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Best Contemporary Science Fiction Books

Top 25 Best Contemporary Science Fiction Books

You might also call this list 'The Best Science Fiction Books of the 21st Century or even 'The Best Science Fiction of the 2000's. Whatever you call this list, it's the list that reflects the best books of the past 15 years -- books that brings a new perspective to the genre, embracing new technology and reinventing old ideas. And also, science fiction that is unequivocal fun and well written

The new century (2000's) began with the very science-fictional angst of the so-called "millennium bug" which, of course, never happened. It also began with the "British Boom", the explosion of exciting new work by British writers that had been building during the 1990s but that now burst forth to dominate science fiction around the world for several years at the start of the century. In the wake of the British boom came the new hard sf and the new space opera, the reinvention of the most traditional forms of science fiction to give them a new vigour and freshness that has made the twenty-first century so far a thrilling time to be reading science fiction.

And the changes keep on coming. Right now we are just beginning to discover the wealth of science fiction that is starting to emerge from Latin America, from Africa and from Asia. When we come to update this list in a few years time it would be surprising indeed if there weren't several examples of what we call "World SF" appearing here. But for now these are the novels that we think have made the most impact on science fiction during the first fifteen years of the new century.

There's a long tradition of science fiction using crime story plots, but this is surely the most startling, the most original and the most satisfying of all.It begins with Inspector Borlu of the Besźel police investigating the murder of a foreign student. There are plenty of buildings around the site where she was found, but nobody there would have seen the murder, because the buildings are in UlQoma. Besźel and UlQoma share the same territory, but they are two separate cities, and by long tradition the inhabitants of one city do not see those in the other. They could be walking down the same street, and to the resident if one city it would appear empty and to the resident of the other city it would be crowded. This unseeing is rigidly enforced, not least by Breach, an extra police force that operates between the two cities and that has the power to make anyone who breaks its rules disappear.This is no problem for Borlu, not seeing UlQoma is second nature to him. Unfortunately, the more he investigates the crime, the more it involves both cities, and it leads Borlu to investigate things that are taken for granted, the underlying assumptions of both cities, the things that are not seen. The City and the City won China Miéville's third Arthur C. Clarke Award, along with a Hugo Award, BSFA Award, Locus Award, World Fantasy Award and a Kitschies Red Tentacle. It's an intriguing crime story, and an absolutely fascinating account of an extraordinary place.

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China Mi�©ville consistently employs multiple genres in his work, which is why his stories are so exciting and so original.

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Perdido Street Station, which won his first Arthur C. Clarke Award, for instance, is a potent mixture of science fiction, horror, fantasy, steampunk and politics. It is set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, where all sorts of alien beings exist side by side. When an eccentric human scientist accidentally unleashes an horrific monster upon the city he has to find a way to stop it. The crowded police state with Victorian-era technology and curious magic is a creation that will hold any reader spellbound.

Anyone fascinated by the combination of crime story and science fiction in The City and the City might also want to look at Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. This is a very knowing combination of golden age science fiction and golden age detective story. Set in a distant future with the criminal and revolutionary Jack Glass as the central figure, the story is told in three parts. In the first he is imprisoned in an escape-proof prison situated within an asteroid, and manages to escape. In the second there is an apparently impossible murder, and he needs to find out how it was done. And the third is a classic locked room mystery relocated to outer space. Jack Glass won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Going further back, you might also want to check out The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov, in which a human detective and his robot partner investigate a murder that seems to have been committed by a robot, even though the three laws of robotics mean that that should be impossible.

