Give someone a whole new world for the holidays this year! Here are 10 recent science fiction books that'll make terrific gifts — each with a wildly different take on the genre, so there's something for everyone.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord (Small Beer Press)
In this retelling of a Senegalese folktale, an abusive husband hires a tracker to find his wife, Paama, who had fled two years prior. The actions of the tracker, Kwame, draw the attention of the Indigo Lord, who lost his powers of chaos to the same Paama. This is a book that only came out in English this year, and was eagerly anticipated. Although it takes place in a unnamed place, it blends the feeling of mythology with an every day world in a compelling way.
For: The fairy tale enthusiast who lurks beneath the surface of most grown-ups.
Aurorarama, by Jean-Christophe Valtat (Melville House)
The description of this book had me at "1908: New Venice- 'the pearl of the Arctic.'" It's not an easy read, since the story is told with an alternating point of view between the main characters, Brentford Orsini and Gabriel d'Allier. Nevertheless, Aurorarama tells a tale of political intrigue (secret police! Eskimos! Prisoner-esque hovering airship!) with some truly lyrical prose.
For: Alternate history fans and lovers of interweaving narratives
For the Win, by Cory Doctorow (Tor)
Set in the near future and in locations across the globe (though primarily China and India), the story involves a sweeping cast of characters making a living-if you want to call brutal conditions and pitiful wages a "living"-in such virtual-game worlds as Svartalfheim Warriors and Zombie Mecha. Many of them, like 15-year-old Mala (known by her troops as "General Robotwalla"), endure physical threats from their bosses to farm virtual gold, which is then sold to rich First World gamers. Then these brilliant teens are brought together by the mysterious Big Sister Nor, who has a plan to unionize and bring these virtual worlds-and real-world sweatshops, too-to a screeching halt. Once again Doctorow has taken denigrated youth behavior (this time, gaming) and recast it into something heroic. He can't resist the occasional lecture-sometimes breaking away from the plot to do so-but thankfully his lessons are riveting. With it's eye-opening humanity and revolutionary zeal, this ambitious epic is well worth the considerable
It doesn't really take much to recommend a book by Doctorow, but this particular premise is especially engaging for those of us who have spent countless hours playing online games. It takes those games and takes those virtual lives to the logical extreme. It's just a fascinating concept.
The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)
This is tale of the future, where Bangkok struggles to survive both rising sea levels and out of control mutations. There's Jaidee, who works for the Environment Ministry, Anderson, who looks for profit-makers for a western agribusiness, and Hock Seng, a refugee from China. Every one of them is trying to live in this world, until their actions, and those of Emiko, a product of genetic engineering and the titular "wind-up," accidentally starts a civil war.
There are so many different consequences at play in the future world of this book. There's global warming in the form of the sea levels, genetic engineering in Emiko, and tensions between the developed and developing world in the form of Anderson's job. That all makes this world seem like a possibility, which only enhances the power of the story. (Our full review of The Wind-Up Girl is here.)
For: Lovers of futuristic, post-apocalyptic stories
The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman (Tor)
This engaging Wild West book takes place in world dominated by a war between the people of the Gun who carry demon-possessed, well, guns that give them powers, and the people of the Line who have sentient engines. The story itself is driven by the news that a famous general may not be dead, and may in fact have a weapon capable of stopping the war. (Our review of The Half-Made World is here.)
For: Those of us who live for tales of well-realized alternate worlds.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer (St. Martin's Press)
It's one of those stories where an ill-thought-out wish from a child leads to adventure, but with a steampunk twist. From Publisher's Weekly:
genius inventor Prospero Taligent promises the 100 kids he's invited to his daughter Miranda's birthday party that they will have their "heart's desires fulfilled." When young Harold Winslow says he wants to be a storyteller, he sets in motion an astonishing plot that will eventually find him imprisoned aboard a giant zeppelin, the Chrysalis, powered by Taligent's greatest invention, a (probably faulty) perpetual motion machine. As Harold tells his story from his airborne prison, a fantastic and fantastical account unfolds
Our own review of the book is here.
For: Anyone who loves stories of kids on fantastic journeys, but in particular Steampunk fans.
Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow
This collection brings together the best offerings of OMNI Online, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION, where Datlow was an editor, from 1996 to 2005. Each of the fifteen short stories contained in this books 320 pages brings something different, but special, to the mix. Datlow's skill in picking amazing fiction may actually be the star of this anthology.
For: Pretty much everyone, given the variety, but especially people looking for short stories over novels.
Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc)
Taking place in a world not unlike Tang Dynasty China, Kay's novel follows Shen Tai, whose father has just died in battle, during his mourning year, where he attracts the attention of a princess of his people, sent to marry the enemy. Her gifts make him both rich and the target of assassination. Much of the praise of this novel has also centered on Kay's portrayal of women using what little power they have in a repressive society, and that's a fair compliment. Even if Shen Tai is the protagonist, the women dominate the story. Plus, its the re-imagining of the past combined where, as Michael Dirda of The Washington Post puts it, "Ghosts can kill, female were-foxes seduce, shamans take control of a man's soul or employ swans to search for enemies" really creates a world that is both familiar and supernatural.
For: Lovers of historical fiction
Spellwright, by Blake Charlton (Tor)
This is book which works with all the classic elements of fantasy coming of age tales. Nicodemus Weal is believed to be the prophesied Halcyon, who will either bring about or avert a magical apocalypse. But in a world where magic is dependent on the proper use of words, Weal has this world's version of dyslexia — every word he comes into contact with is instantly misspelled. With that problem, Weal is dismissed as a failure, until he and his teacher are accused of murder
This book seems to combine parts of Harry Potter with Percy Jackson, but with a separate and interesting take on magic. There's no shortage of books where the protagonist goes to a school to master powers, but it's the specifics that make them stand out. In this case, it's the unique system of magic, which is described and explained in detail.
For: Well, fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. And those who believe very strongly in the power of words.
Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter, by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook (Random House)
This is the only non-fiction book on the list, but it's no less compelling. The original version was released in 2008, but this version adds over 300 pages of material chronicling Russell T. Davies' (and David Tennant's) last year on Doctor Who. It's a real-time chronicling of the making of the show, since it's a compilation of e-mails between Davies and Cook during that time. It has the moment where Steven Moffat agreed to take over (Davies' e-mail on the matter is called "Steven Moffat's Thighs") as well as snippets of scripts that never ended up actually happening.
It's not just a treasure trove for fans or a compilation of primary source material for television historians, it's also an excellent look at the creative process. If you've ever tried to write anything — script, novel, dissertation, book report, anything, you will find something to sympathize with in this book.
Plus, at 704 pages, this thing can double as a weapon.
For: Fans of Doctor Who, fans of television, writers
The Hogfather, Terry Pratchett (Harper)
This is the only book on this list that isn't from 2010, but it's on this list because it's the only fantasy novel we can think of which is also an in-depth exploration of the holiday season. When the Hogfather (Discworld's version of Santa Claus) goes missing, Death steps in to make sure children get their Christmas — sorry, Hogswatch gifts. But the absence of the Hogfather is part of something more sinister, and it's up to Death's granddaughter Susan to figure it out.
As is usual with any Discworld book, The Hogfather is both hilarious and has a real plot driving it. But if you ever wondered why things like Christmas and Santa Clause are really important, this book has that answer. And it's delivered by Death, so you'd better listen.