What makes one of the best science fiction books of 2023? Well, it needs to have speculative elements, of course. It could be set on a spaceship or beset with aliens or robots. The world could be a far-future dystopia or filled with technology so advanced that it might as well be magic. To be great, though, that book also needs incredible characters, brilliant world-building, and to say something really meaningful with all of those elements combined.
This might be the hardest annual best-of list that I’ve ever curated. I’ve been doing this for a while, but 2023’s crop of science fiction novels really filled my bookshelves with some spectacular speculative reads with way more than 10 great novels. But for brevity, I’ve narrowed it down to the top 10 best science fiction books you’re sure to see on awards lists soon.
There were deep-space adventures of the hard and soft science varieties. There are books from established voices and established series, as well as excellent debuts. Far-flung mysteries, classical stories retold, and science fiction books that bring the literary flair that’s so hard to get right. 2023 really did it right for science fiction fans. We even got more Murderbot, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s get to those books.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Sci-fi, as a vehicle for political rhetoric, has a long history, and this book is one of the best to do it. Loretta and Hamara compete in Criminal Action Penal Entertainment or CAPE, the very popular and profitable games in which prisoners compete. Loretta and Hamara have to challenge competitors and the systems of power in this sci-fi twist on gladiatorial games.
Counterweight by Djuna
This book from South Korea’s most famous and enigmatic sci-fi author comes to English in a brilliant translation. The fictional island of Patusan has long been a tropical resort. It’s about to become the base for a space elevator. At the top of the elevator is an enormous counterweight, which is mostly space junk but also includes a memory fragment of the former CEO that can determine the future of the company. Now, it’s a race to the top for the survival of Patusan.
The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei
It’s not a best-of science fiction list without an adventure on a spaceship, and this is the best of the bunch in 2023. The Phoenix is a ship sent with the last remnants of Earth, 80 elite people destined to give birth to humanity’s future. When an explosion kills three and throws The Phoenix off course, the mystery of who and why might decide the future or extinction of humanity. Get into this book. It’s one of the very best science fiction books of 2023.
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin
True dystopias are rare anymore, the ones that paint a picture of a twisted utopia. Cronin’s newest is one such novel and one of the best out there. Prospera is hidden from the crumbling world, a utopia of long lives and prosperity until health drops below 10%. Then, residents are ferried away to start over. When Proctor, a ferryman, sees his own percentage dropping and has to ferry his own father, everything he knows about Prospera and reality starts to crumble around him.
In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune
Klune’s work is my go-to for when I just need to feel happy. His latest, a Pinocchio retelling, just might be his best so far. Hidden in the woods is an odd little house with its odd residents. One day Gio, the inventor, finds and fixes an android named HAP. But when Victor discovers that Gio and HAP used to hunt humans and Gio is discovered, Victor has to lead their odd family on a wild quest to free and redeem Gio.
Starter Villain by John Scalzi
Scalzi’s work can be a bit up and down for me, but his latest is downright amazing and wickedly fun. Charlie’s life isn’t great as a divorced substitute teacher. When his uncle dies and leaves him an inheritance, it just gets worse. Charlie has inherited the supervillain business, complete with terrifying enemies and henchmen alike. This is a wild book, y’all.
The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao
Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? Well, it’s both, and that’s part of what makes this one of the best science fiction books of 2023. In this world, humans live floating above a jungle planet, their survival thanks to revered architects. Iravan is one of these architects, though his wife sees architect-reverence as a way to oppress everyone else. When an expedition goes wrong, their marriage, careers, and the very balance of humanity hang in the balance.
System Collapse by Martha Wells
Murderbot! Need I say more? It’s only one of the best science fiction series to come around in a long time. A newly colonized planet is in trouble, and the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships. But Murderbot doesn’t trust any corporation. Accompanied by ART and its humans, everyone’s favorite SecUnit is malfunctioning, so it’s going to be harder than normal to save the colony.
The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
Sometimes, you just need some hard science fiction. This book brings that in spades, along with a great adventure. Destry is a network analyst for a company committed to preventing ecosystems from collapsing. Tasked with terraforming an Earth-like world, she finds a city there that shouldn’t exist. Jump ahead several centuries, and Destry’s protege is caught up in a conspiracy involving an intergalactic real estate agency. Gotta love a generational conflict.
Translation State by Ann Leckie
You just knew when Ann Leckie returned to her award-winning Imperial Radch universe it was going to be one of the best books. Qven was made to be a Presger translator. That’s all they should live for, but have been wanting other things lately. As a conclave approaches and the old human/Presger treaty is looking more and more delicate, Qven and a human mechanic might make or break peace among the stars.
Okay, let me have it. What was your favorite science fiction book of 2023 that I missed? I certainly had to cut out some of my favorites. Here’s to more great sci-fi in 2024!