M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device (1974) was a new wave space opera that was acknowledged as a major influence by writers as varied as Iain M. Banks and China Mieville. But after that he didn't return to the form until Light, the first part of this trilogy, was published in 2002. It tells the story of a serial killer in contemporary Britain who is also the co-inventor of calculations that allow humans to reach the Kefahuchi Tract. In this strange area of space where the incomprehensible debris from countless lost civilizations has washed up, we follow a girl who has had herself inextricably wired in to her ship, and her addict brother who is on the run from criminal gangs, as they confront the strange forces on the loose in the Tract. Light won the James Tiptree Award; the second volume, Nova Swing (2006), won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick award. It is set entirely within the Tract, where the alien "Zone" has touched down at Saudade City and where people emerge mysteriously from the Zone. The final novel, Empty Space: A Haunting (2012), begins with strange deaths in Saudade, but ends with the widow of the serial killer from Light being drawn into the future.Why it's on the list: Quite simply, the trilogy takes science fiction apart and reconstructs it in a disturbing new form. Harrison borrows freely from sources as varied as Anne McCaffrey and the Strugatski Brothers, but remakes their inventions into something entirely new. Cumulatively, this amounts to one of the most innovative and important works of science fiction this century.

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The big space opera series of the moment is Ann Leckie's multi-award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, consisting of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and the forthcoming Ancillary Mercy. It's set in a high-tech future where Breq, the central character, is an ancillary, a body that houses a portion of the AI that once controlled a spaceship, "Justice of Toren". But the ship has been destroyed by treachery, and Breq is the sole surviving ancillary who is now seeking to find out what happened and get revenge. What Breq uncovers involves her in a civil war between different aspects of the ruler of the Radch, and she finds herself on one side of the resulting conflict while still trying to work for her revenge.   Ancillary Justice won just about every award going, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and Ancillary Sword added another Locus and BSFA Award. It's been a long time since space opera won such universal praise.

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The sequel to the novel is already out. Ancillary Sword gives Breq control of a new ship, and sends her across the galaxy to protect the family of the lieutenant she once murdered in cold blood.

Other powerful space operas with a contemporary feel include Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, a fast-moving story set in research stations around the toxic planet Cyteen. The story includes clones and rejuvenation, faster than light travel, wars and murder. It won both the Hugo and Locus Awards.

Dust by Elizabeth Bear is set aboard a generation starship that was badly damaged ages before. Over the centuries, the crew have divided into warring factions, but now the nearby binary stars are on the verge of falling into each other, and a way must be found to unite the warring factions or the whole ship will be lost.

The internet changed our lives in ways that, even now, we probably don't fully appreciate. But what is the effect of the internet? To what extent are we different from how we were before this instantaneous contact with the world? In Air, Geoff Ryman takes us to a remote village in Central Asia, a village that is aware of the modern world but is not part of it and, so far as it is aware, has no need of it. Meanwhile, a new advance on the internet is being developed, something called "Air" that gives you a direct mental connection to the world. By pure chance, Chung Mae, an illiterate peasant woman, gets Air downloaded into her brain before anyone else in the world. She is smart, running her own little fashion business which makes her the automatic repository of the hopes and worries if the other village women. Once she gets used to this strange thing that has happened to her, she sees how much it is going to affect life in the village. Slowly, she starts to prepare her fellow villagers for a transformation she sees as inevitable, but in the process unleashes social and personal troubles that affect her and everyone she has ever known. Air recounts the wrenching transformation of an ancient, ageless way of life into hyperfast modern connectivity. It is a painful, moving, and in the end beautiful account of the terrors of our fast-moving and uncaring world, and of what is lost in any abandonment of tradition.   Air won the Arthur C. Clarke, the BSFA and the James Tiptree Jr. Awards. It is a prime example of the movement Ryman himself has dubbed "mundane sf", fiction that focuses on the world around us and the everyday consequences of contemporary science and technology.

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The Child Garden, which won the Arthur C, Clarke and the John W, Campbell Memorial Awards, is set in a future where global warming has transformed the world, and where everything is bioengineered so that houses are actually life forms. So prevalent is the reliance on genetic engineering that viruses are used for everything, including education. The story is centred on an actress who is immune to these viruses, and whose attempts to stage an opera based on The Divine Comedy brings her into contact with the gestalt mind that rules the world.

