If you’ve got two humans in a room, you’ve got politics. Politics is about governing, which relies on someone being of a higher status, and as social creatures, we are intensely aware of both our status and others’.
If there’s any consistent direction in the past ten thousand years of human civilization, it’s that our societies are getting more and more complex. More complexity leads to more politics, so as we barrel down the razor-blade-lined Slip-n-Slide of time into the future, politics is only going to become a larger influencer in everyone’s lives. Bleah.
The Forever War is a science fiction allegory for the Vietnam War, written from the perspective of a reluctant participant in the middle of a seemingly endless war while the world back home changes beyond recognition.
“To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise. It is, for all its techno-extrapolative brilliance, as fine and woundingly genuine a war story as any I’ve read.”
— William Gibson, author of Neuromancer
The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.
(This was written in 1953, so be gentle on its vision of Venus as something other than a lead-melting sulphuric-acid-raining hellhole.)
Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.
― The New York Times
This book is widely considered to be Heinlein’s crowning achievement and one of the most important science fiction novels ever written. The plot centers around a lunar colony’s revolt against rule from Earth, but is packed with politics, questionable behavior, and a fully-imagined future human society that must deal with being on two worlds.
This Hugo winner was cited as one of the top 50 science fiction novels of all time by Locus magazine (who hands out a prestigious award every year that’s just a little less recognized than the Hugo or Nebula).
Often described as an excellent novel that just happens to take place on a space station, Downbelow Station is filled with realistic characters under incredible amounts of stress, living on a vulnerable but supremely important space station in the middle of a war.
Downbelow Station is one of Cherryh’s Union-Alliance novels. While separate and complete in themselves, they are part of a much larger tapestry—a future history spanning 5,000 years of human civilization.
“Cherryh tantalizes our minds…captures our hearts and involves us completely…a consistently thoughtful and entertaining writer.”
— Publishers Weekly
The politics in these three books are multispecies and reach across whole galaxies.
“The Uplift books are as compulsive reading as anything ever published in the genre.”
— The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
An aging astronaut tries to get his beloved space program back on track after Congress has cut off the funds for it—an accurate prediction of the actual conditions for a space program, written at a time when many SF writers still tended to ignore or downplay the financial side of spaceflight.
Seventeen-year-old Marcus is wise to the ways of the networked world, and has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they are mercilessly interrogated for days.
When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.
“Doctorow throws off cool ideas the way champagne generates bubbles…[he] definitely has the goods.”
— San Francisco Chronicle
The politics in The Windup Girl is more interpersonal than some other books on this list, but I still think it belongs here.
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
When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot that hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are in a race to save their lives, spin the story, and secure the future of their young country.
“Blending celebrity and international diplomacy in a near-future Paris, Valentine crafts an intimate thriller.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Moon wants to kill you.
Maybe it will kill you when the per diem for your allotted food, water, and air runs out, just before you hit paydirt. Maybe it will kill you when you are trapped between the reigning corporations—the Five Dragons—in a foolish gamble against a futuristic feudal society. On the Moon, you must fight for every inch you want to gain. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.
As the leader of the Moon’s newest “dragon,” Adriana has wrested control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family’s new status. Now, in the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation—Corta Helio—confronted by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana’s five children must defend their mother’s empire from her many enemies… and each other.
“McDonald creates a complex and fascinating civilization featuring believable technology, and the characters are fully developed, with individually gripping stories.”
― Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A vicious fifteen-year-old droog is the central character of this 1963 classic. In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, the criminals take over after dark. The story is told by Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology.
A Clockwork Orange is about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex to “redeem” him, the novel asks, “At what cost?”
“A brilliant novel… a savage satire on the distortions of the single and collective minds.”
— New York Times
Along with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, We is generally considered to be the grandfather of the satirical futuristic dystopia genre.
In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued. Even nature has been defeated, banished behind the Green Wall. But one frontier remains: outer space. Now, with the creation of the spaceship Integral, that frontier—and whatever alien species are to be found there—will be subjugated to the beneficent yoke of reason.
One number, D-503, chief architect of the Integral, decides to record his thoughts in the final days before the launch for the benefit of less advanced societies. But a chance meeting with the beautiful I-330 results in an unexpected discovery that threatens everything D-503 believes about himself and the One State: the discovery—or rediscovery—of inner space… and that disease the ancients called the soul.
Taxation has been abolished, the government has been privatized, and employees take the surname of the company they work for. It’s a brave new corporate world, but you don’t want to be caught without a platinum credit card—as lowly Merchandising Officer Hack Nike is about to find out. Trapped into building street cred for a new line of $2500 sneakers by shooting customers, Hack attracts the barcode-tattooed eye of the legendary Jennifer Government. A stressed-out single mom, corporate watchdog, and government agent who has to rustle up funding before she’s allowed to fight crime, Jennifer Government is holding a closing down sale—and everything must go.
“Funny and clever…. A kind of ad-world version of Dr. Strangelove…. [Barry] unleashes enough wit and surprise to make his story a total blast.”
— The New York Times Book Review
Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.
Foundation is arguably the first time a believable galactic empire was created in print. Unfortunately, Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.
Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet’s ultimate fate, it features a midget as the protagonist, a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer, and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny.
“A free-wheeling vehicle . . . an unforgettable ride!”
— The New York Times
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war, and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
“The single most resonant and carefully imagined book of Dick’s career.”
— The New York Times
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
“Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions… An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking… Read it while it’s still allowed.”
— Houston Chronicle
Children are genetically programmed in the womb and sent through indoctrination programs, preparing them for lives in predetermined castes. It’s a utopian society that maintains its peace by removing the humanity of its members, and only one man is brave enough to vocally challenge the status quo.
Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
Dune is a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction.”
Just for fun, here are a few things you may not know about Dune:
1. It was inspired by a trip to Oregon
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Dune is that Frank Herbert was inspired to create his all-desert, water-starved planet during a trip to the soggy Oregon coast. He watched people planting grass to keep the shifting dunes from swallowing up vacationers’ houses.
2. It was published by an outfit known for its car repair manuals.
It took Frank Herbert six years to write Dune.
But… Herbert couldn’t sell his book. Publishers said it was too long. People who read science fiction, they said, don’t like long books (Apparently, neither do fantasy readers, since this was same reason given to J. K. Rowling when she was rejected multiple times for the first Harry Potter book).
After twenty rejections, an editor at Chilton (a publisher known for its car repair manuals) gave Dune a chance. It sold slowly at first, but eventually well enough that Herbert was able to become a full-time writer.
3. It has no authoritative visual look.
If Dune is so popular, why are there no conventions? Why don’t you see people dressing up as the hero Paul Atreides at various Comic-Cons? Where are the stillsuit costumes?
One possible reason is that there is no authoritative visual. If you wear something from the book, you have to tell someone it’s from Dune or they’d never know. Quick, what does an ornithopter look like?
The Dune movie by David Lynch was, well, awful. Various TV shows have tried to capture the essence of Dune, with limited success. One movie had the potential to become this vision, to declare This Is How Dune Looks, but sadly, it was never made. This film was documented in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating film in its own right. The specter of what might have been—the marvelous, surreal spectacle of a true Dune movie (e.g., designs by H.R. Giger, the man who created the monster for Alien, and starring Salvador Dali as the Emperor) is almost overwhelming to consider. (However, one of Jodorowsky’s other movies featured a literal golden turd, so maybe it’s for the best.)
4. It has eighteen sequels and prequels.
The success of Dune allowed Herbert to create a number of sequels, each slightly more disappointing than the previous. To enjoy these books after reading the original, lower your expectations. See the other novels as children playing around the feet of a wise old grandpa, and you’ll have a good enough time of it.
The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson are more typical page-turners than heavy opuses like the original, but they’re still a lot of fun. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
The Dispossessed is a utopian science fiction novel set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
“Le Guin’s book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.”
— The New York Times