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Best Science Fiction Books of 2014

Our Picks for the Best Science Fiction Reads of the 2014 Year

It was an extraordinary year for science fiction, with so many books challenging for our attention that any of half a dozen titles could have made the top spot, and so many other works of interest appearing that it was hard to keep this list down to just 25.

Generally speaking, it was a year in which William Gibson returned to science fiction, in which Ann Leckie produced a follow-up to the book that won just about every award going, in which Jeff VanderMeer produced all three volumes of a trilogy within the space of just nine months. It was a year in which more and more mainstream writers ventured into the genre, from Howard Jacobson to David Mitchell. It was a year in which we finally got to discover what Chinese science fiction is like with the first translation of a novel by Cixin Liu. It was a year of stunning debuts from Nina Allan and Laline Paull. 

It was a year … well, better to just read the list.

What would you do if you could live your life over and over again? It may not be as idyllic an option as it sounds, as Claire North demonstrates in this gripping novel. There are among us, there have always been among us, people who, when they die, are born again at the exact same time and in the exact same circumstances as their original birth. Because they carry memories from their previous lives, they are usually able to bet on winning horses and so give themselves a comfortable life. And after one or two lifetimes they also tend to discover others like them, the so called Cronos Club, who provide a support network. But other than that, there are those who seek religion and those who live lives of debauchery, and those who basically live fairly ordinary lives. Then a message is passed back from the future, whispered by a child to a dying man, who in turn as a reborn child will whisper it at someone else's death bed: the end of the world is getting earlier. Thus Harry August discovers that there is someone who is trying to destroy the Cronos Club, and at the same time initiate so many technological developments that it changes the character of the world and accelerates the end of the world. The search, and the subsequent battle of wills with his opponent, takes several lifetimes.   The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a vivacious, endlessly inventive story that constantly makes us see our world afresh.

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Claire North's novel is one of a number of works recently that have presented numerous different versions of the same person, all of which deserve attention.

Alternative Choice
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is the story of Ursula Todd who is born one snowy morning in February 1910 and instantly dies, or she dies in the influenza epidemic after the First World War, or she is killed by a brutal husband, or she bombed in the Blitz, or she dies a lonely death in the 1970s. At each death, the story is reset back to that snowy February, and Ursula takes a different path in life. She doesn't remember her other lives, but there is an awareness that helps her avoid repetitions of the same death. Her lives are mostly ordinary, a mid-level clerk, an ARP warden in the war, but they work constantly towards a course of events in which her beloved brother is not killed in the war. Written with humanity, compassion and a wonderful eye for detail, this is an extraordinary account of one woman's lives in the 20th century.

Alternative Choice
My Real Children by Jo Walton differs from Atkinson's novel by starting not at the beginning of life but at the end. Patricia Cowan is an old woman in a nursing home whose memories seem incoherent and contradictory. Then we flash back to a fateful phone call when her boyfriend called to ask her to marry him. If she said yes, she entered a troubled marriage in which she raises four children but is disappointed in life, but the world is more peaceful than our own; if she said no, she developed a passion for Italy, wrote best selling guide books, and had a long-lasting lesbian relationship, but the world was less peaceful and more threatening. In both lives, she faces limitations and restrictions simply because she is a woman, which is what makes this such an interesting book.

