New Classics: Five Recent SF & F Books You Should Read

I’m back from BayCon, which was a tremendously fun con, where I was on eight (yes, eight) different panels. Most of those were me talking about writing, but the last one — on Monday after a good chunk of of attendees had already left — gave me the chance to talk as a reader. It was a panel called “New Classics: Five Recent SF & F Books You Should Read,” which I shared with writer Laurel Anne Hill and uber-reader Randy Smith. It was surprisingly difficult for me to boil the great science fiction and fantasy of the past decade down to a list of five, but I managed to do so, and so I thought it would be worth sharing my picks here.

I decided, ultimately, that it was hopeless to just come up with five favorites of mine, especially since my taste is so eclectic and, frankly, arbitrary. Instead, I opted to come up with five categories that would appeal to different sorts of readers and make one recommendation in each one. So here’s what I went with:

The Nebula-Worthy

2013 was a bizarre year for the Nebula Awards. Like 1939 for the Oscars, it was a year where every single nominee for Best Novel would have easily won in any other year. Seriously. Want an amazing book? Read any of the nominees. Years from now, people will be reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Hild and they’ll wonder how it got overlooked for the Nebula. And the answer is that the competition was just that tough.

So in this category, I had to go with the winner, which I absolutely adored: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This is a book that should have been a confusing mess, told from the point-of-view of a woman who was once a starship capable of thousands of simultaneous points-of-view who now has difficulty perceiving gender and therefore refers to everyone as female. However, Leckie has a real gift for clarity, and the book ends up being a fascinating feminist study as a result. Fans of LeGuin should love this one.

You and Your Kids Will Love It

 Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were so popular largely because they didn’t appeal only to kids or only to adults. They were written for younger readers, but grownups loved them, too. Parents and their kids could have intelligent conversations about a piece of literature that both had enjoyed. I think Red Rising by Pierce Brown is in this same category.

It’s the story of a young Martian miner whose wife is killed by the government, and so he undergoes genetic modification so he can pass as a member of the ruling class. He enrolls in their most prestigious school to cement his deep cover, and he soon discovers that the school is, in fact, an arena war with different houses competing in a life-or-death battle that isn’t exactly fair. Parents, read it first, because it’s violent and probably meant for adults, but I think your teens will love it, and so will you.

Let’s Go Indie!

Can a book that came out of a self-publishing collective hold its own as a classic? Well, The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata does. It was also a Nebula nominee this year — to the best of anyone’s recollection the first indie novel to make the final ballot — and is one of the most engaging pieces of military science fiction I’ve ever read.

I didn’t realize what a mashup this sounds like until I started recounting it in the panel, and I promise it doesn’t read this way, but it’s best described as a cyberpunk action story about an exoskeleton soldier who is the star of a reality show who gets bionic legs and then has to investigate both systemic corruption and the very real possibility that the Net has become sentient and is whispering, God-like, into his neural implants. Despite what it sounds like, it’s worth the read if you like any of the subgenres I’ve touched on here.

The Mind-Bending Literary Fantasy

Sometimes a lit-fic writer will transcend their genre and write something that is actually very good science fiction or fantasy. 🙂

Seriously, though, the line between literary and SF/F has been getting blurrier and blurrier over the past decade. There are a lot of us who really, really like books that need to be read slowly and require the reader to actively scrape for meaning, and a lot of SF/F has been delivering this recently. I was tempted to go with Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine, but the rest of my list was science fiction, so I opted to go even more obscure than that with Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe.

Miko Kings is the story of a writer who is working on a book about her home town when a ghost starts appearing in her house. The ghost was involved in an early Native American baseball league, and she takes the writer through events that are still having repercussions today. The book is a wonderful look at injustice and prejudice, with multiple timelines resonating on top of each other beautifully. It’s not a quick or easy read, but it’s powerful.

And finally:

The Reason You Love Science Fiction in the First Place

Let’s be honest. Most of us got into science fiction because of the clean, accessible prose addressing great ideas and taking us along on fun adventures. If the Golden Age or even the Silver Age got you hooked, you need to be reading Jack McDevitt, and I chose as my representative example Firebird.

Firebird is part of a series, but can easily be read standalone (it was actually the first in the series that I read). The premise is that ships that have gone missing in outer space are periodically reappearing. A man who was investigating the phenomenon has also gone missing, and our main characters are brought in to investigate his disappearance. It’s a solid adventure with a strong emotional core, and it’s unapologetically genre.

There are, of course, many, many more books that belong on a list like this. If I got you thinking about what would be on your list, please make one! Really, there’s so much wonderful new work out there that it’s a shame that people aren’t discovering more of it. If we can all make recommendations like this it will help all of us find great new books to read.


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