29 Best Transhuman Science Fiction Books

transhuman

Transhumanism is the idea of using technology to (hopefully) improve the human condition. This can run the gamut from contact lenses to grafting brain implants into fetuses. Think cyborgs.

Books often delve into the question of where the line of human and non-human is, and what is means to be human. Since we don’t really know what it means to be human now (if indeed it means anything), that question gets complicated quickly. Throw in a few rogue AIs and a couple of competing species of runaway nanotechnology, and you’ve got yourself a story.

29
Vurt
by Jeff Noon – 1993

Vurt is a drug accessed by sucked on color-coded feathers. Effects of Vurt are hallucinations or maybe a shared alternate reality—its never explained precisely what’s going on. A few of Vurt’s colors: Blues for lullaby dreams; Blacks, filled with tenderness and pain; Pinks, doorways to bliss. Silver feathers for techies who know how to remix colors and open new dimensions. And Yellows—the feathers from which there is no escape.

The beautiful young Desdemona is trapped in Curious Yellow, the ultimate Metavurt, a feather few have ever seen and fewer still have dared ingest. Her brother Scribble will risk everything to rescue his beloved sister. Helped by his gang, the Stash Riders, hindered by shadowcops, robos, rock and roll dogmen, and his own dread, Scribble searches along the edges of civilization for a feather that, if it exists at all, must be bought with the one thing no sane person would willingly give.

Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke award and has been compared to A Clockwork Orange and Neuromancer, but it has its detractors: Kirkus Reviews called the plot “wildly kaleidoscopic” but unsatisfying, and Entertainment Weekly said the book’s “sentimental incest and adolescent self-congratulation…is never really startling or disturbing.”

Like the title drug, you can’t be completely sure how you’re going to react to it until you try it.

28
Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress – 1993

Originally a Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella, Beggars in Spain follows Leisha Camden, a genetically engineered “Sleepless.” Her ability to stay awake all the time has not only made her more productive, but the genetic modifications have also given the Sleepless a higher IQ and may even make them immortal. Are they the future of humanity? Or will the small community of Sleepless be hunted down as freaks by a world that has grown wary of its newest creation?

Touted as thought-provoking even by its detractors, Beggars in Spain is occasionally criticized for too-thin characters and occasional preachiness.

27
Cyborg
by Martin Caidin – 1972

Cyborg was adapted as the television movie The Six Million Dollar Man, which was followed by a weekly series of the same name, and also inspired a spin-off, The Bionic Woman.

Despite all that, the book isn’t as cheesy as you might think. In fact, it’s actually really well written. Author Caidin injects a lot of action into his story, but a lot of psychology, too: Steve Austin (the cyborg) has problems with his “freakish” nature and with being a government pawn.

26
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
by Cory Doctorow – 2003

It takes a special mind to combine Disney and cyberpunk, and author Cory Doctorow apparently has it (in his head, or in a jar, I don’t know the specifics).

Jules is a young man barely a century old. He’s lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies…and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.

Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century, currently in the keeping of a network of “ad hocs” who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.

Now, though, the “ad hocs” are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself.

Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it’s war!

“Jules’s narrative unfolds so smoothly that readers may forget that all this raging passion is over amusement park rides. Then they can ask what that shows about the novel’s supposedly mature, liberated characters. Doctorow has served up a nicely understated dish: meringue laced with caffeine.”
— Publishers Weekly

25
Blood Music
by Greg Bear – 1985

An amazing breakthrough in genetic engineering made by a scientist is considered too dangerous for further research, but rather than destroy his work, he injects himself with his creation and walks out of his lab, unaware of just how his actions will change the world.

Fun fact: author Bear is married to Astrid Anderson, daughter of science fiction great Poul Anderson.

24
Natural History
by Justina Robson – 2003

Advances in genetic engineering have created the Forged, human/machine hybrids that carry out tasks too mundane or too dangerous for the Unevolved, as non-Forged humans are called. Soon after, a Forged explorer, Voyager Lonestar Isol, returns from a 15-year trip andannounces that she’s found an empty Earth-like planet in a distant star system. By claiming it as a home world, the Forged can finally break from the resented Gaiasol, the political entity that rules Earth’s solar system. However, this opportunity may be too good to be true.

“Thought-provoking… Fans of the sweeping, politically and psychologically aware space opera of Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod will be intrigued by Robson’s setting and the new slant she takes on universal questions.”
— Publishers Weekly

23
Postsingular
by Rudy Rucker – 2007

Known as the prince of gonzo SF, author Rudy Rucker writes engaging fiction that’s just a little north of crazy. I loved his Ware Tetralogy and Postsingular is even nuttier.

Most of the story takes place in our world after a previously unimaginable transformation. All things look the same, and all people feel the same―but they are different (they’re able to read each others’ minds, for starters). Travel to and from other nearby worlds in the quantum universe is possible. And our world is visited by giant humanoids from another quantum universe, some of whom mean to tidy up the mess we’ve made.

Or maybe just run things.

“His novel vibrates with the warm rhythms of dream and imagination, not the cold logic of programming (or, for that matter, plotting). Playing with the math of quantum computing, encryption and virtual reality, Rucker places his faith in people who find true reality gnarly enough to love.”
— Publishers Weekly

22
Queen City Jazz
by Kathleen Ann Goonan – 1994

In an impressive first novel, author Goonan imagines an original futuristic dystopia where a world has undergone a plague of nanotech. Young Verity lives in a community that eschews technology, but her best friend is shot, and she must wrap him in a forbidden cocoon of nanotech to keep him alive. She takes him to the tech-strewn Cincinnati, where she gets more than she bargained for.

Highlights of the book include a scene in which Ernest Hemingway gets kicked off a baseball team because he’s not a “team player.”

“[A] pleasure… watching the intelligent heroine grapple with responsibility, passion and artistic creation. While overly dense in detail, Goonan’s work is powerful and richly textured.”
— Publishers Weekly

21
Hyperion
by Dan Simmons – 1989

Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

20
Slan
by A. E. van Vogt – 1946

Slans are evolved humans, named after their alleged creator, Samuel Lann. They have the psychic abilities to read minds and are super-intelligent. They possess near limitless stamina, “nerves of steel,” and superior strength and speed. When Slans are ill or seriously injured, they go into a healing trance automatically.

Apparently, throughout the forties and into the fifties, Slan was considered the single most important SF novel, the one great book that everyone had to read. Today it’s pulpy fun, filled with constant action and a cornucopia of ideas.

19
More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon – 1953

Lone can make a man blow his own brains out just by looking at him.

Janie moves things without touching them.

Baby invented an antigravity engine while still in the cradle.

Gerry has everything it takes to run the world—except for a conscience.

Separately, they are talented freaks. Together they compose a single organism that may represent the next step in evolution. As the protagonists of More Than Human struggle to find out whether they are meant to help humanity or destroy it, Theodore Sturgeon explores the questions of power and morality, individuality and belonging, with sophistication and lyricism rarely seen in science fiction.

“A masterpiece of provocative storytelling.”
— New York Herald Tribune

18
The Dying Earth
by Jack Vance – 1950

Tales of the Dying Earth is an omnibus volume comprising all four books in the Dying Earth series: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent (I can’t a copy of this book on sale anywhere).

A fascinating, baroque tale set on a far-future Earth, under a giant red sun that is soon to go out forever. Note that these books are also classified as fantasy.

17
Schizmatrix
by Bruce Sterling – 1985

The Mechanists are ancient aristocrats, their lives prosthetically extended with advanced technology. The Shapers are genetically altered revolutionaries, their skills the result of psychotechnic training and artificial conditioning.

Both factions are fighting to control humankind.

The Shapers are losing the battle, but Abelard Lindsay, a failed and exiled Shaper diplomat, isn’t giving up. Lindsay moves from world to world, building empires, struggling for his cause—but more often fighting for his life.

Rebel and rogue, pirate and politician, soldier and scholar, he can alter the direction of man’s destiny—if he can survive.

16
The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi – 2009

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

“This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best, will garner Bacigalupi significant critical attention and is clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year.”
— Publishers Weekly

15
Memory
by Linda Nagata – 2013

On an artificial world with a forgotten past, floods of “silver” rise in the night like fog, rewriting the landscape and consuming those caught in its cold mists. Seventeen-year-old Jubilee knows that no one ever returns from the silver. But then a forbidding stranger appears, asking after her beloved brother, lost long ago to a silver flood. Could he still be alive? And why does the silver rise ever higher, threatening to drown the world? Jubilee pursues the truth on a quest to unlock the memory of a past reaching back farther than she ever imagined.

“This poignant tale with the bones of hard science is bound to win Nagata new fans.”
— Publishers Weekly

14
Upload
by Mark McClelland – 2012

His criminal past catching up with him, a troubled young man seeks escape into digital utopia by uploading his consciousness into a computer—just as first love casts his life in a new light.

13
Memories with Maya
by Clyde Dsouza – 2013

The indie book takes an interesting look into how artificial intelligence and augmented reality affect human relations. If something is indistinguishable from a human being, does the difference really matter?

Great ideas, solid writing, and an exciting plot more than make up for the meh cover.

12
Diaspora
by Greg Egan – 1997

If you like hard science fiction, as in characters-are-talking-about-four-dimensional-topolgy-and-the-author-expects-me-to-get-it hard science fiction, then this book is for you.

It’s 2975, and humanity has driven down several different evolutionary paths. “Fleshers” are heavily genetically engineered human bodies, “gleisners” are human-shaped robots run by self-aware software, and the pure AI/human minds live in “polises.”

The orphan Yatima, a digital being grown from a mind seed, joins a group of citizens and flesher refugees in a search for the knowledge that will guarantee their safety—a search that puts them on the trail of the ancient and elusive Transmuters, who have the power to reshape subatomic particles, and to cross into the macrocosmos, where the universe we know is nothing but a speck in the higher-dimensional vacuum.

“[F]ans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan’s speculations.”
— Publishers Weekly

11
The Golden Age
by John C. Wright – 1979

Ten thousand years in the future, Phaethon, of Radamanthus House, attends a glorious party at his family mansion to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the High Transcendence. There he meets first an old man who accuses him of being an impostor and then a being from Neptune who claims to be an old friend. The Neptunian tells him that essential parts of his memory were removed and stored by the very government that Phaethon believes to be wholly honorable. It shakes his faith. He is an exile from himself.

And so Phaethon embarks upon a quest across the transformed solar system—Jupiter is now a second sun, and both Mars and Venus are terraformed. He travels among immortal humans, intelligent machines, and bizarre life forms that are partly both; seeking to recover his memory, and to learn what crime he planned that warranted such preemptive punishment. His quest is to regain his true identity.

“[D]azzling…a rare and mind-blowing treat.”
— Publishers Weekly

10
Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley – 1818

It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. It’s certainly the first transhumanist one (though who knows what Shelley would have made of that term). It delves into the humanity of the monster and those around him, as opposed to the precise methods the doctor used to animate him.

Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.

It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.

9
Lilith's Brood
by Octavia E. Butler – 2000

Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three works: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, also called the Xenogenesis trilogy.

Lilith Iyapo is in the Andes, mourning the death of her family, when war destroys Earth. Centuries later, she is resurrected by miraculously powerful unearthly beings called the Oankali. Driven by an irresistible need to heal others, the Oankali are rescuing our dying planet by merging genetically with mankind. But Lilith and all humanity must now share the world with uncanny, unimaginably alien creatures: their own children. This is their story…

8
Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn – 1989

It’s debatable as to whether Geek Love is actually science fiction, but it covers a lot of the same ground transhuman does, so it has a place in this list.

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out—with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes—to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan; Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins; albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset.

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., they inspire fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion. Meanwhile, its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry.

“[E]ngrossing and repellent, funny and terrifying, unreal and true to human nature…a brilliant, suspenseful, heartbreaking tour de force.”
— Publishers Weekly

7
Dune
by Frank Herbert – 1965

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and has spawned a huge franchise (I think we’re past “series” at this point). Dune’s sandworms remain one of the most fascinating alien species in science fiction literature.

Many of the human characters in Dune are altered in different ways, though the changers sometimes border on mystical instead of technological.

Oddly enough, no one’s been able to tell Dune visually (no, I’m not counting Lynch’s Dune. He tried, but it wasn’t good).

Whoever can crack the Dune visuals and create a film or show that fans embrace will make shocking amounts of money. In the meantime, enjoy Dune and God Emperor of Dune (the others are iffy). The other books by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson lack the depth of the original Dune, but are all entertaining reads.

6
Accelerando
by Charles Stross – 2005

Accelerando moves like a bat out of hell and made me afraid that the future’s going to tear us all a new one.

It’s dense, and author Charles Stross presents enough throwaway ideas for at least a dozen other novels.

Accelerando follows the adventures of three generations as they experience the world just before the technological singularity, during it, and just after. Brain implants are not only common, but necessary in order to keep pace with everyone else.

(The technological singularity is the point where an artificial intelligence begins to create a runaway chain reaction of improving itself, with each iteration becoming more intelligent. Eventually, it is vastly superior to any human intelligence. Is that something to worry about? Maybe. Stephen Hawking once said, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”)

The book is deeply technical in spots, which is fun, but still has good characters you root for (or despise).

5
A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge – 1992

Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.

Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, composed not entirely of humans, must rescue the children—and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.

“Vinge offers heart-pounding, mind-expanding science fiction at its best.”
— Publishers Weekly

4
Revelation Space
by Alastair Reynolds – 2000

Revelation Space is a sprawling, hard-SF tale with enough original ideas for three thick novels. Seriously, it’s overflowing with the stuff. And it’s written by a guy with a Ph.D. in astronomy, so all the science feels solid.

It’s got aliens, artificial intelligence, megastructures, colonized planets, ancient mysteries, cyborgs, big-ass spaceships, intrigue, betrayal, and murder. Reads don’t get much more satisfying than this.

3
Look to Windward
by Iain M. Banks – 2000

In this Culture novel when the 800-year-old light of a distant space battle reaches the Masaq’Orbital, an emissary from Chel arrives on a mission hidden even to himself. Only Ziller, a Chelgrian composer, can unlock a secret that could save or destroy an entire world.

If you haven’t read a Culture novel yet, this one is a good jumping-in point.

“Although things start a bit slowly, Banks’s fine prose, complex plotting and well-rounded characters will eventually win over even the most discerning readers, and all will find themselves fully rewarded when the novel reaches its powerful conclusion.”
— Publishers Weekly

2
Starfish
by Peter Watts – 1999

Emotionally damaged people are sent to work next to a giant rift in the ocean floor, harvesting energy for surface dwellers. The workers are a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater to work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.

This book taught me that you can make a protagonist as crazy as you want, as long as what she’s battling against is even crazier.

Brilliant, twisted fun by an ex-marine biologist. Go read it.

1
Childhood's End
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1953

It looks like a good deal at first: a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia. However, they refuse to answer questions about themselves and govern from orbiting spaceships. Clarke has said that the idea for Childhood’s End may have come from the numerous blimps floating over London during World War II.


 

7 thoughts on “29 Best Transhuman Science Fiction Books

  1. What about Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley? A serious omission. This should be number two behind Frankenstein.

  2. Paradigm Shift by Buzby X -turned me on to the whole idea…I got the PDF free in the Steam forums, or you can get a hard copy from amazon

  3. I would like to nominate Mutineer’s Moon by David Weber. Weber takes people and heavily modifies them into virtual cyborgs with 6X strength and X faster responses. Even new skin and eyes that can survive in vacuum for six hours without a suit or oxygen.

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