One of the coolest things about science fiction as a genre is that it’s mostly about the setting — you just need space or technology or aliens influencing how the story develops. And unlike in many other genres (mystery, horror, and romance in particular) there aren’t plot beats that are considered to be required in order for a book or movie to be science fiction. You can’t have a romance without a happily ever after, but you can have science fiction with any kind of story you can imagine. Maybe it’s the emperor of a six-planet empire falling in love with someone unsuitable, or a murder that takes place in a world where strange tech takes crime and its investigation to a whole new level, or alien parasites eating their way through a spaceship in the most horrifying way imaginable. We’ve all seen the classic genre-bending movies like Alien and Blade Runner — the possibilities are endless.
All you need to ask is “What if?” Sometimes it can be a serious question (“What if AI became sentient?”) and sometimes its delightfully unserious (“What if the entire crew of a ship except the janitors got taken out?”). From there, the stars are the limit as to how that question can be explored.
Science fiction is genre chocolate — it goes great with a lot of other flavors, and by flavors I mean pretty much every single one of our other favorite genres. So, let’s check out some must-reads that combine a science fiction world with another genre in some really cool and fun ways!
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Prince Kiem is used to being a total disappointment and the least favorite grandchild of the Emperor. His one shot at being useful is an arranged marriage with the representative of the newest planet to join the empire as a vassal. Too bad his future husband is both a widower and a murder suspect. Neither man is thrilled about their impending wedding, but with a conspiracy unfolding around them that brings with it the threat of war, they can only count on each other…
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
Alana Quick is a sky surgeon, which is to say she spends her days repairing starship engines…a profession that shockingly barely pays her bills. She’s ready for a change, and her chance comes when a cargo vessel crewed by desperate people comes looking for her sister. Alana stows away hoping for a place on the crew. What she gets instead is a crew that has some serious problems, a budding romance with the captain, and the discovery that her sister is in galaxy-destroying danger.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Two post-human agents representing rival factions in a time-spanning war of annihilation start out as bitter enemies who leave each other mocking notes. But to know someone is perhaps to love them in an existence when one is otherwise alone and always working, and through letters they ignite a romance that may settle the conflict that war cannot.
Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik
Octavia “Tavi” Zarola is the dedicated leader of a crew of bounty hunters, a found family she’ll do anything to keep together. Strapped for cash and at the end of her rope, she’s forced to take a job from her sworn enemy, a ruthless former general named Torran Fletcher. But with the amount of money on offer, it comes with a big catch — Torran and his own crew are going to be joining up with Tavi. As sparks fly between Tavi and Torran, they also uncover a plot that threatens the delicate peace between the humans and the alien Valoffs.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
This is a space opera version of Sherlock Holmes, in which the great detective is an eccentric (female) scholar named Long Chau, and Watson is a transport ship named The Shadow’s Child who was discharged from military service after suffering a traumatic injury. The Shadow’s Child now makes a living of a sort brewing “tea” (actually mind-altering drugs) for space travelers…and she knows when Long Chau walks into her office she’s in for trouble, even before they get to the corpse.
The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack is a robot who was originally designed to be a war machine, hulking and intended for nothing but destruction. He wants to show he’s more than he was built to be and earn his citizenship — easier said than done. But when his neighbors are kidnapped, it becomes his opportunity to show his worth as a detective who can save lives as well as take them. But what he’s investigating is no ordinary crime, and the future of the Empire he lives in might be at stake.
Tea From an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan
A young man is found dead, locked alone in a room at a virtual reality parlor, his throat slashed. When Detective Dore Konstantin is called in to investigate, she finds the victim died the same way in the real world as he did in artificial reality, and she realizes the key to the mystery will be in investigating the lives he lived outside of the so-called “real world.”
The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Humanity and aliens have formed a loose alliance, upon the condition that humans are subjected to the laws of the aliens when they are on alien soil. It seems fair, but to humans, the laws are nonsensical and the punishments capricious. Miles Flint is an investigator whose job is to enforce these laws that seem to him to be unjust, and it’s something he must grapple with as three of his cases collide. This is the start of a 15-book series of space mysteries!
Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood
The Kettle is home to a crew of three misfits: Wheel, a cybernetic pilot on the run from her past; Lahra, a warrior of a nearly extinct species who wield a musical and deadly combat magic; and Max, a xeno-archaeologist from Earth who is stranded a long way from a home planet that still doesn’t know aliens exist. Together, they have to eke out a living, dodge the empire, and try to find Max a way home, even if he’s starting to think Earth isn’t home any longer. But when they pick up a job that puts them squarely in the crosshairs of imperial agents, suddenly it’s just them between entire planets and total annihilation.
