10 Underrated Science Fiction Books To Read When You Want Something Off-The-Beaten Path
It's hard to claim that science fiction is an "underrated" genre. Our big budget movies are full of space expeditions and alien invasions, our TV shows are full of inexplicably cowboy-themed robots, and our popular YA series are full of dystopian future societies and cool teens with gadgets. Star Wars is back on the big screen and Star Trek is back on the CBS online streaming platform, or something. Comic conventions are bigger than ever. But for all the buzz that mainstream sci-fi is getting these days, there's a whole lot of weird, wild, and all around underrated science fiction literature that you may not have heard of. Here are a few brilliant, underrated sci-fi books that could really use some more love.
After all, part of the reason that people love science fiction is that it's, well... weird. Original. One of a kind. Out of the ordinary. Sure, there are plenty of sci-fi tropes that crop up over and over again (body snatchers, anyone?), but for the most part, the best sci-fi books are the ones that offer us new ideas. So if you're looking for a science fictional read that's a little ways off the beaten path, here are a few highly original, criminally undervalued science fiction novels:
'Babel-17' by Samuel R. Delany
It's the distant future, and human beings have spread throughout the galaxy. But a strange alien race known as the Invaders is threatening humanity's very existence — and their language might hold the key to our survival. It's up to poet and linguist Rydra Wong to crack the code before it's too late. Author Samuel R. Delany is actually quite famous among sci-fi fans, but casual readers might not have encountered his brilliance before, so consider this your official invitation.
'From These Ashes' by Fredric Brown
No time for a hefty sci-fi epic? Try Fredric Brown. He's a wildly underrated pulp fiction author from the mid-1900s, and he was writing flash fiction way before it was cool. Brown's mind-blowing stories, which can be as short as a few sentences, have inspired Star Trek episodes, real world scientists like Stephen Hawking, and other sci-fi and fantasy greats like Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman.
'Fledgling' by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler is remembered as one of the great innovators of science fiction, and rightly so. But her final novel, Fledgling, doesn't get nearly enough love: a "young" girl awakes alone, with no memories... and slowly begins to realize that she is not quite human in the way that other people are. Fledgling is a vampire story, sure, but it's not your typical paranormal romance. In this world vampires are not undead, but rather genetically modified, possibly alien creatures searching for the meaning of their own existence.
'Woman on the Edge of Time' by Marge Piercy
Everyone is sure that Consuela Ramos is insane. But Connie knows that she is completely, terrifyingly sane: it's just that she has the ability to communicate with the year 2137. And, as doctors try to persuade her that she's out of her mind, Connie begins to realize that she's the only person who can prevent humanity from hurtling towards an apocalyptic future. Woman on the Edge of Time is a feminist sci-fi classic, and all-too relatable for any woman who's had her experience called into question.
'Ringworld' by Larry Niven
Louis Wu is turning 200, but he barely looks a day over 30. He's healthy, wealthy, and incredibly bored—until he's abducted by the odd creatures known as Pierson's puppeteers, and offered a quest to find the distant Ringworld. So Louis finds himself teaming up with a cowardly puppeteer, a ferocious cat monster, and a genetically lucky human girl on one hell of a mid-life crisis road trip to the far reaches of the galaxy.
'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' by Charles Yu
Charles Yu has written a science fiction book about Charles Yu, a man who lives inside a science fiction book. Confused? Good, because How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe wants you to drop all your preconceived notions about science fiction at the door. Yu turns a classic time-travel-space-adventure story into a meta-fictional, deeply personal journey of self discovery, father-son relationships, and imaginary (but ontologically valid) dogs.
'Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions' by Edwin A. Abbott
For classic sci-fi weirdness, you could do a lot worse than Flatland. It's about a square (yes, as in the shape) who meets a sphere and slowly realizes that the world has far more dimensions than he thought. It's more of a philosophical thought exercise than a novel (although the square does have a personality), but it's a fascinating read for anyone who thinks there might be more to the universe than what the human mind can comprehend.
'The Ship Who Sang' by Anne McCaffrey
Helva is a brain in a jar in a spaceship, and she's just looking for love. That's more or less the premise of The Ship Who Sang, which is set in a dystopian future in which "disfigured" children are sealed inside of pods and turned into living computers. Rather than tell the story of some feisty rebels overturning this creepy government practice, though, the book just follows our plucky "brainship" Helva as she zips around the universe, going on adventures and crushing on cute boys.
'Salt Fish Girl' by Larissa Lai
Nu Wa is a shape-shifter in nineteenth-century China. Miranda is a human girl in the futuristic Pacific Northwest. Somehow, their stories are intensely intertwined, combining ancient Chinese mythology with virtual reality, cybernetically engineered factory workers, and walled cities controlled by corporations. It's a strange, beautiful mash up of hard sci-fi and magical realism, and it'll keep you captivated from the very first page.
'Strange Wine' by Harlan Ellison
Some of Harlan Ellison's stories bleed over from science fiction into fantasy into what-the-heck-is-even-happening-right-now. He's widely regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi authors ever, and if you're never stepped into his "nightside of the world," start with the short story collection Strange Wine. Here you'll find aliens, gremlins, angels of death, and everything in between.