The best novels that wonder about the future

Who am I?

There are days when it seems like all I do is imagine what the future holds. I love reading “wonder tales,” as I’ve heard Margaret Atwood call them – novels that imagine how our world might change or fantasize about completely different realms. At the same time, they reflect on conditions in our world today. That’s what I do with my own creative writing. I was trained to think about the future as a journalist, talking with media executives about how their content and technology are evolving. My stories have appeared in Asimov's; they’ve been selected by the Writers Lab for Women; and my novel The Juice was published in February.

I wrote...

The Juice

By Janet Stilson,

Book cover of The Juice

What is my book about?

This cyberpunk, dystopian novel is at turns an espionage rollercoaster ride and a spellbinding romance. It features Jarat Ellington, an exile from Elite society, who was trying to lead a simple life when a genius friend dropped an explosive mystery in his lap. The pal, Thom, created a priceless chemical substance called the Juice that turns mildly charming people into supremely charismatic beings, known as Charismites. Because of their magnetism, they can get anyone to do almost anything. But the Juice is stolen, and Thom killed.

Jarat goes on an obsessive quest to uncover the deadly adversary who now controls the Juice. Along the way, he must deal with a powerful media executive with a mysterious agenda and a dirt-poor fearless girl, who transforms into a celebrity with extraordinary powers of persuasion. The Juice explores the future of America and how media companies could increasingly shape the opinions and behaviors of the public.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Zero History

By William Gibson,

Book cover of Zero History

Why this book?

This novel represents a sharp turn for me. Until I snapped up Zero History in an airport bookstore many years ago, the science fiction I’d read seemed like dry, intellectual exercises. The characters didn’t have depth. They never made me laugh (or cry). But Zero History unleashed a passion in me for speculative fiction, and eventually, it turned my own writing in that direction as well. To this day, it’s one of my all-time favorite novels. While it’s the third book in a William Gibson trilogy, it is entirely complete on its own. There’s a pop culture, cool vibe about it as the story taps into the lives of three people with unusual gifts – which a global marketing magnate dearly wants to use in various ways.

New York 2140

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of New York 2140

Why this book?

My home port, New York City, never stops entertaining me, with endless pockets of culture to explore. Kim Stanley Robinson’s book centers on parts of Manhattan that I know very well, like Madison Square Park, and reimagines them in a Venice-like environment, with most of the city’s streets submerged in water. 

While climate change is clearly at play, this book isn’t all doom-and-gloom. There’s a somewhat quirky cast of characters that all inhabit the same building and include a media star known for her airship escapades and a couple of coders whose disappearance has monumental consequences for the financial industry. If Robert Altman were still with us, I could see him directing a movie adaptation of New York 2140. It has a sensibility that’s similar to his own.

Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

If my first two choices were desserts, they’d be variations of a tart lemon meringue pie, with an airy buttery crust. Parable of the Sower is a denser substance, like a flourless chocolate cake, with next to no sugar. In other words, it activated different “taste buds” in me.

Sower imagines America at a time when barricaded communities protect people from a general state of violence and poverty. The heroine, Lauren, has supernatural powers of empathy. And she creates a completely new religion, which is pretty darned fascinating to consider. After her family and community are destroyed, Lauren journeys north from the Los Angeles area to find safety, collecting a band of friends and religious followers along the way. Octavia E. Butler followed up this masterpiece with a second novel, Parable of the Sower, which is equally delicious.

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi,

Book cover of The Windup Girl

Why this book?

Imagine the teeming, dense city of Bangkok thrown into a future time. It’s inhabited by a corporate spy in search of food substances thought to have gone extinct. Another character, the windup girl in the title, is a bio-engineered human created to answer the decadent needs of Kyoto men. Emiko, as she’s known, is abandoned on the streets of the Thai city and longs to reside in one of the villages where people like herself can live independently.

Windup Girl has lots of characters. Their agendas interlock in various ways. According to some of the reviews I’ve read, that is a bit too much for some readers. But hey, I’m a fan of Leo Tolstoy. To my mind, the rich, complex nature of the book is in keeping with the city where it takes place.

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

There’s a sensibility to Never Let Me Go that reminds me of a quiet piece of music that grabs you unawares by slowly introducing dark layers filled with devastating emotion. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel features a young woman named Kathy who is a clone. Her purpose on planet Earth is to donate her organs to “real” humans on an as-needed basis. 

Kathy’s state of being, and its consequences, are revealed as she recounts her memories of two other clones whom she met at a special private school. On one level the push-pull between the trio is similar to what school mates the world over encounter. But their special purpose adds a much deeper level, which is explored through a variety of emotions, experiences and longings. It all points toward their inevitable fate: when they donate so many organs that they can no longer live.

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