The best speculative fiction by people who know their history

Scott Reynolds Nelson Author Of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend
By Scott Reynolds Nelson

The Books I Picked & Why

A Memory Called Empire

By Arkady Martine

Book cover of A Memory Called Empire

Why this book?

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire imagines a galaxy-spanning empire as a kind of reincarnation of the Byzantine Empire. A song that starts a revolution? Foreign agents enamored with the culture they want to destroy? A society wrapped up in its own account of the heroism of its army? All of these describe Martine’s amazing galaxy-spanning empire but also describe the massive Byzantine Empire that ruled much of Europe and the Middle East from the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) between 700 and 1453. An expert on Byzantine history she shows a beguiling, self-obsessed empire and the people in a position to bring it down.

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By Frank Herbert

Book cover of Dune

Why this book?

Frank Herbert’s Dune is an obvious source for Star Wars and other science fiction, and is a sort of Lawrence of Arabia tale of a foreigner who leads a ragtag army to victory against an empire. It is also an account of the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in its place. It expresses Herbert’s fascination (and revulsion) with an Islam that he sometimes makes overly exotic and strange. The ecological relationship between the planet and its flora and fauna is surprising, and is the central mystery in the book. The imperial plotting and self-dealing capture the desperate attempts to stop the decline in the last days of the Byzantines. The other books after this are not as strong.

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The Half-Made World

By Felix Gilman

Book cover of The Half-Made World

Why this book?

Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World is a brilliant steampunk allegory about what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the colonization of the life-world for a faithless utilitarian reason. Gilman imagines a war that pits defenders of wonder, magic, and voodoo against soulless drones seeking gain through environmental degradation. This is a common enough trope in science fiction but what brings it to another level is Gilman’s personification of wonder and magic in a sleazy, violent anti-hero who is frequently possessed by demons. Gilman embodies the colonizers of the world as monstrous, dragon-like railway engines who order men around using telegrams. The innocent reader who will decide the fate of the world is a brilliant, female doctor who is trying to cure herself of her opium addiction. Gilman’s understanding of the rhythm of nineteenth-century language is amazing. His characters each have unique voices and his beautiful prose suggests that Gilman has spent years reading and absorbing the language of long-dead nineteenth-century authors who you have never heard of. This book leads to a sequel but the novel works well on its own.

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Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

Book cover of Perdido Street Station

Why this book?

Mieville’s monsters in the steampunk city-state of New Crobuzon are slakemoths, flying creatures that consume the dreams of their prey at night. As personified drugs, their bodies can be “milked” for hallucinogens but they are actually unstable and dangerous alpha-predators that are bound to destroy the city. Mieville’s is a kind of extended meditation on the beauty and decay of cities at the turn of the last century, but also summons up the intersection of the AIDS crisis, criminal underworlds, and aggressive policing.

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The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why this book?

Nothing quite captures the ideology of self-abnegation and revolutionary optimism of the anarchist, socialist, and communist revolutionaries after World War I more than Ursula Le Guin’s novel. The central character grows up on the moon in a revolutionary commune with a harsh environment that imposes revolutionary discipline on everyone. This lunar society devotes immense resources to education, and to breaking through the edges of scientific research, but also imposes a somewhat stultifying conformity against which the central character rebels.

A brilliant mathematician, he returns to the capitalist world of earth where his discoveries will have a world-changing impact, though he finds himself sickened by the grubbiness and inequality of a fully-capitalist society that has sent all its radicals to the moon. Le Guin’s 1974 book is a kind of meditation on how during the Cold War the Soviets could outstrip the United States in some of the fundamentals of science, particularly in physics and mathematics. Her suggestion that the United States and Western Europe would convert these foundational discoveries into consumer technologies was disturbing prescient. Decades later Americans retrospectively imagined that the laser, for example, was something they had developed themselves, forgetting the dispossessed.

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