Sci-fi thrillers blend the best of both high-intensity worlds; the staggering stakes of a thriller can be pushed even further if the setting is a distant planet, or a state where the lines between human and inhuman are being blurred. Over the past few decades, a plethora of sci-fi thrillers have been published, with fast-paced plots framed around time travel, alien invasion, or cyberpunk journeys into the darkest recesses of the human mind. Here are some of the best sci-fi thrillers to kick your reading up a notch.
The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
A murder mystery in space and time, The Gone World follows the story of Shannon Moss, who travels to the future to crack the case she’s working on in the present. Sifting through different potential versions of the future, Moss realises that solving the case of a missing teenager and a murdered family won’t just have implications for justice and for her own career, but for the fate of the world itself.
What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang
First in The Hybrid Chronicles series, What’s Left of Me is a high-concept novel set in a world where everyone has two souls. In babies and very young children, both souls take turns controlling the body, but slowly, one becomes dominant and the other recessive – except in the case of dual heroines Eva and Abbie, neither of whom are fading away. Hybrids like Eva/Abbie are considered a risk to society, and are institutionalised. This dystopian thriller follows Eva/Abbie as she learns more about other hybrids, and walks the line between survival and being her true self.
Vurt by Jeff Noon
In this dark cyberpunk novel, society is crumbling, and people escape using the Vurt – a virtual reality halfway between drugs and video games, accessed by feathers that you place in your mouth. The story follows Scribble, a young man whose sister Desdemona has been lost in this reality, and his Wonderland-esque journey deep into the Vurt to get her back.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
This dystopia follows the story of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, who finds herself pregnant in a world where evolution is running backwards and newborn children seem to be an earlier version of humanoid. An adoptee, Cedar travels to the Ojibwe reservation to find her birth mother and answer questions about her own childhood as society around her panics and pregnant people are confined by the government.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
At the more philosophical end of the sci-fi thriller genre, Dark Matter blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination, asking the reader to consider the nature of truth. Jason Desson, a physics professor, is attacked while walking home to his wife and son – and wakes up to find himself in another reality, where he’s told that the life he knows is just a dream. Jason must find out the difference between truth and lies, and find his way back to his family – if they even exist.
The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
Fans of The Descent will love this space-set twist on creeping underground psychological horror. Gyre Price lies her way onto a well-paying caving expedition, with the hope that the money will be enough for her to leave the planet. However, her boss, Em, has a different agenda, and is perfectly willing to drug, blackmail, and manipulate Gyre – and Em is far from the only dangerous thing underground. Leaning more to the horror side of the sci-fi thriller genre, The Luminous Dead is a tense, claustrophobic read.
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
AI runs wild in this chilling thriller by Daniel H. Wilson. Self-driving cars and robots who care for the elderly start turning on humanity, and soon, the entire human race is at risk of extinction as a malevolent artificial intelligence, Archos R-14, begins to take over the world. The Osage Nation launch a resistance, and Robopocalypse follows several different humans as they fight to reclaim the planet.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
The 2016 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, The Fifth Season is set on a continent known as The Stillness, where the population is periodically threatened by a period of cataclysmic climate change – the titular fifth season. Some of the inhabitants of the Stillness are orogenes, people who have the ability to magically manipulate the earth. The story is a wide-sweeping, epic thriller following three orogene women at different points in the history of the Stillness, whose tales feed into and influence each other.
Feedback by Mira Grant
In this companion novel to her bestseller Feed, Mira Grant tells a parallel story; while Feed focused on the bloggers covering a Republican candidate’s Presidential campaign in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, Feedback tells the tale of the bloggers reporting on the Democratic candidate. This story is a tense political thriller set against a backdrop of a deadly virus and an ever-present zombie threat.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
If you love letter-based novels, This Is How You Lose the Time War is the sci-fi thriller for you. Two time-travelling agents on either side of a devastating war write to each other, first as enemies – but as their missions continue, their relationship develops into friendship and love. This Is How You Lose the Time War is a fascinatingly-written collaboration, with the two authors taking one character each, and developing their story semi-independently.
Whatever your interests, and wherever in time and space you like your stories to take place, there’s more than a few sci-fi thrillers out there for you. Whenever you’re looking for more niche reads and ultra-specific genres, check out our Tailored Book Recommendations service. TBR matches you with an experienced bibliologist who will find the perfect book for you, whatever your criteria!