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.

Player Of Games vs. Use Of Weapons – Culture Clash

Last post I talked about Consider Phlebas, the first book in the Culture series. You should check out the review if you haven’t, but the general gist was: a kind of boring book, written by an incredibly talented author, that primed me to dive into Phlebas’ sequels. After finishing Plebas I immediately jumped into books two, Player of Games, and three, Use of Weapons. Both of these books continue to showcase Banks’ incredible skill as an author, with his fantastic characters, intense immersion, and philosophical questions – but they also have engrossing plots that make them much more enjoyable reads.

Both the books follow a similar sort of set up; an agent of the Culture is assigned to go to a foreign empire and steer it in the direction the Culture wants through espionage and subversion. Player of Games follows Gurgeh, a Culture celebrity famous for his ability to win any game, as he is recruited by Culture leadership and sent to a despotic empire that determines who rules through a solar system sized game. Use of Weapons follows Cheradenine, a Culture mercenary hired for his problem solving skills, and chronicles the various societies he was/is inserted into over his life and the things he has done to steer them where the Culture wants. The two books share a number of striking similarities and differences that made me want to review them together; let’s start by talking about Player of Games.

51qes5r-5cl-_sx336_bo1204203200_As I mentioned, PoG follows a celebrity turned spy as he is sent to the Azad Empire. The entire solar system power structure is determined by a complicated game (called Azad) and he has been allowed to enter and compete as an ambassador for the Culture so that the Azad people can size up their intergalactic rivals. Both of these books are about culture clash, but in slightly different ways (and I really wish Banks had named his empire something else because I am using “culture” like 600 times in each of these posts). Player of Games is about a sheltered citizen of the Culture and his journey to understand how the world works outside the bubble he has lived in. Gurgeh is witty, relatable, lovable, and a delightful character to follow. I grew attached to him instantly, and was extremely invested in his journey and competition in Azad. The book is filled to the brim with commentary on society, philosophical debates, and interesting observations about people. Azad is a society that fairly resembles a capitalist dictatorship and it allows for some stark and eye opening observations about the way our world currently works. The games themselves are less the focus of the novel compared to Gurgeh’s personal journey – which was both beautiful and touching. In the end, the book touched my heart and made me question my values – both things I highly prize in a reading experience.

51rhthkgoel-_sx310_bo1204203200_Then we have Use of Weapons. Right off the bat, Use of Weapons won a point with me due to its unique narration style. The story doesn’t start at the beginning, or the end, of Cher’s life – but in the middle. There are two timelines that alternate by chapter; one working backwards telling you how Cher came to be who he is (and leading to a largely foreshadowed secret he’s hiding) and one working forwards telling you what he is doing now and showing the problems he is solving. It was a very original structure that worked extremely well for the book. Unlike Gurgeh, Cher is a spy trained to subvert societies and his story details many different people and places he infiltrated. Additionally, while Use of Weapons also intensely focuses on culture clash, Cher is a non-Culture mercenary and the story is told from the perspective of someone trying to understand the Culture’s way of life (the reverse of Player of Games). While I didn’t enjoy the plot of Use of Weapons as much as Games, the books narration style and emotional stories made up for it. The entire time I was reading Weapons I got this foreboding feeling that not everything was as it seems and that I was missing something important (which I was, but I won’t spoil what). Weapons’ subtle language and Banks’ attention to atmospheric details create a cunning and manipulative book that will send you on an emotional roller coaster. Much like PoG, it was a great read that made me want to dive into the series more, but these books both had a meta-theme that made me want to talk about them together.

I recently read Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a great classic science fiction novel defined by a set of points and arguments that Heinlein wants to make, and the novel strongly argues and posits the merits of those points. This is usually how most books work, the author has an argument to make, and uses his book to prove his point. But I feel like Banks missed that memo. A recurring theme in both Player of Games and Use of Weapons (and if I am being honest, Consider Phlebas as well) is Banks making a strong philosophical argument, then shooting it in the foot. He loves to destroy his own arguments and find flaws with every single possible side of a conversation. He has an uncanny ability to spend 100 pages convincing you to believe a thing, and then immediately showing you why that argument was wrong. However, he will then go back and reprove his original argument – then disprove it again. Over and over, Banks has had me flip-flopping on my opinions and convictions as I read his books and its gotten to the point where I no longer know what I believe. Despite the fact that the Culture books are stylized as isolated novels that have almost no overlap except the universe they take place in, I get the distinct sense that there is a bigger puzzle here. Each of the Culture books seem to provide a different angle to think about a single big question: what is the best kind of society? The result is that, despite being a series of ten stand alone books, I feel like I am reading one gigantic novel and that I have only just gotten started on my journey. I can’t wait to see what Banks has in store for me next.

