Aliens are a staple in science fiction, a plot element that you can find in almost any sub-genre. They can represent the terrifying other, the inexorable force, the new friend. While aliens have long been a mainstay of space horror (hello, Alien) and space western adventure stories where they often stand in for a problematic other, there’s a lot more possible range to their existence. Which isn’t new, to be clear! Nearly as long as there have been stories about threatening aliens, there have been stories that ask if humans themselves are the true alien invader. And alien stories can be particularly important to social science fiction, because building alien cultures and having humanity interact with them provides a way to explore how we interact with the unknown and how cultures may clash. And in many cases, aliens are a chance for writers to play with social constructs (such as gender) in a way previously thought of as not being possible with a human cast.
With that in mind, this list eschews the classic lasers-blazing, terrifying and unknowable alien invaders the likes of which were immortalized by War of the Worlds. Not all the aliens within are friendly, to be sure, but they’re all far more complex and strange than the simple, hostile beings who want to wipe us out and steal our resources.
And some of them are even friendly.
The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull
For five years, the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have lived an uneasy sort of truce with the Ynaa, aliens who have come to Earth on an undisclosed research mission. Their presence isn’t by invitation; people on the mainland are enjoying the gifts from the Ynaa while entirely avoiding their seemingly capricious moods and violent reactions. After a young boy is killed by one of the Ynaa, tensions mount. A year later, they can no longer be contained, and the Ynaa conclude that they will teach the residents of Water Island an indelible lesson.
Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell
Alien Satraps rule an empire of 48 worlds that spans thousands of wormholes across the galaxy. Humanity lives at the fringes, nominally “free” while barely surviving. And among these survivors are the Ragamuffins, descended from islanders of a long-lost planet, pirates and smugglers that have eked out a living by being ignored by everyone. But now the Satraps have decided to wipe them out, and one woman, so cybernetically enhanced that she is more machine than flesh, can save them.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The motley, multi-species crew of the Wayfairer is a strange kind of family, but one knit tightly together. Their close bonds are very necessary, considering their work takes them out into deep space for extended periods of time, tunneling wormholes through space to knit the intergalactic community together. This is comforting, light-hearted space opera at its best, focused on relationships and people — whether those people are human or not.
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
A collection of six of Octavia Butler’s short stories, not all of which are about aliens. The title story, however, Bloodchild, is such a remarkable and difficult work that it deserves a place on this list. The story imagines a world where humans coexist with the alien Tlic, who depend upon humans to be hosts for their offspring. Often, the human host survives just fine…but sometimes they don’t. It’s a story that asks deep questions about autonomy and consent.
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
I generally don’t like putting books that aren’t the first of a series in a list like this, but this one is so good, I’m making an exception. You’ll need to read A Memory Called Empire first, which does not have aliens, but in this second book we get into the juicy goodness of a first contact story. An alien armada has begun to gnaw at the edges of the Teixcalaanli empire, and Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass are dispatched to try to find a way of communicating with these aliens. This involves unraveling their language and trying to understand minds that are totally unlike those of humans.
Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh
The first book in an ongoing, 21-book series, Foreigner is about human colonists stranded on a world and an alien species called the Atevi finding ways to coexist and work together, navigating first contact and successive culture clashes. Don’t let the length of the series scare you — it’s mostly divided into three-book arcs that you can pick and choose between. The Atevi are also an absolute delight to read about.
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.
In the Black by Patrick S. Tomlinson
If you want The Hunt for Red October but in space, this is the book for you. A demilitarized zone in space exists between humans and the Xre, maintaining the necessary separation to keep the cold war between the species from going hot. But when spy satellites begin going missing in the zone, Captain Susan Kamala of the Ansari begins looking for her opponent…and finds a ship so advanced there’s no way they could win in a fight against it. But their opponent isn’t spoiling for a fight…even if the corporate overlords that own the Ansari are.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Earth has been forever changed by the invasion of mysterious and unknowable aliens. Large swathes of the Earth are gone as far as the rest of humanity knows. And what remains is infested with xenospores that have altered the biodome in strange ways — and one of those is constructing a xenosphere that links all humans together, which certain “sensitives” can access. Into this mix goes Kaaro, a sensitive who is a government agent in Rosewater, a town that’s grown around the edge of the alien biodome. And someone is starting to murder people like him…
Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry
Aliens authorized humanity to have dominion over magical creatures, and humanity took that as an opportunity to declare anyone with magic to be less-than-human, merely a resource to be exploited. Now the aliens are coming back for a progress report, and it’s an opportunity for the long-exploited magical people to convince them that it was a very, very bad idea, and they should set those with magic free.
Trust me, this is just scratching the surface of great books with aliens in them. For even more to add to your list, check out the original post: 15 of the Best Alien Books