Is anyone else losing their minds over the incredible photos being beamed back to Earth by the James Webb telescope? The photos being released by NASA have completed captured my imagination. I’ve started following @nasa on Instagram to make sure I’m seeing all of this. The recent photos of Jupiter are mind-boggling beautiful.
But space is also terrifying. Have you heard the sound of a black hole? It sounds like the echo of a dying soul. Perhaps the perfect way to usher in spooky season, which for me begins *checks watch* approximately now.
I never used to consider myself a science fiction fan. I could take or leave Star Wars (although I’ve always found Star Trek: TNG to be super interesting). But I’ve recently realized that in fact, I love science fiction. It’s not all aliens and stuff – most of it is mind-bending stuff here on Earth, including magical realism and diverging timelines. I am fascinated by the brains of sci-fi authors who come up with this stuff. For the most part, it can be both interesting and extremely unsettling. There is no horror like the horror of deepest space, or the recesses of the human mind.
That being said, there is also a place in my heart for a good ol’ space opera. Battlestar Galactica, anyone? Here are some of my fave sci-fi reads over the past few years. But my absolute top book that I recommend to everyone read if they want to get completely wrapped up in an amazing literary world (and have their heart broken in thousands of different ways in the process) – that book I’ll be sharing on my newsletter. Be sure to sign up if you’re not already to find out!
Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff are basically a powerhouse duet in writing science fiction, and it’s never more clear than with this intense first book in the Illuminae trilogy, a space opera bound to blow your socks off. It’s been a minute since I’ve been as obsessed with a book as I am with this. As in, staying up to the early hours because I had to know.
Things start with a bang … as in, an entire planet under attack. High school students run for their lives as everything they know is destroyed. We follow the story of Kady and Ezra, who broke up earlier that day. At the very beginning of the story, I went into this thinking it was a YA romance, albeit a super cool one (we’ll get to that in a second). And then as my mind was blown for like the eighteenth time, I realized this isn’t YA and this isn’t a romance, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a love letter to humanity, for the best that humans can be, our fucked up decision-making fueled by love and grief, which leaves us vulnerable but can occasionally lead to sparks of brilliance. Our hope is where miracles spring from.
The format in which the story is told is a 600-page dossier, detailing the chronological events from when a planet is attacked by an evil megacorporation, to when several nuclear attacks destroy battleships across the galaxies, and it is incredible. I thought it might be hard to get into a book made from files of text messages, reports and vocal interactions, and yet it is not. It is amazing. I spent all morning studying intergalactic battleship schematics muttering “this book is so cool.”
An intricate plot grabs you by the throat from the moment it starts, and never drops a thread or gets confused. There are competing corporations and illegal mining operations in far-flung solar systems. There are several major attacks and many ships destroyed along the way. There is a zombie plague burning through the remaining population like wildfire, and the afflicted are as likely to tear you apart before you are infected yourself. There is a killer AI system with nuclear capabilities gone rogue. Absolutely stunning.
The hands-down star of the show here was AIDAN (Artificial Intelligence Defence Analytics Network). The glitchy AI of the Alexander battleship, AIDAN is shut off after doing something the humans aboard found abhorrent. However, AIDAN was not cool about being shut off like that. From the beginning, it is unclear whether AIDAN is a villain or a saviour, but as a reader you find yourself feeling empathy, affection and maybe even love for an operating system. AIDAN is one of the most complicated characters (antihero?) that I have read in a very long time. Am I not merciful?
The setting is perfectly realized. Even if you are not a sci-fi fan, you will be pulled directly into the book and understand fully what it is to live on these ships. The ending played with my emotions. You start off with hope, then less so, then less so, until, you just know there can be no hope. Kaufman and Kristoff pulled this off brilliantly. Illuminae is masterfully constructed and flawlessly executed. A must-read for everyone.
Aurora Rising, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Another fantastic space opera from the Kaufman-Kristoff team, and it is also really fun. It is more YA than Illuminae, but with a setting and a cast that is fully realized and will pull you in heart first.
The year is 2380, and the graduating cadets of Aurora Academy are being assigned their first missions. Ace student Tyler Jones wasn’t expecting to be stuck with the random selection of misfits that form his squad, but quickly finds it’s not the least of his problems. He accidentally rescued Auri from interdimensional space where she had been cryogenically frozen for two centuries, and doing so sets off a universal war millions of years in the making. And it’s up to the squad of misfits to take on a creeping evil threatening … everything.
