The Reading Room
In search of the new
I have a question for the science fiction readers out there.
First, some background. I plucked my copy of The Pastel City from the shelf a few days ago. Though I’ve read it before, I couldn’t remember any of the details, just the perfectly alluring vibe. Look at this beauty:
The book has a 1971 copyright, and this U.S. edition is dated 1974. I have the same text in a collected edition published more recently, but I find the physical act of reading this copy MUCH more magnetic. A vintage paperback operates on all the senses: as perfect a delivery mechanism as a bag of chips.
I’m nearly finished now —
…which obviously protects it from the immediate risks of near-future prediction. But even handicapping for that advantage, the book soars; its far-future techno-magical artifacts are really very strange, all at odd angles, never just an “oh yes, one of those” sci-fi configuration. It seems to me that if it were published today, in 2021, it would not feel antique.
Through a semi-circuitous route, this has got me thinking about newness in science fiction, all the ways that books can feel contemporary, surprising, pathbreaking: in their metabolization of fresh science, of course, but also in their form and style, in their osmotic exchange with neighboring genres, as well as other media…
I will confess: I come to science fiction mostly —
So, I want to pose a question, and I want to do it with some care, because I am not here simply to ask “what’s some great science fiction of the last ten years?”; it’s more specific than that. Here’s my best attempt:
What is a work of science fiction (a book, not a movie, thanks) that could only have been written in the last ten years? AND/OR, what’s a work of science fiction that hinges on experiences and feelings new in the last ten years? AND/OR, what’s a work of science fiction that represents the current leading edge of the genre’s speculative and stylistic development?
I’ll loop around and add a bunch of your candidates to this newsletter (respecting your quotation preferences, indicated above) as I receive them; check back in a couple of days.
I don’t know if that gets it exactly right, but it was close enough to prompt some great responses! Below, I’ll share with you what I heard back from newsletter subscribers.
Karl kicks things off with a great candidate:
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which I know you know well. Although climate change / the Anthropocene has been widely recognized for more than ten years, I think the combination of, not solutions, but at least ameliorations, presented in the book couldn’t have been written more recently. I think it’s a remarkable book.
Here’s Vincent, following on:
In line with the KSR candidate, I think Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation combine a kind of slow, certain horror about the coming ecological apocalypse with the desire to literally imagine and prepare ourselves for what we will need to do that I think has emerged only the last decade or so.
Gueorgui suggests a new release:
I’m still halfway through it, but Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary feels like it would belong on this list. It’s very reminiscent, in a way, of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem (which is also really tasty sci-fi, but doesn’t necessarily fit into what you’re looking for here), but PHM builds on skills and practices of the current (software?) engineering culture quite heavily, for example hacking together tools to tackle novel situations from pieces of existing tools (like Excel) and custom-written scripts. This very much feels like the way we put software together these days, by writing the “glue” that binds existing pieces together in novel ways.
Here’s a sharp observation from Simon:
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, because weaponized nostalgia has truly come of age, in an era when our largest film and TV franchises often truly belong to… a previous era. Partly due to large companies IP-building in hideously distended cinematic universes, and partly for pure, semi-destructive escapism. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
“Hideously distended cinematic universe”, YOW! 😗
Rick recommends the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers in a way that helps me understand why I couldn’t get into the first installment (and why I ought to, perhaps, give it another try):
[I recommend the series for its] effortless inclusionary politics and post-plot approach. The more I think about their utter lack of plot, the more brilliant I find them. Yet the non-plot is not post-modern but more derived from internet culture.
Here’s another endorsement from Matt:
I’d nominate [the] Wayfarer series, which tackles race, privilege, and colonialism in a classic starships-and-aliens setting. If the best cure for bad speech is more speech, Chambers’ works can be read as a pointed response to the Sad and Rabid Puppies of 2013-2015. Her “Galactic Commons” is a thorough examination of what it means for people who can’t always agree on each other’s personhood to live in community… in the Age of Trump, it’s essential.
And another still from Lyndsey:
This series’ radical acceptance and inclusion alongside the smallness of its stories feels so modern to me. I don’t believe it would have existed in the same form 10+ years ago. Each book tells an interconnected set of low-stakes stories about people (by which I mean sentient beings, not always humans) trying their best and living their lives. The stories aren’t about people saving the universe or the planet or anyone really. It feels very of this time and is utterly delightful.
These are very compelling recommendations!
This notion of internet culture and style “finally” bleeding onto the page is an interesting one; it identifies “the author’s literary home planet” as another potential dimension of THE NEW.
