The best first-contact novels for science fiction fans and the uninitiated

Who am I?

I was the kid in grade school who sat under the tree and flipped through comic books while everyone else ran around the playground. In high school, I was terrible at math, good at chess, and couldn't wait to read the next book in English class. As a college student, I became disillusioned with authority and wished I'd been born a generation earlier so I could have protested the Vietnam War. Today, I still haven't come to terms with the world around me. I often feel like an alien, making first contact every day with humanity. Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you can trust my book recommendations!


I wrote...

A Small and Remarkable Life

By Nick DiChario,

Book cover of A Small and Remarkable Life

What is my book about?

Nick DiChario's A Small and Remarkable Life is a truly remarkable novel about an alien's first contact with humanity, something that we think makes Nick uniquely qualified to write this list. His novel, set in pre-Civil War America, is suitable for readers of all ages and accessible to both sci-fi fans and those unfamiliar with the genre. Published in 2006, it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, and it continues to find readers today. Nick didn't put his own book on his list, but we think you should add it to yours!

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Contact

Nick DiChario Why did I love this book?

Carl Sagan was a planetary scientist I adored in my youth for popularizing science and firmly believing that life exists outside our solar system. Contact, published in 1985, is the one and only novel he wrote in his career. It's a compelling story about what a very realistic first-contact experience might look like if we earthlings were to discover a signal originating from far beyond our solar system. Who could have sent it? And what could they want? Set in contemporary times, and filled with science-loving, nerdy characters, the book struck a chord with a wide swath of readers (not just sci-fi fans) to become an international bestseller. It would eventually hit the big screen with a film starring Jodie Foster. But read the book first!

By Carl Sagan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In December 1999 a multinational team journeys out to the stars, to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who - or what - is out there?


Book cover of Gateway

Nick DiChario Why did I love this book?

Published in 1977, this is one of the first science fiction novels I fell head-over-heels in love with when I started exploring the genre. I'm surprised at how well the novel stands up today. Gateway is a space station abandoned long ago by a technologically superior race of aliens called the Heechee, who leave behind their galaxy-hopping spaceships for us to marvel over. As it turns out, we learn just enough about these ships to make us dangerous. Pohl's story is about luck (good and bad), the divide between the rich and the poor, and the fragility of the human heart. While the novel is beloved by science fiction fans the world over, the prose is extremely accessible to all readers, and it would be a great place to start for anyone who wants to dip a toe into the genre.

By Frederik Pohl,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the very best must-read SF novels of all time

Wealth ... or death. Those were the choices Gateway offered. Humans had discovered this artificial spaceport, full of working interstellar ships left behind by the mysterious, vanished Heechee.

Their destinations are preprogrammed. They are easy to operate, but impossible to control. Some came back with discoveries which made their intrepid pilots rich; others returned with their remains barely identifiable. It was the ultimate game of Russian roulette, but in this resource-starved future there was no shortage of desperate volunteers.


Book cover of Roadside Picnic: Volume 16

Nick DiChario Why did I love this book?

This is a terrifically inventive novel first published in 1972, written by two Russian brothers, and translated into many languages since then. I love the premise: One day, alien visitors swing by Earth just long enough to dump a bunch of garbage in different locations around the globe. A kind of weirdo economy crops up in the wastelands they leave behind, where people prospect among the strange and sometimes lethal alien objects, searching for treasures, looking for tiny miracles, and hoping to make their dreams come true. The book is clever, high on satire, and a commentary equally as much about Soviet Russia as the oddities of human nature, making it a wonderful experience for readers of all kinds. (The 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is based loosely on this book.)

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he…


Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Nick DiChario Why did I love this book?

This is one of my favorite books of any genre, anywhere, any time. Bradbury was a marvelous writer with an unstoppable imagination whose short stories appeared regularly in science fiction publications, mystery magazines, and places such as The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's, and The New Yorker. In The Martian Chronicles, he tells the tale of the rise and fall of human civilization and our attempts to colonize Mars and make nice with the Martians. Like many science fiction stories published in the 1950s, Bradbury touches on themes of nuclear annihilation and the dangers of militarism, but he does it through short vignettes, on a very personal level, where each chapter is a story unto itself. It's a timeless book that will resonate deeply and may hang with you for a lifetime as it has for me. (After you read the book, check out the miniseries, starring Rock Hudson, from 1980.)

By Ray Bradbury,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Martian Chronicles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Martian Chronicles, a seminal work in Ray Bradbury's career, whose extraordinary power and imagination remain undimmed by time's passage, is available from Simon & Schuster for the first time.

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, America’s preeminent storyteller, imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor— of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race. In this classic work…


Book cover of Star Maker

Nick DiChario Why did I love this book?

I decided I couldn't write a list like this without at least one classic. I could have recommended H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (1898), the mother of all first contacts, but just about everyone already knows the story, even non-sci-fi folks. Instead, I'll recommend Olaf Stapledon, an early 20th Century British philosopher, who isn't satisfied with just one first contact. How about thousands? In Star Maker, published in 1937, he travels the galaxies telepathically, discovering intelligent life everywhere, strangely familiar and unfamiliar beings, as he searches for the ultimate creator, the Star Maker. The scope of this book is as sprawling as the ideas and the lifeforms he reveals during his journey. It might not be for everyone, but it's a philosophical and intellectual challenge for those willing to take it on. You won't find a novel written like this nowadays. You have to read it to believe it.

By Olaf Stapledon,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This bold exploration of the cosmos ventures into intelligent star clusters and mingles among alien races for a memorable vision of infinity. Cited as a key influence by science-fiction masters such as Doris Lessing, this classic has left its mark not only in modern literature but also in the fields of social anthropology and philosophy.
Olaf Stapledon's 1937 successor to Last and First Men offers another entrancing speculative history of the future. Its narrator, a contemporary Earthman, joins a community of explorers who travel to the farthest reaches of the universe, seeking traces of intelligence. Along the way, they encounter…


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The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

By J.M. Unrue,

Book cover of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

New book alert!

Who am I?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

The Festival of Sin is a three-story light sci-fi arc about a young boy rescued in 6000 BCE and taken to the home planet of the Hudra. Parts two and three are exploratory excursions. It's a fish-out-of-water series. More than fish-out-of-water. Fish-on-another-planet.

Plus, there are two fantasy stories dealing with people who must overcome "supernatural" circumstances, things well beyond the realm of common understanding. 

The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

The Festival of Sin is a three-story light sci-fi arc about a young boy rescued in 6000 BCE and taken to the home planet of the Hudra. Parts two and three are exploratory excursions. It's a fish-out-of-water series. More than fish-out-of-water. Fish-on-another-planet.

Plus, there are two fantasy stories dealing with people who must overcome "supernatural" circumstances, things well beyond the realm of common understanding. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

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