The best sci-fi books to bend your brain and crush your soul

Rich Larson Author Of Ymir
By Rich Larson

Who am I?

I’ve been writing professionally for an entire decade now, and for most of that time sci-fi has been my bread and butter. I love the genre’s varied aesthetics, and its tightrope of creativity and believability. The sci-fi books I love most of all are, for whatever reason, the ones that make me think deep, none-too-happy thoughts. Best is subjective, but these are five of my very favorites.

I wrote...


By Rich Larson,

Book cover of Ymir

What is my book about?

If we were in an elevator, I’d tell you Ymir is about a despised prodigal who returns to his icy homeworld to break a mining strike and hunt down an ancient alien war machine. Over drinks, I’d tell you it’s also about fraternal rivalry and cyclical self-destruction.

Here, I’ll tell you that Ymir was originally conceived as a grimy, posthuman retelling of Beowulf, but along the way it absorbed everything else I like, from Émile Zola and Chuck Palahniuk to Galidor Quest and Bojack Horseman. It’s the most brutally personal thing I’ve ever written, and simultaneously an assemblage of all the cheap writing tricks I’ve learned over the past decade of writing fiction. It’s a trip. I hope you take it.

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).


By M.T. Anderson,

Book cover of Feed

Why this book?

Let’s lead with Feed, the book that is likely my single greatest influence. Every time I re-read it I’m blown away by its density and creativity. This postcyberpunk satire is a masterclass in naturalistic neologisms – right from the jump, readers are hit with an absolute avalanche of invented slang and tech talk that all makes perfect sense from context. It’s also a scalpel-sharp exploration of class, consumerism, and Late Capitalism. It’s also a tear-jerking tragedy with messy, incredibly human characters.

Sailing Bright Eternity

By Gregory Benford,

Book cover of Sailing Bright Eternity

Why this book?

The first sci-fi I ever read, plucked from a dusty shelf on a mission compound in Niger. The physics explanations were beyond me, and honestly still are, but the astronomical imagery rewired my nine-year-old brain. This is a book (and series) that melds the rigor of hard SF with the scope and imagination of the best space opera, following the remnants of humanity as they flee inscrutable, implacable AI monstrosities. It makes the universe feel visceral and terrifyingly beautiful, and makes the reader feel like an ant.


By Peter Watts,

Book cover of Blindsight

Why this book?

To stay in that existential crisis vibe, let’s turn to Blindsight, a book I avoided for way too long because vampires in space sounded goofy as hell. This horror-tinged hard SF novel manages to make First Contact feel fresh again, with truly alien aliens, inventive tech, and spectacular visual setpieces – plus a hit of psychology and linguistics. The underlying idea that consciousness as we know it is a parasitic fluke, and any advanced life we encounter will be brilliant biological automatons, had me rattled for days.


By William Gibson,

Book cover of Neuromancer

Why this book?

I came very late to the party on this book, and was still staggered by it. It’s the primary source for the grimy near-future aesthetic I’ve loved and employed for years, and even decades after publication, it still does cyberpunk better than any of its countless descendants. Each page is packed neutron-star tight with branding and slang. The prose is razorous and attentive. The ending’s a bit bleak, but the truly crushing thing is that I’ll never write something this cool.

The Ellimist Chronicles

By K. A. Applegate,

Book cover of The Ellimist Chronicles

Why this book?

Kid books are the most important books. They hook deep into the gray matter right as it’s branching off in all directions, and set the course for a whole new crop of writers. The imagery in this companion to the long-running Animorphs series was off the charts – for example, a moon-spanning hivemind organism that keeps thousands of victims tethered underwater, trepanned by tendrils that let it access their decaying brains. This one is dark, vivid, and capped off by a beautifully understated death. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, and robots?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, and robots.

Artificial Intelligence Explore 109 books about artificial intelligence
Extraterrestrial Life Explore 112 books about extraterrestrial life
Robots Explore 60 books about robots

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Seeing Like a State, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Debt if you like this list.