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The 15 Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2010

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We couldn't narrow it down to just ten, so here are our fifteen favorite books of 2010, including everything from the fantastical and epic, to the horrifying and futuristic.

All these books are equally great, so we've listed them in alphabetical order by the author's last name.


Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (Nightshade Books)
Bacigalupi rebooted hard science fiction with this tale of an environmental apocalypse set in a future Thailand, featuring agricultural hackers and synthetic humans called "windups." Here's what we said about it:

One of the strengths of The Windup Girl, other than its intriguing characters, is Bacigalupi's world building. You can practically taste this future Thailand he's built, especially when Anderson discovers a newly-engineered fruit in the marketplace and tries to figure out what genes went into its construction. . . . [Yet] The Windup Girl is obviously about the geopolitics of the present, where Monsanto tries to supplant local seedstocks with its own, and many governments teeter between the politics of isolationism and global capital. And yet Bacigalupi never slides into moralism or judgment. All his characters have their flaws and heroic moments. Nobody is clean, and there are no heroes who want to save the environment or bad guys who want to destroy it. Ultimately that's what makes this debut novel so exciting. It's rare to find a writer who can create such well-shaded characters while also building a weird new future world.


Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (Orbit Books)
This triumphant return to Banks' beloved Culture series wasn't just one of the best books we read this year - it's also one of the best books in a series full of outstanding tales of far-future astropolitics. A character study and a tale of revolutionary change that shakes multiple civilizations, Surface Detail is a smart, satiric look at what happens to the concept of Hell in a posthuman galaxy. Here's what we said about it:

The Culture and a few other of the "Involveds," advanced civilizations in the pan-galactic astropolitical scene, are trying to stamp out Hell. Turns out that the neural lace technology which backs up people's brains has uses beyond resurrection into a new body. Many societies, including the Culture, have built vast virtual Heavens for people who are ready to give up the physical world but want to keep on living in a less challenging environment. And a few societies have set up Hells for people they believe deserve everlasting punishment.

The usual do-gooders aren't thrilled about consigning anybody to an everlasting torment in a sea of fire, pain, and degradation. Certainly the Culture doesn't approve. And so they and the Involveds agree to resolve the dispute by staging a massive, several-decade-long war in the virtual world to determine whether the Hells should be left standing.

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (Subterranean Press)
Award-winning short story writer Chiang rewarded us this year with his longest work yet, a complex, sometimes heartbreaking, story of what it would really be like to create artificial intelligence. Here's what we said about it:

Chiang's story is all about A.I. that develops in a similar fashion to regular intelligence. One of the two main characters, Ana, is a zookeeper who's studied software testing. She gets hired by a software company to help train its digitial life-forms, because of her zoo background, and training baby artificial intelligences turns out to be remarkably similar to training baby animals. The "Digients" bond with their human owners, and they have a "reward map" that allows them to be bribed with digital food and other treats, and in many ways they behave just like human children. The other main character of the novella, Derek, is a designer who creates the faces of the Digients and tries to get them as expressive as possible.

A big part of the twists and turns of Life Cycle comes from two sources: The evolution of these Digients, who do keep getting smarter and more fascinating, and the normal cycle of technological innovation and business development. The Digients become more and more like real people - except for jarring moments where you realize that they're nothing like real people - and meanwhile, the platform they were built on becomes obsolete, technology changes, companies go under, boom turns to bust, and it's all a bit heartbreaking and thrilling. Anybody who's worked in the software industry will recognize the world Chiang is writing about here.


Chiang's writing is so gorgeous and polished that it's as much a pleasure to read as it is to ponder the ideas he nests inside each other, each more fascinating than the last.


Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay (Scholastic)
The final novel in Collins' amazing Hunger Games series confirms the series as a classic coming-of-age tale as powerful and important as Ender's Game. In a dark, dystopian future, the ragged, authoritarian remains of the US government demand young "tributes" to fight in a reality TV survival game. Our hero Katniss becomes both a celebrity in the game and a potential revolutionary leader who could overthrow the brutal entertainment-military regime. Here's what we said about it:

I don't want to leave you with the impression that this book is just depressing or horrifying - it is definitely brutal and intense, but Katniss also continues her journey towards becoming not just a survivor, but a real hero. And though that journey seldom takes the turns you expect it to take - this book caught me by surprise a half dozen times, just when it comes to Katniss' evolution and the choices she makes - she does step up and amaze everyone, including herself. The real achievement of Collins' writing and world-building is, Katniss' rise to heroism actually feels believable and not like some kind of rote summer-movie crap. Given how much there is in these books about ways to manipulate an audience, Collins is rightly careful to avoid feeding us any kind of flim flam in her depiction of Katniss' progress. And yes, it's always bittersweet rather than "end of Star Wars, big medal scene" sweet.


William Gibson, Zero History (Putnam)
The final novel in Gibson's Bigend series that began with Pattern Recognition, Zero History reveals the strange seam that holds the military-industrial complex together with the fashion industry. Here's what we said about it:

Gibson introduces us to everyday technologies as if they came from the future or an alternate world. Milgrim learns about Twitter, but only as a system for covertly communicating with a justice department agent. Surveillance drones are silvery balloons controlled via a game-like iPhone app. It's not long before you realize that Zero History is about the way military culture has permeated every aspect of our lives, from art to fashion and advertising. The question is who can dominate in this military-fashion PR complex: Will it be the ex-military types vying with Bigend for government contracts, or will it be the ex-entertainment industry types who market their slubby jeans with the cunning of covert operatives?


Mira Grant, Feed (Orbit Books)
The first book in a series about life after a zombie outbreak utterly changes society, this novel focuses especially on how the media is changed by a mass outbreak of undeath. Here's what we wrote about it: Feed is packed with incredible worldbuilding.


You can tell much research was put into making the [zombie-creating] Kellis-Amberlee virus feel very real, which is great from a science dork standpoint, but Grant also fleshes out the extreme changes in society that occurred post-Rise.

Animal legislation . . . plays a vital role in the story. Hazard zones (Level 1 through 10!) and blood tests are a way of life. Social gatherings practically don't exist, as any large gathering of humans is a tempting target for roving packs of the dead. Political rallies are conducted almost exclusively via television and live webcasts. Journalism has completely changed: Faith in traditional media outlets almost completely died when CNN and the like dismissed the zombie uprising as "pranks and teenagers in bad makeup", bloggers were the only ones people could count on to provide live on-scene coverage by those risking their lives to make sure the truth was delivered. Blogging is an almost legitimate form of journalism in Feed.


Project Itoh, Harmony (Haikasoru)
The last novel by one of Japan's great science fiction writers of the past decade, Harmony is about a false Utopia ruled by a World Health Organization who wants to keep everybody healthy, even if that means sacrificing freedom of choice. Here's what we said about it:

Action-packed, darkly funny, and philosophical by turns, Harmony is a suspense yarn that's ultimately about the nature of consciousness itself. It's also a just-plain-awesome medico-science thought experiment about what the world would be like if life-extension technology became a reality. Laced with dozens of cultural references – everything from Max Headroom to Nine Inch Nails – Harmony will feed your brain and undermine your faith in Utopia. If you want to know what the transhuman future will really be like, or just want to read a ripping good nanotech thriller, put Harmony on your reading list.


NK Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms (Orbit Books)
The second book in Jemisin's critically-acclaimed fantasy series about a city beneath a giant tree, whose inhabitants include both humans and gods, is even better than the first. Intense, epic, and involving, the story takes us beyond the court drama of the first book and into the world of the tree city. Here's what we said about it:

Our main character, this time around, is Oree Shoth, a blind craftswoman who has a special gift - she can see magic. (Eventually, her gift turns out to be a bit more all-encompassing than that, though.) As the book begins, Oree has already been the lover of one godling, and she's not at all surprised when another god turns up in a rubbish bin. Because she's used to taking in strays, she thinks nothing of letting this lone god stay at her house for a while, but he turns out to be more than he seems. Oree is a great protagonist: fearless, clever, and not at all awed by the pantheons and leaders she meets throughout the course of the series.