It*s the near future; the economy is running down, and so is the environment. When Conrad and Michel are at school, Micky is obsessed with the end of the world, and when we first meet him as an adult he and his wife are building an ark while he writes an apocalyptic novel about the world flooding. The novel is a success, but the flooding comes anyway. Meanwhile, Conrad*s father has developed a technology to allow blinded soldiers to see again, while Conrad himself works in the exciting new area of Augmented Reality. As civilisation starts to collapse around them, Micky and Conrad need to work out their complicated relationship and find out who murdered Conrad*s mother. And all the while, their lives are increasingly detached from a world that is never fully perceived.Why it*s on the list: Ings*s spectacular reinvention of the catastrophe novel has been compared to J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, but a more accurate comparison is probably to M. John Harrison. Bleak, raw, jagged, this is a novel that leaves you gasping for breath.
Europe is crumbling, nation states are falling apart, in their place are emerging a myriad of tiny independent statelets, some as small as a city block, some as long and narrow as a trans-European railway line. As a result, Europe is now criss-crossed with a maze of new borders, and wherever there are borders there are people who want to cross them in secret with money, objects or people. The secret organisation that will help you get across these borders is the Coureurs. Rudi is a top chef in Poland when he is recruited by the Coureurs, and finds himself entering a shadowy world that's a mixture of people smuggling and espionage. But when a series of missions go wrong, he finds himself having to cross borders even he did not know about. Why it's on the list: With elements of near-future science fiction combined with John Le Carre's tradecraft, this is a brilliant exercise in storytelling, relentless, engaging and vivid. And in a year when there were independence votes in Scotland, Spain and the Ukraine, it feels like a story that has literally been ripped from tomorrow's headlines.
In a run-down part of America's rural South where jobs are scarce, Flynne and her veteran brother, Burton, make a precarious offering security services in an online game. But in one game, Flynne witnesses what seems to be a murder, and suddenly an awful lot of people start taking an interest in what she's doing. Meanwhile in a depopulated, post-apocalypse London, Wilf has just screwed up on his PR job when an old friend and a fearsome policewoman get him involved in a new situation. They want him to help them bring someone forward from the past, someone who witnessed a crime that could change the whole nature of their world. Why it's on the list: Gibson back writing science fiction has got to be good news, and in this startling story he really is on top form. He makes us work for it, but if you are prepared to pay close attention this really is a tremendous story.
Three strangers, a marine biologist who has just had a bust-up with her husband, a soldier who has just had a fight with his superior, and a rapper who has just finished a gruelling concert, all arrive together on a beach at Lagos. Then a meteorite crashes into the sea and they are overwhelmed by the tidal wave it causes. Miraculously, they all survive, and as they pull themselves back onto the shore there's a fourth person with them, a strange and alluring woman. The aliens have landed in Nigeria, but is Lagos ready for the aliens? As the three strangers find themselves working together to bring the alien face to face with their country's president, Nigeria erupts around them. Rioting fills the streets, a charismatic preacher sees an opportunity to cause mayhem, a bunch of kids set out on a crime spree, and the ancient gods of the country start to emerge. Why it's on the list: We're now starting to see science fiction from around the world, and the result can be wild and intoxicating. This is a strange and fascinating novel, full of vivid characters, unpredictable situations, startling action and new perspectives.
Gregory is one of several authors who had more than one book published during the year. One, We Are All Completely Fine, is a very effective horror story, but it is his extraordinary science fiction novel, Afterparty, that really commands attention. Lyda was one of a team that developed a powerful new smart drug, but when all of them are overdosed with the drug at a party it leaves one person dead and the survivors convinced that they are accompanied by a guardian angel. Lyda, with her own angel, Dr Gloria, is a patient in a Toronto mental hospital when she learns that the drug she developed is out on the street. She and Dr Gloria have to get out of the hospital and find out who is producing the drug and, moreover, what really happened at that party. Why it's on the list: Afterparty is at the same time gripping and funny; it is a searing account of a near future in which everyone's minds are shaped by the different drugs they take, ad it is a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end.
