As any fan of our show knows, we both like to read a lot of books. So, as a convenience to our listeners we’ve put together a list of books we’ve either mentioned, or should have mentioned on the show. We also feel this might be a good primer for anyone wanting to wade into the waters of modern sci-fi. We’ll try to keep this up to date and welcome any comments or recommendations about these or any other books you’d like to discuss. Enjoy!
Note: The below authors are not in any particular order. Alphabetical might have been a good idea, but whatever…
The author we by far talk about the most; the king of hard sci-fi himself. Just about every story spans billions of years and explores the edges of theoretical physics. Baxter also takes a very realist view of human nature, tending towards the brutal, violent side of society rather than the utopian Star Trek view that some sci-fi authors tend towards (see Robert J. Sawyer below). We highly recommend Baxter for anyone wanting to delve deeper into hard sci-fi.
This is a hard one to sum up as there are so many aspects to this book. First, a generational ship with one end of a wormhole is sent on a thousand year trip that, due to relativity, will put them 50,000 years into the future. Onboard there is a stratification of society with the inhabitants being divided into three factions, causing the expected turmoil. Second, AI, life extension technology and genetic manipulation are all involved. Third, species with the ability to manipulate matter and alter the course of universal history, who also happen to be at war with each other, come into play. And fourth, there’s alternate universes and time travel.
We also note that this is part of Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence, which means it takes place within the universe of books where the alien species the Xeelee (one of the species that can manipulate matter) are involved (in other books in the Sequence humanity is at war with the Xeelee making them a bigger part of the story, see Exultant below). This book is a perfect example of how Baxter is able to take ideas from theoretical physics and turn them into a wild and enjoyable story. Maybe not the best book of his start with, but don’t pass it by.
The Time Ships (1995)
The official sequel to W.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Written in the narrative style of The Time Machine, Baxter shows us what happens when the time traveler goes back to the far future and to his surprise sees a different world than before. The story spans the far future and distant past as the episode of the Simpsons where Homer travels to the past and any little thing he does wildly alters the future is explored in awesome hard sci-fi detail. This is a must read!
Astronauts bring a substance from the Moon back to Earth that wreaks havoc on the Earth’s crust, dissolving rock, and causing lava to flow uncontrollably over the surface of the planet. This is a great disaster movie style book that includes geology, space travel and massive amounts of destruction. If you’ve read Baxter’s Flood (see below) then this can be seen almost as a companion book; where the Earth is covered by water in Flood, here the Earth is consumed by fire.
Manifold: Time (1999)
If you’ve listened to the podcast then you’ve probably heard us mention the Fermi Paradox, which is the basis of the Manifold series. In case you’re not familiar, the Fermi Paradox is pretty much that the universe is old enough to where if life is prevalent then by now we should have been contacted by an alien species; since we have not, there is no other intelligent life in the universe besides us.
In the Manifold books Baxter considers both extremes, that life is abundant and that there is no other life than us, and uses the same characters in completely separate stories to see what happens in each scenario. In Manifold: Time there is no other life in the universe so characters end up exploring new universes to find new life. There are some cool strange aspects to the story including genius children taking over the Moon and super intelligent cephalopods in a spaceship. This book has Baxter’s usual mind bending, universe expanding ending we love.
Manifold: Space (2000)
This premise of this book is the opposite of Manifold: Time in that the universe is teaming with life. The solar system is visited by Von Neumann machines (self replicating robots that colonize solar systems and spread throughout a galaxy) while an ex-NASA astronaut travels to the edge of the solar system to find gates connecting to a multitude of other inhabited solar systems.
This is actually the first book I (Devon) read of his and was hooked almost instantly. We get to see what Earth/Humans will be like tens of thousands of years in the future and so much more. A great start to Baxter’s work if you’re looking for something a place to begin.
Another book in the Xeelee Sequence, this time dealing directly with the war between humanity and the Xeelee. Humans have conquered the galaxy except for the center where the Xeelee are ensconced around Chandra, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The main character, a soldier from the front lines, captures a Xeelee fighter and is brought back to Earth to help study the craft and see if they can learn anything from it that will help in the war effort. On Earth the soldier learns that the government is apathetic to the effort and may even want the war to continue. In this book Baxter provides space battles and ground combat, which are somewhat rare in his books, along with discussions of the nature of matter and forms of alien life. Overall a solid book.
As the name suggests, the entire world is mysteriously slowly flooded by water. Humanity must first cope with the social upheaval from the massive numbers of refugees coming from coastal cities and then learn to live in an ever changing world where dry land is continuously disappearing with no end in sight. This is an awesome disaster movie style book that of course provides far more insight into the actual consequences of such a crazy scenario than any movie ever would.
