Science Fiction for 2019

2019 has been a pretty rough year for the world in general, but not for books. It’s hard to turn on the news or walk in the streets without hearing about something terrible going on. People are being beaten down, and while people are finding ways to escape, it’s hard to cope because it’s just everywhere. So here at the Quill to Live, instead of putting together a best of the year’s new science fiction, we thought we’d put together a science fiction list of books to read for the year 2019. Below is a list of books that we feel have helped us to make sense of the world as it is, as it could be, and what’s worth fighting for. There are also some that are simply smart and entertaining to distract you from the frustrations of life. We have tried to categorize the books into descriptive emotional categories that speak to the themes that resonated with us, however it is always hard to perfectly nail down classifications. Some of these books could be argued to belong in multiple categories. But regardless, enjoy our list:

The Personal is Political: These are books that highlight adversity within one’s personal life as a political issue. They deal with how social pressures affect one’s identity, well being and relationships with others. They might even ask the question, what does revolution look like?

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_The Dispossessed By Ursula K. Le Guin – An oldie but a goodie, LeGuin’s tale of an Anarchist adventuring through a Capitalist society is a feat of the heart. Intertwining the search for faster than light travel with a personal journey of discovering the power of one’s politics, The Dispossessed is one of the most affecting pieces of literature we’ve read. The mixture of philosophy and introspection is tangible in a way rarely seen, and only heightens the plot and character development. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, definitely pick this one up.

81fywrtjuolThe Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull – This debut is one of the more intimate first contact stories we’ve read. It takes place five years after aliens arrive on Earth, their interactions mostly confined to the Virgin Islands. The book deals heavily with the nature of colonialism and its effects on those who are living under it. It feels like a very personal book, as Turnbull invests heavily in his characters and the island they inhabit. Everything feels very deliberate, and Turnbull offers no easy answers.

Small Character Stories on a Big Stage: These stories are character-based fictions, but set with a science fiction backdrop. Here the technologies take a back seat to the small stories of those who live in the world and an intense focus on character development in a futuristic setting.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Wayfarers by Becky Chambers – Honestly, each one of these books could have a list of its own, highlighting the myriad of ways Chambers reaches the soul. They are slice of life books that follow people involved in larger situations, just trying to find their way in life. The characters aren’t heroes, they aren’t out to save the world and instead, are just trying to make a living, and deal with personal issues. Chamber’s ability to convey interpersonal conflict and the interior lives of her characters is astounding. However, they are very emotional, so be sure to set aside a box of tissues, and cozy up under a warm blanket.

32758901Murderbot by Martha Wells – If you’ve ever felt like the world is just too much and is harshing on your introverted vibe, Murderbot might just be right up your alley. The series follows the life of a security bot that has gained autonomy, and all she wants to do is watch her tv shows. Life gets weird as people begin to find out her secret, and she begins a quest to make sure people just leave her alone. Along the way, she meets other bots and begins to step outside of her shell. Wells’ writing is superb and makes Sec-Unit’s inner life very relatable.

Understanding the Other: These books reimagine what it means to be alien. They explore truly otherworldly forms of thought that stretch boundaries, expectations, and the imagination. They give insight into new ways to approach age-old problems.

51wkqa3knrlChildren of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky – This series has a special place in our hearts, and again it’s no real secret. Both books are feats of imagination that explore humanity’s relationship with the other in different ways. Tchaikovksy imagines what it would be like had certain species on earth gained intelligence on an expedited evolutionary scale. In Time, spiders are given this treatment in a way that rivals the most prestigious of nature documentaries, detailing their social life and creation of civilization without the interference of humankind. It’s mirrored perfectly with a decaying human civilization that is trying to survive afterin they destroy their homeworldeir world is destroyed. Ruin is the perfect follow up. Though it feels like he is repeating a formula, Tchaikovsky emphasizes the creation of a new civilization with influence from the survivors of a dying one. Instead of detailing the social and emotional workings of the octopi, Tchaikovsky makes them even more alien and less understandable from a human perspective. The central conflict becomes communication instead of outright confrontation, asking “how do you relate to someone completely unrelatable?” and “when do you stop trying to communicate?”

