Science Fiction (and Fantasy) Books I Read in 2015
When I was growing up in the 1970s, my mother kept her important books on a built in bookcase in our dining room, but she kept her science fiction and fantasy books on a wire shelf in the kitchen. That shelf meant a lot to me. Lots of people read science fiction when they’re young, but most people I know grow out of it. I never have, and to this day, for pleasure I almost exclusively read Science Fiction with the occasional Fantasy thrown in. This has had a significant impact on my life — I remember feeling a sense of gratitude and relief for the 2001 volume of the Year’s Best Science Fiction Stories, which I devoured the week after 9/11 because all of the stories were about a future that existed.
I love my Kindle, mostly, I think, because it allows me to read all my books in large print for the sake of my poor eyesight. Another fun feature is that all the books I’ve purchased since I got the Kindle show up in my Amazon cloud. The other day I was searching back through the list and it occurred to me that I read a fair amount this year, so yay! me. Combine that with the fact that I’ve also been wanting to write more, and in particular try out Medium, and bob’s your uncle.
So here goes. I’d be thrilled to answer any questions or discuss any of these books with anyone, so please comment if you feel so moved.
The Just City by Jo Walton. The goddess Pallas Athena decides to create a city-state based on Plato’s Republic. Children are taken from up and down the timeline and moved to an island destined to be destroyed by volcanic eruption. Seriously one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I can’t recommend it enough. It doesn’t hurt that I was raised by a philosopher — my mother, and the person most responsible for this quirky reading habit of mine.
Luna: New Moon by Ian MacDonald. I’m a huge fan of MacDonald’s, since reading his first novel, Desolation Road, in 1988. And he’s been on an incredible hot streak over the last decade, starting with 2004's River of Gods, and his latest does not disappoint. Set in a thriving libertarian moon colony where the only law is contract law (one of several nods to Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress), MacDonald spins a multi-generational, multiple POV story of a political and economic power struggle amongst four families (a.k.a. Dragons), who have made incredible fortunes in their respective niches. The main protaganists are the Cortado family, originally from Brazil, who mine the mooon’s regolith for Helium 3, which they send to earth to power our overpopulated future. There are so many characters, the book includes a score card and a glossary. As multiple reviewers have noted, MacDonald takes a good while introducing us to a long list of characters and the lunar society they inhabit before taking off like a rocket. I was near breathless by the end of the book and eagerly await the planned sequel.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. This was an interesting read, but fell a bit short for me. The hero is a young woman, nicknamed Wasp, from a small village atop the decaying remains of an advanced civilization. Wasp is an Archivist, although no one seems to understand the origin of the word, who performs ritual cleansing of ghosts, the remains of people who died long ago. Wasp does become a fully fleshed out character, but the premise isn’t that new, and the story doesn’t really bother to explain too much about the old world, which might be good, but it left me feeling a little meh.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu. So, Chinese science fiction is a thing. I mean, of course it is, but up until very recently we’ve had virtually no access via translations of what’s going on there. The Three Body Problem changes all that. The story starts with events set during the Cultural Revolution — and somehow reading a Chinese author’s version of that depressing piece of history is much more evocative than even the most well-researched attempts of outsiders. The meat of the story is a worst case First Contact story. The aliens find out about us and they are not cool at all with sharing the universe with the likes of us. Being more advanced, they set about to fuck us royally, but instead of sending big ugly spaceships a la Independence Day, they use some ingenious physics. The mechanics and plot of this book keep you guessing right up until the end. It’s fantastic, cerebral stuff that comes across in clean, simple language, a neat trick I think. I can’t wait to read more.
My mom wanted to know if I’d read Station Eleven by by Emily St. John Mandel, because it was recommended by her best friend, who is more likely to be hosting a meeting of the Jane Austen book club than slumming it in the science fiction section. It’s easy to see why this book has gotten attention from the literary types, the writing is first rate. Near future and post apocalyptic, the story alternates chapters between the unfolding events of a devastating plague that wipes out 99% of humanity and telling the story of survivors in the new world, as it slowly pieces itself back together. Many of these chapters focus on a traveling theatrical troupe that is equally comfortable putting on a production of Midsummer Nights Dream as they are whipping out guns and knives and defending themselves against savages. Honestly, the big showdown ending, which the book takes it’s sweet time setting up (filling the reader with creepy dread) is a bit of a let down as things are settled almost perfunctorily. Maybe that’s part of the point?
