The future had a good year in 2016. Great writing, amazing stories, and tons of genre-bending. Fantasy, romance, zombies, data-vampires and more make it into some of the best books of the year. It’s an exciting, wild mix, just like a party with friends, family, bikers, drag queens, drag queen bikers, people from the future, flirty robots, and sentient dogs (not sentient cats—they just eat all the appetizers without talking to anyone).
The Justice of Toren was a colossal starship run by an artificial intelligence. That intelligence also linked thousands of human soldiers, each soldier’s mind completely run by the AI. These AI-run soldiers are known as ancillaries.
In an act of treachery, the Justice of Toren is destroyed, and the AI—now going by the name of Breq—is a single human body filled with unanswered questions and a burning desire for vengeance.
Lou: “You know what? You’ve got spunk.”
Mary: “Well, ye—”
Lou: “I hate spunk!”
— First episode of The The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970
In Pushing Ice, one of Saturn’s moons suddenly departs from its orbit and shoots off into deep space. The only nearby ship chases the errant moon and watches as huge chunks of ice fall off its surface to reveal a gigantic machine underneath.
Not everyone on the ship wants to keep chasing this object. The object seems to have some ideas about that, too.
Pushing Ice is a great book, and I lost some sleep because I couldn’t put it down. Even though we follow the same characters throughout the book, so much happens that it has the feel of a big, sprawling, multi-generational epic.
The science is hard, the humans flawed, and the surprises keep coming.
Recommendation: Get it at the library unless you’re building a shelf of all of Alastair Reynolds’ books. Which may be a pretty good idea, actually. Hmm.
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.
Mooncop is an oddly beautiful piece of work about the last policeman on the moon. Short and simply drawn, it’s a quiet story, with broad lunar landscapes and mostly-silent people as they go about their business as the lunar colony slowly winds down.
The quiet is just on the surface, though. It’s clear there’s more going on in the heads of the characters than just what’s in the speech bubbles.
The writer/illustrator Tom Gault is a popular cartoonist in Britain, and I hope he continues to create work like Mooncop.
Recommendation: Buy it. Its sweet, sad simplicity is more than welcome next to all the serious tomes on my shelf.
Literary science fiction is simply science fiction that’s better-written, has more realistic characters, and is more ambitious in exploring deep ideas than other books. Instead of just exploding spaceships and smart-mouthed robots, they can contain wrenching emotions that look at what it actually means to be human.
Its polar opposite would be something pulpy like Amish Vampires in Space.
Fortunately, there’s room for both brilliant, tortured writers and Amish Dracula in science fiction.
As a lapsed marine zoologist, I couldn’t help but love A Darkling Sea. It has aliens, intrigue, desperate missions, and it all happens underwater.
On a moon orbiting a gas giant, a human science station sits in pitch-black water. They’re studying a semi-primitive alien species, but when a dumb-ass scientist gets himself killed by the curious aliens, another alien species visits the science station and tries to take over. Chaos ensues.
Recommendation: Get it at the library. It’s an excellent read, but not mandatory for a bookshelf.
I did that with Echopraxia and missed so much that I had to read it again. This book is as dense as those borderline-illegal molten chocolate desserts that are as big as a teacup but somehow weigh ten pounds.
Don’t skip a word. The writing is that tight.
Echopraxia is a sequel to Blindsight, and again author Watts explores the craziness of space, aliens, vampires (he makes them work, even more believably than he did in Blindsight), and how malleable human brains are. His central idea that human consciousness is like a flea riding a dog, thinking it’s in charge of everything, when really the dog, i.e., the rest of our brain, makes all of the decisions. (This is something that a lot of studies are actually agreeing with.)
In addition to all that, it’s a smart, fantastic read, and his best book since Starfish, one of my absolute favorites.
Recommendation: Buy it. It’s excellent on the first, second, and further readings.
Since the present time is just the wildly unlikely result of several trillion coincidences, it makes sense that humans would occasionally wonder what would happen if one or two events concluded differently.
Most alternate history stories are some variation of “What if Hitler had won the Civil War, and was a dinosaur?” but there are some great, well, alternatives, in the list below.