SF/Fantasy you should be reading
Posted by ekr on 22 Aug 2021
I'm a big science fiction reader, and sometimes people ask me for recommendations, so here goes. Other good lists include NPR and Noah Smith. These have some overlap, but there's also a bunch of new stuff here.
Peter Watts: Blindsight, Freeze Frame Revolution, #
Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts -- James Nicoll
I'm constantly trying to sell Peter Watts' stuff to anyone who will listen because it's brilliant, but let's face it, it's also depressing as hell. Watts is a trained biologist and every Watts book is full of incredible ideas but his core concern is the nature and uses of consciousness and intelligence. Some examples:
Vampires are actually an extinct hominid that is a predator of humans. All the historical vampire myths are based in that biology: they're super-intelligent so they can outthink us, sociopathic so that they don't mind eating intelligent prey, can hibernate to avoid eating through the entire human population, and allergic to crosses because their enhanced brain wiring and pattern recognition responds badly to right angles ("the cruciform glitch"). Naturally, scientists bring them back through genetic engineering when life gets too complicated for normal human brains.
Consciousness interferes with reaction time, so the military makes "zombies" which have their consciousness suppressed and thus are more effective soldiers.
A billion-year-plus mission to position wormhole gates around the galaxy run by an AI ("the Chimp") which is deliberately designed to be dumber than humans even though we know how to build super-human AI; a smarter computer might get its own ideas.
Watts has made much of his writing free at rifters.com, so you can try it out without commitment -- though I'm sure he'd appreciate your money. Rifters also includes much of the technical background (and of course the books themselves have footnotes to Watts's sources).
See also The Things, a retelling of "The Thing" from the perspective of the monster. Trigger warning.
Malka Older: Infomacracy #
Set during an election in a nearish future of "microdemocracy". Nation states have largely disappeared, be replaced with "centenals": localities of 100,000 people that vote to be governed by one or the other "government" (effectively a supra-national political party, but ranging from corporations like Philip Morris or Sony to more traditional agenda-oriented parties like "Policy1st"). The result is a checkerboard of jurisdictions with different governments controlling adjacent territories mixed together (a bit like the "franchulates" in Snow Crash but much more realistic feeling). The governments also compete for the "supermajority" (a majority of centenals, I think), which is a form of overall government.
Much of the action centers on "Information", which seems to be a combination of the Internet and a giant network of fact checkers dedicating to providing unbiased information (e.g., real-time rebuttals of lies in political ads). This is a fascinating idea, but from the perspective of 2021 (Infomacracy came out in 2016), the idea of a single unbiased source that people basically trust feels a bit like wishful thinking.
Trigger warning for cryptographers: straight-up Internet voting and it's not even end-to-end.
John Barnes: A Million Open Doors, Earth Made of Glass, The Merchants of Souls, The Armies of Memory #
It's hard to even know where to start here. These four books all take place in "The Thousand Cultures" universe. Humans have terraformed and settled the nearby planets by slowboat, with each individual colony having a designed culture intended to live out one one ideal or another. The protagonist, Giraut Leones, comes from Nou Occitan, a colony modeled after the old Occitan troubadours, valorizing art, music, and dueling and in which history has been rewritten to reinforce that. For instance:
After a moment she smiled at me, tentatively as if afraid I would shout at her, and said "Well, if they charge us, we'll go to jail. Historically, we're in good company: Jesus, Peter, Paul ... Adam Smith was burned at the stake on Threadneedle Street, and Milton Friedman was eaten by cannibals in Zurich."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," I said hastily. I knew who the first three were, of course, and later on I was glad I had no idea and so said nothing about the other two, because they turned out to be part of the Culture Variant History--the mythic story that founders of cultures were allowed to load in as real history. Of all the silly things that happened during the Diaspora, that was one of the silliest, for it resulted in permanent deep cleavages among the Thousand Cultures; the first time that I heard an Interstellar making a speech on a streetcorner proclaiming that Edger Allan Poe did not die in the Paris Uprising of 1846, that Rimbaud had never been King of France, and that Mozart was not killed by Beethoven in a duel, I challenged him and cut him down like a mad dog.
Thanks to the limit in the speed of light each planet isolated until the development of the springer, which provides instant interplanetary teleportation. This of course changes everything, as the cultures are brought back into contact with each other.
