Best Science Fiction Books of 2013


INTRODUCTION

This post is dedicated to the blogger known as Driftglass, who is not only an accomplished blog write on his own, but who is part of a husband-and-wife podcasting team called The Professional Left whose weekly podcast is a commentary on political and other current events from a progressive point of view.  That podcast sometimes finishes with “Science Fiction University,” where Driftglass answers questions on science fiction that are sent to him by listeners.

It was that science fiction segment which got me interested in reading science fiction once again this year.  I have had a long love affair with science fiction that started when I was in 4th grade and my uncle described the plot of The Foundation by Isaac Asimov.  I read that book, and I am proud to say that I never took drugs in junior-high or high school because I had already found an effective mind-expanding drug in the form of science fiction.

Now the title of this blog is somewhat of a misnomer.  These are the best science fiction books I have read in 2013, although some are classics, and some may have been written in 2012.  With that disclaimer, here’s how I found the books to read.

First of all, I got suggestions for reading some of the science fiction classics from Driftglass’ Science Fiction University segment of the Professional Left podcast, including The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl which is predictive of today’s America with its dismantling of the government and the rush towards privatization that it is extremely humbling to realize that it was written in the 1950s.  Then I went to the edition of Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction that came out this summer.  Gardner Dozois puts out the previous year’s best short-form science fiction in the form of the novella, the novelette, and the noveleeny (better known as the short story).  As a lagniappe to his science fiction audience, he also puts out what he considers the best novels of the previous year as well.  From those two sources, I gathered the list of the 10 science fiction books which I thought were the best reads.

1.  Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is the book that started it all for me, and re-reading it this year re-started my love of science fiction.  It is the tale of the collapse of the Galactic Empire and the efforts of a future historian named Hari Seldon to establish a Foundation at the edge of the empire that would be the repository of the technical, intellectual, and cultural knowledge of the galactic civilization.  The book covers the collapse of the old galactic civilization and the re-establishment of the new civilization, with the Foundation at its core.  But the meticulously wrought plans of Hari Seldon start to be thwarted by a rival Foundation that threatens to remake the galaxy in its image.  This is the key of space opera on a grand scale that blew me away as a 4th-grader, and I was still impressed with how tightly plotted and how economical the language is, where every sentence has a purpose and is part of the larger structure of the story.

Reading it from the vantage point of the 21st century, however, it is clear that Isaac Asimov is writing in the sociological climate of the 1950s, because like The Iliad, this is a man’s book.  There are very few women, and those that are in the book are ancillary to the protagonists of each episode.  It is hard to escape the cultural prisons in which we are born, no matter how liberated the imagination may be.  But I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this, and still recommend it as a good place to start.

In the time when our own American Empire is starting to fall apart like that of Rome 2000 years ago and the British 100 years ago, the story is even more poignant.  In fact, I consider The Professional Left a kind of “mini-Foundation” of its own, trying to preserve the memory of the changes in the political landscape over the past 50 years, despite the media that would make us forget it.

2.  The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

For sociological analysis, I turn to other science fiction writers and this is one classic that I’m sorry I missed the first time around.  It is the story of a future where corporations have replaced government.  To a libertarian, it should sound like paradise, but it turns out to be anything but that for Mitch Courtenay, who is the future version of one of the “Mad Men,” and advertising executive who is struggling to succeed as what we would call today the “1%.”  However, he is thwarted by a rival who has him stripped of his identity when he is on a business trip and he soon finds out what life is like for the other 99%.

The portrayal of this future is so eerily similar to what is happening in our time that you will be stunned when reading it.  If you want to see what life would be like without government, then read this book.  It is also important because it talks about the environmental and ecological consequences of having no government but those corporations that want to exploit whatever natural resources are left.  This is another classic that is worth revisiting, because it is even more relevant now than it was in the 1950s when it was written.

