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Top 25 Post Human Science Fiction Books
In 1859, prompted by the similar ideas being developed by Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, perhaps the most revolutionary book in the history of modern civilisation. The notion of evolution had been around for a long time, but now there was a mechanism for evolution, and with that came an understanding of the way it affected every living thing on Earth. Well, for some it did. For a lot of people there was an assumption that humanity marked an evolutionary peak, specifically that there could be nothing higher on the evolutionary scale than a Victorian Englishman.
But H.G. Wells, who had studied for a while at the Normal School of Science under Darwin’s disciple, T.H. Huxley, recognised that evolution was an unending process, and in his first novel, The Time Machine, introduced a future humanity that had divided into two separate and antagonistic species, the Morlocks and the Eloi. For the first time, science fiction raised the question of what might come after humanity as we know it today.
To be fair, the vast majority of the science fiction that followed over the next 100 or so years didn’t give the question a second thought. There are countless stories set in the immensely distant future in which the characters are indistinguishable from whoever we might have encountered in a mid-20th century American city. But some have asked what comes next if we are not the end, enough to make a substantial if sometimes disturbing list.
Basically, there are four answers to the question of what comes next. 1: Evolution; following on from Wells, a few writers have considered how we might be changed by the natural processes of time. 2: Usurpation; there is a large body of work that simply assumes that humanity will die out, will kill itself, or will be killed by others, and the Earth will be taken over by another race, whether ants or robots. 3: Alteration; by far the most common assumption is that we will simply change ourselves to suit different circumstances. After all, this is something we already do, from artificial limbs to hearing aids, from pacemakers to dialysis machines, so it seems like a natural not to say inevitable progression. The only issue is whether the alteration is mechanical, biological or digital. 4: Exogamy; the final route, which is not really as common as you might expect, involves some form of merger with the alien, whether willingly (marriage) or unwillingly (infection).
All of these four approaches to posthumanity are represented in the following selection of novels. Some are set long after the moment of change, by which time the posthumans are familiar and unexceptional; some leave us with no more than a harbinger of change, a hint of what might follow; and some attempt to convey some of the processes involved in that change. But all assure us that you and I and everyone we see around us is not the end of the story.
H.G. Wells was an incredibly busy writer, producing three or four books every single year between 1895 and 1946, but among these were an awful lot of science fiction books. They are all very readable and exciting, but the early ones in particular virtually invented some of the most important ideas in the genre.
The Island of Doctor Moreau tells of a mad scientist, hidden away on an isolated island, who performs vivisection that turns wild animals into debased humans; it is a powerful tale of horror and the misuse of science.
The War of the Worlds is the first alien invasion story, which tells of Martians landing on the outskirts of London and proving technologically superior to the most powerful nation on Earth.
The Invisible Man is a version of the Jeckyll and Hyde story, in which a researcher invents a potion that makes him all but invisible; but he cannot regain visibility. This makes him an outcast whose only recourse is to ever more extreme crimes and acts of terrorism.
The First Men in the Moon is the story of an inventor who creates an anti-gravity material that he uses to construct a spacecraft in which he an a friend travel to the moon. But there they discover a regimented and dystopian society.
The political nuances that play such an important part in Schismatrix are also there in much of his other work. For instance, Distraction, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is a subtle account of the different political factions at play in a balkanised future America. While Heavy Weather looks at how climate change leads to extreme storms, and the knock-on political and social effects of this change.
Mirrorshades, which Bruce Sterling edited, is the definitive cyberpunk collection, containing William Gibson's story "The Gernsback Continuum", along with work by key cyberpunk authors including Pat Cadigan, Paul Di Filippo, Lewis Shiner, James Patrick Kelly, Rudy Rucker and others.
The Shaper/Mechanist stories had a profound influence on many of the writers who have emerged in the new century. Perhaps the most significant of these is Accelerando by Charles Stross, which won the Locus Award. A series of linked stories take us from tomorrow's 24-hour online society to a space voyage as digitised information, to the dismantling of the planets to make a vast, solar powered computer.
Last and First Men is grand enough and awesome enough in scale for anyone, but Star Maker is even grander, it is nothing less than the entire history of life in the universe. It begins on a small scale with one man in contemporary England who is somehow taken up into the universe where he explores another civilisation on a planet not unlike earth. Then his mind merges with one of the people from this world, and they go on to explore another, then another, each time the cosmic mind grows until eventually they meet the Star Maker himself, and realise that this universe is only one among many.
