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.

Exit Strategy – A Temporary End To A Story That Shouldn’t Stop

91itaaw8fvlI feel a bit weird having devoted three whole posts to a series of novella (first two can be found here and here), but Martha Wells is worth it. The Murderbot Diaries, of which All Systems Red just (deservedly) won the Hugo for best novella, comes to a close this year with Wells’ final installment, Exit Strategy. However, for those of us understandably obsessed with the four novella series – there has recently been an announcement that Wells will be continuing the series in a full length book. This is good news for two reasons: 1) I want more Murderbot, 2) the novella format was starting to wear a little thin.

Exit Strategy is another great addition to the four-part series, but I would hazard to say that it is the weakest of the group. All the things you love about the series, its great characters and exciting world, are still there – but the book didn’t quite blow my mind as much as its predecessors. The beauty in the Murderbot novellas is Wells’ ability to tell a tight, exciting, and poignant story – with the emotional impact of a full length novel – while cramming it into a byte sized piece. Exit Strategy feels like it falls short in this regard because it is left with the impossible task of wrapping up the greater storyline, while also telling its own story. Exit Strategy manages to do both these things, but at the cost of pacing and space. The first third of the short story feels like it’s just set up, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for action and character development. This is the first of the four shorts that I felt would have been better as a full novel, so I am excited that Wells is transitioning the series to that space.

Otherwise, Exit Strategy is still fantastic. Murderbot is still hilarious and relatable, and there is some serious cathartic release when they finally put the hurt on the antagonists that have been making Murderbot’s existence terrible for three previous books. The humor in particular is probably the best in the series and had me laughing aloud at multiple points. There unfortunately isn’t a new AI foil for Murderbot, unlike in Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (again, probably due to a lack of space). This is a shame, because Art and Miki were incredible and really helped bring Murderbot’s character development into the forefront of the story. Then again, since this is technically the end of the series I get why additional character development wasn’t a focus. Plus, Murderbot is pretty fantastic as they are now and I don’t know what direction they could go in to be a better person/robot.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is still pretty phenomenal despite not quite reaching the heights of its predecessors. I still wonder why I have written about 5 pages of detailed review when a simple “seriously, go read this” would have done just as well. I can’t think of a better, or safer recommendation than The Murderbot Diaries – it is a story you can’t help but love. Be sure to grab Exit Strategy the moment it comes out, and then join me in endless speculation as we wait for the full length novel.

Rating:
Exit Strategy – 8.0/10
The Murderbot Diaries – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Rogue Protocol – She Can’t Keep Getting Away With This

512phkhzbnlI am back with another short review for a novella, and it’s once again for Matha Well’s incredible Hugo winning Murberbot Series. The award for best novella was definitely deserved for the first book in the series, All Systems Red, which I reviewed here. However, today we are here to talk about the third short story in the series, Rogue Protocol.

The story still follows the titular Murderbot as she bumbles her way across the universe. Outed as a rogue security unit, and attacked by a shadowy organization, Murderbot decides to hunt down some information and secrets about this nefarious group and expose them – hoping that doing so will finally allow her to consume media in peace. To accomplish this, Murderbot travels to a collapsing terraforming station owned by the shadow organization that is being slowly destroyed to cover up some dastardly crimes. When murderbot arrives on the station with a human scrapping/science crew, they find that the station is a little less abandoned than they hoped.

As usual, Martha Wells balances horror, mystery, humor, intrigue, and compelling characters to pack an enormous amount of punch into this short story. Each of the novellas shows the growth of Murderbot as a person (I realize the irony in this statement) and focuses on new people imparting her with life lessons. In Rogue Protocol we get Miki, a sickeningly adorable manual labor bot who is treated like a friend by their human owners. It is a different take on the AI/human relationship that Murderbot had not seen yet – and her reactions to it make quite the read.

Rogue Protocol took a little while to get started compared to the other to stories in the series. It felt like there was a disproportionate amount of travel at the start, but it did do a great job for setting the stage for the back half of the novella. On top of this, Rogue Protocol felt a bit short, even for a novella. However, all of this is washed away by the tides of emotions that will wash over you in the back half of this story. Martha Wells once again shows that she can humanize AIs better than most authors can humanize humans. I was honestly not prepared for how hard some of the messages in the back half of the novella were, and it helped me forgive every other of the novella’s short comings.

