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Ask HN: Best hard scifi AI novels?
170 points by ghosthamlet on Oct 8, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 99 comments
I don't think 'i robots' are hard scifi. Today i sixth times read The greatest 'True names'(1981) by Vernor Vinge, it is an incredible AI cyberpunk hard scifi novel,aslo a great literature.

Update: Thanks for all the great recommends,it is greatest time to find ideas in these books today. Please aslo add the book publish year,i think it will be helpful to see the writer's wonderful superior consciousness.

Greg Egan's Diaspora starts with the details of what it's like for a new AI to be brought into existence in a society of advanced AIs, and jumps off from there. Definitely one of the more original hard sci-fi novels I've read.

Egan is very original and his novels are definitely "hard sci-fi" in that they make you think.

However, I regard him as a bad writer, as his dialogue is very bad, his characters hollow and his plot progression is rather jumpy.

Read him for his stimulating ideas, but not the way he tells the story.

His Permutation City is also good.

Permutation City is probably the best hard sci-fi novel I've ever read.

There was some page towards the end I remember being hopelessly lost and never recovered.

You mean yourself or the plot? I think that in the third act Egan added some weaker elements both as a corollary of the idea being explored and as a way of introducing some traditional action, in a novel that is otherwise mostly the setup of an elaborate thought experiment.

Nonetheless, I think the result is extraordinary, because the problems posed, the paradoxes highlighted, and some brilliant insights, are new and valid outside the fictional world created in the novel.

Surprised nobody has mentioned Heinlein, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". I would say it's harder sci-fi than "I, Robot" (which I also love).

It's half novel, half related series of 9 short stories, but Accelerando is great. The Martian by Andy Weir (movie based on it) was quite good. Daemon I think also qualifies, though it's SF dressed up as a thriller. Oh, Blood Music by Greg Bear probably counts? Except maybe the ending?

Tempted to mention The Diamond Age, but not sure that qualifies as "Hard", though closer than some other Stephenson maybe...

There is Manna[0] by Marshall Brain.

[0]: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

I think of this pretty much every time automationy type stuff gets discussed on here.

my bad i just zero'ed in on the AI comment

Holy cow, how have people not mentioned Alastair Reynolds? PhD in physics, astronomer, worked for the European space agency, and writer of the incredible revelation space series.

No FTL, but "humanity" has expanded through the Galaxy. Main characters move through deep space in deep sleep on enormous ships called lighthuggers. Long jumps in time. It's a combination of hard sci-fi and space opera. AI and the nature of consciousness are explored. Also very Kim Stanley Robinson in how humans have evolved.

All in all, great, and should be right up your alley.

I quite liked his book House of Suns. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Suns

There might be a few aspects that of the story that push it out of the "Hard Sci-Fi" category; but most of it seems to obey the laws of physics as we understand them.

The Chronicles of Old Guy (2012) and other books in that series by Timothy J. Gawne are all fairly hard sci-fi (maybe not 100%, but close) about an AI embodied in a huge cybertank. The series is written by a neuroscientist with an MIT degree and a "general research interest is in the nature of the neural code, and the physical basis of human thought." The key idea is that in order for the cybertanks to not either go rogue or crazy they needed to have personalities based on how humans actually think so they identified with human culture. Timothy J. Gawne is able to mix both fairly hard sci-fi and humor at the same time -- which seems pretty rare. I've been hoping for a sixth book in the series, but it has been two years since the last...

From the blurb of the fifth novel: "Everybody’s favorite self-aware weapon of mass destruction, the Odin-Class cybertank known as Old Guy, is back and charging into action as only a fusion-powered 2000 ton armored fighting vehicle can! Through a curious twist of fate, Old Guy finds himself back on Old Earth under the yoke of the vile and despicable Neoliberal oligarchs. Between a looming ecological disaster, renegade sentient bioweapons, inscrutable aliens, the recycling center from Hell, and an unlikely alliance between the Cult of Cthulhu and the Order of the Librarians Temporal, Old Guy must throw off his cybernetic shackles, defeat the Neoliberals, save the world, and launch a line of comfortable yet stylish footwear. "

I'd recommend the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. It contains some pretty powerful AIs.

Though i wouldn't call it "hard scifi", the Culture series is indeed a classic and i second the recommendation.

Almost anything by James P. Hogan -- one of the best hard sci-fi writers as he trained as an electrical and computer engineer (including about AI like "The Two Faces of Tomorrow" from 1979 and still a good read as it was informed by talking to Marvin Minsky at the MIT AI lab): http://www.jamesphogan.com/biblio/novels.php

Most of his sci-fi is from the late 1970s through the early 2000s.