Anyone interested in the idea of mundane science fiction would be advised to seek out When It Changed: Science Into Fiction edited by Ryman. For this project, 15 writers were paired with 15 scientists and wrote stories inspired by their ideas and research. Authors featured include Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts, Liz Williams, Simon Ings and Justina Robson.

Ever since the computer became a fixture in the ordinary life of every one of us, it has been one of the most potent images in the idea of posthumanity. Whether it is flesh and blood humans interfacing directly with computers, or the essence of our individuality being rendered in digital form, the computer has become the key to posthumanity. And no one has rendered the process that gets us from here to there with as much detail and conviction as Charles Stross does in this extraordinary novel. Through a series of linked stories, the novel takes us from the near future, where everyone is permanently connected to the internet (so much so that when the hero’s memories are stolen he has difficulty finding out who he is), to alien contact aboard a spaceship the size of a Coke can where the crew are stored as digital information, to a point where the planets of the solar system are dismantled to form a vast solar-powered computer to provide a digital home for infinitely more advanced intelligences than humanity. Why it’s on the list: Winner of the Locus Award, this is one of the very best accounts of a digital future.

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Built around the wartime diaries of her own father, an engineer in the American occupation force in Germany in 1945, for much of its length this reads like an exceptionally good historical novel. But slowly we become aware of strangeness creeping in: a mysterious European physicist leaves our hero, Sam Dance, with plans for a device that, it is claimed, will end war. But though Sam keeps tinkering with it, he can't make it work. Eventually, however, we realise that the device has opened up other time streams, and when Sam's daughter realises it can be used as a time machine she heads back to 1963 to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Why it's on the list: In War Times won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and with its sequel, This Shared Life (2011) it presents a vision of multiple histories that builds its sense of menace slowly and very effectively. The result is a work of science fiction that ends up being extravagant in its invention, yet which is very solidly and convincingly built upon a foundation of our own history.
In the late-70s, Christopher Priest wrote a series of stories about the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that represent neutral territory for the warring nations of the northern continent. The islands became a place of sexual allure and menace, culminating in what many consider his finest novel, The Affirmation (1980), in which the allure of the islands undermines a sense of identity. Nearly 30 years later, he returned to the Dream Archipelago with stories in which the combination of allure and menace has taken on an even darker tone. The Islanders, which won both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the BSFA Award, presents the reimagined Dream Archipelago in a very intriguing way. It is structured as a gazetteer of the islands, presenting them alphabetically, telling us about their flora and fauna, their currency and tourist attractions and their particular laws. But in among all this information bits of stories start to appear. As we piece them together we discover a curious death that may be accidental or may be murder, we learn of horrors and of forbidden islands, we meet sexual predators and people who appear to be alive long after their supposed death. It takes more than one reading to uncover all the clues and twists of this narrative, but it is well worth the effort. Why it's on the list: Priest has spent his entire career never repeating himself, always taking science fiction in unexpected and rewarding new directions. His work this century has been particularly fruitful in that respect, with a stunning reinvention of the alternate history novel in The Separation (2002) which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and The Adjacent (2013) which seems to tie all his previous work into a completely unexpected new knot. But it is The Islanders that really displays his invention better than anything else. You haven't read anything like this novel before.
The British Boom has been all about reinventing older forms of science fiction, making them fit for the new century, and no-one has done that better than Paul McAuley. The four novels that make up this sequence cover the rise and eventual fall of human civilization across the solar system. Moreover, they make us see the various worlds and moons of the system not as harsh, monochrome, austere worlds but as places of colour and interest, just the sorts of places we might choose to live. The Quiet War (2008) tells of the peace protests and efforts to prevent an escalating war between the independent colonists scattered across the outer system, and the authoritarian regimes left behind on Earth. The sequel, Gardens of the Sun (2009) takes up the story immediately after the first volume as the colonists pick up the pieces and start to rebuild their worlds, while some of the more extreme societies set off for the stars. The third volume, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012), is set thousands of years later when those who fled the war have long since reached Fomalhaut, but they have not lost the human penchant for slavery and war. The final volume, Evening's Empires (2013), is set 1,500 years further forward in time and returns us to the solar system where a mysterious message has been received from Fomalhaut, but where our descendants have lost the energy and the will to sustain the variety of human habitation across the system.Why it's on the list: Paul McAuley is undoubtedly one of the finest exponents of the new hard sf, and taken together these four books provide a tour of our future in space that is absolutely convincing at every turn. This is hard sf at its very best.

