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.

Standalone Novels: Small Books With Big Stories

I am a sucker for huge sweeping stories. Two of my all time favorite series are The Black Company and Malazan. At about 10 books each, they are masterpieces of world building, plot intricacies, and character development. But they are not good because they are long; they are good despite being overly long. One of the largest criticisms in Sci-fi and (in particular) Fantasy is that books often are just unnecessarily long and that authors waste too much time filling space when they could have had a much better book had it been shortened to a smaller installment. While there are a large number of fantastic trilogies and series, there are a number of  standalones that show that an incredible story can still be accomplished in a much smaller package. Any of the books below are worth checking out and will take you a fraction of the time of a larger series.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson – There were once divine beings in the city of Elantris, god like entities that could accomplish anything. However, one day the city fell and took its inhabitants with it. Elantris is the story of a paradise turned hell. The glowing divine city suddenly became corrupt and now instead of divine powers it’s inhabitants  are granted cursed immortality. They cannot die, but nor do they heal. Any damage done to the body stays, along with the pain. The citizens of Elantris now slowly go insane due to the unrelenting pain they are forced to endure. Occasionally random outsiders will be “blessed” with ascension into the new city. However, with the city’s fall from glory, the blessing has become a death sentence.

The story of Elantris follows a few different characters, but most importantly it shows the story of a newly risen Elantrian named Raoden and the start of his life in the disgraced city. Raoden’s attempts to survive in, and solve the mysteries of, Elantris are fascinating. In addition, the other characters provide a lovely political backdrop to support Raoden’s story and flesh out the creative world. It is a story of tenacity, mystery, and creativity that will have you hooked from page one.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – The future is crap and we ruined the world, but there is still Facebook and World of Warcraft, so who cares? In a post apocalyptic future, humanity has ruined the world but created the ultimate coping mechanism: Oasis. Oasis is part virtual reality, part social media, and part game. It is a tool designed to help people cope with the wasteland that has become their world and provide an escape. The popularity of Oasis has made its creator the richest man in the world – and on his death he left his entire inheritance to whoever can find it hidden inside Oasis.

The story is about the greatest scavenger hunt of all time and a boy who wants it more than anyone. If you have a sense of adventure, like retro videogames, or are looking for something uplifting then this is a good for you. The book is extremely exciting and fun and has a sense of glee that regardless of age will sweep you along for a ride. The scavenger hunt is also in the form of a variety of retro games, so if you are both a reader and a gamer this book with hit a sweetspot.

The Forever War/Armor by Joe Haldeman/John Steakley – First off I am aware there is a sequel to The Forever War, you can pretend it doesn’t exist. These two books by different authors both speak on the same idea: the horror that is war. Both books are about a humanity who has made it to space and is basking in its newfound intergalactic glory. Both books show a humanity that starts space wars for bad reasons (a commentary on the Vietnam War). While both books cover almost all the same aspects of war, they have slightly different focuses.

The Forever War chooses to focus on the pointlessness of war. In this story the combatants are sent light years away from home to fight a war on distant front lines. The problem is that the travel time takes so long that by the time they arrive, the war has changed. The soldiers sign-up, and leave their homes and families who will be long dead and gone by the time they get back. Both the books do a great job of giving you the helplessness of a soldier. In Forever War, the time skips between war fronts are constantly giving soldiers the feeling that despite the horrors they experienced they have accomplished nothing in the long run.

On the other hand Armor chooses to focus on the psychological destruction of soldiers who are trapped on hellish foreign battlefields. Soldiers in this war are wrapped in powerful war machines called armor to help them survive. The armor keeps the soldiers alive in hostile terrain, boosts their combat ability, and most importantly doesn’t let them quit. Armor shows the wear-and-tear on the emotional state of soldiers as they are forced to repeatedly go into combat that they can tell is wrong on a variety of levels, but never quit. The strain on the mind is vividly described and makes you question the worth of the horrors soldiers experience.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – Disclaimer, this book is about as standalone as the original Lord of the Rings book is (it was originally sold as 1 novel). The book is huge, but it is both technically standalone and fantastic so I feel the need to bring it up.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a historical fiction set in England during the Napoleonic wars. The story follows two English gentlemen in an age where magic is dead. Once long ago, magic was freely practiced as a pastime, but overtime died off until it ceases to exist. Norrell is the world’s last practicing magician and Strange is the first new magician to enter the world in ages. The story follows them as they work both together and individually to return magic to England and to win the war against Napoleon.

This is a weird book to recommend because for some it will be their favorite book, and for others it will be “not their thing”. However, either way the book accomplishes some pretty daring things. For starters the setting, prose, and history is very well done and beautiful to read but the big draw to this book is it is written as an actual history book. By this I mean, the book has footnotes out the wazoo referring to fake other texts, it has citations from fake historical magicians in the world, and it is written in the historical narrative perspective. As someone who just spent a lot of time in graduate school it was incredible to see a book that so well mimicked an academic text in fantasy form and really pumped up my enjoyment of the book. For others, they will read it and have no idea why this style is so appealing to weirdos like me.

Any Standalone by Guy Gavriel Kay – Guy Gavriel Kay has a variety of plots amongst his plethora of standalone novels, but they all have a similar overarching feel: far eastern fantasy with a hard hitting emotional journey. Guy Gavriel Kay wins the author award for getting me to cry in the shortest period of time in a book. I feel like an apt comparison is his books feel like the move Up by Pixer: utterly heartbreaking but incredibly uplifting at the same time. The books take on a slower and more dramatic pace, but the amount they accomplish in their short stories is nothing short of extraordinary.