The Best Fiction Books » Romance

The Best Sci-Fi Romance Novels

recommended by Natasha Pulley

The Mars House by Natasha Pulley

The Mars House
by Natasha Pulley


Sci fi opens up new possibilities for romance stories, unconstrained by social reality. It’s an exciting time for the genre, says Natasha Pulley, bestselling author of The Mars House. Through her five contemporary favourites, she explores how human emotion – including romantic love and friendship – elevates the best sci-fi novels, creating stories with realism and depth.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

The Mars House by Natasha Pulley

The Mars House
by Natasha Pulley

Buy all books

What is special about the blend of sci fi and romance?

I think one reason they blend so well is that you can showcase relationships that are either not in existence yet in our current world, or very unusual, and put them in a context where they’re completely normal. For me, that’s the great strength of sci fi. There’s a wonderful book at the moment – which is not on my list! – The Principle of Moments, and it’s exactly that: it’s a Regency queer romance, but in a sci-fi setting where it is entirely normal to have a queer Regency romance. I think it’s that normalising power that makes it so wonderful. That’s a great force for all sorts of inclusivity, for making people feel as though there is a place for them and they belong.

The other side of that is, what does romance bring to sci fi? One of the difficulties that science fiction has faced historically is that it can feel very clockwork and very cold. It often seems, to people who don’t read a vast span of it – and I forgive people, if this is not what they spend their life doing! – as if it’s all got to be very austere captains in grey chairs on grey starships, looking at grey worlds. But there’s so much more depth and emotion and joy to it than that.

Really great science fiction will show you the full span of human emotion, as well as some extraordinary technological or societal development that we’ve not yet seen in our ordinary world. I think if you can overlay that beautiful spectrum of human emotion over the extraordinary development, you make it feel much more realistic by proxy. So I think that’s what romance really brings to it – because what are humans, if not hopeless romantics.

Could you introduce your first book, Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché?

Prophet is the first one on my list because I just think it’s so extraordinary. I’d never heard anything like it before! It opens with the most wonderful scene: an American diner has appeared in a field in the south of England overnight, for no apparent reason. Two people who are involved with the CIA are brought over from a nearby American airbase in order to investigate what this might be; they think it might be something to do with the airbase, but they’ve honestly got no idea. And when they come close to the diner, they realise that it’s not a real diner – it looks like one but there’s stuff in it that doesn’t work, everything looks a little bit wrong. After this instance, other things start appearing all over the place: objects, places, even animals. And it’s really intriguing.

But what’s really wonderful about it are the two main characters. One of them is a very austere ex-soldier type, who uses words like ‘sub-optimal’. The other one has what he cheerfully describes as a ‘terrorist beard’, and gets into fights for fun, and is on an amazing rainbow of drugs. He just has a ridiculous time in life – but he has a gift, which is to understand when he’s being told the truth, and to understand when he’s being told a lie. It’s like something goes clunk in his head, and he knows that’s the truth.

They have to work together, and they’ve got this very interesting history. And of course they’re falling in love, and it’s just beautifully romantic. It’s really very, very different from anything else I’ve seen, so it had to go on the list.

So it’s equal parts sci fi, mystery and romance?

Yeah, it’s definitely a big blend! The best books are though, right?

I feel like we’re seeing more of it, which is exciting.

I think it’s what happens to genres. If you look at genres that are quite old – take Gothic, which has been around for nearly 200 years –  the way it started out and the way it is now are really different. But there is still this recognisable Gothicy-ness to it. Science fiction isn’t a lot newer than the Gothic – we start seeing it just after – but I think we’re just seeing those natural fluxes and permutations that keep genres alive. If they stay static, they die.

Prophet is often described as an odd couple romance. Do you have a favourite romance ‘trope’ – if you’d use that term…?

I really like enemies to lovers. Of course, it’s a massive trope – but it’s a trope because it really works a lot of the time. When we talk about tropes, it’s really important to draw a line between archetype and stereotype; and I think enemies to lovers is actually an archetypal trope, rather than a stereotypical trope, because it has infinite variety. You can apply it to different things again and again, and it will be recognisable – which is often quite important in a story – but it will feel fresh at the same time.

We’ve talked about why the couple in Prophet shouldn’t be together – why should they be together?

