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Best Contemporary Science Fiction Books

Top 25 Best Contemporary Science Fiction Books

You might also call this list 'The Best Science Fiction Books of the 21st Century or even 'The Best Science Fiction of the 2000's. Whatever you call this list, it's the list that reflects the best books of the past 15 years -- books that brings a new perspective to the genre, embracing new technology and reinventing old ideas. And also, science fiction that is unequivocal fun and well written

The new century (2000's) began with the very science-fictional angst of the so-called "millennium bug" which, of course, never happened. It also began with the "British Boom", the explosion of exciting new work by British writers that had been building during the 1990s but that now burst forth to dominate science fiction around the world for several years at the start of the century. In the wake of the British boom came the new hard sf and the new space opera, the reinvention of the most traditional forms of science fiction to give them a new vigour and freshness that has made the twenty-first century so far a thrilling time to be reading science fiction.

And the changes keep on coming. Right now we are just beginning to discover the wealth of science fiction that is starting to emerge from Latin America, from Africa and from Asia. When we come to update this list in a few years time it would be surprising indeed if there weren't several examples of what we call "World SF" appearing here. But for now these are the novels that we think have made the most impact on science fiction during the first fifteen years of the new century.

The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy exactly the same territory. There are some districts that are entirely Beszel, some that are entirely Ul Qoma, but mostly they are layered over each other in a way that Mieville calls cross-hatching, so that in any street one side of the road may be in one country and the other side in the other, one house may be in one country and its neighbour in the next. The inhabitants of the two cities have learned since infancy not to see each other, to notice the neighbouring city is the worst of transgressions. Then a foreigner is murdered in Ul Qoma and her body dumped in Beszel.

Structurally, The City and the City is a crime novel in which a policeman slowly uncovers truths that take us far beyond a straightforward murder case. But as the investigations unfold, they reveal more and more about this extraordinary location, they start to hint at a third city that occupies the interstices between Beszel and Ul Qoma, and they make us think about how much we choose not to see in our own cities.

Why it's top of the list: If any writer epitomises the British Renaissance at the start of the century, it is China Mieville. His books are never straightforward; although he is claimed as a New Weird writer his work always employs other genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, steampunk and more. That is what makes him one of the most exciting and interesting writers working today. The City and the City won his third Arthur C. Clarke Award, and also received the Hugo Award (tied with The Windup Girl), the BSFA Award, the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle.

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M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device (1974) was a new wave space opera that was acknowledged as a major influence by writers as varied as Iain M. Banks and China Mieville. But after that he didn't return to the form until Light, the first part of this trilogy, was published in 2002. It tells the story of a serial killer in contemporary Britain who is also the co-inventor of calculations that allow humans to reach the Kefahuchi Tract. In this strange area of space where the incomprehensible debris from countless lost civilizations has washed up, we follow a girl who has had herself inextricably wired in to her ship, and her addict brother who is on the run from criminal gangs, as they confront the strange forces on the loose in the Tract. Light won the James Tiptree Award; the second volume, Nova Swing (2006), won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick award. It is set entirely within the Tract, where the alien "Zone" has touched down at Saudade City and where people emerge mysteriously from the Zone. The final novel, Empty Space: A Haunting (2012), begins with strange deaths in Saudade, but ends with the widow of the serial killer from Light being drawn into the future.

Why it's on the list: Quite simply, the trilogy takes science fiction apart and reconstructs it in a disturbing new form. Harrison borrows freely from sources as varied as Anne McCaffrey and the Strugatski Brothers, but remakes their inventions into something entirely new. Cumulatively, this amounts to one of the most innovative and important works of science fiction this century.

Books in Light Series (3)

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Breq is an ancillary, an embodiment of one fraction of the AI that once controlled the starship "Justice of Toran". But Breq is all that remains of the ship, and after what may or may not be a chance encounter on a frozen world, Breq begins to trace the treachery that led to the destruction of "Justice of Toran" while at the same time remembering the complex events that occurred just before the ship was destroyed.

