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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 mesmerising 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?
At number two 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!
Tau Zero(Poul Anderson)
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.
No science-fiction novel list is complete without an entry from Isaac Asimov and this entry covers all criteria of space opera that die-hard enthusiasts would agree on. And we're bucking our own rules here, breaking them because he's the grand master of sci-fi, and letting Foundation, a collection of five short stories, into this list of novels. After all, when published together, they do form a single plot.
Foundation tells the story of a group of scientists who seek to preserve knowledge as the civilizations around them begin to regress. The first story is The Psychohistorians, set in Year 0 FE (Foundation Era). The Galactic Empire appears stable, but is in a decline comparable to the Western Roman Empire. Hari Selden has discovered Psychohistory, a blend of science and psychology, aligning all possible futures to mathematics. The aristocrat rulers in charge of the Empire are not impressed with this discovery, nor that it reveals the Empire to be crumbling. Selden is arrested. During his trial, Selden explains the Empire will collapse and enter a dark age, and he is exiled to Terminus.
The second story, The Encyclopedists, is set in 50 FE on Terminus. The city's first Mayor, Salvor Hardin, is relatively powerless due to the political structure of Terminus, but believes Terminus is in political danger from its four neighboring prefects of the Empire. Hardin avoids attempts by the Kingdom to establish military bases on Terminus. In the end, Hardon gets the political upper-hand as Anacreon's forces arrive to take the Foundation. The Mayors is set in 80 FE, three decades after The Encyclopedists. The Foundation controls the region through Scientism, an artificial religion, and shares its technology with the Four Kingdoms while calling it a religious truth. Salvor Hardin's influence is met by a new political movement called the Actionist Party, who encourages direct action against the Four Kingdoms. An attempt to impeach Hardin fails.
The Traders, set circa 135 FE, highlights the expansion of the Foundation, which has sent out sanctioned traders to exchange technology with neighboring plants for political and economic power. It explores the political ramifications of this exploration.
The Merchant Princess is set two decades later. The Foundation is powerful, the Four Kingdoms kneel to it, and its commercial and technological empire is enormous, but three Foundation vessels have vanished near the planets of the Korrell amidst resistance. Those in power fear a "Seldon Crisis" is occurring. Korrell declares war on the Foundation, using its imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. In retaliation, the Foundation does not attack, but imposes an embargo on Korrell.
Foundation is the first novel in the Foundational Trilogy, which was later expanded into the Foundation Series.
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.
Ringworld is one of those books that everyone's heard of, even if they've never read it. Concepts from it have made their way into science fiction of all forms including the video game, Halo! It's sitting at number six on our top 25 hard science fiction novels because whilst the science is good, it started life with some mistakes. Well, it still has those mistakes. But Niven wrote a sequel to explain how they weren't really mistakes, just information he'd missed first time round, so we'll let it slide.
The premise of Ringworld is that there is a world, and it's a ring. Surprising, right? In all seriousness, the idea is that instead of a planet there is a huge, circular structure all around the sun in the place where a planet's orbit would be. The novel explores how this would work, and also how the civilisations upon it would work. It's mindblowing stuff, brilliant world-building and a great chance to see how a common sci fi concept was born.
At number seven of our top 25 hard science fiction novels is Revelation Space. Given it's author has a PhD in astronomy and worked for the European Space Agency, you'd expect great things from him. And you'd be right! The science and technology is believable, and (even better!) explained. It's a smart book in more ways than one - it's plot revolving around a few separate strips that weave together as it goes on. It's one of those books that is made stronger through it's sequels, and it's well worth investing the time to read all of them.
You may have noticed going down this list that hard science fiction and space operas go hand in hand, and yes, you guessed it, this is another one. Don't expect any thrilling tales of hope and heroism though, this is bleak, depressing and wonderfully menacing. Reynold's is modern-day giant of science fiction, and if you've not read him already you should go and do that before finishing the list. No, really, why are you still here?
Rainbows End(Vernor Vinge)
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!
The Diamond Age is a much smaller-scale novel than some on our list - it's full title being The Diamond Age, Or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Don't let that very proper and very Victorian name scare you off though. It's a coming-of-age tale, set in an age of nanotechnology. Not the kind of nanotechnology that's thrown out to make things sound clever (see also: genetic modification, quantum), but the actual convincing kind. It doesn't just deal with technology though - its themes are broad, from the nature of AI to social class and ethnicity. This is a hard science book focused firmly on dealing with the real-world - no flights of fantasy indulged without considering the consequences to be found here!
The Diamond Age is one of those books that almost defies genre - it's been described as both cyberpunk and postcyberpunk, and it's got echoes of historical fiction and Victoriana in it (just look at that title). But one label it does deserve through and through is hard science fiction - hence it placing just inside our top ten hard science fiction books.
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!
