Ten Books for the Future

“The problem is that science-fiction writers have stopped writing new futures and just started rehashing the past.” "No, the problem is that scientists and engineers have stopped doing exciting things." As I understand it, Michael Crow and Neal Stephenson had an exchange like this at a Future Tense conference about a year ago. I might not have the wording down right, but I agree with the sentiment entirely. Our leaders are drifting aimlessly towards a future of debt so large that money loses all meaning, paranoid overreactions to boogeymen like ‘international terrorists’ and ‘internet pedophiles’, a decaying industrial infrastructure on which we are all reliant, and an increasingly autonomous culture of radical novelty, self-expression, and technological change. But hey, they’re politicians. What do you expect, some kind of vision thing?

The problem is that one vital place where we as a culture might look towards some sense of futurity, science-fiction, has become increasing generic, old-fashioned, and basically nostalgic rather than forward thinking. Disney, which is a good indication of the cultural pulse of America, is stellar example as the original Space Age, techno-utopian Tomorrowland was revamped into a Jules Vernian steampunk nostalgia trip.

With all that in mind, I’d like to put together a bibliography for the people looking to use science-fiction to influence the future. I’m a science-fiction fan, a science policy scholar, and history buff, and this is my idiosyncratic list of 10 books that everybody should read if they want to understand Science, The Future, and how we’re going to get there.

Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl

How can I even describe this book? The Windup Girl won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the John W. Campbell Award. It’d be easier to list best-SF-novel awards it didn’t get. Set in a Thailand teetering on the brink of collapse, Bacigalupi paints a picture of a world where the oil has run out, global trade has collapsed, science has stalled, and the horsemen of plague, famine, war, and climate threaten to smash what little remains. Global warming has permanently altered the climate. Agriculture remains barely one step ahead of rogue genetic plagues unleashed decades ago, and only the fading expertise of big Midwest biotech consortiums keep the world fed. Yet giving into the Calorie Men means giving up national autonomy, something which proud Thailand will never accept. The novel follows a complex cast of characters, Thai environmental police officers, an agent for the biotech concerns looking to loot a hidden seed bank of its genetic riches, a Malaysian exile seeking to rebuild his fortune by any means necessary, and the titular Windup Girl, an abandoned genetically modified “New Person” forced into sex slavery. Even in a world on the brink of collapse, people still want what they’ve always wanted: Money, power, ideological success, or love. But at the end of the day, the Future is going to be born, whether we like it’s shape or not, and new beasts will live in the ruins of our cities.

When I read The Windup Girl, I couldn’t stop shaking. I could smell the elephant shit, feel the desperation, know the inexorable trajectory of our technological crimes against nature. I’m afraid that The Windup Girl is going to be our future, and that’s why you have to read it.

Bruce Sterling - Distraction.

I’m holding myself to one book per author, and picking the right Sterling is no easy task. But I choose Distraction because A) it’s about a political operative trying to fix a white elephant scientific installation (A giant airtight dome and bioengineering laboratory in East Texas) and wandering into something far deeper, and B) even after a decade, it still smells like The Future to me. American politics has become an absurd carnival, invisible networks of dissidents do strange and terrible things to corrupt financial institutions, pretty much everybody is broke, but if you have money you can live like a king. And if you don’t, life is Burning Man! And somehow, in the midst of all these brilliant fragments of futurity, Sterling manages to tell a story about the American Soul, about what we need from our leaders, and about how science is remaking the world.

Charles Stross - Singularity Sky

The New Republic is an interstellar empire that Bismarck would love: Obedient peasants, heroic soldiers, honorable aristocrats, and none of that nasty disruptive technology; nothing more complex than telegraphs and nuclear powered steam engines, and they’re willing to do anything to keep it that way. So when an interstellar fleet of post-humans arrives over one of the New Republic’s colonies and begins dropping cellphones and nanoreplicator cornucopias from the sky, it ranks as a major breech of national security. But in this universe, God (or at least a super-human AI that use time-travel in its computation) is watching, and it doesn’t want the regressive militaristic morons of the New Republic to do anything too stupid. Which is why two interstellar spies, one working for the UN and the other working for the Eschaton, have to figure out what’s going on and stop it before the Big E decides to clean up the whole mess by plowing a comet made of anti-matter into the planet. Power, politics, panopticons, the terrorizing liberation of a true post-scarcity economy, and some of the most kickass and realistic space combat combine to make this my favorite book about The Singularity and what it might mean to you.