Here’s a related recommendation from Alex:
Ra, by qntm, [asks]: “What if magic was discovered by chance by an Indian physicist in 1977?” In its alt-history, the field of magic grows similarly to —
and displaces — computer science, and by the time of the narrative, mages are doing three-year BAs with mandatory safety modules in the third year. As well as just feeling very current, the genesis of the novel is what absolutely makes it a “last ten years only” thing. qntm cut their teeth writing entries for SCP, the collaborative horror universe known for its wiki-style short stories.
Here’s a recommendation from Ben for Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and its sequel, in which I’d also identified some fan-fictional influences:
[These books are] the end result of fanfic and snark going mainstream, in terms of authorial voice. The core queer story, the core SF plot? Neither of those are new. The fact that the author can drop Homestar Runner and Left Beef references next to Poe and Bible quotes? That’s a thing which [no] publisher would have accepted prior to 2015 or so. And the fact that it’s just acceptable in-universe, unquestioned? All science fiction is an extension of present conditions, and that makes Gideon/Harrow an extension of language, tone, and referential ability moreso than any technology.
Regarding Gideon the Ninth, James adds:
It’s complex but the plot is tightly constructed and it’s FUNNY in a very sarcastic way. But the world? There’s so much to the world and I’m intimidated by how we’re only really given the edge of everything throughout most of the book.
Marc Weidenbaum writes:
I think of Malka Older’s excellent novel Infomocracy and its two sequels (Null States and State Tectonics, all three collectively known as the Centenal Cycle) as being very much built from fresh, recent-vintage cultural/political nanomaterials. The way the book imagines a totally altered and yet entirely familiar political system feels alternately like a way out and a warning, a utopian thought experiment and a red alert at the same time. The concept’s overlay of vast surveillance data and fraying national identity helps me understand the world right now. If I had read these books twenty years ago, I would have enjoyed them, but they would have felt alien. (Then again, I may be overestimating the unique precipitousness of our current moment. I’m reading Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower right now and if you told me it was published last week, I’d be like, “Well of course it was.”)
Here’s a recommendation from jLd for a novel that’s new to me:
Bubblegum by Adam Levin. It is categorized as literary fiction but the entire premise of the novel is oddly science fictional and could not have been conceived, in my view, without the writer having lived with the internet and internet culture. The novel is set in an alternate version of our world that has no internet but where technology is such that flesh and bone robots called “curios” are the cultural force and have been since this world’s version of the 1980s. The style and development of the main character Belt and his struggle to find belonging in a world where he does not fit in is something I could only see as being a product of the last decade.
Here’s a recommendation from Randy:
Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is a sure pick for me. It has a biting critique of late stage capitalism keenly attuned to the post-financial crisis mood. Beyond that, it has a joyous optimism about what communities can accomplish, especially when they let go of traditional models of organizing and discover new values.
Here’s Priya with a very sensitive recommendation:
For my money, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is the novel that hinges on new experiences and feelings of the last ten years. St. John Mandel has said that she was inspired by the SARS scare in Toronto, among other things, and while [that] may have occurred more than ten years ago, I’d argue that Station Eleven is the most relevant novel of our time. And not just because it predicted the pandemic and the debt we owe to art and artists in times of crisis. It’s one of the few post-apocalyptic novels focusing on hope rather than despair. Its aesthetic is simple elegance without all the cliches that term evokes.
Trevor recommends The Expanse series, and although I enjoyed those books, and the TV series even more, I’m torn on this one. Couldn’t Leviathan Wakes have been written in 1985? Maybe?
It’s possible I’m being uncharitable; here’s Trevor’s recommendation:
The Expanse, for feeling like a natural leap forward. No magic-y technologies here but rather more crunchy and technical. The ships and non-phones operate like how software feels it should operate today, but doesn’t —
invisible Swiss army knives that correctly and instantly follow our verbal and gestured intentions. But beyond that, the political parties and rifts and how that could possibly spiral outward and forward.
It’s always fun when people are buzzing about a book you truly haven’t ever heard of; like those dreams where you find an extra room in your apartment, long-hidden. So often, there’s at least that hazy recognition —
Here is Wayne’s recommendation of Too Like the Lighting by Ada Palmer, totally new to me:
This book simply blew me away and became a page-turner that I was very reluctant to put down. […] It was one of the few books of modern science fiction that, for me, gave a fresh impression of how human society could re-form in different ways and be interesting. Her worldbuilding just blew me away; I’d so dearly love to see a role playing game based in her world. […]
And another from Doug:
My personal view is that only recently has globalization shifted from simply connecting our old social and political groups (countries, your friends across the country, people who are into dogs) to creating truly new social organizations. It would have been previously difficult to imagine life perspectives rather than geographical boundaries as the primary method through which human civilization segments itself.
