There’s been a lot of talk recently about books and ratings: what is and isn’t a good rating, who ratings are for, etc. So here’s the first thing I’ll say: I don’t put very much stock in ratings. In fact, I rarely even look at them when deciding to read a book. I’m much more likely to consider reviews and recommendations, especially from people I know and trust. (Following my fellow Rioters on Goodreads makes that especially easy.) Reviews are meant to be for readers and by readers, but that doesn’t always make them particularly useful, even to readers. Just because one person — or even a lot of people — dislikes a book doesn’t mean everyone will. In the same vein, I’ve read a few books I’ve absolutely hated that were generally well-rated. So just because these are some of the most underrated sci-fi books on Goodreads with ratings under 3.5 stars doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading.
I do think it’s notable that almost all the books on this list are by authors who are BIPOC or queer. Am I saying that’s the only reason someone would dislike these books or give them a low rating? No, of course not. Everyone has different tastes, and not every book is going to appeal to every person. But I also know that books by queer and BIPOC authors are often review-bombed simply for being “woke” or “diverse.” It’s just another reason that ratings can be extremely misleading. If they’re helpful to you, that’s great. But maybe these underrated sci-fi books — excellent examples of the genre that have low average ratings — will show you why you should take Goodreads ratings with a grain of salt.
The Need by Helen Phillips
Goodreads rating: 3.15
This divisive literary sci-fi thriller follows a paleoarchaeologist. Her paranoia when she’s left home alone with two young children soon turns out to be justified when she comes face to face with a home intruder who knows far too much about her family. People seem to either love or hate this one, but personally, I loved it. It’s dark and psychological and full of all the tension that comes with motherhood.
The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw
Goodreads rating: 3.21
A team of former criminals get back together for one last job: to solve the mystery of what went so disastrously wrong on their last mission together and get back their missing crewmate. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones eager to get to the bottom of the secrets on the planet Dimmuborgir. But for this band of half-clone, half-machine women, it’s personal.
The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales
Goodreads rating: 3.22
Give me an SFF book about a world full of secret organizations and female assassins any day! Sure, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is weird as heck. (What, the title didn’t give that away?) But honestly, that’s what I love about it. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, and love it or hate it, you certainly won’t forget it.
The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard
Goodreads rating: 3.24
Aliette de Bodard’s Vietnamese-inspired science fiction universe is full of sentient spaceships, scientists, and philosophers — also, sapphic love stories. The first full-length novel in the series follows a pirate ship hoping to build a better life for her people and an engineer recently captured by the fleet. The two enter into a hasty marriage contract to protect themselves from enemies, but the political arrangement gets ever more complicated as their feelings for one another grow.
Hybrid Child by Mariko Ōhara, translated by Jodie Beck
Goodreads rating: 3.31
Hybrid Child is a classic of Japanese sci-fi set in a world where advanced artificial intelligence is entirely real. An escaped cyborg known only as “Sample B #3” takes on the form of whatever he’s ingested. A house is controlled by the AI mind of the murdered girl who once inhabited it. An AI system governing a human colony in space is spiraling. Amidst it all, the threat of the machines known as the Adiaptron Empire that Sample B #3 was meant to fight remains.
Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi
Goodreads rating: 3.31
The rich have left behind a dying Earth for those too poor to escape it, but even the remains of civilization are being scraped and salvaged to build new colonies in space, leaving almost nothing behind. Told through a series of shifting narratives and vignettes, Goliath portrays a dystopian sci-fi novel full of prescient warnings about race, class, gentrification, and the climate crisis.
Flux by Jinwoo Chong
Goodreads rating: 3.40
You’d expect a book about time travel to have a somewhat complicated timeline, and Flux certainly does. At the core of the story is a man whose life seems to be unraveling after he takes a job at a new startup. Suddenly, he finds himself in an office he can’t remember and an apartment he doesn’t recognize. As the timelines begin to come together, the story of Bo, Brandon, and Blue grow ever more complicated, even as they come together into one.
The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang
Goodreads rating: 3.49
In this space opera, possessing rare stone-working powers makes you something of a saint — until the powers drive you voidmad, that is. Misery already watched their mother succumb to that fate, so they’re keen to get off-world before anyone can discover their powers. But something is calling Misery to the center of the galaxy, and fate or delusion; Misery is about to answer that call.
Looking for more hidden gems? These other underrated and under-the-radar books are deserving of your attention, too: