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15 great sci-fi books to read before they become TV shows

Sci-fi stories have always been fertile ground for television series, and there’s a long list of adaptations currently in various stages of development or production. From Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23 to Larry Niven’s Ringworld, there’s something for everyone on its way to the small screen. (Of course, there are lots of sci-fi books being turned into movies, too.)

If you want to get a glimpse of the future, you can start reading some of those books right now. That’s why we’ve put together a list of some of the best sci-fi stories currently being adapted for TV.

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel’s 2014 novel hits close to home with its story of a theater troupe navigating a pandemic-ravaged world where most of the population has died off due to a deadly variant of the swine flu. Set around the Great Lakes region of the U.S., the award-winning book chronicles the lives of the troupe in the years following the pandemic and their efforts to preserve some of the art and culture that once defined human civilization.

In October 2019, HBO Max announced plans to adapt Mandel’s novel into a 10-episode miniseries, with Guava Island and Atlanta director Hiro Murai attached to helm the project. Novelist and The Leftovers screenwriter Patrick Somerville serves as showrunner and writer on the adaptation, with Mackenzie Davis and Himesh Patel starring in the series. After filming was delayed due to the real-world COVID-19 pandemic, production on the series concluded in July. No premiere date has been announced yet.

Wool

By Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey’s self-published e-book was a surprise hit when it debuted in 2012, and it went on to spawn a multi-novel series known as the Silo franchise that included several prequel stories and spinoffs. The series follows the residents of a massive subterranean city that extends 144 stories down into the surface of the Earth. With the outside world rendered toxic to humanity, the residents of the silo deal with the struggles of an uncertain future beneath the world they once walked and a strict governing body with little tolerance for free thought.

Apple TV+ has put together an impressive cast for a series adaptation of Howey’s Wool, with Academy Award winner Tim Robbins and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible — Fallout actress Rebecca Ferguson attached to star in the show. Robbins and Ferguson will play the silo’s head of IT, Bernard, and the intrepid engineer who begins to question the silo’s hierarchy, Juliette, respectively. Justified creator Graham Yost was hired to pen the scripts for the series, with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) directing the show’s episodes. There’s no word on when the series will premiere at this point.

Paper Girls

By Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

This clever sci-fi comic book series written by Y: The Last Man scribe Brian K. Vaughan follows a group of 12-year-old girls whose newspaper-delivering job takes a bizarre twist when their small Cleveland town gets caught up in a war between rival factions of time-traveling invaders. The series ran for 30 issues, debuting in 2015 and concluding in July 2019.

The same month the series wrapped up, Amazon Studios won a bidding war for the rights to adapt the comic for television, with Toy Story 4 co-writer Stephany Folsom and Christopher C. Rogers (Halt and Catch Fire) attached to co-showrun the series. The announced cast so far includes Ali Wong, Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Riley Lai Nelet, and Fina Strazza. The series is expected to begin filming in Chicago this year.

Autonomous

By Annalee Newitz

This novel was released in 2017 and written by Annalee Newitz, the co-founder of sci-fi website io9. The story takes place in the year 2144 and follows Jack, a scientist-turned-pirate who attempts to offer patented medical solutions to suffering people but runs into a severe issue when one of the medicines has fatal side effects. As a result, he is pursued worldwide by two agents (one human and one robot), who try to track him down and stop the drug’s secret from being showcased to the world. 

In November 2018, AMC optioned the book, intending to turn it into a full-fledged television series. Newitz co-wrote a pilot episode with screenwriter and producer Amanda Segel (Person of Interest, Nikita).

Hyperion

By Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ mind-bending, time-twisting saga follows a group of seven people in the far-flung future who are chosen for a pilgrimage to the enigmatic Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion in the midst of a galactic war. They know that one of the travelers is a spy for the enemy, and that the tombs — strange monuments that appear to be traveling backward in time — are guarded by the terrifying, metallic Shrike.