Be excited for this next installment, and sad that there are only four novellas planned so far – so we only get one more after it. Rogue Protocol was delightful and I would say you have to be missing a heart to enjoy it – but I think robots would like it too. Martha Wells has ignited my interest in novellas with this series and I cannot wait to see what happens to Murderbot next.

Rating: Rogue Protocol – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Murderbot Diaries and Dominaria – An Interview With Martha Wells

32758901Martha Wells is a woman with a ridiculous number of talents. I have recently been selling her Murderbot Diaries series to anyone who will listen. She also has a number of popular full length books and does writing for a number of established fictional universes such as Star Wars. Most recently, it was announced that Martha would be tackling the story for Magic the Gathering’s next card set, Dominaria, and writing the story pieces that come out alongside the new cards. With so many cool things going on for her, I decided that I really wanted to see if I could talk with Martha about what it was like to write in so many different formats and subjects. To my joy, she got back to my numerous questions about her work and the answers are posted below, enjoy:

I have been reading your Murderbot Diaries and describing them as novellas. Do you think of them as novellas? Or just short books? How do you define them as works of writing in your mind?

The first one was actually intended to be a short story, and then I realized it really needed to be longer. I still wanted to keep it short, so novella length seemed perfect. I’d also written novella-length work before, in my two Stories of the Raksura collections. It just seemed the right length to tell the story.

The Murderbot series has some of the best writing for a shorter novel I have seen. What is your technique when it comes to dividing page space in a book this small, and how does it differ from a book like The Cloud Roads?

Thank you! I don’t think I used any particular technique. I’ve written a lot, including a lot of work at shorter lengths, and after all that experience I just have a feel for how to pace a story or book for the length I want. In a longer novel like The Cloud Roads, there’s more room for subplots and more detailed exploration of the world. In a novella, you have to concentrate on the story and let the reader pick up on the details of the world as the plot develops.

What was your inspiration for the Murderbot Diaries? What made you want to write a story about relatable AI’s with a talent for killing people?

I’ve seen a lot of stories about AIs who want their freedom and immediately use it to kill humans, which seems like a very human-centric view of the situation, motivated by guilt at how the humans are using the AI. So I wanted to write an AI who was mostly indifferent to humans, who just wanted to be left alone, who had no particular desire to hurt anyone that wasn’t trying to hurt it.

Murderbot’s love of media left me with some big questions. Do they love TV because their personality was programed to love TV? Is it something that they completely developed on their own? How much of Murderbot’s identity was crafted by code and how much was made by her experiences or something else?

No, it wasn’t programming. As a combination of AI and human brain tissue, the constructs like Murderbot all have the potential to develop their own personalities. The governor modules are supposed to keep that from happening, but they aren’t always successful. I think that becomes more obvious in the later novellas where Murderbot encounters other contracts and bots.

You have written a number of sci fi and fantasy novels at this point. In your opinion, what are the major differences when it comes to writing in each genre?

I don’t really think there’s much difference at all. They both require consistency in world building and engaging characters that the reader will care about.

I saw the announcement that you would be writing a series of shorts for Dominaria, the next Magic the Gathering set. Are you a magic player yourself? Is this something that you pursued because you wanted to write in the magic world or was this something where Wizard of the Coast came to you for your excellent writing?

They approached my agent with the offer to write the fiction for Dominaria. I’ve been familiar with Magic for a long time through the artwork, which is so gorgeous, though I’d never played the game. (Most of my game-playing experience is all in older RPGs.) I was excited by the opportunity to do something new, in such a well-established, beautifully illustrated world, and it’s been a lot of fun.

What is different (easier/harder) about writing for an expanded universe like Magic (or Star Wars, as I know you have some books in that ring as well)?

It takes a lot of research. Even if it’s something that you’re a big fan of (like in my case Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis), as a reader or viewer who isn’t thinking of writing in the universe, there’s a lot of detail you can miss. When you’re going to actually work with an established universe, you have to take in a lot of detail, understand how everything works, as well as the personalities of your characters. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be a lot of work, too.

How do you feel about your Star Wars novel Razors Edge being relegated to the now non-canon Legends timeline? Would you like to write another Star Wars book in the current canon universe?

It was very disappointing. I really like the current canon universe and the new movies, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do again.

Is there another license you’d be interested in writing for that you haven’t had the opportunity yet? (e.g. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, etc)

If I had the opportunity, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, so I’d be tempted to write something for it. But right now, I want to concentrate on my own universes.

What are some of your favorite sci fi and fantasy novels?

