523

Want to try something more lighthearted? Even if you’re not a sci-fi reader, you’ve probably heard about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy. It is for many good reasons that, decades after this book was first published, it still appears on a lot of ‘introduction to sci-fi’ lists. If you enjoy satire or parodies, look no further than this delightfully entertaining sci-fi classic. 

Reasons you’ll like it: Light-hearted with satirical humour. Easy to read, yet clever and prescient. Themes and commentaries that have stood the test of time.

Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang

Book cover for 9781529039436

Insightful and brimming with intelligence, this is a collection of sci-fi short stories that will appeal to those who love literary fiction. If you’re still apprehensive about reading science fiction, try starting with the titular story of the collection, Story of Your Life. This is a magnificent sci-fi tale that inspired the award-winning film Arrival.

Reasons you’ll like it: Explores ‘what if’ scenarios extraordinarily well. Emotional. Immersive. Philosophical. Smart concepts. Short yet impactful stories.

A Memory Called Empire

by Arkady Martine

Book cover for 9781529001594

A Memory Called Empire is a slow burn, and every page is worth perusing. It’s difficult to unpack all the wondrous things contained within this debut in a few sentences, but I’ll try to compress it by saying that if you’re looking for a grand sci-fi/space opera with an intricate world-building hidden inside a murder mystery and a story full of political intrigue, look no further. A Memory Called Empire has been nominated for many awards, and recently won the Hugo Award for the Best Novel of the Year.

Reasons you’ll like it: Intricate world-building, diverse characters, murder mystery, female voice and LGBT+ representation.

Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch

Book cover for 9781447297581

This is the book that made me truly realize that sci-fi novels can be easy to understand, unputdownable, thrilling and thought-provoking all at once. Dark Matter is clearly designed to entertain, and Blake Crouch has certainly succeeded. This brilliantly plotted tale is mind-bendingly strange but profoundly human. 

Reasons you’ll like it: Page-turner. Thrilling. Makes you contemplate your life and all the paths you didn’t take.

Recursion

by Blake Crouch

Book cover for 9781509866670

I can’t resist recommending another book by Blake Crouch. His newest sci-fi thriller is an engaging read that will have you on the edge of your seat. Crouch knows how to make difficult sci-fi concepts accessible for newcomers, and he has proved that again here. The story revolves around the importance of memory and how it defines humanity; this is one book that will stay with me for a long time.

Reasons you’ll like it: Unputdownable narrative. Great characters. Shows the potentially terrifying effect of technologies. Memories, love, loss and redemption are the key themes.

Kindred

by Octavia Butler

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I find it disturbing that although forty years have passed since this book was first published, its social commentary and raw portrayal of slavery still cuts deeply. Dana, a young African American woman living in LA in 1976, finds herself transported to a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation where she meets her ancestors. A powerful combination of historical fiction and sci-fi, Kindred forces its readers to think: what would I do if I were in that situation?

Reasons you’ll like it: Profound social commentary. Unusual time-travel. Thought-provoking. 

Red Rising

by Pierce Brown

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One of my favourite sci-fi series. There is so much energy and adrenaline imbued in Brown’s present-tense prose. The danger that the characters face feels immediate, and each moment of glory is full of elation. Pierce Brown knows how to give hope and take it away repeatedly, and his loyal fanbase, the Howlers, can’t help but love him for it. The series gets better and better as it progresses, and it all starts with his dystopian/sci-fi debut, Red Rising.

Reasons you’ll like it: Fast-paced. Unpredictable plotlines. Vivid action scenes (oh so many of them). Memorable characters.

Leviathan Wakes

by James S.A. Corey

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A character-driven space opera series written in accessible prose, Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse series. This is one of the most famous ongoing sci-fi series out there right now, due to both the quality of the books themselves and the superbly adapted TV series.

Reasons you’ll like it: Characters that get under your skin. The scope of the setting is huge but easy to understand.