The best speculative fiction books that every science fiction author needs to read

Sally Ember, Ed.D. Author Of This Changes Everything: The Spanners Series, Volume I
By Sally Ember, Ed.D.

The Books I Picked & Why

The People: No Different Flesh

By Zenna Henderson

Book cover of The People: No Different Flesh

Why this book?

Zenna Henderson's entire The People series is worth reading, including the original short stories. These were all published at a time when very few female sci-fi authors were published. There is also a film that is fairly faithful to the books. Her creativity, her understanding the experience of immigrants and those who are “different,” and her depictions of the ways humans and immigrants are likely to re/act are timeless, offering stellar insights into our modern-day experiences. Sci-fi authors would do well to read all her books to learn how to do world-building, draw parallels between non-human species and humans, and analogize modern dilemmas as speculative fiction plots.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Why this book?

Ursula K. Le Guin is a master storyteller, world-builder, and political and social commentator who has written dozens of stories and novels that are all worth reading. Her stories provide valuable lessons to all sci-fi authors. She also writes great poetry and essays. This novel's characters predate almost all other nonbinary gender characters. And, as a species, they can change their biological sex during their mating time with something called “kemmer”. With kemmer, anyone can become pregnant and give birth during their lifetimes. “No mother wants their child to go to war” is an excellent premise for a pacifist culture. Many other great aspects to the plot, world built, and characters abound.

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The Sirian Experiments

By Doris Lessing

Book cover of The Sirian Experiments

Why this book?

Doris Lessing is another amazing speculative fiction author with many books and stories to read! This is the third book in a series of five that I highly recommend reading in its entirety and in order. But if you can only read one book, read this one. In this series, Lessing posits an Earth that has been the subject of a millennia-long experiment by beings from the planet Shikasta that includes tipping Earth on its axis to create seasons, which she speculates are the main reason humans have ever-changing moods and are quick to be emotional. A fascinating look into what makes humans the way we are from a unique perspective, along with excellent world-building and an interesting vehicle for storytelling make this a great read.

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The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction

By Kate Wilhelm

Book cover of The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction

Why this book?

Wilhelm is credited with having the best writing that inhabits “speculative fiction” (Robert Heinlein's coined term in 1947). I agree with that wholeheartedly, even though many others have contributed. She has dozens of novels, including mystery, suspense, and speculative sci-fi, but start with this book. Each story is unique and they don't actually connect in any way except that she put them all into this book, so I can't summarize them. Please read them all: every single one is a gem and an amazing example of great sci-fi writing.

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The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Anthology

By Gordon Van Gelder

Book cover of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Anthology

Why this book?

Ray Bradbury and I share birthdays, so I wanted to include him, and he is one of the greats included in this anthology. It also features Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and more amazing authors. The story, “All Summer in a Day,” is so powerful that it stayed with me my entire life (I read it in 1964, age 9!). I think it stuck with me because it depicts a group of kids my age at that time bullying another classmate into missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity out of sheer meanness and children's callousness and carelessness. Bradbury masterfully uses an almost typical classroom setting in an alternate world to show us how WE behave badly regardless of our world setting. Fabulous and sad. Read ANYTHING of his and learn a lot as well as be entertained, but please start here.

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