The best books with cynical takes on space colonisation

Who am I?

Growing up, I was exposed to the same influences as most other SF writers of my generation – Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. But I was also exposed to the more nuanced, more psychologically realistic work of writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Ursula K. LeGuin, and J.G. Ballard, none of whom shared the unquestioning techno-utopianism of an earlier generation of writers. They taught me not to automatically respect power or authority, and to always question ideas that might otherwise be taken for granted. It’s an approach that’s carried over into my own writing ever since.


I wrote...

Echogenesis

By Gary Gibson,

Book cover of Echogenesis

What is my book about?

From the moment Sam Newman and fourteen others awaken inside metal coffins next to the burning wreckage of a spacecraft, they face a constant struggle to stay alive on a seemingly uninhabited planet light-years from home. Worse, the last any of them remember, they were back home on Earth - at a time when interstellar travel was little more than a distant pipe dream.

Survival means finding out who – or what – brought them to this place. Yet what few answers they find amidst the steaming jungles and the ruins of that distant world defy all logic or sanity, and it soon becomes clear something has gone terribly wrong...something that could mean humanity's survival  or its extinction.

The books I picked & why

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The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Why this book?

Readers sometimes forget how dark much of Ray Bradbury’s work was, whether it’s the pyromaniac firemen of Fahrenheit 451’s blistering dystopia or the historical resonances of The Martian Chronicles. In these linked stories, Bradbury sets out a future Mars in which, much as happened in the Old West, a native civilization is first displaced and then eradicated by human settlers. Before long, Mars is strewn with garbage, with only the ghosts of the former inhabitants to remind the unheeding settlers of what they’ve lost. It turns out, as Bradbury explains, that while we can leave Earth behind, we can never unburden ourselves of the worst aspects of our own humanity.

The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Martian Chronicles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Martian Chronicles, a seminal work in Ray Bradbury's career, whose extraordinary power and imagination remain undimmed by time's passage, is available from Simon & Schuster for the first time.

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, America’s preeminent storyteller, imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor— of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race. In this classic work…


The Word for World Is Forest

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Word for World Is Forest

Why this book?

LeGuin wrote Word for World… as a visceral reaction to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Here, a human logging expedition to the world of Athshe has enslaved the entirely peaceful and non-violent natives in order to further its aims, and when the natives rise up against their conquerors, the human occupiers send out military expeditions to eradicate them. Even though the natives in the end win their freedom, it’s not without having to abandon their innately non-aggressive nature.

The Word for World Is Forest

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Word for World Is Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.


Jem

By Frederik Pohl,

Book cover of Jem

Why this book?

I first read Pohl’s Jem when I was a kid, and his fatalistic, even cynical take on first contact and interstellar colonization, along with the works of Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula LeGuin, greatly informed my developing views on politics and society. A near-future Earth divided into three major power blocs discovers a world ripe for exploitation and populated by not one, but three, sentient species, It’s not long before each bloc is currying the favor of different species in order to set each against the other, with absolutely no one thinking beyond their own immediate needs or with any concern about the consequences of their actions.

Jem

By Frederik Pohl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A cynical and compelling tale of politics, exploitation and colonisation on another planet

The discovery of another habitable world might spell salvation to the three bitterly competing power blocs of the resource-starved 21st century; but when their representatives arrive on Jem, with its multiple intelligent species, they discover instead the perfect situation into which to export their rivalries.

Subtitled, with savage irony, 'The Making of a Utopia', JEM is one of Frederik Pohl's most powerful novels.


Aurora

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of Aurora

Why this book?

Quite possibly one of the most divisive SF novels of recent years, this starts with a familiar scenario: the launch of a generation ship to transport thousands of colonists – and, ultimately, their descendants – to a distant habitable world. Despite having written Red Mars, one of the best novels about colonizing another world, Robinson has disparaged the idea that any such thing is, in fact, possible or even desirable. In Aurora, he confronts the question of what happens when those descendants, born on a ship they didn’t choose to be passengers on, decide they have a quite different idea of where they should go, and why.

Aurora

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Aurora as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'What a saga! Scifi with honest, complex humanity, physics, biology, sociology' - Tom Hanks

'Aurora is a magnificent piece of writing, certainly Robinson's best novel since his mighty Mars trilogy, perhaps his best ever' - Guardian

Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.

Now, we approach our destination.

A new home.

Aurora.

Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, Aurora is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.

'An accessible novel packed with big ideas, wonders, jeopardy and, at the end, a real emotional punch' SFX

'Aurora is Robinson's best book yet . . . Heart-wrenching, provocative' Scientific…


The Space Merchants

By Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth,

Book cover of The Space Merchants

Why this book?

Pohl drew heavily on his experience as an advertising copywriter in this, perhaps his most famous novel co-written with C.M. Kornbluth. Although not directly set on a colonized world, it’s easily one of the darkest takes on the subject as the protagonist, a ‘star-class copysmith’ is given the job of selling people on the idea of emigrating to Venus…while carefully avoiding the reality of Venus being barely, if at all, habitable, with nothing to promise but a harsh existence and generations of toil before the planet can be fully terraformed.

The Space Merchants

By Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Space Merchants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world's most powerful executives.

Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel.

The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to…


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