The best psychological thrillers that will make you think

John L. Casti Author Of Prey for Me: A Psychological Thriller
By John L. Casti

The Books I Picked & Why

A Philosophical Investigation

By Philip Kerr

Book cover of A Philosophical Investigation

Why this book?

THEME: Technically, this is not really a work of science fiction per se, even though it takes place in London 2013, twenty-one years before the book's publication. So it explores aspects of the future through a journey into the head of a serial killer and to the heart of murder itself. In the book, London at that time was a city where serial murder has reached epidemic proportions. To combat this raft of murders, the government has created a test to screen people for a predisposition to commit violent crimes. Tested at random, a man is shocked to hear that he fits the model. Yet when he breaks into the computer to erase his name, he discovers a list of his "brothers" a logical idea springs into his mind: What if to protect society he becomes a killer of serial murderers?

The inspector charged with tracking down this sociopath, code-named "Wittgenstein", engages with him in a diabolical cat-and-mouse game, in which the killer engages her in a chilling philosophical dialogue about the nature of life itself.

I'm a big fan of both fast-paced intelligent thrillers and philosophy, so when an author brings the two themes together how can I not like the book? And that's especially true when it's written by a first-rate stylist like Philip Kerr. The story is fast-paced, the antagonist and protagonist are engagingly drawn and the philosophy is perfect. What better way can there be to learn a lot of philosophy and have a great time doing it?

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Permutation City

By Greg Egan

Book cover of Permutation City

Why this book?

What happens when your digital self overpowers your physical self? A life in Permutation City is unlike any life to which you’re accustomed. You have Eternal Life, the power to live forever. Immortality is a real thing, just not the thing you’d expect. Life is just computer code. You have been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. A copy of a copy. For Paul Durham, he keeps making copies of himself. But his copies keep changing their minds and shutting themselves down. There is also Maria Deluca, who is nothing but an Autoverse addict. She spends every waking minute with the cellular automaton known as the Autoverse, a world that lives by the mathematical “laws of physics.”

Paul makes Maria an offer to design and drop a seed into the Autoverse that will allow her to indulge in her obsession. There is, however, one catch: you can no longer terminate, bailout, and remove yourself. You will never be your normal flesh-and-blood life self again. Maria then faces the question: Is this what I really want? Is this what WE really want?

I have a weakness for books that explore deep philosophical questions in a science-fiction format. This book is a prime example of the genre. The question of what it means to be "alive"? What it means to be "human"? and to what degree can we capture human nature in a computer? are all explored in this work. This volume was Greg Egan's first novel, but luckily not his last (right now, I have eleven of his works and am looking for number twelve!).

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By Joanna Kilmartin, Stanislaw Lem, Steve Cox

Book cover of Solaris

Why this book?

In this classic volume, the sentience on an alien planet is so metaphysically distant from humanity that it causes its cosmonaut investigators to hallucinate and collapse. The Solaris alien, a seemingly cognizant ocean, is a permanent enigma, completely unframable by any human thought process.

The story begins with a simple, evocative setup. Three scientists studying an alien planet begin receiving unwelcome "visitors" — apparently, human figures from the long-dead past, returned to haunt the living. They appear (and reappear) while the scientists sleep, as though dragged into the waking light from the deepest recesses of their subconscious guilt, dread, and regret. Sent to investigate, psychologist Kris Kelvin awakens next to his wife, who’d killed herself ten years earlier. Is she "real"? How did she arrive at the space station? And how is she connected to the ocean planet, Solaris? Solaris asks the question: Can we understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within ourselves?

Lem wanted to imagine an encounter with something truly alien. How would human beings react to a life-form so foreign as to be beyond comprehension? He imagined a planet-wide sentient ocean so frustratingly non-communicative that scientists would spend their lives trying to unlock its secrets. They’d produce quasi-religious speculations about the "cosmic yogi" or the "oceanic idiot," revere it as an ascended mind or denounce it as childish and prehuman in its development. They’d devote Talmudic attention to reading its roiling forms; they’d lose themselves in its waves. Finally, they’d try to get its attention. And when that attention came, it was like nothing they could have predicted.

This book has absolutely everything: Great writing, a storyline that moves in a dozen directions at once, each direction complementing and reinforcing the others, and comes to a crescendo that is almost impossible to believe. Who could ask for more? This book is the very quintessence of what a great novel, let alone a work of science fiction, should be---and is!

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Truth Machine

By James Halperin

Book cover of Truth Machine

Why this book?

By the early twentieth century, violent crime was the number one political issue in America. In response, Congress passed the Swift and Sure Anti-Crime Bill, which gave a previously convicted violent criminal one fair trail, one quick appeal, then immediate execution. But to prevent abuse of the law, it was necessary to create a machine that could detect lies with one-hundred percent accuracy. It was clear that such a Truth Machine would change the world. But the race to perfect the Truth Machine forces one man to commit a shocking act of treachery. Now he must conceal the truth from his own creation---or face execution.

The conflict here is truth versus justice, as is often the case in human affairs. I was extremely interested in seeing how the author would balance these two seemingly irreconcilable factors. The book does a startingly job in resolving this conflict, in the process creating a history of the future, one that resonates with insight, wisdom, and amazing possibility.

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By Gregory Benford

Book cover of Timescape

Why this book?

This book is set in the early 1990s, where an ecological catastrophe is threatening the entire world. Scientists are feverishly working to understand the tachyon, a subatomic particle that can travel faster than light. They want to harness this power to go back in time and warn their colleagues in the 1960s to cease the experiments that are now destroying the oceans. Ultimately, the book explores our ever-changing views of cause and effect, showing that we are all moving through a landscape of time and space that we don't understand. The book ends in a fashion very suitable for Hollywood, so I won't disclose it here other than to say humans somehow managed to escape the ecological and climatic threats that we are again facing today. This book is a good place to see how it was done thirty years ago!

This is a true sci-fi book with an emphasis on the science. The writing is excellent and carries the story along in a fashion completely understandable to a non-scientific reader. It's no wonder that Timescape was named to the list of the 100 best sci-fi novels up to 1980.

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