Aurora Rising pretty much hit all of my sweet spots as a reader: found family, the good guys breaking bad with the authorities, super powers, epic inter-species love story (okay, I didn’t know I needed that one in my life until I read it, but this is glorious!)
The Kaufman/Kristoff partnership continues to be one of the strongest writing teams out there. Aurora Rising was at times touching, exciting and funny, with a super strong ensemble cast that is begging to be made into tv. I loved it from start to finish, fully recommend even if you’re not that into sci-fi because it’s that much fun.
Murderbot, by Martha Wells
Me starting to read All Systems Red (of the Murderbot Diaries): Wait, don’t tell me I’m going to fall in love with a fictional genderless AI system?
(A few hours later)
Another space opera with heart, Murderbot is set in a corporate-dominated spacefaring future. Any planetary missions must be approved, and supplied with security androids. Only contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, so safety isn’t exactly the priority.
Enter Murderbot, a company-supplied ‘droid that is self-aware and has hacked its own governor module so it cannot be forced to do anything it doesn’t want to. Oh, and it privately refers to itself as “Murderbot.” And knows that it is designed to kill things, but mostly wants to be left alone to watch the soap operas it downloaded. When all hell breaks loose on the team Murderbot is protecting, it must decide what is going on – and what it is going to do about it.
Seriously, I love Murderbot! This novella virtually crackles, and I dare you to put it down.
Recursion, by Blake Crouch
On to something less blow-up-the-stars space opera-y, and more to the kind of stuff that bends your mind and keeps you up at night staring into the dark. After finishing Recursion, I felt confused and mired in surreality. Like the entire platform of reality has shifted underneath me. I genuinely liked this book and devoured it in a few sittings, but I found it disturbing as hell, especially at the end. What a dark and twisty mind Blake Crouch has.
NYC cop Barry Sutton is investigating the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.
Neuroscientist Helena Smith has dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.
As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face to face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds, but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.
But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?
The storyline is puzzling, going back in time over and over, making you question everything. I truly enjoyed this book, devoured it even, but had to read several sweet cozy romances afterwards to deal with the aftermath.
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
This dark and twisty fairy tale/sci-fi by Seanan McGuire, is one of the coolest books I’ve read in a long time. Twins genetically manipulated to become the embodiment of the Doctrine of Ethos, one perfect language and one perfect math, are to fulfil their destiny to follow the Improbable path to the Impossible City.
Which, when put that way, sounds a bit nuts. But, it’s also about Roger and Dodger, two adopted children growing up on opposite sides of the country, brilliant but missing a part of themselves, intensely lonely until they find each other again and again.
The recurring timelines made me think of Blake Crouch’s Recursion, although I found Middlegame far less disturbing, and more whimsical. And this book is written nearly entirely along a chronological timeline, so while you are aware of disturbances, the plot isn’t jumpy. And Mcguire’s ability to create tension, like one taut string that ran directly through the entire book and straight to my guts was absolutely masterful. I really recommend this read, it is brilliant!
The Book of Accidents, by Chuck Wendig
This is the first novel I’ve read by Chuck Wendig, but it certainly won’t be the last. I was so impressed by his writing, which is evocative of Stephen King.
Nate and Maddie move into Nate’s childhood home, where he used to live with his abusive father. Maddie has her own secrets from her childhood, and their son, Oliver, is special – an empath who can actually visualize pain inside people. But they do not find a happy home there, but more and more spookiness. Not to mention the unbelievably creepy Ramble Rocks park nearby, where a serial killer once played.
It begins with that creeping sense that not all is okay in small-town America. Wendig does dread excellently, à la King. And then all horror breaks loose, and take a turn into the science fiction with alternate universes and time travel. There is SO MUCH going on here, and yet Wendig does a masterful job of tying every part of it together. Like, I was fist-pumping sometimes when I realized how a certain plot point tied into everything else, but it could be that I’m a giant writing nerd.
If you’re into horror, and like it with a twist of speculative fiction, here is your book on a silver platter!
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick
Feel like you’re living through a surreal nightmare alternate reality? Why not read a book about a surreal nightmare alternate reality?
