A few science fiction recommendations

It’s been an exciting decade for science fiction. Films based on novels like Dune or Foundation have renewed a broader interest in sci-fi. But unfortunately, a lot of science fiction published today is formulaic and pulpy.

On the other hand, many “best sci-fi” lists I’ve read seem to concentrate on the classics—books like Brave New World (1932) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953). These are phenomenal novels, but I would argue that pre-1970s sci-fi—books written before the moon landing—is perhaps a separate sub-genre entirely.

So I’d like to draw some attention to a few of my favorite authors, whose careers mostly took off between the years 1970 and 2000.

Neal Stephenson

Stephenson coined the term metaverse and popularized the use of the word avatar within computing. His works have substantially influenced how we think about software.

Snow Crash (1992) is Stephenson’s most popular work, published while the Internet was gaining mass adoption. It marks the end of the cyberpunk era in science fiction, which was dominant in the 1980s. Snow Crash sketches the idea of the metaverse as a featureless sphere with a street that runs around a 2162^{16} km circumference. Virtual currencies have replaced the dollar (a novel concept at the time!), while the real-world US has fragmented into many small republics.

Anathem (2008) is my personal favorite from Stephenson, and is a great example of science fiction that goes beyond the usual tropes. Reminiscent of Foundation, the book focuses on a set of monastic communities whose goal is to preserve knowledge in the event of societal collapse. The monks—known as the avout in the novel—have little interaction with the outside world. That is, until something unexpected appears in their planet’s orbit.

Seveneves (2015) is more casual and approachable than the previous two recommendations. It starts in the present day, and includes some familiar public personalities. What follows is a hard-science look at how to evacuate earth within two years.

Iain M. Banks

Banks is most known for the Culture series (1987-2012), a group of ten novels set within the same universe. The drone ships that SpaceX lands rockets on (e.g. Just Read the Instructions, Of Course I Still Love You, A Shortfall of Gravitas) are all named after fictional spaceships from this series.

With the discussion about AI safety in the last year, the Culture series stands out against other sci-fi as an example where general AI leads to a very positive outcome for humanity. In the novels, the Culture refers to a post-scarcity civilization in the far future, where most decisions are made by large groups of AIs.

Dan Simmons

Simmons is known for the Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997), a collection of four novels set around an unusual outpost planet known as Hyperion. The series takes place far in the future, where most scientific mysteries have been solved. However, there’s a specific area on Hyperion where time seems to flow in reverse, violently patrolled by a mysterious entity known as the Shrike.

Gene Wolfe

For me, all roads in science fiction lead to Gene Wolfe. But I list Wolfe last, because I don’t think I was able to appreciate his works until I made my way through the authors listed beforehand.

What makes Wolfe special? Most science fiction novels lay out a setting in the future, then tell a simple, often formulaic, story within those constraints. Wolfe, however, typically writes in a way where the world is gradually revealed, often in subtle ways by a first-person narrator (so subtle, in fact, that there are several podcasts dedicated to discussing his works, page by page).

I would start with The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). This is a collection of three short stories set in the same world, and the Wolfe’s first publication that reached critical acclaim. It’s enough to get a taste of Wolfe’s style. From there, I’d move on to Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) or Book of the Long Sun (1993–1996). Both are set in the same universe, but separated enough to be read independently.