Science fiction has long been criticized for its lack of non-white, non-male writers, and that might have been the case in the early days of sci-fi literature. But in the 21st century, a large number of the most popular sci-fi books were written by the same denomination that were excluded from the genre.
In recent years, many exceptional hard science fiction, cyperpunk, and dystopian novels have come from the Asian and Asian-American diaspora.
Authors like Cixin Liu, Xia Jia, and Ken Liu have made waves in the genre—and beyond—with their fiction, and they’re not alone.
So, without further ado, here are five popular sci-fi books from Asian and Asian-American authors.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Three-Body Problem is perhaps one of the most famous Chinese science fiction novels. The novel won a Galaxy and a Hugo award, and has been the subject of much praise. In fact, Barack Obama plugged it, saying the book was “just wildly imaginative, really interesting.”
The novel is the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, first published as a novel in 2008. Ken Liu, a notable science fiction writer and translator, brought The Three-Body Problem to English readers in 2014.
The Three-Body Problem jumps back and forth between three, interconnected plot lines. But what ties the plot lines together is Cixin Liu’s understanding, and explanation, of complex scientific concepts, everything from astronomy to physics. The language is vibrant and visceral, and Ken Liu’s translation comes with footnotes to help readers understand the Chinese colloquialisms and references, which makes the novel all the more intriguing.
If you love reading marriages of science and class politics, this book is right up your alley.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Ninefox Gambit is intense, complex, and an absolute page-turner. As Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, it showcases his linguistic skill as well as his keen sense of plot.
Ninefox Gambit is the first of the Machineries of Empire series, and it won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2017.
The story focuses on a young military captain and the spirit of a 400-year-old general as they are thrust into the thick of an intergalactic war.
For readers inexperienced with Yoon Ha Lee’s distinct sense of style, this novel might come off as a bit jarring at first. The visceral descriptions, complex worldbuilding, and throw-you-right-in-the-middle-of-it beginning can make the novel feel inaccessible.
After you read some of his short stories, come back to Ninefox Gambit. It’s certainly a top-rated science fiction book, for new and old sci-fi enthusiasts alike.
Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan
Originally published in 2013, Waste Tide was Chen Quifan’s debut novel. The book was translated into English by Ken Liu in 2019 and received rave reviews from Western audiences.
Waste Tide tackles issues of human waste, particularly e-waste, as well as class-politics in a dystopian future. The setting of the novel, the Silicon Isle, was based on Chen Quifan’s childhood home in the Shantou prefecture, China.
The Shantou prefecture has achieved notoriety as one of the world’s largest e-waste dumping sites, where a few businessmen made fortunes on the labor and misfortune of local waste-sorters. This too makes it into Waste Tide; when a sentient WWII virus incites a class-war, pitting the locals and waste-workers against the wealthy families reaping the benefit of others’ misery.
If you’re a fan of novels with environmental themes, vast scrap-heap vistas, and fights against social injustice, Waste Tide hands you all three and then some.
Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang
Vagabonds was originally published in 2016, and was then translated by Ken Liu and released to Western audiences in 2020. It is Hao Jingfang’s first novel, and it was met with high praise.
Hao Jingfang also landed a Hugo Award for her novelette, Folding Beijing, becoming the first Chinese woman to ever win a Hugo!
Science fiction is ripe with interplanetary and interspecies diplomacy, but Hao Jingfang takes that idea to the next level. Set 200 years in the future, the citizens of Earth and Mars are at odds and a team of young ambassadors must bridge the gap between their birth planet and humanity’s ancestral home.
Hao Jingfang has a background in both physics and economics, which she employs to expert degree in Vagabonds. If you’re a fan of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Vagabonds is a book you have to read.
Clone (Generation 14) by Priya Sarrukai Chabria
This book is a bit different from the others we’ve discussed. While this Clone hasn’t won awards and gained worldwide recognition, it’s still a striking piece, and a worthy addition to this list.
Priya Sarrukai Chabria, a well-known Indian poet, weaves together the science fiction genre and the aesthetics of classic Indian poetry. The result is a haunting dystopian world of governmental control and quiet resistance.
If you’re looking for a different take on the cyperpunk/dystopian genre, Clone fits the bill. Priya Sarrukai Chabria’s unique voice and keen understanding of psychology makes for an engaging read.
NOTE: In 2008, Zubaan Books published Priya Sarrukai Chabria’s novel Generation 14, which was then reprinted under the title Clone in 2019. If you’re looking to buy this book, get the Clone edition. The first edition is quite expensive and hard to find.