Jun 20 2013 9:00am

Eight Books From the Last Decade That Made Me Excited About SF

Eight Books From the Last Decade That Made Me Excited About SF

A friend who used to read a lot of SF but who hasn’t read any for a while asked me for recommendations for recent science fiction books that I was excited about. These aren’t meant as anybody’s “best,” least of all mine, they’re just science fiction books written in the last ten years that have made me excited about the possibilities of SF all over again. The “sense of wonder” is easy to get when you’re twelve, because everything is new, but books that can give it to me now are valuable.

I thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing to come to mind was Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes (2005). It’s post-everything science fiction, it deals with virtuality, loss of privacy, identity issues, and what it means to be human when it’s possible to edit that. It’s a book that raises huge philosophical issues, and it’s also a cracking good story with great characters. I like all of Schroeder, but this is my favourite book of his so far, and definitely one of the things I want to point to when I say that this is what the genre is capable of.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin (2006) takes an original science fiction idea and uses it to tell a double-braided human story. Aliens, or something—they call them the Hypotheticals—have put Earth in a protective cocoon that means that while time passes normally for us, outside the universe is flashing by and the sun is getting dangerously hot. Nobody knows why this has happened, and people respond in all the ways people do—with science, religion, panic and hope. Wilson carries everything through and makes it all work—with great characters and a terrific voice.

Susan Palwick’s Shelter (2007) is a thoroughly imagined near future US where everything has changed but grown out of where we are. It’s about artificial intelligence and the medicalization of character flaws—and even things that might not be flaws. One of the main characters is under intervention for altruism for most of the book. It takes visible trends and extrapolates them out in the way only science fiction can, and it’s doing that with the trends of today—well, 2007. Again, it’s also wonderfully written. Maybe when I was twelve I could get excited by a badly written book with shiny ideas, but not any more.

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) is a big novel about the history of philosophy and science—set in an alternate world where that history has been different but parallel—and yet Stephenson manages to make it a ton of fun. There are things wrong with it, and I’ve been reliably informed that the physics makes no sense, but that doesn’t matter because what Stephenson’s doing is writing something new about the way people think and the way the scientific worldview affects everything. It also has geeky scientific monasteries that feel real and are fascinating.

Geoff Ryman’s Air (2005) is one of those books that draws you in immediately. It’s about a future mind-internet coming to a little third world village that has been on the edges of technological civilization for a long time, and how it affects the people, especially the women. Karzistan is an imaginary country somewhere on the Silk Road. It has always been marginal, been a margin, and it still is. Gibson said the future was unevenly distributed, and this is a brilliant book about the unequal edge of distribution. This is the kind of book that wouldn’t have been written in previous decades because it took a lot of work and ground clearing to get to a place where it was possible to make these characters visible. Which is part of what it’s about.

Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark (2003) is about an autistic man in the near future. Again it has a very clear distinct voice—and this is indeed something I like in a book, but it’s not something new in the last decade! Speed of Dark is a character portrait of a very unusual character, seen from inside. The way Lou thinks is different and fascinating, and Moon shows us that close up and almost makes us feel what it would be like. This is a book that does rely on a lot of past SF—in particular “Flowers for Algernon”—but which is going on and doing something really interesting with it.

Kasuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is a science fiction novel written by a mainstream writer—and the trend for this last decade has been the tendency for these not to suck. (In addition to Ishiguro, Michael Chabon has pulled it off brilliantly.) Never Let Me Go is a dystopia that uses the mode usually used for writing about privilege and nostalgia to talk about appalling things. It’s shocking and powerful and wonderful and original.

M.J. Locke’s Up Against It (2012) is book I’ve only read once, and which I’m planning to read again and write about really soon. It’s set in a near future solar system, and it’s full of engineering and problems with water and technology and people. It’s a whole lot like the kind of traditional science fiction I love, but it has real rounded characters and the modern solar system—the one science has recently revealed to us, not the one SF has taken as a default setting for so long. Up Against It is exciting to me because it’s doing what old SF did, taking current science and engineering and writing fun stories with it, only with current science and engineering. And current practice of characterisation and plot. It’s a terrific read.

