The best speculative fiction by people who know their history

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian with a strong science background who paid my way through college and grad school as a network engineer and Perl programmer. My most recent work, like Nation of Deadbeats and my new book Oceans of Grain, are international financial histories of the world that look at the world through the lens of commodities, international trade, and labor.


I wrote...

Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

By Scott Reynolds Nelson,

Book cover of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

What is my book about?

In 1998, quite by accident, I discovered the real person behind the legend of the Black “Steel Driving Man” named John Henry who defeated a steam drill and “died with a hammer in his hand.” I assumed he was just a legend, but a postcard, a surgeon’s report, and a stray line from the song led me to find the real man. John Henry died a young man, but not before rewriting the history of the South with his hammer. My book Steel Drivin' Man won historical and literary prizes and a front-page article in the New York Times. My work is at the intersection of history and storytelling, and there are a few works of speculative fiction that I return to again and again.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Memory Called Empire

Scott Reynolds Nelson Why did I love 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.

By Arkady Martine,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Memory Called Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This incredible opening to the duology recalls the best of John le Carre, Iain M. Banks's Culture novels and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy.

In a war of lies she seeks the truth . . .

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the Teixcalaanli Empire's interstellar capital, eager to take up her new post. Yet when she arrives, she discovers her predecessor was murdered. But no one will admit his death wasn't accidental - and she might be next.

Now Mahit must navigate the capital's enticing yet deadly halls of power, to discover dangerous truths. And while she hunts for the…


Book cover of Dune

Scott Reynolds Nelson Why did I love 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.


By Frank Herbert,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's lifespan to making interstellar travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of…


Book cover of The Half-Made World

Scott Reynolds Nelson Why did I love 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.

By Felix Gilman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Half-Made World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The world is still only half-made. Between the wild shores of uncreation, and the ancient lands of the East lies the vast expanse of the West---young, chaotic, magnificent, war-torn.

Thirty years ago, the Red Republic fought to remake the West---fought gloriously, and failed. The world that now exists has been carved out amid a war between two rival factions: the Line, enslaving the world with industry, and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence. The Republic is now history, and the last of its generals sits forgotten and nameless in a madhouse on the edge of creation. But locked…


Book cover of Perdido Street Station

Scott Reynolds Nelson Why did I love 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.

By China Miéville,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Perdido Street Station as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the August Derleth award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Perdido Street Station is an imaginative urban fantasy thriller, and the first of China Mieville's novels set in the world of Bas-Lag.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians,…


Book cover of The Dispossessed

Scott Reynolds Nelson Why did I love 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.

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Dispossessed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the very best must-read novels of all time - with a new introduction by Roddy Doyle

'A well told tale signifying a good deal; one to be read again and again' THE TIMES

'The book I wish I had written ... It's so far away from my own imagination, I'd love to sit at my desk one day and discover that I could think and write like Ursula Le Guin' Roddy Doyle

'Le Guin is a writer of phenomenal power' OBSERVER

The Principle of Simultaneity is a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize interstellar civilization by making possible instantaneous…


You might also like...

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in technology, physicists, and galactic empires?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about technology, physicists, and galactic empires.

Technology Explore 117 books about technology
Physicists Explore 39 books about physicists
Galactic Empires Explore 11 books about galactic empires