Use of Weapons is one of Iain M Banks' famed Culture novels. So why is it this one in particular we've placed at number eleven on our list of top hard science fiction novels? Going to be honest here, it's the drone. Seriously, Skaffen-Amtiskaw is one of the best robots in sci-fi. Okay, so he's not quite Marvin, but he's close. But other than the awesome robot, why should you read it? It has a fascinating structure - part running forwards in time, part backwards, and it tells the tale of a man from outside the Culture (the dominant force in the galaxy) coming to work within it.
Banks' Culture series is one of the biggest and best things in modern science fiction, and though it varies on the scale of how hard it is from book to book, it's worth getting into. We recommend Use of Weapons as your starting point because, well, this is a hard science fiction list, and it's hard science fiction, but mainly because its a smaller scale than some - with a limited amount of characters, and, thanks to one of them being an outsider, not so much expected knowledge.
Also, there's an awesome robot. Did we mention the robot?
Lilith's Brood places twelfth in our top 25 hard science fiction novels only because we couldn't push anything else out of the way above it. It's a tale of aliens saving humanity by cross-breeding with them, though in such a way that it actually accommodates the fact that interspecies breeding usually doesn't work (otherwise, let's face it, we would totally all have zonkeys and ligers by now!). Octavia E. Butler is one of those names that really should be a household favourite, and this book is the perfect place to see why.
Managing to make aliens that are alien, and yet similar to humanity is a big challenge, and Butler pulls it off with one big, important fact about them: the alien race has three biological sexes, not two. This isn't just some gimmick for her though, but rather the essence of why the story exists. The premise of aliens as biological traders is fascinating, well put together and a real breath of fresh air into a genre where so often it's the technology that's important - not the creatures themselves.
Charles Stross is another actual scientist. Granted, that's computer scientist rather than astronomer/cosmologist, but we can't all be Carl Sagan. Still, it shouldn't be a surprise then that Accelerando is a novel about the Singularity. And biotech. And nanotech. Basically, it's really cool. It's also a series of short stories, meaning it covers a really broad time period without having to become one of those ten-book epics speculative fiction authors seem so fond of. A nice break from some of this list, right? It comes in at number fourteen of our top 25 hard science fiction books thanks to its varied cast and sweeping coverage. We get to see before, during and after the Singularity, without getting stuck in just one person's head. Of course, the Singularity isn't all there is to this book - otherwise we wouldn't have rated it so highly! No, as well as Earth's issues and the technological advances we see, there's also a threat from outside - a threat from something that has no use for biological life at all. What is it? Spoilers!
Blindsight is a disturbing novel, focusing on human conciousness and identity. Also, it has vampires. Genuine, honest-to-god vampires. And it works! The cast includes said vampire, a man with half a brain, a linguist with multiple personalities and a biologist who is mostly machine. If this doesn't intrigue you then we're not entirely sure why you're reading this list in the first place. It comes in at number thirteen on our list because you will feel unlucky once you've read this. No, really - we should warn you. It's not for the faint of heart. This book isn't just dark, this is a book where they've removed all possible lightsources until there's not a photon left. There's no optimism here, just questions and probing at the edges of our understanding. It's terrifying in new and original ways, and not one to miss.
Just don't read it before you go to bed. We don't want you having some existential crisis or something, now do we?
We've all heard of Carl Sagan. If you haven't, we're setting you some homework - go and watch the television series Cosmos. As you'd expect from an astronomer and author, Contact is a brilliant work of hard science fiction, hence why we've placed it firmly at number fifteen on our list of top hard science fiction novels. Some of you might be familiar with this from the film version, but seriously, go and read the book. The film version isn't bad, but the book is amazing.
A Cold-war era novel dealing with first contact in an age of paranoia, it doesn't just focus on the science and technology, but on the political and religious ramifications too. And the best bit about this as a first contact novel? There's no sudden 'oh we understand you now, isn't that awesome!' part. The language issue is dealt with, and even better, the way its dealt with makes sense. As does the rest of the novel. Which is kind of depressing, when you start to think about the implications of just what it means about how the human race would respond to these sort of things. But that's the books strength, really - the fact that it feels real. And what more do you want from hard science fiction?
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.
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?
Diaspora places eighteenth on our top 25 hard science fiction books thanks to its unusual setting - going well beyond the point at which transhumanism becomes a thing, and looking at a world populated by three forms. These forms, one human, one computer and one a mix of both, exist in the 30th century. Being so far into the future, Greg Egan can do a lot with the science featured - and he does, including inventing entirely new theories of physics. This makes the novel interesting from a hard science fiction perspective, because these aren't some crappy excuses for certain events, these are universe-wide, consistent theories, involving concepts like six dimensions. But if made-up but consistent science just isn't enough for you, how about the plot? Diaspora is the story of an orphan - a mind created by random mutations, and of humanity under risk of extinction. The fact that our lead is non-human, but technological should give you adequate warnings of just what level of science to expect in description. Be prepared to deal with multiple dimensions and wormhole physics - and to enjoy it!
