10 Books that Prove Science Fiction Just Got Harder

Click to viewWhy do so many books labeled "hard science fiction" actually contain technology that works pretty much like magic in a fantasy novel? Hard science fiction is supposed to be the branch of SF that's rigorously scientific, and doesn't gloss over difficult problems like faster-than-light travel. Larry Niven's Ringworld series, with its long passages on how you'd engineer a giant space structure, is often held up as a prime example of hard SF that works. And yet most lists of hard SF include authors like Frank Herbert, whose Dune series about giant worms who create a substance that allows people to "fold space" with their minds is many things — but not so much based in science. At the same time, hard SF is often defined very narrowly, not including cutting-edge sciences like biology or nanotech. It's as if most definitions of hard SF were written back in the 1950s and not rethought much since. That's why we've got a list of ten books that we think are redefining hard SF for the twenty-first century.

Remember, these books aren't classics of hard SF — you can find lists of those anywhere. These are books that are transforming hard science fiction, and inspiring it to go in new directions.

World War Z, by Max Brooks. This wildly-popular book is hard science fiction in a number of ways. First, zombies are portrayed as humans who have been infected with a disease that spreads via saliva (hence the biting), and the world's response to them is quite realistic. Moreover, the method that Brooks chooses to tell his story — a Studs Turkel-style pseudo-journalism where the author interviews survivors of the "zombie war" — really marks this out as a book that is setting the tone for a new breed of hard science fiction. He's breaking out of the usual narrative style to tell a hyper-realistic story about what would happen if there were a global pandemic that claimed millions of lives. It's even realistic that people might call the infected "zombies," since the term is so common in our popular culture.

The Nanotech Quartet, by Kathleen Goonan. Written in the 1990s at the dawn of the nanotech age, these books chart what happens to the United States after cities run on nanotech malfunction. As a result, all the people in those cities are converted into characters from fictional stories and public figures from U.S. history that are stored in the nano-computers' databanks. Meanwhile, a nanovirus starts working its way across the midwest, rewriting people's minds to make them want to jump on rafts on the Mississippi like the main characters in Huckleberry Finn. Nobody had even heard of nano when the first hard SF books were being written back in the 1950s, and now some of today's most exciting hard SF deals with nano. Goonan talks to io9 about her series in this interview.

10 Books that Prove Science Fiction Just Got Harder

The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson. Another area that remained largely untouched in classic hard SF is biology — and especially the large systems biology of environmental science. Amy Thomson's first-contact classic The Color of Distance is about a human scientist who gets herself genetically modified so that she can study a species of cephalopod-like aliens who communicate via patterns they create in the pigment of their skins — and who live in rigorous harmony with their treetop environments. As the scientist integrates herself more and more into the alien society, we learn about both the ecology of the planet and the believable but alien lifecycles of the intelligent aliens she comes to think of as her own people. This is a must-read for people who like smart environmental writing, as well as good storytelling. Check out io9's interview with Amy Thomson, too.

Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories, by Nancy Kress. The author of several novels that deal with futuristic biology and nanotech, Kress has the remarkable ability to talk about protein folding for several paragraphs, make it gripping, and then pull you back into the plot of her tale seamlessly. This collection shows off some of her best short stories, including the widely-read title story. She tackles everything from alien biology, to theoretical physics, and often science itself feels like a main character in her writing.

10 Books that Prove Science Fiction Just Got Harder

Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler. Also called the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Lilith's Brood is a collection of three short novels in which the award-winning Butler charts the fall of the human species and the rise of a new, hybrid species that combines human DNA with those of a group of genome-manipulating aliens known as the Oankali. After humans wipe out most of Earth's biosphere (including humans) with war and pollution, the Oankali arrive and rescue a few remaining humans, revive them, and explain that they will be merging with humans to form a better species. We watch this merging over several generations through the eyes of Lilith, a human who grows to love the Oankali even as she questions their coercive tactics. Like Thomson, Butler is interested in systems biology on a global scale, as well as within the human body, and her gene-manipulating aliens are an excellent scientific thought-experiment.

Everyone in Silico, Jim Munroe. In this novel, biological manipulation has become commonplace: kids cook up new species in their EZ-bake ovens, and hipsters throw parties where they plant genetically-modified flowers and watch them grow and bloom over the course of a music-filled evening. In a world flooded with consumer biotech, the cutting edge has gone retro and returned to virtual reality. Everybody wants to leave their bodies to jack into a perfect virtual world — one which is entirely covered in advertisements if you venture in for free, and totally ad-free for the richest customers. Meanwhile, large corporations are doing something mysterious with the bodies of people who have gone to live in the virtual world . . . Everyone in Silico is an action-packed mystery with a heaping dose of biotech gone nuts.

<strongMatter, by Iain M. Banks. Banks' latest culture novel is remarkable in large part because he pays homage to and updates the tradition of old-school hard SF writers like Ringworld author Larry Niven. At the heart of the novel is a huge, artificial "shellworld" built by mysterious, long-dead aliens. Designed to be part of a massive, galaxy-spanning forcefield, the shellworld with its nested spheres has been colonized by dozens of alien cultures who have set up artificial suns and environments on each level of the world. But the entire shellworld is in danger when a group of technologically-primitive aliens come across a piece of alien machinery that might be a weapon — or something worse. Banks also talked to io9 about this novel, and why he likes to blow things up.

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh. This Hugo Award-winning novel is probably the closest book on this list to being classic hard SF. Published in the early 1980s, it's a straightforward space adventure with planetary conquest and space-station intrigue. What sets it apart from 1950s and 60s hard SF is its focus on the psychological aspects of the giant space battles. We get plenty of old-school action, but Cherryh reminds us that hard SF should have a sociological element to it if we want scientific realism. So we don't just get astrophysics here, but also the sociology of space station life — as well as the psychologies of people who have been warped by interstellar warfare their whole lives.

10 Books that Prove Science Fiction Just Got HarderS

Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge. Hard SF about computers in the latter half of the twentieth century often focused on A.I.s or, later, "cyberspace." Vinge, who worked as a computer science professor for his whole adult life, has a vision of near-future computing that is thoroughly grounded in actual research going on today. In his tale of a man whose Alzheimery brain has been rebooted with stem cells, Vinge reveals a world where wearable, ubiquitous computing has turned the old cyberspace tropes inside-out. Instead of "jacking in," everybody has heads-up displays that allow them to overlay their high tech fictional worlds onto the real one. In a future where inanimate objects are networked, and the real world can be transformed into anything you want, the biggest debates are over whose digital imagery will rule in a given region. But an underground group working with viruses that bridge the gap between computers and biology may destroy everyone's "augmented reality" for good. Fast-paced and plausible, this is one of the best books I've ever read about a likely future for the internet.

Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold. One of the most lauded hard SF writers of the past several decades, Bujold's early novel Ethan of Athos poses a strange question: What would be the biological consequences for a planet of humans who had decided to eliminate all women from their culture? How would they reproduce and survive? Ethan comes from just such a planet, and he's been sent on a rare off-world mission to broker a deal for some black-market human eggs so he and his all-boy planet can keep their artificial wombs pumping out the (male) babies. Unfortunately, he gets cheated in the deal, and to save his planet he has to deal with some real-life women. There is a lot of fun mystery and spy stuff in this novel, but one of the best parts is Bujold's careful attention to the kinds of questions that most authors don't answer. Such as: How exactly would two men make a baby together, and (more importantly) what would make them want to if they aren't gay?