Sorry Hugos, but for my money, there’s no more interesting award in sci-fi than the one named for Philip K. Dick. In the tradition of everyone’s favorite gonzo pulpist, the “PKD Award” honors innovative genre works that debuted in paperback, offering a nice reminder that you don’t need the prestige of a hardcover release to write a mind-blowing book (just ask William Gibson, whose seminal cyberpunk classic Neuromancer claimed the title in 1984), and in fact, if past winners are any evidence, the format might be seen as a license to take greater risks.
This year’s nominees are of a piece with PKD contenders of the past: they twist genre tropes in new ways, carving new toe-holds in well-worn tropes. Which brings us to another thing we love about this particular award: the winner is basically impossible to exist. Here are the nominees for this year’s PKD Award for best novel originally published in paperback in 2015:
Edge of Dark, by Brenda Cooper
The start of an ambitious sci-fi duology spun off from the world of the author’s Ruby’s Song series, Edge of Dark begins with the reemergence of a problem humanity had long thought taken care of: the sudden return of a group of human/machine hybrids previously banished to the outer depths of space for their technological perversions. They’ve evolved, they’re pissed, and they’re hungry. Nona Hall, in charge of a starship she is barely capable of captaining, is one of the only things standing in their way. A sure bet for fans of post-singularity shenanigans and A.I.s run amok.
After the Saucers Landed, by Douglas Lain
Humor is hard in any genre, but doubly so in sci-fi—tweak the tropes in the wrong way and you risk coming off as dismissive. Lain’s sharp satire expertly threads that needle as it tells the story of UFO buff Harold Flint, whose dreams of alien visitors are dashed when the little green men finally do arrive on the White House lawn and look like… extras straight out of a low-budget ’50 SF bomb, complete with shiny jumpsuits and perma-blonde hair; it’s no surprise they immediately found what amounts to a feel-good cult, peddling spiritual enlightenment. Lain is crestfallen, until one of the aliens approaches him with a request that he write a book exposing the true nature of the outer space visitors, a secret that could unravel the threads of the world as we know it.
(R)Evolution, by P.J. Manney
Manney offers a fresh take on nanopunk, one of our favorite super-specific SF subgenres. Peter Bernhardt is a bioengineer working on nanotechnology that could obliterate neurological disease, but when his research is stolen, it triggers a disaster that leavens tens of thousands dead. Demonized, his life’s work demolished, Peter finds is summoned to join a secret circle of the Phoenix Club, a group of genius who hold sway over the entire world. Pressured to augment his own mind with technology, Peter is forever changed—even as he begins to suspect that the Phoenix Club’s intentions are not necessarily in humanity’s best interest.
Apex, by Ramez Naam
Another nanotech thriller might steal some votes away from Manney: this is the concluding volume to Naam’s Prometheus Award-winning trilogy about Nexus, a nano-drug that allows human brains to network like computers…with unforeseen consequences (aren’t there always?). Nexus-enhanced humans are now almost a separate species—one that makes the existing world order very, very nervous. As military forces clash with networked groups of protestors, the next generation—children born to Nexus users—begins to develop powers beyond anything either side of the conflict imagined.
Windswept, by Adam Rakunas
We’ve seen magical distilleries before, but I can’t remember ever reading a sci-fi novel about an economy built upon the intergalactic rum trade. Luckily, Rakunas has finally written one, and it is gloriously entertaining and inventive: union activist Padma Mehta is looking to retire and start her own distillery, but first she has to recruit 500 new members to the workers’ organization. Seeking an easy score, she heads off to meet with a group of desperate souls eager to escape from a corrupt boss, but soon finds herself embroiled in a plot to unleash a biological contagion that could kill off all the sugarcane in the galaxy. No more sugarcane, no more rum. And Padma likes her rum.
Archangel, by Marguerite Reed
This first-in-a-series novel introduces a truly alien setting: Ubastis, a human world offering all the riches of the proverbial Garden of Eden, strictly regulated to ensure that nothing harms the idyllic landscape, preventing the same sort of mistakes we made with Earth. Vashti Loren is one of the settlers, a capable hunter and naturist who ekes out a hardscrabble existence on the alien world, hosting safari tours to hunt the very creatures she and her follow scientists hope to study. Vashti soon finds herself caught between two sides of a conflict that could soon spill over into violence: should Ubastis remain a hermetically sealed paradise, or should it be opened to new waves of colonists who could partake of its bounty?