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After a whole string of stories about global warming, biotechnology, gene hacking and other ways we can threaten our global food supply, which together virtually defined the new subgenre of biopunk, Paolo Bacigalupi then took the ideas another stage further with this stunning novel.It's two centuries from now, the sea levels have risen, fossil fuels are exhausted, and biotechnology has created as plagues and pests that have devastated world food supplies. So any genetically pure stock of seeds is a precious resource. Thailand may have just such a stock, and the AgriGen agent in Bangkok will do anything to get his hands on it.This is the setting for a story that involves a sexually-exploited humanoid "Windup Girl", a rogue GM elephant, a deadly new plague, smuggling, extortion, murder, embezzlement, and a coup.It's a vivid, vicious, terrifying and utterly convincing portrait of the future. You'll keep reading because there's so much going on you just have to know what happens next, but every time you put the book down you shiver and think that's exactly what the world is going to be like. The Windup Girlwon the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and tied for the Hugo Award with China Miéville'sThe City and the City. It's a fabulous novel that will keep you up nights.

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It's worth reading this novel alongside Bacigalupi'sbiopunk stories, which are collected in Pump Six and Other Stories, which won a Locus Award for best Collection, and contains such seminal biopunk stories as "The Calorie Man", "The People of Slag and Sand" and "Yellow Card Man" which serves as a prequel to The Windup Girl.

If you're interested in biopunk, you also need to check out Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo, a collection of stories in which he argues thatthe next revolution â the only one that really matters â will be in the field of biology.

Also worth checking out is Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling, in which one of the consequences of climate change is not just the effect on our food supply, but also the effect on our weather. It's a chilling novel in which, in the very near future, the planet is lashed by storms of unprecedented ferocity.

Ever since his first novel, Salt (2000), Adam Roberts has established himself as one of the most prolific, challenging, and popular novelists writing in science fiction today. His work often contains distorted references to earlier fictions, and that is particularly the case with Jack Glass, which won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. It's a daring attempt to combine golden age science fiction with golden age crime fiction, a combination that really shouldn't work, but does. The novel is in three parts: in the first, notorious interstellar criminal Jack Glass is confined to a prison asteroid, and has to escape from an escape-proof gaol. In the second part, there is a classic murder mystery in which the likely suspects are in a gravity well where they couldn't even lift the murder weapon. Finally there is a variation on a locked room mystery set aboard a space habitat. Why it's on the list: The great appeal of science fiction has always been its intellectual engagement, and that is certainly the case with Adam Roberts's fiction. This combination of crime and sf produces a hybrid that keeps you guessing.

