Best Science Fiction Books for Your Summer Reading List

17:03 minutes

It’s time to start packing for your summertime getaway. Don’t forget to toss in a few science fiction books to add a little more adventure to your plans. Annalee Newitz, founding editor of io9.com, and science fiction editor Ann VanderMeer share their picks for new and classic science fiction books to add to your summer reading list.

Annalee Newitz’s picks
1. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
2. League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik (2016)
3. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth), by NK Jemisin (2015)
4. Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby (2016)
5. The Regional Office is Under Attack!: A Novel, by Manuel Gonzalez (2016)
6. The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod (forthcoming, Nov. 2016)

Ann VanderMeer’s picks
1. Version Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016)
“An epic time travel novel about the lives of scientists, love, marriage, and loss. It’s not really about time travel, or maybe it’s better to say that time travel is more complicated than we might think. Along the way, Palmer gets in some crisp social commentary, takes on automated cars, and gives us a portrait of two flawed but fascinating people.”

2. Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang (2016)
“Chiang is perhaps the most decorated science fiction writer working in the short form in the history of genre today. Each of his roughly dozen stories have won awards and become classics in the field. The title story is being made into a feature film. I’ve been a fan of his work forever and am thrilled that this book has been reissued along with a new story ‘Liking What You See: A Documentary.'”

3. The Race, by Nina Allen (2014)
“Not just another post-apocalyptic novel, this book doesn’t just speak to the societal breakdown but also illustrates a possible environmental collapse. It is also a murder mystery with a kidnapping as well, making the book a nail-biting page turner. Multiple storylines in different, alternate worlds converge to provide a mesmerizing debut novel by an up-and-coming British writer.”

4. Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo (2016)
“It’s important to read as widely as possible and not settle for just what’s in your own backyard. The future of SF is international and the work coming out of Finland is revolutionary and unique. Johanna Sinisalo’s newest novel takes a fierce and unapologetic look at sexual politics with great extrapolation and clever writing. It is great example of what you find when you look beyond your borders.”

5. Hwarhath Stories, by Eleanor Arnason (2016)
“This unique short story collection is presented as an anthropological study of an alien species called the Hwarhath. The stories in this collection and the additional material provided between the stories gives us a closer look at this human-like race of people and allows us to examine our own societal peculiarities regarding love, sex, gender, war and violence as we make comparisons to our own world. Arnason has been an integral part of feminist SF since the 1980s. She deserves wider appreciation.”

6. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton (forthcoming, July 2016)  
“Some classics don’t hold up, especially cult classics. This novel, however, is still relevant and prophetically chilling when looking at it through the prism of 2016. First published in 1974, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe zeroes in on the life and death of Katherine Mortenhoe, who contracts an incurable disease and is woed by reality shows to let them film her decline. Unbeknownst to her, she is being recorded by a shill for the network, Roddie, who has a camera embedded in his eye. A deeply felt book about love and death and what passes for entertainment.”

Ira Flatow’s picks
1. The Martian, by Andy Weir (2014)
Listen to Andy Weir on SciFri, read an excerpt from the book, and hear two scientists critique the film’s science here.

2. Wool series, by Hugh Howey

3. Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
Look back at when The SciFri Book Club read Dune

Listener picks
Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1), by Timothy Zahn (1992)
Ready Player One: A Novel, by Ernest Cline  (2012)
Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future, by John Scalzi ( 2015)
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (2009)

Reader picks

Tell us your book picks in the comments below!

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Ann VanderMeer

Ann VanderMeer is an editor and anthologist. She’s acquiring editor for tor.com, and is based in Tallahassee, Florida.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Summer is finally here, and that’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, of course, maybe while you’re lounging on the beach, while you’re waiting in those frustrating TSA lines. If you’re still looking for the right book, we are here to help you out.

And we’re not just talking about any old science books today. We’re talking science fiction, and my next guests are here to give you all sorts of suggestions to fill your robo apocalypse and time traveling fix. And there are a lot of those kinds of books out there. We’ll hear about some of them.

Annalee Newitz is the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica and the co-founding editor of io9.com. She’s based out of San Francisco.

