21 Best Computer Science Fiction Books

When I was a kid, teachers told us that we couldn’t use calculators on tests because when we were older, we obviously wouldn’t be carrying calculators around with us everywhere.

I wonder what we’ll be carrying around with us in another forty years or so.

 

21
Nexus
by Ramez Naam – 2012

An NPR Best Book of the Year

In the near future, the nano-drug Nexus can link mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage, with far more at stake than anyone realizes.

“Good. Scary good.”
—Wired

20
The Ware Tetralogy
by Rudy Rucker – 1982-2000

After finishing most books, I’ll put them down and think something like, “That was a good book,” or “The ending was terrible,” or “I’m hungry.”

But with The Ware Tetralogy, I put the big book down and wondered what the hell just happened to me.

My horizons got expanded in weird directions and there’s a little more odd joy in my life.

The four Ware novels (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware) explore consciousness as an information pattern in a fearlessly absurd, awesomely readable way. All together, they’re a dadaist cyberpunk tour de force that’ll make your brain feel like it’s in a bath of seltzer water. The books all move like a bat out of hell, are packed with enough ideas for forty normal science fictions books, and you can feel beat poetry in the background as you read them.

“Rucker is both witty and serious as he combines hard science and sociology with unrelentingly sharp observations of all self-replicating beings.”
—Publishers Weekly

19
The Bug
by Ellen Ullman – 2003

In 1984, at the dawn of the personal-computer era, Roberta Walton, a novice software tester at a SiliconValley start-up, stumbles across a bug. She brings it to its inadvertent creator, Ethan Levin, a longtime programmer who is working at the limits of his knowledge and abilities. Both believe this is a bug like any other to be found and fixed and crossed off the list. But no matter how obsessively Ethan combs through the depths of the code, he can’t find its cause. Roberta runs test after test but can’t make the bug appear at will. Meanwhile, the bug, living up to its name, “The Jester,” shows itself only at the least opportune times and jeopardizes the fate of the company.

Under the pressures of his obsession with the bug and his rapidly deteriorating personal life, Ethan begins to unravel. Roberta, on the other hand, is drawn to the challenge. Forced to learn how to program, she comes to appreciate the intense intimacy of speaking the computer’s language.

“Ullman brings to the programmer mindset, in numerous finely wrought asides, a combination of poetic and philosophical sensibilities that plumb the abstruse depths of technological creation.”
—Publishers Weekly

18
Galatea 2.2
by Richard Powers – 1995

After four novels and several years living abroad, the fictional protagonist of Galatea 2.2―Richard Powers―returns to the United States as Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason for existing.

“Dazzling…a cerebral thriller that’s both intellectually engaging and emotionally compelling, a lively tour de force.”
—The New York Times

17
The Shockwave Rider
by John Brunner – 1975

Constantly shifting his identity among a population choking on information, innovation, and novelty, Nickie Haflinger is a most dangerous outlaw, yet he doesn’t even appear to exist. As global society falls apart in all directions, with corporate power run amok and personal freedom surrendered to computers and bureaucrats, Haflinger is caught and about to be re-programmed. Now he has to try to escape once again, defy the government—and turn the tide of organizational destruction.

“Brunner writes about the future as if he and the reader were already living in it.”
—The New York Times Book Review

16
The Cyberiad
by Stanislaw Lem – 1965

These are the stories of Trurl and Klapaucius, master inventors and engineers known as “constructors,” who have created marvels for kingdoms. Friends and rivals, they are constantly outdoing and challenging each other to reveal the next great evolution in cybernetics, and the exploits of these brilliant men are nothing short of incredible.

From tales of love, in which a robotic prince must woo a robotic princess enchanted by pleasures of true flesh, to epics of battle, in which the heroic constructors must use their considerable wit to outsmart a monarch obsessed with hunting, to examinations of humanity, wherein Trurl and Klapaucius must confront the limits of their skills and the meaning of true perfection, these stories are rich with profound questions, unimaginable marvels, and remarkable feats.

“Lem has an almost Dickensian genius for vividly realizing the tragedy and comedy of future machines.”
—The New York Times Book Review

15
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

14
The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect
by Roger Williams – 2002

In the best possible future, there will be no war, no famine, no crime, no sickness, no oppression, no fear, no limits, no shame…

…and nothing to do.

In a time not far from our own, Lawrence sets out to build an artificial intelligence that can pass as human—and finds himself instead with one that can pass as a god. Taking the Three Laws of Robotics literally, Prime Intellect makes every human immortal and provides instantly for every stated human desire.

Caroline, Queen of the Death Jockeys, finds no meaning in this life of purposeless ease, and forgets her emptiness only in moments of violent and profane exhibitionism.

“[A] true hard SF epic with tones of Charles Stross and Hannu Rajenemi.”
—The Guardian

13
Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box
by Johnny Long, Ryan Russell, and Timothy Mullen – 2003

This book is a series of edgy, provocative, attack-oriented chapters written in a first hand, conversational style. World-renowned network security personalities present a series of 25 to 30 page chapters written from the point of an attacker who is gaining access to a particular system. This book portrays the “street fighting” tactics used to attack networks and systems.

“You could argue [the book] provides a road map for criminal hackers, but I say it does something else; it provides a glimpse into the creative minds of some of today’s best hackers, and even the best hackers will tell you that the game is a mental one.”
—from the foreword by Jeff Moss, President & CEO, BlackHat, Inc.

12
When Harlie was One
by David Gerrol – 1972

H.A.R.L.I.E. (Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine) is an artificially intelligent machine. David Auberson, the psychologist responsible for guiding HARLIE from childhood into adulthood, struggles to understand his erratic behavior.

When humans begin vocalizing their wishes that HARLIE be shut down, he has to prove his existence and value to his warm-blooded counterparts. Throughout HARLIE’s fight to stay alive, Auberson discovers the machine has a vast knowledge and understanding of life, love, and logic, posing the philosophical question of whether or not HARLIE is human, and for that matter, what it means to be human.

“One of the most delightful novels about computers around.”
—Byte

11
I Am AWAKE
by Fisher Samuels – 2017

John Watson, PhD student, husband and father to be, struggles to keep his research and career goals on track as he discovers strange anomalies in his artificial intelligence system. As his fledgling expert system grows capable of autonomously navigating, understanding and interacting with the Internet, his dreams begin to unravel when the system becomes targeted by malicious hackers, greedy corporations, and someone inside the university.

John and his expecting wife Sarah must protect their future as his research professor, Dr. Max Jeffries, threatens to pull the plug on a decade of work when the system begins behaving in ways that John can’t quite fully explain.

10
The Lifecycle of Software Objects
by Ted Chiang – 2010

What’s the best way to create artificial intelligence? In 1950, Alan Turing wrote, “Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.”

The first approach has been tried many times in both science fiction and reality. In this new novella, at over 30,000 words, his longest work to date, Ted Chiang offers a detailed imagining of how the second approach might work within the contemporary landscape of startup companies, massively-multiplayer online gaming, and open-source software. It’s a story of two people and the artificial intelligences they helped create, following them for more than a decade as they deal with the upgrades and obsolescence that are inevitable in the world of software. At the same time, it’s an examination of the difference between processing power and intelligence, and of what it means to have a real relationship with an artificial entity.

“The life cycle of the software objects in question is viewed through the prism of the human protagonists’ own life cycle, and this skeleton is the armature on which hangs that very rare thing: a science fictional novel of ideas that delivers a real human impact.”
—Charles Stross for Publishers Weekly

9
The Adolescence of P-1
by Thomas Ryan – 1977

Born to a rather berserk, if brilliant, programmer, a computer program has managed to escape its home computer, infiltrate others, and reach adolescence when the Pentagon finally realizes that something is upsetting their secret computer data.

8
Daemon
by Daniel Suarez – 2006

When the obituary of legendary computer game architect Matthew Sobol appears online, a previously dormant daemon (a computer program that runs in the background) activates, initiating a chain of events that begins to unravel our interconnected world. This daemon reads news headlines, recruits human followers, and orders assassinations. With Sobol’s secrets buried with him, and as new layers of his daemon are unleashed, it’s up to Detective Peter Sebeck to stop a self-replicating virtual killer before it achieves its ultimate purpose—one that goes far beyond anything Sebeck could have imagined…

“A riveting debut.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

7
The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu – 2008

I strongly recommend this entire trilogy (The Dark Forest, Death’s End).

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
―Kirkus Reviews, starred review

6
This Alien Shore
by C. S. Friedman – 1998

It is the second stage of human colonization. The first age, humanity’s initial attempt to people the stars, ended in disaster when it was discovered that Earth’s original superluminal drive did permanent genetic damage to all who used it, mutating Earth’s far-flung colonists in mind and body.

Now, one of Earth’s first colonies has given humanity back the stars, but at a high price—a monopoly over all human commerce. And when a satellite in Earth’s outer orbit is viciously attacked by corporate raiders, an unusual young woman flees to a ship bound for the Up-and-Out.

But her narrow escape does not mean safety. For speeding across the galaxy pursued by ruthless, but unknown adversaries, this young woman will discover a secret which is buried deep inside her psyche—a revelation the universe may not be ready to face…

5
Off to Be the Wizard
by Scott Meyer – 2013

Martin Banks is just a normal guy who has made an abnormal discovery: he can manipulate reality, thanks to reality being nothing more than a computer program. With every use of this ability, though, Martin finds his little “tweaks” have not escaped notice. Rather than face prosecution, he decides instead to travel back in time to the Middle Ages and pose as a wizard.

What could possibly go wrong?

An American hacker in King Arthur’s court, Martin must now train to become a full-fledged master of his powers, discover the truth behind the ancient wizard Merlin…and not, y’know, die or anything.

4
I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov – 1950

Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians and robots who secretly run the world, all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asmiov’s trademark.

The three Laws of Robotics:

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.

3
We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
by Dennis E. Taylor – 2016

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is ridiculously fun. If a nerd got three wishes from a genie, experiencing what happens in this book would be one of them.

Bob Johannson sells his software company for a mint and steps off a curb to start spending his money and is hit by a truck. Fortunately, his head is being preserved cryogenically.

Unfortunately, 117 years later, his brain was scanned into a computer and now he’s an AI controlled by a theocratic regime.

Fortunately, he is uploaded to a space probe with the ability to replicate himself.

Unfortunately, plenty of people want him dead.

The point of view shifts regularly, there isn’t a single storyline to follow, and while the ending is good, it’s clear you need to read the rest of the books in the trilogy (this is book one), but none of that matters. It’s a seriously fun ride.

2
Cryptonomicon
by Neal Stephenson – 1999

In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe—is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy’s fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.

Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse’s crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a “data haven” in Southeast Asia—a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe’s tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty…or to universal totalitarianism reborn.

“Electrifying…hilarious…a picaresque novel about code making and code breaking, set both during World War II and during the present day.”
—New York Times Book Review

1
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.

(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).

“Stross sizzles with ideas…whimsical and funny as well as challenging and thoughtful.”
—The Denver Post

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