The best classic lab-science sci-fi thrillers books

The Books I Picked & Why

The Gods Themselves

By Issac Asimov

Book cover of The Gods Themselves

Why this book?

Issac Asimov’s “comeback” novel is to my mind streets ahead of anything else he ever wrote. It’s about saving the world (of course), by setting up a heat-(energy)-pump exchange with a parallel universe. Structurally complex enough to keep you guessing; set in the back-stabbing world of (all male) earthling scientists. Light on clunky explanations of the device, and featuring a splendidly weird, triple-sexed-aliens strand that steals the show. My takeaway (on first reading this, long ago) was Ah! So that’s how it’s done!

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The Clewiston Test

By Kate Wilhelm

Book cover of The Clewiston Test

Why this book?

Brilliant young scientist develops a miraculous new pain-killer. A goldmine for the pharmaceutical company! But is the serum really safe? Ann Clewiston Symonds, the scientist at the heart of this story, comes up against Big Pharma’s disdain for ethical issues, and then a car crash dumps her on the customer’s side of the counter. What follows is riveting, chilling, and still horribly relevant today. Kate Wilhelm was extremely good at telling the hard truths about sci-fi material, that sci-fi usually avoids, and this is her best.

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By Gregory Benford

Book cover of Timescape

Why this book?

In a dreadful near-future, two scientists hit on the wild idea of sending a warning to the past, using (currently still hypothetical!) faster than light tachyon particles. In the near past two young scientists pick up the strange signals, as interference in an experiment, and realise they can be read as Morse Code. But the message is misunderstood, mangled, and almost lost in the same confusion and infighting that plagues Asimov’s earthling scientists. On the ‘Gods Themselves’ spectrum, but darker and deeper (though leavened by plenty of sex!). 

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A Door Into Ocean

By Joan Slonczewski

Book cover of A Door Into Ocean

Why this book?

Microbiologist professor Joan Slonczewski loved Dune (as do I), so she decided to create a living world with no dry land (which would work) instead of a living world without free water (which, sadly, wouldn’t...). Shora, colonised by an all-female human society, and maintained in continual creation (but untamed) by Shoran microbiologists, is dangerous, beautiful—and threatened by the Evil Empire of Profit. Gripping, harrowing take on how to win a war, save the world, and utterly renounce violence all at the same time.

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By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book cover of Frankenstein

Why this book?

Right from its mysterious opening in the Arctic wastes, this deathless story of the impossible (but never the fantastical) is built on a huge scale. The bravura, horrifying detail of Victor Frankenstein’s studies. His bizarre triumph of reconstruction and resuscitation (no electrical apparatus mentioned). The murders. The proto-detective mystery. The love-hate that locks Victor and the Creature (please don’t call him Monster, unless you call Victor a monster too) together... I could go on, and on, but I’ve run out of space.

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