They’re the only people who understand each other. They’re both very strange people, particularly the man who understands the truth. Obviously, his difficulty is that nobody can lie to him. The difficulty that the other guy has is that he’s almost incapable of lying to anybody ever. This equally sabotages him – it’s a lovely fit.

Tell us about your second choice, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. 

This one is probably one of the most famous on my list, and it’s also one of my favourites – I’ve read it three times, I think it’s wonderful. It’s not a romance – it’s about friendship, and this is part of our theme of bringing human emotions to sci fi.

The setup is that a new thing has been discovered that eats stars, and it’s been discovered in our sun, in the very near future. At first this doesn’t seem like a huge problem, but then it very much is. Scientists, including the main character, realise that the sun is going to go out unless they can find a way to kill these things – they’re called astrophages, a very cool name.

The book opens with the main character, Ryland, waking up from a stasis sleep on a ship with no idea who he is or how he’s got there. Again, it’s one of those old tropes, but it really works. As with all Andy Weir’s characters, he’s really funny and he responds to terrible bad luck and confusion with this endless good cheer, which I would love to imagine that I would have in similar situations – but I wouldn’t. I’d be a weeping heap in the corner and die, instead of solving mathematical equations with equanimity like he does.

“Great science fiction will show you the full span of human emotion”

The great friendship in this story is between Ryland who is from Earth, and this fantastic alien character called Rocky, who is like a geological space spider. He’s this big thing of rock, from a superheated world. He is also from a civilization that is suffering from the effects of these things that eat stars, and he’s also on a mission to try and find a solution to it. He communicates with a kind of music – he sings. It’s utterly engaging, the way they learn to communicate and how they get on. And how little culture clash there is, because they’re both engineers, is just so uplifting and wonderful.

It’s also got the best ending of any sci-fi book I’ve ever read. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it’s brilliant.

So does Rocky get any dialogue as such? Or is it all Ryland’s interpretation?

He gets dialogue – quite quickly, the narrator manages to understand what he’s saying, and they both become more and more fluent. So we get transcript of what Rocky says.

Temporarily putting aside the giant spider thing… I’m very intrigued and pleased by the inclusion of a friendship on the list! Do you think there’s a meaningful difference between telling a friendship story and a romance story? 

I don’t think there’s a meaningful difference between telling the stories, but I think there is a very great difference in the readership for those stories. When people are looking for a book to read, they often have something very specific in mind; they want something to make them feel a certain way. Reading friendship versus reading quite steamy romance makes you feel very differently, depending on your state of mind.

But to write, these things actually play out very similarly. They have their narrative arcs, and you have to build up the relationship in the same way, almost exactly. In fact, the trajectory is identical up to the point that it becomes romance. So to write these are really similar; to read, I think that the perspective is hugely different.

That’s fascinating. It feels very revealing of modern thinking, that in novels the structure of developing friendship and developing romance are basically the same… Returning to romance now, could you introduce your third choice: The Wall by John Lanchester?

The Wall is very different from the first two books. It’s a near-future dystopia where the seas have risen, and there is now a very high wall that’s been built around what remains of the UK. Everyone in their 20s has to do a couple of years of national service on the wall, doing guard duty. They’re trying to keep out what they call ‘the others’, which means immigrants. They do endless drills, and sometimes the real thing happens, and people arrive with boats and machine guns trying to get into the country, and they have to fight back. They’re sent out on a ship if they fail.

The book follows a very ordinary narrator, a young man, as he comes to the wall for the first time. It’s a really simple concept, but the way it’s told is absolutely incredible. I think there are very few people who would manage to wring poetry out of a big concrete wall, but John Lanchester definitely does. I absolutely inhaled that book.

Makes me think of the wonderful opening about a wall in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed! The Wall is a near-future setting, and deals with real pressing concerns. You talked about humanising sci fi – that seems urgent, when discussing these problems…

Yes! So one of the many things that happens to our young narrator when he reaches the wall, is he falls fairly slowly in love with another of the people serving. She’s just an ordinary person as well. So this is not one of those odd couple romances, this isn’t enemies to lovers; this is actually quite a gentle relationship. But by the end of the novel, it’s what’s keeping him going – they are the only things keeping each other afloat. The relationship is vital to the book.

