What books can we give our teens that don’t mire them in a swamp of vampires, domineering wizards or nostalgia for feudalism? These are a few of my personal science fiction favorites for young adults, weighted more toward SF and a little common sense mixed with lots of sense-o-wonder. Many are classics that I grew up with…along with some marvelous recent additions.
Adams, Douglass: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Seconds before Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is saved…for a hilarious journey across space and time.
Anderson, M.T.: Feed A rather dark tale of a futuristic consumer-mad world where news and advertisements are fed continuously to the brain–till a hacker disrupts the flow during a teen trip to the moon…
Anderson, Poul: The High Crusade Nominated for a Hugo Award. An alien spaceship from the Wersgorix Empire lands in 14th century England during the Hundred Year’s War. Adaptability plus stubbornness tilt the odds! (Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)
Asimov, Isaac: The Caves of Steel A murder mystery, set in a far future, when vast domed cities house an over-populated Earth. Detective Elijah Bayley teams with a humanoid robot to solve the crime.
- Foundation Trilogy Gibbon’s Decline of the Roman Empire with an interstellar twist. The Galactic Empire is going to fall, but Hari Seldon has a plan. Vast in scope. (Later concluded by us Killer B’s).
- I, Robot Selected stories about humanity’s future love/hate relationship with our artificial friends.
Bacigalupi, Paolo: Shipbreaker presents a gritty near-future world where young people work long hazardous jobs scavenging beached oil tankers among the drowned cities of the Gulf Coast. Nailer makes an unexpected find which will change his future…
- The Drowned Cities is the companion book, telling the story of refugees trying to survive in an America suffering from the effects of climate change and flooded cities.
Barnes, John: Orbital Resonance Through our 13-year old protagonist, Melpomene Murray, Barnes presents a riveting portrayal of life in space aboard the Flying Dutchman, an asteroid colony which supplies the overpopulated home planet Earth.
Baxter, Stephen: The H-bomb Girl An alternate history look at the Cuban Missile Crisis through the perspective of a teen girl living in a gritty Liverpool in 1962.
Bear, Greg: Dinosaur Summer In a world where Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World actually happened, only one dinosaur circus remains on Earth. Fifteen year old Peter Belzoni sets off on an expedition to return the creatures to the wild.
Benford, Gregory: Against Infinity A coming of age story of a young man on the icy surface of Ganymede, searching for a dangerous alien artifact that haunts the dreams of humans.
- The Jupiter Project A teenage boy has spent his entire life on The Can, a scientific station orbiting Jupiter–looking for signs of alien life.
Bester, Alfred: The Stars My Destination A classic of Science fiction, this is a story of revenge. Gulliver Foyle, left stranded in space, is determined to track down those responsible.
- The Demolished Man Winner of the first Hugo Award in 1953. Ben Reich intends to commit murder in a world where crime is virtually unheard of, due to Espers, telepaths who can probe the inner reaches of the mind.
Bradbury, Ray: The Martian Chronicles A short story collection about the colonization of Mars, as terrestrial expeditions set off to explore the planet, often with devastatingly poignant consequences for the native inhabitants.
- Fahrenheit 451 A chilling future dystopian world where “firemen” ransack houses, looking for forbidden books to burn. Often assigned reading in many classrooms.
Brin, David: Glory Season Genetic engineering has largely reduced the role of males on planet Stratos–ruled by clans of cloned females. Young variant twins, Leie and Maia set off to earn their fortunes in a world where they don’t quite belong, uncovering their world’s role in a wider human cosmos.
The Postman After much of America has been devastated by war, a wanderer comes across an abandoned mail truck and finds long abandoned letters…and delivers hope to isolated towns. (Okay, that’s a self-plug. Lots of kids prefer the lighter tone in The Practice Effect!)
Card, Orson Scott: Ender’s Game The Hugo and Nebula Award winning story of boy genius, Ender Wiggin, who trains to save the world from alien Buggers. A blatant “chosen one” fantasy that appeals to the Harry Potter reflex.
Cherryh, C.J. : The Chanur Saga These novels tell the story of the alien races that make up The Compact, a spacefaring civilization and their first contact with a human. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)
Christopher, John: Tripods Trilogy Humanity has been conquered and enslaved by aliens who travel in giant three-legged machines–and control the minds of humans.