Most science fiction books imagine our current or historic civilisations expanded into space whether government, corporation, religion, trader/pirate led. This book imagines completely different social structures that seem quite alien and I’m not sure this book could have been published until quite recently.
Josh recommends a book I’ve been eagerly awaiting:
I just finished Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater than Death, which perhaps more than anything I’ve read, captures the voice(s) of our time. This book was not written for me (white, straight, late-40s). However, as the father of four daughters (17 to 23), whose passionate vocational explorations include ceramics, cosmetology, ecology, and feminism/behavioral genetics, an intersectional young adult space opera is the most 2020s book on my shelf.
Here’s a thoughtful recommendation from Donna:
Ted Chiang’s novella Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, found in his collection Exhalation, feels timely in its description of the paralyzing inundation of choices enabled by our everyday technology, even without being able to answer endless “what-ifs”. Really, all of the short stories found in that collection feel immediate in their incorporation of sci-fi tropes and real-world science, psychology, and other fields. As always, his writing is spectacular, provocative, and poignant all at once.
A canny observation from Pat:
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone strikes me as something that could only be written in the now because of its breadth of references and connections, from RGB codes, to Chinese literature, and spanning different alternative histories. In my opinion, sci-fi of the further past might not (dare I say likely wouldn’t) have considered drawing elements and inspiration so broadly or without tokenization or fetishization.
An enthusiastic affirmation from Will:
I want to pile on to Pat’s observation about This is How You Lose the Time War, which I am utterly and entirely in love with. A large portion of the book involves small anecdotes and vignettes set in one-off SSF worlds, fantastic tableaus that exist as so much window dressing for a few pages before they’re abandoned entirely. These snapshots are burned into my reading memory, perhaps because of how briefly they are seen. And while I think this broad array of ideas and references could have been written before now, I don’t think it would have worked at all. The audience is now so comfortable with stepping in and out of different fantasies and we’re able to absorb the impressionistic paintings of the worlds they conjure. But reading these requires a certain familiarity with this kind of thinking from the audience, and, more importantly, writing these requires an expectation from the author that the readers could follow. And that expectation feels new to me.
I wonder if some of those one-off worlds don’t constitute a single, memorable prime…?
Here’s a recommendation from Tim:
Cixin Liu’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series is an epic tale from Chinese Communism through 10,000 years from now. The science is contemporary, as is the sociology. Totally worth the time.
As with Leviathan Wakes, I am not totally convinced that The Three-Body Problem couldn’t have been written a couple of decades ago, with a few tweaks; however, its position as like, global flagship of the growing Chinese science fiction community absolutely qualifies it as THE NEW even if its (cosmic) plot doesn’t. (For my part, I think the actual content of this series feels very “classic sci-fi”, and not in a bad way; a kind of super-duper Asimov.)
Bruce’s recommendation reaches a bit beyond ten years, but I WILL ALLOW IT:
Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge jumped to mind, but I was surprised to see that it’s already 15 years old. Okay, past your timeline, but it’s still one of the best descriptions in SF of what augmented reality might develop into, and it has quite a thoughtful exploration of what the world might be like with ubiquitous computing. Plus it is the only book where you will find the UCSD Geisel Library dancing. A cracking good read.
This one, too; what an interesting recommendation from Roman:
Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang from 1992 was so prescient with regards to themes of alienation; gender/sexual/personal identity; personal growth; professional career development; education and self/social reliance; minor space travel; and impact of Spanish and Chinese culture on the US. It is a deeply understated, “soft” sci-fi book but of of all the only sci-fi books I’ve had a chance to read (besides maybe those of Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin), it’s the only one that describes what it’s like to be a totally ordinary person trying to get by in a science fiction world without resorting to sass or sci-fi horror or callling too much attention to the science fictiony-ness of it all.
The Murderbot faction has logged on! Florian writes:
Martha Wells’ delightful Murderbot series has a protagonist who is part organic and part AI, and the books seem to use a great many insights from neurodivergent and non-binary experiences to bring that character to vivid life —
and while Murderbot struggles with humans being turned on by it, or expecting it to have particular emotional responses, the character over the course of the books does start to realistically limn what such a novel identity might be like, and what friendships or connections to AIs, hybrid consciousnesses, and humans might look like. Also! The books don’t pretend like culture or entertainment don’t exist, so Murderbot spends a heartwarming amount of time binge watching dumb shows, and finding an odd comfort in them (just like us).
JD is also on board:
Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series, I think. First because of the hacker-fight-language used in combination with physical fight scene language. Including the AI aspect and the hacker concepts Murderbot uses feels very new. Second because of the definitions of family & self including multiple partner families and even asexuality. Third, I feel Murderbot’s level of snark is very 2020+ so even the first few books were ahead of their time in 2017/2018.
I would add The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells because of Murderbot’s hacking of the ubiquitous security, surveillance, and communications systems as a way of navigating the worlds it inhabits. It is not hard to imagine that reality as part of a possible future from our place in this precarious present where hacker groups can hold hostage an oil pipeline from the other side of the world.
And Jessica picks up on yet another formal dimension:
Also I almost forget to add all of the Murderbot books by Martha Wells! I don’t have a very cogent argument for why they should be included here besides the fact that I like them and they feel fresh and fun to me, but from my limited perspective the novella has been gaining ground as a SFF form in recent years and it’s exciting to see how authors are tackling worldbuilding in a much shorter page count. Hopefully AI-focused sci-fi will continue to evolve away from established tropes, but I think authors like Leckie and Wells are already leading the charge on that front.
I read the first three Murderbot books and enjoyed them, though I feel like they “burned away” in my brain faster and more completely than usual. It’s possible I didn’t read them with sufficient attention, of course… but literally all I can remember now is (1) there is a Murderbot, and (2) what it enjoys most of all is relaxing with its gigantic library of vintage streaming media. Does THE NEW demand memorability? Probably not. One does wish for just a scene or two more available for recall… a slightly higher density of primes, perhaps.
But don’t let that throw you off —
Edit: I was reflecting on this, and I think I am perhaps not giving my Murderbot prime number two enough credit. Maybe our relationship to vast libraries of media really is one of the most salient novelties of the 21st century, and maybe Martha Wells got there before anybody else, pinning it down, understanding that “I will now rewatch all 27 seasons of Beloved Show X” is, from now on, an essential human feeling…!
Here’s a good point about a good book:
Closest I can think of is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Perhaps could have been written in last twenty years, but the last ten years is the only time [in which] readers could appreciate seriousness of poor attention span intersecting with older themes of pharma and tech implants, and acceptance of non-traditional relationships.
I received two sharp recommendations for Nick Harkaway’s underrated Gnomon, which, like all of his books, punches through science fiction into a kind of hyper genre collision space. Nick clearly has a story collider in his basement.
Here’s the first of those recommendations:
It is so fundamentally grounded in the simultaneous hope and fear in technology of right now. Are machine learning (“AI”) and truly ubiquitous surveillance —
from predictive shopping to authoritarian facial recognition — going to help society or hurt it? Is tech able to advance the lives of individuals or only larger groups? I find myself returning to his depiction of technology as a tool when I read about oil companies refreezing the tundra to more effectively drill for oil, but I also remember the mysticism of the shark/4s when I see stories about emotion-driven topics like anti-vax and the blind faith in St. Elon.
And the second, from Jeff Anderson:
I’m going to add Gnomon by Nick Harkaway to the list. The narrative style is something that has emerged in the last few years. It’s a way of winding the story through the labyrinth of plot without losing the reader completely. It’s a neat trick, if it can be done. This, to me, is what storytelling should be.
Here is an interesting recommendation from Peter for an audiobook that’s new to me, called Bubble:
Rather than talking about the newly colonized planet, the safe dome cities (bubbles) and the technology that powers them, Bubble talks about the experience of living there. The gig economy, the fomo, how fast bleeding-edge tech becomes just another chore. Without experiencing smart phones, I doubt it could have been written or understood by readers. I feel a bit shallow for sharing this dirty pleasure-shallow-SF, but entertainment is entertainment.
Here’s a recommendation from Jack:
New Model Army by Adam Roberts. About ten years old now, but the depiction of a hyper-participatory superstructure, the new model armies, permeating everywhere but unable to be pinned, read as very NOW when I read it back then. A cross between the IRA and Murray Bookchin. The future is federated, decentralised, participatory, democratic. Very much the corners of the internet where interesting things are happening.