I have a ton of favorites. Right now I really enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the Court of Fives series by Kate Elliott, Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Jade City by Fonda Lee.

The cover art for your work is consistently amazing, do you have a favorite piece of cover art out of all of your novels?

It’s hard to pick one. I think the covers for the Books of the Raksura by Matthew Steward and Yukari Masuike are some all time favorites.

Do you wear novelty socks?

Sometimes! I have octopus socks.

Thank you again to Martha Wells for taking the time to answer some questions, and for those of you unfamiliar you can start reading her new Dominaria storyline next week on the Magic the Gathering site!

The Murderbot Diaries – Never Stop Murdering

32758901We are wrapping up the pile of short book reviews, and have saved the best for last: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. I had heard of Martha before this for her larger fantasy series, The Cloud Roads, and her Star Wars novels, but had not ever gotten around to checking her out (which is unfortunately true for several authors on my mountain of to-be-read books). However, after reading her short novels All Systems Red, and the sequel Artificial Condition, I will likely be bumping her books up the pile significantly.

In my opinion, the perfect novella has the following things: memorable and lovable characters, a fast plot with a narrow scope, and a clear theme/idea with excellent execution. I am actually less forgiving with a short book than a long one because I feel that when you have less space to work with, you need to maximize the impact of each page more than when you are writing an 800 page epic. And when using these criteria, there was one clear winner of the novellas I have recently read – The Murderbot Diaries. The series follows the titular Murderbot, a security robot who has hacked her governing module. This module suppresses her free will and would normally place her under human control, but after hacking it she controls her own destiny. Wells has written a science fiction setting in the far future where humanity is a galaxy spanning empire where cheap and greedy corporations are still in charge. As mentioned, Murderbot is a security robot who is loaned out to researchers who need protection in the field. Thanks to a mysterious incident, Murderbot finds her… its?… governing module disabled. However, in direct opposition to rogue AIs in most sci-fi novels, Murderbot decides to simply keep doing her job of her own volition, instead of trying to murder all humans. The first book All Systems Red, follows Murderbot doing her regular job of protecting researchers while also showing how she constantly has to hide the fact that she is rogue. She of course does not keep her free will hidden for very long, and finds herself in complicated situations she must navigate her way out of. The second book, Artificial Condition, is about Murderbot fleeing the events of the first novella and trying to discover the origins of the event that gave her free will.

murderbot2I say her because I get the distinct feeling that she is written to be female, but that might just be because I have a massive crush on her. Going back to my three pillars of a good novella, Murderbot is both extremely memorable and utterly lovable. There is something wonderfully charming about a powerful rogue AI just wanting to do her job and watch a lot of TV (which is her #1 favorite thing to do) just like anyone else. The first novella has Murderbot mostly interacting with humans (all of which will endear themselves to you), but the second has her spending some time with other AIs to amazing comedic and poignant effect. The characters in this series are wonderful, and you will find yourself caring deeply about their fates after a few pages – one of the hallmarks of a great novella. On top of this, The Murderbot Diaries nails my second and third pillars perfectly. The plot is simple, book one – find out who is trying to murder Murderbot clients and don’t reveal she is a rogue, book two – find out why she went rogue and don’t get caught. However, just because the plot is simple does not mean it is bad. The pacing and flow of the books are amazing, and I found myself unable to put them down from start to finish. I was heavily invested in the mysteries of both novellas and it resulted in me burning through them in a few hours. Finally, I like novellas to have a clear theme with great delivery. In this case I have already spoken about the series theme, a rogue AI defying typical sci-fi tropes, and the execution is flawless. The idea of an AI who just wants to do her job and watch media makes Murderbot seem incredibly human, while Wells’ descriptions of Murderbot’s emotional responses to basically everything simultaneously make her feel inhuman. These two emotions warred within me throughout both books and resulted in Murderbot coming off as an utterly unique character that I cannot wait to read more about.

I have no criticisms of this series other than I wish the books were longer and that there were more of them. Martha Wells achieves in 200 pages what most books struggle to grasp in 500. Murderbot is relatable, alien, adorable, badass, and wonderful all at the same time, and I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t like her. If you have not checked out All Systems Red yet you are making a mistake, and be sure to grab Artificial Condition when it comes out in May (thank you Tor.com for sending me an advanced copy).

Rating: All Systems Red – 8.5/10
Rating: Artificial Condition – 9.0/10

-Andrew