5 Best Sci-Fi Books of 2008

It’s tough times out there, and book-buying dollars are scarce. But there was some great science fiction published in 2008, even though some of the genre’s superstars (Ian McDonald, Richard K. Morgan) didn’t have any novels out this year. Making this list was more arduous than in years past, and in the interests of picking out five sure things for your sci-f spending cash or gift ideas, some great books were left off. But if you’ve got the lucre to spare, honorable mention goes out to Paul Melko’s SINGULARITY’S RING, Charles Stross’ SATURN’S CHILDREN and David Louis Edelman’s MULTIREAL. Here’s the top five:

5. LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow — Doctorow brought his great characterizations and snappy dialogue to the young-adult shelves in 2008 with this rousing call to arms. In LITTLE BROTHER, Doctorow takes his stick-it-to-the-man-with-technology worldview and puts it in the context of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, telling it through the eyes of a teenager caught on the wrong side of the “war on terror” who becomes a figurehead in a technology-enabled social revolution. LITTLE BROTHER is a book that should find its way into every teenager’s hands — there are very few things that would make me want to go back to high school, but a novel like this makes me almost wish I was a teenager again, with idealism and infinite options in front of me.

4. ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson — On that note, ANATHEM is sort of like that high school teacher you hate at first for being tough on you, but end up loving by the end of the semester. This doorstop-capable tome is crammed full of new ideas, insights and vocabulary, and the opening is dense enough to frustrate. But Stephenson builds an incredible story on that bedrock of exposition, and as the scientific monks of ANATHEM venture out into the world, an adventure unfolds that wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding without all those pages at the beginning that were devoted to describing a clock tower.

matter review3. MATTER by Iain M. Banks — Having never read one of Banks’ “Culture” novels before, I was a little bit intimidated. I had heard all these great things about how important and grand they were, and I have to say, it put me off. But once I got into MATTER, I loved it. This is space opera on a grand scale, and it presents ideas that are indeed important. But it’s never self-important, and the focus is squarely one the individual characters’ journeys through the landscape Banks has created. It’s funny, fun, action-packed and deep. So now I’ve got a pile of his other novels on the bookshelf, and I can’t wait to get into them.

2. SLY MONGOOSE by Tobias S. Buckell — Buckell doesn’t need a huge page count for his books, but he deinitely uses the pages that he has for maximum impact. SLY MONGOOSE is the third novel set in the Caribbean-infused future he kicked off with CRYSTAL RAIN and RAGAMUFFIN, and while knowledge of the backstory is an added bonus here, newcomers won’t be lost in this hard-edged actioner that pits a hard-ass cyborg against a seemingly endless tide of alien zombies. That’s awesome in and of itself, but the cultures and characters that collide in SLY MONGOOSE make it so much more than a by-the-numbers zombie explode-athon.

1. FAST FORWARD 2 edited by Lou Anders — Up until last year, I would never have believed that an anthology of new science fiction could be the best sci-fi book put out in a given year. First of all, is there even a demand for such a beast? It seems that a budding anthologist could make a far more successful book by picking a theme, say “green aliens with tentacles who are really children in search of their parents but are thought of as evil because of a cultural misunderstanding,” and find awesome tales from the genre’s creaky grandmasters that would guarantee an endcap placement at Borders. (This is by no means a knock against some of the great anthologists out there, like John Joseph Adams, whose WASTELANDS collection had a big impact on me this year.)

