The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Summer is the most escapist time of year, with vacations and long voyages. And no escapist jaunt is complete without a visit to other worlds. Here are the best science fiction and fantasy books for this summer's beach reading.

Back to the Future

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl author's latest, about an ecologically devastated Gulf of Mexico, is depressingly current. Nailer Lopez is scraping by in a post-peak-oil world, full of violence and injustice. But his whole life changes when a storm strands a privileged young woman and her lovely clipper ship. Maybe this vividly realized, humane YA novel is the perfect antidote to those horrifying oil-spill projections.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Zendegi, Greg Egan: Once science has mapped the human mind, what'll we do with it? Greg Egan has the Iranians using that information to create Zendegi, a massively popular MMORPG. But it's not all fun and games. Martin, an expat Australian journalist who discovers that he's dying, enlists the help of neuroscientist Nasim to create a virtual copy of himself. But this isn't out of some villainous wish for immortality. He just doesn't want to abandon his son. Highly recommended by our own Chris Braak.

Ian McDonald's Ares Express & Dervish House: McDonald has two new releases in bookstores this summer. In the spring, the US finally got an edition of Ares Express, the sequel to Desolation Road. The novel follows Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th as she makes her way across a radically transformed, far-future Mars. And this month brings the release of Dervish House, which follows a number of characters wandering around a tense Istanbul, stricken with a heatwave and unsure of its next steps in the year 2027.

Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor: Onyesunwo is a child of conflict and rape living in a hard, post-apocalyptic Africa. But she might also be able to end the war raging around her, if she can survive her sorcerer father's attempts to kill her. True story: Just the other day, I saw a woman reading this book on the baking sands of Long Beach, Long Island. It's not the usual beach read, but it's definitely compelling.

Fantasies, Alt-Histories, and Steampunk

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Clementine, Cherie Priest: We're not completely sure when Clementine will hit bookstores. The pub date says May 2010, but Subterranean Press's website still has it available for preorder. But when it finally does drop, it'll should be one hell of an adventure story. Reading the jacket copy makes a nice game of 19th-century-awesomeness bingo. The main characters are an actress and Confederate spy turned Pinkerton detective, and a runaway slave turned pirate of the skies. They want the same airship, but find themselves joining forces.

Naamah's Curse, Jacqueline Carey: This stand-alone sequel to Naamah's Kiss finds Moirin trekking across Asia, looking for her beloved Bao. Unfortunately, she tangles with the Great Khan, who packs her off to the zealot Vralians (an alt-history version of the Russians) and tells Bao she's in Bhodistan (alt-India). Check out Annalee's thoughts here.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal: If you've ever watched Persuasion or Wives and Daughters, you're going to want read this one. Even if you've never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, you've probably heard of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. People are already comparing Mary Robinette Kowal's Regency tale of young ladies and glamour to Susunna Clarke's insanely popular novel about Victorian magicians. The novel follows two sisters—one beautiful, the other talented—as they compete for the attentions of eligible gentlemen. The book's not out until August, but you can get a sneak peek here.

Vampires and Zombies Still Won't Die

The Passage, Justin Cronin: A virus gets loose from a secret government lab, and mere hours later the world is crawling with angry, hungry vampires. The survivors are holed up in well-lit strongholds, but fluorescent bulbs don't last forever. And then a little girl wanders up, mysteriously untouched by infection. The Passage is the biggest vampire novel of the year, backed by publisher Ballantine Books with a major marketing campaign. It's big and ambitious and apocalyptic, and it might even deserve all those Stephen King comparisons. Plus, clocking in at 784 pages, it certainly promises to help while away the hours.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Feed, Mira Grant: The first installment of a trilogy, Feed posits a world where zombies exist and social media has replaced traditional news. (Turns out Twitter is very useful for tracking who's been bitten.) Bloggers Georgia and Shawn Mason sign on to cover a political campaign and get a lot more trouble than they bargained for. See our review here.

The Horror! The Horror!

Ancestor, Scott Sigler: Here's an idea: We need more organs to transplant. Clones are unethical, and vat-growing them individually is so inefficient. Well, one mad scientist has a solution: Move up to the Arctic and start dialing back the evolutionary clock until you get a proto-critter with easily harvested organs. Only it turns out this genetically engineered convenience isn't quite as docile as we might have hoped. The result? Blood-splattered snow. Originally released as a paperback by Dragon Moon Press, this new hardcover edition has reportedly been thorough reworked.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Kraken, China Mieville: All kinds of creepiness awaits you in Mieville's latest, including transmogrified henchmen, squid cults, of course, the imminent threat of the end of the world. Plus, London's subcategories of Britspeak are endlessly entertaining, and Star Trek fandom makes an awesome surprise appearance. It's not Perdido Street Station, but it's a lot of fun. Annalee reviewed it here.

So Many Short Stories

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson: Sure, you could reread Red Mars, and that would be awesome. But if you've worked your way through his novels and need something fresh, you might try this collection of his short stories. The pieces, rounded up and republished by Night Shade Books, aren't new, but they'll be new to lots of readers. Robinson ranges from a conflicted solider in World War II to a man trying to solve a potentially deadly mathematical mystery.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

The Very Best of Charles de Lint: For a more fantastical round-up, Tachyon is releasing this collection of 29 of de Lint's best, chosen with input from his readers. Light and dark appear evenly balanced: "Pixel Pixies" imagines the mischief-making, digitally-transmitted fae, while "In the House of My Enemy" eventually grew into the weighty Onion Girl.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction: This 787-page doorstop is designed to follow the development of science fiction, from the mid-19th century down through to the modern era. Authors included range from Verne to Stross, and every one gets their own short bio. Don't go looking for many contemporary pieces, as only 7 stories were published after 1989. But it promises a comprehensive overview of the genre's roots.

And A Few Oldies to Pick Up

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K LeGuin: Tor is releasing a sharp-looking new edition of this Hainish novel, just in time to show us all where James Cameron really got the thematic source material for Avatar. Humans show up to colonize a lovely green planet and enslave the peaceful Athshean people. They fight back, but that's the thing about paradise—once it's gone, it's never coming back.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro: Like so many English country landscapes, this novel's setting should be idyllic, but somehow it's just a bit off. Ishiguro's story of 3 girls at a strange school for special students is being made into a movie, complete with A-list stars. So anyone who wants to read this book without having the ending spoiled should probably pick it up ASAP.

The best science fiction and fantasy books for summer escapism

Ware Tetralogy, Rudy Rucker: This classic cyberpunk series features a constantly evolving, rather strange race of robots, known as "boppers." They mostly live on the moon, but they're constantly inserting themselves into Earth's affairs one way or another. Recreational drug use figures heavily, as does brain-eating software. Prime Books has gathered up all four books into a single volume and added an intro by William Gibson. It's even available as a free download, under a creative commons license.

Did we miss anything? Leave any recommendations in the comments below!

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