Science fiction has always been about showing us the impossible, or depicting the possible in ways no one has imagined before. A debut sci-fi novel is, therefore, a pretty meta occurrence—something that didn’t exist yesterday, something you didn’t imagine ever existing, suddenly sitting in your hands. It’s like landing on a new planet: you don’t know if you can breathe the air, eat the local flora and fauna, or if something abominable and snowman-shaped is going to amble out of the dark and eat you. That thrill you’re feeling? It’s generated by the 17 novels by new writers we’re about to spotlight. Some we’ve already gotten a look at; others are too far off yet; all definitely belong on your radar.
All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai (February 7)
Most time travel stories focus on someone from our own timeline visiting the past, future, or some alternative that is usually dystopian or otherwise undesirable. Mastai’s debut hinges on a single, brilliant twist to the formula: the dystopian timeline is ours—the 2016 we all lived in for a year. Tom Barren lives in a world that’s modeled on the 1950s utopian vision of the future—jetpacks, flying cars, endless clean energy. He uses a time travel machine to go back to the 1965 invention of that energy source—and his presence causes the experiment to fail instead of succeed. Leaping forward, Barren finds himself in our present, and is suitably horrified at our backwards ways and feeble technology. He sets about trying to prove his story to a woman he falls in love with, and then seeks to set things right by building his own time machine. All the while, Mastai maintains a wry, crackling humor and dialogue that cuts sharper than a knife.
When the English Fall, by David Williams (July 11)
Williams isn’t the first to imagine the end of society via technological failure—this time through a freak solar storm that renders all modern tech and machinery useless—but he is the first to ask what will forever after be an obvious question in all apocalyptic fiction: what about the Amish? Without any reliance on modern technology, living on working farms with food supplies and a strong community, Williams imagines them surviving quite nicely, actually, while the English—the word the Amish use to describe all outsiders—slide into terror and chaos. Written as the diary of a young Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, it depicts the idyllic survival of the Amish community under threat as the English beyond their borders become increasingly desperate—and begin to plunder Amish farms. The questions this raises, about whether the Amish should abandon their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves, are just one aspect of a fascinating debut.
Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks (March 7)
Sparks, already well-known for her short stories and editorial work, delivers her first novel in fine style. If you’re someone who watched Mad Max: Fury Road and wondered what the rest of the world might be like after the fall, Sparks offers up a desert future where the landscape is littered with ancient war machines and the other detritus of a long-gone age. Orphan teens Star and Nene, who hide a terrible secret, travel with a caravan along the Sand Road until they witness a satellite crashing to Earth, setting off a chain of events that sees the sisters kidnapped by an ancient supersoldier—just as one of the deadliest and most intelligent of the old war machines awakens in the dry, mapless desert. It is Lotus Blue—a machine that sees no future for humanity at all. Filled with seemingly effortless worldbuilding that will have you shaking the sand out of your shoes after each reading, Sparks debut is sure to be a modern classic.
Terminal Regression, by Mallory Hill (January 17)
This is Hill’s second novel, but her first was self-published, so it slides in on a publishing technicality. It also won the Authorsfirst Novel Contest, which catapulted Hill into the category of “Authors to Watch.” It is the story of Laura Bailey, a woman who can’t find any meaning or passion in a future world where passion is literally everything. She decides things would be better if she left—if she bought a ticket to oblivion, more or less literally. What she finds isn’t death, however, but a community of like-minded people who slowly begin to fascinate her, igniting, at last, her sense of passion. When those lives are endangered, Laura discovers what it’s like to have purpose, even as her newly-discovered afterlife begins to crumble.
Three Years with the Rat, by Jay Hosking (January 24)
This puzzle-box story centers on an unnamed narrator, going by various nicknames, who deals with the disappearance of his brilliant, damaged psychologist sister Grace and her doting boyfriend John. Grace had been studying the subjective nature of time, and in their home, the narrator finds a coded notebook, a lab rat named Buddy, and a huge wooden box lined with mirrors. Over the course of the titular three years, the narrator begins to suspect Grace and John have disappeared into a parallel universe, notes the disturbing effect entering the box appears to have on people, and slowly unravels clues. Every chapter deepens the mystery, sending out new strands, until a brilliant ending that pulls every thread together in a sudden, breathtaking jerk that will leave heads spinning.
