Which near future science fiction book should we read? A blog book club query.

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.

Cline Ready Player One_website image

It’s hard to make VR look good from the outside.

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)

Ryan Boudinot, Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012) (Goodreads).  A look at a very strange post-apocalyptic world.  (thanks to Andri Magnason)

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)

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)

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)

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.  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.

Older, InformocracyAda 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.

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.

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?
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

Already read:

Ashby Company TownMadeline Ashby, Company Town.  Ashby’s a professional futurist, and uses this book to imagine what could happen with biology, technology, and society.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife.  The American southwest after climate change has caused aridification. (thanks to Steve Burnett)

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.

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63 Responses to Which near future science fiction book should we read? A blog book club query.

  1. amichaelberman says:

    I don’t have one to add. Let’s pick one and start reading, I’m in!

  2. I’m also in – have read Ready Player One and it was fun and thought provoking. Company Town & Informacracy have peaked my interest but really, I’ll read anything!

  3. You’ve already read Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. How about Mark Russinovich – Zero Day?

  4. haymest says:

    A few additions:

    1) I think Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age seems increasingly less far-fetched these days. While not directly about Earth Anathem contains a number of near future commentaries set in a parallel universe but still very much rooted in our own.

    2) Don’t forget Daniel Suarez’s work – the duology of Daemon and FreedomTM are always popping into my head these days. Kill Decision is also a very prescient examination of the implications of drones – especially those that can kill.

    3) Then there is the collection of stories in the METAtropolis series edited by John Scalzi, some of which are quite excellent. My favorite there is Karl Schroeder’s “To Hie from Far Cilenia” which does an excellent job of mixing the virtual and the real in a world that doesn’t really understand itself anymore.

    4) Finally, you shouldn’t completely overlook The Martian is which is just about the ultimate Maker book I’ve ever read. It’s a bit light on the social commentary for the bent I think you’re looking for.

    • Thank you for these suggests, Tom!
      Where should one start with METAtropolis?

      • Karl Schroeder is an excellent thinker and writer.

      • haymest says:

        Interestingly, METAtropolis was originally an audio-only book but is now available in print. As I said, “Hie from Far Celenia” is my favorite story in the volume. Here is a brief synopsis:


        To Hie from Far Cilenia by Karl Schroeder (from Metatropolis)
        This is the last story in this audio collection, and it has a decidedly different tone that what came before. Instead of an actual city, this story takes place in a series of virtual cities – interactive, multiplayer game cities which future residents have chosen to abandon the real world to inhabit. There is a larger plot – Gennady, a contractor hired to find stolen plutonium, and Miranda, an anthropologist looking for her lost son, are trying to track down a shipment of plutonium believed to have been stolen by someone in one of these virtual cities. However, the exploration of the cities themselves were, to me, much more interesting than the larger story.

        With the ever-growing fascination of massively multi-player online games, it is not a stretch to imagine a time when people literally abdicate their lives in the “real” world in favor of one of these online societies. The complex politics and economics of Shroeder’s virtual worlds were fascinating, and I was fully engaged throughout the story.

        I definitely enjoyed this anthology – in fact, it’s soon to be available in print form, and I’m seriously considering making that purchase.
        Posted by Elizabeth at Tuesday, June 30, 2009

  5. Joe Murphy says:

    I really enjoyed the chapter from _Company Town_ which appears in EFF’s recent “Pwning Tomorrow” collection, and _Ready Player One_ has been trying to get ahead on my to-read pile for a while, so I think those are my top 2. I happened to recently wonder how _Rainbows End_ is holding up after a decade, so that might be my #3.

    That said, I’d participate for almost any of them. (In fact, I find the idea of “professional” reading clubs which expand beyond non-fiction quite exciting on its own.)

  6. haymest says:

    Man, I’ve got some reading to do. Of course, perspective is usually what gets me into trouble.

  7. Not strictly science fiction per se, but Albert Brooks’ (yes, that Albert Brooks) “2030” is sort of spooky in presenting a very realistic and plausible future, especially in its extrapolation of age-based economic inequality.

  8. I enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE, for which a Spielberg film version is on its way (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1677720/).

  9. These are all great suggestions. I’d be interested in reading and discussing. Some other ones that came across my Goodreads recently: https://www.goodreads.com/genres/anthropocene-novels

  10. I looked up the Ada Palmer book “Too Like the Lightning” because it was the only musical title, and I like style with my sf. The review says, “Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

    The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competion is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

    And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…”

    Sounds great, so I vote for Palmer!