Adam Roberts is another author who produced more than one book in the year. In fact, five books came out: a glorious pastiche of Jules Verne, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea; a book on how to write science fiction; a collection of his reviews, Sibilant Fricative; a scholarly edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria; and this exceptional novel. In Bête, animal rights activists insert chips into the brains of animals which gives them the power of speech. This raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of animal (and, by extension, human) intelligence. Laws are passed, and our narrator, who opposes animal rights, is reduced to tramping the countryside doing a little illicit butchering when he has the chance. Because he is so isolated from civilisation, he barely notices that humans are retreating from the country into the towns, that the economy is collapsing, that a war has begun between animals and humans, until he is unexpectedly called upon to represent the animals in peace negotiations.Why it's on the list: Roberts's previous novel, Jack Glass, won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see this novel cropping up on a few award shortlists as well. It is a powerful story that expertly raises some very difficult questions.
Science fiction is bigger in China than anywhere else in the world, and yet here in the West we have barely had a chance to see any Chinese science fiction. This book was a major bestseller in China when it was published there in 2006, now at last we have the chance to read it thanks to this marvellous translation by Ken Liu. Wang Miao, a researcher in nanomaterials, is surprised to be called in to a high-level government meeting that doesn't just include police and army, but also western military observers. It seems that leading scientists have been committing suicide, and Wang has to infiltrate the organisation to which they all belonged. He finds they have all been playing a strange computer game called The Three-Body Problem, set in a world where there are three suns and their behaviour is deadly and unpredictable. He gradually comes to understand that this isn't a game but a glimpse of a genuine planetary system, and the aliens have left their world and are on their way to invade Earth.Why it's on the list: The translation is superb, but the novel still reads unlike anything we would expect to encounter in the West; things left unexplained that we would spell out, and things spelled out that we would leave unexplained. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this strangeness, the novel is unfailingly engaging and intriguing, and helps us to see science fiction afresh.
The three complete novels that make up this trilogy, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, were all first published during 2014. Brought together, they make for a fascinating mixture of science fiction and new weird. Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Strange things happen there: the geography shifts, strange creatures appear, messages are written upon walls by living lichen. And every human expedition returns, if it returns at all, with a completely different story. We follow one all-female expedition as it falls apart in the face of the inexplicable occurrences around them. Meanwhile, the Southern Reach Authority, which controls entry to Area X, is itself falling apart in the face of secrets and paranoia. Finally, only one last expedition can save the day. Why it's on the list: Although the situation in these novels recalls the Zone in Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatski, or perhaps more accurately in Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, yet there is still something completely original in VanderMeer's story. Told vividly and straightforwardly, it's a work that keeps you turning the page, desperate to make sense of what is going on.
For the last few years, Nina Allan has been attracting a lot of attention and award nominations for the haunting quality of her short stories. Now she brings that same sense of shifting realities to her first novel. The novel opens in Sapphire, a coastal town in an alternative Britain where everything is geared around the racing of genetically modified dogs. Here we meet Jen, wary of her drug-dealing brother but anxious about the fate of her niece who has been kidnapped. The scene then shifts abruptly to our Britain, where a writer, Christy, is telling stories about the imaginary town of Sapphire, stories that resonate oddly with Christy's own life. Finally we shift back to Sapphire to meet Maree, who embarks on a dangerous and mysterious journey that could change the nature of her world entirely. Why it's on the list: Nina Allan is clearly going to be one of the major science fiction writers of coming years, and this debut novel is an excellent introduction to her work.