51o34bvmuol._sx325_bo1204203200_The Culture by Iain M. Banks – As a whole, the series explores this idea in a myriad of ways, each individual book setting up a dichotomy between two opposing views. Banks spends a lot of time fleshing out the way different societies view the world, and how they attempt to broadcast their politics and economics to others that share their region of space. While a lot of foundations for these societies are familiar to most, the cultures that spawn from them are vibrant and imaginative. Banks deconstructs many of these societies, including his own protagonist civilization known as The Culture, with extraordinary depth. Banks makes sure to detail as much as he can for his readers so that it is hard to tell what is truly alien, and what can be considered human. If you’re looking for deep contemplation on many of the usual questions asked within science fiction, and some stranger questions you had not yet considered, The Culture is definitely worth your time (and is something we will be talking about in great detail soon).

Finding Humor in the Absurdity of Life: These books function as humorous entertainment with a bit of edge. Although they are primarily here to entertain, it doesn’t stop them from examining the absurdities of life and using it to enhance their humor.

26850100Epic Failure Trilogy by Joe Zieja – These books are comedies focused on a selfish engineer who just wants to slack off while the world around him falls apart. The book delivers so much needed laughs but also has a sharp wit to it that speaks to more than just being entertained. The humor belies some smart commentary on how things only get better when you take responsibility for yourself and do more than living selfishly. It is a mix of funny, fun, and thoughtful that we didn’t know we needed.

41-d2bw0dpxl._sx324_bo1204203200_Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – A bit of a throwback, but one that some of us hadn’t actually read until this year. If you are like me and somehow missed this highschool English classic, we highly recommend you amend the gap in your reading. Satirical, surreal, and humorous in a dark and twisted way, Slaughterhouse-Five is worthy of the praise it has garnered. A story that will both make you laugh, and keep you coming back to analyze it further, this book is a cleverly crafted commentary on the horrors of war through a science-fiction lens. Vonnegut was both ahead of his time and speaking to timeless issues at the same time.

Military Science Fiction with Heart: These are war novels written by those who understand the horrors of war. They take a wide-eyed and painful look at what warfare does to everyone and do a good job of both being exciting and disillusioning.

91alssdftvlArmor by John Steakley – Steakley opens this book with one of the most visceral battles I’ve ever read. The first ninety pages are a fever dream, following the main character in their first drop onto a hostile planet. Tension, fear, exhilaration, and anxiety fill the page like water droplets in a hurricane. Steakley really knows how to place you in Felix’s shoes while making you hope you never have to fill them. Although this book is a standalone, it is one of our top books of all time and we highly recommend you check it out.

9780312536633_p0_v3_s1200x630The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – It’s often said that “war never changes”, and Haldeman takes it to heart in his novel about an endless war with an alien species. However, Forever War takes that phrase and adds, but life around it does. In this war, the soldiers experience time dilation effects as they travel through space, aging months while the folks at home age years even decades. Haldeman focuses more on the emotional and psychological effects of playing catch up and being forgotten by the world, painting an incredibly human picture of one caught in a forever war.

An Anthropological Study of the Human Condition: These books are anthropological experiments in what would happen to humanity if a new technology were introduced. They are fascinating maps of humanity as a whole and provide a window into some of our possible futures – some not that far off.

26114545Terra Ignota by Ada Palmer – It’s hard to say something about this series other than just read it. Palmer accomplishes nothing short of amazing, and the series is not even finished. It’s a vision of the future that is free of national boundaries, and people’s politics are organized around what they feel humanity should strive for. Palmer instills the future with a sense of history as well, giving reason and weight to the way the world works, and how people navigate the power structures within it. The characters are larger than life but grounded, the world is detailed and stakes are incredibly high.

91rstamsxzlPandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton – One of the first science fiction books many of us ever read, this series holds a special place in our hearts. The books focus on how the invention of faster than light travel and the existence of aliens would change the nature of humanity. Although these are not new questions in the science fiction genre, few authors approach them with the same level of detail and examination as Hamilton. These books are beautiful maps of the potential routes we as a species could take as new technology is developed and gives insightful commentary on our nature as a collective and as individuals. The book is the first in a duology, followed by Judas Unchained, and we highly recommend both.

A Future Born of Imagination: Books that overwhelm the reader with a myriad of imaginative impossible futures for humanity, immersing the reader in a torrent of ideas to distract them from the now.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee – It’s no secret that we here at the Quill to Live love this highly imaginative trilogy. The series is imaginative to the extreme with its calendar-based warfare and fascinating approaches to identity. Lee’s ability to describe the technologies within his universe is incredible, leading us to experience wonder followed quickly by terror at the potential massacre they can produce. His characters are lively and filled to the brim with an undeniable charm, it’s impossible not to root for them. If you want something weird and exciting that involves a lot of sedition, espionage, and action, we highly recommend diving into the world of the Hexarchate.

gideon-the-ninth-coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Filled with adventure, intrigue, sword fights, and bone-painted necromancers, a reader could be forgiven for mistaking Gideon the Ninth for the start of an exciting new fantasy series. While Muir does use some language and ideas that are typically explored in other genres, Gideon the Ninth is made even more flavorful and unique for the fact that it’s set in the decaying remains of a galaxy spanning civilization millennia after its height. Treachery and intrigue reminiscent of the political machinations of a medieval court? Big check. Action sequences that had me on the edge of my seat? Oh yeah. Irreverent wit and comedy that had me guffawing at times? That’s a big 10-4. A character named Harrowhawk Nonagesimus? Oh yeah buddy. If you like books that cover heavy themes while not taking themselves too seriously a la Kings of the Wyld, I’d recommend checking out what I think is its sci-fi flavored second cousin.

Finally, we would love to hear from all of you. Are there any other categories of books that have helped you deal with 2019? Are there books you have read that fit into any of these categories? What do you think of the list? Please let us know.

The Will To Battle – As Tense As The Last Round Of Musical Chairs

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_We are back again with another review for a Terra Ignota book by Ada Palmer. This time it is for the third book in the series, The Will to Battle. As usual you can find the reviews of the previous books here and here, and if you don’t want some mild spoilers for the first books you should probably turn around now. Then again, I am not your boss so you do you.

We have arrived at the third book in the Terra Ignota series, and I am excited. These books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. When we last left our group, the historical narration of the story had ended and we moved from the past tense into the present. The Will to Battle sees a dramatic shift in story telling style, as the previous two books were told from a historian’s perspective (with their knowledge of what happens in the future coloring how they describe events in the past). The last two books of the quartet are told in the present tense, creating a much more tense and exciting atmosphere. At the end of book two, Seven Surrenders, the hives were all poised for a giant clash. Tensions were high and war was looking potential for humanity for the first time in centuries. The Will to Battle is a book about the moments and tensions before a war, and dear god did it stress me the hell out. The book paints a picture of several groups ready to slaughter one another, each of which is just waiting for an excuse. The is the first thing I have ever read that feels like it paints a vivid picture of pre WWI tensions, where each party is eyeing the other distrustfully. As a result, every single thing in this book feels like it could be a world ending disaster and every decision and choice characters make feel important.

I had to put The Will to Battle down several times while I was reading it, simply because of how much it was stressing me out. The characters all feel like they are having match lighting competitions in a room waist deep in gunpowder, and waiting to see which match kills them all was a weird nightmare of fun. Of the team that read it, one person compared it to the feeling of walking a burning tightrope between skyscrapers and I myself thought it felt like riding a boat to the beaches of Normandy. On top of being an emotional roller coaster, Ada Palmer decided to actually flesh out and answer a lot of lingering world building questions about her universe in the third book. Tons of things are fleshed out and expanded on in The Will to Battle like, the backgrounds of hives, previously alluded to laws and concepts, backgrounds on characters and jobs, the minds of several leaders, and more. Palmer shows you a number of the homes of various hives, and their wonders at even more character to the diverse hives and ignited my imagination. The Will to Battle made me feel like I actually solidly understand Palmer’s world, but then again I felt the same way at the end of her book two so who even knows.