But Anders, who has paid his dues many times over in the science-fiction trenches, doesn’t seem to do the predictable thing, and his risk-taking has paid off. FAST FORWARD 2 is even more electric than last year’s first: Anders has assembled some of the best and brightest current stars of the genre, and they turned in stories that, as a whole, really do represent the cutting edge of fiction. From a fashion designer who grows living gowns to a raid on the doomsday seed bank to a young man getting Cyrano-with-a-twist dating advice in the India of the future, FAST FORWARD 2 is the book to read this year. It’s the surest of sure things, and a bargain, to boot. —Ryun Patterson

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Comment by gary dobbs
2008-12-29 13:32:16

Joker was superb

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Comment by Sara Cooper
2008-12-29 16:51:20

I read other Stephenson offerings in an Introduction to Science Fiction sophomore English class intended to help develop a literary canon for SF. I found that Stephenson takes his time/space/chapter developing the background in the beginning of a novel , and then overwhelms you with action that requires the knowledge provided in those slow, early pages. I’ll look forward to reading Anathema.

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Comment by arbitrary aardvark
2009-01-03 18:46:57

“stephenson takes his time/space/chapter developing the background in the beginning of a novel , and then overwhelms you with action that requires the knowledge provided in those slow, early pages”
Then you’re going to really really like Anathem. I did.
Nothing happens for the first 600 pages, but by the end it’s fast-paced as hiro protagonist delivering pizza.

Comment by Paladin08
2008-12-29 18:06:35

Yippee! Some new reads to track down and fill my time with here in Q1 of 2009. Thanks for the list!

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Comment by Rod
2008-12-29 20:47:29

More year-end coverage and lists to come as the week continues!

Comment by Todd
2008-12-31 11:41:38

re: Matter. I came into Banks via The Algebraist and was not a fan at all. Are these Culture books similar? I’d heard good things about Use of Weapons, but am still hesitant…

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Comment by RP
2008-12-31 11:58:46

The Culture books are different, and MATTER in particular is fun (and at times breezy and funny) without sacrificing emotional weight.

Comment by Cobb
2009-01-03 13:31:38

The Algebraist is a novel out of the Culture series, which makes it completely different than those in it. I would suggest ‘Consider Phlebas’ if you dig action and ‘Excession’ if you’d like to get inside the head of a supercomputer. ‘Matter’ is a culture clash and a great revenge story. ‘Player of Games’ is very interesting in its own way, the most straightforward of Banks’ stories, easily made into a movie. ‘The Use of Weapons’ is complicated storytelling and the first book I think I’ve read that goes alternately backwards in time (in the odd numbered chapters) and forwards in time (in the even numbered chapters). It’s the most heartbreaking and romantic of Banks’ works.

Comment by Rob Preston
2008-12-31 12:36:53

Haven’t read Matter yet, but love IMB and look forward to that one! I’d personally highly reccomend Banks to anyone who likes SF – well worth taking a look at.
Taking seriously the prod in the direction of the Fast Forward anthologies – I realy enjoy the fast pace of collections, and the different styles and ideas therein.
On the subject of new SF, I’ve just had my first book published (how cool?)! It’s called The Siege, and it’s available online from http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheSiege.html
I’d love to get some feedback from anyone who’s had a chance to read it…
Keep up the good work on this site, everyone! 🙂

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Comment by truthiness
2008-12-31 22:50:44

good list

should also check out “Tears of Epimetheus” by JD Adler a great parable about lack of forethought being the source of humanities problems told through the lense of humanity rebuilding 4 centuries after an ecological apocalypse. entertaining drives the message through story without preaching.

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Comment by Todd
2009-01-01 11:54:19

“Buckell doesn’t need a huge page count for his books, but he definitely uses the pages that he has for maximum impact.”

I couldn’t agree more, in that I wish there WAS more page count to breathe in.

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Comment by Zak
2009-01-03 13:49:05

You probably didn’t read Publicani. WOuld you like me to send it to you?

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Comment by Eric
2010-08-21 16:06:42

Ever since Cryptonomicon Stephenson has adored the baroque, both in style and in time period. Thus, if you don’t like the descriptions he creates of the winding of the clock in Anathem, then you probably don’t like Stephenson. Everything he crafts is meant for itself, but he does build upon it later. Frankly, I thought Anathem was his most accessible book since Diamond Age. Anathem is my favorite book of any genre, by far.

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