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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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Ann Leckie's first book, Ancillary Justice, won just about every award going, including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke and the BSFA awards. Now, here's the sequel to take the story forward. Breq is dispatched to a distant planet with a new ship and a troublesome crew in order to protect the family of the lieutenant she murdered. It's a situation ripe for drama, and alongside the action we learn more about the elaborately drawn interstellar empire, and, of course, the gender confusions that were such a feature of the first novel. Why it's on the list: To be honest, if you're read Ancillary Justice, you really don't need me to say any more. This is one sequel that has to be on everyone's must-read list.

Books in Imperial Radch Series (2)

A new virus sweeps across the world, and 1% of those who catch it become locked in: fully aware of the world around them, but unable to move or respond in any way. In time a technique is developed that allows the locked in to borrow someone else's body for a time. But what happens if someone borrowing another body then commits murder: who is the culprit? That is the starting point for John Scalzi's entertaining thriller. But when detectives Shane and Vann start to investigate such a murder, they find it leads to an even more complicated problem, because a new human culture is starting to emerge. Why it's on the list: Scalzi is one of the most consistently engaging writers in science fiction today, and while a near-future thriller is a new departure for him he brings to it all of his technical skill and ability to conjure astonishing new sf concepts.
Is there anything new to be done with a post-apocalypse scenario? Well, read Station Eleven and find out.In a performance of King Lear, one snowy night in Toronto, the leading actor, Arthur Leander, collapses and dies. A child actress, Kirsten, watches in horror as a trainee paramedic, Jeevan, tries and fails to save Arthur's life. Later, leaving the theatre, Jeevan hears about a virulent strain of flu and instead of going home heads for his brother's apartment where the two can barricade themselves in against the collapse of society.This is the central point of the novel, the hinge around which everything turns. From here we go back in time to witness Arthur's career, and we leap forward in time to when Kirsten is a member of a troupe of players travelling between remote communities. There are many of the familiar devices of post-apocalyptic fiction here, the small-town dictators, the religious fanatics, the simple struggle to survive. But these are not the point of the book.Rather, the importance lies in the links that Mandel draws out between the world before the collapse, and after. With a hand-drawn comic, "Station Eleven", providing the connection as it somehow survives the apocalypse. Station Eleven has already made the shortlists for a variety of mainstream and science fiction awards, an indication of the quality of the book. From the very first sentence you will be captivated by the sheer beauty of the prose. It is, above all, just a marvellous book to read.

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It may be a sign of the times, but the collapse of society has come back into fashion in current science fiction. There are several examples of the form, of which these are probably the best.

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson is set in an extremely balkanised Europe, where city blocks or country parks or even train lines can declare themselves independent statelets. Suddenly Europe is criss-crossed with new borders. But there is always a need for goods or money or people to be transported secretly across borders, and with so many new borders the need is more acute than ever. Which is where the coureurs come in: a secret organisation dedicated to getting anything across any border. When Rudy, a chef, is recruited by the coureurs, however, he finds himself involved in a secret world that is far more deadly than he had ever imagined, because it turns out there are borders that no-one even knew about.

Wolves by Simon Ings is the story of two childhood friends whose friendship is tested as the world falls apart around them. One of them, Micky, is so convinced that the end times are coming that at one point he even builds an ark at his home, and he goes on to write a novel about a flooded world; but when the rains do come, the novel proves to be eerily prescient. Conrad, on the other hand, wants to know who killed his disturbed mother; while his father's invention of a device to help blind servicemen see doesn't stop him falling through the cracks in society and ending on the breadline. It is a world that is slowly falling apart, and the natural catastrophe that is just beginning as the novel ends is only the final act in a long process of disintegration.

On the first manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded following an intense storm. Knowing it will be years before the next mission is liable to reach Mars, Watney has to improvise ways to survive until he can be rescued. But even though mission control back on earth become aware that he is still alive, a series of disasters put seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of his survival. Although the science might be questioned – the Martian air pressure is so low that no storm such as the one at the beginning of the book would be possible – the careful attention to technological detail, and the inventive way of improvising with current technology have made this a highly popular and successful work.   The success of both the book and the film that has been based upon it means that The Martian is leading the current revival of interest in Mars.

Books in Animorphs Series (47)

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For some specific Mars book recommendations, read our Best Mars Novels list on our blog.

If you love this story of survival against the odds on Mars, then you should seek out No Man Friday by Rex Gordon. This is also a story of an expedition to Mars gone wrong. An accident on the ship midway to Mars kills all the crew except for one, who happens to be in his spacesuit at the time. Crash landing on Mars he has to find ways to produce oxygen and water, but the difference from Weir's story is that there are giant Martians in this story, and the planet has its own plant life.

And for stories about problem solving at NASA, you really can't beat Voyage by Stephen Baxter. Set in an alternate history in which Kennedy was not assassinated, it tells the story of the determination to send a manned mission to Mars. Baxter provides a carefully worked out account of the moon missions that are cut back to divert resources to the Mars programme, and the unmanned probes that are never sent; he also describes the technical innovations that are made and the problems that need to be solved before NASA can send an astronaut to set foot on Mars.