James C. Scott - Seeing Like a State

What does a state require to govern? What does the process of being governed entail? Before a state can rule, it must be render its subjects visible and record them with maps and censuses. Scott explores an ideology he calls high modernism, which aims not just to record things, but to change them to make them more visible, more legible, and more controllable by a central authority. But from the sterile new cities of Brasilia and Chandigarh, to mono-cropped farms, to Soviet industry and Tanzanian rural development, the modernist ideology that tries to render everything down to single-function units inevitably distorts and damages the subtle and complex fabric of society. The more heavily anything is planned, the more it is sustained by the informal sector. Scott’s reminds us to reflect on our own work and ask: what are we making visible? What is being obscured? What necessary stories are not being told?

Neal Stephenson – Diamond Age

Some people think this book is about the social implications of nanotechnology. These people are wrong, or at least they’re missing what I think are the most interesting parts of the book, which are about how we create identity in a globalized world. The Neo-Victorian aesthetic, the rituals of the Pacific Northwest Software Khans, and even the Primer-educated Mouse Army are all different attempts to craft personal and group identities in an era when borders have melted and the means of production have become entirely disassociated from human hands. Once the making of things becomes effortless, all that’s left is the making of stories; what kind of stories do you want to tell?

Neil Sheehan - A Bright Shining Lie

Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, but some parts of history are more fruitful than others. The Vietnam War was the high water mark of American power and faith in the wisdom of our politicians. It’s where the American Dream turned sour, and we still suffer from the cultural wounds. The Vietnam War is like a fractal of horror and unintended consequences. Every level echoes the lies, short-sightedness, and bad decision-making of every other level, from the grunts fighting at Khe Sanh to the generals and presidents running the war from Washington D.C. A Bright Shining Lie covers every level of that war, following the career of John Paul Vann from his role as a lowly military advisor at the disastrous battle of Ap Bac to his madcap triumph as the absolute military authority in I Corps during the 1972 Easter Offensive. The corruption of the war is mirrored by Vann’s personal fall, the national quagmire become ones man quixotic quest to save a foreign nation. If you were to read just one book about America after 1950, this would be it. Vann makes Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now look like an amateur at going Up River and Never Coming Back.

China Mieville - The Scar

China Mieville writes about monsters: ambitious, fearful, oppressed, misguided, occasionally generous or brave monsters that have beetle heads, immense wings, chlorophyll for blood, mechanical parts, or sorcerous talents. In other words, people just like us. His richly imagined stories put a Socialist and Anarchist spin on the fantasy tropes, and in The Scar, an exiled translator is kidnapped by the exotic city of Armada, built on the backs of ancient ships from 1000 nations and ruled by brutal pirates. The diversity of the races, the novelty and depth of the world building, and they way that ordinary concerns are filtered through the lens of pulp adventure simply has to be read to be appreciated. I can’t think of any other author who deals as well with ideas of social justice, imperialism, absolute power, or what a single person can do in the face of History.

Peter F Hamilton – Fallen Dragon

These days, Peter F Hamilton is known for writing incredibly long space operas. But before he got on the six-book series kick, he wrote this philosophical military-SF novel that follows a space marine from his privileged upbringing on the sole successful interstellar colony to being a foot-soldier for “asset-realization raids” (aka, Interstellar Corporate Piracy backed up with powered armor and orbital lasers), to attempting to retrieve his own broken past in a desperate battle against his corporate masters and a native insurgency. Hamilton invites us to consider the economics of spaceflight while at the same time exulting in the joys of exploration. The planets of the novel inspire reflection: the tired homeworld of Earth, the blank slate of Amethi, the tropical freedom of Thallspring reproducing the failures that came before, and the post-human threat of Santo Chico. Hamilton doesn’t hammer this point home, but the novel also has many interesting reflections on how governments and corporations interact, and how people might modify themselves to wield power or achieve liberty over generation through cloning, brain transplants, cybernetic links, and even more exotic modifications.