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 Forever War is a book that's pretty much ingrained in the global consciousness. If you haven't read it, you're probably familiar with the ideas from it in some way or another anyway. It's for this reason it comes in at number twenty on our list of top hard science fiction novels - because it's just that influential. Also, you should read it. The major theme is that of time dilation, and how it affects combat. Well, we say that. That's the major science fiction concept. The theme is far more about the disconnect between the military and society - especially in the return from a major war. The war in question was of course the Vietnam war, but it's a book that remains its relevance today thanks to humanity's tendency to enjoy killing stuff (don't worry, we'll lighten up soon). The Forever War is, cliche as it may be, one of those books that everyone should read. Often thought to be semi-autobiographical (the main characters name is practically an anagram of the authors), if there's one science fiction book that'll teach you the most about our current world, it's this.
Everyone In Silico(Jim Munroe)
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.
This next novel was written by one of the queens of the cyberpunk movement. Set in a world where new technology creates new crimes, where you can plug into other human minds and where reality is what you make it, Synners is a story you should read before it starts happening. No, really. This is sci fi so hard that it feels like a prediction - it's gritty, dark and proper old-school cyberpunk. It's also super accurate. Written in 1991, and is a look at the world of media. An unusual angle for a book to take - less the conventional technology we expect in had science fiction (you know the drill, spaceships, weaponry, all the stuff) and closer to the things we may actually wind up seeing. One of the big things is the idea of human synthesisers - of humans wired up to create media in their own minds. It's sitting at number 22 on our list of top hard science fiction books thanks to these ideas, those its use of slang holds it back perhaps for a reader less used to the cyberpunk genre. Well worth tackling though, because you won't be disappointed.
Spin starts with the idea that one night, all the stars go out. I know, I know, hardly the set up for hard science fiction, right? I mean there's all sorts of problems with that concept. But don't worry, Wilson is well aware of this, weaving a tale where something has been placed around the earth - something that affects the way time itself works. With terraforming and nanotechnology, amongst other familiar concepts, Spin takes what could be a cheap attention grabbing premise and builds it into a tale of intrigue, leaving you with questions aplenty. Don't worry though, because there's a sequel.
We've placed Spin at 23 on our list of top hard science fiction novels due to its innovative ways of dealing with time dilation, and the consequences of it. The focus on the characters, and the way the story is told through them rather than merely using them marks it out as something special in the field of hard science fiction - which, let's face it, often uses the characters simply to explain the next good bit of science (not that we're complaining). Well worth a read!
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!
World War Z(Max Brooks)
You know it has to be old school space opera, when the novel's written by someone called "Doc". It makes me wonder if this was ever really cool, or just something sci-fi nerds thought was cool and the rest of the world was laughing at until the 80s came along.
First Lensman was first published in 1950 and is still hugely popular today. In a chronological oddity that must have been done to screw with our heads, First Lensman is the second novel in the Lensman series, but the last one written. It tells the story Virgil Samms, a being so incorruptible and courageous that he is given the honor of being the first to wear a "lens" (hence, the First Lensman), which is a form of pseudo-life that gives the wearer telepathic powers. Virgil's dream is establish a galactic patrol to protect civilization against evil and he finds a selection of "lens worthy" people to make up this force. In a nice 1950s dash of sexism, women are deemed psychologically incapable of wearing a lens. The Lensmen take on a Batman like crusade, fighting the forces of evil in the form of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians and visiting alien planets to seek the pirate fleet that attached their defense headquarters.
Lensman was a runner up for the Hugo Ward for best All Time Series, narrowly beaten by Isaac Asimov for the Foundation series.
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 Rendezvous With Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)
- 2 Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
- 3 Tau Zero (Poul Anderson)
- 4 Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
- 5 The Color Of Distance (Amy Thomson)
- 6 Ringworld (Larry Niven)
- 7 Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds)
- 8 Rainbows End (Vernor Vinge)
- 9 The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
- 10 Downbelow Station (C. J. Cherryh)
- 11 Use Of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
- 12 Lilith's Brood (Octavia E. Butler)
- 13 Accelerando (Charles Stross)
- 14 Blindsight (Peter Watts)
- 15 Contact (Carl Sagan)
- 16 Beggars In Spain (Nancy Kress)
- 17 Dragon's Egg (Robert L. Forward)
- 18 Diaspora (Greg Egan)
- 19 Manifold: Time (Stephen Baxter)
- 20 The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- 21 Everyone In Silico (Jim Munroe)
- 22 Synners (Pat Cadigan)
- 23 Spin (Robert Charles Wilson)
- 24 The Quantum Thief (Hannu Rajaniemi)
- 25 World War Z (Max Brooks)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List46 items >>
- Ringworld (Larry Niven)
- Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- Contact (Carl Sagan)
- Blindsight (Peter Watts)
- Spin (Robert Charles Wilson)
- Diaspora (Greg Egan)
- Dragon's Egg ()
- Accelerando (Charles Stross)
- Moving Mars (Greg Bear)
- Use Of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
- Blood Music (Greg Bear)
- Tau Zero (Poul Anderson)
- Rainbows End (Vernor Vinge)
- Beggars In Spain (Nancy Kress)