The sequel to his acclaimed Blindsight begins in the wilderness, where biologist Daniel Bruks has turned his back on humanity. Intruders force him to retreat to a strange monastery, but when that comes under attack he finds himself on a ship heading towards the centre of the solar system. The pilot is out for revenge on someone who may be Bruks himself, his companion is a soldier obsessed with messages from his dead son, and also aboard the ship is a vampire with a troop of zombies who seem to be out to kill everyone. And yet, when they reach their destination, Bruks finds that the ship may still be the safest place there is.Peter Watts's science fiction is always filled with big ideas, and this is no exception. Because the journey, and the aliens that await at the end of it, bring Bruks face to face with the consequences of an evolutionary change he may have unleashed. Why it's on the list: Watts writes the sort of science fiction designed to make us rethink the future. The range of ideas that come at you through the course of this novel is enough to set your brain spinning. It is the sort of dazzling tour de force that we find too rarely in science fiction these days.

Books in Blindsight & Sequel Series (1)

Peter Hamilton is a master of what Brian Aldiss called âwide screen baroqueâ, the sort of science fiction that delights in the vast and open spaces of distant futures and distant stars. With this book he returns to his popular Commonwealth universe with the first of a two-book sequence. Nigel Sheldon, one of the founders of the Commonwealth, takes part in a desperate scheme to penetrate the Void, the mysterious structure at the core of the galaxy. But when he gets inside, he finds that humans aren't the first species to be sucked into this trap where the laws of physics are subtly different. And the other race he encounters there are merciless killers who may hold the secret to destroying the threat of the Void. Why it's on the list: Hamilton's huge novels suck you in as completely as the Void does, filled with big concepts, strange discoveries, and the sort of sense of wonder that the best science fiction provides.

Books in Commonwealth: Chronicle Of The Fallers Series (0)

Patricia is a confused old lady, whose memories of the past don't make sense, because she is remembering two very different pasts. In her first job as a teacher at the end of the war she received a sudden proposal from an old boyfriend. If she accepted the proposal she entered into an unhappy and limiting marriage, but when she finally leaves Mark she finds herself entering on a much more satisfying life, while the world around her seems happier than the one we know. If she turns down the proposal, she begins a successful career as a travel writer and enters into a long and fulfilling lesbian relationship, but personal unhappiness awaits her and the world around her seems much less peaceful. This is an extraordinary account of the different lives that faced women through the second half of the twentieth century, and opens up a remarkable new way of looking at our own past. Why it's on the list: Jo Walton has written very different books throughout her career, but they have always proven to be both highly engaging and very popular, and this is no exception. Indeed, it could be one of her best books to date.
Paul Park's return to science fiction takes the form of an alternate history, or a set of alternate histories, or nested alternate histories, or perhaps something else entirely. We begin in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War when the Queen of the North has negotiated a two-state settlement with the women of the South. The scene then shifts to an alternate present somewhere in northwestern Massachusetts where we discover a secret World War II weapons project. Finally we move to the near future, when a man tracing his family history discovers evidence of an alien invasion. Why it's on the list: The three parts of the narrative interlock and combine in complex ways, so that characters recur in all three, and the Civil War Battle of the Crater lies at the route of the divergent histories.
David Mitchell's novels have always seemed very different, including a crime novel in contemporary Japan, a coming of age story in 1960s Britain, an historical novel set in 17th century Japan, and, of course, the intricate nested narratives of Cloud Atlas that takes us from a 19th century sailing ship to a distant future. But there are always links between them, characters reappear, images crop up again and again, and this new novel seems to hold the key. It's the story of Holly Sykes from her teenage years in the 1980s to her old age in a post-catastrophe Ireland in the middle years of this century. But along the way she becomes involved in an eternal war being fought between two different groups of immortals. From her first brush with the warring sides in the Kent countryside, through her marriage to a war reporter in Iraq, her time as a bestselling author, her part in the cataclysmic battle between the two sides, and the aftermath in Ireland as civilisation collapses, the novel keeps changing pace and tone so that we are always coming at things afresh. Why it's on the list: This is the closest we have come to Cloud Atlas, a series of different stories in different voices and from different points of view that are all linked by the recurring figure of Holly Sykes. The result is mesmerising.
In his World Fantasy Award winning novel Osama, Lavie Tidhar turned Osama bin Laden into the hero of a series of pulp noir novels in an alternate version of our present. Now he has pulled off a very similar trick with the Holocaust. In Auschwitz, a one-time pulp novelist dreams a series of stories as a way of retaining his sanity in this mad world. In the stories he dreams, Hitler never came to power and instead works as a private detective in 1930s London. Hired by a Jewish woman to find her missing sister he enters a steamy underworld of white slavery and casual torture, all the time spouting anti-Semitic remarks while doing good almost by accident. Why it's on the list: This is a tricky balancing act, between the deeply serious and disturbing reality of the concentration camps on the one hand, and the garish, violent world of pulp fiction, but Tidhar carries it off triumphantly.