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Immortality, cryogenics, uploading the mind to an AI, extended lifespans, time and again science fiction revolves around the issue of how to avoid death. In this novel, which won the Locus Award, Connie Willis tackles the subject head on. It's the story of a researcher into Near Death Experience, the way patients who are revived after clinical death consistently report walking towards a bright light. What emits that light? What will people find when they get there? Willis writes about all of this without resorting to supernatural explanations of any sort. Rather, the dying person finds themselves in a significant place, in this case the Titanic, able to pass messages to the living and possibly be revived. Why it's on the list: If it can't tackle big themes, what's the point of science fiction? And in this novel Connie Willis tackles the biggest theme of all, without sentiment and without resorting to religion or magic. It's a powerful novel on a powerful subject.
This novel has been hailed as one of the best hard sf stories written this century. It's an awesome novel, packed with invention and new ideas and challenges to the way we think. You have to keep your wits about you when reading it, but it is well worth the effort.In the near future, all sorts of genetic engineering and viral plagues have created a variety of posthumans, including Vampires, an ancient but very intelligent predator, and Zombies, who are highly effective and very obedient as soldiers. Then, signs start to be detected of an alien presence on the outskirts of the solar system. The story mostly concerns the journey of a ship, the Theseus, to investigate the aliens. The ship is captained by a vampire and crewed by transhumans with an AI, plenty of opportunity for intercrew conflict along the way. But things really hot up when they reach the Oort Cloud and find a vast starship whose crew have no individual consciousness, but who operate as a sort of hive mind which makes them far quicker to respond and therefore far more dangerous than the humans.Consciousness, it turns out, is bad news. Human self-awareness generates a noise that threatens the normal intelligence of the universe, so the aliens are here to quarantine the Earth as they would for a plague. The book as a whole raises a host of intriguing questions about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities and cost of transhumanity. I guarantee, you'll come away from this book with your mind buzzing.Why It Made the ListCutting edge ideas, challenging questions, a stunning action-packed story: what more do you want from your science fiction? This is the true quill, and pretty damned good it is too.

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Echopraxia is a kind of sequel to Blindsight, though it shifts our attention to characters who played little or no part in the first book. What we get is one of the biologists who unleashed the zombie plague is on a field trip in a remote wilderness when intruders force him to retreat to a strange monastery. Then, when the monastery is attacked, he finds himself aboard a spaceship heading towards a spacestation near the Sun. When we discover that this, too, has been infected with an alien slime mold, we start to question how much of the first novel we can really believe. (Incidentally, Blindsight and Echopraxia have now been published together in one book under the title Firefall.)

Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite. It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred. The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale. Why It Made the List The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book. Alternative Choice Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

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House of Suns is another epic, set six million years in the future, with long-lived clones who regularly circumnavigate the entire galaxy and a race of sentient robots, there are ambushes and betrayals, and a high-speed chase that lasts thousands of years and takes us as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. If that's not enough to excite your sense of wonder, you really shouldn't be reading science fiction.

Reynolds's most recent work is also on a grand scale. The Poseidon's Children trilogy starts, in Blue Remembered Earth, in a near future when Africa is the world's leading technological power, and two members of a powerful African clan gather cryptic clues that lead them to the outer reaches of the solar system. By the time of the second volume, On the Steel Breeze, it is 200 years later and a fleet of generation starships are approaching a world where mysterious signals have been observed, but there's treachery afoot, while the legacy of events from the first volume still linger. The third volume, Poseidon's Wake, takes us yet further into the future and out to other stars to encounter the mysterious aliens hinted at in the first two books.

If you're in to space opera, don't forget the granddaddy of them all, E.E. "Doc" Smith, whose seven volume Lensman series begins with two galaxies colliding, and just gets bigger. By the end of the series suns and planets are being tossed about as weapons in a massive interstellar war.