I’m well aware that I haven’t read everything from the last decade. Emmet suggested that Peter Watts Blindsight absolutely belongs on this list, and so does China Mieville’s The City and the City. But I haven’t got to them yet, and so they’re not on my list. I’m sure there are lots of things I’ve missed, and probably lots of things I’ll think of myself as soon as I hit send. (That always happens.) I’d be very interested to have people add to this list in comments, with recent science fiction novels that have made them excited about what science fiction can do. Please don’t list fantasy. I may do a companion post about fantasy later.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. SmitaJ
As one of those people who keeps asking for new scifi recommendations, I have to say thank you! :) I just keep reading the authors I used to read and always feel desperate when I'm done with their annual output.
Dave Thompson
2. DKT
Great list, Jo! I hope you do end up doing a fantasy companion one day :)

Even though it probably isn't about the possibilities of SF the way you meant it, I'd throw Leviathan Wakes up here, because it reminded me how much fun Science Fiction could be again.

For my money, I'd swap out Mieville's The City & The City (which reads more like fantasy to me) with Embassytown.

(This is probably cheating because Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice isn't out for a few more months - but ho boy, I can't wait until it is. It's great, and I think a lot of people are going to be talking about it for a long time.)
James Nicoll
3. JamesDavisNicoll
It’s set in a near future solar system, and it’s full of engineering and problems with water and technology and people.

Implausible problems with water, ones driven by an inexplicably awful choice for where to get water given what we believe to be true about the New Solar System. In the book's defence, this problem with water distribution is in no way unique to this book.

Locke gets points for understanding what a useful resource Jupiter's gravity is, though.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
For books from the last decade that made me excited about SF, I would also vote for Blindsight by Peter Watts. It is very dark, but wildly explorative. The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi pushed even more boundaries than The Quantum Thief and I would put it as exciting me about possibilites more.
Accelerando by Charles Stross is an explosion of a book chock full of ideas.
Oddly, I haven't read any of the eight books you listed here and so that is wonderful also as I get to read them. I really do need to just get over sleeping.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Need some Stross on this list.

Spin and Anathem deserve to be here. Haven't read the rest.

I'm a big fan of Cline's Ready Player One. Perhaps not that "EXCITING" but very high on the "FUN" side of the SF ledger.
Rich Bennett
6. Neuralnet
my favorite SF books from the last decade are probably Old Man's War by John Scalzi and Saturn's Children by Charles Stross. Both are just fun space adventures with a few interesting twists.
Lauren James
7. LaurenJ
I think most of my novel suggestions have already been listed, but if we could include short story collections as well, I'd say that Maureen McHugh's brilliant (and recent enough) After the Apocalypse did a lot to address recent issues (soft, economic-based apocalypses, economics, etc.). McHugh's always good, though.
8. kamandi
I just want to thank you for introducing me to Susan Palwick's writing. After reading the review of Mending the Moon, I decided to give The Necessary Beggar a try. I loved it and now I have to read more by her.
9. Ugly Bad Bear
I'd add Will McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse. Frighteningly plausible and damn well written.
individ ewe-al
10. individ-ewe-al
The other Spin books, Chris Moriarty's ones! The first of the trilogy is mind-blowingly good, I really like the second one but for different reasons, and I haven't read the third yet. I liked RCW's Spin too, but I found it weirdly old-fashioned, I recommend it to people who haven't really picked up any SF since Asimov and are looking for more of that kind of thing.

Something of Ian Mcdonald's recent work needs to be in a decade of SF list; my personal preference would be for River of gods, though others might disagree.

The City and the City is really very good but I agree with DKT that it's somewhat borderline between SF and fantasy.

I'd vote for Leviathan Wakes or The Quantum Thief (haven't read the sequel yet) over Anathem but then I'm afraid I kind of hated Anathem.

Air broke my suspension of disbelief really badly with a complete misrepresentation of how human reproduction works. I mean, the book has other good features, but I couldn't get past that problem.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Individ-ewe-al: I have real problems with that too. I believe that makes Air fantasy, or possibly even magic realism. Apart from that, I really love it.
James Nicoll
12. JamesDavisNicoll
The book that had the greatest positive difference between what I expected and what I got was J.R. Pournelle's Outies. The history of sequels to classic works of SF written decades later by children of the original author is not a laudible one but Outies is pretty good, the sequel The Gripping Hand should have been but was not.

I expect Pournelle to some day win a Tiptree Award and there's a sentence I never envisioned typing before encountering Outies.
13. Tyler23
The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy by M. John Harrison:
Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space

They're not for everyone but if they're for you, they're really for you. If that makes any sense. They're not about plots or science except in the sense that they're kind of about how even the most powerful science can leave us short of understanding, and about how no one person ever really knows enough to see "what's really going on."

In terms of sheer writing skill Harrison has no betters.