These books are a fantastic example of a series which starts in one place and ends in another. The first book is a pretty straightforward coming of age story but by the end of the series Barnes has touched on: the ethics of strong AI and how you get it to work for you (the answer is not nice), aging, immortality through personality recording, minds as software, and the meaning of life in a post-scarcity society.
Barnes is probably better known for his ultraviolent "Kaleidoscope Century" and "Mother Of Storms", but I far prefer this series -- which, is still somewhat violent -- and was shocked to see that the first two are out of print.
Raphael Carter: The Fortunate Fall #
Raphael Carter's only book and even though it's great it's one I feel bad recommending because it's effectively out of print, though you can still get copies on Amazon. This is set in aftermath of a US-led tyranny/McGenocide. Most of the world (the "Fusion of Historical Nations") only slightly more high tech than what we have now with the exception of a cyberpunk style jacks which let you fully interface with an immersive VR-style Internet policed by totalitarian "Weavers" whose job is to keep is to keep everyone in line. By contrast, Africa is free, high tech, and closed off to the rest of the world. The main character is a "camera", a reporter feeding everything she sees and feels into the net. It's almost impossible to explain the rest of this without giving away the plot, except to say that you should read it.
Wil McCarthy: The Collapsium, The Wellstone, Lost In Transmission, To Crush The Moon #
Straight up hard science fiction with super science and more super science. Not quite at the Vingeian singularity, but pretty close, with nanotech, programmable matter, quantum-dissasembly-reassembly teleportation ("faxing"), human backup and replication, and thus near personal immortality. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, who wants to grow up in a world where your parents never get out of your way? The first book (The Collapsium) is a bit rough and the whole thing suffers from McCarthy's desire for implausibly heroic and brilliant characters, but the science part really pays off, whether it's super-science, or, well, this:
One man in a sphere of brass.
One man alone in the vacuum of space.
One man hurtling toward solid rock at forty meters per second--fast enough to kill him, to end his mission here and now, to cap a damnfool end on a long and decidedly damnfool life. To leave his children defenseless.
In the porthole ahead is the planette Varna, his destination, swathed in white clouds and shining seas, in grasslands, in forests whose vertical dimension is already apparent against the dinner-bowl curve of horizin. Not planet: planette. It looks small because it is small, barely twelve hundred meters across. Condensed matter core, fifteen hundred neubles--very nice. The surface workmanship is exquisite; he sees continents, islands, majestic little mountain ranges jutting up above the trees. Telescopes, he realizes, dont do justice to this remotest of Lune's satellites.
Walter Jon Williams: The Crown Jewels, House of Shards, Rock of Ages #
Believe it or not, three science fiction caper comedies about the "allowed burglar" Drake Maijstral. In the backstory, humanity gets conquered by the alien Khosali who more or less pick and retain a mishmash of the elements of our culture they think are most interesting and mash them up:
Once in his suite, Maijstral settled his unease by watching a Western till it was time to dress. This one, The Long Night of Billy The Kid, was an old-fashioned tragedy featuring the legendary rivalry between Billy and Elvis Presley for the affections of Katie Elder. Katie's heart belonged to Billy, but despite her tearful pleadings Billy rode the outlaw trail; and finally brokenhearted Katie left Billy to go on tour with Elvis as a backup singer, while Billy rode on to his long-foreshadowed death at the hands of the greenhorn-inventor-turned lawman Nikola Tesla.
The conquerers impose a lot of their own culture, including the custom of "allowed burglary" in which theft is basically an extreme sport, with the heists videoed and broadcast. Effectively a comedy of (alien) manners, but with people stealing stuff. Also, Elvis impersonators:
Garvikh really had them rocking. He had the audience in the palm of his furry hand.
He had heard it said that he was the finest Elvis ever to be born Khosalikh. Certainly, he was among the best Elvises now alive. As part of his apprenticeship he had mastered the difficult, antique Earth dialect, a dead language no longer spoken anywhere, in which the King had recorded his masterpieces. Garvikh had devoted thousands of hours to a series of special exercised intended to limber his sturdy Khosali hips and torso, never intended to move with the fluidity more natural to the human form, so that he could perform the demanding, difficult hip thrusts, the stilted pigeon-toed walking style, the sudden knee drops and whirling assaults on the microphone that characterized the rigidly defined Elvis repertoire. This was High Custom and High Custom performances required the utmost in precision. Each step, each gesture, each twitch of the hips or twist of the upper lip, was performed with the utmost classical perfection, the most rigid attention to form. There was no room for accident, for spontaneity. All was performed with utmost care to ensure that every nuance was subtly shaded and subtly controlled, in the tradition of the great Elvis Masters of the past.