Ancillary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, an unprecedented triumph. It is a superb example of the new space opera, full of grand and vivid scenes, yet this is combined with a refusal to identify characters by their gender which raises fascinating issues about sexual identification.

Why it's on the list: No science fiction novel seems to have caught the zeitgeist the way this one has. Ann Leckie wears her influences plainly, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Iain M. Banks, but the result is novel enough to be influential in its own right.

Books in Imperial Radch Series (3)

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Jul 2015

For all its fascination with the strange and alien, science fiction has been oddly reluctant to explore different cultures on our own planet. It is only really towards the end of the last century that writers have seriously and consistently begun to set their stories outside the familiar Anglo-American world. Along with Gwyneth Jones, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Ian McDonald, one of the most interesting and challenging of these is Geoff Ryman.

Air, for which he won his second Arthur C. Clarke Award, along with a BSFA Award and a James Tiptree award, is perhaps his best novel. Set in a remote village in Central Asia, it tells the story of Chung Mae, an illiterate peasant woman who suddenly finds herself with direct access to the internet through her brain. As a result, she finds herself having to lead her village in its abrupt confrontation with the future.

Why it's on the list: This is probably the most humane work of science fiction you are likely to read. Richly imagined, it provides a powerful insight into what the future holds for small, remote communities. The result is so gripping that it's the sort of book you read at a single sitting.

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Talking of confrontations with the future: future shock is lying in wait for us all, and this stunning novel gives us a sharp and disturbing glimpse of what it's going to be like.

Accelerando, which won the Locus Award, is that good old science fiction concept, the fix-up, a collection of nine linked stories, six of which had themselves been separately shortlisted for a variety of awards. The nature of the fix-up allows us to cross a great swathe of time from the very near future to a very distant digital existence. Beginning with freelance entrepreneur Manfred Macx plotting a scheme to give independence to AIs loaded with the consciousness of lobsters, the story takes on an expedition in digital form to meet aliens, and a return to a new human civilization settled around Saturn.

Why it's on the list:For the last few centuries at least, our lives have been shaped by economics; and that pattern is likely to continue for the next few hundred years as well. Yet Charles Stross is the only contemporary sf writer who puts economics at the heart of his fiction. It makes for a convincing and still thrilling body of work, and one that always feels relevant to the present.

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Comments (6)
Award Nominations:2010 BSFA

Through a series of stories, Paolo Bacigalupi had already explored a world in which fossil fuels are exhausted and bioengineering has had devastating effects upon our ecology. But even these stories hadn't prepared us for his first novel, The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo Award (tied with The City and the City by China Mieville), Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Set in a 23rd century Thailand, one of the few still viable states after climate change has raised the sea levels and plagues and bioterrorism have had a devastating effect. It's a complex story of attempts to locate and steal Thailand's seed bank, frustrated by a sexually exploited artificial woman (the Windup Girl of the title), an honest policeman, and simmering resentments among the underclass of refugees.

Why it's on the list: Despite winning so many awards, The Windup Girl was a controversial novel, mostly because of the way the character of the Windup Girl was treated in the book. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and affecting picture of life after the ecological disaster that seems to be facing us all.

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Built around the wartime diaries of her own father, an engineer in the American occupation force in Germany in 1945, for much of its length this reads like an exceptionally good historical novel. But slowly we become aware of strangeness creeping in: a mysterious European physicist leaves our hero, Sam Dance, with plans for a device that, it is claimed, will end war. But though Sam keeps tinkering with it, he can't make it work. Eventually, however, we realise that the device has opened up other time streams, and when Sam's daughter realises it can be used as a time machine she heads back to 1963 to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.

Why it's on the list: In War Times won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and with its sequel, This Shared Life (2011) it presents a vision of multiple histories that builds its sense of menace slowly and very effectively. The result is a work of science fiction that ends up being extravagant in its invention, yet which is very solidly and convincingly built upon a foundation of our own history.