3.  2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson writes about a future where mankind is flung out throughout the solar system, and has already completed the terraforming of Mars, and is working on the next big project, the terraforming of Venus.  I won’t describe the plot, but I will say that he is one of the best writers on politics.  It is not just a conflict between people you will read about in his novels, but conflicts between political, technological and economic systems.  He also has an uncanny way of describing the process of change.  It is one thing to write about the future, which is hard enough.  But to able to describe the process of how we go from here to there in a plausible manner, is even more difficult, and he accomplishes this well.

As a solar system-spanning space opera, this is one of the best of its kind and I heartily recommend it to those, even those who have not read his previous works such as Red Mars and the subsequent works.

4.  The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The passing of the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks is to be lamented, but his last novel of the multicultural utopian future civilization called simply The Culture is to be celebrated.  There is a civilization called the Gzilt that is a member of the Culture that has decided to leave the known universe and enter the hyperspace realm in a process called Subliming.  There are many civilizations, however, that are fighting to claim the spoils that the Gzilt has left behind, and it is this intrigue that forms the plot of the novel.

One of my favorite part of the Culture novels is the depiction of the sentient starships that, like people, can suffer from what we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological trauma.  The philosophical backdrop to the novels in The Culture series are the questions of how difficult it is for a utopian culture to participate in contact with galactic civilizations that do not reflect its values, and sometimes even go to war with those other cultures, without its own core values being compromised.

Again, this is a relevant topic for anyone who is witnessing the efforts of the President of the United States to compromise with factions that do not even know what the concept of “compromise” even means.  When you are fighting against a group for whom there is no such thing as a loyal opposition, you must remember you are fighting with a group that plays by a different set of rules.  How do you fight them without compromising your own principles?  Here is a discussion of politics at its playful best, and to Iain M. Banks, I salute you for such an enjoyable capstone to a wonderful life and career as a science fiction novelist.  Another feature I enjoyed about the book was that it is from outside the United States; Iain M. Banks is a Scottish novelist and I appreciated having a non-American science fiction writer on the list.

5.  Blue Remembered Earth by Alistair Reynolds

This is another writer from the UK, this time a Welsh author named Alistair Reynolds who writes about a future where Africa is the technological leader of the world.  For this reason alone, I thought it was noteworthy because many science fiction stories are centered in either the US or in Europe, because that is where the writers come from.  But more and more, science fiction writers are coming to write about what the future will mean to the developing world, and not just the developed world.

In this story, a brother and sister who are part of a powerful African corporate family get cryptic messages left behind by their recently-departed grandmother.  These clues lead the pair on a series of adventures which promise to help them break the stranglehold that the 1% of this technological future have over the resources of the solar system, and eventually to leave the solar system altogether.

Alistair Reynolds writes really well about how technology will affect our consciousness not only of ourselves, but our concepts of what it means to be a society and its attendant questions such as how the lines of privacy will be drawn, and how much power of surveillance the central government should have.

It was another of the space-opera type genre which I confess is probably my favorite in science fiction.

6.  Among Others by Jo Walton

This was the Hugo Award winner for 2012 and is again from a Welsh writer who writes a fantasy novel about a 15-year-old who is sent to live with her father after her sister is killed in an accident.  It is a story about how she comes to term with growing up through reading science fiction, and it is really a paean to the process of reading itself and the way it can enlarge the perspective of a reader.  I want to go back and copy down every single reference she made to the classic science fiction writers of the late 70s and early 80s and re-read them, because her journey as a young woman and science fiction fan echoed my own growth as an adolescent under the strange and wonderful tutelage of the masters of science fiction.

7.  Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

This and the book Redshirts are what I would call a relative rarity in that they are science fiction comedies.  However, in the case of Blackout and All Clear, comedy is mixed with the character study of the everyday lives of the British during World War II.  The ostensible plot of this diptych of novels by Connie Willis is that future historians from around the middle of the 21st century start to send historians back in time to World War II as “field observers”, with the understanding that they will not be allowed to change the past.  However, something starts happening to the various missions, and for a group of time travelers, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether they will be able to return to their own time, and the doubt grows as to whether one of them may have inadvertently changed the past after all.