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
Thirteen-year-old Min is one of a family of fox spirits, and her parents have long since drummed it into her head that she must appear human at all times and never use fox magic. All she wants to do is get away from Jinju and her overbearing family so she can live her life — ideally by following her older brother Jun into the Space Forces. But when word arrives that Jun is missing and accused of leaving his post to search for the fabled Dragon Pearl, Min knows that there must be something else afoot. She runs away, wanting to find him and clear her name…and in so doing, she goes on an adventure that will require all the magic she’s always hidden.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
In a universe where space ships are run and repaired by powerful techno-mages, being one of the few people in the galaxy with no magic is a real bummer. Boots is doing her best, but between being a disgraced soldier from the losing side of a war and being a washed up treasure hunter, she’s got some problems. When her former captain shows up, looking for a legendary ship, she tries to squirm out of it. But this treasure is real, and dangerous. It also involves a famous race car driver named Nilah who just saw her main opponent get assassinated…and Nilah and Boots are next.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Humanity is under constant attack by alien invaders; the only solution they’ve found is to repurpose the husks of the alien machines into Chrysalises, massive mecha that can only be piloted by a male and female team. Male pilots are considered heroes…and female pilots are ultimately sacrifices, most of whom are doomed to have their energy drained by the men they are paired with. Then Zetian joins up with the express intention of having revenge on the pilot who killer her older sister…and succeeds.
Salvation Day by Kali Wallace
House of Wisdom was once a massive, state of the art exploration vessel; now it’s a salvageable hulk that’s been abandoned in space for a decade after a viral outbreak killed its entire crew in mere hours. It’s a prize ripe for the taking by a crew with the guts to do it, and Zahra’s fits the bill. All they have to do if they want access is kidnap the sole survive of the disaster so they can get on the ship. But Zahra can’t begin to imagine what is waiting for her the House of Wisdom, and what the government might do to keep the secret buried.
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
A man wakes up alone and cold in a ship hurtling through space toward a destination he doesn’t know and for a purpose he cannot remember. But the halls of the spaceship aren’t empty — they’re populated by a monsters and by other survivors who might be even more dangerous. If he wants the answers to who he is and what has happened, he must survive the ship.
Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh
After an Earth-like planet is discovered orbiting around a nearby (“near” being relative in terms of space) star, ten astronauts are dispatched to find and explore it. Six of them are teenagers who have trained for this mission all their lives; the other four are veterans astronauts. The journey will take them 23 years of being locked in very claustrophobic quarters, with no one to rely upon but each other. And in space, something going wrong is inevitable.
Parasite by Mira Grant
The greatest medical advancement humanity has made in recent years is the repurposing of a humble parasite, the tapeworm, into a genetically engineered symbiont that protects us from illness, secretes medication, and heals injuries. Now, almost every human on earth has a custom-made, friendly tapeworm. But the parasites might not be the dumb organisms they were engineered to be…and they might want their own lives.
Science Fiction Thriller
Nexus by Ramez Naam
The illegal and experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human minds together, and it’s changed the face of the world. There are those who want to press the bounds of how far this connection can go, those who believe it must be stopped, and those who wish simply to exploit it. A young scientist trying to improve the effects of Nexus finds himself in the middle of a quiet war of international espionage, and the stakes are far greater than someone’s next high.
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
It’s a bad sign when Maria Arena wakes up in a cloning vat — it means that she’s died. And while every other time she’s come to in a new clone body, her last memory has been of her death, this time she can’t remember what killed her. Even more worrying is that she finds herself streaked with blood, and none of it is hers. The other six vats on the ship hold clones for her crewmates, and she soon finds she’s not the only one who has died recently….
Yesterday by Felicia Yap
In a world where memory is severely limited by how many days you can recall, society has been divided into the majority Monos, who have only a single day worth of memory, and the elite Duos who can recall two days. Monos are generally excluded from demanding jobs and holding important positions, and mixed marriages are rare. But one such marriage, between a Duo named Mark and a Mono named Clare seems to be an exemplar for how equality can be achieved…until Mark’s mistress is found murdered, and he’s considered the prime suspect.
Toxic by Lydia Kang
Hana has been hidden in a secret room on the bioship Cyclo for her entirely life, cared for by her mother…until one day her mother and the rest of the crew disappears without warning. Cyclo tells her that she was abandoned…but the bioship itself has been abandoned in space to die. A mercenary named Fenn and his crew have been hired to monitor the ship’s death in a suicide mission, but when he meets Hana, he wants to find a way to save them both.