Clarke, Arthur C.: Childhood’s End Just as Earthlings are about to launch their first spaceship, alien invaders, the Overlords appear, imposing peace and a golden age. And yet…
Clement, Hal: Mission of Gravity An adventure story told from the point of view of an alien living on the planet Mesklin, venturing from the extreme gravity of the poles to the low gravity of the equator–as they encounter human visitors seeking a lost probe.
Collins, Suzanne: The Hunger Games Sixteen year old Katniss is forced to represent her district, by competing in the televised Hunger Games–a fight to the death contest for survival.
Dick, Philip K.: The Man in the High Castle Hugo Award winning alternate history, that tells the story of life after World War II if the Axis powers had won, occupying America. For that history buff!
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? A post-apocalyptic story of the near future. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard tracks down and kills escaped androids. Served as the basis of the film, Bladerunner.
Doctorow, Cory: Little Brother After a terrorist attack on San Francisco, a group of teens are taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. After his release, 17 year old Marcus Dallow uses his computer expertise to take down the DHS.
Farmer, Nancy: The House of the Scorpion In the land of Orpium, an opium-producing estate between Mexico and the United States, a drug lord enslaves illegal immigrants, through chips planted in their brains. Our protagonist, Matt, has been raised as a clone for organ replacement.
Gaiman, Neil: The Graveyard Book To escape the clutches of Jack the man who killed his parents, Nobody Owens was raised in a graveyard–learning history from the ghosts among the headstones.
Harrison, Harry: The Stainless Steel Rat A great joyride fantasy for teens who like to think they’re smarter than civilization or the law. Take a master thief. Turn him into a supercop. Way fun!
Heinlein, Robert: Tunnel in the Sky Teens who want jobs in space must spend a week surviving an alien world, but what if they’re stranded? Heinlein’s answer to Lord of the Flies.
- The Door into Summer Brilliant time travel tale. Great predictions about robots. Just a super yarn–one I read aloud to my kids.
- Farmer in the Sky Teenager Bill Learner and his father leave over-crowded Earth to emigrate to the farming colony on Ganymede–in the process of being terraformed. The harsh reality is not quite as Bill imagined…
- The Star Beast Heinlein’s mastery of point of view at its best. Lummox had been a family pet, growing increasingly cantankerous–until aliens arrive with a demand.
- Podkayne of Mars Podkayne Fries, a bright young woman, dreams of becoming a starship pilot. She and her genius brother travel from their home on Mars to Earth. Some female readers cringe, but others say Heinlein nailed it. You decide.
Henderson: Zena The Ingathering Henderson’s classic “The People” novels–about alien refugees stranded and hiding on Earth–is a bit languid by modern tastes, but deeply moving and thoughtful. Personal and character-driven portrayals.
Herbert, Frank: Dune A Hugo and Nebula Award winner: the story of the desert planet Arrakis and its complex ecology and struggles between the House Atreides and the dreaded Harkonnen. Demanding but detailed, for bright kids.
Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World A dystopia fast becoming more likely than 1984. Also more fun, but creepy. Thought provoking and on college reading lists.
Laumer, Keith: Earthblood and Reteif’s War and The Great Time Machine Hoax are all great fun.
Le Guin, Ursula: The Earthsea Trilogy If you must have imperious secretive wizards, at least make them self-consistent and well-intentioned. Le Guin’s fantasy world of Earthsea.
- The Lathe of Heaven A young man has effective dreams that change the world when he wakes. A doctor schemes to manipulate dreams for his own purposes.
- The Dispossessed Le Guin’s exploration of a non-Marxist Anarch-Socialist society, with all its pros and cons. Her best book.
Matheson, Richard: The Incredible Shrinking Man The basis for the movie of the same title, Scott Carey mysteriously begins shrinking to encounter ever-larger dangers looming in the world.
McCaffrey, Ann: The Ship who Sang A second life opens for a crippled woman, to live as a starship. But first she must choose a human partner. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes a very personal-feminine style.)
- Dragonsong Not fantasy! Dragons, lords, arts and crafts… all the fantasy “furniture… but genuine sci-fi about a human colony knocked flat but determined to rise up again. They want science back…while riding dragons!