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. This is really two books, and the nearest comparison I can draw is if Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead were joined together in a single edition. The first part of the book is amazing. Like the Martian only bigger and scarier. The moon blows up, and that will spell death for everyone on Earth. All of a sudden humanity has to throw everything it has into creating a space colony based on the ISS that can keep humanity alive for thousands of years. The second part is… different. It takes place 5,000 years later, when we get to find out how it all worked out. Overall, an important book by one of the best novelists working in the field. I don’t hold the fact that it didn’t quite all work together against it, as I’m pretty dazzled by the ambition of what was attempted.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I liked Seveneves so much that I immediately followed it up with Anathem. Now I’ve read almost everything by Stephenson except Reamde and Zodiac. For some reason this novel just turned me off when it first came out, but after Seveneves I was really in the mood for more, so I picked this up (loaded it down?) and honestly, it’s a really great book. With major nods to sci-fi classics Canticle for Lebowitz, Shadow of the Torturer and the Glass Bead Game, Anathem tells the story of a global order of monks, who, over the course of Millenia have come to live in a non-technological life-of-the-mind, which has been designed to last through the long centuries of decay and barbarism that pass by in the world outside it’s gates. The first third is very, very slow paced, focusing mostly on the coming of age of a young novice, and bringing the reader up to speed on this bizarre, yet weirdly believable world. Then things change, and it’s definitely for the better. Your patience will be rewarded.
Leviathans War, Caliban Wakes and Abbadon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey. I’ve wanted to read these for a while, and the fact The Expanse, (which based on this trilogy), has debuted as a series on SyFy this winter gave me the impetus. This is classic space opera, taking place in a far future where humanity has expanded to live out in the solar system. Earth and Mars are the system’s main economic/political/military powers, although most of the action takes place in the space stations, ships and habitats among “the Belters,” because you know, they live out there. The characters and plot pacing are quite fine — these are page turners! — but they are not hard science fiction, so you have to be ok with some iffy science, and the bizarre fact that Corey’s prose when describing majestic and strange alien technology can be pedestrian.
Up Against It by M. J. Locke. This appeared on a random list of top-cyberpunk novels, and since I’d never heard of it I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did. A budding asteroid colony suffers a resource catastrophe, which means careful management or everyone will have to abandon the colony. Oh yeah, and there’s a just-born AI to deal with as well. Solid pacing, fun story and decent characters made for an enjoyable, if light, read.
The Martian by Andy Weir. I loved this fast paced sciencey drama with its now-famous light touch. I wanted to read the book before the movie came out. (I loved the movie, too.)
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. Like almost every sci-fi reader, I’ve been a big fan of Liu’s short fiction for many years, and I was thrilled to pick up his first full-length novel, even if it was clearly fantasy. (But hey, it’s Liu. His short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” was the first to win the triple-crown of science fiction awards (the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy) in a single year. Grace of Kings is a marvelous example of world building with a fully fleshed-out mythology, history and endless culture. The story really moves along, too. This is epic stuff, done very well.
The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. I really loved Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych, so I was eager to see what came next. This is good solid alternate history — the Dutch Empire learns the alchemical art of creating “mechanical men” and rule Europe and half of North America, where their superiority is only challenged by the remnants of the French monarchy living in exile in the New World. Tregellis creates strong characterizations and dives deeply into the meaning of free will. But the fact that I haven’t rushed to pick up the second volume tells me there is something just not as compelling about this story. Maybe comparisons to the brilliant Milkweed Triptych are unfair. I’m sure I’ll pick up the second book in the new year.
Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. 2014's Ancillary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards — hot stuff. The first book in this trilogy obviously can stand alone, while books 2 and 3 felt more like a two-parter. In that respect I don’t think they worked as well. They’re pretty darn great, however. The plot moves along with a dizzying array of characters and factions — there are planetary hicks, jaded space station elites, military and religious types, not to mention ship and station AIs. Our protagonist used to be a single human instrument for a ship, aka an Ancillary (So she was a ship, and she sings… hmmm) and is now a fully individual captain who gets to helm another ship. Also, the only pronoun used is she, or it — at first I was like “wow, all lesbians” before I realized that I was just projecting my own gender hangups on Ms. Leckie’s characters.