  11. dmweade says:

    Soft Apocalypse by Will
    McIntosh occupies the timeline between the present and McCarthy’s The Road.

    His short story, Bridesicles – which won a Hugo – was expanded into Love Minus Eighty, which is a dystopian love story.

    Both novels, and the short, deserve to be on the list. Each is wonderful and chilling.

  12. I vote for The Water Knife and Influx. It’s difficult for me to see how Influx wouldn’t be better than Suarez’ previous work even though I haven’t read them. The Water Knife is just precisely what I’d expect before the world actually goes Mad Max. It’s the most plausible near future book I’ve ever read.

    • haymest says:

      I liked Influx but it was far less realistic and far more secret society deus ex machina than his other books. I would highly recommend you start with Daemon, one of the best near future sci-fi books I’ve read in the last decade. It’s chilling to me because it’s so technically plausible yet stripped of sentimentality that I found it utterly believable. There was no point at which I said, “yeah, right.” Suarez comes out of the IT world so he’s got his tech down and just extrapolates to create the story.

  13. Steven Kaye says:

    Genevieve Valentine’s Persona? NPR review here: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/14/390462005/persona-is-a-dangerous-dance-of-diplomacy-and-celebrity. Haven’t read it yet.

    If it’s kosher to suggest books I’ve already read, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark is interesting, though it has some infuriating character and plot developments. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland.

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  15. joshmasnickkim says:

    Hi…the next book on my list is: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 – getting great reviews.

    I would argue that we should read newly (or newish) books…..as many of us have read much of Bryan’s original list.

    I’m currently reading Kill Process – a new book from William Hertling (who wrote Avogadro Corp) and liking it.

    Any book without an audiobook companion is out for me – for instance Company Town looks great – but no audiobook.

    Of Bryan’s suggestions – I’d vote for:
    Informocracy (bonus that it is Whispersync)
    Too Like the Lightning
    Rule 34 (another Whispersync book)

    The other books on Bryan’s lists are all great.

  16. gardnercampbell says:

    Really glad for all the suggestions here, as I’m far, far behind on the newer stuff.

    I keep going back to some old favorites to wring more goodness from them. My most recent return is to Poul Anderson’s “Brain Wave,” a novel that posits a sudden expansion of human cognitive ability (speed and complexity) as the Earth exits an electromagnetic inhibitor field within which human intelligence evolved. I’m struck (again) by how this speculative event maps onto the sudden expansion of human communicative capacity brought on by the Internet. The book has dated since its publication in the early 1950s, but not too much (the most glaring example is, not surprisingly, its handling of gender). It’s also quite lyrical in spots, a joy to read. The Wikipedia article is good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_Wave.

    For more recent stuff, I recommend “Station Eleven,” though one might say it’s more “post-apocalyptic” than true SF (however that may be defined).

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  23. Citizen Ken says:

    Just as an FYI, if you’re looking for near-future, near-Earth outer space stories then the article ‘Stories of Cislunar Suspense’ at The Space Review has capsule reviews of over 100 cislunar space stories, and links to an article with over 200 capsule reviews of Moon-set stories.

    Part 1: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3027/1
    Part 2: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3032/1

    [Disclosure: I’m the author of both articles, and have read every story reviewed]

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  38. michael mckinney says:

    I was in the near vicinity when one of the greatest science fiction stories came into the world. It’s available at Amazon as ebook and paperback “The Invitation, A Journey into Mankind’s Future” by Michael Mckinney is as relevant and imaginative as any science fiction story ever written. No boring “Star Wars” shoot em up sprawl. That stale bag of tricks is for those who lack depth and imagination. This book will be free to download for five days in January beginning Jan. 3rd through Jan. 8th.

  39. BC Coleman says:

    Can’t understand why no one seems to read CB Barrie’s titles. Nearly every one is an outstanding NFSF or present day read and for once develops really novel plot lines and scenarios. As example, read ‘A Cut Above The Rest’.
    Seems to me that too many readers of NFSF are immersed in plot arrangements that are so dystopian, far future or distorted that they really merge with conventional science fiction and are a misnomer – as far away from near future SF as you could get.

  40. Rick Badman says:

    Love this content Bryan, very well-written!
    Reading is known to shape the way a person thinks about the world. It is one of the most effective ways to advance their thinking, keeping the mind as active as possible.
    You may also read my blog on Things You Can Learn from Reading Science Fiction
    Hope this will also help.

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