If you haven't read them, and you like so-called "literary SF," these books should be next on your list. You may not like them, but they deserve to be at the forefront of any conversation about modern developments in SF. And if you do like them, you will probably love them.
D. Bell
14. SchuylerH
@12: Could you read and enjoy Outies without having read The Mote In God's Eye? (Full disclosure: I have never read anything by Pournelle Mk. 1)
James Nicoll
15. JamesDavisNicoll
@12: Oh. I didn't think about that. I think you could.

(I don't want to make you go read Mote because it's not short. Big investment of time if you don't like it)
D. Bell
16. SchuylerH
My picks are Zoo City, Dark Eden, Arctic Rising, Nova Swing (it is completely irrational of me to consider it my favorite of the K-Tract trilogy, but there you go), The Quiet War & Gardens of the Sun (a long novel in two halves), Natural History, Among Others and possibly Blue Remembered Earth (it depends on how good the rest of the trilogy is).
17. Tyler23
SchuylerH, since the Kefahuchi books are about characters & the evocation of feeling I don't think you need to defend any reaction you might have to them on an emotional level. I thought that book was fascinating in that it seemed to center around the male characters and their obsessions, plotwise, but in the end seems to really be more about the women. Fascinating and elusive stuff.

I also greatly enjoyed the overt homage to Roadside Picnic which suffused & informed the entire novel.
18. LaerCarroll
Every one sounds boring. The sort of list one makes to show academics and high-brow critics what great literary works the SF/F fields contains.
D. Bell
19. SchuylerH
@17: Thanks. For some reason, the books I connect with in series don't tend to be the ones with the best critical or commercial reception.
20. Mary Beth
My tastes in SF are pretty narrow--I like Cherryh and Bujold and Joan Vinge but haven't found many other authors who hit my sweet spot--but I just discovered Karin Lowachee's WARCHILD books this month and I adore them. They made me excited for spaceships and stations and aliens all over again. I've heard she's working on a 4th book, possibly to be self-published; I earnestly hope it's true.
Rob Munnelly
21. RobMRobM
@18 - If these seem boring, appreciate hearing from you what recent SF works did excite you. Let's get more good stuff on the table.
Clay Blankenship
22. snoweel
I enjoyed both Spin and Anathem but haven't read the others--I read more fantasy--but several of these have caught my interest now.
23. brandiv87
Never Let Me Go was fantastic. I'm not cut out for some sci-fi. I'm honestly not smart enough. Snow Crash and Speaker for the Dead and some random Asimov novel went waaaaay over my head. But Never Let Me Go pulled me in from the get-go. Nice to see it on this list.
Any recommendations for people like me who aren't hard science fans? (Not that hard science is bad. I just don't understand it.)
24. dcbaok
Up Against It is superb, I can't praise this book enough. Blindsight is excellent as well. I haven't read any of the others listed, but would add Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams which really messed with my head (in a good way).
James Nicoll
25. JamesDavisNicoll
@20, you could try Pamela Sargent, Vonda N. McIntyre or Melissa Scott.

Or Walter Jon Williams' Angel Station, which for me is his CJ Cherryh book.
26. dancing crow
Courtesy of a pointer from Liz Bourke, I've been working my way through Martha Well's books. Death of the Necromancer stands alone, but fits into other books about Ile Rein including the trilogy that starts with The Wizard Hunters, and contains multiple worlds, wizards, gods, lots of magic and blimps. Everything is better with blimps. In an entirely different universe, she wrote about the most unexpected suites of beings, with a strong emphasis on predator/prey relationships. The first one there is The Cloud Roads.
27. Petar Belic
"In terms of sheer writing skill Harrison has no betters."
Ugh. Really did not enjoy Light, at all.

Anyway, thanks for the list Jo. Everyone likes Spin, I must read it soon, having not had the pleasure.
28. Juanito
I'm going to have to agree with a certain North Carolina based sci-fi author and say that Never Let Me Go while tragic and beautiful in its prose - left me a little flabbergasted as to why the didn't just run away while on their little junkets. And with all the furor over the killing of unborn children (or the abortion of fetuses) we have these days, one would think that this future where people are allowed to grow into adulthood under well educated circumstances only to be slaughtered like pigs for meat... well... you'd think people would be a little more resistant to this. Unless, I dunno, the children were largely de-brained before hand or were otherwise amenable to this situation. It's like Ishiguro was writing a sci-fi novel because he thought he could lend the genre a little credibilit-BLURGH.

Anathema was great. Stephenson's books are always wonderful when listened to. They have that appeal of a children's fairy tale, full of discovery and wonder. Except we're discovering things about science and wondering at the scope and scale of human existence. And shtuff...

