2008 was an amazing year for science fiction novels, with Anathem hitting bestseller lists and critics going crazy over slavery tale Liberation and cyborg fantasy Alchemy of Stone. We've got the year's eleven best books.
Below are eleven of the year's best science fiction novels, with links to our reviews of them - as well as several interviews we did with the authors. Now's the time to catch up on what you missed out on reading last year!
Liberation, by Brian Francis Slattery
Here's what we said in our review of the novel:
What would the United States look like after the collapse of everything? The answer isn't a zombie-strewn wasteland or a sudden revival of punk-rock fashions, but rather something more like a flashback to the mid-19th century. The frontier spirit, small communities banding together, roaming Indian tribes... and huge masses of the population living in slavery. Brian Francis Slattery's dystopian second novel, Liberation has many brilliant ideas, but its depiction of a 21st century revival of slavery is really what burns it into your memory.
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Here's what we said about Stephenson's smash hit novel:
The planet Arbre, which is very much like Earth in some ways, differs from our world one major respect. Its religious and scientific institutions are essentially reversed. Monks called the avout live ascetic lives studying science in gracious, ancient "maths," while the so called "saecular" world is populated with Deolators (god-worshipers) who are obsessed with religion and technology. Stephenson's world-building skills, honed by the exacting work he did on his recent Baroque Cycle trilogy, are at their best here. Anathem is that rarest of things: A stately novel of ideas packed with cool tech, terrific fight scenes, aliens, and even a little ESP.
We also interviewed Stephenson about the novel.
Nano Comes to Clifford Falls, by Nancy Kress
A collection of Kress' short stories from her many years of writing, this book was disturbing, frustrating . . . and memorable. Here's what we said about it:
Nancy Kress loves to thwart our expectations about the future. In her new short story collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories, she takes stereotypical SF tales of galactic colonization, alien invasion, and nanotech singularities - and slaps them upside the head. In one story, aliens "invade" Earth by landing a spaceship and just letting it sit in rural Minnesota for centuries; in another, we see the nanotech singularity from the perspective of people in a small prairie town. A story ostensibly about exploring a black hole at the center of the galaxy turns out to be about how AI uploads of people actually have better personalities than their originals.
The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia
We were blown away by Sedia's stark, beautifully-written portrait of a cyborg caught in the middle of a workers' revolution. Here's what we said in our review:
With a face made of porcelain, a wind-up heart, and a talent for alchemy, Mattie is hardly a typical science fictional robot. While most novels about robots focus on how these humanoid machines are stronger and smarter than humans, Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone explores the vulnerability of mechanical beings who depend on humans for repairs and survival . . . [Sedia's] focus on Mattie's relationship with her creator allows her to grapple with the tiny power struggles inherent in all human relationships - especially those between men and women.
We also interviewed Sedia about the book, and got into a really interesting discussion about robots and women.
Sly Mongoose, by Tobias Buckell
This novel about fighting zombies on a floating habitation bubble hovering over a Venus-like cloud planet is definitely the year's best action novel - and still manages to be thoughtful. Here's what we said about it in our review:
If there's anything better than a ninja fighting zombies, it's a ninja with alien-tech-enhanced powers nuking space zombies infected by a plague of collective murderous consciousness. And I haven't even gotten to the part about floating cities on a Venus-like planet covered in sulfur-specked clouds. That's the beauty of Tobias Buckell's latest novel, Sly Mongoose. Just when you think the action can't get more insane, it does. Even better: Just when you think you're reading a pure military SF adventure, Buckell gives you a wide-angle shot of the larger political context where the alien smackdown is blowing up, and takes your breath away.
The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod
MacLeod is never one to shy away from the big, weird questions, and this novel is no exception. Here he wonders whether robots might become Protestant terrorists. In our review of this amazing novel, unfortunately available only in the UK, we said:
Ken MacLeod's latest novel, The Night Sessions, is about a near-future Earth that's ruled by atheists who have driven Christians into the closet. The "Faith Wars" have purged governments in the East and West of their religious leaders, and left in their wake a fairly peaceful world order. Still, the population is filled with people and sentient robots haunted by memories of the violent "God Squads" who led the anti-religious purges . . . An intricate murder mystery about Protestant terrorist factions of the future, The Night Sessions is also a strangely moving tale of the emotional bonds between humans and robots. MacLeod has given us a crisp novel of speculation made achingly realistic by his characters' believable, messy lives.
Earlier this year, we interviewed MacLeod about why science fiction has gone back to the near future.
Postsingular, by Rudy Rucker
Rucker takes us on another mind-bending, nano-powered ride. Here's how we described it:
It's not much of a spoiler to say that the Singularity happens in Rudy Rucker's new novel Postsingular, since the title gives that development away. But what happens after the Singularity will surprise you. People usually define the Singularity as the moment when artificial intelligences improve themselves to the point where they surpass us, but Rucker's singularity takes many more forms, and is much more confounding, than that.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
In our feature on how young adult books will save science fiction, we talked about Doctorow's stunning YA novel that rebooted scifi for teens. Here's what we said:
We're lucky to have both YA literature with science-fictional themes and "regular" science fiction. There's no reason we can't have both, and appreciate both for what they are, including the innovation and breadth of concepts that mature science fiction can explore. But we should especially celebrate the awesome potential of YA SF to revitalize the field, and bring new readers to SF concepts.
Matter, by Iain M. Banks
The latest in Banks' celebrated Culture Series, Matter is a tale of war and betrayal set inside a giant, artificial habitat made of nested spheres. Here's what we said in our review:
Iain M. Banks is the master of narrative zoom and pan: one minute he'll bring you in very close to a tiny moment in one person's life as she mourns the death of a brother, and the next you'll be spinning in deep space staring at a supermassive artificial world created by liquid-breathing aliens, millions of miles long, made of enormous braided tubes. Which of these minutes matters more? In Banks' new novel Matter, both do - and both are also tragicomically inconsequential. What always pleases about Banks' science fiction novels, many of which are set against the backdrop of a pan-galactic, A.I.-centric, socialist-libertarian society called The Culture, is that Banks always delivers substance and spectacle. You'll get the ethical questions, the sorrowful depictions of war, and the meditations on social evolution. But you'll also get world-shattering explosions, weird-ass aliens, and ancient technologies that are purely there to be fucking cool.
We also talked to Banks about why he likes to blow things up.
Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
A young adult novel about a girl warrior in a post-apocalyptic world, Hunger Games delivered the awesome. Here's what we said in our review:
Suzanne Collins has written a sharp book about televised death-sports in a post-apocalyptic future. Her story pits a resourceful young hero against a media machine that doesn't just want to watch her die - it also wants to devour every bit of her emotional life. I'm sick of "reality TV" parodies, but the Hunger Games goes one better by making the audience the villains.
Multireal, by David Louis Edelman
An amazing hard scifi tale, this is the second in an action-packed series from Edelman. Here's what we said in our review:
With so much mass-media science fiction featuring anti-science heroes who battle to stop science from "going too far," it's great to read a really smart novel about a hero who's fighting to save scientific progress from being suppressed. David Louis Edelman's Multireal, the second volume in the trilogy that begins with Infoquake, is a welcome cure to the Fringe/Eleventh Hour science-bashing, even though it presents both the pro- and con- arguments about radical progress. But Multireal is also way more entertaining than the science bashers.