Are we alone? Human beings have been searching for this answer arguably from the very beginning of our species. When science fiction came into its own as a genre around the turn of the 20th century, books about aliens and space exploration became an immediate genre staple. With the dawn of the Space Age in the 1950s, the urgency of the question of whether we are the only ones inhabiting this vast space only increased. The more we learn about our universe, the less we seem to know.
Here are books that we here at Book Riot consider to be the 15 best alien books.
(The years stated in parenthesis are the years of original publication.)
Best Alien Invasion Books
You can’t have a list of the best alien books without focusing on one major event: invasion.
1. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
H.G. Wells is responsible for the introduction of many of science fiction’s genre tropes, including stories about alien invasions. The novel tells the story about an alien invasion from Mars in south England. The War of the Worlds was first published in hardcover in 1898 and has never been out of print.
2. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953)
Childhood’s End is the story of the alien invasion of Earth by a species called Overlords. The invasion is peaceful. The society that the Overlords proceed to build on Earth is that of a utopia. But what does that say about human kind?
3. Jeff Vandermeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (2014)
Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy merges alien invasion with genetic mutations gone haywire. The Southern Reach is a government agency set to monitor Area X, a mysterious ecological anomaly of extraterrestrial origin. The Southern Reach Trilogy contains the three novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. The novels are science fiction that borders on horror. To avoid nightmares, read these books in the daytime or leave the light on when you go to sleep. This piece of advice is particularly relevant if you live in Florida, whose wetlands served as Vandermeer’s inspiration for Area X.
4. Wesley Chu, The Tao Novels (2013–2018)
Imagine waking up hung over from a night on the town and discover that there is a voice inside your head that does not belong to you. Then imagine that this voice belongs to a member of an alien race that has been trapped on Earth since before the dinosaurs, and you are now part of the millennia-long war between the two factions of this alien race. This is the premise of Wesley Chu’s three novels The Lives of Tao, The Deaths of Tao, and The Rebirths of Tao, which offer up an action-packed blend of alien invasion fiction, political thrillers, and alternative history.
5. Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (2016)
A massive object has crash landed in the lagoon off the coast of Lagos, capital of Nigeria and one of Africa’s biggest cities. Lagoon follows a group of individuals who call Lagos home as the city and its inhabitants deal with the changes brought on by the new alien presence.
6. Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem, translator Ken Liu (2016)
In The Three-Body Problem, a group of military scientists send signals into space in search of intelligent life. One day, they receive a reply. With China’s Cultural Revolution as the backdrop, the story unfolds to reveal how people deal with the alien visitors to Earth. Are you with them? Or against them?
Best Alien Encounter BOOKS
If terrifying invasions aren’t your jam, check out these thoughtful books about alien encounters.
7. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, translators Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (1961)
Psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives at a space station above the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its entire surface. Soon, Kris has an encounter with a lover he knows has passed away. It is revealed that the rest of the crew have had similar experiences. Is it Solaris that manipulates the crews’ minds? If so, to what end?
8. Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)
Frederik Pohl’s Gateway is written using two time lines—one in the present which consists of a series of therapy sessions between Robinette Stetley Broadhead and his AI therapist, Sigfrid von Shrink, and one in the past where Robinette reveals his experiences on an asteroid called Gateway. On Gateway, traces of the Heechee civilization has been discovered. As the story progresses, Broadhead reveals piece by piece the conditions that the human population on Gateway are living under, as well as the terrifying reason why Broadhead finds himself in the need of therapy in the first place.
9. Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)
When a signal reaches Earth from twenty-six light years away, scientist Ellinor “Ellie” Arroway becomes part of a team that deciphers the message. The message turns out to be instructions on how to build a space ship that can travel to the center of the Milky Way by way of wormholes. Once there, Ellie and her crew encounter an alien race who are working on a project that will alter the properties of the universe. Published in 1985, Contact makes use of wormhole technology, time relativity, and government conspiracies, steeped in the narrative of astronomical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time.
10. Elizabeth Moon, Remnant Population (1996)
At the age of 70, space colonist Ofelia is content to live out her final years alone after the colony where she has spent her adult life is disbanded. While all the other colonists leave, she remains behind, ready to start over as a colony of one. But when a ship returns to the colony and she finds the crew murdered, she realizes that perhaps she is not the only one living on this planet after all. Remnant Population takes a closer look at aging, starting over, and how the perception of monstrosity changes based on who is looking.
11. Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood (2000)
Previously known as The Xenogenesis Trilogy, Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood consists of the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Telling stories of alien abduction, alien invasion, and the creation of a human-alien hybrid species, Lilith’s Brood includes all the cornerstones of extraterrestrial science fiction. Butler was a game changer in the genre, and Lilith’s Brood is an excellent example of this.
12. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2016)
The story that has lent its title to this story collection, “Story of Your Life,” is the inspiration for the science fiction movie Arrival (2016). The collection as a whole fits better into a speculative fiction slot than pure science fiction; however, “Story of Your Life” significantly expands the boundaries of science fiction and stories of alien encounters.
13. Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: The Complete Trilogy (2015–2019)
Binti, a young woman of the Himba people, has been given the opportunity as the first person of her people to attend Oomza University, an institution of higher learning located far out in space. Her decision to accept this opportunity sets Binti on a path where she will encounter not only herself and the people she left behind, but also several other alien races, in particular the Meduse. Binti is a trilogy that consists of Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade.
Best Alien Civilizations BOOKS
Finally, we love to read alien books about their worlds and civilizations. These scratch that itch.
14. Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
The Left Hand of Darkness is still a mind-bending literary experience where Le Guin deconstructs gender as a social construct in the creation of the ambisexual alien race that populates the planet of Gethen.
15. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga (2012–)
In the comic book series Saga, Alana and Marko, wife and husband, are members of two alien races at war. On the run from the authorities of both warring sides because of the potential disruption caused by their relationship, Alana and Marko raise their daughter, Hazel, who is born at the beginning of the story. Saga has been described as Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones.
What books do you think are the best books about aliens?
If you are interested in more science fiction book recommendations, check out these links.