On a broader note, it’s always really interesting when you see science fiction done in the first person, which this is, and so is Project Hail Mary. It gets right back to the roots of where sci fi comes from, if you study this at university – or if you have the misfortune to teach it! One of the first sci-fi texts we recognise as such, even though the author wouldn’t have used the term, is Frankenstein – a first-person text. It all comes back to first-person accounts: this is what it was like for me. I think that’s a great thing. Those early writers were selling you the weird sci-fi Gothic concept as personal testimony. This is what HG Wells often does, as well. We’re seeing this return to first person now, which is really amazing – you’re inviting a showcasing of these really personal relationships, really personal experiences, in a way that people like Isaac Asimov are not in novels like Foundation.

In your own book, The Mars House, you write in close third person – and explore similar concerns about refuge and rights in times of scarcity. Could you tell us about it?

Oh, yes right, my book!

Ha, can you remember what happens?

Can I remember writing it at all? Ok, so… The Mars House follows a very unlucky man called January, who begins the novel as a lucky person. He is the principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London about 250 years from now. Unluckily, London is sinking and, at the beginning of the novel, it finally sinks – it is sunken, pluperfect. And he ends up as a climate refugee in the only place that is open to refugees and is safe at the same time: a new colony on Mars called Tharsis. He really struggles, because the gravity on Mars is only 1/3 of Earth, so people who are from Earth are kept very segregated from people who are born on Mars. It’s like having Superman visit, he could hurt people by accident. This is very difficult. There are big cultural differences, and social differences as well – they’ve abolished gender. So there’s a lot for him to get used to.

One of the ways that all these issues get explored in the book is through – surprise, surprise – a central romance. January – through various mechanisms that will read convincingly I hope! – ends up in an arranged marriage to a fire-breathing nationalist, a local senator who doesn’t think that immigration should exist at all. And this arranged marriage plays out live on a reality show that is broadcast across the city.

There are so many issues at play in the book – was it sparked by one central concern?

There were lots of things… I think over the last five years, there’s been an awful lot in the news that is making a lot of us angry. Whether it is the increasing toxicity of the trans debate, whether it is anything to do with the LGBTQIA community, whether it’s women’s rights, whether it is immigration… And I sat back one morning and thought, if we could all hate each other a little bit less, and just sit down and have a normal conversation about this, like normal people, we could get somewhere. I wanted to enforce two people from opposite sides having a conversation.

So January is a penniless working-class refugee. He is Earthstrong. He is obviously a man. He is married to an immensely glamorous tech billionaire who owns the energy source of a planet, who is seven feet tall, Mandarin speaking and gender neutral. They are not going to get along, they don’t at the start. But the whole point is that they find a way to it. And the way they find to it is just a really basic principle, which is chivalry, which is just ‘recognise when you’re strong’. That was what I came out with, in the end – there’s a simple answer to this, and we’ve known it time out of mind, let’s apply it.

Both main characters have different kinds of strength… 

Exactly. One of the things that I was really interested in was kinds of strength. And I think often at the moment, particularly with the really toxic trans debate, there’s a great focus on physical strength: could this person technically hurt me? Yes, but there are other kinds of strength as well –  there is psychological strength, there is soft power, there is money, there is status. How many followers do you have on Twitter, for example? What power does that give you? A great deal! January is a representative of physical strength – he’s a dancer, he has to be strong to be who he is. His partner, whose name is Gail, they are a genius. And they are immensely wealthy, and well born into a hugely influential family. So they have a great deal of power, but it’s a very different kind of power. And it’s about the way that the two of them marry those kinds of power.

Your next novel is Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood – the oldest novel on this very contemporary list. Could you introduce us?

Yes, Oryx and Crake came out in 2003 – so it’s much newer than The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a really strange novel, but again, it’s on my list because I’ve never seen anything like it. The words in the title, they’re animals, but they actually refer to people. One of them, Crake, is a scientist, a genetic engineer; and essentially, he’s a sort of evil villain character. He’s really, really interesting. He engineers a great pandemic, which wipes out most of the world. And he is in a relationship with this very ethereal woman, who we never really get to know very well, who is known as Oryx.

