Science fiction and fantasy books rocket us to places that range from vaguely familiar to fantastically foreign. Their heroes might be interstellar princes or a Mexican girl who hangs out with Maya gods. But they all venture into worlds, towns, or even cyberspaces that are either subtly or radically different from our own.
Superfans love to argue about the difference between sci-fi and fantasy. Purists say sci-fi must rely on, well, science, and extrapolate from elements of real life; fantasy veers toward supernatural beings and surreal settings. But the line can be hard to draw, and both genres are often grouped under the umbrella of speculative fiction. Whatever the label, these stories allow us to imagine other places, other times, and take trips that go beyond our wildest dreams. As the late, great sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury said: “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself.”
Here are some of our picks—the latest installment in our ongoing Around the World in Books series—that transport you to enchanted realms, other planets, or completely recast corners of Earth.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969. No less groundbreaking now than it was a half-century ago, this slim volume—widely regarded as one of the best works by an undisputed master of the craft—explores the dualities of loneliness and intimacy, gender and self, past and present. On one level, the novel follows the travels of an envoy sent to invite the planet of Winter to join an intergalactic confederation of worlds. On another, it pierces to the heart of why we read—and travel—in the first place: to recognize ourselves in the unfamiliar, to recognize the unfamiliar in ourselves.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, 1995–2000. In this sweeping trilogy, a young girl and her animal-shaped soul-companion set off to rescue a friend—unwittingly igniting a chain of events that carry them across multiple parallel universes. From the streets of a very different Oxford, England, to a grassland planet inhabited by lyrical sort-of-elephants, the worlds Pullman creates are both stunningly inventive and nearly real enough to touch.
Abarat, Clive Barker, 2002. Fed up with her stifling life in Chickentown, U.S.A., a teen girl walks to the end of a pier jutting mysteriously into the prairie—and accidentally summons a supernatural ocean that carries her to the world of Abarat, where each island is an unchanging hour of the day. This fantastical odyssey (part one of a yet-to-be-completed quintet) brings the archipelago to gleaming, eerie life with Barker’s rich prose and vivid illustrations.
Exhalation, Ted Chiang, 2019. By the author of the short story turned into the movie Arrival, this critically acclaimed collection of tales opens with a medieval Baghdadi merchant who offers clients a portal to the future—or the past. Other stories imagine worlds in which people swap out their artificial lungs as “the great lung of the world” is failing or talk to their alternate selves across dimensions.
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith, 2011. This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection from a former U.S. Poet Laureate deftly weaves together sci-fi references from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s also an elegy for Smith’s father, who worked on the Hubble telescope, and a dizzying exploration of the pains, joys, anxieties, and heroes of our own earthbound lives.
Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965. On the desert planet Arrakis, a spice called melange is society’s most valuable and fought-over substance. Themes of ecology, feudalism, and family intertwine in this sci-fi novel that launched a six-book series, as well as an upcoming movie starring Timothée Chalamet as the hero, a young prince whose battle against evil (and infighting) propels the plot.
New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2017. The king of utopian sci-fi imagines how New York City might survive—and sometimes, thrive—after climate change floods its avenues and upends society. Block-surfing street urchins, waterlogged artists, and a glamorous newswoman/aviator paint a vibrant portrait of an ever-flexible, ever-vibrant Big Apple where skyscrapers have become islands and Coney Island holds submerged condos.
The City & the City, China Miéville, 2009. In this police procedural-fantasy mash-up, the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the same pseudo-Eastern European space. But the residents of each place can’t acknowledge the existence of those in the other city. Noir-ish atmosphere and tropes (hard-bitten inspectors, secret meetings in smoke-filled cafés) create a zone so immersive you can almost taste the legendary Besz dumplings.
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, 2003. In this classic cyberpunk novel, wryly named main character Hiro Protaganist leads a dual life as a Los Angeles pizza-delivery guy and a sword-wielding, virtual-reality warrior in an online universe of Mad Max-esque superhighways and ancient Sumerian landscapes. When Protaganist comes across a DNA-altering virus, it threatens both his virtual and real existences.
The Broken Earth Trilogy, N. K. Jemisin, 2015-2017. A Hugo Award-winning master creates characters out of settings, grounding her novels in worlds that can breathe, mourn, and avow revenge. This trilogy takes place on a future Earth marked by “fifth seasons”—periods of apocalypse that burn and shake civilizations to tatters. The planet’s power is immense and omnipresent, and the key protagonist (an “orogene”) possesses the rare gift and burden of being able to sense and channel it. Jemisin’s masterwork casts geology as a kind of ancient magic, and in doing so, helps reveal the beauty and fury of our own world.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, 2019. This is a Mexico both familiar and fantastical, where the Maya god of the dead goes on a cross-country road trip with a small-town girl in search of his missing bones. Their quest ends at a fabulously surreal oceanside hotel we’d check into in an instant—despite it being a gateway to Xibalba, the underworld. Moreno-Garcia has a new novel, Mexican Gothic, out in June 2020.
Get in Trouble, Kelly Lynch, 2016. Lynch was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for this short-story collection, which stars her signature, deliciously oddball cocktail of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. Settings range from slightly to very skewed: a spaceship where astronauts can conjure up Finnish saunas, disco parties, and Shakespeare himself on demand; a seemingly all-American suburb where a tween girl makes out with her robot boyfriend in a storage unit.
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, 1950. This very loosely linked volume of short stories—sci-fi wiz Bradbury called it “a half-cousin to a novel”—follow humans as they attempt to colonize Mars, an imagined place of blue hills, Greek temple-like glass houses, and bubbling silver lava beds. How earthlings and the yellow-eyed, brown-skinned Martians interact provides much of the drama against the shimmering, mid-century dream of another planet.