Tim Maughan Recommends 5 Near-Future Books By Women
The author of "Infinite Detail" contributes imminent sci-fi visions to our Read More Women project
Does cyberpunk have a women problem? Let’s put it this way: not long ago, editor Aisling McCrea tweeted a photo of a sentence on her Kindle: “He lay on his side and watched her breathe, her breasts, the sweep of a flank defined with the functional elegance of a war plane’s fuselage.” “Men are temporarily banned from writing until we figure out what the hell’s going on,” she said, to nearly 50,000 likes and 12,000 retweets. Some self-published trashy sex book? Nah: Neuromancer, by William Gibson, the defining text of the cyberpunk movement.
But there’s nothing about cyberpunk, or other near-future science fiction that makes us think about the potentials and perils of our current trajectory, that that has to be sexist. Case in point: Tim Maughan’s book Infinite Detail, a compelling techno-thriller with a chilling premise: what if the internet ceased to exist? Five more cases in point: the near-future novels by women that Maughan recommends below. Turns out you don’t have to compare women to sex planes in order to offer an incisive vision of where technology and class stratification are taking us.
Read More Women is Electric Literature’s series, presented in collaboration with MCD Books, in which we feature prominent authors, of any gender, recommending their favorite books by women and non-binary writers. Twice a month, you’ll hear about the five non-male authors who most delight, inspire, and influence your favorite writers.
Moxyland – Lauren Beukes
Moxyland came out about the same time I first started seriously writing fiction, and as such it was initially conflicting: it was so thematically and stylistically similar to what I was trying to do that I didn’t know whether to be happy that I was on the same page or dismayed that I’d been beaten to it. None of that mattered by the time I’d actually finished reading it though —Moxyland is just too damn good. Beukes’ near-future debut follows four misfits—an artist, an activist, an internet streaming celebrity, and a corporate executive—as they hustle to make a living, political waves, or both. But it’s the setting that feels like the book’s real protagonist—a divided Cape Town that’s saturated with high-tech advertising and where gated communities, corporate campuses, and slums all sit anxiously next to each other. Moxyland was arguably the first novel to fully capture the inequality and digital chaos of the now all too familiar global mega-city, as Beukes skillfully picks apart everything from our obsession with smartphones through to gentrification and corporate surveillance.
Synners – Pat Cadigan
Pat Cadigan was there right at the beginning of the cyberpunk movement, unleashing a string of short stories and novels that helped define the genre’s merging of politics, technology, and street culture. Synners is her third novel, released almost a decade after the movement’s conception, allowing it to both consolidate and question cyberpunk’s most common tropes. And they’re all here: oppressive corporations, body hacking, media saturation, and low-life hustlers forced to become rebellious heroes. Through its expansive cast of characters it drops the reader into a near future Los Angeles where the eponymous Synners are individuals able to turn people’s raw, sensory experiences into packaged, consumable digital entertainment. Often heralded for making its predictions about the future of technology and networks so accurately, from a 2019 perspective it’s the book’s depiction of digitally distorted reality that rings the most true. As the narrative bounces between chemical hallucinations, virtual reality, networked media, and “real life,” the boundaries between them all blur, and it’s hard not to feel that Cadigan has captured the existential panic we all face when trying to feel our way through our post-consensus, post-truth present.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In – James Tiptree, Jr
With this 1973 novella Alice Sheldon—writing under a pen name—didn’t just predate cyberpunk by nearly 20 years, she also predicted Instagram influencers 40 years before they happened. Set in a future where advertising has been outlawed and corporations use celebrity product placement to drive consumerism, it’s the story of a depressed and deformed teenager that awakens from a suicide attempt to find that she’s been fitted with cybernetic implants. Now the property of one of the corporations, these implants allow her to remotely control Delphi, the brainless, genetically modified clone of a stereotypically beautiful 15-year-old girl as she becomes a global media sensation. With its explorations of identity, corporate controlled networks, celebrity brand influencers, mainstream definitions of beauty, and the fetishization and exploitation of female bodies, it’s a book that feels more essential now than at any point in the 46 years since it was written.
The Race – Nina Allan
Allan’s The Race is actually four novellas woven into one novel, each told from a different character’s perspective, that reinforce and contradict each other in sometimes dizzying but always stimulating ways; to say much more would be to spoil much of the joy of reading the novel. What I can talk about, though, is the book’s setting—or at least the setting for some of it. Allan presents a fascinatingly convincing view of near-future Britain. Ravaged both by economic collapse and aggressive fracking that has turned the English countryside into a post-industrial wasteland, Allan’s narrative largely avoids large cities to focus instead on small towns and abandoned edgeland spaces. It’s a decision that makes the book feel all the more convincing and alive, and gives it a working-class, almost mundane, day-to-day ambience that is sorely missing from so much contemporary near-future fiction. Into this setting Allan drops smartdog racing, an illegal version of greyhound racing where the dogs are genetically modified to contain human DNA, supposedly giving them a special empathetic bond with their owners. It’s this blend of the everyday with the weird that makes The Race an essential read for anyone looking for a fresh perspective on literary science fiction.
Wolf Country – Tünde Farrand
A last-minute addition to the list, as I only just finished reading Farrand’s stunning debut novel last week. Set in London in 2050, it’s an excellent example of taking existing social phenomena and divisions and formalizing them into a dystopian setting—in this case, class and inequality. Future British society has given up trying to solve wealth disparity and instead has turned it into a formal, official structure, with everyone being put into a social class based on how much they consume: Non-Profits, Low-Spenders, Mid-Spenders, High-Spenders, and Owners. Everyone now lives in the cities —the countryside apparently now little more than a nature reserve that is off-limits to everyone apart from the Owners—with your housing being allocated by the government based on your spending bracket, and those with no money being dumped in The Zone to fight for themselves. All of this seems fine at first to protagonist Alice, until her architect husband disappears and she loses her school teaching job and her Mid-Spender status, leading her to confront not just the injustices of the new society but also the secrets of her family’s past. Farrand’s real skill here is in drip-feeding the reader with details until the true horror of the book’s setting is revealed, and the skin of consumer capitalism is slowly peeled back to reveal the dehumanizing fascism that really lies at the heart of free market neo-liberalism.