14 Great But Lesser-Known Sci-Fi Novels for Lil’ Nerds

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?Recently, TR ran a list of “14 Great But Lesser-Known Fantasy Novels for Lil’ Nerds” and received many, many more fantastic reading suggestions in the comments (please check it out if you’re looking for gift or class reading ideas for the young bookworms in your life). We would be remiss in our nerdly duties if we didn’t also run a list for science fiction. If you recall, the purpose of the previous list was to shed some light on fantasy novels for nerdlings that aren’t necessarily known to everybody, even we nerds. If there were movies or television shows based on it, it didn’t appear on the list, and the same guidelines were applied to this one. Remember, if you see an obviously well-known author, we’re going for B-sides and rarities here… as well as books that haven’t had movies made of them or a lot of chatter about film adaptations for a long, long time (*cough* Ender’s Game *cough*) won’t appear here, either.

So try not get bent out of shape if you feel this list is missing something – make your own suggestions in the comments, so that we can get a lot more great recommendations out there! This is, after all, in service to the next generation of the nerds. But again, if some of you old crotchety nerds want to see what the “kids these days” are (or should be) reading, feel free to partake of the young adult SF goodness. Here, in no particular order, are 14 science fiction novels for young readers that you might not already know. Apologies in advance – some of these books might be a little difficult to acquire. Scour your libraries and used booksellers! And remember, please add your suggestions in the comments!

14) This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger

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?It’s hard enough to pick up and move when you’re a teenager, but imagine how difficult it is to leave your school, friends, and your home planet behind. Aurora couldn’t have been happier with the way her life was going – she was popular at school, she had an awesome best friend and she’d just been asked to a big school dance by a guy she thought she had a future with. All of that changes when her parents give her the thrilling (to them) news: they’ve been selected to join a colony on the Moon. She and her family must travel 250,000 miles to a tiny colony, and try to start new lives in orbit. With great distance comes great perspective, however, and Aurora is surprised to find that there is life outside Earth’s atmosphere.

13) My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville

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?Reach back into your memories of school and try to think of just one teacher you had that wasn’t at least a little strange. Coville capitalizes on the natural distrust kids have of adults that try to make them learn things by confirming what they’ve always suspected – their teacher is from another planet! Susan, Peter, and Duncan discover that their tough and distant teacher, Mr. Smith, is actually an alien named Broxholm. After the kids publicly out Broxholm, Peter decides to help him escape on the condition that Broxholm take him along. He meets several other kinds of aliens on his journey, and discovers that humanity is being evaluated by these advanced races – and that a failing grade would be much, much worse than a bad mark on a report card. Be sure to continue with the sequels: My Teacher Fried My Brain, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, and My Teacher Flunked the Planet.

12) Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

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?Kip Russell’s greatest desire is to travel to space, so he jumps at the chance to win a free trip to the Moon by entering a jingle-writing contest. Unfortunately, he doesn’t win first prize, but has to settle for a used previous-generation space suit. He doesn’t let his disappointment get him down, however, and soon has the space suit (which he names “Oscar”) back in working order. Intending to sell Oscar for college tuition money, he decides to take the suit for one last “space walk” around the backyard. During his walk, he answers a distress call and quickly finds himself in the company of a girl named Peewee and an alien called “Mother Thing”. The three of them are captured by Mother Thing’s pursuers and Kip finds his wish for space travel granted – though not in a way he ever expected, and perhaps more thoroughly than he wanted.

11) A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

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?Vivian Smith, a London schoolgirl being evacuated to the country during the start of World War II, didn’t need any more complications in her life. She soon finds some anyway when she’s kidnapped by two strangely-dressed boys, Jonathan and Sam, who think that she’s a mysterious figure known as the Time Lady. The boys take her to Time City, a place that exists outside of History and is home to the Time Patrol and Observers, who make sure that History continues on the “correct” trajectory. The boys had overheard some high-ranking City officials discussing worrying trends in History, and how the Time Lady was to blame. Taking matters into their own hands, Jonathan and Sam thought they’d discovered her in disguise. When Vivian finally convinces them that she’s not the Time Lady, it’s too late for her to leave the City safely, and so she must integrate herself into a strange new society and learn all she can in order to get home again.

