The best science fiction stories with thought-provoking twists

Who am I?

Since discovering Ursula K. Le Guin in high school, I have loved the kind of science fiction that is more about thought experiments than rocket ships and space exploration. When I went on to get a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, I often encountered skepticism regarding this predilection, but I continued studying and teaching speculative fiction anyway. Now I am no longer in academia, and I write science fiction and fantasy myself. Looking Through Lace is my attempt at the kind of thought experiment I've been such a fan of for so long.

I wrote...

Looking Through Lace

By Ruth Nestvold,

Book cover of Looking Through Lace

What is my book about?

As the only woman on the first contact team, xenolinguist Toni Donato expected her assignment on Christmas would be to analyze the secret women's language—but then the chief linguist begins to sabotage her work. What is behind it? Why do men and women have separate languages in the first place? What Toni learns turns everything she thought they knew on its head.

Originally published in Asimov's in 2003, "Looking Through Lace" was a finalist for the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. The Italian translation won the Premio Italia for best work of speculative fiction in translation in 2007.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Why this book?

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in high school, and it blew me away. It was my first encounter with the kind of world building that focuses on challenging readers to think about received notions. In the novel, Le Guin develops a single-sex society, playing with ideas of how such a world could work—and playing with reader expectations as well. It does a masterful job of forcing the reader to reexamine her own assumptions regarding sex, gender, and society.

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang,

Book cover of Stories of Your Life and Others

Why this book?

After reading “Story of Your Life” in The Year’s Best Science Fiction in 1999, I sat in my chair for a while, in wonder and tears, trying to take it all in. Many people know the basic plot, since it was filmed as The Arrival, but as good as the movie is, it can't come close to the novella. Chiang deftly tells the story in a way that reflects how the protagonist learns the language of the aliens—and how it changes her and the way she thinks, quite literally. It is probably the single best story I know for the way the narrative strategy reflects and supports the subject matter. 

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and Other Classic Stories

By Philip K. Dick,

Book cover of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and Other Classic Stories

Why this book?

I was back and forth for a while on which Philip K. Dick story I wanted to recommend, and I finally decided on "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (which inspired the movie Total Recall). What I love about Dick's fiction is the way it plays with questions of identity, while managing to repeatedly surprise the reader, and "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale" is one of his best stories for messing with the protagonist's—and the reader's—brain.  

The Gate to Women's Country

By Sheri S. Tepper,

Book cover of The Gate to Women's Country

Why this book?

The Gate to Women's Country is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which women and (most) men live largely separated from each other in town and garrison. (Can you tell yet that I like thought experiments that deal with sexual roles and mores?) The men are responsible for war and defending the city, while the women raise the children and try to protect what is left of civilization. The final revelation is both disturbing and thought-provoking.

The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why this book?

Yes, another social thought experiment by Ursula K. Le Guin! This one examines what a "utopian" society that attempts to live according to the philosophy of anarchism might look like. But trying to organize an anarchistic society is, of course, a contradiction in itself. The plot follows the physicist Shevek as he tries to reunite the moon, Anarres, home of the anarchist rebels, with its mother planet, Urras. The novel challenges many different common assumptions, ranging from the political to the personal, in its portrayal of two deeply flawed societies, neither of which can be seen as "the good guys."

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in film, physicists, and anthropology?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about film, physicists, and anthropology.

Film Explore 112 books about film
Physicists Explore 28 books about physicists
Anthropology Explore 57 books about anthropology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like My Sister, the Serial Killer, The King Must Die, and The Malthusian Moment if you like this list.