Like all good stories, science fiction has the power to change lives. It can reimagine futures, offer inventive solutions to the problems of global warming and capitalism, and show us exactly where human civilization is going wrong. Many futuristic or dystopian novels read like thought experiments, making accurate predictions about science, politics, and human behavior.
With aliens, monsters, and faster-than-light travel thrown into the mix, science fiction fulfills the human need for escapism, while offering a vicarious and immersive foray into experiences we couldn’t otherwise have. Yet.
Below is our list of the best sci-fi books from the 2000s decade. They tackled significant topics, broke genre conventions, and paved the way for groundbreaking novels to follow.
The planet of Toussaint boasts advanced technology and is constructed around Caribbean culture. Young girl Tan-Tann was raised on Toussaint, but is forced into exile on its less-advanced twin planet after an act of violence by her father.
The novel marries elements of Caribbean carnival culture with sci-fi, and was nominated for a Hugo Award and shortlisted for a Nebula, Tiptree, and Sunburst Award.
In 2020, Midnight Robber author Nalo Hopkinson was named a SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master.
Dan Sylveste is an inquisitive scientist who is determined to solve the mystery of the Amarantin civilization that was destroyed when on the brink of discovering space flight. But someone or something doesn’t want Sylveste poking around, and sends a killer after him.
Part of a larger series, Revelation Space has three narratives that gradually merge as the novel progresses.
Perdido Street Station
Perdido Street Station is like a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, filled with wondrous characters and bizarre inventions at every corner.
The city of New Crobuzon is a mismatched zone of multi-cultural and multi-racial hybridity—a world inhabited by human, beast, and hybrid. In the opening chapters, we are given a glimpse of a transgressive sex scene between Issac, a human scientist, and Lin, his artist lover who is a “khepri” (a human body but with the head of a scarab beetle).
It is a dark and seedy world, rife with crime and corruption, with an eclectic variety of communities that nevertheless fit like pieces of mosaic tiles, including a spider-like creature called the Weaver as well as a sentient machine cobbled together out of discarded metallic junk.
A tonally and structurally-daring novel, Passage follows a psychologist conducting experiments to enhance understanding of what happens in the human brain during death.
This unflinching look at mortality won the Locus Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for the Hugo, Campbell, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang is a genius, and perhaps one of the best short story writers active today.
This anthology collects most of his early work, including the novella “Story of Your Life," the basis of the award-winning film Arrival in 2016. It tells the story of a linguist who tries to come up with a language to communicate with aliens, which slowly alters her perception of reality and linear time.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is another noteworthy gem that discusses how a new technology could possibly end discrimination based on looks and how that would affect society and relationships. In “Hell Is the Absence of God," Chiang explores disability, religion, and theology in great detail without ever adopting a moralizing tone.
Each of Chiang’s stories are deeply impactful, raising important questions about how we live and why we do the things we do.
Light focuses on three interlinked narrative strands. It tells the story of Michael Kearney (a serial killer and a physicist), Seria Mau (who shares her consciousness with a spaceship), and Ed Chianese (an avid adventurer). All of them are connected by the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract.
Harrison writes with a poetic cadence, leaving behind anagrams, puzzles, and clues for the reader to solve, without detracting from the plot at all. Parts of the novel are inscrutable and perhaps deliberately so, reminding us that science—with all its unsolved mysteries—is still full of awe and sublime beauty.
Bones of the Earth
This Nebula, Hugo, Campbell, and Locus-nominated novel is the Jurassic Park of the 2000s.
Paleontologist Dr. Leyster is thrilled with his new position at the Smithsonian—until an enigmatic stranger presents him with the head of a recently-deceased dinosaur, and an outlandish proposition.
Lovers of cyberpunk will adore Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.
Throughout human history, mankind has always quested for immortality in different ways. This book deals with the question of virtual immortality, where consciousness can be transferred from body to body (called “sleeves”).
However, “resleeving” is an expensive process that poses moral and ethical questions, and as such, it is the rich who can afford to remain functionally immortal. The novel won the Philip K. Dick Award and was turned into an entertaining Netflix series.
Oryx and Crake
The first novel in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is a page-turning book that deals with a lot of things, including a pandemic that nearly wipes out the human population.
It is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel, a story of adventure and exploration in the wild, an unconventional bildungsroman, and a cautionary tale about capitalism in general and the neo-colonial designs of multi-national corporations in particular.
If you squint hard enough, there’s even a tragic barebones love story with an insightful foray into sex-trafficking, child pornography, and the illusion of choice within a patriarchal set-up.
Quite an unforgettable read.
Set in the far future (4034), The Algebraist explores a galaxy that is ruled by Mercatoria, a complex feudal hierarchy in which artificial intelligences are hunted down. Much of the story follows Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of Nasqueron Dwellers—a civilization of alien gas giants who are not subject to the whims of the Mercatoria.
The Zenith Angle
Bruce Sterling’s novel narrates the story of Derek Vandeveer, a hacker whose life changes forever after 9/11. With his family moving away and his fortune disappearing, Van begins a new job working on the government’s security system.
As a techno-thriller, the book delves into the dot-com bubble, cyber security, and the serious ramifications of software glitches.
Cloud Atlas was published in 2004 to considerable acclaim. With elements of metafiction, science fiction, and history, the novel contains six nested stories that build up to a powerful conclusion.
