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Alternative Futures: An Introduction to Science Fiction from Adrian Tchaikovsky

Posted on 21st July 2020 by Mark Skinner

As author of the acclaimed Children of Time sequence and the dazzling new work The Doors of Eden, Adrian Tchaikovsky knows a thing or two about literary science fiction. In this exclusive piece he shares the books that he feels best encapsulate the wonders of the form for new readers.

So maybe you’ve seen a Star Wars or two, and gone boldly once or twice, had an unfortunate lunch date with an alien or a predator of some kind, and now you’re hungry for more. There is a universe of books out there waiting for the incautious tread of a new traveller, and some of them are welcoming and others might be said to require specialist equipment to brave their less-forgiving pressures and atmospheres. From the point of view of an old hand, a few suggested answers to the eternal question 'where are some good places to start tugging on all the varied cosmic strings of science fiction?'

The Future is Artificial Intelligence : Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

AI is a hot topic right now. Will it destroy us? Will it save us from ourselves. Just what would a computer want if we made it sufficiently clever that it started to want things? The protagonist of Ancillary Justice was once the AI mind of a vast warship with an army of bodies at her disposal, before finding herself restricted to a single human form. What happens when the powerful toys we build decide they don’t like the way we treat them, and what does revenge look like to a superhuman machine.

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Based around the dazzling concept of a spaceship trapped in the body of an individual, Leckie’s blazingly clever and original novel wears its grand themes of revenge, alienation and retribution with remarkable potency and propulsive excitement. A classic in the making, Ancillary Justice is an intensely powerful and thrilling work.
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Further reading: William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a key work of formative cyberpunk, also presents AI in a struggle with humanity, a theme that goes back to the monster-master clash of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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The novel that kickstarted the cyberpunk movement, Gibson’s glimpse of a tech-drenched future dominated by the sinister Matrix has proved enormously influential.
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The Future is Aliens : Binti and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

SF loves its close encounters of the first through nth kinds, humans encountering the wonder of the strange or locked in ray gun duels with bug-eyed monsters. Okorafor’s Binti is a novel of problematic contact with the alien in the mid to far future, where the boundaries between us and the other get blurred and stretched. Okorafor’s earlier novel Lagoon is another good first contact novel, though there the entity involved is far less comprehensible on a human scale, far more truly alien, bending low to try and understand little humanity.

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Drawing richly on African heritage and custom, Okorafor’s award-winning sliver of shrewd, intelligent science fiction propels a young Black adventurer into an intergalactic war of other people’s making. Written with stunning economy and narrative drive, Binti pulsates with thrill and insight.
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A blistering slice of Afro-futurism from the author of Binti, this fast-paced science fiction thriller follows a motley crew of individuals through the streets of Lagos in the wake of a devastating meteorite shower. Smart, edgy and tremendously exciting, Lagoon fizzes with invention and ideas.
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Further reading: Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a compelling, action-packed story of what we might do, if something incomprehensible dropped to Earth, bringing with it waves of both miracles and terrors. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a character-rich slice of life in a far future where humans and many species of alien live alongside each other and rub shoulders.

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There’s wild invention and then there is Rosewater, the initial instalment in Tade Thompson’s magnificently-realised trilogy Wormwood. Dipping between genres, from biopunk thriller to enthralling futurism, Thompson unspools even the most fantastical of narrative elements with precision and wit.
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The first book to describe this brilliantly drawn universe, which we explore here alongside the crew of the Wayfarer – a quirky group of misfits on a mission to build a tunnel to a distant planet. Pleasingly progressive, compellingly plotted and richly characterised: this is space-opera at its most inclusive and exciting.
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The Future is Spaceships : Embers of War by Gareth Powell

The spaceship is probably the most iconic symbol of SF, and there are no shortage of books exploring what people think of them and, indeed, what they might think about people. An excellent recent read is Powell’s Embers of War, the story of a warship turned rescue vessel trying to avoid getting dragged back into an emergent conflict that spirals wildly out of control. The ship itself is a (the?) main character in the narrative, and she and her crew are intensely likable protagonists in a fast-paced, thoughtful story.

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Blessed with a cast of highly memorable characters – including the sentient spaceship Trouble Dog – Powell’s masterful space opera mixes intergalactic battle with the deadly hunt for a suspected war criminal. Awesomely realised and nimbly written, Embers of War blends the cosmic and the human with aplomb.
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Further reading: Iain M Banks’ ‘Culture’ series is also heavily concerned with the dealings of its ship Minds and their shepherding of sentient life, perhaps best seen in his Excession.

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The fifth instalment of Banks’s seminal Culture series, Excession synthesises the wit and playfulness of the series with its phenomenal world-building and cosmological prowess. The epic tale of a mysterious interstellar artefact, Excession demonstrates Banks’s staggering narrative and imaginative abilities to perfection.
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The Future (and the Past) is Time Travel : Kindred by Octavia Butler

Time travel, whether or not it is permitted by the straightjacket of the laws of physics, has fascinated writers for a long time, despite the narrative knots it can leave one tied up in. Butler’s Kindred is a fascinating story of people connected across time, and also a good example of SF shining a light on history, injustice and the tortuous path that people have followed to get from then to now.

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An intellectually and emotionally profound meditation on the prejudices of the past and the ambiguous march of progress, Butler’s stunning time-travel narrative sees a Black woman thrown through points in history where her very presence could sign her death warrant. Skilfully utilising the tropes of science fiction to tell a politically and morally absorbing story, Kindred haunts and questions.
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Further reading: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, a recent, award-winning and gorgeously-written story of a burgeoning romance across a shifting braid of timelines between two opposed time-warriors.

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Lyrical, romantic and profoundly moving, El Mohtar and Gladstone’s apocalyptic opus renders the tropes of science fiction and time travel in a sweeping literary narrative that even the most hardened naysayers of the genre will not be able to resist.
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The Future isn’t Looking Great : A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr

We might not have much of a future. We may never get to the spaceships and robots and time machines. Here, also, SF has you covered. And right now there’s a lot of climate-change based SF, and much of it is very good, and frequently the better it is, the harder a read because the future can be very grim. When Miller wrote Leibowitz, the perceived threat was not climate but nuclear, and his gentle, wry and poignant story about the travails of a monk in the blasted future remains a true pleasure to read, without being relentlessly downbeat.

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An endlessly rewarding triumph of post-apocalyptic writing, A Canticle for Leibowitz details the recovery of scientific knowledge over hundreds of years after a nuclear war obliterated progressive civilisation. Thoughtful, humane and generous, Miller’s magnum opus is beloved by both hardcore science fiction devotees and general readers alike.

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Further reading: JG Ballard, a true master of the genre, gives us a lush, almost hallucinatory vision of a fallen future in The Drowned World.

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The most striking example of the pure science fiction of Ballard’s early period, The Drowned World envisages a London submerged under swamps and vegetation and a rogue scientist strangely reluctant to reverse the climatic process.
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And If You’ve Already Read Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast…

Then why not round it off by reading, or re-reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which is an absolute joy that no amount of time can take the shine off.

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Hugely influential and wildly funny, Adams’s mind-blowingly imaginative absurdist spin on science fiction makes the transition from radio to novel with consummate ease. Boasting concepts and characters that have passed into the national fabric, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the lasting legacy of a comic genius.

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