Robert Charles Wilson - The Chronoliths

In early 21st century Thailand, a 200 foot stone monolith appears in the jungle, it’s arrival heralded by a destructive blast of freezing air. The monolith is a monument to the victory of a warlord named Kuin, celebrating a battle 16 years in the future. Soon, Kuin monoliths are landing in major cities, killing millions, shattering nations, and sending the world towards a global holocaust. But as the years march on, the identity of “Kuin” and the means by which he launches his weapons remain unknown. The main character is drawn into a battle by scientists, philosophers, and unclassifiable ordinary people to save the world from destruction at the hands of duped Kuin cultists, seeking any surety they can find, even in the destruction of their lives, and the mysterious conspiracy behind the attack. An amazing journey into the relationship between the present and the future, the mutability of tomorrow, and the power of belief.

Bruno Latour - Science in Action

Sometimes, when you need theory, you just have to turn to a Frenchman. By and large, nobody in politics actually understands what science is, how it works, or the kinds of questions that it can answer. Latour uses a combination of lab ethnography and Actor-Network Theory to explain how facts gain their facticity, the characteristic of being accepted as true by the broader community. Inscriptions, networks of people, things, and ideas, and conflicts between the durable and the transient all serve to distinguish the uncertainty of “science-in-the-making” from the absolutely truth of “ready-made-science.” Science in Action is a dense book, but if you read it closely, it will explode your conception of scientific knowledge and replace it with a much more powerful and flexible framework. If you want science-fiction to be more than gadget fetishism, you’ll need an epistemological account like Science in Action.


  1. I'd include John Barnes' _Orbital Resonance_ or _The Sky So Big And Black_: both deal with the question of how to educate and enculturate young people in a highly technological society, one of the more pressing questions of our times.

    There needs to be a Kim Stanley Robinson, perhaps the SF author who's thought most about the intersection of political science, science policy and technology. I find his NSF trilogy flawed, but I'm not that much of a policy junkie. I'd probably pick _Red Mars_ over _Green Mars_, but it'd be a close call. The former deals with utopian dreams for a culturally blank space, the latter how to develop a humane and pluralist polity.

    On the nonfiction side, nothing holds a candle to _Seeing Like A State_. I'd add _In Search of Jefferson's Moose_ as an example of how to write about technology and policy without resorting to handwaving or generalities about either. Or _The Wealth of Networks_, take your pick. The former's shorter and not quite as demanding in user processing power, but if you've got the cognitive hardware for the latter, go for it.

  2. I maintain that you need more female authors. Margaret Atwood? Ursula Le Guin? Those are the two most prominent sci fi authors that I know of. But also, there might be some non-fiction worth listing. Haraway? Jasanoff?

  3. I second Marci's recommendation on the Ursula K. LeGuin. There was a conversation after lunch yesterday about science fiction writers not having an understanding of the social system dynamics— with her anthropological background, LeGuin really gets how societies work.

    & maybe in addressing the future, it would be good to go outside of the "science fiction" category & look at the utopian literary tradition— though no books come to mind right away...

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks. I agree that more diversity would be helpful.

    As it happens, I took a class on the utopian literary/political tradition last year. (book list, + The Utopia Reader) Of the books for that class, I'd put After the Deluge, Parable of the Sower, and Woman on the Edge of Time highest, but After the Deluge is not quite good enough for me to uncritically recommend, and we'll never get the end of the Parable trilogy because of Butler's tragically early death. (I do like how Butler links very concrete on the ground issues of social justice with ecological/economic collapse, and the teleological imperative of interstellar colonization as a way out, but I want to see how the story ends). Woman on the Edge of Time is an amazing ecofeminist utopian proto-cyberpunk work, and probably should have made the list. Otherwise, I still have major problems with the utopian tradition as a useful political movement rather than a critique of the status quo. The common characteristic of the utopians is the thinness of their vision of human nature.

    Ursula K LeGuin has a great feel for societies, but they're so different from our own its difficult for me to draw connections for how they become our future. And Margaret Atwood, for all her accolades and skill as a writer, is basically a religious/apocalyptic writer: humanity is punished again and again for its sins against Nature.

  5. Oh, and one other thing. Most of the pieces in the Utopia Reader are very old, reaching back to the ancient Greeks. Le Guin has the most recent piece, with a 1974 short-story. I'll posit that science-fiction in its modern form is about 100 years old (anything pre-Astounding is proto-SF). Yet, all of the books in my list save one are post 1990. Am I being too narrow, chronologically, or is futurism a perishable commodity?

  6. I'm pretty sure futurism is perishable by definition. You have to continuously update your forward model with new measurements, otherwise you just devolve into fantasy.