Surprise! Instead of a post about some computer thing, I decided to do something different: write about some of the more interesting science fiction I've read recently. I have always wanted to write about a broader range of things, and hopefully I won't alienate my regular readers by doing so (the joke is that I do not have regular readers, probably).
So, here follows a small selection of books I have read within the last year or so...
Autonomous is a 2017 science fiction novel by Annalee Newitz. The story takes place in 2144, a future with sapient robots and highly advanced biotechnology. This future is not a utopia: global warming seems to have had some rather unpleasant effects on Earth, there has been a resurgence of slavery, and megacorporations wield large amounts of power. In broad outlines, the plot pits corporate agents against a crafty biohacker who steals medicine designs from pharma corps and redistributes the medicines to the people.
In the book, advanced biotechnology ends up being a tool used by the rich to extract profit from the non-rich; we do, after all, have giant pharmaceutical corporations and drug patents already, so it feels prescient. It also offers a look at the spaces where innovation happens outside of corporate control, which often ultimately fail due to attrition of idealism, or attracting too much attention from their corporate counterparts, again reflecting what we can find in the real world
Autonomy is, appropriately, also a theme in the novel. Characters often lack it, and even if they do have it, they also utilize it in ways which hurt them. While the novel can be divided into good guys and bad guys, the good guys side does make some morally questionable decisions, and the bad guy side is depicted sympathetically at times (or perhaps not, depending on how you see their autonomy).
The novel also does a good job of depicting sapient AI. Robots in Autonomous tend to be subject to anthropomorphization by their human counterparts, even if their minds actually work differently. For example: humans—ever fond of assigning genders—assign genders to robots as well, even though those do not experience gender, and so a robot's gender becomes a part of the novel's plot. Such impositions are a running theme, which is a refreshing difference from the more cliche treatment of AI in science fiction, where the AI just wants to be exactly like the humans around it.
Overall, Autonomous is a pretty enjoyable novel. If you've actually read it, I also recommend the short story followup, "Old Media".
The City in the Middle of the Night
A 2019 novel by Charlie Jane Anders. It takes place on a planet called January, which has been colonized by humans. The planet is tidally locked—one hemisphere of it is always facing the local sun—and the only part of the planet suitable for habitation is the terminator, the day side being too hot, and the night side being too cold.
This book's strength lies in its world building. January's better days are generations in the past, its future looks bleak, and its population is organized into systems which are either ineffective or oppressive. The book portrays various inhabitants of the planet, and explores their relationships with their history—both recent January history, as well as generations-old animosities which predate the planet's colonization. It shows people's outlooks on the future, and how they make a life for themselves in a neglected, decaying civilization, with a legacy of both greatness and ruin. It does this in a way that emphasizes the human qualities of the characters rather than being grim for the sake of grimness.
The rather meandering plot follows the lives of two main characters and their closest companions. While in the beginning it may seem like the book is about a predictable story of fighting against an oppressive government, it does get away from that. There are periods of time in the novel where nothing much happens, but then again, people's attitudes to time and to measuring time on a planet without a day-night cycle constitute one of the central themes of the novel. The gist of the whole story would perhaps be at home in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, which may be the biggest accusation I could level against The City in the Middle of the Night. Not that the book is bad, but the ending is a twist, while also feeling oddly predictable.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys science fiction that manages to be simultaneously bleak and hopeful.
A Memory Called Empire
Another 2019 entry, and winner of the 2020 Hugo for Best Novel, this is the debut novel of Arkady Martine. It depicts the machinations of power in a vast interstellar empire, and how those affect the fate of a small, still independent polity on the empire's peripheral. The plot of the novel mostly follows a young diplomat from this outside nation, as she tries to navigate the complex politics of the imperial government of the Teixcalaanli empire, with the goal of avoiding having her people conquered.
The book is thus not only about the empire, or about the relationship between the empire and the so-called barbarians, but also about the more personal relationship between the protagonist and the empire. The empire, being a center of culture, exports its culture to the neighboring nations, and as a result is not (just) a faceless oppressor looming on the horizon, but an empire with poetry. We see it as such from the perspective of the protagonist, who has had a lifelong fascination with the culture of the empire, while also not being naive enough to not see it as a threat. Martine is a historian specializing in, among other things, the Byzantine empire, which probably influenced the amount and nature of details she has worked into her depiction of the fictional Teixcalaanli empire.
You could call A Memory Called Empire a space opera, and it has many of the space opera qualities: gleaming imperial cities, mighty spaceship fleets, and people living around distant stars. It distinguishes itself in how it portrays imperialism, culture of empire, and politics of conquest, which makes it worth of a read.
A William Gibson novel from 2014, this one is difficult to describe without spoiling too much, but it does feature two storylines which both take place at different points in the future, with both of the futures being rather dystopian.
I could call The Peripheral postcyberpunk, if only because postcyberpunk is sufficiently vague to fit. There are no overcrowded cities, abundant neon signs, or cool hackers operating in glowing cyberspace. Instead there is what we have now, extrapolated into the future: wealth disparity, governments which continue to fail the people, decaying democracies, and vast mega-corporations that are the boring kind of evil. That is not to say the novel is devoid of any focus on technology—it does take place in futures, and the way people of those futures live with their technology is an unavoidable topic
Gibson manages to depict the bleakness of the futures portrayed in the novel in a rather subtle way. Yes, there is obvious poverty or permanent environmental damage, but the really depressing bits are delivered through the implications that the plot of novel delivers. Even if good things happen, they happen because of how bad the world of the novel has gotten. This is also reflected in the novel's ending, which seems uncharacteristically happy, but is so only on a surface level.
The plot of The Peripheral advances somewhat slowly—there is a lot of people basically going someplace, waiting, and then going somewhere else—but it does create a whole story that makes sense and fits with the central themes of the novel. This is more evident when reflecting on the story as a whole, and it did not feel that way as I was reading it, so perhaps that is a point in favor of the general flow of Gibson's writing.
The Peripheral is a good novel if you read it the way you would want to read most cyberpunk-adjacent literature: both for the particular plot that happens in it, as well as the overarching conclusions you can draw about the world it takes place in. If you have read and enjoyed The Peripheral, there is also Agency, which takes place in the same universe, and is essentially more of the same (except that it explores different, related themes).
Hopefully this experiment in seeing if I am capable of writing brief book reviews was informative and/or interesting. It does not include stuff I have read recently which was less good, so the presence of these four works here is something of an endorsement.