The best novels for a post-pandemic world

P.W. Singer and August Cole Author Of Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution
By P.W. Singer and August Cole

The Books I Picked & Why

Player Piano

By Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover of Player Piano

Why this book?

We’ve rapidly been thrown into a world of AI population tracking of everything from your movements to maybe your body’s antibody status. If that feels like science fiction then a useful guide is one of the original greats. Vonnegut’s Player Piano may have been written in a time of punch-card machines, but it is set in what seems like a future utopia, where computers have turned America into a society that runs without conflict or want. But the new system has a catch: machines decide what you can do and where you can go. “Machines were doing America’s work far better than Americans had ever done it,” Vonnegut writes.

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The Three-Body Problem

By Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

Book cover of The Three-Body Problem

Why this book?

The pandemic may have started in China, but it is also the big geopolitical winner of it. Three Body Problem, the first book in Cixin Liu’s bestselling science fiction trilogy, imagines a world where a scientist writes to aliens, "Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.” And, then plays out a story over the course of a narrative measured first in centuries then millennia, which also shares a Chinese vision of the future and science fiction. The English-language translation by American sci-fi author Ken Liu turned the Chinese bestseller into the most popular Chinese translation in America since Mao’s Little Red Book.

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Infomocracy: Book One of the Centenal Cycle

By Malka Older

Book cover of Infomocracy: Book One of the Centenal Cycle

Why this book?

In democracies, does more information make us smarter, or more likely to be taken advantage of? That is one of the abiding questions asked by Malka Older’s novel Infomocracy, a fast-paced and intelligently crafted story about the late 21st-century contest for power in a world in which 100,000-strong blocs of people -- known as “centenals”--  and corporations have as much political clout as nations. “It’s all about participation. No matter who wins or loses, as long as everyone plays the game,” she writes. So when the ballots being cast will determine the direction of the entire world, you can be assured that desperate measures will be taken to determine the most important election of the century.

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By William Gibson

Book cover of Agency

Why this book?

William Gibson’s latest novel Agency is as prophetic as his establishment of cyberspace and cyberpunk culture in the 80s and 90s. His latest novel chronicles reality-busting skirmishes among gangsterish multi-generational families based in a glitzy post-apocalyptic 22nd century London. In this future, nano-machines conjure luxuries from nothing while sky-high scrubbers struggle to restore a ravaged atmosphere after the jackpot, a global environmental catastrophe. Agency tells a heist-type story about the emergence of Eunice, a sentient AI born in our stub out of American special operations research. Leading a cross-dimensional band of techies, publicists, hipsters, and hackers, ace software designer Verity fights to introduce Eunice to her world in order to save it. Yet Gibson is telling us about today's ecological and technological forces. He writes of pre-jackpot life in our era: “‘Did we ever come to terms with the sheer cluelessness of it?’

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Max Brooks

Book cover of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Why this book?

Though Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War seems to have the makings of an eternal conflict pitting humans against the undead, it offers a reminder that all crises eventually come to an end. What Brooks, one of the world’s leading experts on pandemics who warned in early 2020 about the brewing COVID crises, makes clear in World War Z is how important a competent national mobilization and international effort is to solve an existential crisis. The narrator is a United Nations Postwar Commission investigator compiling a history of the zombie uprising 12 years after VA Day, starting with the virus outbreak in Dachang, China. The story’s voices vary wonderfully, and include a human smuggler in Tibet mapping out his illicit trade, a Canadian soldier in Kyrgyzstan wrestling with post-war ailments, an American Army soldier who learned hard lessons about military hubris at the botched Battle of Yonkers. Given Brooks’ research, it is rightfully read as a serious book, even earning praise from former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

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