Indelible, by Adelia Saunders (January 17)
Magdalena has a unique ability—or curse: she can see information about people, their past and present, literally written on their skin. She sees nothing on her own body, and can blot out the deluge of unwanted information by not wearing her glasses. After a personal tragedy leaves her hating her talent, she meets Neil—and sees her own name on his face. As Neil and Magdalena’s lives become entwined, and come to involves the fates of Neil’s father and long-missing mother, Saunders does something magical, weaving seemingly insignificant details together into a rich tapestry that slowly reveals its pattern. This is one of those books where every detail is important, even if it doesn’t seem so at first, and in which every coincidence is anything but.
The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell (April 25)
Sixteen-year-old Lalla was born “at the end of the world.” The environment around her is dying—nothing grows, the seas are dead, and London is a dystopian police state where culling the mob of starving, desperate survivors is accepted policy. Lalla is sheltered in a high-security apartment with plenty of tinned food to eat and pure water to drink—and her father has an escape plan. He’s built a ship large enough for 500 hand-picked people, and stocked it with supplies to last them two years. Their escape isn’t easy, but once on the ocean Lalla becomes troubled. The passengers begin to close themselves off, destroying any way to receive information, damning memory, and insisting on living in the present as if the world isn’t burning around them. As her father becomes a messianic figure, Lalla comes to believe the ship may not be escaping the apocalypse—but in some way causing it.
Starfire: A Red Peace, by Spencer Ellsworth (August 22)
Ellsworth promises an old-school space opera with a modern flourish with the first book in the Starfire series. The human interstellar empire is fighting a rising rebellion against half-human Jorians. Half-breed navigator Jaqi, a Han Solo type who works for anyone willing to pay her, stumbles onto an artifact that could shift the balance of power and potentially bring the empire to its knees—and Jaqi finds herself on the run, struggling to find out what it is, exactly, that she possesses—and how to use it to keep herself alive, at minimum. If he can deliver on the action and worldbuilding fronts (and the promise of his short fiction, which has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and other venues), Ellsworth is set to climb into the pantheon of beloved sci-fi authors with his first book.
The Ghost Line, by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison (July 11)
One of the great things about SFF is the way literally anything can be repurposed—something Gray and Herbison know full well, as they gleefully ransack the story of the Titanic and every ghost ship legend ever told to spin out a dark sci-fi tale. The Martian Queen is a luxury space cruise ship abandoned and set adrift between Mars and Earth—but preserved in case the company decides reclaiming her would be profitable. Saga and Michel take on a salvage contract: if they can hack into and steal the ship, the payday would be enough to set them up for life and save Saga’s sick mother’s life. What they discover on board, however, is far more than an empty, drifting hulk. An intelligence has taken up residence, and their tale becomes one of survival instead of triumph. We love SF takes on the Titanic (there are a few), so this one would be going on the pile even if it didn’t sound awesome.
The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett (June 13)
Fleeing an overpopulated, suffocating Earth, Jamie heads into space. When she finds herself alone and shattered after a long relationship ends, she flees to the very edges of settled space to work in isolation. As a result, when a virus strikes and burns through humanity in a savage near-extinction event, Jamie at first believes she is the sole survivor in an empty, silent universe. Then a garbled transmission draws her back to Earth, and along the way she meets scattered survivors. As they make their way to their ancestral home planet, however, it becomes clear that more than just people have survived the epidemic—all the worst elements of humanity have escaped as well, making their journey home one that’s as much about survival as it is hope.
Cold Summer, by Gwen Cole (May 2)
Cole’s debut centers on teenager Kale Jackson, who helplessly travels between the present, where he’s a superficially normal high school student, and 1945, where he’s a sharpshooter in World War II. Fully aware of himself in each timeline, the present-day Kale suffers from PTSD that is slowly strangling his life. When he meets a girl from his childhood and falls in love, Kale sees hope: she roots him in the present and might be the key to preventing future time travel. But then they find Kale’s name in an old news article—listing him as killed in action in 1945. Questions of existence, reality, and fate become urgent as they turn all of their energies towards learning how to control Kale’s ability in order to prevent his death in the past. It promises to be a powerful, emotionally satisfying sci-fi story in the vein of The Time-Traveler’s Wife.
Amberlough, by Laura Elena Donnelly (February 7)
This is one of those books that fills into the cracks between genres—there’s no fancy tech, but there’s also no magic; it’s set in an alternate past, but it isn’t fantasy. We usually lump alt-history into sci-fi around here, so we’re including it—if only because the premise is too irresistible not to: John Le Carré meets Cabaret in this speakeasy spy thriller about gay secret agent Cyril DePaul, who must do everything he can to protect the life of his lover Aristide amid the rise of a harsh fascist regime. After a mission goes wrong, Cyril must rely on the help of Cordelia, a well-connected dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret…assuming she can be trusted.