That’s the basic synopsis of Hyperion, the first novel in Simmons’ award-winning saga, and its fans include actor Bradley Cooper of The Hangover fame. Cooper was reported to be working with Syfy to adapt the saga as an “event series” — basically, an extended miniseries — with Boardwalk Empire writer Itamar Moses penning the script. There’s no word on how far along the project is at this point, but the adaptation was first announced back in 2015, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it will eventually find its way to television.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams

Already the subject of a critically acclaimed, BBC-produced TV series, a 2005 live-action film, a radio play, and even a text-based computer game, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is widely regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever written, penned by one of the most talented writers in modern literature. The story follows average human Arthur Dent, whose very bad day gets exponentially worse when he — along with the rest of the planet’s inhabitants — learns that Earth is being destroyed by an alien fleet to make room for a cosmic traffic lane. Things only get weirder from that point on, as he’s whisked away on a galaxy-hopping adventure by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be a travel writer from a far-off planet who got himself stuck on Earth during his most recent assignment.

Hulu announced plans for yet another adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in July 2019, with veteran TV producer Carlton Cuse (Lost, Locke & Key) and writer Jason Fuchs (Wonder Woman) attached to write, executive produce, and showrun the series together. Fuchs was expected to pen the pilot episode’s script, with production expected to begin in 2020, but the pandemic has reportedly pushed back the studio’s schedule for the show, with no premiere date announced at this point.

Beacon 23

By Hugh Howey

This 2015 story from Wool author Hugh Howey was released in a five-part, serialized format and later collected into a complete novel. It tells the story of a former soldier in the 23rd century who is tasked with manning a lighthouse beacon in deep space that’s intended to guide spaceships across the universe — in much the same way lighthouses once guided sailing ships on Earth. When the beacon fails, he must confront his own demons to prevent a disaster.

The television rights to Beacon 23 were acquired in April 2016 by Studio 8, with The Sarah Connor Chronicles creator and Avatar 3 screenwriter Josh Friedman attached to write and produce a series based on Howey’s novel. As of October 2018, however, the series is now being developed for Charter Communications’ Spectrum Originals studio, with Ready Player One and The Avengers screenwriter Zak Penn adapting Howey’s novel.

The Sirens of Titan

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The second novel from acclaimed sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Sirens of Titan sends the richest, most privileged man in 22nd century Earth on an interplanetary journey of self-discovery as a war between Earth and Mars looms. The adventures of protagonist Malachi Constant serve as an exploration of the nature of free will, among other philosophical concepts, and the value of human history.

Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon and Small Crimes writer Evan Katz are adapting Sirens of Titan for television, with Harmon citing Vonnegut’s work as a major influence on his own sci-fi storytelling. The involvement of Harmon and Katz was first announced in July 2017, and that was the most recent update on the project.

3001: The Final Odyssey

By Arthur C. Clarke

The fourth and final installment of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series that began with 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this 1997 novel circles back to the saga’s roots for its concluding chapter. The story brings back the protagonist of 2001, Frank Poole, and continues to explore the nature of humanity’s origin and relationship to the mysterious monoliths created by the even-more-mysterious space- and time-traversing entities known as the “Firstborn.”

Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 film based on 2001 is widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made, so it’s no surprise that the final chapter of the series has been the subject of development rumors ever since 3001 was published. In 2014, Syfy announced plans for a miniseries based on 3001 with Ridley Scott attached as a producer, but other than a brief mention of it as “in development” in 2016, there’s been no update since the initial announcement.

The Three-Body Problem

By Liu Cixin

The first novel in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Three-Body Problem is set in a universe where the population of Earth is anxiously anticipating an invasion by the inhabitants of another Earth-like planet discovered in a nearby solar system. The inhabitants of the Earth-like planet have suffered an endless cycle of destruction as their planet’s orbit shifts between the three stars in their system, and they intend to invade Earth to create a more stable civilization. The novel was the first Asian work of literature to win the prestigious Hugo Award as the year’s best novel.

