All Systems Red
by Martha Wells
Bad news: while exploring an alien planet, you are attacked by a monster.
Good news: you are rescued by the expedition’s cyborg security agent, a mandatory part of the service package you buy if you want to do something idiotic, like explore an alien planet.
Bad news: your CSA has a secret name for itself: “Murderbot”.
Martha Wells’s novella All Systems Red offers the sort of exploration of human decency no regular ethics class would ever dare to teach. Having hacked its governor module, Murderbot can kill. It just chooses not to. Much like the rest of us, then. And its patience is sorely tried in this deceptively frothy tale of skullduggery, explosions, betrayal, sabotage, more explosions and, yes, murder.
Comparisons to John Sladek’s Tik-Tok and Douglas Adams’s Marvin (the paranoid android) were inevitable, quick to arrive and well-earned. Be in no doubt, though: Murderbot is its own unique kind of grumpy, overly sensitive killing machine; consequently All Systems Red won Wells the Hugo, Nebula, Alex and Locus awards.
Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, Exit Strategy and Network Effect have continued the saga, much to Murderbot’s secret disgust (the poor thing just wants to be left alone to watch box sets).
by Kim Stanley Robinson
The first of a tightly plotted trilogy, Red Mars (1992) describes, in painstaking detail, the settlement and terraforming of our neighbour planet. It is a narrative that spans centuries, populated with memorable characters, and dominated, at least in this first volume, by an argument over whether or not to change Mars out of all recognition. Sax Russell (who believes in humanity’s obligation to spread life across the universe) and Ann Clayborne (who thinks changing entire planets at will is inhuman and immoral) articulate arguments that evolve over time, spawning protest movements, political parties and even governments.
They are both right, in their way. But the outcome of the debate is never really in doubt. Soon “Moholes” are drilled to release Mars’s subsurface heat, the atmosphere is thickened, nuclear explosions deep in the permafrost release water to the planet’s surface.
The Red Planet as we know it today is the real and tragic hero of Robinson’s peerless future history, and by the end of Blue Mars, it has vanished under all that wet and swarming green – a lifeless memory of the pre-settler past.
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Genly Ai, “first mobile” and emissary of the Ekumen, is reporting back to his home planet from the snowbound world Gethen. Neither of the planet’s two main kingdoms seems to want to join the Ekumen’s commonweal, and various misfortunes and misunderstandings have left Ai in a perilous situation. Worst of all, he is in love.
What emerges from Ai’s ostensibly objective account – a diplomatic mission gone awry – was, for 1969, one of the strangest love stories in science fiction, and it still has the power to bring a lump to the throat and a dizziness to the head.
Blindsided by the unspoken social rules and formal courtesies governing the first court he visits, it takes Ai a while to realise why everyone here is having to be so careful around each other. The humanoid Gethenians are ambisexual. It is only in mating season that they acquire male or female characteristics. Consequently, nobody here has any idea who they may come to adore.
The Left Hand of Darkness won Le Guin both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel.
by Iain M. Banks
Horza, a shape-changing mercenary, is sent to retrieve a Mind (a mind-bogglingly powerful AI with a wry attitude) from Schar’s World, once a jewel in the galaxy’s crown, now a monument to an extinct civilisation.
The Mind belongs to the Culture, a sinister, all-powerful machine combine that ingests whole space empires. Horza’s messed-up extraction from Schar’s World, his sojourn among space pirates and his pitched battles against the Culture fill the rest of the book – and it takes a while for us to twig that Banks (up to this point known for mainstream entertainments like The Wasp Factory) is playing a tricky game indeed.
For Horza is wrong about the Culture, wrong about himself, wrong about life in general. There is more to life than space battles, hand-to-hand fighting, being captured, escaping, murdering and raping, and after some pages spent looking out at Banks’s colourful, complex world through Horza’s jacked-up, paranoid eyes, it begins to dawn on us that Horza has chosen the wrong side. The Culture’s Minds aren’t predatory, they’re parental, steering their primitive meat charges into a future in which they can have whatever they want, and be whatever they want to be.