Everything that was amazing about Palmer’s previous books remains true with her third. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The plot is captivating and I have a physical need to know what happens next. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. It should be obvious at this point that everyone here at The Quill to Live recommends this series. It is probably one of the most difficult and rewarding things we have ever read, and we want the world to read it.

Rating: The Will to Battle – 9.5/10
-The Quill to Live team

Seven Surrenders – Give In And Read It

30199364One of the benefits of taking a vacation can be a lot of travel time – which in my case means a lot of reading time. I managed to knock out some of my bigger to-reads while I was out, so let’s start with one of the densest books I have read this year, Ada Palmer’s sophomore effort: Seven Surrenders. This dense leviathan of a book is the sequel to Too Like The Lightning, one of the best science fiction novels I have read in a long time. The question is, does the sequel hold up and can Palmer recreate her lightning in a bottle, or make lighting strike in the same place twice, or… ok fine I will stop with the lightning puns.

If you haven’t read Too Like The Lightning, here is a link to a brief discussion of why the book is brilliant. Discovering the plot of both books is definitely a part of the appeal, so I will keep my spoilers to a minimum. Seven Surrenders picks up right where Too Like the Lighting left off. While Lightning was a book written to ask questions, Surrenders is a book made to provide answers. Palmer has said that she designed this quartet more like two sets of two books each. Following this, Seven Surrenders both does a great job wrapping up plots from the first book and setting up the second duo of novels. By the end of Lightning we learn of the existence of a number of dark secrets, plots, and ideas. Thus Seven Surrenders is about what happens when these dark facts that bind their society together comes to light, and about how that society unravels and changes in the light of the truth.

I know some of you read the last paragraph and felt that I actually said almost nothing of substance about the books other than some large words. As I mentioned, it is really hard to talk about the plots of these books because almost everything is a spoiler. However, while I won’t give away any of the plot – I can talk more about why this series continues to rise as one of my top science fiction stories I have ever read. So many books I have read seem to be written by authors on a path of discovery. Sure they have the basic outline of the plot, but they learn and change their narrative as they write it – characters rise and fall in levels of importance or certain parts of the world get more fleshed out as authors realize they want to expand on them as series progress. Palmer feels like she sat down and knew exactly what she was going to write from page one. These books feel meticulously planned out – each word and idea is there for a reason, contributing to the narrative as a whole. Her background in academia definitely shines through her work, as I feel I am reading a really compellingly written paper that is thoroughly entertaining to read.

Part of the additional wonder of these novels is Palmer is a master of arguing for, and against, her ideas. This series poses a number of interesting thought experiments and philosophical ideas. Ada is extremely good at showing you why these thoughts are good and righteous, only to often come back and tear down her own arguments with previously unthought of counter points. It creates a book series where you find yourself thinking and questioning everything constantly. These are not books for a passive reader – you will be an active part of the story every second you are in it. This can be exhausting, but as a result Lightning and Surrenders have generated some of the best discussions I have had in a decade from a book. Palmer’s skill for manipulating the reader through the narrative is on par with some of the best I have read. Her ability to organically shift the way I see and think of various characters with a single paragraph is astounding. I have flip flopped on which characters I am rooting for so many times that I have lost count, and the result is a book that feels real.

“Real” is a confusing concept when talking about works of fiction. In this instance what I really mean is that Palmer has made a world and narrative so immersive and so convincing that it feels closer to a historical text than a story someone wrote. The internal logic of the story is so tight that I find myself angry at characters for the choices they make, not at Palmer for the way she decided to write the story. These are the hallmarks of a master of narrative voice and worldbuilding and they make the victories and tragedies in Surrenders feel personal and emotionally resonant. As a result, the books can be a bit difficult to read. When something horrible happens to a character you like it can be saddening, but some of the awful things that happen in these books felt like they might be in my actual future and they occasionally filled me with despair.

