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Mars, memories and monsters: The decade in fiction

Readers rejoice! The novel is far from dead, as fiction from the 2010s points a searing eye at our past and future.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

The 2010s may not have been a banner decade for newspapers, over-the-air broadcast television or other retro media platforms, but the old-fashioned novel has clawed its way back to the center of public attention. Despite endless blogs, "longform" reporting platforms, and other low- or no-cost ways to occupy our eyeballs, we're still turning to books, in both electronic and dead-tree varieties. 


The book publishing industry has reported several years of growth during the past decade, with physical book growth at times outpacing e-books. So far, the first half of 2019 is up an additional 6.9% over the same period last year, driven in part by the increasingly popular audiobook format. 

The themes of these 2010s books won't be surprising to anyone who has flipped on a newscast during the past decade. Anxiety about climate change, the breakdown of social norms, and the consolidation of tech industry and media power in the hands of a few have led to books about embattled survivors struggling against unbelievable odds, virtual worlds that seem more real than our own, a growing trend towards eco-horror, and, in Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country, the grim realization that there's more to fear from casual 1950s racism than eldritch forces from beyond our sphere of existence.   

One fun bonus trend was established "literary" authors, including Colson Whitehead, Justin Cronin, Kazuo Ishiguro and others, trying their hand at genre fiction.

This list collects some of the most notable fiction from the past 10 years, with an emphasis on books we think CNET readers would find interesting, leaning towards speculative fiction (the latest fancy name for sci-fi). Much of this list mirrors our interests on the CNET Book Club podcast, where we've interviewed authors from Neal Stephenson to Walter Mosley.

A post-apocalyptic zombie book that (surprise!) isn't really about zombies. This is the story of a downtown Manhattan outpost struggling to survive behind a giant wall. Whitehead went on to even greater heights with the smash hit The Underground Railroad, but this literary-genre hybrid is still one of the most-discussed books of the past decade among CNET editors. 

A Gen-X love letter that managed to appeal to almost anyone who has ever played a video game, put on a VR headset or got into obsessive arguments over retro pop culture. In a book about tracking down Easter Eggs, it's full of Easter Eggs of its own (I used to play Dungeons of Daggorath on my TRS-80 via a cassette tape drive). Fun fact/disclosure: Author Ernest Cline kindly wrote a back cover blurb for my own book, 2016's The Tetris Effect

This pick is both for this excellent story of dark childhood fantasy as well as for Gaiman's overall body of work. The author is a dominant force on TV right now, with Good Omens and American Gods bringing his electric narratives to premium cable (plus he's written some of the best modern Doctor Who episodes). An illustrated version of Ocean will be released on Nov. 5.

This may not be Gibson's most historically important work, but it's his most timely. Gibson creates a future ruled by a corporate-criminal-political cabal referred to as The Kelpt. The first part of a series that will continue with 2020's Agency, the world of The Peripheral is one of human augmentation, extreme telepresence and even voyeuristic time travel. 

Stay tuned for when William Gibson joins us on CNET Book Club in January for the release of Agency. 

I knew something was special about Annihilation, the first book in this influential eco-horror trilogy when I saw it at New York's indie fave McNally Jackson bookstore. The illustrations of malevolent nature on the covers of the three short novels that make up this series demanded to be picked up and read, and catapulted Vandermeer into the top tiers of literary sci-fi. 

Listen to our CNET Book Club podcast with Jeff Vandermeer

The disease-gone-wild book for people who don't read disease-gone-wild books. Shifting timelines and narratives make this a huge book about the small struggles of people in difficult situations. Bonus points for correctly pointing out that gasoline in cars goes bad after a year or so, so there's no driving in the apocalypse. 

From a self-published online serial to best-selling novel to blockbuster movie, The Martian was impossible to avoid in the 2010s. It ushered in a new wave of so-called "hard sci-fi," firmly rooted in science, with less interest in the fiction part (or frankly, characters). If you ever do get stranded on Mars, you'll have a pretty good idea of how to survive, or at least how to grow potatoes. 

Listen to our CNET Book Club podcast interview with Andy Weir

The first book in this series, called The Passage, arguably kicked off the last decade's flood of "serious" literary genre novels from highbrow authors. It's a cracking story spanning hundreds of years about a vampire-like virus and how humankind struggles to maintain some level of civilization. How influential was The Passage? When it was released, my book agent suggested I add vampires to an in-progress completely vampire-free manuscript. 

One sad coda: After years of almost getting a big movie treatment, The Passage ended up as a quickly cancelled TV series. I couldn't even get through a single episode before bailing.

Cult-favorite early 20th century author H.P. Lovecraft is having what culture-watchers would call a "moment." Movies, television programs, video games and more reference the overarching themes of a world beyond our own and the madness faced by those who, deliberately or accidentally, gain knowledge of it. 

This collection of interlinked short stories brilliantly flips Lovecraft's unsettlingly casual 1920s racism on its head, focusing on an African American family writing a 1950s travel guide (yes, like in the film Green Book) and how everyday life in the segregated south is more frightening than the threat of extra-dimensional forces from beyond. Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams are turning this into an HBO series, which I have high hopes for. 

Bonus: If you like Lovecraft Country, check out The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. 

Consider this a nod for Atwood's entire body of work, from the amazingly influential The Handmaid's Tale to the Oryx and Crake-Year of the Flood-MaddAddam trilogy. A sequel to Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments manages to avoid all the too-obvious sequel tropes and instead goes in fresh, unexpected directions.