Slate’s Future Tense Editor Recommends the Best New Science Fiction Novels

Slate Plus
Your all-access pass
March 27 2014 3:24 PM

The Best New Sci-Fi Novels for Discussing Cutting-Edge Technologies

What’s on Slate editor Torie Bosch’s bookshelf?

For nearly three years, I’ve edited Future Tense—a section on Slate that looks at cutting-edge technologies and their implications for society and policy. (Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University; in addition to the channel on Slate, we also host live events, primarily in Washington, D.C.) We cover everything from surveillance to how social media affects interpersonal relationships to mind uploading and genetic engineering. Needless to say, science fiction can be the perfect lens through which to examine the ethical, social, and political consequences of these sorts of technologies.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Everyone loves to talk about 1984 or Minority Report when discussing new technologies. However, early in my Future Tense tenure, I realized that nearly every piece writers (including me) were filing included reference to one or the other, so now both titles are on a yellow-light list: If you want to mention either one, you have to earn it. (Another phrase I try to keep off of Future Tense: “It sounds like science fiction, but … ”)

Instead, here are some newish sci-fi books that I think can help us tease out the tricky issues that get unboxed with each new technology—and also help us think about the future in general. I prefer so-called “soft” sci-fi to the hard stuff, so this list is heavy on novels that make the technology part of the story, instead of the story itself.



The Circle, by Dave Eggers: Let me make it clear—I didn’t enjoy this book. I think the writing is stilted, the characters detestable, the plot “twists” predictable. However, it is a superb jumping-off point for discussing transparency, the rather sinister “what do you have to hide?” attitude, and the way large tech firms become as (or more) powerful than nation-states.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan: The delightful Mr. Penumbra is a good foil for The Circle, in that it discusses the potential, and limitations, of using Big Data to solve life’s riddles.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood: All three of the books in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy are fascinating, but the first is the best. Among other things, Oryx and Crake explores genetic engineering, synthetic biology, the segregation of tech workers from the rest of society (the “pleeblands,” the elite call them), climate change, industrial sabotage, and more. The futuristic food she describes will turn your stomach—especially when you read about “ChickieNobs”—but more upsetting is the way her characters accept their horrifying society as a given. 

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters: OK, there isn’t very much new technology here. But this good, old-fashioned detective story takes the standard apocalypse story and removes the explosions, creating an end-of-the-world scenario that feels frighteningly realistic: It’s set as Earth waits for an asteroid that could wipe out life. If you watched the footage of the Russian meteor over and over, it’s a must-read. (So is the sequel.)

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers: You may not have heard of this 2012 book, but it’s one of my favorites. Reproductive technologies—cloning, genetic screening of fetuses, extension of fertility—are among the most fascinating, tricky topics covered by Future Tense. In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Rogers explores a world in which a disease kills off every woman who gets pregnant. It’s a bit Children of Men, but with more of a focus on the ethically unsettling science and technology that could contribute to or treat such a situation.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 6:49 PM God’s Oligarch One of Vladimir Putin’s favorite businessmen wants to start an Orthodox Christian Fox News and return Russia to its glorious czarist past.
Oct. 20 2014 6:48 PM Apple: Still Enormously Profitable
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.