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In the late-70s, Christopher Priest wrote a series of stories about the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that represent neutral territory for the warring nations of the northern continent. The islands became a place of sexual allure and menace, culminating in what many consider his finest novel, The Affirmation (1980), in which the allure of the islands undermines a sense of identity. Nearly 30 years later, he returned to the Dream Archipelago with stories in which the combination of allure and menace has taken on an even darker tone.

The Islanders, which won both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the BSFA Award, presents the reimagined Dream Archipelago in a very intriguing way. It is structured as a gazetteer of the islands, presenting them alphabetically, telling us about their flora and fauna, their currency and tourist attractions and their particular laws. But in among all this information bits of stories start to appear. As we piece them together we discover a curious death that may be accidental or may be murder, we learn of horrors and of forbidden islands, we meet sexual predators and people who appear to be alive long after their supposed death. It takes more than one reading to uncover all the clues and twists of this narrative, but it is well worth the effort.

Why it's on the list: Priest has spent his entire career never repeating himself, always taking science fiction in unexpected and rewarding new directions. His work this century has been particularly fruitful in that respect, with a stunning reinvention of the alternate history novel in The Separation (2002) which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and The Adjacent (2013) which seems to tie all his previous work into a completely unexpected new knot. But it is The Islanders that really displays his invention better than anything else. You haven't read anything like this novel before.

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Award Nominations:2009 CLARKE

The British Boom has been all about reinventing older forms of science fiction, making them fit for the new century, and no-one has done that better than Paul McAuley. The four novels that make up this sequence cover the rise and eventual fall of human civilization across the solar system. Moreover, they make us see the various worlds and moons of the system not as harsh, monochrome, austere worlds but as places of colour and interest, just the sorts of places we might choose to live.

The Quiet War (2008) tells of the peace protests and efforts to prevent an escalating war between the independent colonists scattered across the outer system, and the authoritarian regimes left behind on Earth. The sequel, Gardens of the Sun (2009) takes up the story immediately after the first volume as the colonists pick up the pieces and start to rebuild their worlds, while some of the more extreme societies set off for the stars. The third volume, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012), is set thousands of years later when those who fled the war have long since reached Fomalhaut, but they have not lost the human penchant for slavery and war. The final volume, Evening's Empires (2013), is set 1,500 years further forward in time and returns us to the solar system where a mysterious message has been received from Fomalhaut, but where our descendants have lost the energy and the will to sustain the variety of human habitation across the system.

Why it's on the list: Paul McAuley is undoubtedly one of the finest exponents of the new hard sf, and taken together these four books provide a tour of our future in space that is absolutely convincing at every turn. This is hard sf at its very best.

Books in The Quiet War Series (4)

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Ever since his first novel, Salt (2000), Adam Roberts has established himself as one of the most prolific, challenging, and popular novelists writing in science fiction today. His work often contains distorted references to earlier fictions, and that is particularly the case with Jack Glass, which won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

It's a daring attempt to combine golden age science fiction with golden age crime fiction, a combination that really shouldn't work, but does. The novel is in three parts: in the first, notorious interstellar criminal Jack Glass is confined to a prison asteroid, and has to escape from an escape-proof gaol. In the second part, there is a classic murder mystery in which the likely suspects are in a gravity well where they couldn't even lift the murder weapon. Finally there is a variation on a locked room mystery set aboard a space habitat.

Why it's on the list:The great appeal of science fiction has always been its intellectual engagement, and that is certainly the case with Adam Roberts's fiction. This combination of crime and sf produces a hybrid that keeps you guessing.

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Immortality, cryogenics, uploading the mind to an AI, extended lifespans, time and again science fiction revolves around the issue of how to avoid death. In this novel, which won the Locus Award, Connie Willis tackles the subject head on.

It's the story of a researcher into Near Death Experience, the way patients who are revived after clinical death consistently report walking towards a bright light. What emits that light? What will people find when they get there? Willis writes about all of this without resorting to supernatural explanations of any sort. Rather, the dying person finds themselves in a significant place, in this case the Titanic, able to pass messages to the living and possibly be revived.

