22 Best Mundane Science Fiction Books

“Mundane” science fiction focuses on already-existing or very plausible technology. No ray guns, warp drives, or time travel here. It’s an unfortunate name, since “mundane” also means “boring,” and these stories are anything but.

 

22
China Mountain Zhang
by Maureen F. McHugh – 1992

When talking about this book, you have to list the awards it’s won—the Hugo, the Tiptree, the Lambda, the Locus, and a Nebula nomination. It’s set in a 22nd century dominated by Communist China and the protagonist is a gay man. These aren’t the usual tropes of science fiction, and they aren’t written in the usual way.

“A first novel this good gives every reader a chance to share in the pleasure of discovery; to my mind, Ms. McHugh’s achievement recalls the best work of Delany and Robinson without being in the least derivative.”
―The New York Times

21
A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess – 1962

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.”
—The New York Times

20
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro – 2005

The alternate history Never Let Me Go follows the lives of several children who grew up in a strange, special school. It’s very well written (the author is the guy who wrote The Remains of the Day and won the Nobel Prize for Literature), but the real focus of the book is not really about the characters, but about the slow reveal of why the school and the children were special.

“Superbly unsettling, impeccably controlled… The book’s irresistible power comes from Ishiguro’s matchless ability to expose its dark heart in careful increments.”
—Entertainment Weekly

19
Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes – 1959

Flowers for Algernon is a beautiful, human book, with a little science fiction thrown in.

It examines morals and ethics without getting preachy—it’s a surprisingly easy read for such a thoughtful and deep book.

There are a few juicy scenes in it, which is why it’s occasionally removed from school libraries in Texas.

Flowers for Algernon is told through progress reports written by a low-IQ person who has an operation (we never learn the details) that quickly increases his IQ to genius levels. Unfortunately, his social and emotional skills do not increase at the same rate, and this causes hurt feelings all around.

“An ingeniously touching story… Moving… Intensely real.”
—The Baltimore Sun

18
Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow – 2008

Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works—and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he 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’re 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.

“A believable and frightening tale of a near-future San Francisco… Filled with sharp dialogue.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

17
Darwin's Radio
by Greg Bear – 1999

Ancient diseases encoded in the DNA of humans wait like sleeping dragons to wake and infect again—or so molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes. And now it looks as if her controversial theory is in fact chilling reality. For Christopher Dicken, a “virus hunter” at the Epidemic Intelligence Service, has pursued an elusive flu-like disease that strikes down expectant mothers and their offspring. Then a major discovery high in the Alps—the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family—reveals a shocking link: something that has slept in our genes for millions of years is waking up.

Now, as the outbreak of this terrifying disease threatens to become a deadly epidemic, Dicken and Lang must race against time to assemble the pieces of a puzzle only they are equipped to solve—an evolutionary puzzle that will determine the future of the human race… if a future exists at all.

“A riveting, near-future thriller.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

16
Stand on Zanzibar
by John Brunner – 1968

Norman Niblock House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of a few all-powerful corporations. His work is leading General Technics to the forefront of global domination, both in the marketplace and politically—it’s about to take over a country in Africa. Donald Hogan is his roommate, a seemingly sheepish bookworm. But Hogan is a spy, and he’s about to discover a breakthrough in genetic engineering that will could the world… and kill him.

“A quite marvelous projection in which John Brunner landscapes a future that seems the natural foster child of the present.”
―Kirkus Reviews

15
Arctic Rising
by Tobias S. Buckell – 2012

Global warming has transformed the Earth, and it’s about to get even hotter. The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing desperately to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean.

Enter the Gaia Corporation. Its two founders have come up with a plan to roll back global warming. Thousands of tiny mirrors floating in the air can create a giant sunshade, capable of redirecting heat and cooling the earth’s surface. They plan to terraform Earth to save it from itself—but in doing so, they have created a superweapon the likes of which the world has never seen.

Anika Duncan is an airship pilot for the underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. She’s intent on capturing a smuggled nuclear weapon that has made it into the Polar Circle and bringing the smugglers to justice.

Anika finds herself caught up in a plot by a cabal of military agencies and corporations who want Gaia Corporation stopped. But when Gaia Corp loses control of their superweapon, it will be Anika who has to decide the future of the world. The nuclear weapon she has risked her life to find is the only thing that can stop the floating sunshade after it falls into the wrong hands.

“Tobias Buckell is stretching the horizons of science fiction and giving readers a hell of a lot of swashbuckling fun in the bargain.”
—John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War

14
The Execution Channel
by Ken MacLeod – 2007

It’s after 9/11. After the bombing. After the Iraq war. After 7/7. After the Iran war. After the nukes. After the flu. After the Straits. After Rosyth. In a world just down the road from our own, on-line bloggers vie with old-line political operatives and new-style police to determine just where reality lies.

James Travis is a British patriot and a French spy. On the day the Big One hits, Travis and his daughter must strive to make sense of the nuclear bombing of Scotland and the political repercussions of a series of terrorist attacks. With the information war in full swing, the only truth they have is what they’re able to see with their own eyes. They know that everything else is—or may be—a lie.

“MacLeod is a fiercely intelligent, prodigiously well-read author who manages to fill his books with big issues without weighing them down.”
—Salon

13
The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon – 2002

In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition.

With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see?

Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world… and the very essence of who he is.

“Splendid and graceful… A lot of novels promise to change the way a reader sees the world; The Speed of Dark actually does.”
—The Washington Post Book World

12
Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson – 1992

Red Mars is a great hard-SF read, with enough astrophysics to satisfy a large conference room at a ComicCon. You can tell author Robinson did a huge amount of research, and it pays off.

Red Mars is followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars, but the first is the best of the three.

“[A]n action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars—driven by both personal and ideological conflicts—in the early 21st century.”
—Publishers Weekly

11
The Hacker and the Ants
by Rudy Rucker – 1996

Imagine: the most destructive computer virus ever has been traced to your machine. Computer programmer Jerzy Rugby spends his days blissfully hacking away in cyberspace, aiding the GoMotion Corporation in its noble quest to create intelligent robots.

Then an electronic ant gets into the machinery… then more ant …. then millions and millions of the nasty viral pests appear out of nowhere to wreak havoc throughout the Net. And suddenly Jerzy Rugby is Public Enemy Number One, wanted for sabotage, computer crime, and treason—a patsy who must now get to the bottom of the virtual insectile plague.

10
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet
by Anil Menon – 2009

Set in Pune, India in the year 2040 AD, this novel, by one of India’s best new speculative fiction writers, explores growing up in a world where grown-ups are not to be trusted. Thirteen-year old Tara and her troubled elder brother Aditya struggle with the controversial political legacy of their brilliant father, the radical geneticist, Sivan. When Tara makes two new mysterious friends Ria and Francis, from “a place near Sweden,” the past catches up with the future. Why are Tara’s new friends so freaked by the night sky? Is their strange and beautiful mother, Mandira, friend or foe? Why is she so interested in Aditya? Where is Sivan? And what, exactly, is the beast with nine billion feet?

9
Halting State
by Charles Stross – 2007

Sergeant Sue Smith is called in to investigate a daring Edinburgh robbery at a dot-com startup company, a crime perpetrated by a band of marauding orcs with a dragon in tow in the virtual reality land of Avalon Four, but she soon discovers that events in the virtual world could have a devastating impact on the real one, especially when an unknown enemy launches attacks on both.

“[B]rilliantly conceived techno-crime thriller… The effortless transformation of today’s technological frustrations into tomorrow’s nightmare realities is all too real for comfort.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

8
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley – 1932

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.”

7
Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton – 1990

Like Frankenstein, Jurassic Park explores the unintended consequences of biological tinkering.

I’m going to assume you know the story, and instead tell you how Michael Crichton realized “there is no pressing need to create a dinosaur,” except perhaps for entertainment. Thus, the idea of an amusement park was born.

The first drafts of Jurassic Park were told from the point of view of a child, but fortunately, the author’s friends told him to change it.

6
The Martian
by Andy Weir – 2011

The Martian is one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I’ve ever read. An astronaut is left behind on Mars, and must survive by himself for over a year, using only his wits and what was left behind by a few previous missions.

Author Weir does a masterful job in creating his highly likable, intelligent, and deeply human protagonist Mark Watney. The science in The Martian is hard and feels as real as stone.

This book is a great combination of man vs. nature à la Jack London, with the inventiveness of MacGyver, moments of laugh-out-loud humor, page-turning pacing, and plot twists that are surprising but in hindsight feel inevitable.

“An excellent first novel… Weir laces the technical details with enough keen wit to satisfy hard science fiction fan and general reader alike [and] keeps the story escalating to a riveting conclusion.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

5
The Circle
by Dave Eggers – 2013

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.

As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO.

Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.

“A vivid, roaring dissent to the companies that have coaxed us to disgorge every thought and action onto the Web… Carries the potential to change how the world views its addicted, compliant thrall to all things digital… [Y]ou need to pay attention.”
—The Wall Street Journal

4
1984
by George Orwell – 1949

Ideas from science fiction rarely make it into the public consciousness, but 1984 has been referenced in Supreme Court cases, and “Big Brother” has a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.

3
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood – 1985

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive.

“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

2
Blindness
by Jose Saramago – 1995

By the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature

A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but the criminal element there holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.

“This is a shattering work by a literary master.”
—The Boston Globe

1
Air
by Geoff Ryman – 2004

Chung Mae is the only connection her small farming village has to culture of a wider world beyond the fields and simple houses of her village. A new communications technology is sweeping the world and promises to connect everyone everywhere without power lines, computers, or machines. This technology is Air.

An initial testing of Air goes disastrously wrong and people are killed from the shock. Not to be stopped Air is arriving with or without the blessing of Mae’s village. Mae is the only one who knows how to harness Air and ready her people for its arrival, but will they listen before it’s too late?

“[S]uperbly crafted tale… Besides being a treat for fans of highly literate SF, this intensely political book has important things to say about how developed nations take the Third World for granted.”
—Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “22 Best Mundane Science Fiction Books

  1. Are Daemon and Qualityland not mundane enough? How about Greener Than You Think? I’ve read 6 on your list, and some sound really interesting, especially The Circle.

    I found Daemon on one of your lists and have read it 3 times in the first 2 weeks that I got it, as well as its sequel, Freedom. The sequel, which ties up the loose ends, isn’t as good as the first book, but sequels rarely are.

    I appreciate your lists very much. Thanks for making the effort.

  2. I’ve read and enjoyed five of these, and the others look interesting. The term “mundane” is indeed an unfortunate one, although I can’t think of a better one offhand. Perhaps “near-future” might describe some of them, although Brave New World is set several centuries in the future.

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