More Culture stories followed Consider Phlebas (1987), including The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and The State of the Art, which came as loose sequels, portraying a vast, interstellar Culture of 30 trillion happy, fulfilled citizens. Since utopias are thin on good stories (there is never enough conflict there), Banks shone best as an ironist, exploring the Culture’s edges and badlands, and all the self-defeating, self-sabotaging reasons why otherwise-rational beings might turn their backs on the sincere and beneficent Culture, and all its promises of happiness.
C. J. Cherryh
Damon Konstantin has a house guest: prisoner of war Josh Talley. Talley has had his memory partially wiped rather than face indefinite incarceration, and Konstantin feels sorry for him. What Konstantin doesn’t know is that Talley has had his memory manipulated not once, but twice…
Downbelow Station (1981) is an ambitious vintage space opera that knocks the other shipboard outings of the 1980s flying. Talley’s mysterious purposes play themselves out in orbit around Pell’s World, a supposedly uninhabitable planet and one of a chain of disappointing discoveries in the Earth Company’s otherwise ceaseless expansion.
Since not every promising planet can be settled, the Company has a policy of building gigantic space stations in orbit around the duds, the better to exploit them for their resources. Konstantin’s father runs Pell Station, nicknamed Downbelow Station by its inhabitants.
When Pell’s World turns out to be the home of the gentle, sentient Hisa, it is in no one’s interest to oust them. Space is big, after all. But trouble is brewing across Earth’s colonies, political decay at home is loosening the Company’s grip on its more distant worlds and thousands of human refugees are turning up on the surface of the Hisa’s previously untrammelled home. Cherryh is famous for the amount of meticulous research that goes into her novels. Not that she will ever make you sit through any of it: she has the knack of making complex, ambitious, absorbing storytelling seem effortless.
by Neal Stephenson
1942: Lawrence Waterhouse, US Navy codebreaker and mathematical genius, is making up alternative explanations for Allied intelligence successes, thereby hiding from the Nazis the fact that their fabled Enigma code has been broken. Fifty-five years later, Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence’s grandson, runs a start-up offering cheap video-messaging services to migrants from the Philippines via the new fibre-optic cables – and is disconcerted to find entire governments signing up for his services.
Add lost Nazi gold, underground data havens, Alan Turing and more information theory than you could possibly imagine being made comprehensible (let alone entertaining, let alone gripping) and you have the book that established Neal Stephenson as a major voice of the first internet generation.
Much more than a caper, Cryptonomicon (1999) describes the world as computers might see it: a vivid tangle of highly flavoured information streams, travelling agnostically across ghostly substrates (ticker tape, undersea cable, the human brain…) and gathering mysteriously at the centres of world power.
by Nicola Griffith
Government anthropologist Marghe Taishan has been sent to observe life on Jeep, a colonised but long-since forgotten planet that is now being targeted for resettlement by the sinister Durallium Company.
One fly in the ointment, at least as far as the Company is concerned, is the planet’s nasty habit of killing off all the men. Not all women are immune from Jeep’s endemic virus. Taishan’s decision to stop taking the vaccine, to better understand the planet’s mysteries, is a brave step. But the planet’s “native” population, apparently descended from the original colony, are entirely female, and now Marghe, transformed by the virus, understands how this is possible – and why the Company must be kept away from Jeep at all costs.
Nicola Griffith’s first novel, Ammonite (1992) won the James Tiptree Jr Award for its explorations of gender and power. Griffith’s interest in human nature gives her story a universal appeal.
Shards of Honor
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Commander Cordelia Naismith is escorting botanists across an alien planet when her camp is attacked and her team flee, deserting her. She isn’t the only human who has been abandoned. Soon enough she runs into Aral Vorkosigan, “the Butcher of Komarr”, by all accounts her sworn enemy. If either of them is to survive in this hostile place, they are going to have to work together.
