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SF Books that Make Me Happy in 2014

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After last week’s Fantasy novels that made me happy, here’s part two. These are the Science Fiction books that I read in 2014 that made me happy. Again, alphabetical order by title.

Also, I’m noticing that my writing-about-books skills are rusty, though I always found it hard to write anything decent about a novel without spoilers.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

This is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which one all the awards last year. It’s also the middle book of a trilogy, and like many middle books, leaves some plot unsettled. While Ancillary Sword continues the somewhat ambiguous gender roles of the first book, the tone is much different. The first book was more of a quest, but in this book Breq now has command of a her own ship (it'd be spoilery to explain why), and a mission to protect a planet from the events triggered by the end of the first book (is that vague enough?).

So this book is more, well, anthropological, and more of a mystery (Breq uncovers some corruption). The descriptions of the Radch culture remind me of Jack Vance and a little bit of Urusla K. Le Guin. What's interesting about Breq's viewpoint here is not so much the gender thing (which fades into the background), but the way Breq is able to integrate information from all different inputs--Leckie does a great job of handling Breq's somewhat alien point of view.

While this book may not have the technical splash of the first, I think I enjoyed it more, and I'm looking forward to the third book this year.

Digtal Divide and Maker Space, K. B. Spangler

I think these are the the books on this list that you are least likely to have heard of. Technically these books are a spinoff from Spangler's webcomic: A Girl and Her Fed. Don't go away -- you don't need to have read the webcomic to enjoy these books. I can prove it, I've never read the webcomic, and I love these books.

In the very near future, a government program identifies elite young go-getters and implants them with a computer chip. After some various travails in the back story, the implanted go public. The chip has given them various special abilities, including brain-to-brain communication, and the ability to interact directly with machines. Our lead character, Rachel Peng, has been attached to the Washington DC police department to use her considerable special abilities. (She has a very neat ability to see people’s emotional state as a color overlay, but is still trying to figure out what the colors mean.)

The two books are mysteries, against the SF backdrop of the existence of the cyborgs and what their abilities suggest for, say, digital privacy. The mysteries are well done, the characters are unique and interesting, and I like the world.

Lock In, John Scalzi

A very classic SF kind of structure: create a radical change and use the story to explore the consequences from as many angles as possible. Lock In takes place about twenty years after a new epidemic leads to a significant number of people losing the ability to control their voluntary nervous system. They are alive but, shall we say, locked in to their bodies, unable to move. A whole industry has sprung up to manage these victims including neural implants that allow them to control artificial bodies, affectionately known as "threeps".

Our main character, Chris, is a disease victim, but has become an FBI agent via threep. (I need to be careful here, Scalzi deliberately never reveals Chris' gender, going so far as to have are two audio books, one voiced by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson.) Is there a murder? Yep. Does it play out against the backdrop of political machinations over who pays for the treatment of disease victims? Yep. Does Scalzi pretty much run through every possible cool way of dealing with handling a threep or what it'd be like to be a victim or live among them. You bet. Good mystery, interesting characters, great world building.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Possibly the book on this list that I've recommended most often. The story is very simple: the first manned Mars mission leaves suddenly following an accident and inadvertently leaves behind a crew member, who must then try to stay alive until somebody can come and rescue him.

There's kind of an old-school SF tone here, with a lot of engineering -- it's been described as the most exciting novel ever written about potato farming. The voice of the main character is great (I'd imagine it makes a really good audiobook, though it's a prime candidate for having the upcoming movie adaptation totally miss what's great about the book). The pace is fast, it's almost impossible to stop reading in the middle.

My Real Children, Jo Walton

This book is a little hard to characterize. It's more alternate history than science fiction, at least right until the very end. Our main character is an elderly woman in the last phase of Alzheimer's, who seems to remember two completely different versions of her past.

The book than goes back and forth between the two versions, in one, she chooses to marry a suitor, and in the other she doesn't. Both worlds proceed down very different paths, which is probably not directly related to her choices. (Neither path is our time line, which I appreciated). To radically oversimplify, in one she is more personally happy and fulfilled and in the other the world as a whole proceeds down a more peaceful path.

Walton is a longtime favorite author, and both lives and both worlds are beautifully detailed. The ending is also really lovely.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

Another book that's sort of lightly science fiction, in that it's literally fiction about science. The main character grew up as part of a psychological experiment administered by her parents, the exact details of which you are better off going into the book not knowing. Now, she's a grown-up and has to come to grips with what her parents did to her and what we will generously call her siblings.

It's hard to describe what happens here without spoiling things, if possible go into this book without reading reviews, most of which do give away the key detail. (I'm not normally a huge spoilerphobe, but in this case I think it will make a difference.) Even though this is perhaps not technically science fiction, it concerns itself with the kind of questions -- what makes somebody human, what connects people to each other -- that science fiction often asks.

What If? Randall Munroe

I can call a book of hypothetical science questions science fiction, right? (I'd bet a significant amount of money that Munroe is at least nominated for a Hugo Award for this one...) Odds are that if you are reading this you don't need me to tell you about XKCD or his What if site. This book collects a bunch of questions from What If?, plus some new ones, plus some disturbing unanswered questions. It's really fun, and a good companion to the Last Policeman books in that pretty much all of the questions wind up with the end of the world one way or another.

World of Trouble, Ben Winters

This is the third and final book in The Last Policeman trilogy. These would almost be straight-up detective novels if they didn't take place against the backdrop of this meteor, which is 100% going to hit the earth with extinction-level force. When the trilogy starts, the impact is about eight months away and society is starting to crumble. When this book starts, the impact is only days away and society is down to crumbs.

All of which makes for an odd kind of pre-apocalypse novel. Unlike, say, your typical zombie story, in this series it would have been completely possible for everything to have continued perfectly as normal right up until impact. Except of course there's no way that happens. It's impossible to read this series and not wonder what you would do under the circumstances--what's so important to you that you would continue to pursue it right to the literal end of the world.

In this book, mysteries are solved, loose ends are tied, and it closes on a scene that I swear I have thought about at least twice a week since I finished the book. It's stunning. Depressing, but stunning.