The Caledonian Gambit, by Dan Moren (May 2)
Combining space opera with espionage thriller, Moren sets his story in a universe divided between superpowers: the Illyrican Empire and the Commonwealth. Simon Kovalic is the Commonwealth’s greatest spy, the sort of man who engineers planet-wide events in order to shift the balance of power. He identifies an opportunity on the planet of Caledonia—but even a spy of his skill can’t gain access to the people and places he needs in order to leverage the situation. For that he needs Eli Brody, a broken man working a lowly job on a remote planet where he fled from Caledonia years ago. Forced to return home by Kovalic, the two form an uneasy alliance when events quickly spin outside their control—in ways they can’t predict but could change the balance of power in the universe forever. We’ve loved listening to Moren natter away on various fandom podcasts over the years; here’s hoping his debut is the SF spy thriller we’ve been searching for.
The Exo Project, by Andrew DeYoung (April 4)
DeYoung crafts a surprisingly dark YA debut set on a future Earth where solar radiation is slowly ending life. In order to fund his sick mother’s treatments, teenage Matthew agrees to participate in the Exo Project: he’ll be frozen in cryostasis and sent on a century-long journey to determine if a distant planet might be suitable for humanity to colonize. Matthew expects to die on this mission—either en route or on a barren, lifeless hunk of rock—but instead, he finds himself on lush Gle’ah, populated by beautiful aliens, including a girl his own age named Kiva. Kiva fears Matthew because she knows that an invasion of desperate humanity will destroy her world—and slowly the pair uncover the dark truths behind Matthew’s mission, and behind Gle’ah itself.
The Return, by Joseph Helmreich (March 14)
Like a souped-up, extra-epic episode of The X-Files, Helmreich’s The Return dazzles with a deceptively simple premise that houses a complex, tricky suite of revelations. On live television, renowned astrophysicist Andrew Leland is abducted by a giant spacecraft for all to see. He’s missing for six years, then emerges from a South American desert, denying having been abducted at all. He goes into hiding, and a cult springs up around him. Physics student Shawn Ferris is obsessed with Leland, and tracks him down, discovering that the scientist has been on the run continuously, fleeing a shadowy organization determined to learn his secrets. Ferris joins Leland, and slowly learns the truth about what happened to Leland, why he’s hunted—and what’s about to happen. It’s all delivered in a razor-sharp, fast-paced thriller style you won’t be able to resist.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (February 14)
Some may argue that Saunders is more literary fiction than sci-fi, but his celebrated short stories have plenty of the speculative about them. His debut novel is no different; starring Abraham Lincoln and set in the 19th century, it involves very real ghosts who populate the graveyard where Lincoln’s son Willie—dead at eleven years old—has been interred. These spirits have chosen to remain in an in-between state of existence, avoiding judgment, and retain all of the prejudices and personalities of their living years. Lincoln’s presence energizes them, and they determine to save his son’s spirit from their own static fate—and all of it is delivered with Saunders’ trademark wit, eye for delirious detail, and a prose style so absorbing you forget you’re reading and not hearing a story by the fire on a chilly winter night.
Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan (May 23)
In a future where every citizen rotates into a new community every three years, permanent relationships are nearly impossible. In the past, when Max meets Carys, their love is doomed from the beginning. In the present, Max and Carys are in space—where a disaster has left them floating in the void with just 90 minutes of oxygen left. With their deaths seemingly assured, they retrace their paths together—until a possible rescue presents itself. This dizzying premise allows Khan room to explore the nature of relationships, and how all of our decisions in life com together to form the totality of our present, whether we can see the connections or not.
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz (September 19)
This one is still a bit shrouded in mystery (it isn’t even available for pre-order yet), but here’s what we know: it’s the first novel from the brilliant Annalee Newitz, who co-founded the essential web magazine io9 lo these many years ago (alongside Charlie Jane Anders, whom you may have heard of). It involves AI autonomy, pharmaceutical piracy, and maker culture. and its sure to be packed with the keen technical insights and insatiable appetite for the new and the next that is so evident in the author’s non-fiction writing. We’re so there.
Barbary Station, by R.E. Stearns (December 5)
Another so far out (11 months!) that we don’t have a preorder link for it, but we’re already exercising our clicking fingers so we can reserve a copy as soon as possible. Stearns debut, which we revealed the cover for late last year, had us with just seven words: “queer women of color pirate space opera.” Then we found out that said queer-women-of-color-space-pirates are battling a malevolent artificial intelligence, and our pre-Episode VIII reading schedule was locked in.