Using a technique borrowed from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (and, before that, from John Dos Passos's modernist masterpiece, USA), Kim Stanley Robinson interrupts his fast-moving narrative with extracts from scientific papers, reports and other documents that illustrate the medical advances, the political alliances, the ecological catastrophes that have shaped the solar system. The result is to make this account of life 300 years in our future feel as if it is something we have already lived through. In other words, he gives life to the future, giving us confidence that these are the technological achievements ahead of us, this is the whole system in all of its complexity. And around all of this detail, an artist from Mercury finds herself caught up in political machinations that take her to the outer planets and back again, a tour of the system as it is being gradually transformed by humanity that contains moment after moment of breathtaking beauty.Why it's on the list:2312 won the Nebula Award, and is widely recognised as one of the most accomplished novels by one of science fictions most acclaimed writers. It does, triumphantly, what all science fiction aims for and so rarely succeeds: it makes us understand that this is what the future will be like.
Inevitably, there is a continuity between past and future. The present is not a cut-off point between one and the other, but simply a sliding scale in the process of moving along the line. Of course, science fiction novels set exclusively in the future, and historical novels set exclusively in the past, do nothing to display this continuity. Which is what makes David Mitchell's novel so intriguing and so successful. It starts in the mid-19th century with the journal of an American on a sailing ship in the Pacific who slowly comes to realise that the doctor treating him is actually poisoning him. Then there are the letters of a young chancer in the 1930s who becomes the amanuensis to an old composer and starts an affair with the composer's wife. Next is a thriller set in California in the 1970s as a journalist begins investigating events at a nuclear power plant. In the present day there's the comic story of a publisher on the run from gangsters who finds himself trapped in an old people's home. A clone in a dystopian future Korea confesses to her part in plotting a rebellion by the fabricants. And on a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island an old man relates, in a broken language, his meeting with a woman from a more sophisticated society. With the exception of the last, each of these stories breaks off at the mid-point, only to be picked up again in backwards order in the second half of the novel. The central character in each story reads the earlier text, but some of the early texts contain echoes of the later stories. Past, present and future, in other words, interconnect and feed off each other in a story of human predation that gains much of its power from the resonances across time.   There is no other work that is structured like this, there is no other work that so deftly combines elements of historical fiction and science fiction. Cloud Atlas is beautiful, absorbing and totally unique.

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Like a greatly extended Cloud Atlas, all of Mitchell's novels feel very different, for instance there's a crime story set in contemporary Japan, the story of a boy growing up in 1970s England, a historical novel about European traders in 18th century Japan. Yet in all of these novels, characters recur, images are repeated, there are distinct and deliberate links. All of this interconnection becomes explicit in The Bone Clocks. What we learn in this novel is that there are two warring clans of immortals, one survives by killing ordinary people, one survives by their consciousness passing into another body when they die. Their war ends up revolving around a young woman whose brother disappeared mysteriously when she was a child, who goes on to become a well-known author, and who ends her days in post-apocalypse rural Ireland. It's not the best thing Mitchell has written (that remains Cloud Atlas) but it is fun and fascinating, and in the way it ties all his other books together it becomes like a big intriguing puzzle.