This is a series that you should be reading, and will be talked about as one of the best in a generation in the coming years. The books require work to read, but like with all work you will appreciate and care about the end much more than you do in books where you are swept along with little involvement. Book three of this series, The Will to Battle, comes out this December, and if it stays as good as Seven Surrenders I am sure I will be adding this series to my tier 1 list at the end of the year.

Rating: Seven Surrenders – 9.5/10

-Andrew

Making A Point – Too Like The Lightning Vs. Stranger In A Strange Land

I read two notable books over the last two months, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. They are both science fiction novels, the first is one of the most famous from the last era, and the second is a new entry that is making waves. Both of these great books are built around a similar storytelling objective: using a sci-fi story to argue philosophical points and explore ideas about humanity and society. While both books have interesting and new ideas, they go about very different methods of making their points.

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Let’s start with Too Like the Lightning. Lightning’s plot is a little hard to sum up succinctly, but the general gist is it’s a political drama centered around a few key individuals that are shaking up a neat and ordered society. In Lightning, fast transportation everywhere on Earth has eliminated geographic boundaries, and national identities have dissolved and reformed into ideological identities. This allows the society to run much more smoothly and achieve greatness, or so everyone is led to believe. There is a lot going under the surface, and we slowly discover that things may not be as great as we have led to believe. Add into this mix an individual who has manifested the ability to magically bring the inanimate to life , and you get a confusing and exciting story with a lot of philosophical depth.

Lightning is one of the smartest books I have ever read. It subtly plays with the readers emotions, expectations, and engagement with the narrator to pull off some astounding reveals. At the same time, it makes a lot of interesting and well thought out arguments about humanity, society, the cause of conflict, and solutions for peace. The characters are astoundingly well written, and it introduces some of the best science fiction concepts I have read in awhile. However, my favorite part of the book is that Lightning not only makes really interesting philosophical arguments, but it weaves them into the story to make them more fun and exciting to read. It turns what could feel like a philosophy textbook into clever exciting work of fiction, and I love it.

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Alternatively, Stranger in a Strange Land is a book from the 60’s that tells the story of a human raised by Martians returning to Earth. The idea behind the book is culture clash and observing a new way of looking at the world through the eyes of a man who is not constrained by the social conditioning and taboos that come with growing up in Earth society. It is incredible how good this book still is, but some of the arguments that Heinlein makes do feel a bit dated. However, many of the points that Heinlein tries to make still have a lot of teeth and I found it a compelling read.

You might notice that it took me a lot less time to summarize Stranger in a Strange Land’s plot than it did to summarize Too Like the Lightning’s. Despite this, Stranger is a much longer book than Lightning. This is because, unlike Palmer, Heinlein treated his science fiction setting as window dressing to his arguments. Large swaths of Stranger’s text are taken up by monologues arguing philosophical points and trying to convert you to Heinlein’s way of thinking. This might immediately sound like a negative, but I found a lot of his points to be well argued and compelling. The real issue I had with Stranger is it felt like it dragged compared to Lightning. The fact that Heinlein didn’t weave his points around a better story it just made the book feel slow and boring, despite some very clever points.

So in conclusion, both of these novels are excellent and are worth a read, but I definitely prefer Too Like the Lightning. Submerging your arguments in a great story is a much faster and more fun way to convert me than getting on a soapbox and shouting at me. Additionally, the plot of Lightning was so good that I am definitely going to have to dive into the sequel Seven Surrenders very soon. The Quill to Live recommends both of these brilliant novels, but Too Like the Lightning is definitely going to be on my list of favorite books.

Rating:

Too Like the Lightning – 9.0/10
Stranger in a Strange Land – 7.5/10