The sequel to Flood. The United States government is able to launch a ship to colonize another world in hopes that some part of humanity will survive the deluge consuming the Earth. Focusing mostly on the long journey from Earth to a new planet, Baxter explores the sociological and psychological consequences of having a society live in a confined space for so long, including changing power structures and the new culture developed by those born and raised on the Ark. This is another great book, maybe even a little better than Flood. We recommend reading these two books back-to-back.
Like Flood and Ark, Proxima and Ultima are a duology, where you have to read both to get the full story. And read them both you should. In Proxima we start in the near future where the solar system is split between the nations of the UN and the Republic of China. Strange new energy sources are found on Mercury called kernels. Near the kernels is a smooth flat metal surface, which is discovered to be a “hatch” that provides a doorway to another planet. While the scientific investigation of the hatch is going on, groups of people are sent to a planet orbiting Proxima Centuari with orders to colonize the habitable world. The story mostly focuses on how these people survive and interact with one another (brutally, usually).
The sequel to Proxima. Continues the complex universe jumping story from Proxima by landing the characters in a universe where Romans have colonized planets using the kernels to power engines for space travel. The characters question what has caused the change in human history, and suspect that it’s the same entity responsible for the kernels and hatches themselves. More fascinating worlds are explored in an effort to find the truth. I (Devon) was a little disappointed by the ending, yet, the journey made it worthwhile.
Peter F. Hamilton
A master at mixing hard sci-fi and supernatural elements in epic fashion. Each book of his is an average of 1,000 pages and usually part of a trilogy where the story continues from one book to the next with the resolution coming only at the end of the last book. In other words he’s really writing one 3,000 page story, not multiple stories in the same universe (although some of his trilogies do take place in the same universe). Despite the length of his books, they still feel fast paced and keep you interested. I (Devon) am looking forward to reading more of his work, I just need to take a break before I commit to another insanely long story.
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy (The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999)):
There is so much going on in this story, which as noted, is over 3,000 pages. Somehow though it almost always keeps your attention with tons of characters, space battles, sex and violence. The setup is that it’s a few hundred years in the future and humans have colonized many systems. There is a centralized government (with Earth not being the capital) as well as some smaller factions (and even a kingdom). Further, humans are divided into two cultures, one that embraces advanced technology that has led to biotechnology, with their ships and space stations being living conscious creatures, and who are also atheists, and the other being the rest of humanity, using non-biomechanical tech and having various religions.
The main conflict is that the dead come back to life, inhabiting the bodies of the recently diseased. They also have strange super powers. Strange as it is, somehow it all works. I (Devon) don’t really like fantasy/supernatural but here it actually comes together well. In part because a lot of the characters never accept the supernatural aspect of the possessions and keep trying to study the phenomenon scientifically. Overall: awesome, epic, fun.
Robert J. Sawyer
One of my (Devon) new favorite authors. Whereas most of the authors on this list write grand galaxy spanning stories, Sawyer’s sci-fi usually takes place on Earth in the present or near future. He’s great at fully exploring multiple themes in each book, having well fleshed out characters and tons of awesome science—including explanations of actual current theories and extrapolating to possible future developments. Also, he makes lots of Star Trek and Star Wars references in each book!
The Terminal Experiment (1995)
Written in 1995 about the technologically advanced 2011, where nano-technology can make you essentially immortal, the protagonist creates a machine that can actually detect what appears to be the human soul. The ramifications of this discovery are explored while the protagonist goes on to conduct an experiment where he creates three AI versions of himself within a supercomputer, each modified so that one has no concern for biological needs (called Spirit), one thinks it’s immortal with no fears of aging or death (called Ambrotos), and a regular copy as a control. People that the protagonist dislikes end up murdered leading him to suspect one of the AIs is behind the deaths. This book is about average for Sawyer. We’d recommend reading some of his other books (see below) before reading this one. This is still a solid book so after you’ve read those, do come back for this one.
Factoring Humanity (1998)
Humanity has received a message from the stars; the only problem is no one can decipher the damn thing. Well, accept for the protagonist who, in the mist of family turmoil, cracks the code, which provides the instructions to build a mysterious devise. The protagonist must then figure out what the thing does, deal with the consequences of what it does and decide what should be done with it. An easy and short read that provides a nice introduction to Sawyer’s writing.
I (Devon) have never seen the TV show but from what I’ve read in the reviews by fans of the show who read the book because they were mad the show was cancelled, the book is nothing like the TV show. A good example of this is that apparently the main protagonist in the show was an FBI agent where in the book the main protagonist is a particle physicist at CERN. I can see why people who liked an action show would be disappointed with this kind of book; however, for those of us who know what to expect with a good sci-fi story, this is a fun read that asks a lot of questions about the nature of time, fee will, and predestination.
Calculating God (2000)
This is my (Devon) favorite book of Sawyer’s. The story starts with an alien landing on the lawn of a Toronto museum with the alien wanting to talk to their top paleontologist. The alien wants to learn about Earth’s history to investigate a mystery of cosmic proportions (We know how that sounds but it’s fitting, read the book!). In the process issues of religion, evolution, physics, and so much more are explored in fun and interesting ways. There’s also humor in the fact the alien is only interested in science, not wanting to meet with world leaders and do all the usual first contact stuff.
As the name suggests, God and atheism is the primary theme, which is invigorated by a clever twist of having the highly advanced alien race being the advocate for the existence of a higher power. If you’re going to read any of Sawyer’s books, read this one.
WWW Series (Wake (2009), Watch (2010), Wonder (2011))
The premise sounds silly but hear us out. The protagonist is a blind teenage girl who uses the internet all the time with special audio and touch tools. She’s been blind since birth and her blindness is due to a problem in her eye, not due to processing in her brain. A Japanese scientist devises a way to fix her eye sight by installing a chip that is connected by blue tooth to a small smartphone-like devise that reorganizes the signal from the eye in a way to where her brain can interpret it properly. Still with us? Good. So that happens but the devise is also connected to wi-fi so that software updates can be made without the scientist having to go to her in person. So she turns the thing on and… she can see the internet. No it’s not like full virtual reality (see Ready Player one below), it’s just colorful lines and circles.
The other part of the story is that the internet, again hear us out, gains consciousness. You see where this is going. The girl discovers the consciousness and shenanigans ensue. Really it’s an awesome trilogy. Sawyer again explores many themes and has good scientific explanations for the seemingly crazy things happening. I (Devon) also highly recommend this series along with Calculating God.
Another book with a great premise but disappointing execution (see Terminal World above). In this book Sawyer (by his own admission) attempts to write a thriller. There’s an attempted assassination of the POTUS (ask Steven what that means if you don’t know) and while he’s being treated, an experiment in a room nearby causes people to access the memories of others in the vicinity. This is obviously a national security crisis so the secret service has to do their thing and the investigation goes from there.
Some really interesting conflicts are addressed between characters who can essentially read each other’s minds, but the resolution to the entire story is terrible. The end is so disappointing that I (Devon) don’t even recommend reading the book. Most of Sawyer’s books have a positive/utopian ending, which can be inspiring, but this time it’s just ridiculous.
We read some of his books because his name kept coming up in connection with Stephen Baxter. We’ve seen mostly good reviews of his work so decided to give him a shot. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the same pop as most of the other authors on this list. He certainly has imagination and is dedicated to hard sci-fi, but both books we’ve read had some pacing issues and we felt we had to push ourselves to finish reading them. I (Devon) may still give him one more chance considering how critically acclaimed he seems to be, hoping that we just picked the wrong books to start with.
Revelation Space (2000)
So much going on: an archeological dig on an alien planet for an alien artifacts, an interstellar ship with a small crew and a captain in a cryo freeze thing to stop a disease from killing him, and an assassin who is given a mysterious mission. These threads all come together eventually leading up to a final climax at a strange world where the overall mystery of the story (one which threatens the entire galaxy) comes to a head. There’s so much in this book to like, nano-tech—AI infesting computers, strange body modifications—but it just didn’t grab us the way we expected.
Terminal World (2010)
This book has a great premise: the protagonist lives on a world where there are zones that will only allow certain levels of technology to work. This is not a legal mandate but an apparent law of nature. Further, in the center of this world there’s a massive spire reaching all the way to space. This is where the capital city is located and the same zone anomalies also apply with elevation, with the lower levels only able to use primitive technology and the top levels having such advanced tech that they can heal almost any ailment and fly.
This book has great world building and an okay story, but is slow in places and has an unsatisfying ending. Unfortunately Reynolds has said that this is not part of a series and so this interesting planet will not be used again and there won’t be any more to the story. I (Devon) would actually give this book a positive review if it was just the beginning of larger story, which is even more frustrating because the story ends with many points unresolved and plenty of other things to explore in the world.
Has only written this one book so we don’t really know what his overall style will be, but if he continues to write books that are as good as The Martian, then we’re all in.
The Martian (2014)
When a team of astronauts have to abandon their mission and quickly evacuate from the surface of Mars, one man gets left behind having been left-for-dead. Here’s the thing, he’s not dead. Now, trapped on Mars he has to use the left over supplies to survive until some kind of rescue can be attempted. Told mostly from the astronaut’s perspective through his journal entries, this is an exciting, humorous, hard sci-fi, MacGyver adventure. It’s like Apollo 13, but on Mars, and no Tom Hanks. Seriously though, it’s everything you could want in a sci-fi book: believability, fantastic hurdles for the protagonist to overcome, in depth scientific explanations (but easy to follow), a good dose of humor, and well written suspense. I (Devon) actually listened to this book, which was nice as the reader really brought out the character of the protagonist who is a bit of a comedian. Also, soon to be a major motion picture! (The trailer looks awesome!)