McDevitt, Jack: The Engines of God Two archeologists struggle to preserve the alien artifacts on planet Quraqua before terraforming destroys all traces of the alien civilization–which may hold essential clues to humanity’s survival!
Miéville, China: Railsea A fully imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – melded with the stark landscape of Dune. Hunters ride the railways, seeking whale-sized moldywarpes, or giant moles — in particular the great white!
Miller, Walter: Canticle for Leibowitz Must civilization fall? Brilliant stories about the few who maintain candles in the darkness after nuclear war.
Niven, Larry: Ringworld The Hugo and Nebula Award winning story of a vast habitat larger than a million earths! Stunning ideas!
Nix, Garth: Shade’s Children Evil overlords rule the Earth, and no child is allowed to live past their fourteenth birthday. Gold-Eye escapes his fate, meeting up with other refugees. Will they be able to destroy the Overlords?
Norton, Andre: The Stars are Ours No one wrote escapist adolescent adventure in space better than Andre Norton. Her Young Adult novels were legend, and SFWA’s YA award is named after her.
(Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)
O’Brien, Robert: Z for Zachariah Sixteen year old Ann Burden has been left completely alone after a nuclear war, until a stranger enters her remote valley…
Palmer, David: Emergence A bionuclear war has killed over 99% of earth’s population. Candida, an eleven year old girl is among the few who remain–who soon discover they are the next phase of human evolution.
Panshin, Alexei: Rite of Passage A multi-generation colony ship tests its youth by casting them out to survive for a month of Trial upon the hostile colony worlds. Truly the classic YA science fiction novel and a pioneer at the young-female point of view.
Pangborn, Edgar: Davy A post-apocalyptic novel, which follows the adventures of Davy, as he escapes life as an indentured servant in a church-based society that suppresses technology.
Piper, H. Beam: Little Fuzzy Nominated for a Hugo Award, this classic by H. Beam Piper explores the discovery of a sapient race on planet Zarathustra–previously believed devoid of intelligent life. Oh… features the cutest lil’ aliens you ever met.
- Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen Korean War veteran Calvin Morrison is caught up in a passing Paratime Patrol time machine, and sent to a parallel time track, the feudal kingdom of Hostigos, where he becomes Lord Kalvan, “inventor” of gunpowder and champion of freedom against the Cult of Styphon. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes action adventure in space.)
Pratchett, Terry: The Color of Magic The first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels offers a light-hearted spoof of fantasy. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes groaner humor.)
Sargeant, Pamela: Earthseed To save the remnants of humanity, Ship was launched, containing the DNA of Earth’s flora and fauna, as well as children created from the genes of the starship’s builders. To prepare for colonization, these teenagers are sent to a final test, a competition within the Ship’s hollow–which pits friends against friends.
Scalzi, John: Zoe’s Tale A first person narrative, told from the point of view of teenager Zoe Boutin, who travels with her adoptive parents to establish a new colony on Roanoke, struggling against hostile aliens.
Sheckley, Robert: Store of the Worlds Sheckley’s stories are classic, and great to read aloud to your kids.
Sleator, William: The Last Universe A story inspired by the uncertainties of quantum mechanics. Susan and her invalid brother, Gary, discover an ever-changing garden which allows them to access parallel universes.
- Interstellar Pig Barney is sucked into an addictive role-playing game called Interstellar Pig–when he begins to wonder if it is a game after all..
Smith, E.E. “Doc”: The Skylark of Space A classic from the pre-Golden era of 1930’s Sci-Fi. Terran genius Dick Seaton and his violinist girlfriend shake up the galaxy.
- The Lensman Series Humanity rocks! We’re the great hope for goodness across the galaxy. Our uber-sheriffs take on the ancient baddies from Boskone!
Stewart, George: Earth Abides In this post-apocalyptic story, most of humanity has been wiped out by pandemic. Ish Wiliams emerges from his solitary cabin to find the land deserted… almost. A gentle, thoughtful book, easy to read but very literary.
Sturgeon, Theodore: More than Human This Science Fiction classic tells the stories of six outcasts with special gifts. When they ‘blesh’ or blend their abilities, they can obtain superhuman powers.
Tevis, Walter: The Man Who Fell to Earth Alien Thomas Newton arrives on Earth, hoping to construct a spaceship to rescue the rest of his civilization and transport them to earth. He is discovered, setting off waves of paranoia and distrust.
