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23 Mind-Bending Science Fiction Novels to Launch You Into the Multiverse

Sure, a good ol’ fashioned space opera is great—but what do you pick up when you want a science fiction story that will make you question reality? These standalone novels and trilogies explore the weird and warped implications of time travel, parallel universes, genetic modification, and more. Happy reading, sci fi fans!

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Cover of Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler.
(Grand Central Publishing)

Lilith Iyapo wakes up in a strange ship, surrounded by alien beings called the Oankali. She finds out that civilization has been destroyed by nuclear war, and she’s been chosen to lead a group of humans who will recolonize the planet. But there’s a catch: the Oankali want to “trade” genetic traits with the humans in their care, turning humanity into something entirely new. The first book in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Dawn, is definitely the best, but the whole trilogy explores what it means to be a member of a doomed species.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Cover of Flatland.
(Dover)

Written in 1884, Flatland tells the story of A. Square, a polygon living in a two-dimensional world. Square has visions of Lineland and Pointland, which are worlds that exist in one and zero dimensions, and he gets his mind blown by a visit from three-dimensional sphere. The novel’s portrayal of women is unfortunately pretty bad, but it does include some interesting satire of Victorian culture.

Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Cover of Stories of Your Life and Others.
(Vintage)

If you love high-concept science fiction, then Ted Chiang’s short stories are the perfect place to start. So far, he’s written two volumes of stories, Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation, that explore time loops, pocket universes, parallel realities, and more. “Story of Your Life” was the inspiration for the movie Arrival.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Cover of This is How You Lose the Time War.
(Simon and Schuster)

Red and Blue are rival agents, one belonging to a technotopia called the Agency, and the other belonging to an organic superconsciousness called Garden. They play a game of cat and mouse across time and space, leaving clues and messages in organic matter and decaying civilizations as they slowly realize their true feelings for each other.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Covers of the three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy.
(Grand Central Publishing)

You’ll notice that this trilogy is also on my best epic fantasy series list, since as a “science fantasy” series, The Broken Earth depicts a world in which science is so advanced that it essentially becomes magic. Beginning with the end of the world, the story focuses on Essun, a woman with the power to manipulate the earth with her mind. She’s forced to flee her community after her son is murdered, and as she travels across a dying, apocalyptic landscape, she learns that there are secrets about her world buried deep in the past. The Broken Earth plays with our assumptions about what we might find in the earth and heavens, leading to an astonishing climax.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Covers of the three books in the Imperial Radch trilogy.
(Orbit)

Justice of Torren is a sentient starship who’s been bound to the body of a human “ancillary,” Breq. Now Justice and Breq have to find out who’s betrayed them. The beginning is confusing, but stick with it—once you figure out what’s going on, this novel is a page-turner. Also check out the other two books in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover of Changing Planes.
(Harper Perennial)

All of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books are fantastic—if you’re looking for more straightforward sci fi, check out The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness—but the lesser-known Changing Planes is a fun and irreverent thought experiment. When humans learn how to use the tedium of airport terminals to slip into other realities, they discover a whole host of strange and beautiful worlds. This book is half story collection, half anthropological study of fictional cultures.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Cover of the three-body problem
(Tor)

What happens when Earth makes contact with an advanced alien race that’s doomed to destruction by its volatile three-sun solar system? Nothing good. The Three-Body Problem, along with its sequels The Dark Forest and Death’s End, is a heady mix of science and sociology, exploring colonization and self-preservation on an interstellar scale.

The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
(DAW)

Binti, a math prodigy and member of the Himba people in Namibia, is bound for the prestigious Oomza University, thousands of lightyears away. On the way, though, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race that’s seeking revenge against Oomza. Although the plot is pretty straightforward, the scope is breathtaking, and Binti’s mathematical genius borders on mysticism.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Cover of Annihilation.
(FSG Originals)

A biologist, along with three other scientists, is sent into a mysterious region known as Area X to observe and record what they find. All previous expeditions to Area X have failed, with their members turning on each other or dying of cancer, and the biologist soon learns that there’s a terrifying and contagious presence underneath the seemingly idyllic landscape. If you like uncanny sci fi horror, you’ll love this series.

(featured image: Shutterstock)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.