Why it's on the list: If it can't tackle big themes, what's the point of science fiction? And in this novel Connie Willis tackles the biggest theme of all, without sentiment and without resorting to religion or magic. It's a powerful novel on a powerful subject.

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Consciousness is another of the big issues that only science fiction can explore satisfactorily, and that's exactly what's at the heart of this stunning hard sf novel. When an incoming alien vessel is detected, a ship is dispatched to intercept it. As the humans, and post-humans, in the crew make first contact, they start to realise the huge gulf that separates the human mind from the alien mind. It would seem that the aliens don't have consciousness, and yet they are vastly more effective than their human counterparts. But the alien is not the only threat in the novel, as the crew discover when they return to a transhuman Earth.

Why it's on the list: Science fiction, at its best, should bristle with ideas, and that's exactly what this novel does. Is human consciousness an evolutionary dead end? Can vampires be revived? What makes an alien mind? You can't turn a page of this novel without finding challenging ideas that make us question everything we know about being human.

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Comments (7)
Award Nominations:2000 BSFA, 2001 CLARKE

The debut novel by Alastair Reynolds marked the appearance on the scene of a modern master of space opera. No one writing today can handle the sheer scale of outer space with the aplomb of Reynolds, his stories can casually play out over millennia or extend across the entire width of the galaxy. And this first novel gave notice of the sort of thrilling gosh-wow effect missing from so much contemporary sf.

Here, for instance, we find archaeologists excavating the remains of a 900,000-year-old civilization. Meanwhile, the crew of a spaceship infected with a grotesque plague is seeking the lead archaeologist, while a professional assassin is also after him. And above it all there's the secret of what destroyed the civilization they are exploring, a secret that could well wipe out humanity as well.

Why it's on the list: It's a debut novel and it's not perfect, but when you're reading it you really don't notice any of that. The scale, the pace, the novelty, the number of wonders brought into play all make this one of the most effective space operas of recent years.

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Using a technique borrowed from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (and, before that, from John Dos Passos's modernist masterpiece, USA), Kim Stanley Robinson interrupts his fast-moving narrative with extracts from scientific papers, reports and other documents that illustrate the medical advances, the political alliances, the ecological catastrophes that have shaped the solar system. 

The result is to make this account of life 300 years in our future feel as if it is something we have already lived through. In other words, he gives life to the future, giving us confidence that these are the technological achievements ahead of us, this is the whole system in all of its complexity.

And around all of this detail, an artist from Mercury finds herself caught up in political machinations that take her to the outer planets and back again, a tour of the system as it is being gradually transformed by humanity that contains moment after moment of breathtaking beauty.

Why it's on the list:2312 won the Nebula Award, and is widely recognised as one of the most accomplished novels by one of science fictions most acclaimed writers. It does, triumphantly, what all science fiction aims for and so rarely succeeds: it makes us understand that this is what the future will be like.

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Comments (2)
Award Nominations:2004 NEBULA, 2005 CLARKE

In the middle of the 19th century a traveller embarks on a perilous voyage across the Pacific; in 1930s Europe a chancre starts working with an aging composer; in 1970s California a female journalist uncovers corruption; in the present day a publisher on the run from criminals hides out in an old people's home; in a dystopian future Korea a clone confesses to her sins; in a far future Hawaii where civilization has collapsed a peaceful village is threatened by raiders.

The first five stories are each interrupted midway through, and it is only after the sixth story has been told in full do the others continue in their turn. Each later story contains the earlier one embedded in it, and there are suggestions that later stories are echoed in earlier ones.

This complex journey from past to future and back to the past again is typical of Mitchell's work. All of his novels contain curious connection not only within themselves but from one novel to the next. It's a grand vision in which past and future are interconnected, linked by the predation that men commit against other men.

Why it's on the list: Mitchell is a daring and unconventional novelist, who constantly mixes forms within his work, but everything contains hints and suggestions of the fantastic. None more so than Cloud Atlas, in which the two very different science fiction stories are literally and figuratively central to the whole structure and purpose of the novel. It's the sort of work that makes it impossible to separate science fiction from the mainstream.

