The best short sci-fi books (because no one needs 1100 pages of worldbuilding)

Who am I?

The influence of the books listed below, particularly I Am Legend and The Lathe of Heaven, led me to dedicate myself to writing shorter novels. In a world where many novels sprawl into the thousand-page mark, where world-building can overwhelm character and plot, I’m focused on writing tight, layered narratives where every sentence matters. No fluff, no padding, just character development, plot, and exploration of theme. I primarily write sci-fi mystery novels, and mystery readers want the who-what-when-where-how, characters they can root for, and a mystery they get obsessed with solving. I aim to give them exactly that—and very little else—to keep the story exciting. 

I wrote...

Artificial Detective: An Off-World Mystery

By Dave Terruso,

Book cover of Artificial Detective: An Off-World Mystery

What is my book about?

The first colony on Earth’s moon has just had its first murder. I’ve been tasked with catching the killer. My name is Coba. I’m a robot with artificial general intelligence, meaning I can learn any intellectual task a human being can.

A colonist is found with his neck snapped and his heart cut out. The heart is missing. A suspect is in custody, but something doesn’t add up. Strange events start to unfold, including a rash of bizarre sleepwalking incidents. The colonists’ conflicting accounts of the murder make me wonder if everyone is lying to me. I realize the killer wants to play a game with me when a gift box shows up in my room. Inside is the victim’s missing heart.

The books I picked & why

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I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson,

Book cover of I Am Legend

Why this book?

I rarely reread a novel, but I’ve read this one five times so far. In just 25,000 words, Matheson does a masterful job of world-building. You experience the devastating effects of an apocalypse in a very personal, intimate way. It has the most meaningful, heartbreaking ending of any book I’ve ever read (and I’m bitter that all three film adaptations botched that ending).

Matheson created the modern vampire in this book, the first to invoke science for the monsters’ creation instead of supernatural elements. He also inadvertently created the zombie movie genre; George Romero cites the Vincent Price adaptation of I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth (co-written by Matheson), as his main inspiration for Night of the Living Dead.

The Lathe of Heaven

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Lathe of Heaven

Why this book?

This is another novel I’ve read five times. In only 46,000 words, Le Guin doesn’t just build one world, she builds several. After three paragraphs of poetic introduction, Le Guin gives us three sentences that allude to an entire saga that happened just before the novel began, with the world decimated by some unspecified nuclear catastrophe. This pre-saga is never mentioned again, and every time I reread this book, I linger over those three sentences and try to imagine what went down.

Le Guin’s imagination knew no bounds. This book delivers aliens, sentient sea turtles, an ironic cure to racism, and ideas that stay with you for months after you finish the book. Not to mention Le Guin’s delectably poetic prose.

Who Goes There?

By John W. Campbell,

Book cover of Who Goes There?

Why this book?

This novella makes my list primarily because it inspired my favorite horror movie of all time: John Carpenter’s The Thing. This is the only book on the list that I wish was much longer, mostly because it’s more plot-driven than character-driven, and the plot is ingenious. Campbell has so many brilliant twists throughout this terrifying tale of scientists in the Antarctic who unearth a frozen alien that consumes and then perfectly imitates its prey. Sequences that last a few pages warrant an entire book unto themselves.  

Were Campbell writing in 2022, this novella would’ve been a series of short novels that would’ve had voracious readers devouring its many hundreds of serialized pages as quickly as they could.

The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Why this book?

Like Le Guin, Bradbury writes beautiful prose. His writing style pushed me to make my own prose more lyrical. Though labeled a novel by his publisher, this is actually a short-story collection centered on the topic of Earth colonizing Mars in the future. 

There are some recurring characters, and the stories are arranged in chronological order, telling an overarching tale of humanity’s trials and tribulations as they attempt to make a faraway planet their new home, but each chapter is a story that can be read and enjoyed as a one-off. That unconventional approach allows Bradbury to explore wild concepts on the periphery of the colonization adventure that he never would’ve been able to shed a light on if bound by the constraints of a typical plot. 

A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess,

Book cover of A Clockwork Orange

Why this book?

Burgess blew me away with how he used the number of chapters to tell a story in and of itself. 

There are 21 chapters in Clockwork, and Burgess revealed in interviews that that number is quite purposeful; the book is about a boy maturing into a man, and Burgess used 21 chapters since that is the age at which people are legally considered adults in his homeland of England. 

This book taught me that restricting myself on purpose (the way Burgess limited himself to exactly 21 chapters) would enhance my creativity, not hinder it. I also liked how he created his own slang for his characters and used it without explanation in the book, allowing his readers to suss it out from context. I liked that confidence. 

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