The best books with aliens that are not science fiction

The Books I Picked & Why

A Wrinkle in Time

By Madeleine L'Engle

Book cover of A Wrinkle in Time

Why this book?

As a child reading this classic middle grade novel, I wanted to be Meg Murry, the clever teenage protagonist. She and her kind-of boyfriend Calvin tesseract through space with three witches to rescue Meg’s scientist father and eventually her younger brother, Charles Wallace, from an Evil Force. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Meg and her younger brother: it’s her love for him, her absolute acceptance of him as he is, that breaks him free. P.S. As an adult, I love that Meg’s mother is also a scientist.

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By Gene Brewer

Book cover of K-Pax

Why this book?

I loved the humor of this novel: Prot – who claims to be an alien from the planet K-PAX – is charming and funny and absolutely wins over everyone he meets. You can’t not want him to be who he says he is. Is K-Pax a real planet? Is Prot a real alien or does he suffer from a mental illness? If you’ve seen the movie, that’s a start, but the book is better and there are sequels. It’s told from his psychiatrist’s point of view so we get a lot of background on him and how he relates to Prot. In many ways, the book tells us more about what it’s like for us to be humans than for Prot to be an alien.

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Ratner's Star

By Don Delillo

Book cover of Ratner's Star

Why this book?

This is a big sprawling story. Do you love books like that or hate them? I love them because they feel like giant puzzles: you kind of lose yourself in them and enjoy the constant twists and turns. DeLillo is a postmodern master so you can trust that he has it all under control. In this book, Billy, a teen mathematician prodigy, wins the Nobel Prize in Mathematics and is spirited away to help decipher a mysterious message from aliens. It’s been compared to Alice in Wonderland for its down-the-rabbit-hole and through-the-looking-glass aspects of plot twists and characters. What makes this satire accessible, however, is the comedy. Billy is us, the readers, and he takes us on a philosophical journey while being surrounded by the strangest of characters.

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The Sparrow

By Mary Doria Russell

Book cover of The Sparrow

Why this book?

I loved this story for what it was (a terrific thriller) as much as for what it was not (a lecture in religion). As a writer I also learned from the author to never sacrifice story for theme or message: focus on what will keep the reader up at night and allow the theme to evolve naturally. So much of this book’s ultimate philosophy about being human and treating each other with kindness, could have felt forced given the tale’s origins in religion but it wasn’t at all. In the 21st Century, Earth receives messages in the form of music from outer space. A Jesuit mission is formed and sent to the planet Rakhat where the music originated. The team’s leader, Father Sandoz, is captured, held as a slave, and then eventually returned to Earth, physically disfigured and alone. The science in this book is minimal; what kept me turning pages was the mystery of Sandoz. P.S. There’s a sequel!

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The Giver

By Lois Lowry

Book cover of The Giver

Why this book?

I read this young adult book as an adult and saw in it the dawning realization of what being a grownup is all about: the pain, the suffering, the war, and hunger, but also the good that comes with it. In a world (our future? Or another planet’s?) where complex emotions have been eliminated and all roles are assigned, 12-year-old Jonas is destined to become the receiver of memories. A dystopian utopia, Lowry very specifically does not name anything after our current world so these human-like characters could indeed be aliens – and their actions a commentary on our culture. The burden that Jonas bears as the Receiver of Memories is heartbreaking but through him, the reader discovers that while knowledge (centuries of memories) can be painful, it can also be powerful; so too can education.

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