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One of the abiding themes of science fiction in the early twenty-first century is a careful delineation of everyday life in the near future, a future in which the steady deterioration of the political and environmental situation is generally balanced by technological advances. One of the very best examples of this is Ian MacLeod's Song of Time, which won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Beginning late in the current century, it tells of an aging classical musician who lives by the coast in Cornwall and who rescues a figure from the sea. This event prompts her to start recalling her life, with music serving as the balm that soothes her in the face of terrorist atrocities, political collapse, environmental disasters and more.

Why it's on the list: More than any other novel on this list, Song of Time reads as though MacLeod has carefully studied today's newspaper headlines and extrapolated from them a course through the next half-century that seems not only convincing but almost inevitable. It's an example of the fact that only science fiction at its best can produce an essential state of the nation novel.

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Awards Won:2011 CLARKE
Award Nominations:2010 BSFA, 2011 WFA

One of the most exciting things about science fiction in the new century is that the traditional white, male, Anglo-American voice is being displaced. Wonderful new work is starting to emerge from Brazil, from Russia, from Germany, from Israel, from China, from South-East Asia. The South African Lauren Beukes, who won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Zoo City, is just part of this emergence of distinctive new writers from different traditions.

In Zoo City she transforms the racial politics and social problems of Johannesburg into science fiction by having people bonded with animal avatars when they are convicted of a crime. The result is a novel that opens our eyes to the new.

Why its on the list:Zoo City is fresh, vivid, unusual, revealing, everything, in fact, that science fiction is supposed to be.

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Ken MacLeod is perhaps the most politically astute novelist working in Britain today. He brings a highly critical left-wing sensibility to his work, while at the same time being very funny about the internecine warfare between different versions of the left. 

That percipience allows him to write with great intelligence and conviction about the ways our present and our future are being shaped by forces beyond our control, often beyond our awareness. This sense of how a nation works is perfectly revealed in The Execution Channel, a novel which explores the way authoritarianism increases in the battle against terrorism.

With a plot and tradecraft that owe a lot to John Le Carre, The Execution Channel is essentially a cat-and-mouse story of a father and daughter on the run from increasingly oppressive government agents after they discover that what seems like a terrorist act is really something much bigger and stranger.

Why it's on the list: This is an alternate history story that taps in to the political paranoia that has built up in the West ever since 9/11. It's a distorting mirror that still reveals so much about the world we live in today.

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Awards Won:2006 HUGO
Award Nominations:2006 LocusSF, 2006 CAMPBELL

What would it be like if, one night, all the stars simultaneously disappeared from the sky. That is how Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo Award winning novel, Spin, begins. It turns out that the Earth has been enclosed within a membrane that slows down the passage of time, so that 100 million years pass on the outside for every year within the membrane. From that intriguing premise, Wilson rigorously explores the consequences: the attempts to destroy the membrane, the puzzle of who created it and why, what to do about the fact that the sun will render the Earth uninhabitable in just a few years, the rise and fall of cult religions.

Why it's on the list:Spin is the first part of a trilogy completed by Axis and Vortex. It's a novel almost overflowing with ideas, which means that it generates that authentic sense of wonder, the sort of science fiction that keeps you reading eagerly just to discover what happens next.

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Comments (1)
Award Nominations:2004 HUGO

There is something both delightfully old-fashioned and intriguingly up-to-date about John Scalzi's debut novel, Old Man's War. He originally published it on his website in 2002, where it proved so popular that Tor Books brought it out in 2005. It was the start of a career that has seen Scalzi consistently appear among the most popular writers in the genre today. The novel itself harks back to works like Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, following a group of soldiers from recruitment and on into interplanetary warfare. What's different is that these are old people who have already lived a productive life before they join up; they are then put into a new, genetically-enhanced body and provided with an assortment of intriguing new technology.

