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.
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).
Recommendation: Get it at the library. I really liked it, but its vision of a future that requires implants soon after (or before) birth just to keep up with the world freaked me out a bit. I don’t want to be reminded of my impending future shock every day.
Sometimes you just want something fun to read while you slowly roast yourself on a beach, gentle waves constantly committing suicide in front of you.
Some of the books below are light, some are dark, but they’re all engaging stories.
Like his earlier book Do Not Resuscitate, Ponticello’s prose reads like a less-angry Vonnegut. However, in The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown, he gets wilder and funnier.
Two hundred million years in the future, the sun is about to engulf the Earth, so a spaceship filled with people is sent out towards a likely star in order to save the species.
The outrageous situations and badly-behaving people on the spaceship are entertaining as hell, and are nicely balanced with an occasional thoughtful perspective from the narrator, a non-interfering alien observer.
The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown is bold and fun, and I found myself eagerly waiting for the next time I could get back to reading it.
Recommendation: Buy it. The bright yellow spine pleases me whenever I see it on my shelf.
We’re all waiting for this moment, the instant we know for sure that we’re not alone in this big, cold universe.
Regardless of how our first contact actually happens, a good story has to have drama. No one wants to read We Met the Aliens and Gosh, They Were Nice.
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.
Recommendation: Buy it. Seeing this on my shelf gives me a moment of pause, a two-second meditation, like briefly floating in a deep but safe ocean, before getting on with my day.
Despite the title, this isn’t about 9/11. The three books in this collection were written in the sixties. They don’t feel like sixties books, though—these could easily have been written today.
The only humans left on Earth are on a single island, in a single city. There’s another city on the mainland, but a strange radiation barrier appears, dousing that city in radiation and locking the people on the island off from the rest of the planet.
There’s an enemy that may or may not exist beyond the barrier. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the middle of the radiation, but perfectly healthy. He meets Neanderthals and mind-reading giants as he tries to get home. Things get much weirder.
There’s an enjoyable strangeness to these three books. They’re a great combination of advanced technology, unintended consequences, and good old political intrigue.
While some of the dialogue was unrealistic, the stories are interesting, well-crafted, and smart as hell.
Recommendation: Get it at the library. It’s a damn good read, but not necessary for a shelf.
SLIXTER from FreakingNews.com
It takes a steady hand to write a science fiction story that’s exciting, interesting, and funny as hell.
Or maybe it’s just that people are funny, and no matter what you do with them, like putting them in tin cans going the speed of light or beyond, they’re going to do something ridiculous.
Even though Venus is the most Earth-like planet (despite it being hot enough to melt lead), Mars feels like a better neighbor. Venus is completely shrouded with khaki clouds, pale and unapproachable. In comparison, Mars is positively flirty, with its lusty red color and come-hither promise of terraforming.
It’s easier to imagine life on Mars than anywhere else, and many of the books below do exactly that.
Soft science fiction tends to focus more on people and relationships than on technical details; more on humanity than technology (even though there’s usually some cool technology).
Science fiction author Poul Anderson, in Ideas for SF Writers, described H. G. Wells as the model for soft science fiction: “He concentrated on the characters, their emotions and interactions” rather than any of the science or technology behind, for example, invisible men or time machines.