Each of the stories are written in a particular voice, and Mitchell has great fun playing around with form, telling one tale using letters and switching to a mystery/thriller voice in another.
It was even adapted for film by the Wachowski sisters in 2012.
Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star is the first book in The Commonwealth Saga duology. It is set in 2038, when wormholes are harnessed for faster-than-light travel technology.
When a star mysteriously disappears, a team is dispatched to find out what happened. Meanwhile, a cult (Guardians of Selfhood) opposes the mission as they believe an alien entity called the Starflyer manipulates all of humanity.
Featuring aliens, artificial intelligence, and cyborg technology, Pandora’s Star is an exciting ride into the unknown.
Old Man's War
Scalzi’s sci-fi series is set in a world where aliens and humans fight each other for bits of planetary real estate. Habitable planets are quite scarce, and the strongest and wisest fighters are required to stake the claims.
The first novel follows the adventures of John Perry, who celebrates his 75th birthday by visiting his wife’s grave. Then, he joins the army—but he has absolutely no any idea of what is waiting for him out there.
The final book by landmark author Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling is a sci-fi vampire novel.
It follows Shori, a member of the vampiric Ina species, who rely on the blood of humans to survive—and in turn provide humans with valuable antibodies.
Shori has darker skin than the other Inas, and through examination of how the vampires deal with difference, Fledgling addresses the role race plays in humanity.
Never Let Me Go
Although Never Let Me Go is usually shelved under literary fiction, this is a science fiction novel at its heart that delves deeply into the issue of human cloning and organ harvesting.
Much of the book is set in a boarding school in an alternate England, where students are encouraged to create art and be extremely healthy. But their lives are already pre-determined, for their organs will be donated and they are expected to die young.
Despite the grim premise, the book focuses on the friendships and estrangements that blossom among these “clones” and the hardships and heartbreaks they go through, just like other humans.
Charles Stross’ Accelerando is a collection of nine interconnected short stories that were first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
It tells the narrative of a family across different generations, and won the 2006 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
The Road tells the poignant story of a father and son as they traverse a post-apocalyptic ash-covered wasteland. Their journey is fraught with hardships—starvation, disease, and attacks from marauders.
It is a gritty tale of survival against insurmountable odds that emphasizes human will and resilience. McCarthy’s novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
If you’re a fan of hard sci-fi, don’t miss out on Peter Watts' novel Blindsight.
It tells the story of a crew of astronauts who are sent to investigate the many alien objects that have suddenly appeared above Earth and a mysterious radio signal being transmitted by a comet.
It is a deeply ambitious novel that explores the transhuman experience, virtual reality, game theory, free will, and evolutionary biology. Oh, it also has vampires.
Blindsight was nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards. A sequel called Echopraxia was released in 2014.
Before Robert Gu developed Alzheimer’s, he was an acclaimed poet. With technological advances, he’s finally managed to recover at the age of 75, but the world he knew has changed forever. As he slowly relearns digital technology and adjusts to a new way of life, he is pulled deeper into a conspiracy about world domination.
Vernor Vinge’s novel is filled with great ideas, and will appeal to those who enjoy cyperpunk and near-future SF.
The Shadow Speaker
The second novel by acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker is a YA story set in 2070 Niger.
Following bio-magic and nuclear explosions, many people develop new abilities. For instance, teenager Ejii, the daughter of an executed dictator, is a Shadow Speaker. And now, the shadows are giving her terrifying orders for how to prevent an interplanetary war. The Shadow Speaker was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, and was a BookSense selection for 2007 and 2008.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson is a hefty tome that engages with important philosophical debates, quantum mechanics, and advanced mathematics.
It is set in the imaginary land of Arbre where intellectuals have built sanctuaries to protect themselves from the larger corrupt world. As such, they aren’t allowed to communicate with the outside world except on special occasions.
At 937 pages, this doorstopper is perfect for lovers of intelligent, philosophical sci-fi.
The Hunger Games
When Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, it changed the face of young adult fiction forever, paving the way for numerous dystopian sci-fi novels with teenaged protagonists who risk everything to fight a corrupt system.
In the first book, Katniss Everdeen takes part in the Hunger Games, where a group of teens (one from each district) are stranded in the wild and have to fight each other to death, and face other obstacles until only one victor emerges.
The later books focus on Katniss and the rebels fighting hard to bring down the corrupt system.
The Windup Girl
Bacigalupi’s debut novel is a biopunk sci-fi book set in 23rd century Thailand. In this world, multinational corporations control the means of food production with their genetically-engineered seeds, and energy is stored in manually-wound strings because fossil fuels have been depleted.
Emiko is a Japanese wind-up (genetically-modified) girl who somehow winds up in a sex club in Thailand and has valuable information that puts her at risk. The book narrates her attempts to escape, while delving into issues like the refugee crises, corrupt government regimes, and neo-colonialism.
This steampunk alternate history novel straddles the border between sci-fi and fantasy.
At the end of the Civil War, a gold rush drives prospectors to the Seattle area, and leads an inventor to unleash Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. But the new device causes a natural disaster, leading to a strange affliction that makes the stricken behave like zombies.
Decades later, Seattle is a walled-off no-man's-land—but one mother and her son are driven to breach the perimeter.
Featured photo: Matias North / Unsplash