Science fiction is a genre of contradictions. It's an entertaining escape from the dreary everyday, but it also invites you to rethink your everyday life. It can be cheesy but profound, fantastic but sharply political. And like all literature, it's rarely about what it seems to be on the surface. That's why the best sci-fi writers manage to turn space battles into philosophical debates, and zombie hordes into political satire.
This year has been a particularly good one for science fiction books that are page turners with pleasingly complicated political and social subtexts. Here are five recent works of sci-fi and fantasy that will suck you in with the promise of strange worlds, but leave you full of questions about our own.
After the Apocalypse
This collection of dark, fiercely smart short stories will take you to a ragged world at the edge of dystopia. Each tale is a beautifully written character study that takes place somewhere in a near future where the U.S. economy has crumbled, dirty bombs are commonplace in American cities, and prion diseases are eating everyone's brains. Though her canvas is broad and strange, McHugh never takes us beyond the everyday experiences of her characters. A prisoner dumped into Cleveland's "zombie preserve" sees his bloodthirsty companions not as monsters, but as a new kind of wildlife. A teenager watches her mother slipping away into madness as disease eats her brain, but worries more about how to escape her mother's girlfriend, a hoarder who is slowly filling their home with piles of junk. Meanwhile, a woman who sells dolls on the Internet has to deal with an online reputation she never asked for, and hip-hop loving Chinese factory workers are fomenting socialist-capitalist hybrid revolutions. McHugh's great talent is in reminding us that the future could never be weirder — or sadder — than what lurks in the human psyche. This is definitely one of the best works of science fiction you'll read this year, or any thereafter.
Throne of the Crescent Moon
Ahmed's first novel is an escapist confection set in what he calls "the world of The Arabian Nights." Yes, it's medieval fantasy packed with badass Dervish ninjas, shape-shifting nomads and terrifying undead monsters; but it's also a smart, well-observed tale of corrupt regimes crumbling before a people's uprising like no other. Think of it as Lord of the Rings meets Arab Spring. Though Ahmed's medieval city of Dhamsawaat is full of magic, it's also realistic in ways you never expect in a swashbuckler like this. At one point, we learn that the Khalif's sorcerers magically conjure the stink of the city's tanneries away from the palace, releasing it into the poor Scholar's Quarter, where our hero Adoulla lives. Adoulla himself is a realistically imperfect hero — an older man and hardened demon-fighter who just wants to retire and marry the brainy prostitute he loves. But when demons start appearing in his city, he and his younger companions — a religious Dervish and a wrathful shapeshifter — find themselves unwittingly drawn into a populist coup led by a charismatic thief against the elitist Khalif. Magic here is a metaphor for politics, but it's also the medium through which politics are expressed. Come for the sword fighting, but stay for the humane message at the heart of this terrific fantasy.
This is one of the most thoughtful books about global warming you'll ever read — and it's an action-packed political thriller, too. Buckell deals with the ambiguous geopolitics that emerge after the Arctic ice melts, showing us a plausible future where trying to "save the ice" can have as many negative consequences as melting it did. Set several decades after the Arctic is ice-free, we see a polar region bustling with new industry focused on natural resources freed up by the melt. "Arctic Tiger" nations like Canada are clashing with eco-corporations over what to do about the Earth's climate. This long-simmering conflict comes to a head when our hero, Anika, a member of the U.N. polar guard, gets into a firefight with a ship while guarding the Arctic's international waters. Blamed for the incident, she goes on the run and teams up with a Canadian secret service agent to find out what that ship had to hide. What's fascinating about this book is Buckell's deft evocation of a world where green politics come in many shades of gray, and the push to cool the planet has almost nothing to do with social justice.
The latest novel from Robinson, author of the celebrated Mars trilogy, deals with what's happened to humanity since colonizing most of the solar system. A brilliant, plausible account of how humans might colonize planets, moons and asteroids, 2312 is also about the future of art and family. The action begins when a politician-scientist from Mercury secretly makes a disturbing discovery about how power is being consolidated among just a few planets in the system. But just as she and her colleagues decide to do something about it, a series of possible crimes undermine their cause — including the politician's death. The politician's troubled granddaughter Swan, an artist and biosphere designer, is left to deal with the consequences. As she learns more about her grandmother's secret legacy, and mysterious projects, the novel weaves between astropolitical thriller, crime novel and gorgeous commentary on the quest for justice on Earth and in the cosmos beyond.
This is the final novel in Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, set roughly 20 years after the mainstream media is destroyed by a zombie plague. No, really. When medical researchers release viruses intended to stop cancer and the common cold, they succeed — but they also raise the dead. Only indie journalist bloggers are unafraid to cover the growing menace, and we watch as the "Rising" mutates both humanity and the mass media. In the wake of this disease apocalypse, we follow our intrepid blogger heroes through the rubble, as they report on presidential campaigns and conspiracies in a world where the CDC has become one of the most powerful government institutions in America. In Blackout, staffers at After the End Times are still investigating a recent presidential election, which is connected to a CDC conspiracy far creepier than anything a zombie might do. A satire of the science-industrial complex, the Newsflesh trilogy is a wry and entertaining exploration of the way political corruption never stops — even after the zombie apocalypse.
Annalee Newitz writes about the intersection of science and culture. She's the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and the author of a forthcoming book about how humans will survive a mass extinction.