Tolkein, J.R.R.: The Hobbit Classic fantasy…the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his quest. Prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.
Varley, John: Red Thunder China and the United States are in a space race to reach Mars. Teenager Manny Garcia and friends meet a brilliant inventor who has developed a ‘squeezer’ that can power a spaceship. They set off to win the race to Mars.
Verne, Jules: Verne wrote brief, captivating “go there” adventure tales that still read well. Choose a direction: up, down or into the sea and Verne’s intrepid adventurers head that way! But his Captain Nemo, in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, was a character with tragic depth.
Weber, David: Mission of Honor The Honor Harrington series typifies the Space War Sci Fi genre. Other authors along this vein include Dave Duncan and Lois MacMaster Bujold.
Wells, H. G.: The Time Machine One of the earliest works of science fiction, this classic tale by H.G. Wells tells of the Time Traveller, who journeys into the far future to meet the placid Eloi who live on the surface and the oppressive Morlocks who live underground.
- The Invisible Man A dark tale of a scientist who discovers a potion to render one invisible. He tries it on himself; at first he feels invincible, but the consequences eventually drive him mad.
Westerfield, Scott: Uglies A future dystopian world where everyone undergoes extreme cosmetic surgery at age sixteen to render them beautiful. But our protagonist, Tally Youngblood rebels against this imposed conformity…
- Leviathan This steampunk novel presents an alternate history of World War I, pitting the Central Powers and their steam-powered war machines, against the British Darwinists, who have genetically modified animals for fighting. Our protagonist, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand rides into battle on the Leviathan, an enormous biological dirigible.
Wilhelm, Kate: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang A Hugo Award winner. This post-apocalyptic novel centers on a surviving community. Finding themselves infertile, they turn to cloning, which leads to a stagnant society. Until a teenager, Mark seeks another way….
Wylie, Philip: The Disappearance This book follows two worlds that split from ours. In one, women learn to get along without men (it’s difficult in the 1950s, but do-able). In the other, men start out better but find it harder to make it alone!
- When World’s Collide (written with Edwin Balmer) This was huge in the 1960s. Two planets enter the solar system. One will smack Earth. The other might replace it. Can teams build space arks to cross over in time?
Wyndham, John: The Day of the Triffids A post-apocalyptic novel. Bill Masen awakes in the hospital to find he is the one of the few who can see, while most of the population has been blinded by a meteor storm. He must survive giant walking, stinging plants, Triffids, who wage war upon a collapsing civilization.
- The Chrysalids (Re-Birth) In the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, a rigid religious civilization has arisen which persecutes anyone with genetic deformities. Our protagonist, David Strorm, discovers he has unusual telepathic abilities, and escapes with others to the Fringes, where he contacts a more advanced society.
Zelazny, Roger: Lord of Light Set on a Hindi-settled world, this book introduced us in the 1960s to many eastern concepts, amid a great (if philosophical) action-packed adventure. Zelazny’s “Amber” series rollicked with sword fights across countless parallel worlds.
Books for Younger Readers
Cooper, Susan: The Dark is Rising
Coville, Bruce: My Teacher is an Alien
Dickinson, Peter: Eva
Duane, Diane: So You Want to be a Wizard
DuPrau, Jeanne: The City of Ember
Gaiman, Neil: Coraline
Haddix, Margaret: Running out of Time
L’Engle, Madeleine: A Wrinkle in Time
Lowry, Lois: The Giver
Pfeffer, Susan Beth: Life As We Knew It
Pinkwater, Daniel: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars
Pratchett, Terry: Only You can Save Mankind
Pullman, Philip: The Golden Compass
Schusterman, Neal: The Dark Side of Nowhere
More Lists of Recommendations for Young Adults:
The Golden Duck Awards
Young adult: Speculative fiction
Science fiction & fantasy: Books for teens
io9: List of young adult science fiction
Worlds of Wonder: Science fiction for teens
Plymouth Library: Young adult list
From Jeffrey Carver: Recommended science fiction & fantasy
Hoagie’s Gifted Education: Science fiction & fantasy favorites
From Tamara Pierce: Young adult science fiction & fantasy
From Tor books: A young adult reading guide