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.

System Failure – It’s All Fun And Games Until The Universe Is Ending

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.

If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.

Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.

If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.

System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.

Rating: System Failure – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Communication Failure – A More Clear Message

51iumd8kwyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_One of the hidden gems I read last year was a satirical science fiction called Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja. It was the story of a disillusioned and incompetent military vet, Rogers, being forced back into service on a warship where everything seems just a little off. The plot follows Rogers attempts to uncover what’s causing the weirdness and results in a larger conspiracy being revealed. The book only loosely relied on its plot, with the meat of the appeal being the book’s humor that had me laughing out loud constantly. So when I got my hands on a early copy of Zieja’s sequel, Communication Failure, I was very curious to see if the series could keep its appeal in a second novel.

I was concerned that the plot, which was neither outstanding nor bad in Mechanical Failure, might drag Communication Failure down. However, the exact opposite was true as Comm sees an enormous increase in plot complexity and world building. I was incredibly impressed with the level of detail that Zieja added to his world in this second novel. Our story picks up with Rogers somehow in charge of a derelict fleet. Comm follows his attempts to learn to be a leader, deal with a foreign fleet attempting to destroy him, and continue to unravel a tapestry worth of conspiratorial threads around him. There was a lot more character development than I was expecting as the book progressed and I found myself very invested in the characters by the end. I found myself groaning aloud as I finished Comm because I am dying to know what happens next.

While Comm vastly increased my investment in the plot, it didn’t lose a single step on the humor front. Communication Failure is just as funny as Mechanical Failure was and I found myself once again laughing like a mad man in public as I read Comm on the subway. What is particularly impressive about Comm is what I would describe as a diversification of humor. Zieja does not just rely on a single joke or type of humor, keeping the books constantly fresh and funny. There is situational and contextual humor, science fiction parody and satire (his take on sci-fi fighter pilots is amazing), wordplay and puns, and terrible unfunny jokes that Zieja repeats until I angrily laughed at them. My favorite example of the last in that list was Zieja’s Thelicosan captain who roundhouse kicks something or someone every two seconds. When she initially made her introduction and started kicking people I loudly thought “well this book is hilarious so far, but I think you missed with that one Zieja”. About 100 pages and 30 kicks later I found myself angrily trying not to laugh, and failing, as she continued to kick her way through existence. As I have been writing this review I have just been sitting at my desk laughing as I think about various scenes, so it is safe to say Communication Failure is one of the funniest books I have read… well since Mechanical Failure.

With vast improvement to the world and characters, and continued top notch humor, Communication Failure is a sequel that surpasses its previous debut. The story now has me hooked and I am dreading the long wait to find out what happens in the next book. With this successful second entry, my hope is that Zieja will keep churning out an endless number of Failures as I don’t think I will ever get tired of reading them.

Rating: Communication Failure – 9.0/10

-Andrew

An Interview With Joe Zieja, Author Of Mechanical Failure

26850100With the end of 2016 starting to loom overhead, I have turned to all the books I have read this year to start composing my top 10 list (expect it in early November). While reviewing my preliminary candidates, I noticed very few of them were new authors this year. However, I decided to reach out to the author of one of the stand out successes I read this year and see if he would tell me more about what went into his book, Mechanical Failure. The author, Joe Zieja, was kind enough to reply to my questions and give some insight into the humor and futurism of the Epic Failure Trilogy. My original review of Mechanical Failure can be found here, and the interview is below, enjoy!

 

What made you want to go into writing after all this time as a voice actor?

This question is hilarious! I have been writing far longer than I have been a voice actor. In fact, I only discovered voice acting in 2013, after which, for some bizarre reason, I experienced a lot of success and quit my government job. In fact, Mechanical Failure was written before I switched careers. Publishing is just a bit slower than advertising and other media. To be clear, there’s no “instead of” here, for me. I’ll be doing both as long as both industries will let me.

Do you see yourself writing more serious sci-fi, sticking with comedy, or a combination of both in the future?

This is such a tough question. Prior to MF, I wrote mostly serious fantasy. I would love to do so again, now that my writing chops are a bit better and I’m starting to build a reputation. I’m locked in for at least 3 books in the Epic Failure series, and have some spinoffs in my head, but I’ve never been known to do one thing for very long. It’s likely I’ll branch out again, and it’s also likely I’ll cry when people pigeonhole me into humor for the rest of my career.

Does military life really have as many difficulties as Mechanical Failure implies?

The military is literally the largest, most violent bureaucratic organization in the world. It is bizarrely equal parts “FORGET RULES AND JUST FIGHT THE ENEMY” and “I am going to ruin your career because you failed to wear a reflective belt at sunset while walking along the road.” So, yes. The difficulties that come with a military career are unique, strange, and very often revolve around reflective clothing. But that’s not to say that it’s all bad. The goal of MF was not to paint a bad picture of the military as much as it was to lampoon it a bit.

