The best books to explore philosophy through fiction

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a lawyer and novelist with a Master’s degree in philosophy. I read philosophy and its history to seek wisdom, knowledge, morality, meaning, and the means by which to think well. That is also why I read fiction. And a great philosophical novel can do what a treatise cannot: it can enlighten by style, perspective, the elicitation of empathy, by poignancy and aesthetic awe, and other qualities unique to good fiction. Although I could not possibly represent all the great philosophical novels in this short list, I’ve tried to present a meaningful cross-section. I hope you find these novels as enjoyable and meaningful as I have.


I wrote...

The Measurements of Decay

By K.K. Edin,

Book cover of The Measurements of Decay

What is my book about?

The Measurements of Decay is about three intertwining stories: a renegade in the far future who seeks to liberate humanity from its technological shackles and hallucinations, a disillusioned philosopher in the 21st Century who succumbs to a steep moral decline while trying to solve the problem of human empathy, and a young girl who reappears through Ancient Greece, Medieval Norway, Bolshevik Russia, and other epochs. The three become entangled in a political scheme spanning centuries.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Solaris

K.K. Edin Why did I love this book?

On its surface, Solaris is about a protracted, largely failed attempt to communicate with alien life. That in and of itself provides the basis for a great philosophical novel, as it immediately invokes questions of the nature of language, our place in the universe, and so on. However, what makes Solaris special is that it simultaneously implicates communication between human beings in the questions it asks. It takes seriously the problems of epistemology (the study of knowledge) and of the philosophy of mind. What is consciousness, and how can I know it? How can I understand the consciousness of an alien, if I cannot even understand the consciousness of another person? Solaris uses the vehicle of science fiction to do what science fiction is best poised to do: ask crucial questions in extreme scenarios to bring out their truth… or at least the difficulties associated with those questions.

By Stanislaw Lem, Steve Cox (translator), Joanna Kilmartin (translator)

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Solaris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface he is forced to confront a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others suffer from the same affliction and speculation rises among scientists that the Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates incarnate memories, but its purpose in doing so remains a mystery . . .

Solaris raises a question that has been at the heart of human experience and literature for centuries: can we truly understand the universe around us without first understanding what…


Book cover of Anathem

K.K. Edin Why did I love this book?

Anathem is remarkable for having a gripping plot and fantastic, epic-fantasy-grade worldbuilding, while uncompromisingly exploring philosophical questions ranging from Platonic Idealism to string theory, to phenomenology, and much else. It’s rare for a novel to be so entertaining without sacrificing its intellectual commitments. At times, it reads like a giant love letter to philosophy. It was a joy for me to find endless references to the history of philosophy and science, often in the guise of alternate-universe versions of the relevant philosophers, with different names and histories, but enough that is familiar to make the informed reader point at the page and think things like, “That’s the Kant of this world!” Anyone can enjoy Anathem, but it especially rewards those curious and knowledgeable about philosophy.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Anathem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. There, he and his cohorts are sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world, an endless landscape of casinos and megastores that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, dark ages and renaissances, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides it is only these cloistered scholars who have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his friends, mentors, and teachers are summoned forth…


Book cover of Last And First Men

K.K. Edin Why did I love this book?

Last and First Men is an imagined history of the human race over two-billion years into the future. The beauty of this work is its ability to give the human race meaning and significance, whereas most other works of such scope instead seek to dwarf humanity and its significance under the scale of the universe. Stapledon achieves this by infusing his narrative with compassion, and with an underlying admiration for the process of evolution. Moreso than Darwinian evolution, the process humanity undergoes is more aligned with Hegelian, idealist dialectical movements, and implicitly evokes many questions about the nature of consciousness, our place in the universe, and what is essential about humanity. Though I cannot quite say why, the book has a refreshingly optimistic quality. I read this book shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, and it brought me much vitality.

By Olaf Stapledon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Last And First Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novels of the century: a history of the evolution of humankind over the next 2 billion years.

Among all science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon stands alone for the sheer scope and ambition of his work. First published in 1930, Last and First Men is full of pioneering speculations about evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and many other subjects.


Book cover of Nausea

K.K. Edin Why did I love this book?

Nausea does not rely on the extreme or outlandish scenarios of science fiction to explore philosophical themes. Rather, this novel is about a person’s growing malaise over his conscious relationship to objects, people, and ultimately himself. It reaches into some very fundamental aspects of our relationship to the world, and asks you to look at the mere structure of existence after all particularities (names, shapes, colors, history, etc.) are wiped away, and then asks you how you feel about it. Through an existentialist lens, it also explores certain political questions. And for those more technically interested in philosophy, the novel does a better job of showing existentialism’s relationship to phenomenology than many academic papers. 

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nausea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nausea is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence. In impressionistic, diary form he ruthlessly catalogs his every feeling and sensation. His thoughts culminate in a pervasive, overpowering feeling of nausea which "spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time - the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain."

Winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (though he declined to accept it), Jean-Paul Sartre - philosopher, critic, novelist, and…


Book cover of The Brothers Karamazov

K.K. Edin Why did I love this book?

It feels like a bit of a shame to include such a ubiquitously known philosophical novel when I have the chance to recommend others, but I feel compelled to include this novel because of the profound effect it had on me. There are endless things that can be said about the various philosophical, existentialist, and theological themes of this novel, so I will limit myself to praising one which was affecting to me. No other novel I have read so profoundly and deeply explores the notion of forgiveness. The reader is asked to consider forgiveness, its limits, its demands, its place in morality and religion, the hypocrisies and duties associated with it, and who might deserve it. It’s a life-changing book in many ways, in large part because it succeeds at making issues of philosophy very personal for the characters, and ultimately the reader.

By Fyodor Dostoevsky,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Brothers Karamazov as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pen/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize

The award-winning translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel of psychological realism.

The Brothers Karamasov is a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and an exploration of erotic rivalry in a series of triangular love affairs involving the “wicked and sentimental” Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three sons―the impulsive and sensual Dmitri; the coldly rational Ivan; and the healthy, red-cheeked young novice Alyosha. Through the gripping events of their story, Dostoevsky portrays the whole of Russian life, is social and spiritual striving, in what was both the golden age and a tragic turning point in…


You might also like...

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

Book cover of A Diary in the Age of Water

Nina Munteanu Author Of Darwin's Paradox

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Writer Ecologist Mother Teacher Explorer

Nina's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This climate fiction novel follows four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. Told mostly through a diary and drawing on scientific observation and personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Her gritty memoir describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity.

Single mother and limnologist Lynna witnesses disturbing events as she works for the powerful international utility CanadaCorp. Fearing for the welfare of her rebellious teenage daughter, Lynna sets in motion a series of events that tumble out of her control with calamitous consequence. The novel explores identity, relationship, and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

What is this book about?

Centuries from now, in a post-climate change dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, discovers a diary that may provide her with the answers to her yearning for Earth’s past—to the Age of Water, when the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity in hatred—events that have plagued her nightly in dreams. Looking for answers to this holocaust—and disturbed by her macabre longing for connection to the Water Twins—Kyo is led to the diary of a limnologist from the time just prior to the destruction. This gritty memoir describes a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in philosophy, brothers, and extraterrestrial intelligence?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, brothers, and extraterrestrial intelligence.

Philosophy Explore 1,622 books about philosophy
Brothers Explore 111 books about brothers
Extraterrestrial Intelligence Explore 48 books about extraterrestrial intelligence