Player of Games – 9.5/10
Use of Weapons – 8.5/10

Consider Phlebas – An Exercise In Pointless Excellence

51o34bvmuol-_sx325_bo1204203200_We have been talking about a lot of great new releases recently, so let’s take a step back and talk about a classic I just got around to reading: Consider Phlebas, by Iain Banks. Everyone has a number of classics that they mean to get around to reading. For me, one of the big ones is Banks’ beloved Culture series. Ten books following a benevolent super race that sends agents to tinker and manipulate other fledgling starfaring people into following their way of life. If I am being completely honest, my main drive to read Consider Phlebas was to get through it so I could read the second book in the series, Player of Games, which I have constantly been recommended. Despite the fact that the Culture series could probably be read out of order, I have a weird need to adhere to publication order when reading. However, despite my dubious motivations – once I was inside Phlebas I found a book that had a lot to talk about.

So far as I can tell, Consider Phlebas is a bit of the black sheep in the Culture series. While most of the novels tell self-contained stories about Culture agents working in foreign space empires, Phlebas tells the story of the Culture’s origin and the war it fought for its existence as it established itself in the galaxy. The first book follows a mercenary shapeshifter named Horza fighting for the Iridians, the Culture’s enemy, and his attempts to recover a stranded Culture “mind” (one of the artificial intelligences that lead the Culture) in order to turn the direction of the war. Spoilers from the back cover of the book: he doesn’t, and Phlebas is about his grand spectacle of a failure. The book follows Horza from one location to another, as he slowly makes his way to where the mind is stranded and tries to steal it.

The plot of the book is honestly not very important and is what dragged down the novel for me. The book feels like an overly complicated set up in order to deliver backstory and world building on the Culture in a short amount of time. The storyflow feels artificial and hollow, and I can’t remember half of it only a few weeks later. However, those are all the negative points about the book I have and there are a huge number of positives to balance it out.

While the story is uneventful, the narration is incredible. The choice to introduce readers to the Culture from the POV of their mortal enemies is frankly brilliant, and works to naturally establish the strengths and weaknesses of the Culture. The Iridian POV helps explain the beliefs and tenets of Culture society while also playing devil’s advocate to their ethos – a recurring theme that has continued through both the second and third books I have read so far. Despite being a fairly forgettable tale, Consider Phlebas succeeds in spades setting up the future Culture novels and helping you go into Player of Games with all the tools you need to really connect with it.

In addition, if you look at Phlebas as an independent book outside its series, you will find it also has two enormous strengths: the characters and it’s immersiveness. One major take away I got from Phlebas is that Banks is a writer of incredible skill. His characters do an incredible job in their roles. The characters who are supposed to be similar to us and our way of thinking feel real and deeply relatable and the characters who are supposed to be aliens with foreign ways feel strange and different. It is rare to find an author who can do both of these things so well as Bank’s does with every single character in the story. I could write an entire post about how he handles AI in the series, but for now I will just say it is an original and engrossing take on sentience that made me want to read the entire rest of the series instantly. As to the aforementioned immersiveness – Banks has an unbelievable skill as a writer to make you feel like you are in his book. There are so many vivid and terrifying events in this book that I felt like I lived through. His attention to detail and word choices sucked me in to several death defying scenes that left me surging with adrenaline and needing to lay down as I finished them. Even if the rest of the book was awful, I would still keep reading Banks for this quality alone – it is truly one of a kind.

In the end, Phlebas felt like it both failed and succeeded as a book. I do not think it works as a self-contained novel, which is always how I judge books in a large series. It almost feels more like a series aide than the first novel in the sequence. That being said, it does an incredible job of making you want to pick up Player of Games, the second book that I liked much more (review coming soon), so in that sense Phlebas is a huge success. Despite my middling score, Consider Phlebas is a book that I would recommend to everyone but I encourage you to be aware of its pitfalls.

Rating: Consider Phlebas – 6.5/10