The best books that make you look at the familiar differently

R.E. Stearns Author Of Barbary Station
By R.E. Stearns

Who am I?

I’ve always read speculative fiction for its new perspectives on reality. Now that I write it too, I appreciate the fabulous minds that create these unique views of our universe even more. Experience in higher education and instructional design led me to appreciate organization that flows at the speed and direction of thought. I adore a well-turned phrase and a well-built world, and I hope this list leads you to a new experience of that same joy.


I wrote...

Barbary Station

By R.E. Stearns,

Book cover of Barbary Station

What is my book about?

Adda and Iridian are newly-minted engineers but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system is killing station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out. Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence.

The books I picked & why

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The Deep

By Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Book cover of The Deep

Why this book?

You must know at least one mermaid story, but I doubt it spans distance and history as thoroughly as The Deep. This novella demonstrates that first, the ocean is huge and unexplored enough to believably hide an underwater civilization, and second, memories do strange things to us, whether we forget them or think about them every day. Rivers weaves together the vast emptiness of the sea interrupted by bubbles of unique life with the vast emptiness of time punctuated by major and minor events in a magical and painfully poignant story I read in three days (which is fast, for me).


The City in the Middle of the Night

By Charlie Jane Anders,

Book cover of The City in the Middle of the Night

Why this book?

Readers have been exploring human colonies on tidally locked planets for about as long as science fiction has existed, so it’s fantastic how well this adventure novel can give the reader a brand-new perspective on what, exactly, an improved version of our world might look like. You’ll have a difficult time predicting the end of this story from its beginnings. Events force the protagonist to learn new and sometimes horrifying things about her world and the people close to her, and like her, we can’t hold onto unproven assumptions if we really want to make the world a better place. I can’t say much more without spoiling this story’s many twists and surprises!


How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler

By Ryan North,

Book cover of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler

Why this book?

A lot of speculative fiction involves “basic” technologies like animal domestication, farming, and written language. This well-organized, thoroughly sourced non-fiction book will tell you just how difficult developing all that stuff was on our planet, let alone in whatever fictional universes you may find these technologies in! I will never again take charcoal, or the concept of zero, for granted.

Aside from the book’s valuable content, its language is simple. The author integrates the facts into the fiction that our time machine has broken down, stranding us in a previous era where we are a long, arduous journey away from ever eating microwaved ramen again. North also points out, at every opportunity, all the ridiculousness and hilarity involved in invention, civilization, and attempting to do everything by ourselves. Please, read the footnotes in this one.


Zero Sum Game

By S.L. Huang,

Book cover of Zero Sum Game

Why this book?

Many readers fear math, and this action-packed adventure may give you new reasons to fear it. The protagonist’s superpower is super-fast mental calculation that lets her dodge bullets and kick incredible quantities of butt in a fight. Even more devious minds are opposing her. If you’ve ever wondered what use your high school physics and calculus classes were, this novel offers some explanation, although you can appreciate the story without them. This is, and I cannot stress this enough, a fun and exciting tale that treats math like magic and totally gets away with doing so.


Dawn of the Algorithm

By Yann Rousselot,

Book cover of Dawn of the Algorithm

Why this book?

If you, like me, have to consciously choose to read more poetry, this is a fascinating book to add to your collection. The poems’ subjects range from pop culture to body horror to the titular implications of algorithms and AI, and every one of them is a well-structured look at an apocalypse, large or small. Chances are excellent that you will encounter an English word you can’t readily define. Many of the poems are illustrated with haunting and/or humorous line art which even the ebook format renders well. Everything ends, but not every description of those endings are as beautiful as the ones in this book.


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