The best science fiction books about the past

Who am I?

I’m a Virginia-based science fiction and fantasy writer who’s lived variously-enriching lives as a coroner’s assistant, customer service manager, university lecturer, secretary, factory technician, and clerk. I’ve bounced all around the Midwest, from Minnesota to Ohio to Colorado to Missouri and now out on the East Coast.


I wrote...

Quietus

By Tristan Palmgren,

Book cover of Quietus

What is my book about?

Quietus, a science fiction novel set in the midst of the Black Death. It features a transdimensional anthropologist who can’t keep herself from interfering with one of the darkest periods of Earth’s history, a young Carthusian monk who’s the only survivor of his monastery, and a worlds-spanning conspiracy to topple an empire larger than the human imagination can contain.

Quietus and its sequel, Terminus, were published in March and November of 2018 (the timing for books about a plague could have been better, could have been worse…). I also write prose novels for Marvel with Aconyte Books.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In the Garden of Iden

Tristan Palmgren Why did I love this book?

One of the most compelling parts about time-hopping science fiction is vicariously experienced through the culture clash of past and present. It’s even better if it’s happening in the head of a single character. Mendoza was rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century and thrust into the world of the Company, a civilization-spanning corporate agency operating behind the scenes of history for the profit of far-future shareholders. Time travel in this universe only goes one way, backward, and Mendoza will take the long way to the future: an engaging, sprawling, harrowing journey through centuries.

By Kage Baker,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In the Garden of Iden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first novel in what has become one of the most popular series in contemporary Science Fiction, now back in print from Tor. In the twenty-fourth century, the Company preserves works of art and extinct forms of life (for profit of course). It recruits orphans from the past, renders them all but immortal, and trains them to serve the Company. One of these is Mendoza the botanist, who is sent to Elizabethan England to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. Her quest is jeopardized by Nicholas Harpole, who stirs unfamiliar emotions within her about her…


Book cover of All Clear

Tristan Palmgren Why did I love this book?

It’s too easy, in time travel fantasies, to imagine that you would feel a step above the people around you... that you alone know what’s coming, and just, in general, have your advanced-future-person perspective on the world. That’s not how history should feel. The All Clear series’s time-traveling historians arrive to observe the London Blitz and have that comforting certainty ripped out from underneath them. They’re left lost, alone, and isolated in a well-painted portrait of a world on the edge of collapse.

By Connie Willis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Award-winning author Connie Willis returns with a stunning, enormously entertaining novel of time travel, war, and the deeds - great and small - of ordinary people who shape history.


Book cover of Darwinia

Tristan Palmgren Why did I love this book?

Sometimes history is just as dizzying and alienating as physics, astronomy, and contemplating the end of the universe. Unraveling the chains of could-have-beens and strange possibilities is tempting, but too big for the human imagination. In Darwinia, the Earth of 1912 becomes even more. Europe and large parts of other continents have vanished, replaced by pieces of another, much more hostile planet - and the alternate history only gets stranger from there. It perfectly captures that dazed, giddy feeling of trying to understand just how big our universe really is.

By Robert Charles Wilson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In an alternative history of the twentieth century, Europe is replaced by a land of nightmarish jungle and monsters that contains the secret of human destiny.


Book cover of Glasshouse

Tristan Palmgren Why did I love this book?

Not all books about the past have to be set in the past. In the far-flung future, deep in interstellar space and surrounded by impossible living technologies, an amnesiac takes part in a sociological experiment to reconstruct twentieth-century middle-class living. Glasshouse is, among other things, a playful, bitter, and funny takedown of both the era and the impossibility of actually reconstructing history. The paranoia engendered by twentieth-century living is only far too justified by the interstellar conspiracy that’s ensnared the study’s participants.

By Charles Stross,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“ONE NIGHTMARISH PANOPTICON.” – The New York Times
               
When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn’t take him long to discover that someone is trying to kill him. It’s the twenty-seventh century, when interstellar travel is by teleport gate and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees’ personalities—including Robin’s earlier self.
             
On the run from a ruthless pursuer and searching for a place to hide, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity: the Glasshouse, a simulated pre-accelerated culture where participants are assigned anonymized identities. But what looks like the…


Book cover of Ammonite

Tristan Palmgren Why did I love this book?

Ammonite starts in space and lands on an alien world but brings plenty of Earth’s history along with it. Human settlers that lost an age ago, transformed by a virus that only women survive but allows them to reproduce, have spread across this world. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan faces down nomadic horse archers and gets lost in pastoral folkways both new and familiar. She deconstructs her future and rebuilds herself out of the past. Ammonite’s new world shows us how our world might have looked if different paths were taken.

By Nicola Griffith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Lambda and Tiptree Awards • “A knockout . . . Strong, likable characters, a compelling story, and a very interesting take on gender.”—Ursula K. Le Guin

Change or die. These are the only options available on planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep—and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and…


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The Fornax Assassin

By J.C. Gemmell,

Book cover of The Fornax Assassin

J.C. Gemmell Author Of The Fornax Assassin

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Inclusive What-if worrier Eco-warrior Mountain trekker Ten-mile runner

J.C.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In 2038 a devastating pandemic sweeps across the world. Two decades later, Britain remains the epicenter for the Fornax variant, annexed by a terrified global community.

David Malik is as careful as any man to avoid contact with the virus. But when his sister tests positive as an asymptomatic carrier, she must relocate to Fornax Island to join the isolated population of contagious untreatables. Fortunately, the British prime minister’s latest manifesto includes reintegrating the islanders with the nation. Yet, he does not survive a visit to Fornax Island to unveil his new policies.

The military suspects one of its junior officers is responsible for his death. Malik seizes his chance to represent the possible assassin, allowing him to protect his sister. Yet within days of taking on the case, he finds himself accused of masterminding the assassination. 

The Fornax Assassin

By J.C. Gemmell,

What is this book about?

2038: a devastating pandemic sweeps across the world. Two decades later, Britain remains the epicentre for the fornax variant, annexed by a terrified global community.

David Malik is as careful as any man to avoid contact with the virus. But when his sister tests positive as an asymptomatic carrier, she must relocate to Fornax Island to join the isolated population of contagious-untreatables.

Fortunately, the British prime minister’s latest manifesto includes reintegrating the islanders with the nation. Yet, he does not survive a visit to Fornax Island to unveil his new policies.

The military suspects one of its junior officers is…


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