Anyways, cool article. I'll have to check some of those other titles out. Alastair Reynolds got me excited about sci-fi when I'd only been into fantasy for a good long stretch. His book "House of Suns" is a great standalone novel with some loveable characters and a bittersweet ending.
Michal Jakuszewski
29. Lfex
Anathem and Spin definitely belong on the list IMHO. I also second Blindsight, Embassytown and The Quantum Thief. OTOH, I really hated Never Let Me Go. People. Just. Don't. Act. Like. This. The last three on my list would be probably Cloud Atlas, Harmony by Project Itoh and Light, but those are negotiable.
30. Oswaldina
Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake. The follow up The Year of the Flood is also not bad, but not nearly as good.

I also really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes and the whole Expanse series (3rd book is just out) by James S.A. Corey.
31. JaneP
@20 and @25 - Definately agree that if you like Cherryh and Bujold and Joan Vinge you will like Melissa Scott SF, particularly the Roads of Heaven triology now available as an ebook. My hardcopy copies of this series are dying and I would buy new versions if available.
James Nicoll
32. JamesDavisNicoll
I was very impressed by Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, one of the stronger debuts I've seen.

I also liked The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa. That's a Building Stuff IN SPACE! book and at least the author came up with an original reason to build something on the Moon (although as I said in my review, there's a point in the book where I wondered if maybe getting (CHARACTER) some therapy wouldn't have been cheaper).
James Nicoll
33. JamesDavisNicoll
Harmony by Project Itoh

This is my sad face that we will never get to see Project Itoh and Peter Watts collaborate on something.
D. Bell
34. SchuylerH
@20: If you like Hard SF, then Linda Nagata's books might be worth a look.
Dan Wilkenson
35. dwilke1333
Blindsight is an instant classic in my eyes and got me extremely excited about the genre again after I had been in a lull for some time. The Quantum Thief is also a favorite of mine in the past decade and as for new literature that has me extremely excited I just got done reading Galactic Battlefront: Chronicles of a UO Soldier...After finishing the book last month I read several more short stories on the website and have to say I haven't been this interested in a space opera since the early Star Wars Novels. Mace Crimson is very intriguing in his role amidst a hero's journey and I hope the sequel will reveal more about his past on Earth. Narel is also one of the most iconic villains I can remember, the SS about him was one I couldn't stop reading.
36. Mary Beth
@25 and 31,

Wow, thanks for the recommendations! I haven't heard of any of these before, and now I'm off to Amazon. :)
James Nicoll
37. JamesDavisNicoll

I mean, happy to be of service.
James Nicoll
38. JamesDavisNicoll
@19 This effect is not as pronounced with books as it is with TV shows but there's some correlation between me liking something and horrifyingly low sales. In contrast, the more I criticize a work the more likely it is to win a stack of major awards.
39. Zaradaqaw
@23 Old Man's War by Scalzi. It's a wonderful story and such a relief to read after so many books that seem want the reader to be confused.
40. brandiv87
@39: I keep hearing good things about it. I still haven't read any Scalzi. I will probably start there then! Thanks :)
Rob Munnelly
41. RobMRobM
To get a good taste of Scalzi, use the search function and seek "After the Coup." It's a short story set in the Old Man's War universe available on the site dating back to 2008 or so and you get a chance to see his writing style in action.

(To get a less good taste of Scalzi, search for his so deliberately craptastic it's wonderful and award nominated April Fools story "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City" also here on this site. )
Mary Kay Kare
43. MaryKay
I bought Up Against It on the recommendation of someone at Wiscon (I get such good recs there) but I haven't read it yet. Just moved it waaaay up the list. Thanks!
44. rmMyInitialsHaveBeenTaken
Thank you so much for this list -- I will be checking some of these out.

I can't believe Never Let Me Go is that recent -- I think it's a great novel, and it feels to me like an old classic already.

I must defend it against these perfidious commenters. Okay, actually, it's fine with me if you hate it, and I understand why. Ishiguro's characters always meekly accept an unacceptable fate. One wants them to be heroic, and they fail at that. But I think that often people do act like that. This novel is true science fiction in that it has not only a new technology -- the cloning -- but a social world that incorporates that technology. It makes us think about how society is structured.

So if you were to introduce organ-farm clones into our society today, it wouldn't work. People would say that clones are people too. The clones would indeed refuse to cooperate.

