In the realm of science fiction, “fantastic” is not always a synonym for “good.” Oftentimes, hardened sci-fi veterans on the prowl for a new sci-fi book find themselves on Amazon or in a bookstore staring blankly at the flashy metallic covers featuring four-armed cat aliens and ascending Jupiter princesses and a whole bevvy of other fantasy nonsense, wishing on their lucky stars to somehow find a book that doesn’t, well, suck.
While I do recognize that “suck” is a very subjective word, and that some science fiction fans out there do enjoy the endless misadventures of Zipnarf the Dimension Skipping Space Weasel and his motley crew of Xui’la’quians, this article is for those who crave a bit more “sci” in their “fi.”
Still with me? Good, because now I’m going to show you the secrets to discovering your next favorite new sci-fi book.
There are certain things to look for if you’re yearning for a captivating science fiction novel that will fill your heart with the promise of new worlds, or crush your soul with the promise of a looming dystopic future (different strokes for different folks). To become a successful science fiction writer, you first need to be a talented writer. With the advent of e-books and other online sharing platforms, it’s becoming incredibly easy to get published – too easy, perhaps. Many new books are focused more on profit than art, and a tried and true method of getting people’s attention (and money) is being louder, crazier, and more fantastic than those that came before you.
This massive influx of new novels has led to the disappearance of the back cover synopsis, a handy tool for discovering new books, and movement away from the monomyth, or hero’s journey, a formula for creating a gripping and compelling story that has survived a millennia’s worth of tellings and retellings, and is still going strong. The first was done away with in favor of reviews, because people are led to believe they’ll only like things other people like, and the latter was replaced with explosions hiding plot holes and a lot of made up alien languages. That is not to say that excellent sci-fi novels can only be hard science, with no elements of fantasy at all, but the best science fiction writers know that flights of fancy are defined by their relationship to the ground.
Take this list with you to your nearest (local independent) bookstore! It’s dangerous to go alone.
Finding your Favorite New Sci-Fi Book – Marker 1, Humans vs…
The most relatable and intriguing science fiction tests the limits of the human condition by pitting them, whether it is all of humankind or a lost scouting party on an alien world, against some “Other.” Two classic examples of this concept, utilized in very different ways, are Ender’s Game and Dune. In the Orson Scott Card classic, Ender’s Game, humanity as a whole is pitted against an intensely powerful and largely mysterious alien race that wants to destroy the human race for unknown reasons, whereas in Frank Herbert’s magnum opus, Dune, humankind turns inwards on itself on a dystopic desert planet, while the detached leaders attempt to create a utopia through… questionable means.
Both examples show the best and worst of the human spirit by putting them in fantastic worlds and challenging them to make terrifying decisions in the face of the “Other,” creating fleshed-out, in-depth characters to love and hate.
(Children of Time, the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award winner, is another example of this.)
Recommendation: If you want a novel that challenges you to determine who, or what, you’re really up against, get ready for Hunger: Last Man Standing by Keith Taylor; a new sci-fi adventure that examines human nature in the wake of a devastating and unexplainable act of violence that changes our world overnight.
Finding your Favorite New Sci-Fi Book – Marker 2, Dystopic Futures or Alternate Realities
What better way to ground a sci-fi novel than by keeping it within the realm of reality? Sci-fi that takes place in an accessible future or parallel present tends to attract the darker side of the genre, with haunting glimpses and cryptic warnings of things to come. Two novels often mentioned when the conversation turns to dystopic futures (and with the election coming up, it’s pretty often) are 1984 and Brave New World, both of which explore the fate and future of the human race when its citizens are crushed under the thumb of their rulers, albeit through very different ways.
If a science fiction plot has a lot to do with the government and class struggles, you know you’re in for a mind-bending ride.
Recommendation: Utopia… Or is it? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a quick but earth-shattering read that painfully strips away the top layer of their seemingly peaceful and controlled society to reveal the driving power behind any all-powerful monotheocracy is fear, and those who seek to disobey it often pay a terrible price.