Evenings Empires, Life After Wartime and Stories from the Quiet War by Paul Mcauley. I enjoyed Mcauley’s Quiet War, and I’ve slowly been reading everything else he’s written in the same universe, It’s far future, colonizing the solar system stuff. What makes the colonization possible is the contribution of “gene wizards” who bioengineer organisms that thrive in vacumn, to process raw materials, collect energy, filter biomes etc etc. The original story chronicles the conflict between the colonies and Earth, and the rest of the stories exist around this long arc. The focus is on rich descriptions of far flung human habitation, out among the raw beauty and magnificence of the solar system. Evenings Empire is a stand alone novel, that takes place a long time after the events of the first book and is a solid read on it’s own, but I still recommend start with Quiet War, because I think it introduces the system and sets up the other elements nicely.
Forging Zero, Zero’s Return and Zero Recall by Sara King. This is a series of novels by an online bootstrapped author like Hugh Howley of Wool fame. The books have great reviews on Amazon and I got some kind of deal on the first one and decided to take a change. Military Space Opera, not normally my thing, but these are guilty pleasures for me like a box of See’s Nuts and Chews (to be devoured quickly and alone and not talked about afterwards). We follow our Hero Zero as he is conscripted into the alien empire’s military system, which is how all the newly discovered species are welcomed. He becomes the center of universe shaking events as the plot caroms from hair raising battle scenes to Imperial political machinations. The prose is purple, like several of the aliens, but the author manages to evoke real emotions and keep me turning pages, so if any of this sounds remotely interesting, you should take a chance. But please, let’s not talk about it.
Line of Polity by Neal Asher. Over the years I’ve read many Polity short stories in various collections and always enjoyed them so last year I finally picked up the first novel (Gridlinked) and continued this year with the second one. They are pretty decent. Far future, galaxy spanning space opera featuring the Bond-esque Agent Cormac. This book does a great job of building up to a inter-planetary-scale battle. The bad guy is really bad, and the ancient alien technology he finds makes him even worse. I will definitely keep reading this series. The fact that I haven’t gotten to the next book yet just shows how much good new stuff crossed my path this year.
Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Judd Trichter. Our damaged drug addicted protagonist is in love with an android. The androids want their freedom. LA is a dirty poisoned air mess. Honestly, I didn’t like this book very much. Meh.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. Like the Wells Fargo wagon, or the Sears Catalog, I can barely control myself waiting for this collection to come out every year — I’ve been reading it since the beginning. I’ve been a little disappointed the last couple of years, but this year’s collection is back to stellar form IMO. For me the standout was Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, where a couple of Burner/Makers dedicate themselves to prefab building on the moon. There are also particular strong entries from Elizabeth Bear Ken Liu, Michael Swanwick, Jay Lake, and Rachel Swirsky.
Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson. This was one of my favorite reads of the year. One morning, the world wakes up to find that the moon has been colonized by a horde of various post-scarcity, post singularity aliens that represent a stable galactic wide civilization — they are quite surprised and pleased to find that we are still here and haven’t killed ourselves off yet (well, some of the archaeologists among them are a bit disappointed but they do their best to hide it.) The story is told through a series of blog posts — our hero, a young video game programmer, who writes video game reviews on his blog on the side, decides to ask the aliens if they have anything comparable, and when they give him access to the archives of million year old games, he starts reviewing them on his blog as well. This book took me utterly by surprise. First of all, it’s hilarious. I mean it. Normally I stay well clear of any humorous books, (Hitchhikers Guide? Sure. But Discworld? I can’t even.) but I literally LOLed many times while reading this, and several times I read the passages to the long suffering Clara, and even she agreed they were funny and cute as well. It’s just a light touch, done extremely well. But on top of that, the book has hidden depths — how would governments react to the new post scarcity world? What will it mean for human civilization? The aliens are equally concerned with us, for instance when they offer to help with our climate change situation by launching ozone repairing kites a mile wide that look a bit like Pterodactyls — and are surprised and hurt that humans aren’t so crazy about that idea. I had low to zero expectations for this book and it totally blew me away.
The End Has Come (Apocalypse Triptych vol 3) edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. This is a cool idea that was well executed. Each volume contains stories of some sort of Apocalypse, and they run the gamut from alien invasion, astronomical catastrophe to super plagues. In the first book, The End is Nigh, the stories set up the apocalypse, the second book continues the stories through the events of the particular disaster for the human race. On this year’s list is the third book, which shows us the aftermath, such as it may be. Not all the stories continue through all three volumes, but in general, I eagerly awaited the release of the second and third books. The experience may not be quite the same as you dear reader can plough through all three. I enjoyed them, and my mom, also intrigued by the concept also liked them.
What did you read this year?