What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
Science fiction is in a constant state of flux, and coming up with a solidified canon is something that will vary from person to person. Certainly, there are classics throughout the genre, books that stand far apart from their peers, like Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. These books are legendary not only for providing readers with much to think about, but also impacting the writers that follow them, influencing subject matter, technique, perspective.
The last 15 years have provided plenty of fodder for science fiction authors, and looking back, it’s clear that science fiction is in a period of transition: there are more people writing stories than ever before, from every type of background and on a variety of new platforms that didn’t exist before. And amidst that transition, there have been plenty of novels that have broken through and changed how science fiction looks.
The following 14 books are some of the most consequential and groundbreaking stories that have hit bookstores or bookshelves in that time: books that forever altered the genre in a number of ways by changing the conventions or tropes that authors traditionally used, blazed forward a path or popularized some new thing, or which have proven to be wildly popular with readers around the world.
First contact between humanity and an extraterrestrial civilization are a cornerstone of science fiction, ranging from aliens with funny noses to the genuinely alien. Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight stars after the planet is bombarded by a strange cluster of objects that release a single broadcast before going dark. When scientists receive another transmission from a comet outside of the solar system, they dispatch an expedition composed of five trans-human specialists, including a vampire.
What they discover is indeed alien: a sort of hive-mind intelligence that’s part of a much larger diaspora. Where many science fiction adventures deal with humanity’s introduction to a galactic civilization in which we become an equal partner/citizen, Watts posits something far stranger: interstellar intelligence that’s genuinely alien, and to which humanity is providing to be a major nuisance and threat. It’s a groundbreaking novel that helped break authors away from human analogs and into more stranger, introspective territory about our place in the cosmos.
Adult and YA science fiction are often marketed to very different audiences, with both sides looking down on the other. It’s a nonsensical barrier, and Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games is a good demonstration that the YA designation doesn’t necessarily mean that an author is talking down to its audience.
Set in a dystopic future where the United States has collapsed and been replaced with Panem, children are selected for a brutal competition every ten years from each of the country’s twelve districts, in which they fight to the death, as punishment for a failed revolution.
Collins’ book deals with pressing issues of brutality and trauma, as well as wealth inequality, poverty, and revolution. With its release in 2008, the book became a major bestseller and media franchise, and unleashed a floodgate of dystopian-themed YA novels that explored the darker parts of modern society.
Between major hurricanes, widespread wildfires, and a global temperature that keeps rising, climate change is at the forefront of the public’s consciousness in the last decade. While the issue was certainly settled in 2009, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was a breakthrough for science fiction by putting a world with a drastically changed climate front and center.
Set in a world where oil is no longer a thing and where mega agricorps control the world’s food supply with genetically modified crops, Bacigalupi’s story is set in a futuristic Thailand that’s managed to stave off environmental apocalypse: because the country has been able to keep outsiders out, it’s avoided crop failures and famine. That success however, comes with problems: Agents from some of those agricorps are working to get their hands on the country’s seedbank to solve some of their problems, while a genetically-modified woman tries to escape sexual slavery as war looms.
Climate change is a subject that’s ripe for fiction, but Bacigalupi goes beyond mere disaster porn with this novel. The Windup Girl looks at how rampant capitalism and its associated abuses underpins the climate disaster.
Robotics and science fiction are synonymous (2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the term), and over the years, we’ve seen authors approach the field ranging from benevolent servants (C-3P0 or Robbie from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot), to cooly malevolent (Hal, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
As robotics and artificial intelligence has advanced in recent years, so too have the stories that we’ve told about them. One of the most intriguing reads about artificial intelligence is Linda Nagata’s The Red, a military thriller set in the near future. The story follows Lieutenant James Shelley, a soldier who’s part of a cybernetically enhanced unit, and who has a knack for getting out of trouble thanks to a voice in his head.
That voice turns out to be a massive, distributed artificial intelligence that’s emerged amidst the world’s myriad of systems, and it uses soldiers like Shelley to carry out its plans, particularly when it comes to imminent threats to human civilization, like nuclear warheads. Nagata’s vision for artificial intelligence is scary and realistic — a powerful, unknowable force that has the potential to shape our lives in ways that we don’t expect, and it’s a very different take on the types of robots and artificial intelligences that have come before it.
When Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck — writing jointly as James S.A. Corey — began a new space-opera novel, friends advised them to focus on epic fantasy instead. Space opera, they were told, just didn’t sell. They ignored the advice, aiming for “beer and pizza money,” and ended up with a novel that blended hard science fiction and noir mystery as the specter of war looms over the solar system.