One of the abiding themes of science fiction in the early twenty-first century is a careful delineation of everyday life in the near future, a future in which the steady deterioration of the political and environmental situation is generally balanced by technological advances. One of the very best examples of this is Ian MacLeod's Song of Time, which won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.Beginning late in the current century, it tells of an aging classical musician who lives by the coast in Cornwall and who rescues a figure from the sea. This event prompts her to start recalling her life, with music serving as the balm that soothes her in the face of terrorist atrocities, political collapse, environmental disasters and more.Why it's on the list: More than any other novel on this list, Song of Time reads as though MacLeod has carefully studied today's newspaper headlines and extrapolated from them a course through the next half-century that seems not only convincing but almost inevitable. It's an example of the fact that only science fiction at its best can produce an essential state of the nation novel.
One of the most exciting things about science fiction in the new century is that the traditional white, male, Anglo-American voice is being displaced. Wonderful new work is starting to emerge from Brazil, from Russia, from Germany, from Israel, from China, from South-East Asia. The South African Lauren Beukes, who won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Zoo City, is just part of this emergence of distinctive new writers from different traditions. In Zoo City she transforms the racial politics and social problems of Johannesburg into science fiction by having people bonded with animal avatars when they are convicted of a crime. The result is a novel that opens our eyes to the new.Why itâs on the list:Zoo City is fresh, vivid, unusual, revealing, everything, in fact, that science fiction is supposed to be.
Ken MacLeod is perhaps the most politically astute novelist working in Britain today. He brings a highly critical left-wing sensibility to his work, while at the same time being very funny about the internecine warfare between different versions of the left. That percipience allows him to write with great intelligence and conviction about the ways our present and our future are being shaped by forces beyond our control, often beyond our awareness. This sense of how a nation works is perfectly revealed in The Execution Channel, a novel which explores the way authoritarianism increases in the battle against terrorism.With a plot and tradecraft that owe a lot to John Le Carre, The Execution Channel is essentially a cat-and-mouse story of a father and daughter on the run from increasingly oppressive government agents after they discover that what seems like a terrorist act is really something much bigger and stranger.Why it's on the list: This is an alternate history story that taps in to the political paranoia that has built up in the West ever since 9/11. It's a distorting mirror that still reveals so much about the world we live in today.
Search the sf award shortlists for 2013 and you will look in vain for this novel. It wasn't even submitted for any of the juried awards. Yet it is arguably the best sf novel of the year, and perhaps the best sf novel of the decade. The problem is, it wasn't seen as science fiction (the book did win one award, for historical fiction). It's the story of one woman's life during the twentieth century: surviving the flu epidemic of 1919, marrying an abusive husband, meeting Hitler in pre-war Germany, helping the rescue services during the Blitz. But these aren't all in the same life. Because the flu kills her, the abusive husband murders her, she attempts to assassinate Hitler, she is blown up in the Blitz, and every time she dies, she is born again and lives a slightly different life. The result is a glorious and enthralling account of the different ways a woman might experience the twentieth century as she slowly starts to become aware of the multiple lives she has led.   Kate Atkinson won a major literary award with her first novel, and has also written a series of highly regarded detective novels, but although there was a hint of time shifts in Human Croquet she had not really tackled science fiction before this book. The result is one of the most original and most beautifully written novels in the genre.
One night, when he is 12 years old, Tyler Dupree and two friends witness all the stars in the sky suddenly disappearing. It turns out that a membrane has been placed around the Earth. An artificial sun allows daily life on Earth to continue as normal, but the membrane has had a profound effect upon time: one year passing within the membrane is equivalent to one hundred million years outside. So people on Earth don't have too long before the sun grows big enough to destroy the planet.It's a bravura opening, the sort of startling, big concept idea that creates a genuine sense of wonder. And Wilson really follows through. All the way through Spin and its two sequels, Axis and Vortex, there are moments that just stop you dead in your tracks.At one point a ship penetrates the membrane and delivers colonists to Mars. Just two years later Earth time, Mars has a sophisticated technological civilisation, and a membrane is thrown around that planet too.Eventually we discover that the membrane is the work of intelligent von Neumann machines, dubbed Hypotheticals, who do it to slow down time for societies close to collapse to allow time for a solution to be found. No sooner do we discover this than in another brilliantly vivid moment a massive arch opens up in the Indian Ocean which serves as a gateway to another world.Axis takes us to that other world, but more puzzles about the Hypotheticals soon emerge, and with them more time dilation. Which becomes extreme in Vortex, where the storylines alternate between 40 years after the events of Spin and 10,000 years after the events of Axis. Spin won the Hugo Award, and was one of the most widely talked about novels of the day, simply because it is so awesome at creating amazing vistas and startling events.

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Julian Comstock is a post-catastrophe story in which America has become rigidly hierarchical, with an hereditary president and fundamentalist Christianity ruling the land. Julian is the nephew of the President who is spirited away as a child to escape assassination. Raised in a rural community, he becomes a war hero and, following a coup, is declared President. In that position he immediately starts to ease censorship, reintroduce the ideas of Darwin, and downgrade the influence of the Church, all of which raises powerful forces against him, which become even more powerful when he comes out as gay. It's a fable about illiberality in Aerica that is one of the best things he has written.

Burning Paradise is yet another very different story. In this instance it is an alternate history in which the discovery of a "radiosphere" has resulted in a less technologically oriented but more peaceful world. But the radiosphere turns out to be a kind of alien hive mind.