So far, so formulaic – but Bujold, four times winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, knows what she is doing, and Shards of Honor (1986) quickly develops into a satisfying, complex, often heart-rending exploration of honour, loyalty and love (Vorkosigan is, it turns out, a lot pleasanter than his name).
The story’s shifting loyalties, a complex, galaxy-spanning realpolitik and a truly fiendish superweapon would mean less without that bizarre, brave partnering of feisty astronaut and reputed fiend. And it came as little surprise when this winning mix spawned a sequel, Barrayar (1991) and went on to become a series with a devoted (not to say fanatic) readership.
Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress
Where science fiction leads, reality follows. Consider the mutation in a gene called ADRB1, which allows some people to get by on just 4 hours’ sleep a night. I would leap at the chance of a gene therapy that freed up my nights – but what would happen if everyone else followed suit?
In 1993, and blissfully unaware that any such mutation would ever make the headlines, Nancy Kress asked herself what would happen if a group of humans were born not needing to sleep. The result was a novella called “Beggars in Spain”. Expanded into a novel, it cemented her reputation as one of the toughest thinkers and slickest writers in science fiction.
Kress’s community of sleepless superheroes are of a very ordinary, picked-upon sort, desperately defending themselves against a world that sees them as a threat to their way of life. They don’t get to compete in the Olympics (the extra hours they put into their training are unfair on others) and some cities have banned them from running 24-hour convenience stores. That the sleepless are congenitally a bit brighter and a lot happier than the rest of us doesn’t promote their integration into society one bit.
It is quite a step from such petty prejudices to looming conflicts in outer space, but that is where we end up, as Kress follows her idea rigorously across the years to its almost-utopian conclusion.
by John Harrison
The Kefahuchi Tract isn’t just a physical slash through space-time: it is an ontological flaw in the universe, a place where the rules of physics break down, or get remade, or in any event cease to make any sense whatsoever to the intelligent species who have been pondering its mysteries for aeons. Exploring the Tract is lethal folly, of course, and only those ridiculous apes from Earth are daft enough to accept its challenge. New physical constants mean prizes in this wildest of gold rushes.
Harrison has a well-deserved reputation as science fiction’s fiercest critic. For years, his baffling, difficult, frustrating fiction has been sending up and trolling the genre for the infantile escapism it can be. In 2002, though, he decided to give his long-suffering readers a lollipop: an all-guns-blazing space opera, bigger, smarter and faster than anything that had been attempted before.
Physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney, self-disfigured spaceship Seria Mau Genlicher and ex-space pilot, adventurer and lost soul Ed Chianese find their destinies hot-wired across space and time to fulfil the mysterious needs of a shambling figure dressed in a sheet and with a horse’s skull for a head. Strap in before reading, and leave a note of your planned route for concerned relatives.
Brown Girl In the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson CR: Hachette Book Group
Hachette Book Group
Brown Girl in the Ring
by Nalo Hopkinson
In a decrepit near-future Toronto, teenage single mother Ti-Jeanne must juggle care for her newborn infant with looking after her grandmother, a tiresome traditionalist, always droning on about the old country, an apothecary and spiritualist beset by voodoo visions. But what if the wild powers she claims to control are real?
Ti-Jeanne’s estranged boyfriend Tony, an addict who runs with a powerful criminal posse, is of no help to her whatsoever, and is anyway caught up in the search for a human heart for the Premier of Ontario (no mere Porcine Organ Harvest Program heart for him). Ti-Jeanne is still hopelessly in love with Tony – but she will learn.
Hopkinson’s linguistically dazzling mash-up of Jamaican and Canadian patois and speech rhythms adds grit to her cyberpunk tale of street-smart folk pulling together in the face of City Hall inertia and political collapse. It is a future in which folk tales vie for public credence with far-out technologies, and who is to say, in this most post-factual of all post-factual futures, which things work and which don’t?
Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) is riddled with stories, fantasies, ghosts, odd beliefs. It consequently has the most lived-in feel of all the futures gathered here. It is a rattling good tale, too.
More on these topics: