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.
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.
Paolo Bacigalupi, 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)
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)
Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem (2006). A first-contact story with a strong historical component. Very popular in China, and also the first Chinese novel to become a major presence in the US market (Hugo Award winner 2015). (thanks to Mike Sellers)
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. The author is friendly on Twitter. (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.
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.
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.
____, 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)
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.
Weinstein, Children of the New World: Stories (publisher; Amazon) (2016). Short stories examining near-future challenges to the world, from virtuality to climate change. Enthusiastically recommended by Joshu Kim.
…so which ones do you like? What titles should we add?
Some of the more popular titles,, based on being named more than once:
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Daniel Suarez, Daemon
Vinge, Rainbows End
Weir, The Martian
Madeline Ashby, Company Town. Ashby’s a professional futurist, and uses this book to imagine what could happen with biology, technology, and society.
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.
Malka Older, Informocracy. All about a world driven by information and polling.