The best books that explore what it means to be human

Who am I?

I’m one of those odd people who always needs to know why. Why do computers work, why do societies break down? Why do humans kill? Why are cat videos so irresistible? All of those questions explore what it means to be human, but science fiction takes those questions to the extreme, pitting people against the most extreme environments and situations in order to see how they’ll react. To me, that never grows old, and the books I love the most are the ones that do it the best. In my humble opinion, of course.


I wrote...

Miira

By Acflory,

Book cover of Miira

What is my book about?

Miira Tahn, last lady of Durai is dying, but if she’s brave enough, she can live out her life in Innerscape, as a younger, healthy version of herself. There is a catch though. Once she’s inducted into Innerscape, she can never leave because what’s left of her real body is hooked up to an AI and cannot survive without it. 

Miira chooses to enter Innerscape and discovers that people take their true selves with them, wherever they go.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Dune

Acflory Why did I love this book?

I fell in love with Dune because of the worms. Never before had I read a science fiction/fantasy novel in which the world was as deeply thought out and as much a part of the story as the humans themselves. I wanted to know how Arrakis and its worms came about as much as I wanted to know what would happen to the characters. 

That package of people and place fired my imagination, and each time I re-read the story [8 times and counting], I discover something more. To me, that is the hallmark of a truly great book.

By Frank Herbert,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's lifespan to making interstellar travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of…


Book cover of City of Golden Shadow

Acflory Why did I love this book?

The world of Otherland is Earth, and the people are human, but woven into that familiar landscape is a virtual world that hasn’t quite happened yet. Imagine a virtual, digital world in which your avatar can ‘feel’. Why would you ever want to leave?

I first read Otherland soon after I started playing MMORPGs [Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games]. MMORPGs provide a ‘persistent’ world in which your character can fight, craft, build, or just socialize with other players. As such, it can become very immersive, and that’s just through the power of the imagination and some pixels on a screen. Now, imagine how immersive a virtual world would be. And how dangerous. 

Otherland started me thinking about technology and how humans relate to new innovations. It also inspired some of my own writing.

By Tad Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked City of Golden Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Otherland is a universe ruled by Earth's wealthiest and most ruthless power-brokers, The Grail Brotherhood. Surrounded by secrecy, incredible amounts of money have been lavished on it and two generations have laboured to build it. Now it is claiming Earth's most valuable resource - its children.


Book cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Acflory Why did I love this book?

Ursula K. Le Guin taught me how powerful science fiction could be. Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness, tells the story of a human observer who arrives on an alien planet and discovers that the humanoid inhabitants change their gender in response to external stimuli. One of the aliens helps the human observer escape from a perilous situation, and the relationship between the two explores gender stereotypes and sexual orientation. 

I’ve often wondered whether the Left Hand of Darkness influenced The Crying Game, a movie that came out in 1992, over twenty years later. Then and now, The Left Hand of Darkness challenges readers to think outside the box and question their preconceived ideas.

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Left Hand of Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION-WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION BY DAVID MITCHELL AND A NEW AFTERWORD BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS

Ursula K. Le Guin's groundbreaking work of science fiction-winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants' gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters...

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an…


Book cover of Cyteen

Acflory Why did I love this book?

Cyteen won a Hugo Award in 1989 and pushed the envelope on both world building and character development. For me though, it was the author’s exploration of what it means to be human that made this book one of my all-time favourites. 

In Cyteen, there are born humans and made people. Some of the made people are clones of a particularly powerful individual, but most are created to perform a function. These lower-ranked people are taught everything they need to know by ‘tape’, while they sleep. 

The book asks some deep philosophical questions about what makes a person human, and whether any of us have the right to create ‘sub-humans’ for our own benefit. These are powerful questions that still beg for answers.

By C. J. Cherryh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cyteen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The saga of two young friends trapped in an endless nightmare of suspicion and surveillance, of cyber-programmed servants and a ruling class with century-long lives - and the enigmatic woman who dominates them all. Narrators Jonathan Davis and Gabra Zackman skillfully split up this sweeping sci-fi epic that is "at once a psychological novel, a murder mystery, and an examination of power on a grand scale." (Locus)


Book cover of Onslaught

Acflory Why did I love this book?

The best way to describe the Repulse Chronicles is to say that they are a historical record of a war that hasn’t happened yet, using AI and military technology that hasn’t been invented, yet. 

Written by Indie author Chris James, the Repulse Chronicles are innovative in the extreme, in both style and content, yet as with all the stories I love the most, it’s the interface between people and technology that fascinates me the most. Some people rise to the occasion, others sink, yet in all cases, we recognize ourselves in the characters. That is what makes the story so powerful.

By Chris James,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Onslaught as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 7 February 2062, the New Persian Caliphate launched a devastating and unprovoked surprise attack against NATO. This was the initial salvo in a two-year war that would bring Europe to the brink of annihilation and cost millions of lives.

Onslaught is the first in a series of novels that tell the story of the 2062-2064 war as seen through the eyes of the people obliged to fight it.


You might also like...

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

By Sharman Apt Russell,

Book cover of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

Sharman Apt Russell Author Of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Explorer Runner Mother

Sharman's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Citizen Scientist begins with this extraordinary statement by the Keeper of Entomology at the London Museum of Natural History, “Study any obscure insect for a week and you will then know more than anyone else on the planet.”

As the author chases the obscure Western red-bellied tiger beetle across New Mexico, where she lives, she explores a dozen other citizen science programs with lyrical prose, humor, and a profound sense of connection to place. Diary of a Citizen Scientist celebrates a renewed optimism in the mysteries of the world and a renewed faith in how ordinary people can contribute to science and environmental activism.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

By Sharman Apt Russell,

What is this book about?

A critically acclaimed nature writer explores the citizen scientist movement through the lens of entomological field research in the American Southwest.

Award-winning nature writer Sharman Apt Russell felt pressed by the current environmental crisis to pick up her pen yet again. Encouraged by the phenomenon of citizen science, she decided to turn her attention to the Western red-bellied tiger beetle, an insect found widely around the world and near her home in the Gila River Valley of New Mexico.

In a lyrical, often humorous voice, Russell shares her journey across a wild, rural landscape tracking this little-known species, an insect…


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Interested in worldbuilding, galactic empires, and earth?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about worldbuilding, galactic empires, and earth.

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