12 expansive hard sci-fi books like ‘The Three-Body Problem’

12 expansive hard sci-fi books like ‘The Three-Body Problem’

In Reading Lists by Emma Contreras

12 expansive hard sci-fi books like ‘The Three-Body Problem’

Imagining first contact between humanity and aliens isn’t a new trope in science fiction. But between 2023’s UFO congressional hearings and this year’s adaptation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem on Netflix (stylized 3 Body Problem), there’s no better time than the present to pick up a mind-bending book about extraterrestrial life.

You don’t need a degree in astrophysics (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt) to recognize that hard science fiction books like The Three-Body Problem (which kicks off the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series) are standout stars amongst a crowded field of space operas.

Building on foundations of real-life scientific and mathematical theories, these extraordinary hard sci-fi authors philosophize about where humanity’s advancements and limitations could lead. In their books, they create scenarios that are almost a little too realistic about what would happen if intergalactic species met. 

From classics like Carl Sagan’s Contact, to modern urban fantasies like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, the lines between science and fiction blur in these books similar to The Three-Body Problem

1. Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu

First up on our list of books similar to The Three-Body Problem is another work from Liu, one that predates the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series. This is sure to sate the thirst of the hardcore fans out there who want to dive even further into Liu’s universe (certain characters and plot points carry across the novels). 

Imagine you witness your parents spontaneously combust and die. You’d want answers, too, right? Chen’s life changes drastically the day an unexplained and rare phenomenon involving electrical fireballs and thunderstorms kills his parents. His relentless drive to uncover the science behind the tragedy sends him on a perilous and reality-bending knowledge journey. 

Ball Lightning contains all the emotional depth of The Three-Body Problem sans aliens. 

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2. The Redemption of Time by Baoshu 

What started as an unauthorized fanfiction paraquel to the canon Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is now an officially published work within Liu’s universe, given Liu’s explicit permission. 

Baoshu, a self-professed diehard Cixin Liu fan, initially posted this as a short story a week after Death’s End, the final books in Liu’s trilogy, published. Encouraged by the reception from fellow fans, he shaped it into a full-length novel that garnered widespread attention from readers and critics alike. Baoshu’s fresh reimagining of Liu’s world takes place in tandem with the events of Death’s End and features both new and familiar faces. 

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3. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Interested in the hard science and philosophical aspects of The Three-Body Problem? Give Stephenson’s amazing standalone speculative sci-fi novel a shot. 

Humanity has less than two years to prepare for a catastrophe that will render Earth uninhabitable for at least 5000 years. To preserve the human race, scientists construct a self-sustaining space habitat that will house a couple thousand survivors whose descendants will eventually return home to repopulate Earth. (You know, if things go according to plan…)

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4. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The most famous of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle interconnected books, The Left Hand of Darkness put her on the map as one of the best and brightest science fiction writers of our time. On top of picking up the Nebula Award, The Left Hand of Darkness also won the Hugo Award, like The Three-Body Problem would go on to do. 

In this superb work of sci-fi speculation, Le Guin explores the intersection of gender and politics, and reflects on what it means to be human.

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5. Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

At its core, this is a story about a group of young Martians returning to Mars after spending their teenage years on Earth. As they struggle to assimilate back on their home planet, they begin to question if Mars is truly the utopia they were led to believe. 

While some readers speculate that this is an allegory for the differences between the United States (hyper-capitalist market on Earth) and China (collectivist society on Mars), others see it as a broader examination of cultural identity and values. 

Renowned science fiction author Ken Liu translated both The Three-Body Problem and Vagabonds into English, giving the English market a glimpse at the sci-fi scene in China. 

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6. Eon by Greg Bear

A mysterious asteroid suddenly appears above Earth and nothing is as it seems. Inside of it, scientists discover the remnants of a vast civilization, along with dire warnings about a devastating catastrophe. Is it possible to save planet Earth? Or is it doomed to destruction?

From start to finish, Eon (the first in a series of the same name) is overwhelming in the best way possible. Twists and turns set against a tense Cold War backdrop build a suspenseful story that effortlessly weaves in complex mathematics, physics, and astrophysics. 


7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This is another first contact science fiction audiobook that knocks it out of this world. In Russell’s impressive, award-winning debut, two timelines converge to tell the story of a group of Jesuit missionaries who travel to space after picking up alien contact. 

In the present, a Vatican council is interrogating scientist Emilio Sandoz, who has been severely traumatized and shaken by his experiences in space. The past timeline details the events that lead up to contact with the alien planet, Rakhat. A sense of foreboding and doom builds as the voyage in the past marches on to a mysterious — but undoubtedly tragic — fate.

Just as much a psychological thriller as it is sci-fi, The Sparrow is a masterfully crafted exploration of faith, religion, and interplanetary connection. 

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8. Blindsight by Peter Watts

Like The Three-Body Problem, much of Blindsight’s plot revolves around dense, real-life neuroscience and mathematical concepts. But the similarities don’t end there: There’s also an element of cosmic horror that sets Watts’ unique dystopian first contact novel apart from others on this list.

A strange alien artifact sends a sweeping call from the edge of the galaxy. With no way to discern if it’s a friend or foe, a team of genetically engineered astronauts — including a member of a resurrected vampire race — go out to meet it. 

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Chiang is a sci-fi master capable of making the alien feel entirely human — his characters and worlds read like fantasy but feel like truth. Each story in this collection (which includes the titular “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration behind the movie Arrival) begs a momentary meditation on the meaning of life before reading the next tale.

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10. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

A pioneer of Africanfuturism and recipient of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, Okorafor has been heavily shaping the science fiction genre since entering the scene in the early 2000s. Lagoon continues her legacy, spinning a tale of water-loving marine aliens that choose to make first contact with humans in Nigeria. 

Mixed points of view from a trio of unlikely protagonists, as well as the perspectives of native creatures (including a tarantula, a bat, and a spider), paint a fascinating, terrifying vision of an alien invasion. Okorafor focuses on the culture of Lagos plus Nigerian mythology just as much as she does on the aliens themselves.


11. Contact by Carl Sagan

In what’s perhaps one of the most famous first contact science fiction novels ever, Sagan puts his extensive background in astrophysics to use to envision humanity’s search for extraterrestrial life. Through the eyes of scientist Ellie Arroway, Sagan explores the implications and consequences of contact with alien life (which seem entirely realistic, given Sagan’s scientific training) while also raising questions of skepticism, faith, and humanity’s role in the wider universe. 

Contact was adapted into the award-winning 1997 film starring Jodie Foster. (It actually originated as a screenplay before Sagan converted it into a novel). 

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12. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Maybe you only heard about The Three-Body Problem thanks to the Netflix adaptation. Or maybe you’re a diehard science fiction fan who’s already read everything on this list. Either way, it’s worth (re)reading Liu’s breakout hit. 

Starting in 1967 but spanning decades, Liu’s world-renowned trilogy opener blends sci-fi, mystery, and political commentary to stunning effect. The tightly wound plot covers everything from alien invasion to China’s Cultural Revolution in a labyrinth of shocking reveals.

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About the Author: Emma Contreras

Emma is an Everand booklist curator and a freelance content marketing writer covering finance, business leadership, and B2B SaaS communications.