26 essential science fiction novels to get you ready for tomorrow

Tomorrow's world isn't that far away. Here's our selection of sci-fi novels that think about the world we are making - books both old and new.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

AI, surveillance, Internet of Things, and climate change are but a few of the current topics discussed and reimagined in these recommended science fiction reads.
Image: iStock

A while back I wrote a 500-word piece looking at essential science fiction (SF) for the IT pro , following up a review I wrote of David Brin's novel Existence. Part of that piece was an on-going personal project, a list I've been referring to on Twitter as "the essential futurist SF list".

With summer finally here, it seems the right time to publish some of that list, so I've collated below 26 of what I consider the most essential SF titles for people interested in imagining all possibilities for the future. Think of it as a summer reading list that's a gateway to building tomorrow - all over your cold beverage of choice.

Vernor Vinge: True Names

A look at identity and security, building on the early days of the academic internet. There's also a side-long peek at machine-learning-based, slow, near-volitionless AI, as well as into an Oculus Rift-like virtual world. It's a fascinating book, and deeply prescient - especially when you consider it was written in 1981.

Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End

San Diego, 2025 or thereabouts, a city much like today, but transformed under the skin by ubiquitous computing, wearable devices, and augmented reality. It reads very much like life in the Internet of Things. And yes, in a book concerned with Vinge's recurring themes of identity and security, two of the main characters are called Bob and Alice.

(Closely related are a couple of short stories, including "Fast Times at Fairmont High" and the IEEE published "Synthetic Serendipity.")

John Brunner: The Sheep Look Up

Part of his 'Club of Rome' quartet, four novels inspired by the futurists of the late '60s and early '70s, Brunner's dystopia is an 'if this goes on' look at one of the Malthusian drivers of the influential Club of Rome report: pollution.

John Brunner: The Jagged Orbit

Also part of his 'Club of Rome' quartet, this book looks at another of the drivers of the report: violence.

John Brunner: Stand On Zanzibar

Another of the 'Club of Rome' quartet, and possibly his best known book, Brunner's novel takes on overpopulation, the effects of large scale mass media, genetic experimentation, and AI.

John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider

Perhaps the most influential of his 'Club of Rome' quartet, this is his take on Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and the rise of the information society. More optimistic than its thematic counterparts, this book incorporates the work of the Point Foundation (sponsors of the Whole Earth Catalog, Coevolution Quarterly, and Whole Earth Review) and the intentional communities work from UC Davis to explore how we reshape community and communication.

Bruce Sterling: Heavy Weather

Sterling's tale of a post-warming Texas and life on Tornado Alley is a fascinating peek into an all too close tomorrow. A world of collapsed state architecture, powered by cryptocurrencies and ad hoc networks, Heavy Weather explores a high tech life on the fringes, with people living on scavenged refugee technology in a permanent state of emergency. It's also a world of networked devices and smart machines that are so complex, they're impossible to debug, a picture of a complex and near unknowable Internet of Things that's there to be hacked and explored.

Bruce Sterling: Distraction

In Distraction, Sterling returns to the southern US for a smaller scale look at the politics of persuasion, fueled by social media and citizen media. It's a YouTube and Twitter tomorrow, where influence is a fleeting and powerful tool.

Bruce Sterling: A Good Old Fashioned Future

A short story collection, including the ad hoc cooperative economic future of "Maneki Neko," full of deconstructed, decentralised tomorrows. Sterling's fringe Maker communities challenge accepted economic models, and suggest alternate ways of living through the challenges of warming and globalism.

Bruce Sterling: Islands In The Net

One of the first novels to try and explore the effects of networking and globalisation on governments and businesses. We may laugh at its use of modems, but Sterling's slowly balkanising corporatized 21st century is close to the world we live, and the issues of data mobility and security at the heart of the novel are increasingly important.

David Brin: Existence

Starting with a series of snapshots of a world thirty years or so hence, Brin creates a picture where most of today's great threats have occurred and have been, if not overcome, then at least lived through. The seas have risen, nuclear terrorism has been perpetrated and the Yellowstone supervolcano has burped. It's a tomorrow where social and technological change have reshaped the world, and where a new social order is trying to put the brakes on progress, to end the Enlightenment. Beneath the optimism, though, there's danger. The world seems doomed to stagnation, unable to respond to any of a growing list of existential threats. A fascinating look at the dangers that may lie ahead, as we navigate the Fermi Paradox's Great Filter.