Leviathan Wakes kicks off Corey’s The Expanse series, a sprawling, ambitious project that explores humanity’s future in space, looking not only at the dangers of balkanization and marginalization in society, alongside the dangerous and perilous possibilities that a galactic diaspora might pose to humanity when we venture out into the stars.
While space opera never really went away, Leviathan Wakes has helped revitalize the story, paving the way for other authors to explore space and uncover new revelations about humanity as they do so.
Andy Weir’s The Martian has what is probably the luckiest of origin stories. Weir worked as a programmer for a number of software companies over the course of his early career, but had always written on the side, publishing short stories like The Egg on his website in 2009. That same year, he began writing a story about a stranded astronaut on Mars, in which he worked out how a realistic mission to Mars would play out.
That realism is one reason why The Martian grabbed a lot of people’s attention: Weir paid a considerable amount of time getting the details right for a realistic mission to Mars, and the steps that his hapless astronaut, Mark Watney needed to take to survive, from how he grew his food, how he figured out how to communicate with Earth, and ultimately escape from the planet.
Additionally, The Martian helped demonstrate the potential of self-publishing. When Weir wasn’t able to sell the novel to a publisher, he began serializing it on his website for free, and then began selling it on Amazon. The book quickly became a bestseller, which led to a major publishing deal and then a blockbuster movie directed by Ridley Scott.
When Ann Leckie burst onto the science fiction with her debut novel Ancillary Justice, it attracted immediate praise and criticism for one of her stylistic choices: a civilization that didn’t utilize conventional pronouns.
In the very distant future, the Radchaai Galactic Empire rules over countless civilizations with the help of powerful starship AIs, loaded with corpse soldiers that it controls like puppets. One shipmind, the Justice of Toren, is destroyed, but who survives in the mind of one remaining soldier, and who sets off to extract revenge for her destruction.
Leckie helped popularize two things: she developed a civilization that broke completely away from the conventional depictions of gender and identify. She certainly wasn’t the first to use these tropes, but following the book, science fiction authors have been increasingly freer to explore an increasingly sophisticated field of gender identity and depiction.
Ancillary Justice also explored another heady issue: looking at the nature a galactic empire not through the lens of building a uniform interstellar civilization, but through that of imperialism, colonization, and subjectification.
Ever since cyberpunk and Frank Miller’s run on Batman in the 1980s, it feels like the entire field of science fiction has lurched somewhat towards an aesthetic of grim realism. The world is a dark, angry place, one where terrible things happen and life is meaningless. There’s no shortage of genuinely insightful, good books that adopt that mindset, such as Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon or Paolo Bacigalupi’s relentlessly bleak The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. And that’s before you get to the superhero films (at least up until Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok).
That’s why Becky Chambers’ debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was such a breath of fresh air for a lot of readers. It’s an endlessly optimistic science fiction adventure that follows a young woman, Rosemary Harper, who joins the crew of a ship that helps create wormhole tunnels, The Wayfarer, as they travel across the galaxy, stopping by planet after planet.
It’s a cozy read, one that will feel familiar to anyone who likes the Firefly brand of space opera, in which Chambers takes a keen interest in understanding the interpersonal workings of each of the crew members and how they fit together. It’s a book that’s endlessly fascinated about how a complicated world works, and one that retains its sense of optimism when its characters take to the stars. It’s a book that understands that communities and civilization as a whole operates because of a greater sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion for one’s neighbors, a lesson that’s desperately needed these days.
Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem and sequels (The Dark Forest and Death’s End) are ambitious books that have a sense of classic 1970s bigness to them, but which also explore humanity’s place in the cosmos. The series follows humanity’s discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization out there, and the subsequent invasion of Earth, starting during the Chinese Cultural revolution and stretching all the way to the heat death of the universe. Along the way, Liu explores how dangerous life in the larger universe could be, muses about dystopias and technological utopias, throws in some massive space battles, and just about everything else you can think of.
The incredible success of The Three-Body Problem (President Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have praised the book) has led to more visibility for the larger science fiction scene in China, leading to the publication of more of Liu’s books, but others as well, like Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds, as well as dozens of shorter works from the country that have been translated into English in the years since.
This success in Chinese science fiction has morphed into additional interest in science fiction from around the world, and an increased awareness that science fiction isn’t just a North American/European style of storytelling: it’s truly global.
For much of its history, literary critics and creators have often looked at science fiction like some unidentifiable splotch you might find under your shoe, something that’s beneath the dignity of serious readers and thinkers. Nevermind that science fiction has a long track record of books that are easily on par with their “literary” counterparts.
Despite those long-standing prejudices, the conventions and tropes of science fiction have begun to bleed into conventional literary circles, especially as those authors are beginning to grapple with a world that increasingly looks like the setting of a science fiction novel. One stellar example of this is Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, which explores the aftermath of a deadly flu pandemic that devastates civilization, and in which the survivors band together to not only try and rebuild society, but try and preserve the things that make life worth living, like art and theater.
Mandel’s novel attracted considerable attention from both genre and literary readers, and it felt very much like a novel that helped convince readers of both stripes that (a) neither were going anywhere, and that (b) there are elements from both traditions that are well worth digging into.
Nnedi Okorafor’s response to Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 was one of anger, because of the film’s portrayal of Nigerians and the misuse of its African setting. Her response was to write her own take on an alien invasion set in Africa, Lagoon.
With the work, Okorafor has embarked on a specific subgenre of science fiction that she calls “Africanfuturism” — something she notes is different from the more widely known Afrofuturism. It, she says, is a mode of fiction that is Africa-centric, rather than science fiction generated from within the African American community, and “more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.”
It’s an important distinction, one that highlights the increasingly global nature of the genre. As the world has become more connected, creators from all over the world are beginning to utilize the tropes of science fiction to imagine futures without that western mindset.
N.K. Jemisin’s vision of Earth is one that’s pummeled by “fifth seasons”, periodic, apocalyptic events that sends the remnants of humanity fleeing into strongholds to try and wait out the worst disasters. Jemisin follows a woman with powers (called an orogen) named Essun as she works to survive amidst a system that routinely oppresses people like her, and as she works to remake the world to become a better place.
The Fifth Season is the work of a writer at the top of her game: Jemisin splits the story’s perspective not only between three individuals, but with three different tenses, all coming together at the end for an excellent reveal.
While the novel is stylistically phenomenal, it’s what Jemisin does with her story that sets it far apart from its peers, grappling with an important question: how do you take a world that’s intrinsically broken, and make it better. A recent panel discussion at New York Comic Con discussed the nature of fantasy literature, with several creators pointing out that the genre has traditionally upheld established power structures. Jemisin pushes against that trope, using her characters to break down traditional norms and rebuild a world that’s more fair, just, and equal.
How do you travel between stars if you’re writing a story set in a realistic world where things like hyperspace and warp drives can’t exist? You hitch a ride on a generation ship, a massive vessel that is designed to be a small world unto itself, allowing multiple generations of humans to survive on the long voyage in the depths of space.
Kim Stanley Robinson turns his eye towards what a generation ship might look like, following the passengers of a generation ship bound for Tau Ceti. Robinson is known for his deeply-researched works, and Aurora presents one of the best-realized depictions of what life out beyond our solar system might look like. The generation ship is approaching the end of its journey, and it’s in tough shape: it’s running low on some critical elements and when it arrives at Tau Ceti, its passengers discover that while their new home can technically support human life, it will be an inhospitable existence for generations to come. With this book, Robinson highlights an inconvenient truth about the galaxy and science fiction: humanity is a species that’s specifically suited for living on Earth, and that its health and well-being is paramount for our survival and future.
In Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history, an asteroid comes down off the coast of Washington D.C., a potential doomsday event that devastates the world just after World War II. Governments around the world come to the conclusion that if it wants to survive, humanity must establish off-world colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond, and sets up a multinational space program to achieve that goal. Think JFK’s speech on steroids.
Kowal draws on the present state of space exploration for this alternate history, putting some of its darkest moments front and center, where women and people of color were denied admission into the space program because of systemic racism and sexism. Her characters fight to be part of the program, arguing that if humanity wants to survive, everyone has to come along, including women and people of color.
In doing so, Kowal tackles head on some of the deepest assumptions that we’ve held about the space program, and shows how systemic inequality has impacted our progress in space. While we’ve been able to solve the technical barriers to get into orbit, in order to survive and thrive, we’ll need to solve some of those more intractable problems.
A spacecraft comes to land over not New York City or another major world capital, but over the U.S. Virgin Islands. First contact with aliens known as the Ynaa proves to be fraught: they’re benevolent, but can be extremely violent. When a young boy is brutally killed after what seems like a minor slight, it sets into motion a series of actions that could unravel relations between the Ynaa and humanity.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think back on the state of race relations in the United States: at its heart, it’s about young, Black men who run into the unmovable and unwavering force that is the US law enforcement mechanism. The book is a study in power and how two opposing sides warily regard one another, and what happens when things get out of control.
Given the events of the summer of 2020, this is a theme that’s undoubtedly here to stay as authors use science fiction to explore this deadly power dynamic and white supremacy that’s part of American life.