Has also only released the one book: Ready Player One. However, his next book, Armada, is coming out in just a couple months and looks to follow the same style so we’re really excited.
Ready Player One (2011)
Total awesomeness. Taking place in the 2040s, the world is a bit dystopian, with resources being scarce and most of the population living in ghettoes. Luckily, people can escape their crappy lives by logging into the OASIS, which is pretty much the internet but with immersion virtual reality. In the OASIS you can be anonymous and your avatar can be whatever awesome nerdy thing you want (if you can afford it).
The story is kicked off when the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving behind a message that there are three Easter eggs in the OASIS and the first person to find/solve them gets ownership of his company and the OASIS. The thing is, this guy was a teenager in the 80s and so all the Easter eggs have to do with 80s pop culture, causing everyone who wants to solve his puzzle experts in 80s geek culture. This all means that you get a cool story about video games, comics, sci-fi TV and movies, and just a ton of other awesome pop culture references. Plus, the story is fast and fun. Read this now. Also, soon to be a major motion picture!
So far we’ve only read one of his trilogies but would like to read more. All his books appear to have a strong military influence. Whether that’s a good thing or not really just depends on your taste. What we’ve read so far has been awesome so we’ll probably have more to say about him soon.
Axis of Time Trilogy (Weapons of Choice (2004), Designated Targets (2005), Final Impact (2007))
Alt-history and sci-fi combine for this WWII based trilogy where an international fleet of naval ships from the near future is teleported to the Pacific right before the Battle of Midway. The transition knocks out all the passengers causing the automatic firing systems to come online, which then decimate the American forces. The consequences of this huge change to history and how it affects the war is just one of the many things Birmingham explores in this crazy scenario. The premise may sound like a dumb sci-fi gimmick so that we can see WWII fought with futuristic weapons but it’s really not. Social issues (race and sex), technology (mixing advanced tech and WWII tech), economic issues (huge changes to industry due to the knowledge of new technology), and culture shifts (new trends due to knowledge of the future), are also discussed in detail with brilliant insight from the author.
Indi author of military sci-fi. I (Devon) found him when Kindle recommended one of his books, the only book I’ve read of his so far and the one discussed below. The book was enjoyable and I do plan to read more of his work.
Warship (Black Fleet Trilogy, Book 1) (2015)
There seems to be a lot of military sci-fi series out there and admittedly we haven’t really read any of them. Wanting to try out the genera, I (Devon) decided to give this book a chance. It was a fun and easy read with some usual sci-fi tropes handled in ways that kept them entertaining.
The captain of an aging warship runs into an alien ship that is attacking a human colony. Humans may have colonized space, but they have never run into any alien life, further, there has been little to no wars, even within human society, so none of the crew is battle tested. Using an old decrepit ship, an untested crew and with a chain of command that hates him, the captain must protect other colonies from the alien threat and survive long enough to warn the rest of humanity. The second book in the series, Call to Arms, was just released and I’m looking forward to continuing this story.
We’ve only read the one book but it was good (Well, Steven didn’t think so, listen to episode 61 to find out why). Apparently he got his start writing comic books.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2014)
This is one of those stories that starts out with a WTF scenario. The book opens with a girl in a cell who is taken to a classroom by military guards that strap her to a chair and constantly have their weapons trained on her. The classroom, which is just down the hall, has other kids also strapped to chairs. After class they are taken back to their cells where they stay until they go to class again the next day. There’s obviously some crazy crap going on and we’re left to wonder why they are being treated like this and what the hell is going on in the outside world.
These questions are answered pretty quickly in the book and knowing the answers really tells you the kind of book it is. I (Devon) read this book having no idea what the answers to these questions were going to be and felt it really enhanced the experience of the first few chapters so I’m just going to leave the description as is.
This is a really well written book, with some cool takes on the apocalypse thing (oops, that’s a little spoiler). The surprising thing about this book, which seems like it could have been a somewhat mindless action/thriller, is that it’s really character driven. The best parts of the book revolve around who these people are and how they interact with each other. Also, soon to be a major motion picture! (We should just come up for an abbreviation for that.)
Robert Charles Wilson
Spin trilogy (Spin (2005), Axis (2007), Vortex (2011))
Old Man’s War (2005)
Red Shirts (2012)
WHAT WE’RE READING NOW
Devon: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999) and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (1992)
Steven: Next by Michael Crichton (2006) and The Girl with All the Gifts (2014)
Any recommendations on what we should be reading? Let us know!
Try some David Drake.