The depiction of what food was like in the military in your novel was eye opening. How much did your own military experience reflect this?

Well in some ways it depends on what you mean here. Is food sometimes strangely gourmet? Yes, though that’s really not much of the case these days. Is food sometimes protein cardboard? Absolutely. I modeled  the Sewer Rats off of MREs, which are absolutely disgusting most of the time and absolutely delicious when you are in survival school.

In Mechanical Failure, the main character suffers under a seemingly incompetent superior. Was this taken from personal experience, or were you tapping into the “I hate my boss” zeitgeist?

I pulled some of those conversations with Admiral Klein directly from conversations I’d had or overheard with general officers in the air force. The conversation about colors of bars in the intelligence briefing? Oh yeah. That happened to me as a lieutenant. Klein was more of an amalgamation of the bad qualities of several leaders than it was a caricature of a specific person, though.

What was the hardest part about writing Mechanical Failure?

Probably reigning in some of the silliness. I tend to get on a roll and suddenly my humor is a little bit more toddler-esque.

Your next book is Communication Failure, how will it differ from Mechanical Failure or will it be more of the same?

Well it is a continuation of Rogers’ (and the Flagship’s) storyline, so you can accept a similar experience for sure, with a vastly expanded cast of characters and “world.”  Rogers will probably try to fix things. It will probably go wrong. It will hopefully be funny.

What are some of your favorite fantasy and sci-fi books? Are there any you drew inspiration from (other than presumably Starship Troopers and Catch-22)?

My favorite spec-fic books really run the gamut from Robin Hobb to Patrick Rothfuss to Brandon Sanderson and Sofia Samatar, to name a few. As far as inspiration, Catch-22 was definitely in there because it was one of my favorite books that I didn’t read until I was in the military. It so firmly reflected some of my thoughts on the military that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. One of the strangest things I get though is that people compare my work to Pratchett. Confession? I’ve never read one of his books.

Which character in Mechanical Failure do you identify with most other than Rogers?

Probably Deet! I mean who doesn’t identify with a obscenity-repressed, walking kitchen-aid droid who is hated by all of his peers?

Mechanical Failure – Literary Success

26850100This year I am spending a little more time trying to read new and upcoming authors. As such, I have identified a few books that I am keeping an eye on as they come out. I like to think of them as ‘Dark Horses’, or books that I know little about, have fairly unknown authors, and I think are likely to be surprise hits. My first dark horse was a bit of a flop, but the second, today’s review, is showing a lot more potential. Please welcome Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja, a science fiction comedy about the difficulties of being a space marine. The book follows Wilson Rogers, a ex-military sergeant and complete degenerate, who left the military to pursue more lucrative, and less legal, avenues of income. The book begins with a series of unfortunate events that rapidly results in Rogers’ forced re-entry into the service upon the very ship he used to serve on. Excited to be back at his old stomping ground, Rogers begins to believe that this might not be the worst turn of events. However, things seem a little different from the last time Rogers was in the service and the space marine life seems to be a lot different that it used to be back in the day (a whole few years prior). There have been sweeping changes that make no sense, no one seems to have any idea what is going on, and the space navy has become a lot more difficult than he remembers.

The book’s plot revolves around both Rogers’ reintegration into the service, and his attempt to determine what is going on. The book reminded me strongly of a whole slew of post apocalypse/tragedy games where you try to figure out what happened to create the huge mess you are presented with; except instead of horror Mechanical Failure reaches for humor. The book is quite funny, with a great sense of humor along the lines of the classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Rogers is constantly being placed in humorous paradoxes with terrible outcomes. In addition, the book has no problem making fun of several Sci-Fi tropes and can be refreshingly original in many places. While the mystery of what is happening to the ship is fairly obvious, the real power of the book comes from Rogers’ hilarious detective work as he discovers it for himself. The characters are all original, relatable, and interesting, and the prose was simple and clean. The book is very easy to read and I found myself losing track of time as I flew through it.

While the book was consistently laugh-out-loud funny, it did very occasionally miss a beat with its humor causing me to cringe. In addition, this is the first book I have read in awhile that had a few noticeable typos; though they were almost completely contained to the first third of the book. Mechanical Failure definitely could have benefited by one more full pass from an editor, but I never found the errors egregious or that offputting. Finally, there were a few minor elements of the plot that were confusing or unexplained, but as this is only the first book in a series, and the focus was more on the laughs than the plot itself, I wasn’t really bothered.

Mechanical Failure is definitely worth picking up. It is a first entry Zieja can be proud of, and I will definitely be picking up the sequels. It is rare that I find a book that makes me laugh as much as this did, and while there are some problems, the humor makes them extremely easy to overlook or ignore. If you like science fiction or laughing (so everyone) then this is a book worth your time and Zieja is an author worth watching, as I expect him to continue making great things.

Rating: Mechanical Failure – 8.0/10