You get the idea.
Almost everything Williams has done is good, with a very wide range from sailing adventure novels to cyberpunk to post-singularity. He's more recently known for the military SF Praxis novels, which are solid but not as unique. See also the short story Dinosaurs.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa: David Mogo: Godhunter #
Described as "Godpunk", this is Constantine meets American Gods but in Lagos. At some point in the future, the gods fall out of the sky and now Lagos is full of various kinds of supernatural entities. David Mogo's job -- well, really more like freelancing -- is to hunt them down. This is really three stories in sequence more than than a novel and good enough that when I saw that Okungbowa had a new book out I bought it sight unseen.
Robert Jackson Bennett: City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles #
Set in some unspecified alternate world in which "the Continent" (vaguely Russian), gives rise to local "divinities" (effectively gods) who then go on to subjugate and enslave the island Saypur (vaguely Indian). In the backstory, the Saypuris rebel, kill the divinities and invade and occupy the now devastated Continent (acting somewhat like the 19th century colonial British Empire), with what appear to be somewhat conflicting motivations between moderinizing it keeping it down so it can't threaten Saypur. It turns out, though, that not all the divinities are dead, which is the setup for the rest of the series. There is some pretty amazing worldbuilding here, especially of the mythology of the divinities themselves, who are simultaneously alien and yet familiar.
"Kolkan wished for nothing more than for his followers to lead a good and ordered life. After the city of Kolkashtan was established, he told his followers to come to him with any questions, any concerns, and he would be there to answer them, to judge them, and to help them. And they responded quite enthusiastically. There are records of lines of poeple five, ten, fifteen miles long. Of people fainting, starving, growing sick and infirm as they waited. The historical accounts are vague, but it's estimated Kolkan lisented to however many millions of people, judging day and night, sitting in one place, for over one hundred and sixty years."
Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor #
The setting is straight up high fantasy (elves, goblins, etc.) which is not my usual thing, but I enjoyed this one. Instead of the standard Tolkienesque final war, this is much quieter. The protagonist is the second-in-line son half-goblin son of the elvish emperor who has been effectively banished until the emperor and his son die in an airship accident and he suddenly ascends to the throne and surprises everyone, including himself, by being a good emperor, mostly by being a good person. You've seen this general theme before, but the writing and world building are excellent.
Sergei Lukyanenko: Night Watch #
A series of six urban fantasy books. Living among us are Others: people with supernatural powers divided into (surprise!) Light and Dark. Years ago, they reached a truce and established two organizations to keep the balance: the Night Watch, composed of Light Others, which monitors the Dark and the Day Watch, composed of Dark Others, which monitors the Light. These feel more like spy novels than they do like fantasy (though without the "this is all boring bureaucracy" feel of Stross's Laundry novels). Originally written in Russian and the translation can be a bit uneven (not that I speak Russian; I'm just talking about how the English comes out), but definitely worth a look. These are the only foreign language books on this list.
Tim Powers is rightfully famous, but for my money this is his best book. Declare is a secret history of the 20th century, recasting the standard cold war espionage thriller (e.g., Le Carre) as instead a conflict over supernatural power, and in particular a colony of djinn on Mt. Ararat. Powers perfectly matches the tone of the spy thriller while also somehow having the supernatural elements make perfect sense.
The frame story here is the life of the Soviet double agent Kim Philby. Powers writes:
In a way, I arrived at the plot for this book by the same method that astronomers use in looking for a new planet -- they look for "perturbations", wobbles in the orbits of the planets they're aware of, and they calculate the mass and position of an unseen planet whose gravitational field could have caused the observed perturbations -- and then they turn their telescopes on that part of the sky and search for a gleam. I looked at all the seemingly irrelevant "wobbles" in the lives of these people -- Kim Philby, his father, T.E. Lawrence, Guy Burgess -- and I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar--and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.