10) Groogleman by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald


?This novel is actually an expansion of a short story called “Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen,” which was written by the same authors and appeared in the Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters anthology. The novel is set in a future that has been ravaged by a deadly plague. Dan Henchard is a 13-year-old boy who seems to be untouched by the disease that is afflicting his village. Believing that his immunity has destined him to become a “weller”, or healer, he travels with his friend to the “Dead Lands”, which is the region that has been most heavily affected by the plague. There, they also face the Grooglemen, which are strange and terrifying creatures that steal the heads of plague victims. When the Grooglemen take a live person, however, Dan must work with a mysterious hunter named Joshua in order to rescue them, and learns some unexpected truths along the way.

9) Interstellar Pig by William Sleator

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?Barney wasn’t expecting any more from his summer vacation than being cooped up in his parents’ rental house and reading science fiction novels. Though a whole summer of reading might seem like a great vacation to some, a 16-year-old boy sometimes wants a little excitement in his life. He gets it when some strange new people move in next door and get him hooked on a new role-playing card game: Interstellar Pig. The players take the roles of different alien races by drawing cards, and the object of the game is to be the one holding the Piggy card when the game ends. When that happens, every alien’s home planet will be destroyed except for the player holding the Piggy. Barney soon comes to realize that Interstellar Pig is more than a mere card game, and the stakes are much higher than he ever imagined.

8) Uglies by Scott Westerfield


?In this post-apocalyptic future, civilization as we know it has been wiped out by a type of bacteria that decimated the human race and threw society into chaos. The survivors are concentrated into small city-states, which are independent of each other and don’t encourage much travel. People are rigidly divided into age groups: “Littles” (0-11 years), “Uglies” (12-15 years), and “Pretties” (16 and older). When reaching the age of 16, everyone undergoes a cosmetic operation that makes them beautiful – and surprisingly very similar-looking. Tally Youngblood wants nothing more than to have her sixteenth birthday, and with it the customary beautification. Things start to change for her when she befriends Shay, a girl who shares her birthday but not her desire to become a “Pretty.” In order to avoid this mandatory operation, Shay leaves the city and a note to Tally with an invitation to follow if she chooses. Tally must make some life-altering decisions and face many dangers head-on as she tries to discover what it is she really wants, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for it.


7) Loch by Paul Zindel


?When he was younger, Luke Perkins thought that he’d seen a lake monster. This experience earned him the nickname “Loch”, which seems very appropriate when his father takes him and his sister along on a scientific expedition to Lake Alban in Vermont. Loch’s father is funded by a hardass businessman, Mr. Cavenger, who favors a hands-on approach to expedition management and also expects major results for his money. Ask and ye shall receive – because Lake Alban turns out to be home to a pack of pre-historic plesiosaurs. Conflicts between the ancient creatures and modern man ensue, and Loch and his sister find themselves caught in the middle while trying keep everyone – human and lake monster – alive. (On a side note, I did a book report on Loch in the sixth grade, for which I drew a large and totally awesome picture of the climactic scene in the book. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it included a very large explosion and one character was depicted bleeding from an empty eye socket. My teacher was concerned.)

6) Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard

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?Even though Jack is an orphan, he was at least lucky enough to be born on the Freedom space station located on the asteroid belt in the solar system. Power sources and jobs are more plentiful in space, and Jack hopes to take a new job on another space station where he might encounter some distant relatives, which would make a nice change from apprentice food service. His plans change when his friends ask him to join them in chasing a “rat”. The “rat” turns out to be Kit, an illegal immigrant from Earth whose father died making the journey to Freedom. Jack has to decide whether to risk everything he’s ever worked for to help Kit escape detection by the authorities, and to keep a promise to her father.

5) The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

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?Matt grew up without any family, confined to a small shack and in the care of a servant on an opium plantation. When he first encounters other children, he’s so desperate to interact with them that he leaves the shack through the window and cuts himself on the broken glass. While he’s being patched up at the big plantation house, he learns that doesn’t have a family – not in the way the other children do. He’s actually the clone of the plantation owner/powerful drug lord, Matteo Alacran, who intends to harvest organs from him as he ages (for those of you who might think this sounds both familiar and stupid, rest assured that this book is much smarter and more enjoyable than Parts: The Clonus Horror or The Island). Unable to accept that he had been created for spare parts, Matt throws himself into his studies and practice, hoping to prove his own worth as an actual human being.