But in the novel, cloning seems to have begun in the 1950s, long before there was either legal abortion or an anti-abortion movement in real history, and when institutions like orphanages or magdalene laundries were not generally questioned. It's an alternate history, and my private theory is that it's a history where the Nazis won, and their approach to medical ethics resulted in these clones. I like to think it's the same world as Remains of the Day -- which is not SF but has another passive accept-my-fate anti-protagonist -- and the lord's Nazi collaborator friends have sabotaged the British war effort. That's probably too dramatic, since part of the point seems to be that we accept horrors as long as our society see them as natural, no evil Nazis required.

Anyway -- the clones do not run away, because where would they go? There is no clone liberation movement because everyone knows deep in their bones that clones are non-human objects. People view their bodies with visceral disgust. It is deeply embedded, unquestioned socially constructed fact. The school in the novel is an exception, run by clone-rights-supporting liberals; they do not question what clones are, which is non-human, but they consider that clones can think and feel and deserve not to suffer while waiting to donate their organs.

This makes us consider things in our history that were once unquestioned fact -- that races are fundamentally different, that the sexes are unequal, that deaf people are mentally handicapped -- which we know are wrong and which enabled horrible cruelty. There were abolitionists who never questioned the inferiority of non-whites, but thought that these inferior people deserved not to suffer. There were male suffragists who thought that women's place was in the home, but they should be able to vote. Alexander Graham Bell's way of helping deaf people was to suppress sign language. It makes us wonder what "facts" are "natural" to us today which enable unnecessary cruelty.
Paul Starr
45. pts
Blindsight is an amazing book.

Some others I haven't seen mentioned so far:

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is a long, meandering spiritual follow-up to his classic Mars books, and while I've seen it criticized for being aimless, I found it totally enthralling from cover to cover, a simultaneously fanciful and rigorously plausible depiction of life in the 23rd century. It was both deeply cynical and wildly optimistic, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Also, Leonard Richardson’s Constellation Games is amazing delight of a novel about aliens landing on earth and the shiftless slacker who decides he's going to port their video games. It's got great writing and fascinating ideas, with quotable passages on nearly every page. I can't recommend it enough.

Finally, it might not quite count as SF (it's no more SFnal than, say, Cryptonomicon), but Austin Grossman's You is maybe my favorite book of the year so far.
46. hankroberts
The Time Traveler's Wife
47. Jakk54
Out of this list, I've only read Spin, and yes it certainly should be here! I can also highly recommend the Windup Girl by Paolo Baccigalupi, which I also loved. The City and The City (I got that as an audiobook) I thought was excellent, quite intellectual and dry in tone, but I also very much enjoyed that about it - he has a unique writing style. Outside of those, a few other spring to mind, though whether they were within the past ten years I am not completely sure. Light by M. John Harrison, and one of my absolute favourites, River of Gods by Ian Macdonald (in fact, I'd put his book, Brasyl in the list also).

I noticed that someone picked up on another respondee's remark that every one on the list sounds boring. I agree with the response that we should talk about the good stuff. Remarks like "sound boring" are boring in themselves - you haven't earned the right to comment, because you haven't read the books. If you'd said you'd read them and still found them boring, that would have been fair enough.
Misti Schmidt
48. mmaries
Agree that Watts' Blindsight is a game changer. I'm not generally a fan of hard sci-fi, but this one pulled me and would not let me go.

I would also add A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. Original aliens, epic scale, fascinating galactic structure and movement.

Since Brust's Taltos novels made it onto Jo's fantasy list despite the first couple being published over a decade ago, I think Iain M. Banks' Culture novels could be added as game changers, too. Dystopian but truly optimistic futures are fairly rare in the genre. Pair that with excellent writing, et voila. Player of Games is probably the most accessible Culture novel to start with, gives the best galactic backstory.
49. Jedai
Those all sounds excellent (and if the rest of the list is as good as those I already read, that should be fantastic) but neither Air nor Lady of Mazes are available as ebooks internationally, which is quite vexing... They seems to have been digitalized, but I can't get them since I'm not in the USA or Canada.

About Never Let Me Go... Unfortunately I'm with those that think this universe isn't so implausible. We often forget how many horrors were accepted by the majority in the past and still are, as well as the power of cultural inertia and indoctrination by education and medias. A scary lot of people are satisfied by the status quo and won't ever do anything about it, if they don't actively fight to keep everything the same even when they faintly disapprove of some part of it.
50. pjcamp
The City and The City blows chunks. It is just about the dumbest thing I've ever read. Immensely disappointing.
51. Ronie Melvar
Science Fiction is a genre that is close to my heart. It gives the thrills I always look for when reading literature. Can't be any happier to read these 8 books you've recommended!
52. Sci-Fi geek
Great list! My favorite Neal Stephenson's book is Snow Crash though. By the way, here is my list of best modern sci fi books:

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