In September, Netflix announced that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will develop an adaptation of The Three-Body Problem for the streaming service. The pair will serve as writers and executive producers on the adaptation along with Alexander Woo (The Terror: Infamy). Star Wars: The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson will also serve as an executive producer on the series, along with Brad Pitt and Rosamund Pike. There’s no word yet on a premiere date for the series.

Dawn

By Octavia Butler

The first book in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Dawn is set 250 years after nuclear war has wiped out most of the human race. The story follows a woman who wakes up aboard an alien spacecraft and learns that she is one of the few remaining humans in the universe — having lost both her husband and son to the war — and must now help her alien saviors resurrect the human race.

In February 2020, Amazon Studios announced it had partnered with Ava DuVernay to bring Dawn to the screen as a new, exclusive series. Victoria Mahoney, second unit director on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, was attached to both write the series and direct the pilot.

Gateway

By Frederik Pohl

In the award-winning Frederik Pohl Heechee saga, Gateway, we see humanity’s attempts to inspect an alien space station exposed on an asteroid. The humans proceed to try and figure out how to use the alien technology, resulting in consistent and perilous trial-and-error experimentation (which led to sequels). The characters seek to learn the station’s capabilities and the political consequences of discovering a technological motherload for mankind. 

In August 2015, Syfy released an announcement stating that they were planning on developing Gateway as a one-hour scripted series. This series would feature popular actors David Eick from Battlestar Galactica and Josh Pate from Falling Skies as executive producers. The plan was for Eick to act as the series showrunner. However, we haven’t heard any updates since then, so we’re unsure of the current status.

Ringworld

By Larry Niven

This 1970 novel follows a man living on Earth in 2850 A.D. who decides — mostly out of boredom — to join an expedition to a mysterious, ring-shaped vessel discovered beyond the boundaries of known space. Niven’s novel spawned four sequels and four prequels, and also inspired future sci-fi storytellers in various media to use similar, ring-shaped megastructures in their tales, including the “Halo Array” in the Halo video game series.

Initially picked up by Syfy for development as a television series, Ringworld was later shifted to Amazon Studios with screenwriter and producer Akiva Goldsman attached to develop the adaptation. The series was one of several sci-fi projects the studio picked up for its streaming video platform, and in May 2020, producer Goldsman announced that Game of Thrones and The Sopranos director Alan Taylor will direct the pilot. The precise production timeline remains unknown, however.

Luna: New Moon

By Ian McDonald

Set 50 years after the colonization of the moon, Luna: New Moon chronicles the machinations and intrigue of the moon’s five ruling families as they battle for control. Known as “The Five Dragons,” the five dynasties sabotage, poison, marry, and backstab each other in a constant struggle to increase their influence over the feudal society that has developed on the lunar surface.

Ian McDonald’s novel has frequently been described as “Game of Thrones on the moon,” so it’s no surprise it was the subject of an intense bidding war for the adaptation rights. CBS Television won that war in 2015 and tasked writer-producer Shane Brennan (NCIS) with developing it for television.

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

Hiro Protagonist is a part-time pizza delivery guy and full-time hacker in this 1992 cyberpunk classic that has Hiro and his pal Y.T. (Yours Truly) navigating a future world in which the government has ceded control to criminal organizations and massive corporations. When Hiro comes into possession of a dangerous data file, he soon finds himself at the center of a mystery with implications for both the real world and the Metaverse, a virtual-reality internet where coding ability is power.

In August 2017, Amazon Studios announced that it planned to turn Stephenson’s novel into a drama series for its streaming video platform, but the project eventually found its way to HBO Max. As of December 2019, the adaptation of Snow Crash is expected to be written by Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) and directed by Attack the Block filmmaker Joe Cornish. Angela Robinson (The L Word) will serve as co-showrunner on the series with Bacall.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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