Creative people are often told to “think outside the box.” Hard Science Fiction is about exploring what’s inside the box. It’s all about asking questions like, “What if we could travel close to the speed of light?” or “Why do computers exist in binary?” or even, “How would society be different if humans were only one meter tall?”
Hard Science Fiction isn’t just for intellectuals – it’s for anyone who wants to explore ideas that can change how you live your life. Here are 13 books that will make you think differently every time you see a computer, drive a car, or look up at the sky.
1) Ringworld, by Larry Niven
This Hugo Award-winning novel is about humans finding an alien construct in space. The ring (or bridge) is actually a habitat that stretches around its sun, with breathable air on the inner surface of the ring itself. The inhabitants are incredibly advanced beings who have harnessed dark matter to power their Ringworld. The humans exploring the Ringworld quickly discover that it’s not as safe as they thought, and they need all their wits to try to escape.
2) A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge
This Hugo Award winner tells of a human expedition that has discovered the secret behind an ancient species’ high-tech super weapons. The secret is that these weapons are controlled by “bobbles,” which are large spheres that contain entire societies in stasis. When the humans try to activate the weapons, they discover their mistake – this particular species is waking up from its slumber, and it will take nothing less than a revolution to stop them.
3) 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson
This novel is set in the 23rd century, where humans can travel with ease between Earth and Mars. The plot follows Swan Er Hong as she tries to uncover the mystery of her grandmother’s murder. Along the way, she finds out why robotic terraforming on Mercury has failed, how tidal forces on Saturn have shaped the planet’s ecosystem, and how robots are taking on more human-like personalities.
4) The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks
This novel is set in an interstellar society controlled by the Culture. When the Changer (or Culture Mind) tasked with its expansion is destroyed, it’s up to a simple game player to do the job. Jernau Gurgeh is one of the most famous players in the society, and he soon finds that no matter how good he is at playing games, surviving in a power-play like this will take more than just skills – it will take wit, strategy, and an understanding of what makes people tick.
5) The Martian Race, by Gregory Benford
In this novel, humans have contacted a distant star system. In order to start having regular trade with the new partners in space, however, they need one major thing: faster-than-light travel. Earth is cooperating, but Mars independently gains control of another FTL drive and decides they want to keep all of the wealth flowing through faster-than-light space for themselves. Meanwhile, Earth’s first faster-than-light ship is coming back, with an ambassador from Tau Ceti who will decide whether Mars gets their way.
6) The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
This novel is solidly in the “classical hard science fiction” category. It tells the story of a scientist who is able to create a time machine, and he uses it to explore the far future. He discovers that humanity has been divided into two species: the passive Eloi and the brutal Morlocks. The Time Machine explores themes like class struggle, social evolution through technology, and a lot more.
7) The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham
A species of aliens lands on Earth and impregnates women in an isolated town during a time of peace. Women all over the world give birth to children who grow up instantly – they are seven years old when born. All across Earth, these super-children seize control of the planet. This novel explores parenthood, values, greed, power struggles, and more.
8) The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
This award-winning novel tells the story of Jesuit priests sent to meet with intelligent life on a distant planet – only to find out that their planet’s social order is oppressively patriarchal. The Jesuits are eventually caught in the middle of a power struggle between two factions, one that wants to keep things the way they are and one that seeks change.
9) Double Star, by Robert A Heinlein
This is another classic hard science fiction novel set on Earth. In it, an entertainer named “Coverly” Smith is hired to impersonate a politician. Things get even more complicated when the real politician gets kidnapped and Coverly Smith is forced to assume the role of President Pro Tem of the Senate in his place. This novel explores issues like politics and civil rights, and also has some fun with Greek mythology.
10) The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
This novel is set in the future of our universe, where humanity discovers that another universe exists next to ours. “Sol” is a world with two intelligent species: the bulky and childlike Gorgons, and the small and spunky Candors. In order to travel from one universe to the other, though, humans need a metal called “X” that can be found only in the other universe. For this reason, humans soon find themselves caught in the middle of a war between these two alien species.
11) The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
This novel is often considered semi-hard science fiction rather than hard because it explores questions like whether interstellar warfare would be like conventional warfare (generally speaking, the answer is no), but it still fits. It follows a soldier named William Mandella on his travels through interstellar space, and he encounters new planets and civilizations with every mission through hyperspace. Things get complicated when he’s recruited for a special mission that goes wrong.
12) The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
This novel is considered to be the first modern science fiction detective story. It takes place in a future where telepathy has become common, but there are strict laws against using it for crime. The protagonist uses his own psionic powers to commit various crimes, including murder… and he must then hire a talented telepath to find out if he was framed by another psionic mastermind.
13) The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
This novel is considered one of the first English science fiction novels. It tells the story of a man who stumbles across a subterranean race called “Vril-ya.” He returns to tell his tale, but is met with disbelief. The narrator then disappears into the Vril-ya world, and things get really interesting when he returns with technology that appears to be thousands of years ahead of anything humanity knows about yet.
This book explores themes like race relations, childlike innocence vs. corrupting influence, colonialism, social equality, and more.
If you’re looking for some great hard science fiction books to read, this article is the perfect place. The 13 novels on our list are based in reality and explore themes like power struggles, social equality, colonialism, childlike innocence vs. corrupting influence – all of which will make your brain work overtime!
We hope that these excellent reads have inspired more curiosity about how society functions at a fundamental level… if they haven’t already done so, please let us know what other blog posts we can write for you.