Claire Light, Slightly Behind and To The Left (Aqueduct Press)
A set of powerful short stories and a few ultra-short "drabbles," this collection showcases the dark, sometimes satirical imagination of a writer who isn't afraid to take her characters to truly disturbing places - whether that's on a long-distance space voyage where two lovers are bickering over how to care for pigs, or among pedophilic women on a future Earth where boys die as soon as they hit puberty. Here's what we said about the book:

Slightly Behind And To The Left is the kind of book where planets are made of cats - but crimes against humanity are still as recognizable as the Moon. Light's prose moves effortlessly between hard science observations and absurdist flights of fantasy. In the story "Pinball Effect," for example, a boy who has been abducted by aliens is deposited on a planet without gravity called F&***rk. We learn that a special law enforcement group, "the black suited inertiates," is tasked with chasing down stray bubbles of atmosphere that are escaping, as well as restoring order if any kind of forceful movement sets off a chain reaction of objects in chaos. The story veers between accurate descriptions of how bodies behave outside a strong gravitational field, and impossible images of buildings and furniture and aliens jostling against each other, sometimes spinning off into space without warning . . . In "Vacation," Light takes the familiar trope of "what if all the men on Earth disappeared" and does something shocking and unexpected with it. When women wake up one day to discover that all the adult men on Earth have vanished, our protagonist's world slides slowly into one of widely-accepted sexual predation and pederasty. It's classic, old-school patriarchy turned on its head, as the sexually-hungry women adjust their libidos to focus on the pre-teen boys who are their only companions now. Yearning to reproduce, or perhaps just to feel a sexual connection, our protagonist decides to force herself on a lone boy she meets in an alley. What follows is one of the most chilling depictions of a rapist's psychology I've ever read.


Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (Pyr Books)
Brilliant storyteller McDonald, famous for novels like Brasyl and River of Gods, takes us into a near-future Turkey, now granted EU status and full of weird nanotech. Here's what BoingBoing said about it:

The Dervish House is set in 2027 Istanbul, in a future in which Turkey and the Queen of Cities have moved into the EU, where "the sick man of Europe" has boomed again, the center of a new practical nanotech revolution that has high-achieving school-kids and high-flying commodities traders snorting vials of tailored nano to help them cope with their days. Meanwhile, snappily dressed power-brokers sport nanofiber suit that shifts and shimmers in a luxuriant display of wealth and might.

One Monday morning, a suicide bomber boards a tram, touches a jewel on a curious collar fastened around her throat, and blows her own head off, sending it through the tram's roof, fountaining a geyser of blood over the morning commuters, but killing no one except the seemingly incompetent bomber. This grisly episode sets off a chain of events that intertwines the lives of several characteristically odd and engaging Ian McDonald characters.


Ian McEwan, Solar (Nan A. Talese)
Literary author McEwan, known for the novel-cum-movie Atonement, has written a dark, satiric, and (crazily) uplifting tale of a washed-up physicist who wakes up from dead-end life and doomed marriage to discover that he may have made a breakthrough that could save the world. Here's what we said about it:

[Protagonist] Beard is one of those completely irredeemable protagonists whom British authors do so well - he has almost no good qualities, and yet he's completely magnetic and fascinating, and frequently hilarious. He's self-centered, alcoholic, cheating, lying and completely without ethics, and yet you find yourself rooting for him nonetheless. He has moments of total bizarre humiliation, reminiscent of Tom Sharpe's Wilt - like the amazing sequence where he visits Antarctica to "see global warming for himself" and stops in the middle of the tundra to take a pee, only to get a frozen penis. For about ten pages, he thinks his penis has fallen off inside his snowsuit, and McEwan manages to sell this ridiculous idea. (Relax, readers - the penis is unscathed.)


