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.

Record Of A Spaceborn Few – A Masterpiece Of Storytelling

y648No witty title today, just a post about a series that you should be reading. I have talked about Becky Chambers, and her incredible novels, before – but in essence she writes sci-fi slice of life novels. They are quiet, contemplative, and slow stories about people who make their lives in space. The problems that they encounter are rarely the world ending threats you expect in your typical sci-fi novel, and often are more about the pursuit of happiness. When I started reading these novels, I thought the premise was a cool idea but I was unsure how much I would enjoy the execution. Now I sit here wondering if it is too early to declare Record of a Spaceborn Few, book three in The Wayfarers, my best book of 2018.

Note: You don’t have to read these books in order, as they are all technically standalone, but there is enough crossover that I recommend you read them in publication order.

Record follows the story of the human exodus fleet. In Chamber’s universe, a long time ago, Earth began to show signs of environmental decay and collapse. In response to this, a large group of people got together and built a massive self-sustaining fleet to leave our planetary home and sail into the stars for better opportunities. The fleet eventually made contact with other alien races, humanity found new homes, and the exodus fleet completed its purpose. Except, not everyone left the fleet. In fact, a huge contingent of people decided to stay on the armada of ships as they permanently orbit a star gifted to them by another civilization. This story follows the lives of those who chose to remain on the exodus fleet, and the very personal difficulties that they struggle with as they try to find meaning in their own lives within the fleet. The story itself is both somber and uplifting. The book begins with a horrible accident – one of the exodus ships suffers a malfunction and ruptures, killing almost everyone aboard. The rest of the book is fueled by this event as the characters react to their own mortality.

The first two books in this series told beautiful personal stories, but neither of them were on the same level as Record. For starters there are a ton of POVs in Record:

  • Isobel – An older archivist who chronicles the history of the exodus fleet. Through her eyes we see how important the “world” of the fleet has been, and what it means as a symbol of humanity
  • The Alien Gol – I will butcher the spelling of Gol’s full name, but she is essentially a jellyfish like alien that has come to the exodus fleet to learn about it as a sociologist/anthropologist. Through Gol we see what the exodus fleet represents to non-humans
  • Kip – a teenage boy bored with his assigned lot in the Fleet. He has spent his entire life in the fleet and finds its technological shortcomings frustrating. He feels trapped in a decaying lifestyle that his elders have forced on him and doesn’t see the point in spending his entire life on the upkeep of useless ships that he hates. Through Kip we hear the arguments against the fleet and the arguments for leaving it
  • Sawyer – an outsider to the fleet who is trying to immigrate from his previously difficult life. Sawyer is Kip’s foil (and vice-versa) as he represents the universal difficulties that the fleet shields humanity from
  • Eyas – a fleet composter and burial expert. Eyas is a younger character who holds a job of much reverence in the fleet. Through her we experience and come to understand a lot of the culture and values of the fleet
  • Tessa – an engineer with two children. Her POV is a little hard to summarize in a paragraph, as it is very fluid and changes a lot throughout the course of the novel. However, I will say she gives you a lot of insight as a parent and helps you think about what the fleet might mean to future generations

All of these characters represent different opinions and beliefs that exist inside the exodus fleet, and each spend the novel arguing for their point of view. Chambers did an incredible job balancing their arguments so that everyone and no one seems right, giving you a ton to think about. On top of this, Chambers’ ability to personify the different characters is truly incredible. Kip’s POV as a teenage boy feels believable and relatable to my own experiences (when I was that age), while I felt I really understood the plight of a parent thinking about their children when I was inside Tessa’s head. Each character feels realistic, relatable, and lovable – and I adored each of them.

I have nothing but good things to say about Record of a Spaceborn Few. Becky Chambers has created a masterpiece of storytelling that I could read a hundred times and never stop enjoying. This sweet and somber story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the last tearful page. Record made me think a lot about my own life, and the things I take for granted. I feel like reading this book made me a better, more thoughtful, person – and what more can you ask from a story?

Rating: Record of a Spaceborn Few – 10/10
-Andrew

Wayfarers One and Two – A Delectible Duo

Today we have a double feature with books one and two of the Wayfarer series by Becky Chambers. Up first we have the incredible A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which I will be shortening to SAP as I want to have room in the review to write things other than its name. Once finished I will talk about the sequel (which is more of a spin off), A Closed and Common Orbit. These books are super weird and I ended up loving both of them to pieces, so let’s jump right in.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_As I said, these books are not your ordinary kettle of fish. SAP isn’t really about anything. It is a science fiction slice-of-life novel that follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship called the Wayfarer. The ship isn’t out to save, or doom, the galaxy- it is all simply a job for the crew, working 9-5 while also living as a large family in space. Our story starts with a new member joining the crew with a mysterious past, but while most science fiction novels segue this into world ending events, SAP only uses it to address that specific character’s backstory and slightly drive the overall plot forward. See SAP is all about the characters, and dear god are the characters excellent. We have the captain, pilot, navigator, 2 mechanics, engineer, chef/doctor, and the new clerk. I would tell you about each and every one of them, but for once I actually think I am going to hold off. The characters are all beautifully written and I loved them all. They’re an eclectic group and their personalities and stories have something for everyone, but while I had a favorite my ranking of who I liked most was so close for the entire cast it doesn’t really matter. As I mentioned, SAP follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship, and the plot of the book centers around the crew taking on a huge and challenging job that will keep them in an enclosed space for a long time stopping all over the universe. SAP uses this premise to weave a tapestry of micro stories about each of the individual members of the crew, telling you their life stories over the course of a chapter here and there, as well as showing their interactions as a cohesive crew. It is a book about people, and nothing, and I would read 100 of them.

On top of having one of the best written casts I have ever read, Chambers is a meticulous world builder with an eye for detail and… well… fun. Her universe is a place I badly want to live in as it sounds awesome. The races are interesting and original (mostly), the worlds and technological wonders are astounding, and she has done a great job of writing a window into her worlds for you to see all of them. The settings are extremely immersive, and I found myself wanting to call her and ask her all sorts of questions about how things worked. Due to the incredible setting, and relatable characters, SAP is one of the most relatable books I have read in recent memory. The entire novel is about small problems that everyone has: work, family, love, wanting to make something of yourself, running from your past, bigotry, war, loneliness, and the list goes on. If you can’t find something to relate to in this book you likely don’t have human emotions and should probably seek help.

168125Shifting to the second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit (CCO), you will find a lot of the same with some slight differences. Chambers mixes it up with her sequel, ditching the crew of the wayfarer and instead following two side characters from SAP. CCO alternates chapters between an A.I. who has just been born into the world and the mechanic watching over the A.I.. The A.I. is discovering new surroundings and sensations, and is trying to make sense of a whole new world. The mechanic’s chapters take place in the distant past and show how she once faced similar situations as a child and her struggles with the same problems. CCO is a different, but equally beautiful, book that weaves the stories of one womans past and the A.I.’s present to create a river of self discovery. I liked the duo of CCO less than I liked the crew of Wayfarer, but I still thought the cast of CCO was better than most books I have recently read. I appreciated that Chambers picked up right where she left off on worldbuilding in book two, and CCO continues to flesh out her captivating universe.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this series other than it has cemented a spot in my collection of favorite books in record time. I want more, tons more, and I think that Wayfarers is a series that anyone can enjoy. Do yourself a favor and pick them up now and take a break from reality and live the lives of a lovable crew tunneling through space, and finding their way in a brave new world.

Ratings:
A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet – 9.5/10
A Closed and Common Orbit – 8.5/10
-Andrew