Robin Sloan
The Reading Room
May 2021

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 paperback edition of The Pastel City, with a cover showing a rider in a gree ncloak on a hill above a futuristic city, with a robotic vulture swooping in for a landing.
The Pastel City, M. John Harrison

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 — it’s just 160 pages; I love a short book — and I have been struck by how time­less this book feels. Par­tially that’s because of the setup, indi­cated in this per­fect overture … 

The first couple paragraphs of Pastel City, explaining that the story takes place in a far future, after the fall of an advanced human civilization.
The Pastel City, M. John Harrison

 … 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 — not entirely, but mostly — for THE NEW. This doesn’t just mean “exotic space­ship designs”; it unfolds along every dimen­sion, and, if you ask me, THE NEW of the 21st cen­tury (so far) is mostly a mess of unexpected, unnamed feel­ings. THE NEW is a Google-scale data center, sure; but it is also, and maybe more so, the expe­ri­ence of man­ag­ing one; of wielding one. (Something I have tried to do in my own nov­els, which are not sci­ence fic­tion but surely “sci-fi adjacent”, is get some of these new feel­ings down on the page.)

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?

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

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 — “Oh yeah … I think I’ve heard of that one … ”—but, in this case, nope!

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.

And another:

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.

Status report:

A screenshot of the Libby app showing my hold placed for the novel Victories Greater Than Death.
Patience... patience.

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.

Ben adds:

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 — the rec­om­men­da­tions above are all on point.

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 — includ­ing books I loved — in terms of both THE NEW and, like, THE GOOD. It’s one of the best nov­els I have ever read, in any genre; its two sequels are also terrific.

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.

Jessica adds:

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 don’t know if this changes in later volumes — is pre­cisely that of an MMORPG “instance”, with that same odd loop­ing quality. (I think you could make a whole list of 21st-cen­tury fic­tion influ­enced by video game mechanics, for bet­ter and for worse … )

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 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 the steps on my path from The Pastel City to the 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 in 1974. For my part, I think both of them still feel new today! Maybe that’s a func­tion of the sci-fi genre — of fic­tion in general?—still not hav­ing “caught up”, and metab­o­lized these ideas fully, even after all these years. Maybe it’s some­thing else. A cer­tain kind of strange­ness can make a book per­ma­nently surprising; maybe it will be 2165, and both of these will still glow with that halo of THE NEW.

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.

From Oakland,


Sent to the Reading Room committee in May 2021