There is something both delightfully old-fashioned and intriguingly up-to-date about John Scalzi's debut novel, Old Man's War. He originally published it on his website in 2002, where it proved so popular that Tor Books brought it out in 2005. It was the start of a career that has seen Scalzi consistently appear among the most popular writers in the genre today. The novel itself harks back to works like Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, following a group of soldiers from recruitment and on into interplanetary warfare. What's different is that these are old people who have already lived a productive life before they join up; they are then put into a new, genetically-enhanced body and provided with an assortment of intriguing new technology.Old Man's War and its sequels are far from being gung-ho militaristic novels; our hero, John Perry, suffers psychological distress as a result of warfare, and it becomes far from clear whether the humans are actually on the right side in this war.Why it's on the list: Old Man's War topped a Tor.com poll for the best science fiction novel of 2000-2010, and a Locus poll for the best novel of the twenty-first century. The updating of Heinlein proves that traditional forms of science fiction still have immense appeal among science fiction readers today.

Books in Old Man's War Series (7)

There's an idea you sometimes come across that the dividing line between mainstream "literature" and genre fiction is rigid and unbreakable. That's nonsense. Writers have always crossed backwards and forwards across the line as the spirit took them. One of the most successful has been Michael Chabon who, alongside his Pulitzer Prize winning fiction, has also produced a YA fantasy, steampunk, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a comic and this brilliant alternate history novel.The Jonbar point is early in the Second World War, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees from Europe is established at Sitka in Alaska. As a consequence, only two million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but the state of Israel fails. But now, at the beginning of the new century, a new President is determined to end the temporary settlement.The story focuses on Meyer Landsman, a Sitka detective whose investigation of a murder leads to a rabbi who is also Sitka's leading crime boss, and to a conspiracy to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Murder, religious identity, politics all get mixed up in a complex story full of mysteries and sudden revelations. It's a deep and absorbing work, but it's also great fun. The Yiddish Policemen's Union won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sidewise Awards; it is unprecedented for someone from outside the genre to win so many of the major genre awards.

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Another novel that illustrates how permeable the barrier between mainstream and genre really is, is Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, according to the critic Brian McHale, there is a feedback loop by which Gravity's Rainbow influenced William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Neuromancer went on to influence later novels by Pynchon. Set towards the end of World War Two, the novel is a phantasmagoria of ideas and puns and weird coincidences. For instance, the sexual exploits of one American soldier map precisely onto the targets of the V2 rockets. Meanwhile there's a mysterious "black device" whose secret is at the heart of the novel.

We like to say that science is integral to science fiction, yet it is surprising how rarely the practice of science appears in sf novels. One of the rare and brilliant exceptions to this rule is Life by Gwyneth Jones, which won the Philip K. Dick Award. It's about how we define our sexual identity, how we create and operate within gender roles, what makes us women or men. At the core of the book is a scientific discovery which suggests that the male Y chromosome is reverting to an X, in other words that gender differences are disappearing. But the scientist who makes this discovery finds her research constantly stymied by male chauvinism and by office politics. The result is a fascinating and utterly convincing portrayal of the business of science that manages to ask, along the way, fundamental questions about who we are.Why it's on the list: This is genuine science fiction, that is, fiction about science. But like the best science fiction it also asks big questions. If you read science fiction to get your mind racing and your head spinning, then you need to read this book.
When a bunch of Hugo and Nebula award winners queue up to praise a first novel from a brand new writer, and when they compare it to Hal Clement and Larry Niven, you just know it has to be pure, hard sf. And that's exactly what you get with A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias: the sort of book where you encounter strange yet believable worlds, fascinating yet convincing aliens, and at the heart of it all a desperate need to communicate across the seemingly incomprehensible gulf between species. Why it's on the list: Over the last half century or so, science fiction has branched out in all sorts of directions. It's such a wonderfully varied literature today that it's sometimes easy to forget the solid heartland of the genre, because so much of what emerges from that heartland these days is old fashioned, repetitive, and often deeply conservative (with a small “c”). So when a book comes along that takes all those old virtues and makes them fresh and exciting and forward-looking once more, you just have to cheer.

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