Rick Moody, The Four Fingers of Death (Little, Brown)
A metafictional love letter to science fiction, Moody's novel defies categories. It's partly about a failed Mars mission fueled by government conspiracies and homoerotic power lust. But it's also about a hack writer who is novelizing a remake of The Crawling Hand, and somehow using it to explain the crumbling morality and coherence of global human culture. Also, it's really funny. Here's what we said about it:

Four Fingers Of Death starts with a dedication to Kurt Vonnegut, who died while Moody was working on the novel. And the Vonnegut influence looms large, both in the story and in its telling. It's the year 2025, and the NAFTA bloc has fallen into such a perilous decline that we barely have an economy or a functioning society any longer, and we're at the mercy of the much more powerful Sino-Indian economic bloc. A failed writer, Montese Crandall, wins the rights to novelize a trashy science fiction movie called The Four Fingers Of Death, in a chess game. The bulk of Moody's 700-plus page book consists of Crandall's sprawling novelization of this 2025 film, which is a remake of the 1963 classic The Crawling Hand.


Cherie Priest, Dreadnought (Tor Books)
This is the second astonishingly creative book in Priest's alternate history series about zombies unleashed during an industrial accident in Seattle in a world where the Civil War hadn't ended by the late nineteenth century. This volume leaves Seattle behind, and takes place on an incredible train taking our Southern protagonist up North - along the way, she deals with zombies, war, and diesel fuel. Here's what said about it:

This isn't technofantasy, at least not in the way the Darwinist fabricated "beasties" of Westerfeld's Leviathan and Behemoth are-Priest doesn't resort to fictional fuels such as aether, phlogiston, or cavorite. Instead, her anachronisms are powered by coal, diesel, and possibly electricity. This might not seem a big deal for the cursory reader of steampunk, but to someone who's read over forty steampunk novels for research, it's a revelation. Contrary to popular conceptions, there really isn't a lot of steam-tech in steampunk writing. For reasons either literary or lazy, many steampunk writers would rather invent a fuel than research it. Priest's done her research, and it shows in more than just the presence of fossil fuels.


Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (Random House)
The chronicle of a shlub living through the downfall of America, this novel delivers a truly dystopian world, populated by all-too-believable characters. Here's what we said about it:

[The novel is] a true apocalyptic story about the collapse of America, and it gives a really strong feel for what it would be like, for an ordinary shmoe, to live through the end of the United States. The story of Lenny Abramov's doomed love for Eunice Park is interwoven with the story of America's descent into fascism and economic ruin. The neurotic flow of Lenny's obsessions and his accounts of his work troubles and somewhat pathetic social life add texture and realism to the portrait of a society that's falling apart . . . Shteyngart obviously owes a huge debt to both Brave New World and 1984 - there's a great running gag where the National Guard stops people at checkpoints and they are forced to "Deny and Imply" - deny that this conversation ever took place, and imply their consent for an invasive search - or they'll just be disappeared. (An American Restoration Authority sign early on reads: "IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE EXISTENCE OF THIS CHECKPOINT ('THE OBJECT'). BY READING THIS SIGN YOU HAVE DENIED EXISTENCE OF THE OBJECT AND IMPLIED CONSENT.") Like I said, his dark, fucked-up world also will remind you of Idiocracy, and the combination of porno-decadence and fascism also reminded me of Martin Martin's On The Other Side. But it's also a weirdly corporate dystopia, with large corporations clearly ruling what's left of America, even as the governing Bipartisan Party flounders.


Charles Yu, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon)
This was one of our favorite literary science fiction novels this year, right up there with Four Fingers of Death. It's about a neurotic time travel machine operator, trying desperately to get out of a time loop and find his humble (but hopefully happy) place in a small universe owned by an entertainment corporation. Here's what we said about it:

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is intellectually demanding, but also emotionally rich and funny. It's clearly the work of a scifi geek who knows how to twist pop culture tropes into melancholy meditations on the nature of consciousness.

Our protagonist begins by explaining that he's gotten trapped in a time loop of his own making, caused when he thoughtlessly shot his own future self as he emerged from a time machine. As we ponder what it means, psychologically, to have murdered your future self, Yu takes us on a journey that gets progressively more emotionally intense. We learn about his protagonist's job as a time machine mechanic where his colleagues are mostly artificial intelligences who act more human than he does - or who actually believe they are human. Yu effortlessly switches between comic vignettes about the fate of Luke Skywalker's less-famous son (who has messed up his time machine in a fictional universe), and his protagonist's painful memories of growing up at the center of a Venn diagram whose circles include the alien universes of Taiwan, America, and Tatooine.