4) Feed by M.T. Anderson


?If you think that pop-up ads on the internet are annoying and intrusive, you should try accessing the Feednet through a computer chip implant in your brain. Most of the population in Anderson’s novel has undergone implantation, in many cases right after birth. With almost everyone constantly “plugged in”, privacy has become an antiquated notion. People can chat mind-to-mind. The government can even subpoena people’s memories, and corporations have free reign to data-mine consumers’ minds for more specific ad-targeting, sometimes to a physically debilitating degree. Titus meets Violet during his Spring Break vacation on the Moon. While partying together at a club, their Feeds are hacked by anti-Feed activists, causing them to lose control of their own voices and scream anti-Feed slogans until they pass out. When they regain consciousness in the hospital, they discover that their Feeds will not reactivate for several days, and they actually begin talking to each other the old-fashioned way. This experience leads them to question things that they’ve known their entire lives, and forces them to make hard decisions about the way they want to live.

3) Shade’s Children by Garth Nix

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?After the Change wiped out all adult humans, most of the surviving children have been incarcerated in dorms under control of the Overlords. No one is allowed to live past their fourteenth birthday, when they are sent to the Meat Factory and harvested for organic parts that are used to make creatures to serve the Overlords. The only people who live past fourteen are a few young women kept for breeding purposes, and those that manage to escape the compounds and survive on their own. The Change has also given some of the older escapees “Change Talents”, which are usually psychic in nature. This story follows a boy named Gold-Eye, who has managed to escape the Overlords and evade their creatures for a while, though his pursuers catch up to him in the beginning of the book. He is rescued by a group of strangers who call themselves Shade’s Children, and they take him back to the safety of their hideout. Shade turns out to be the consciousness of a professor, who was downloaded into his hideout’s systems before the Change happened. Gold-Eye joins Shade’s Children, but soon discovers that his new leader may not always have their best interests at heart.

2) The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick

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?This story follows Spaz, a young boy who has grown up in The Urb, an earthquake-ravaged city that is also rife with poverty, rival gangs, and technological escapism in the form of mind probes. Mind probes allow the users to immerse themselves in images, which provide temporary relief from the horror of existence in The Urb. Almost no one still has the ability to read or write, and books are ancient relics of the past. That is, until Spaz meets an old man named Ryter in the course of running errands for one of the more powerful gang leaders. Ryter knows the old ways of reading and writing, and still possesses the tools to do so. Spaz later enlists Ryter’s help in saving his step-sister Bean, who is dying of leukemia. Their journey takes them beyond the boundaries of The Urb to Eden, the city that is home to the wealthy and genetically-improved. Through its imaginative settings and characters, the novel explores interesting themes of class and prejudice.

1) David Starr, Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov

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?Why writing as Paul French, you ask? Originally, Asimov was asked to write the Lucky Starr series by his agent and a science fiction editor to serve as the basis for a planned “Lone Ranger”-style television series. Interested in the project (aka, the money) but worried that the show would suck, he decided to publish the novels under a pseudonym, so that any disappointed fans could blame this “Paul French” person instead of the reigning master of science fiction. The show was never realized, so in later editions Asimov allowed his real name to be associated with the series. If you were to read this novel (and the rest of the Lucky Starr books) without knowing Asimov as the author, however, you’d see Asimov’s wordy fingerprints all over them: the Three Laws are incorporated in Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter later in the series. David Starr, Space Ranger introduces the title character, a biophysicist with no family who has just acquired some professional credentials. While eating in a restaurant on Earth, David witnesses the death of another patron. After some investigation, he discovers that many more similar deaths have occurred recently, and that all the victims had eaten food grown on Mars. Determined to get to the bottom of things, he travels incognito to Mars in order to get work on a Martian farm, find out what’s going on and hopefully prevent any more deaths from happening. Though fun for young readers, older readers will enjoy it as well. Think of it as a science fiction nostalgia tour, and a possible source of inspiration for elements of SF that are considered essential today.