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Stephen Baxter's Proxima was one of the great science fiction novels of 2013. It told of a group of convicts who are shipped out to the newly discovered world of Proxima IV, where the reluctant and quarrelsome settlers make a strange discovery: hatches which open to other possibilities. Now, in the sequel, the stage becomes even bigger. We start on an Earth still ruled by the Roman Empire, but an empire that has now reached the stage of space exploration. But from here the hatches start to open up new worlds, new universes, and a plan that seems to stretch from the beginning of time through to its very end. Why it's on the list: Baxter has always been at his best when playing with big ideas, and they don't come much bigger than this.

Books in Proxima Series (1)

This short novel by one of the most reliable writers in the genre is a first contact story with a difference. Aliens have landed in New York, or rather, just off shore, where they have constructed an impenetrable dome, so no-one knows who or what they are, where they have come from, and why they're here. Then Marianne Jenner, a top geneticist, is summoned to a mysterious meeting in New York. There she finds that the aliens have specially asked to meet her, so she becomes part of the first human group to enter the dome. What they discover there is stranger than anyone expected, because the aliens aren't really alien, and they bring a warning that Earth is about to pass through a zone of space that could prove lethal to all of humanity. Marianne has ten months to find a solution. Why it's on the list: Nancy Kress keeps her story short and focussed, and it is all the better for it. There's a small cast of characters, a limited number of settings, and all of our attention is fixed on the overwhelming mystery. The result is a dramatic and compelling story.
Melanie is a clever girl, she has a genius-level IQ and she's only 10 years old. But the adults looking after her keep her tied up and at gunpoint, because Melanie is a 'hungry;. Most of humanity has been infected by a strange fungus that wipes out their intelligence and brings on cannibalism. The few surviving humans live in heavily guarded bases, in one of which they are investigating a small number of hungries like Melanie who have retained their intelligence. Then the base is attacked, and Melanie, her two teachers and a couple of guards have to try to escape across country. Along the way, they make devastating discoveries about the nature of the hungries, which means that humanity will never be the same again. Why it's on the list: The zombie apocalypse has become one of the most over-familiar tropes of recent times, but most versions play with a very limited set of characteristics. It is both surprising and welcome, therefore, to find a new and different way of treating the subject. But that is exactly what The Girl With All The Gifts is, and it is both compelling storytelling and incredibly moving as a result.
Throughout the history of the genre, authors have written dystopian views of highly regimented societies where everyone is assigned a place from birth and must stick to that role. Well we share our planet with a species that is organized exactly like that, and yet we don*t make them the subjects of such dystopias. Until now. The Bees is the story of Flora 717, born to be a member of the lowest caste in the hive. But Flora has a dangerous flaw, curiosity. It leads her to defend the hive in times of trouble, and earns her the right to serve the Queen directly. But it also leads her to break the most sacred law of all, and that brings on the powerful enmity of the fertility police and the high priestesses. Why it*s on the list: This is a superbly written debut novel that is by turns thrilling, touching, spectacular and witty. It does what all the best science fiction should: it makes an alien society both engaging and comprehensible.