Old Man's War and its sequels are far from being gung-ho militaristic novels; our hero, John Perry, suffers psychological distress as a result of warfare, and it becomes far from clear whether the humans are actually on the right side in this war.

Why it's on the list: Old Man's War topped a poll for the best science fiction novel of 2000-2010, and a Locus poll for the best novel of the twenty-first century. The updating of Heinlein proves that traditional forms of science fiction still have immense appeal among science fiction readers today.

Books in Old Man's War Series (6)

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Chabon has a reputation as one of the leading contemporary mainstream writers in America, but his work has often included references to the fantastic so it was no surprise that he should write an alternate history novel. What was surprising, perhaps, was how good it was, going on to win the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sideways Awards for best novel.

The novel imagines that an area of Alaska was set aside as a temporary Jewish refuge in 1940, an event which changed the course of European and Middle Eastern history. But now a new American President wants to close Sitka, while Jewish extremists plot to attack Jerusalem which is under Palestinian rule. Our hero is a weary policeman in Sitka who investigates a murder only to uncover plots and ramifications that take him, and us, by surprise.

Why it's on the list: The Yiddish Policemen's Union works on so many levels: it is an intriguing crime story, it is often very funny, and it contains a stunningly visualised alternate history. But at the end an air attack on the Dome of the Rock provides an uncomfortable echo of 9/11, giving the book an extraordinary resonance with our contemporary world.

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Jan 2017
Comments (1)
Awards Won:2004 PKD

We like to say that science is integral to science fiction, yet it is surprising how rarely the practice of science appears in sf novels. One of the rare and brilliant exceptions to this rule is Life by Gwyneth Jones, which won the Philip K. Dick Award.

It's about how we define our sexual identity, how we create and operate within gender roles, what makes us women or men. At the core of the book is a scientific discovery which suggests that the male Y chromosome is reverting to an X, in other words that gender differences are disappearing. But the scientist who makes this discovery finds her research constantly stymied by male chauvinism and by office politics. The result is a fascinating and utterly convincing portrayal of the business of science that manages to ask, along the way, fundamental questions about who we are.

Why it's on the list: This is genuine science fiction, that is, fiction about science. But like the best science fiction it also asks big questions. If you read science fiction to get your mind racing and your head spinning, then you need to read this book.

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More and more, as this century has progressed, the idea of alternate history has been refined and focussed so that we look not at a broad sweep of historical change, not at a battle lost or won, but at how one person manoeuvres their life through the shoals and eddies of history. In many ways the originator of this new sub-genre, and its finest example, is Life After Life. It was published as a mainstream novel, but at its heart was a science fictional device so integral to the whole edifice that the book could not have existed without it.

Ursula, who lives her life over and over again, until she dies in the influenza epidemic of 1918, or murdered by an abusive husband, or in the Blitz, or in the ruins of Berlin, or of a mundane gas leak in old age, does not change history. This is a book of ordinary lives told with incredible sensitivity and vivacity; but because we see Ursula negotiate ever different ways through the twentieth century it provides an extraordinary insight into the lives that people lived.

Why it's on the list:Life After Life may be a very recent novel, but it already seems to be inspiring an interesting and productive strand of science fiction, from Jo Walton's My Real Children to Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

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When a bunch of Hugo and Nebula award winners queue up to praise a first novel from a brand new writer, and when they compare it to Hal Clement and Larry Niven, you just know it has to be pure, hard sf. And that's exactly what you get with A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias: the sort of book where you encounter strange yet believable worlds, fascinating yet convincing aliens, and at the heart of it all a desperate need to communicate across the seemingly incomprehensible gulf between species.

Why it's on the list: Over the last half century or so, science fiction has branched out in all sorts of directions. It's such a wonderfully varied literature today that it's sometimes easy to forget the solid heartland of the genre, because so much of what emerges from that heartland these days is old fashioned, repetitive, and often deeply conservative (with a small c). So when a book comes along that takes all those old virtues and makes them fresh and exciting and forward-looking once more, you just have to cheer.

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