It’s a difficult book to summarise, because it’s very hallucinatory and weird! Every aspect of it is brighter than life, somehow. The basic plot follows a man who in the narrative present is called the Snowman, and he lives in a post-apocalyptic world. He’s surrounded by these very innocent humans who seem a lot like the Eloi in The Time Machine by HG Wells, but he calls them the Crakers – which gives you a clue about who made them. They’re just very simple, very innocent, quick, cheerful people; and he’s really the only old-style human, who seems to survive and thrive while he’s spending his time with them. He narrates what has happened to the world; and what has happened to the world, step-by-very-slow-step, is Crake and Oryx, who they venerate.

So, it’s a weird dystopian apocalypse story, and so many of the themes seem really prescient. In the before times, the world is dominated by super-rich mega-companies. Anyone who’s middle-class and upwards works for them, and they live in compounds that keep them safe from the real world. It’s in one of these compounds that Crake works. It’s very, very dark; both of these men, Snowman and Crake, are not good men. They’re really, really not. They do terrible things. And it’s from this immensely dysfunctional friendship, and their love triangle with Oryx, that the new world is born.

We don’t get to know Oryx particularly well. Are we invested in their love triangle?

We are invested in the love triangle, but it’s incredibly dark… I would say most of the books on this list are just about joy. This book is not about joy, at all. Parts of it are really nasty. Take the way they meet Oryx – they see her first in child pornography. And Crake, through weird means, hires her to look after the new humans that he’s made, to be their teacher, but to be a prostitute as well. She has a different relationship with the narrator, Snowman… So it is a really important central relationship, but it’s poisonous. This is the opposite of the joyful kind of romance that can really illuminate sci fi. This is the darkest, nastiest kind of relationship that you can imagine. And it’s that grit and that horror that informs the birth of this new world, and ironically, the innocence of the Crakers.

Let’s talk about your last choice: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.

The Bone Season is Samantha Shannon’s first book. It’s a really intriguing kind of science fiction: it’s an alternate present, derived from a different history in the 19th century. We end up with this very alluring, strange version of the present, where people are often born with different kinds of magic. But if you have the wrong kinds of talents, you’re often arrested and sent to Oxford, which is run by very strange supernatural beings, one of whom is called the Warden. Wardens are what Oxford colleges have instead of headmasters. He’s a magnetic figure. A young writer meets him quite early on and is deeply unimpressed; she’s been imprisoned and sent to this centre, this penal colony essentially, that is Oxford in this alternate version of now.

It’s one of those lovely slow-burn romances where you think, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t – oh, this is really bad.” A kind of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, where you’re thinking, he’s not a good guy – but he might be…? So it’s really captivating, partly because of that quality, and partly because of the length and breadth of the changes that we see in this alternate future.

And the main sci-fi element is psychic powers, right…?

Yes! People can all do very different things. It feels like a really sophisticated version of X-Men.

This is a very contemporary list, with a lot of recent releases. It feels like an exciting time for sci-fi romance fans!

Yes, definitely. Proper romance has only really recently been incorporated into science fiction. You can contest this, but I think that until this century, romance wasn’t altogether what science fiction was for. I think it was often for the exploration of the great social or technological change that goes through each story. It’s only more recently that lots of writers have said, “You know what, readers know about the technological change. They know about the charting of societal change. We can do other stuff as well now, and it’s going to work.” I think it’s really fascinating that lately we see this return to first-person narrators, which seemed to go out of fashion for a while. We see these lovely grand romances and the hugely toxic romances that you find in Margaret Atwood novels. It is all there – layers of stacked human emotion – and I really think it’s powering through.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

May 6, 2024

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley is a British author. Her books include The Mars House, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks. An international bestseller, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award, the Locus Awards, and remained on the Sunday Times bestseller list for much of summer 2016. The Bedlam Stacks was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and shortlisted for the Encore Award. The Mars House, a sci fi romance, is her latest novel.

Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley is a British author. Her books include The Mars House, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks. An international bestseller, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award, the Locus Awards, and remained on the Sunday Times bestseller list for much of summer 2016. The Bedlam Stacks was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and shortlisted for the Encore Award. The Mars House, a sci fi romance, is her latest novel.