Our peripatetic history of science fiction gets close to home now.
The first decade of the new century began with the Millennium Bug scare, which turned out to be nothing and ever since then we’ve tended more and more to embrace digital technology rather than shy away from it. Besides, that minor panic was very quickly eclipsed by 9/11. Throughout the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West and much of the East was enjoying a peace dividend; but now, suddenly, the attack on the World Trade Center changed world politics. Governments across the Western world, feeling themselves under attack, started to pass laws that had the effect of restricting personal freedom. As one British politician, not noticeably liberal in his views, said: our parents’ generation gave their lives to keep us free, now we are expected to give our freedoms to save our lives.
The 9/11 attacks were immediately followed by wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and the West has been involved in wars across the Middle East virtually constantly since then. Wars are a drain on the resources of any country, added to which neoliberal policies across the West had systematically removed safeguards and restrictions that had been placed on banks and financial services ever since the 1930s. The result, perhaps predictably, was the crash of 2008, after which governments bailed out the banks and then of necessity imposed austerity measures on their poorest citizens. Measures which, again, are with us to this day.
War, threat, terror, instability, and a resultant mistrust of governments and institutions were the underlying themes of the decade, and can be seen emerging in much of the fiction, including the science fiction, written during this decade.
The list of science fiction that follows is likely to be more controversial than other lists in this series. The decade is just too close for us to reliably look for books that have stood the test of time, or that have had a notable influence on subsequent works. Yet it is just too far away for us to rely on gut instincts and immediate impressions as we might for a list of last year’s best books. As a result, the selection is perhaps more personal than others in the series, and so more open to challenge. But for what it’s worth, these are the works that stand out for us as the key books of that dangerous and uncomfortable decade.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Perdido Street Station was a phenomenon: it was Miéville’s second novel, but it was the book that brought him to wide public attention, and it launched a new literary genre. Because Perdido Street Station was the novel that effectively created the New Weird. It’s a book that is almost impossible to characterise: a curious mixture of science fiction (it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), fantasy and horror unlike anything else being written at the time. It’s set in New Crobuzon, a city where humans mingle with a variety of strange alien races, with Re-mades whose human bodies have been grafted onto lumbering steampunk constructions, and with horrors that feed on the imagination. It’s a dark, cruel city of polluting factories, civil disturbances,harsh authoritarian government, yet it is also a city where artists and scientists flourish. Making this one of the most extraordinarily vivid and richly imagined novels of the decade.
Passage by Connie Willis
Time and again people who have had near-death experiences report travelling along a passage towards a bright light. Is it a real experience, and what would you find if you actually reached the light? That is what the researcher at the heart of Willis’s book is trying to find out. Using a newly developed drug she is able to simulate the near death experience, during which she finds herself aboard the Titanic on its fatal journey. But then she is stabbed by a deranged patient, and her near-death experience becomes real. Like many of Willis’s novels, this one starts out as a rather light-hearted romance, but as it goes on it becomes steadily darker and more complex, becoming by the end possibly her best novel.
Other key works: The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Light by M. John Harrison
Light was the first volume in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, one of the most extraordinary reimaginings of space opera that science fiction has so far produced. One strand of the story, set in modern day London, follows a serial killer who also happens to be a mathematical genius whose work will prove central to human exploration of space. Meanwhile, in the far future, in that curious region of space known as the Kefahuchi Tract where strange alien detritus can be found, we follow a young girl whose broken body has been grafted into the spaceship she controls, and her brother, a loser who makes a precarious living through visions of the future he acquires by immersing his head in a tank. How these three characters come together pursued by a mysterious figure known as the Shrander is one of the curiosities of this strange novel, while the two subsequent volumes, Nova Swing and Empty Space, would change our perceptions of this odd future even more dramatically.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Science fiction often employs tropes from other genres: crime story, spy story, historical drama and so on. It quite often uses romance, but it is not usual for a romance story to receive the level of attention that this novel did. That is largely down to the fact that this is an emotionally powerful love story, but also also an intellectually challenging and complex time travel adventure. Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder which causes him to travel uncontrollably through time, and his part of the story concerns how he arrives naked and without possessions in each new time, and the survival skills he must learn simply to stay alive. But the story equally concerns his wife, Clare, who is left behind whenever he travels, and meets him often after long intervals at very different stages in his life.