Other Powers worth reading: The Stress of Her Regard (Byron, Keats, and Shelley, vampire hunters!) and Last Call, which is somehow about the competition to become the Fisher King (Powers is obsessed with the Fisher King, see also The Drawing of the Dark).
Anne Leckie: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy #
This series (the first book won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards) was heavily hyped and while it's not one of my absolute favorites, I certainly agree it's solid. These books are largely set in a space empire called the Radch, which generally semes pretty unpleasant, with their SOP being to "annex" (i.e., conquer) a planet and then kidnap a bunch of their citizens to be converted into "ancillaries": bodies operated by a warship AI. The protagonist is an ancillary left over after its ship is destroyed.
There was a lot of controversy over Ancillary Justice because of a particular language choice: Radchaii society doesn't think of gender as a first-class construct and doesn't have gendered pronouns so Leckie decided to everyone as "she" and "her", use "sister" for any sibling, etc.. You get used to this pretty quick, but of course there was a bunch of ridiculous Gamergate-style backlash. Don't let that put you off.
Stephen Brust: Vlad Taltos Novels, Phoenix Guards Series #
All of these novels are in the same fantasy setting: the planet Dragaera which is -- through unspecified means -- populated by Dragaerans (effectively elves: tall and incredibly long-lived, though they call themselves "humans") and Easterners (humans, specifically Hungarians), and a bunch of other magical types. The Taltos books are (mostly) told from the perspective of Vlad Taltos, an Easterner living in the Dragaeran empire and working for the equivalent of the mafia as an assassin and minor crime boss. These are written in mostly a fairly glib, hard-boiled style. Vlad is a pretty morally ambiguous character, so you kind of have to get used to that.
The Phoenix Guards series are straight-up Dumas pastiche, with the first one, "The Phoenix Guards", being effectively "The Three Musketeers" and the second, "Five Hundred Years After" being "Twenty Years After" (because the Dragaerans are incredibly long lived, get it?). Brust does a pretty good job of imitating -- exaggerating, really -- Dumas's ornate writing style, so good if you like that sort of thing, not so good if you don't.
Aliette de Bodard: Obsidian and Blood Series #
Detective novels set in the Aztec empire. The main character is the High Priest of the Dead, except that he solves crimes -- with magic because the Aztec gods are real and so their rituals work. De Bodard does a great job of immersing you in a culture which most people will find truly alien.
Also worth checking out are de Bodard's Xuya series set in an alternate universe with a Vietnamese space empire.
Dan Simmons: Just about everything #
Simmons is best known for his Hyperion series, which is definitely solid, but really he is a master of just about any genre. He got his start writing terror (favorites: Children Of The Night, Summer of Night) then moved into science fiction, including not only Hyperion but also Ilium and Olympos, retelling the Ilium and Odyssey through the lens of post-singularity humanity. Most recently he's been writing historical science fiction/fantasy/horror. Standouts here include The Terror (a retelling of the lost Franklin Expedition) and The Fifth Heart (Sherlock Holmes and Henry James investigating the suicide of Clover Adams). Less good though still credible are his attempts at hard-boiled detective novels. Avoid Darwin's Blade.
See also: Muse of Fire in which aliens have killed most of humanity and enslaved the rest, with the protagonist being a member of a travelling Shakespeare troupe, Shakespeare being one of the few pieces of human culture the aliens thought was worthwhile.
Warning: Simmons is an amazing writer but seems to have recently adopted some extremely anti-Muslim political views (see this review of Flashback, which I have not read). You'll have to factor that into your calculations.
P. Djeli Clark: A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, A Master of Djinn #
This series is set in an alternate early 20th century some time 40ish years after the mystic al-Jahiz "bored a hole into the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn", letting the supernatural (back?) into the world. Egypt rivals the Western powers who are dominant in our world and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchangments, and Supernatural entities is responsible for keeping a lid on everything. Effectively, these are police procedurals but with magic, with epic stakes and set against a rich supernatural backstory.
Also good: The Black Gods Drums.
With weapons called "neuroducers" which make you think you've been injured (mostly) don't physically harm you. ↩︎
Ended after some hackers created the "unanimous army" by taking over people's minds and turning them into a single force swarming over everything and then once victory was achieved, shutting down and just stranding them thousands of miles away from their homes. ↩︎