The best science fiction novels that draw you in with incredible worldbuilding

Who am I?

I’m addicted to reading and writing science fiction that pulls readers into a universe they never want to leave. I love big, futuristic cities and complex societies where good people must make difficult choices. My first novel, The Sentient, was published in 2020 and the third book in my trilogy will be released in March 2023—a story about clones, cults, and consciousness. I love a lot about science fiction—the technology, the depictions of space travel and distant planets—but I care most about worldbuilding. I taught a class at a writer’s conference about getting from good to great worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy.

I wrote...

The Sentient

By Nadia Afifi,

Book cover of The Sentient

What is my book about?

Amira Valdez dreams of working in the space stations that orbit the Earth and putting her past behind her. She escaped a religious compound in the American southwest to eventually become a talented neuroscientist in the city of Westport. But when she’s assigned to the controversial Pandora project, an effort to create the first human clone, her past and present collide. Using her talents as an interpreter of human memories, Amira uncovers a conspiracy to stop the Pandora project from succeeding—at all costs.

As she digs deeper, Amira navigates a dangerous world populated by anti-cloning militants, scientists with hidden agendas, and a mysterious New Age movement. But her adventures also uncover an even darker secret within the project, one that will change the world.

The books I picked & why

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A Master of Djinn

By P. Djèlí Clark,

Book cover of A Master of Djinn

Why this book?

This alternate universe set in Cairo had everything I was looking for at the time—a fast-paced reimagining of Middle Eastern history and folklore with a compelling female protagonist. But above all, it’s fun. The story starts strong and maintains an exciting, gripping pace throughout as Agent Fatma investigates the murder of a secret brotherhood in a world populated by magical beings. It’s such a fascinating and richly developed universe that I immediately wanted another book set in this world after turning the final page. And luckily, there are more!

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsin Muir,

Book cover of Gideon the Ninth

Why this book?

So much has already been said about this weird and wonderful novel, but I’ll add my voice to the mix. I haven’t read anything else quite like it. (Necromancers in space! Dueling royal houses meets locked room mystery!) At times, it can be a lot to absorb, but once I got pulled into the novel’s strange universe, with a galactic empire, skeletons, and necromancers competing for power, I was hooked. It helps that the protagonist, Gideon Nav, is a funny, irreverent guide throughout the story—the dialogue is sharp and stylish, and the humor is biting. Years later, I still think about this book with a smile. 

Nophek Gloss

By Essa Hansen,

Book cover of Nophek Gloss

Why this book?

This novel is a minefield of big ideas and creative, mind-bending worldbuilding. I love science fiction that explores the idea of parallel worlds and multiverses, and this story includes a sentient spaceship that is able to travel between universes and even create its own bubble universe. The aliens in this story are also portrayed in a diverse way and the technology is creative and realistic. But despite the strong worldbuilding, Nophek Gloss also gives plenty of attention to the story and characters. This is a coming-of-age revenge story with a brutal, devastating opening and a powerful narrative that includes themes that resonated with me—overcoming trauma, found family, and the cost of revenge. 

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi,

Book cover of The Windup Girl

Why this book?

What makes great worldbuilding, as opposed to just good worldbuilding? It’s hard to define, but the world should feel complex but not confusing, different but still relatable, and drive the story the author wants to tell. The Windup Girl remains my ultimate blueprint for how to get it right in my own novels. This novel follows several characters in 23rd Century Thailand that includes a refugee, an economic hitman, a well-meaning law enforcement officer, and a genetically-modified, synthetic human named Emiko. Climate change is a big theme and forms the basis for how the characters operate and survive in this complex, morally murky, and magnetic world. 


By Peter Watts,

Book cover of Blindsight

Why this book?

What is consciousness? I wish more science fiction novels explored this question, so when I found one that combines an alien encounter with big ideas about life and the human condition, I got excited. Very excited. This novel explodes with creativity, from the way it depicts aliens who’ve arrived at the edge of the solar system to observe Earth, to a resurrected vampire (yes, you read that right) who’s been included on the space crew sent to investigate the alien outpost. The novel wrestles with the idea of what it means to be conscious, and whether humans, with their sense of selfhood and empathy, might be a deviation in the universe.

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