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Science fiction has always attracted mainstream writers, though all too often the results are disappointing, since good science fiction requires a lot more control of you material than people unfamiliar with the genre tend to imagine. But the first decade of this century saw a string of highly regarded works of science fiction by non-sf authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Hall, and Michael Chabon. But in many ways the richest and most rewarding of them was Cloud Atlas, a structurally complex work that takes us from the nineteenth century into the distant future and back again. The novel begins with the diary of a passenger on a sailing vessel crossing the Pacific in the nineteenth century, which breaks off part way through and is followed by letters from a young man working for a composer in the early twentieth century, which in turn breaks off to be followed by a 1960s crime story about a female journalist, part way through this is replaced by a comedy about a publisher who finds himself trapped in an old people’s home, when this breaks off we move to the confessions of an android in near-future Korea, which in turn is followed by the oral story of a post-catastrophe Pacific island, after which each of the earlier stories is completed in turn. There are links and connections backwards and forwards through time between each of the different stories, and the virtuoso nature of the different storytelling techniques in each section is breathtaking.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Military sf has been one of the commercial success stories of the last twenty years, but it hasn’t often converted sales into critical respect or literary awards, mostly because it tends to be formulaic, undemanding and very often poorly written. The few exceptions to this rule, therefore, really tend to stand out;and this is one of those exceptions. Scalzi originally put this novel on his website, where it was spotted by Tor who went on to publish the book, but it has since gone on to be voted the best sf novel of the decade in at least a couple of polls. In this future it is not the young who go to fight our wars, but the old, people who have already had a long and fruitful life volunteer for the military where their minds are transferred into a new body which is then sent into space. It’s a universe teeming with strange alien life, alliances and enmities are liable to shift, and we slowly come to realise that humans are not necessarily the good guys in this battle.
Blindsight by Peter Watts
The re-emergence of space opera in science fiction around the end of the century had by now largely given way to military sf; but the hard sf renaissance around the same time was still going strong. And this hugely successful novel was typical of the new hard sf. It begins when thousands of alien objects burn up in a synchronised pattern across the Earth’s atmosphere; our first indication that there are aliens out there watching us. Then a signal is detected coming from a comet and an all-out effort is launched to find the source of the signal, including the manned vessel, Theseus, which is then diverted to track the destination of the signal in the Oort Cloud. The transhuman crew reflects the tensions and divisions back on Earth, including a genetically recreated vampire that is antagonistic to the rest; but what they find in the Oort Cloud suggests that humanity itself is a wasteful and unnecessary offshoot of evolution. It’s not a big novel, but it is full of big ideas.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Jonathan Lethem has argued that when Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama beat Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to win the Nebula Award, science fiction took a wrong turn. In that case, perhaps it turned back a little when The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Chabon was already well established as a major mainstream novelist, but his work had always shown an interest in the fantastic. Even so, it was a surprise when he suddenly produced this full-blooded alternate history. In 1940, the US considered providing a temporary Jewish settlement in Alaska as a way of rescuing the Jews of Europe. Chabon imagines that the plan had gone ahead, but in this world a murder in present day Sitka leads first to organised crime and then to a massive government conspiracy that could threaten the survival of Sitka and change the face of the Middle East.
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
With American and British troops already committed to a war in Afghanistan, the British and American governments began agitating for a war in Iraq on obviously specious grounds. People poured in their millions out onto the streets in city after city right around the globe in the biggest anti-war demonstration ever. It was a mood that very rarely finds reflection in science fiction, but it did here. The corrupt governments of an environmentally devastated Earth are plotting war against the Outers, the individualists who inhabit the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The form of democracy that governs the Outers is disjointed, dominated by a few very long lived individuals, and not particularly well suited to reacting quickly in an emergency. The novel follows agents from earth as they attempt to foment an excuse for war, and others who are trying to organise for peace. The war, when it inevitably comes, is brief, brutal, and doesn’t really settle anything. McAuley followed this up with three further novels in a loose sequence, Gardens of the Sun, In the Mouth of the Whale, Evening’s Empires, plus a collection of Stories from the Quiet War, which take the story on over thousands of years.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This is perhaps the most controversial title on this list, since Bacigalupi has come in for a lot of criticism over the treatment of women in the novel. Given that the title character, the most prominent woman in the novel, has actually been manufactured for the sexual pleasure of men, there is an awful lot of force in this criticism. And yet, the novel won the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and shared the Hugo Award with China Miéville’s The City and the City, and as a portrait of the world after environmental collapse it is unrivalled. It is set in Thailand in the 23rd century; sea levels have risen, governments are helpless in the face of biotech companies, diseases are rife, only genetically modified crops are available and they regularly give rise to new plagues, and the only source of energy comes from springs that are wound by elephants. Against this backdrop, Bacigalupi spins a story of betrayal, duplicity, and rebellion.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.