Two other books by Stapledon are well worth checking out. Sirius is the story of a scientist who creates a dog with human-like intelligence that is raised alongside the scientist's daughter as if they are brother and sister. Odd John, on the other hand, is about a super-intelligent human, homo superior (this is the first appearance of that phrase), and about the conflicts this intelligence creates with ordinary humans.
Two other works deserve to be read alongside Odd John. The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford is one of the earliest stories of this type, being a biographical account of the upbringing of a deformed but preternaturally bright child. Another World by J-H RosnyaÃ®nÃ© is the story of a mutant child whose extraordinary perception allows him to see another order of life existing alongside our own, both unaware of each other.
Books in Xenogenesis Series (3)
Greg Bear also dealt with nanotechnology in Queen of Angels and its sequel, Slant. In the near future, nanotechnology has been used in psychotherapy so that now the vast majority of people have gone through the technique that ensures they are well-integrated, happy and content. Then a famous writer commits a gruesome murder, the sort of crime that should not exist in this therapied world. At the same time, an AI operating a space probe discovers signs of life around Alpha Centauri and simultaneously achieves artificial intelligence. The two novels together tell a fascinating story in which questions of identity, who we are and how we got there, are always central.
Bear has also written some monumental hard sf, of which the best is probably Eon, in which a mysterious asteroid comes close to earth and is revealed to contain mysterious tunnels and long-abandoned cities, and at the end the corridor opens out way beyond the physical limits of the asteroid, taking us into an extraordinary pocket universe.
Books in Brainship Series (5)
Books in Instrumentality Of Mankind Series (7)
Apart from his spectacular stories, Cordwainer Smith wrote only one novel, Norstrilia, which is also set in the future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, and which is also eminently readable. The hero amasses the biggest fortune in the history of the universe thanks to stroon, a drug that allows people to live extended lifespans. He is so rich that he is rumoured to have bought Old Earth, the legendary home of humanity. Touring Earth in the company of the bewitching cat woman C'Mell, he puts his immense fortune towards campaigning for the rights of the under people.
If you are looking for other distinctive voices in science fiction, you would do well to try the stories of R.A. Lafferty, for instance in Nine Hundred Grandmothers or Does Anyone Else have Something Further to Add? Idiosyncratic, wacky, weird, his stories are funny but unsettling, as if the only way to make sense of what happened is to accept that the world doesn't make sense. In the superb, "Narrow Valley", for instance, an old indian preserves his land from unscrupulous dealers by folding the landscape so the valley can only be seen by those who know it's there. Or in "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" a group of scientists use a time machine to change the past, but because everything has changed they don't realise it was successful, so they try again, and again.
Another contender for the title of Simak's best novel has to be Way Station, which displays all the features characteristic of his best work: a love of the pastoral, a preference for quiet country people who relish their isolation, and a sense that humanity is inherently violent. In this case a Civil War veteran who has a small farm in Wisconsin has been given immortality in return for allowing his farm to be used as a way station, a transit point for aliens travelling across the galaxy by matter transmission. Nobody notices this until, a hundred years later, the government begins to wonder why he hasn't aged. Government action reveals factions among the aliens, while an alien gift to the farmer allows him to foresee the possibility of nuclear war. Winner of the Hugo Award, and regularly placed among the best all-time sf novels, Way Station is typically quiet and engaging while raising some very thorny questions.
Karel Ã?apek was a prolific journalist, playwright and critic. As Arthur Miller said: "There was no writer like him...prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination...he is a joy to read." This unique combination is not just evident in R.U.R., but also in his amazing science fiction novel, War With The Newts. Like R.U.R., this is a story about the way people exploit others, in this case a race of intelligent newts discovered on a remote Pacific island. At first the newts are enslaved by an industrialist, but eventually clashes start, and the newts begin to destroy the landmass in order to create more living room for themselves.
Books in Nanotech Series (5)
Books in Vorkosigan Saga Series (37)
There's lots of military sf out there, but if you're looking for something that has the same romantic feel, you really need to try the Honor Harrington books by David Weber, there's 20 or more of them now, stories of the space navy that are closely modeled on the Horation Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester.
Another series worth checking out is the Familias Regnant sequence by Elizabeth Moon. There are seven novels to date, in which Moon draws on her own military experience to provide a convincing account of military operations in space.