David Brin: Earth

An earlier look at tomorrow, Brin explores the awakening of a global network in the midst of crisis. He explores the role of networking technologies, of living in a belief bubble, and of the power of communities of interest - while thinking deeply about the surveillance state we're building, and how radical transparency could change everything.

Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross' newly independent Scotland is home to a new type of police procedural. Exploring the way technology affects crime and policing, the story touches on issues of privacy and ubiquitous mobile computing, while exploring the issue of state-sponsored economic electronic crime.

Charles Stross: Rule 34

In another near future crime novel, Stross goes deeper into the issues of governmental and non-governmental control of society. Surveillance technologies are only part of the story, as we look at how rogue technologies take the idea of 'nudging' societal cohesiveness over the creepy line.

Paolo Bacigalupi: Shipbreaker

A look at a world radically reshaped by global warming. A disturbing dystopia that points out that things are not stable, and that rapid, disruptive, change can happen anywhere - and with little or no warning.

Paolo Bacigalupi: Pump 6

Bacigalupi's short fiction is powerful stuff, exploring the world we are making through a collection of stories, some darker than others. A particular favourite of mine is his tale of a dried Colorado river basin and the people struggling to find water in the heart of the desert, "The Tamarisk Hunter" (which itself leads to his latest novel The Water Knife).

Neal Stephenson: Reamde

One of Stephenson's less obviously SF novels, Reamde explores the nature of the self-selecting networked society we are building. Jumping five minutes into the future, Stephenson's hefty novel details what happens when a series of naturally antithetical networks collide : the coders, the hackers, the terrorists, the gamers, the spies, and the libertarian isolationists.

Ramez Naam: Nexus

Much futurist SF focuses on external applications of technology. In Nexus, Naam examines a world where radical modification of the human body is the norm, and where the next step is modification of conciousness - through embedded nano-machines. Naam explores the ramifications of this, from self-programming to shared experiences - and shared conciousness - while delivering an intriguing look at where distributed systems programming might go.

Ramez Naam: Crux

Following on from Nexus, Naam's second novel examines the effects of the genie leaving the bottle - and the birth of the first group minds. An intriguing look at a world in the throes of radical change. The final volume in the trilogy, Apex, has just been published.

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

Set far in the future, Robinson continues to explore the ecological and social themes he addresses in much of his fiction. A colonised solar system turns its eyes back to a battered, but not broken, Earth. Robinson's story isn't just one of technologies, he also uses the bottle worlds of the asteroids to explore new economic models, focusing on cooperation rather than competition.

Laura Mixon: Proxies

Mixon, like Sterling and Bacigalupi, writes tales of the burned American southern states, in a world of warming run wild. Here she explores the effects of telepresence on society, and how it and augmented reality technologies start to blur the distinctions between human and machine.

M J Locke: Up Against It

A pen name for Laura Mixon, Locke's novel of a resource-starved asteroid colony explores not just technology, but the people who run it - and the skills they need. The lead character is that rare thing in fiction, a project manager, struggling to save her home from economic doom. The feral AI sub plot is an intriguing look at the emergent nature of technology.

Brenda Cooper: The Diamond Deep

The second part of the Ruby's Song diptych, Cooper's novel explores how we adapt to new technologies and new cultures - and how the way cultures blend opens new doors. By using the story of a returning generation ship, Cooper is able to address issues of cultural isolation in a networked world, while showing the conflicts between cooperative and capitalist economic models.

Linda Nagata: The Bohr Maker

K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation may have described a nanotech revolution, but Nagata's novel explores what it's like to live through it - the highs, and the lows, of rapid technological change. Other novels in the series explore a deeper, darker future outside the solar system.

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth

Much futurist SF remains Anglocentric, so it's interesting to find a work that focuses on a future where the west is only a small part of the story. Reynold's 22nd century is one where the ravages of the 20th have finally been, if not erased, then at least ameliorated. An intriguing look at an utopian surveillance state, with disruptive research safely left to misfits in a TAZ on the moon. A travelogue of a greening solar system, Reynolds' cast follow clues and cues on a road to the stars. The follow-up On A Steel Breeze continues the story in interstellar space and on Earth.

Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

Doctorow explores the underbelly of a surveillance dystopia in a five-minutes-into-the-future tale of police state San Francisco after a major terrorist attack. It may be 'for your own good', but the tools to undermine repression are widely available, and Doctorow structures a rebellious how-to in a YA thriller.

And that's all for now... you should now have a number of good books with much to mull over this summer.

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