If disturbing is your jam, then try The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick. This book is a modern classic, a genre-bending tale that for the first time allowed speculative fiction to also be a serious philosophical book that delved deeply into human issues of responsibility and morality. At times it is almost intensely insane, and you need to dig in deep to stay with the wild ride.
The basic concept is this: The Nazis won WWII. Twenty years later, the world is a very different place, and I both admire and resent Dick for his twisted, detailed imagination as he creates this alternate reality. Alternate realities are one of the major themes (or plot points?) of the book, as many of the characters are connected around one book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the author wrote about an alternate reality where the Allies won instead of the Axis. So there is a lot of mind fuckery going on.
There were also just so many horrifying details about what the world looks like under Nazi control, often just sort of thrown in there and never explored. Like the entire population of Africa is killed. Or the Mediterranean was drained to create more Lebensraum. And the reader is just left stunned silence.
There are also some very real depictions of racism laid out in the day-to-day life of the characters, some of which I’m not comfortable getting into here. It goes without saying that it would not have been a good thing if the Nazis had won.
Interestingly, at the time of publishing, Philip Dick wrote pulpy science fiction novels and was never taken seriously, not at that time, anyway. The Man in the High Castle changed that, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, and also changed the course of science/speculative fiction. This above all is a book about ideas.
Most of the narrative takes place on the Japanese-controlled west coast of the former USA, and most of the characters rely heavily on the I Ching to guide their moral decisions. In reading about this book afterwards, I discovered Dick himself relied heavily on the I Ching to write the book, a plot twist which comes up in the book itself. It’s all very meta, and maybe an absurd way to write a book? As a writer, I’m conflicted – is it brilliant? Is it a cop-out? Is it batshit? Potentially all of the above.
Overall, The Man in the High Castle has some out-of-this-world amazing world-building, with an over-arching dream-like quality. I enjoyed it on some levels, but not all levels, as in some ways it is extremely difficult to read. I’ve not seen the TV adaptation of the book yet, although I’ve heard some very good things (about the first two seasons at least). If there are any fans of the show, would love to know what you think!
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
I’ve already covered Exit West in “Books that Deserve More Love,” but I feel no shame in tossing it to you again, because it is simply that great, and speculative fiction to boot. Exit West is a beautiful novella, and I reeled under the weight of the words. First off, I believe homage must be paid to the incredible language of the book. Hamid’s passages of run-on sentences are haunting and evocative and so perfect, they read like poetry.
It follows the love affair of two desperate young people, Saeed and Nadia, in a city that is falling apart around them. It never mentions where they are from by name, but throughout the book I assumed they were in Syria. However, Hamid is from Pakistan, so I’m not sure where their city was intended to be. Where Saeed and Nadia come from doesn’t really matter – I believe the point is that their story is very common in today’s world.
As everyday life devolves into shootings, car bombings, media takeovers, curfews, and then full-on war, the two lovers feel mounting panic as the routes to escape their country become fewer and fewer. But there are rumours of doors that are opening, around the world, leading to somewhere else … just step through and find a way out. I love the concept of these doors, as they pop up everywhere with more and more frequency. Almost as if willed into being by the sheer desperation of people facing extinction.
Saeed and Nadia pay a substantial amount of money to be given access to one of these doors. And although the actual journey is unorthodox, their experiences as refugees in countries that would rather not have them about is universal. Not just in the shame felt at being the “other,” but also all that we grieve in what is now behind us.
The book gradually builds in tension until your teeth are fairly grinding together. Saeed and Nadia make a few jumps before arriving in London, where things are getting real and the “natives” are calling for blood. The possibility of massacre stands out in its gruesomeness, as well as the sheer fact that this could very well happen. All of humanity stands on the brink of where it might go.
I won’t spoil this for you, but I will tell you I am immensely grateful to Hamid for having written it.
I feel as though reading this book has made me a more complicated person, and a better one. I think this should be required reading for … everyone. This is our reality and will continue to be our reality, and we may not have magical doors but we do have an extreme situation of mass migration spreading throughout the world and so we must all learn to be compassionate and see all sides of the story. Please read this book.
Any other lovers of sci-fi out there? I am always looking for book recommendations, so if you have any great ones, throw them my way! I find people can get pretty passionate about the sci-fi reads that have blown their minds, which I why I hope for some good ones!
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Looking for other great reads? Here are some book lists I’ve put together for you: