The holidays are here, and it looks like you got a new Kindle (or a device with a Kindle app). You now have before you a fun task: to build a portable library of all the books that you have on your reading list — or to create a new list for the coming year.
If you’re looking for recommendations, here are 14 science fiction books that stand on their own (or are loosely part of a bigger world) to start off with. (If you’re interested in trying a series, you can also check out some of last year’s recommendations.)
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Sue Burke’s debut novel was one of my favorite reads this year. When an expedition arrives at a distant star called HIP30815f, it has a rough start at colonization. The planet, Pax, is habitable, but the first pods crash down, leaving the colonists at the mercy of the weather — as well as its sentient plants. As generations of the colonists establish a foothold and make first contact with the planet’s more intelligent types of plants, they come to learn how to co-exist with their neighbors as they rebuild human civilization anew.
One of my recent favorite novels is Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet. It technically kicks off a trilogy of novels, but each book stands on its own. A young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the crew of a starship called the Wayfarer. Their mission is to set up a hyperspace shipping lane, and Chambers unfolds a delightfully optimistic future as she traces the stories of each of the ship’s crew members.
In the distant future, humanity has overpopulated the Earth, and expeditions have been hard at work terraforming a number of new planets to make them habitable. One crew comes across an alien called the Quill, a type of fungus that mutates and spreads throughout human space, killing those it infects. Researcher Gail Smith heads to one station to track down a potential survivor, Aaron Pardell, who might be the key to figuring out how to keep humanity safe.
This isn’t exactly the happiest of books, but Kameron Hurley’s standalone space opera is a bold, engrossing read that made our 2017 best novels list. The book is set on The Legion, a group of dying, organic worldships flying through the depths of space. One woman, Zan, discovers that she’s part of a struggle between two warring factions, the Bhavajas and the Katazyrnas, who are vying for control of Mokshi, a world-ship that might be the key to escaping from the fleet. It’s a grim, weird novel that makes for a fantastic read.
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
In the distant future, aliens known as the Othersiders arrive with advanced technologies that lead to an economic downturn for human civilization. As a result, starship mechanic Alana Quick is in a bind — she’s out of work and can’t afford the medicine she needs to hold off a debilitating illness. When a new ship, the Tangled Axon, arrives in port looking for her sister Nova, she stows away, hoping that her skills will prevent the crew from booting her off. Alana finds that the ship is stranger than she imagined, and that someone is after her sister and willing to do anything to get their hands on her.
Maria Arena, a crew member of the colonial ship Dormire, wakes up to a horrific scene: most of the crew — including herself — has been murdered. She’s actually a clone — one of several that will shepherd the ship to its destination. But she and her fellow newly awakened crew members have had their memories wiped, the ship’s AI is offline, and they appear to be drifting off into deep space. In order to get things back on track, they have to figure out which one of them is responsible for the sabotage.
In the not-too-distant future, a pharmaceutical pirate named Jack travels around the world in a submarine, breaking patents and copyrights to bring cheap drugs to the world’s impoverished peoples. But when her latest, a super-productivity drug called Zacuity, compels people to work themselves to death, a pair of International Property Coalition agents — a human named Eliasz and a military bot named Paladin — begin to track her down. Jack realizes her mistake and begins to investigate the true nature of the drug, while Paladin and Eliasz work their way through the criminal underworld, all the while navigating a complicated relationship of their own.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
In your typical science fiction first contact novel, aliens visit Earth by hovering over or destroying our major cities — usually New York, London, or LA. In Nnedi Okorafor’s book, aliens land in the waters off of Lagos, Nigeria, where they begin to transform the local wildlife. They also capture three people — Adaora, Agu, and Anthony — each from different walks of life, and proceed to change their lives, and that of the residents of the city. It’s a beautiful and enthralling story.
In the distant future, a rookie cop named Eric Matheson is sent to Gattis, a corporation-controlled world. He and his cybernetically enhanced partner J. P. Dillal catch a case in which 16 alien Dreihleen — one of the alien species native to the planet — are brutally murdered. The suspects appear to be Ohba, members of the other native species on the planet, and the pair begin to realize that they’re caught in the middle of a planet-wide conspiracy that could have far-reaching implications.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Science fiction authors have long had to get around a pesky limitation — the speed of light, which makes traveling between stars in space impractical. One longstanding trope is the “generation ship,” a starship designed to travel between the stars, inhabited by the descendants of the initial crew. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is the latest take on the topic: the crew of a ship headed to Tau Ceti realizes that life for humans away from Earth is incredibly difficult, and that leaving might not have been the best idea in the first place.
When I put a call out for recommendations recently, a number of people came up with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novel, Children of Time. After the last remnants of humanity flee a dying Earth, they discover a long-lost home: a planet that was terraformed for them. When they arrive, there’s a complication: a species of spiders has taken over the world, leading to a clash of cultures. We might see more of this soon — a sequel, Children of Ruin, is due out next year, and film adaptation is in the works at Lionsgate.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
I absolutely loved Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel when I tore into it earlier this year. A mashup of glam rock with the comedic stylings of Douglas Adams, it’s essentially Eurovision in space. After a galaxy-spanning collective makes contact with Earth, glam-rocker Danesh Jalo of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros is invited to audition on behalf of humanity to establish that humans are sentient. If they come in last? Humanity will be wiped out so that Earth can have another go at it down the road. It’s a blisteringly funny novel.
Timothy Zahn is best known for his Star Wars novels — he’s got a new one coming out next summer — but he’s released a number of original novels as well. One of my favorites is The Icarus Hunt, an adventure that follows washed-up spacer Jordan McKell and his partner Ixil as they’re contracted to fly a spaceship and its top-secret cargo across the galaxy without the overbearing Patthaaunutth — who control the galaxy’s shipping lanes — finding out. It’s a fun adventure that has plenty of twists and turns, right up to the very end.
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