When you hear “science fiction,” it’s easy to think of stories set in the far-flung future where circumstances are almost unrecognizable. But some of the best sci-fi currently being written is set in a future that isn’t too distant from ours. Near-future science fiction focuses on issues we’re grappling with, imagining what the world will be like in just a few decades. From virtual reality to a mission to Mars, these books focus on the problems and challenges we’re facing and take them to the next level.
“Want” by Cindy Pon
(Simon Pulse, $18.99)
Jason Zhou lives in a near-future Taipei where air pollution is rampant. Without a (very expensive) protective suit, people don’t live much past the age of 40 in this young adult novel. With expert pacing and poignant social commentary, Pon tells the story of a world in which the line between haves and have nots has never been more stark. Pon also creates an excellent, vibrant character within Jason, whose emotions run deep. He goes undercover with the wealthiest in society to uncover a conspiracy behind the polluted air. While this world may be bleak, Pon’s tale of a group of young people who want to make a difference in their difficult world is a rewarding, and ultimately uplifting, story.
“Hold Back the Stars” by Katie Khan
(Gallery Books, $26)
What would you do if you were trapped in space with only 90 minutes of air left? That’s the premise of Katie Khan’s “Hold Back the Stars,” featuring Carys and Max, two lovers who are marooned in space after a freak accident. As they try to find a way to save themselves, they reflect on their time together and the circumstances that brought them to this point. It feels a little trite at times, especially when the characters fall into reverie in the middle of solving a major problem, but it allows the reader a comprehensive view of their past relationship. Carys and Max aren’t always the most likable characters, but they do feel real. Khan’s real triumph in this story, though, is the setting: a near-future Earth that’s been devastated by war. As the details unfold about the governmental system in place, which encourages citizens to refrain from close relationships until later in life, readers will be fascinated by the story the author has constructed. It’s interesting enough that I’d love to see a companion novel set within this same fictional world.
“The Wanderers” by Meg Howrey
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27)
“The Wanderers” feels so familiar, you’ll forget that you’re reading a story that hasn’t happened. In just a few years’ time, a private company called Prime Space (think SpaceX) will put the first humans on Mars. But first they want to simulate the mission (as the Mars Society recently did in Utah). If all goes well, the test crew will be the ones to actually set foot on the Red Planet. Howrey takes three very different characters, Helen, Yoshi and Sergei, and places them all within the confines of a spacecraft, with the knowledge they are simultaneously forging a new path ahead while standing completely still. As fascinating as the crew is — and they are — Howrey also examines the impact on those left behind. A three-year simulated mission to Mars, followed by three more years of the actual thing — it’s a long time for these astronauts to be away from their families. What does it take to make that choice? And what happens when you can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what is simulated? It’s a masterful psychological novel, full of rich characterization and a surprisingly gripping narrative.
“Shattered Minds” by Laura Lam
Carina is a broken woman, spending her days in a virtual world where she acts out her most violent fantasies. Once she was a promising biohacker working for a mega-corporation, Sudice; now she’s a drug addict who’s wasting away. All of that changes, though, when one of Carina’s former coworkers contacts her with a secret that can bring down Sudice. In a standalone thriller set in the same world as 2016’s “False Hearts,” Laura Lam tells the story of a woman who has sunk to her lowest — and beyond — in gripping prose. Carina is in a painful place when the novel begins; I recoiled from her as much as I sympathized with her. As she begins her journey to recovery, a different Carina emerges. It’s a near-future story of a brutal corporation, yes, but more than that it’s Carina’s evolution. There’s a lot going on in this novel — a hidden past, a personal vendetta — and it should be too much, but Lam never lets her narrative get away from her.