Here’s a recommendation from Alex:
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan. It’s a novel about the end of the internet, and what happens afterwards. Ten years ago, we were still in the “end of history” moment, and would not have been able to imagine that the internet might not last forever.
Here’s a recommendation from Kathi for a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time:
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The author somehow manages to write the women’s right movement into a sentient species of spiders. It’s a delicious read.
Here’s an interesting recommendation for a book currently only available in Norwegian:
Maybe a weird one, as it would feel even more on time in 2021, than when it was published in 2018: the Norwegian novel (as far as I know it hasn’t been translated to English) Nullingen av Paul Abel by Bjørn Vatne, in which an authoritarian Norwegian government fights climate change by coercing the behaviour of its population (towards lower emissions, but also towards following government “advice” towards societal conduct) [using] an advanced social network implemented [with] a brain implant. The protagonist is one of the few citizens, who, due to disinterest in social interaction, does not have such an implant […] and hence is able to critically evaluate government announcements.
And, fittingly, because my question was sparked by Harrison, a subscriber asks:
Maybe this is the easy answer, but have you read current M. John Harrison too? The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is SF(-ish) that could only have been written by someone steeped in a specific Britain: the Britain today that is colonising and rusting/veneering over the silting Britains of yesterdays. I didn’t fully understand it —
but I don’t fully understand my life here, now, either.
Let me quickly reply: OF COURSE I HAVE READ CURRENT HARRISON! 😝 His novel Light was published in 2002, so it falls outside the scope of my question; however, I think it beats many of the books recommended above —
My response to Harrison’s latest, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, winner of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize, basically mirrors this subscriber’s. I’d like to reread it, find my way in; it deserves that level of attention and care.
And here are a few of my own candidates, just off the top of my head:
I think, first, of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, because its treatment of an AI’s experience of specifically (1) distributed consciousness and (2) gender feels very contemporary to me. If this novel had been published in 1971, it would have been like… breathtakingly ahead of its time. But, then again, I wasn’t around to read science fiction in 1971, so what do I know? Just an initial gambit.
Another candidate might be Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which I discussed in my last newsletter. It’s a novel that is basically inconceivable without social media; while it’s not “about” social media, nearly all of its feelings are “social media feelings”, rendered with great sensitivity. You can grope for historical parallels, and they can be illuminating, slantwise, but, for my part, I think this class of experience is truly new, and it emerged in approximately 2005.
I agree that Absolutely Remarkable Thing would also be my top candidate for the book that really captures the “experience new to the last ten years” part of your question, because the number one thing that comes to mind for me is the experience of living life on the internet in the social media age. I have mixed feelings about the book as a whole but I think Hank Green really nailed the social media part of the story, to the extent that we’ll probably be able to look back on it in another 10-15 years as a time capsule of a (hopefully) long-gone internet age.
This isn’t a proper candidate, because it’s not science fiction but fantasy, but I do think it’s an interesting example: Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings seems to me a novel that a person could only write having played a big multiplayer video game like World of iWarcraft. The structure of the scenario —
I received a couple more recommendation along these lines. Jon writes:
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, certainly not a hidden gem, but another one that could have only been written after the invention of first person video games; indeed, the author has said as much in interviews. Written in a classic whodunit style, but with the mechanic of playing the same scenario through as different characters, but with previous knowledge —
a truly brilliant, and I believe completely novel, idea.
I’ve read this book and I’m not sure that connection occurred to me; I’m glad to know about it!
Another recommendation, from Joe:
A set of linked stories in Greg Egan’s Instantiation follows a set of NPCs who are trying to escape the game worlds they’ve been born into by doing things like assembling a specific mosaic that will crash the player’s GPU when it tries to render it. The game worlds were carelessly generated from the long tail of old genre e-books, and the protagonists need to be careful to stay in character (so they’re not reset) and ultimately try not to use up so many computing resources that they undermine the marginal business model that they’re running within.
A few subscribers wondered, does a book that really captures THE NEW have, by definition, a shorter shelf life? Will it, perforce, seem dated in due course? I think it’s possible, of course, but not inevitable.
One of my steps on the path from The Pastel City to my question above was Dune, which has similar vibes: both stories are techno-magical, ecological, political. Melancholy. Dune was published in 1965, and I’m sure it still felt new alongside The Pastel City. For my part, I think it still feels new today! I don’t know if that’s a function of the genre —
A closing thought: I wish you could transform a new book instantly into a vintage paperback. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing with a phantasmagorical cover illustration, its pages yellowed, a bit crispy… ideal.
Sent to the Reading Room committee in May 2021