The real meat of the story, of course, is the depiction of everyday life among the inhabitants of London during the various raids first by V-1, and then the more destructive V-2 rockets towards the end of the war.  Look how the bombing of one morning on September 11, 2001, changed not only the lives of New Yorkers, but that of all Americans (and the unfortunate Iraqis and Afghans during the following decade).  What would have happened if the bombings had continued in New York City for YEARS?  That is the magnitude of what those in Britain, and in particular those inhabitants of London, had to put up with, and they came out all right in the end.  But what they had to endure to get there is portrayed with great depth and great humor by Connie Willis.

8.  The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

This is the debut novel by the Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi.  He is a theoretical physicist who studied string theory, and the wacky, wonderful world of quantum mechanics figures prominently in this novel of the far future.  The story takes place in chapters that alternate between the thief Jean le Flambeur and the detective Isidore Beautrelet.  Like a pair of quantum-entangled particles, the stories of these two seem to be separate stories but you end up realizing how the stories are entangled as the story goes on.

There are various themes that are relevant today, such as the how the government institutions of the prison and of the surveillance of the citizenry end up spreading their controlling memes throughout the society like a cultural illness.  One of the challenges of reading the book is that he chooses what could be called the dramatic style rather than the epic style of writing, where the objects are shown, but not explained.  This dramatic style is the style James Joyce chose, as opposed to the more explanatory epic style of his contemporary, the German writer Thomas Mann.  Because of this it is often harder for the reader to discern what is going on.  But it reaps its rewards with the immediacy of the experience presented from the standpoint of the characters when it is uninterrupted by the narrator’s commentary.

It’s an impressive first novel, and a writer I will definitely turn to in the future.

9. Redshirts by John Scalzi

Science fiction fans often take science fiction seriously to the point of parody (e.g., the characters in Big Bang Theory).  This novel was one of the funniest science fiction novels I read not only this year, but I think of all the science fiction novels I have ever read, rating close to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but centered around poking fun at the science fiction universe of Star Trek.  The novel talks about what life would be like aboard the Enterprise if you were one of the red-shirted crew that end up going on away missions and then realizing that your colleagues have a disturbingly high mortality rate …

10.  Existence by David Brin

This is a first-contact story, a treasured theme in science fiction where mankind finally meets another civilization in space.  In this case, it is not just one civilization, but an entire league of civilizations, a concept which reminded me of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I enjoyed the meditation on what life will be like in the next 50 years, especially how the communication technologies we use will transform our lives.

One of the challenges of reading David Brin’s work is that there is a main plot, and then there are other subplots which seem to have no direct bearing on that main plot.  For those readers who want to just read a story, this can be annoying.  However, it is similar to the way that some of the best science fiction classic works, like Stand on Zanzibar written in 1968, are put together, in that these various side plots and other seeming irrelevancies are actually contributing to the atmosphere of the story by showing different facets of the future depicted in the main story.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is actually written in a similar way, where you get statistics, philosophical musings, and historical detail about whaling in various chapters interspersed with the main story about Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale.   You know the universe of whaling in a more fine-grained way than you would by just reading a linear plot-line.

In a similar way, you learn about how far the consciousness of a typical citizen of the near-future will be enhanced by what is already starting to happen now with technological devices such as Google Glass.  For those who want a quick read, this discursive quality of David Brin’s may be difficult, but if you want to immerse yourself in a carefully thought out world that is built with extreme care in the details, then this is a perfect novel for you to get lost in for a week or so.

CONCLUSION

This is the crop of science fiction books which I thought were the most impressive of the ones I read in 2013.  Science fiction is about the liberation of imagination, and I know that I would often have very colorful and very imaginative dreams after reading one of the novels, because my own imagination had been freed from its everyday moorings by the sublime expansion of the boundaries of the mind which occurs when one is reading excellent science fiction.  I look forward to an even more expansive science fiction year in 2014!

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