Finding your Favorite New Sci-Fi Book – Marker 3, Awards
I know what you’re thinking: Hey, weren’t you just saying you shouldn’t judge a book by its reviews? But bear with me. Awards are quite a bit different than reviews. Entertainment Weekly, though a big deal in its own right, giving a novel 5 stars is not the same as a panel of amazing, highly lauded genre authors deciding your novel should receive the Hugo Award, or the Nebula Award, or both, if you’re a science fiction god, such as Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, and others of that caliber. And it’s definitely not the same as an Amazon review. Big-name awards ensure that a science fiction novel is exceedingly well written, captivating, and planted comfortably within the genre, so that you know you’ll satisfy your sci-fi addict cravings.
Recommendation: A recent (2010) winner of both the Nebula Award (voted on by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a panel of professional science fiction and fantasy writers) and the Hugo Award (voted on by a large pool of science fiction and fantasy fans) was Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This frighteningly realistic dystopic novel is set in Thailand, in the near future, where corporations and GMO foods are taken to a whole new level. Mystery, subterfuge, mutant pests, and robot sex clubs come together to create a truly fascinating journey through what-might-be.
Grabbing a copy: Interested? Head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Windup Girl.
Finding your Favorite New Sci-Fi Book – Marker 4, Morally Difficult Technological Advances
The concept of “the ends justify the means” is a very common theme in well-written science fiction novels, and has been since the dawn of the genre. This moral conundrum plays nicely with a lot of other common sci-fi themes, such as the alien race that has evolved past emotions for the good of the species (and therefore lost touch with any “humanity” or moral repercussions), and artificial intelligence, which is a moral dilemma for many as it is. Whether it’s cloning, altering time lines, or even mass genocide, futuristic sci-fi novels are rife with technological advances that force the characters, and the reader, to confront their humanity in violent and explosive ways.
There are few literary experiences more profound then forcing yourself into the mind of the main character who must decide the fate of the entire human race. Do you embrace the alluring danger of prescience, as in Dune, or spread the knowledge of Soylent Green’s true recipe, despite it saving billions from starvation? Excellent sci-fi novels are the ones that ask you questions you’d like to avoid, especially those looming on our present horizon, such as the morality of in utero genetic modification and the widespread application, and enslavement, of AI.
Recommendation: Isaac Asimov and Michael Crichton truly take the cake when it comes to morally questionable and mysterious scientific discoveries. If you’re ready to feel your skin crawl while ripping through a fast-paced thriller, pick up Prey by Crichton. This haunting warning will make you question whether or not the medical advances made by genetic modification and nanotechnology is worth the danger, at the risk of the fate of humankind.
Finding your Favorite New Sci-Fi Book – Marker 5, Size Doesn’t (Always) Matter
A common issue with attempting to find a good sci-fi novel is the fear of a big time commitment, and the accompanying unwillingness to flip to that first page and dive into the unknown. That’s where short stories, collections, and novellas come in. If your heart has been one broken too many times by false promises and excessive nonsense in your sci-fi books, and you’re afraid to give your whole heart to a new author, take a chance on the genre equivalent of a one night stand: short, speculative fiction.
Anthologies and collections are about to become your new favorite fling. Good things to look for when searching for a sci-fi anthology are at least one big name contributor, such as Asimov or Herbert, Hugo Awards, and aforementioned buzzwords such as “speculative,” “dystopic,” or “hard” science fiction, which often guarantee a fantastic journey, with little to no fantastic nonsense.
Recommendations: In the wise words of some Goodreads contributor, “If you own only one anthology of classic science fiction, it should be The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964.” This anthology has everything you could wish for and more, with a whole army of supremely talented sci-fi authors to open new doors for you on your otherworldly adventures.
Lifelong sci-fi aficionados who’re intimately familiar with the classics will love Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Chock full of dystopic and speculative short fiction, there’s a story in here for every type of sci-fi fan.
Grabbing a copy: Interested? Head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964, and / or Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.
Science fiction is a genre that continually defines and redefines the future of the human race, simultaneously inspiring us to move forward, and warning us of what lies ahead. The best sci-fi (as I’m sure you’ll agree, having made it this far down!) is the kind that matters. The authors we fall in love with are the ones who take us on unimaginable journeys that captivate us the whole way, and make us question everything in life but the story we’re reading. The future is crashing towards us, carrying with it the wildest dreams of Atwood and the tormenting nightmares of Crichton, and the small amount of time we get, insignificant against the vastness of the universe, is precious. Don’t waste it reading insubstantial and sensational science-fiction, when there is a galaxy of true potential lurking at the edges of libraries and online archives all around you.