The Best Science Fiction Books of 2021

Once again, writers took a hold of the future and gave it a good throttling in 2021.

 

17
The Wandering Earth
by Cixin Liu – 2021

The Wandering Earth is a science fiction short story collection featuring the title tale—the basis for the blockbuster international film, currently streaming on Netflix.

These ten stories, including five Chinese Galaxy Award-winners, are an ode to planet Earth, its pasts, and its futures. Liu’s fiction takes the reader to the edge of the universe and the end of time to meet stranger fates than we could have ever imagined.

With a melancholic and keen understanding of human nature, Liu’s stories show humanity’s attempts to reason, navigate, and above all, survive in a desolate cosmos.

“Liu conjures a sense of wonder while grounding his tales in well-wrought characters. This is a masterwork.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

16
Truth of the Divine
by Lindsay Ellis – 2021

Book 2 of 2 of the Noumena series, so you might want to check out the first one, Axiom’s End.

The human race is at a crossroads; we know that we are not alone, but details about the alien presence on Earth are still being withheld from the public. As the political climate grows more unstable, the world is forced to consider the ramifications of granting human rights to nonhuman persons. How do you define “person” in the first place?

Cora Sabino not only serves as the full-time communication intermediary between the alien entity Ampersand and his government chaperones but also shares a mysterious bond with him that is both painful and intimate in ways neither of them could have anticipated. Despite this, Ampersand is still keen on keeping secrets, even from Cora, which backfires on them both when investigative journalist Kaveh Mazandarani, a close colleague of Cora’s unscrupulous estranged father, witnesses far more of Ampersand’s machinations than anyone was meant to see.

Since Cora has no choice but to trust Kaveh, the two must work together to prove to a fearful world that intelligent, conscious beings should be considered persons, no matter how horrifying, powerful, or malicious they may seem. Making this case is hard enough when the public doesn’t know what it’s dealing with—and it will only become harder when a mysterious flash illuminates the sky, marking the arrival of an agent of chaos that will light an already-unstable world on fire.

While asking the question of what constitutes a “person,” Ellis also examines what makes a monster.

“Ellis draws skillful parallels between her science-fictional politics and real world issues, gracefully navigating the difficult topics of discrimination, violent extremism, mental health, and addiction. This thought-provoking novel will linger long in readers’ minds.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

15
The Body Scout
by Lincoln Michel – 2021

In the future you can have any body you want—as long as you can afford it.

But in a New York ravaged by climate change and repeat pandemics, Kobo is barely scraping by. He scouts the latest in gene-edited talent for Big Pharma-owned baseball teams, but his own cybernetics are a decade out of date, and twin sister loan sharks are banging down his door. Things couldn’t get much worse.

Then his brother—Monsanto Mets slugger J.J. Zunz—is murdered at home plate.

Determined to find the killer, Kobo plunges into a world of genetically modified CEOs, philosophical Neanderthals, and back-alley body modification, only to quickly find he’s in a game far bigger and more corrupt than he imagined. To keep himself together while the world is falling apart, he’ll have to navigate a time where both body and soul are sold to the highest bidder.

“Timeless and original…illuminating vast tracts of story with casual wrist-flicks of worldbuilding. The Body Scout is a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent.”
—The New York Times

14
The Last Watch
by J. S. Dewes – 2021

The Divide.

It’s the edge of the universe.

Now it’s collapsing―and taking everyone and everything with it.

The only ones who can stop it are the Sentinels: the recruits, exiles, and court-martialed dregs of the military.

At the Divide, Adequin Rake commands the Argus. She has no resources, no comms, nothing… except for the soldiers that no one wanted. Her ace in the hole could be Cavalon Mercer: genius, asshole, and exiled prince who nuked his grandfather’s genetic facility for “reasons.”

She knows they’re humanity’s last chance.

“Dewes’s debut is an exciting, fast-paced ride around the edges of the universe, where those rejected by much of humanity are the only ones who can save it. Fans of K. B. Wagers’s ‘Farian Wars’ series and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War will welcome this military science fiction thriller.”
—Library Journal, starred review

13
Rabbits
by Terry Miles – 2021

It’s an average work day. You’ve been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air—4:44 p.m. You check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize the date is April 4—4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444.

Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?

Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses the entire world as its canvas.

Since the game started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. The identities of these winners are unknown.

So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to the secrets of the universe itself.

But the deeper you get, the more dangerous the game becomes. Players have died in the past—and the body count is rising.

And now the eleventh round is about to begin.

Enter K, a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, rumored to be the winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts, or the whole world will pay the price.

Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing.

Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline: Eleven begins.

And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

“A wild ride… impossible to put down.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

12
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
by Christopher Paolini – 2021

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds.

Now she’s awakened a nightmare.

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope…

“Dazzles with otherworldly delights―and unearthly nightmares.”
—Newsweek

11
The Saints of Salvation
by Peter F. Hamilton – 2021

This is book 3 of 3 of The Salvation Sequence, so you might want to start with the first two books, Salvation and Salvation Lost.

Humanity is struggling to hold out against a hostile takeover by an alien race that claims to be on a religious mission to bring all sentient life to its God at the End of Time.

But while billions of cocooned humans fill the holds of the Olyix’s deadly arkships, humankind is playing an even longer game than the aliens may have anticipated. From an ultra-secret spy mission to one of the grandest battles ever seen, no strategy is off the table.

Will a plan millennia in the making finally be enough to defeat this seemingly unstoppable enemy? And what secrets are the Olyix truly hiding in their most zealously protected stronghold?

“A rousing, action-packed space opera that further cements his reputation as a master of the genre… Hamilton keeps the pages turning with riveting action and intrigue, making the hefty page count fly by. Fans will be thrilled to see this series go out on a high note.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

10
A Desolation Called Peace
by Arkady Martine – 2021

This is book 2 of 2 of the Teixcalaan series, so you might want to start with the first book, A Memory Called Empire.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass―still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire―face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction―and allow the empire to continue its rapacious expansion.

Or it might create something far stranger…

“A dizzying, exhilarating story of diplomacy, conspiracy, and first contact in the powerhouse sequel to [Martine’s] Hugo Award–winning debut… This complex, stunning space opera promises to reshape the genre.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

9
Iron Widow
by Xiran Jay Zhao – 2021

In this YA tale, the boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

“The action-packed plot, involving battles both physical and mental, is original and incorporates queer themes and Zetian’s unwavering, cathartic feminism.”
—Kirkus Reviews

8
Firebreak
by Nicole Kornher-Stace – 2021

New Liberty City, 2134.

Two corporations have replaced the US, splitting the country’s remaining forty-five states (five have been submerged under the ocean) between them: Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf. There are nine supercities within the continental US, and New Liberty City is the only amalgamated city split between the two megacorps, and thus at a perpetual state of civil war as the feeds broadcast the atrocities committed by each side.

Here, Mallory streams Stellaxis’s wargame SecOps on BestLife, spending more time jacked into the game than in the real world, where she ekes out a hardscrabble living from tips. A chance encounter with one of the game’s rare super-soldiers leads to a side job for Mal—looking to link an actual missing girl to one of the SecOps characters. Mal’s sudden burst in online fame rivals her deepening fear of what she is uncovering about BestLife’s developer, and puts her in the kind of danger she’s only experienced through her avatar.

“A steadfast heroine stands up against a tyrannical corporation in this vivid work of dystopian sci-fi…. The effortlessly detailed worldbuilding is captivating. Kornher-Stace leads readers through the cinematic landscape of her imagined future with an expert hand.”
—Publisher’s Weekly

7
Fugitive Telemetry
by Martha Wells – 2021
This is book 6 of 6 of The Murderbot Diaries. You might want to start with the first excellent book, All Systems Red (I’m a Murderbot fan).

“No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall.”

When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people―who knew?).

Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans!

Again!

“Murderbot’s wry observations of human behavior are as humorous as ever and the mystery is thoroughly satisfying. This is another winning series installment.”
―Publishers Weekly

6
Shards of Earth
by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 2021

Idris has neither aged nor slept since they remade him in the war. And one of humanity’s heroes now scrapes by on a freelance salvage vessel, to avoid the attention of greater powers.

After Earth was destroyed, mankind created a fighting elite to save their species, enhanced humans such as Idris. In the silence of space they could communicate, mind-to-mind, with the enemy. Then their alien aggressors, the Architects, simply disappeared—and Idris and his kind became obsolete.

Now, fifty years later, Idris and his crew have discovered something strange abandoned in space. It’s clearly the work of the Architects—but are they returning? And if so, why? Hunted by gangsters, cults and governments, Idris and his crew race across the galaxy hunting for answers. For they now possess something of incalculable value, that many would kill to obtain.

“A rip-roaring space opera featuring starship battles, genetically enhanced superhumans and multiple weird and wonderful aliens… I can’t wait to read the next one.”
—New Scientist

5
Remote Control
by Nnedi Okorafor – 2021

This genre-bender does involve an alien artifact, but do not look for hard science here.

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­—a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks—alone, except for her fox companion—searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

“Thrilling and surprising all the way through.”
―The New Scientist

4
A Psalm for the Wild-Built
by Becky Chambers – 2021

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “What do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

“Written with all of Chambers’ characteristic nuance and careful thought, this is a cozy, wholesome meditation on the nature of consciousness and its place in the natural world. Fans of gentle, smart, and hopeful science fiction will delight in this promising series starter.”
—Publishers Weekly

3
Termination Shock
by Neal Stephenson – 2021

One man—visionary billionaire restaurant chain magnate T. R. Schmidt, PhD—has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

Ranging from the Texas heartland to the Dutch royal palace in the Hague, from the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the sunbaked Chihuahuan Desert, Termination Shock brings together a disparate group of characters from different cultures and continents who grapple with the real-life repercussions of global warming. Ultimately, it asks the question: Might the cure be worse than the disease?

“The novel is classic Stephenson: fiercely intelligent, weird, darkly witty, and boldly speculative… Stephenson has become one of the most revered science fiction writers of his time.”
—Publishers Weekly

2
Leviathan Falls
by James S. A. Corey – 2021

This is book 9 or 9 of the excellent Expanse series. Start with the first book, Leviathan Wakes.

The Laconian Empire has fallen, setting the thirteen hundred solar systems free from the rule of Winston Duarte. But the ancient enemy that killed the gate builders is awake, and the war against our universe has begun again.

In the dead system of Adro, Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to understand what the gate builders were and what destroyed them, even if it means compromising herself and the half-alien children who bear the weight of her investigation. Through the wide-flung systems of humanity, Colonel Aliana Tanaka hunts for Duarte’s missing daughter… and the shattered emperor himself. And on the Rocinante, James Holden and his crew struggle to build a future for humanity out of the shards and ruins of all that has come before.

As nearly unimaginable forces prepare to annihilate all human life, Holden and a group of unlikely allies discover a last, desperate chance to unite all of humanity, with the promise of a vast galactic civilization free from wars, factions, lies, and secrets if they win.

But the price of victory may be worse than the cost of defeat.

1
Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir – 2021

I’m a huge fan of Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian, and his new book, Project Hail Mary, is even better. It’s fast-paced, fun, smart, and bold.

Project Hail Mary shares some themes with The Martian, namely Astronaut In Trouble and Science Saves The Day. The main character in both books is also charming, funny, geeky, and brilliant.

The math and science may be too much for some readers. I loved it, but my wife was totally uninterested. Here’s a measure you might use: if I say “high school physics” and you do not scream and run away, this book might be for you.

“Readers may find themselves consuming this emotionally intense and thematically profound novel in one stay-up-all-night-until-your-eyes-bleed sitting. An unforgettable story of survival and the power of friendship—nothing short of a science fiction masterwork.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

4 thoughts on “The Best Science Fiction Books of 2021

  1. “The Wandering Earth” movie on Netflix was actually pretty good. Just not conceivable.

    And I do want to read “Leviathan Falls”, eventually. And “Project Hail Mary”.

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