Ann Vandermeer is a science fiction editor and anthologist and acquiring editor at tor.com. And she’s based out of Tallahassee. Welcome to Science Friday.

ANN VANDERMEER: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. And if our listeners have a summer science fiction pick, we want them to give us a call. Our number 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. Or tweet us @scifri, and we are putting together a list of all the books we’re going to talk about today. And in case you miss them, you want to look back upon them, it’ll be up on our website at sciencefriday.com/summerbooks.

All right, I’ve pulled a number out of a hat, and Ann you come up first. Have you always been a sci-fi geek?

ANN VANDERMEER: I think I have. I think it was born into me. I think it’s in my genes. My father is totally a sci-fi geek, and I think that reading science fiction and talking about books with him was a way for us to bond. So it’s always been there for me, and I love it.

IRA FLATOW: What was your first book? Do you remember?

ANN VANDERMEER: Oh, gosh. I can’t remember what my first book was. It might have been Jules Vern. I had the opportunity to read a lot of my dad’s old books, and I think that was probably my first foray into science fiction was Jules Verne, which was just awesome.

One of the books that I wanted to talk about– and I think this works perfectly, because everyone has those friends that say, oh, but I don’t like science fiction. Everyone has that. You have a friend or a family member that says, oh, I don’t like science fiction. Well, the first book that I have on my list, I think it’s like the perfect book for someone who doesn’t like science fiction.

The book I’m talking about is Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It’s kind of a time travel book, but it’s not really a time travel book. I especially love this book because it gets into the lives of scientists, and you get to see a bit of what it’s like to work in a lab. Although the story is told from the point of view of Rebecca, who is the wife of the scientist, Phillip, her insights into her husband’s work and the colleagues are very revealing.

It’s funny because Rebecca is a customer service rep for a dating site called Lovability, and when she meets her husband through this app, even though she tells him that she is not the woman for him, they end up getting married. It’s really kind of a cool story, because everything is told from her point of view, and her husband Phillip is working on his dream project, which is the causality violation machine. He refuses to call it a time travel machine, but that’s pretty much what it is.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. I wrote that down. Annalee, what’s your pick?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So my number one pick for summer is a book called The Fifth Season by NK Jemison. And one of the many reasons why this book is amazing is that, unlike a lot of science fiction which tackles things like physics or advanced computer systems, Jemison here has chosen to look at earth science, particularly geoscience on another planet, where the main supercontinent on the planet is breaking in two, which means the planet is incredibly tectonically active. It means that Jemison’s entire plot revolves around understanding plate tectonics and volcanism.

And the way that she’s dealt with this and made it incredibly fascinating and brought in really excellent characters is to create a world where there’s a ruling urban class that has been staving off basically a mass extinction from these incredible volcanoes by essentially enslaving a very mysterious of people who are called the Orogenes. And they seem to be able to control geophysics with their minds. They can stop an earthquake, and they can start an earthquake.

And it’s not quite clear if this is magic or technology. And the novel revolves around a group of these Orogenes and how they’re dealing with basically trying to save the world on one hand, but also coping with the fact that they’ve been put into this position as slaves– almost slaves. They’re supposedly a little bit free, but they’re basically slaves to this kind of oppressive regime.

And it forces you to ask a lot of questions about not just the cool science stuff, which is great and is incredibly accurate and makes me very happy as someone who loves earth science. But the characters are incredibly memorable. Their struggles feel very real, and it’s just a book that’s really going to stick with you after you read it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that was one of the questions that I was going to ask, because what I loved about The Martian, the book– the movie wasn’t as good as the book– was how so much attention was paid to the details and research into the details. Annalee, do you believe that’s what part of a great science fiction book is, that they’ve done a lot of really good research to make it believable?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: You know I think it can work both ways. I think in the case of a book like The Fifth Season, the fact that she clearly has immersed herself in the geosciences helps, but the book would be nothing without the characters and without her imagining this alternate society. So I really think it comes down to something that we call world building, which is partly it’s about thinking about the science, but partly it’s about thinking about how all the social structures fit together, and how the characters’ lives intersect. So I think you have to have the whole world, not just the science to make it really work.

IRA FLATOW: One of my favorite science fiction books– and I’m getting some tweets in here from a Carolyn Cunningham says Dune is one of her fave sci-fi books. It’s one of mine. Also, the Wool Series by Hugh Howey, are you familiar with that? The dystopian– it’s just a terrific series of books.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Oh, yes, I’m very familiar with those books. I read the first one. I devoured it so quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and then he almost gave them away, I think, literally, up on Amazon or something like that. And then people loved them so much. They asked him to write more books, and he started writing more. And they’re just as good as the first one.

Let’s see if our listeners have any ideas. Our number is 844-724-8255 is the number. Let’s just start right at the top. Benjamin in Rochester, hi, Benjamin. Welcome.

BENJAMIN (ON PHONE): Hello, thank you for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

BENJAMIN (ON PHONE): Well, so my recommendation is actually three books. It’s a trilogy. This is going out to the Star Wars fans, which there are probably at least a few listening. So the trilogy of books is called The Heir to the Empire trilogy by an author named Timothy Zahn. And they were written in the early 1990s.

They’re sequels to the original Star Wars trilogy, about five years after Return of the Jedi ends. They’re kind of nice, because you don’t need to know really all that much about Star Wars. You don’t need to know really anything besides the original movies to get into them. They were written to be like a sequel trilogy.

And in fact, a number of things that we’re pulled into, what we now know as the new movies that are coming out, like The Force Awakens, some of the things to know are like characters who are children of the previous characters. Even some of the names of planets in the Star Wars series, like Coruscant from the prequels, that all came out of these three books. And they’re really great.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let me– we’re running short on getting all these books in. So OK, that’s a great selection. Thanks for calling, Benjamin. We literally have three or four calls online suggesting Star Wars type books, so still popular Ann and Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It’s true. You can’t get away from space opera.

IRA FLATOW: Ann, give me your next pick.

ANN VANDERMEER: I just want to jump into international science fiction, if I might. The next book on my list is Core of the Sun by Finnish writer, Johanna Sinisalo. I absolutely love this book. In some ways, it reminds me a little bit of her novel– her critically acclaimed novel– Troll because of the way that she tells this particular story.

She’s presenting an alternate version of present day Finland by using experimental storytelling. She has letters, dictionary entries, short fiction from popular magazines in this world, essay tests, government decrees, and then she also has the straight ahead narrative. And you had mentioned, Ira, earlier about science and the research, and does that make it better.

Well, the thing that’s so great about this particular book is that Johanna uses real science and real history, and she weaves it in through this fake, alternate Finland that she creates. And what we’ve got here is when Finland gains its independence from Russia in the earlier 20th century, the newly created government is called a eustistocracy– and I hope I’m pronouncing that right. They are promoting the health and well-being of its citizens, but they’re pursuing this using genetic engineering and selective breeding of humans.

So they’re creating this sub genre race of humans that are called the Eloi and the Morlocks, and if those names sound familiar, it’s because it’s a nod to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. But basically, it’s genetic engineering to make perfect breeding machines of the women. And the main character is one of those Eloi, one of those breeding machines, except she’s not going along with the program.

And throughout that book, with all of the different things going on in that world, in addition, there’s this underground drug scene. But it’s not the drugs that you would think about. You think about these mind altering drugs. The drugs that are prohibited in Finland at that time are hot chili peppers. And to me, that makes this the perfect summer read, because when you think about Finland, you think about it being cold all the time. And yet the drug of choice that is being stamped down by their government is hot chili peppers. And the hotter the better.

IRA FLATOW: We are phone– our phone lines are full of book suggestions. We have people tweeting in. Let’s what some of the tweets– N.K. Jemison’s Fifth Season, Ready Player One is another suggestion, Lock In. Also, anything Kim Stanley Robinson writes is a suggestion. Annalee, your next pick please.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So I’m going to bring together dystopia and space opera, just to make everyone excited. A book that just came out last week, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, this is a great book. And it’s really been long awaited by fans of Lee’s work. He’s published a number of short stories, and everyone’s been really waiting for a novel.

And this is military science fiction, but it’s incredibly philosophical at the same time. So there’s a lot of action. And it’s set in the far future, where this large volume of space is ruled by a group called the hexarchy. And they control their people through controlling the calendar, which I think is a really interesting metaphor for how ideology works, because it allows you to think about how time itself can be distorted by belief systems.

And so when groups break off from the hexarchy, they become heretical groups, and they create their own kinds of calendars. And so it’s this kind of battle over how we’re going to understand time. And the main character is a great military leader from the hexarchy, and she’s been sent to deal with one of these heretical groups.

And in order to help her, they’ve injected the mind of a kind of psychopathic military strategist. So she’s actually– she’s literally of two minds about what she’s doing. She’s got this strategist in her head who’s kind of there through digital technology, and she’s got her own mind. And she’s trying to deal with this division within her culture, this splinter group that’s broken off. And it’s a really– the action is white hot. It’s really a fun strategy tale.

But it’s also– it really is quite thought provoking and philosophical about what does it mean to believe in something. What happens when you’re part of an authoritarian regime, and you’re trying to figure out, wait, is this the right thing to do? Is it authoritarian? What are we doing here?

And so I would recommend it, especially for people who want to escape, but also want to be left with a lot of really interesting thoughts in their head.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting thoughts, indeed this hour. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the book reading this summer, science fiction books on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Annalee Newitz and Ann Vandermeer.

Let’s go to the phones. Adam right there. Let’s go– who do we have? Let’s go to Bill in Fresno. Hi, Bill.

BILL (ON PHONE): Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

BILL (ON PHONE): Good. So my two recommendations– well, you already mentioned one of them via Tweet. It was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I really enjoyed it, just kind of very summer, light reading. Doesn’t make you think too much, but it’s just a fun book about how basically they– like World of Warcraft became all-consuming, and everyone just played it all the time, kind of thing. There’s a lot more to it, but I really enjoyed that, just a fun read.

And then a little bit more serious sci-fi book that I’ve read a couple times and a couple years ago was The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. It’s kind of like a darker, more realistic sci-fi with like Robert Heinlein stuff. And I just enjoyed it because it took the initial premise of interstellar war, and then the rest of the physics, specifically you can’t light travel away was really interesting, in the sense of there was a technology gap, one way or the other, between us and the enemy.

And I enjoyed that book a lot. It’s just a new take on kind of a standard sci-fi battle type of thing.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thanks for joining us. Quick time for– I think we have time for one more suggestion from both of my guests here. Ann Vandermeer, what’s your next topic?

ANN VANDERMEER: Well, I’m going to jump in and do something completely different. I’m going to recommend also Stories of Your Life and Others, which is the short story collection by Ted Chiang, and there’s a lot of reasons why I’ve selected this.

I’ve always been a long time fan of Ted Chiang, and most of his stories are of a longer length. They’re novella or novelette, and I believe that that is actually the perfect length to tell a science fiction story. I know yes, there’s a lot of shorter ones. There’s great novels. But I just feel like that’s the perfect length.

And I also love his work because many of the scientists in his stories are women, and it’s just matter of fact. It’s not remarked on. It just is, and that’s what makes it even better.

His precise use of language in all of his fiction and the title story is no exception in The Story of Your Life. Indeed, language is the primary focus for Dr. Banks, who’s his main character. She’s given the task of communicating with this new alien race they’ve just discovered called the Heptipods.

Their spoken language is vastly different from their written language, and the written language affects time and the outcome events. The beauty of this story is how Chiang interweaves memories of the linguist’s daughter back and forth through time as Dr. Banks continues to unravel the secrets to communicating with these aliens.

IRA FLATOW: I’m going to have to stop you there, because we ran out of time. You’re spinning a good yarn. You’re spinning a good yarn. But we’ll have to read the rest in the book.

ANN VANDERMEER: Yes, read that book. It just came out.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the name again?

ANN VANDERMEER: It’s called Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.

IRA FLATOW: All right. And we actually have a list of all the books we’ve talked about today on our website at ScienceFriday.com/summerbooks.

I want to thank you both. Annalee Newitz is the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica and founding editor of io9.com. She’s based in San Francisco. Ann Vandermeer is science fiction editor and anthologist, an acquiring editor at tor.com, based in Tallahassee, Florida.

Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, thanks for having us.

ANN VANDERMEER: Thank you so much. This was great. I love to talk about books.

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