What’s a good near-future science fiction book to read, and would you like to read it together?
(EDITED: the list has grown, thanks to suggestions in comments, on Facebook, Twitter, and via email. An initial tally of your preferences appears at the end of this post.)
This question came up during the New Media Consortium’s 2016 conference (my materials). I recommended that education and technology professionals pay strong attention to science fiction, and folks got excited, wanting recommendations. So I’ve assembled some (below).
Why near future sf? Because things are changing very quickly, and science fiction historically has been a fruitful way of thinking about the emerging future. Much of sf takes place elsewhen, either the far future (think space opera) or the past (think steampunk and alternate history), so the near future gives us the best yield. As one blogger puts it,
near-future SF keeps things local; earth-bound. The reason I find these stories interesting is that they are a way to look at our own society and technology, only a step into the future. The best books are extrapolations of current technologies and situations that seem like maybe they might already be possible.
I’d like to recommend recent sf, too. 20th-century sf can be fascinating, but has dropped off the calendar too far to be of much use – although I welcome suggestions. The oldest book I cite below is
thirteen twenty-one years old.
Also, sf can be fun.
It’s also time for another blog-based book club. So far this blog has hosted discussions of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Previously it kicked off a more distributed discussion of Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows. Let’s do another one!
Here’s my list. Alphabetical by author. I avoided Amazon links because some folks don’t like ’em. I picked cover images when they looked neat. I’ve read some but not all. I’ve tried to balance author’s genders.
Madeline Ashby, Company Town. Ashby’s a professional futurist, and uses this book to imagine what could happen with biology, technology, and society:
New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. Hwa is of the few people in her community (which constitutes the whole rig) to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig–making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire. Still, her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. The oldest book on our list (2003), and possibly the most famous. It’s a dystopia, and then things get worse. Focuses on biology, consumerism, and the digital world.
It’s hard to make VR look good from the outside.
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife. The American southwest after climate change has caused aridification. (thanks to Steve Burnett)
____, The Windup Girl. A vision of a future southeast Asia after the collapse of petroleum, featuring global warming, advanced robotics, new energy forms, and new politics. (thanks to Phil Long)
James Bradley, Clade. A look into the rest of the 21st century as climate change reconfigures humanity and the Earth. (thanks to Tom Fullerton)
Alfred Brooks, 2030. A vision of the world just 14 years away, from a comedian. (thanks to Mike Richichi)
Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road. A voyage across a technologically advanced Middle East, as heroines travel from India to Africa. (thanks to Jenny Colvin)
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. Something of a modern classic, this involves an epically elaborate computer game based on 1980s pop culture. It’s played by people in a near-future dystopia, who use it to escape.
Cory Doctorow, For the Win. A young adult novel concerned with massively multiplayer online games, economic issues, and migration. The whole book is available for free, online. (thanks to Janet Whelan)
David Eggers, The Circle. A look into a giant technology company and its impact on human life, from one of America’s most famous novelists. (Thanks to Larry Johnson for the recommendation)
William Gibson, The Peripheral. Part of this novel takes place in the near future, where poor folks and military veterans eke out an existence on the fringes of society. Another part occurs two generations later, after civilization has been shocked and redesigned. The two worlds come into contact. (My review)
William Hertling, Kill Process. Concerns revenge through hacking, social media, and abuse. (thanks to Joshua Kim)
Ian McDonald, River of Gods. Imagining India in 2047. (one review) (thanks to tom lombardo)
Will McIntosh, Soft Apocalypse. The world is gradually falling apart, thanks to several bad things. (thanks to dmweade)
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. The world after a devastating plague, where people struggle to find meaning through stories. The plot loops back and forth between the moment the disease breaks forth and a period twenty years later. (my review) (thanks to Gardner Campbell)
Ramez Naam, Nexus. This world is driven by nanotechnology, which enables new politics and a thriller plot. (thanks to Phil Long)
Linda Nagata, The Red. Near-future military and technology thriller, within a grim political framework:
“There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere”
Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear.
Malka Older, Informocracy. All about a world driven by information and polling. From the official site:
It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (NPR rave review). It takes place a bit further ahead than the rest of these books, but looks grounded in all kinds of ideas we’re thinking about today. Lots of world-building with science, technology, and culture.
Nathan Rich, The Odds Against Tomorrow. About a statistician tasked with predicting near-term futures, with an eye towards disaster. Then real disaster happens.
Mark Russinovich, Zero Day. Computer errors start to grow into something nightmarish. (thanks to Chad Bergeron)
John Scalzi, ed, METAtropolis. A collection of five stories taking place in a shared urban environment. (thanks to Tom Haymes)
Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles. (Guardian review) The story of an American family over decades of financial decline, following a cyberattack. At least partly satire. (thanks to Joshua Kim)
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story. Takes place in a decaying but technologically advanced America, and features a romance between digitally retro and non-retro characters.
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. From 1995, but perhaps far ahead of its time. I’m fond of “The Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer”, which we might be about to realize. (thanks to haymest)
____, Reamde. A thriller taking place in a future so near it might as well be the present, the novel involves a massively multiplayer online game, drug smuggling, new computer desks, a Welsh Muslim terrorist, and more. Almost a caper.
Bruce Sterling, Distraction. From the late 1990s, a disturbingly accurate look at a mid-20th-century America wracked by economic crisis, foreign wars, climate change, and a fumbling Congress. (one review from Think Progress) (thanks to Jake Dunagan)
Charlie Stross, Accelerando. Linked short stories starting off with high-tech near future, then racing ahead. (thanks to tom lombardo)
_____, Rule 34. Apparently involves online and offline crime, fictitious states, and emerging technology. (thanks to Tatiana Benet-Riley)
Daniel Suarez, Daemon and Freedom™. Older (2006 and 2010) but fresh and exciting, this two-book series begins with the death of a famous computer programmer, and the unusual developments that follow (he said, avoiding spoilers). A fine combination of thriller plot with plenty of ideas. (thanks to Chad Bergeron, Ton Zijlstra, and haymest)
Genevieve Valentine, Persona. Imagines a near future where international diplomacy has taken on attributes of today’s celebrity culture (thanks to Steven Kaye)
Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End. This is one of the older books (2006) on my list, but it’s a good ‘un. The main focus is how education could change in the next generation or two.
Andy Weir, The Martian. Perhaps the most commercially successful of these titles, and “the ultimate Maker book”. (thanks to haymest and Tom Elliott)
…so which ones do you like? What titles should we add? If things get out of hand I’ll fire up a SurveyMonkey.
Currently in the lead, based on being named more than once:
Madeline Ashby, Company Town
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One
Malka Older, Informocracy
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Daniel Suarez, Daemon
Vinge, Rainbows End
Weir, The Martian