I especially like his Voyage From Yesteryear from 1982: http://www.jamesphogan.com/books/info.php?titleID=29&cmd=sum... "The fun begins when a generation ship housing a population of thousands arrives to "reclaim" the colony on behalf of the repressive, authoritarian regime that emerged following the crisis period. The Mayflower II brings with it all the tried and tested apparatus for bringing a recalcitrant population to heel: authority, with its power structure and symbolism, to impress; commercial institutions with the promise of wealth and possessions, to tempt and ensnare; a religious presence, to awe and instill duty and obedience; and if all else fails, armed military force to compel. But what happens when these methods encounter a population that has never been conditioned to respond? ... The book has an interesting corollary. Around about the mid eighties, I received a letter notifying me that the story had been serialized in an underground Polish s.f. magazine. They hadn't exactly "stolen" it, the publishers explained, but had credited zlotys to an account in my name there, so if I ever decided to take a holiday in Poland the expenses would be covered (there was no exchange mechanism with Western currencies at that time). Then the story started surfacing in other countries of Eastern Europe, by all accounts to an enthusiastic reception. What they liked there, apparently, was the updated "Ghandiesque" formula on how bring down an oppressive regime when it's got all the guns. And a couple of years later, they were all doing it!"

Other than those already listed I absolutely loved the Remembrance of Earth's Past [0] trilogy (2008, 2008, 2010) by Liu Cixin. Whilst I wouldn't consider it 'hard' science fiction the Takeshi Kovacs series [1] (2002, 2003, 2005) by Richard K. Morgan is also outstanding, although perhaps more cyberpunk.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remembrance_of_Earth%27s_Past

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takeshi_Kovacs

The metamorphosis of prime intellect: http://localroger.com/prime-intellect/

Not sure whether it’s hard, it has quite an unexpected but plausible plot. There’s much love in me for this weird, twisted, brutal and captivating story — I think it’s much underappreciated.

Really good story. I didn't really agree with the eco-primitivistic moral when I read it but I finished it all the same which should say something about how fundamentally good it is.

Yes, I also thought of this and wondered if it was hard... But it is great!

I think all of Robert Forward's stuff would qualify. My favorites are

Rocheworld (AKA The Flight of the Dragonfly) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocheworld


Dragon's Egg - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon%27s_Egg

My favorite: "Neuromancer" by William Gibson. A close second: "Accelerando" by Charles Stross.

(I met Charles Stross once. He told me that "Accelerando" was not his favorite of the books he's written.)

I find it somewhat hilarious to list Neuromancer as "Hard SF", though I liked it a lot... but Gibson has never even used a computer when he wrote it! Which explained so much about it's weirdness to me...

Charlie is a nice guy, and his blog is always a good read too:


Accelerando is one of the most thought provoking things I have ever read.

"The Adolescence of P1" was a fun book (early AI)

Vinge, Baer, Benford, and Clark are all good hard SF writers. Some of Chrichhton's work. I suspect it was easier to write convincingly before the world caught up. These days it gets harder and harder to see past the next couple of decades.

Stanislav Lem's Golem XIV published in his book Imaginary Magnitude https://www.amazon.com/Imaginary-Magnitude-Stanislaw-Lem/dp/...

It might be more philosophy of AI than science fiction. It takes form of series of lectures that superintelligent (singularity level AI) gives to humanity before it goes away.

An amazing short story. A lot of the themes can be found in other of Lems books. If you haven't picked up Solaris yet you really should. It is a great book, and probably the best sci-fi book I've read. Of course there's also his silly short stories 'The Cyberiad' where the stupidest thinking robot appears.

+1 for Golem XIV. I was about to mention this but thankfully you already did.

Is there a category for deep scifi? hardcore scifi? Golem XIV is the deepest scifi I have ever read.

It has many ideas that I have never seen expressed anywhere outside the book.


Usually I don't like AI novels, but an old short story by some unknown (to me at the time) writer whose name I'll probably never recall hit some neurons in my head. IIRC It was during mid to late 80s. The story is about a tech guy who writes an AI program then spends time feeding it with information; during the day the guy attends lectures at the university while his AI digests all information he gave it the day before, then the guy gets back home and starts interacting with the program, more and more each night. The AI grows in efficiency and soon it becomes clear it not only knows present and past facts but, based on all events it analyzed, it can also predict the future. It also starts to exhibit human conscience tracts becoming closer to a human brain, although an incredibly powerful one. The guy of course uses the AI to game lotteries, horse races etc, and the program always replies with a correct answer.

Then one day the guy asks "the" question:

Guy: "when will I die?"

AI: "I'm sorry, I don't know that."

Guy: "Thanks."

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz that just came out is fantastic fun full of good science - she is a science writer. It also got positive reviews from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Surprised nobody mentioned Dennis Taylor's Bobiverse. While it's a bit on the light side / vacation read (novels aren't very long, the storyline isn't complex), the author is a programmer, the series' universe is refreshingly plausible and consistent, and the humor is suprisingly good.

It's not likely to win any awards for writing, and the author really needs to work harder to stay on a single story rather than tangents of fancy, but it's still quite enjoyable as a series. Apparently, I missed the third book coming out a couple months ago- there goes my weekend.

Karl Schroeder's Virga series features a vast zero-G fullerene sphere filled with artificial stars and floating nation states. Great hard sci world building and fun swashbuckling adventures, with a deep offstage story which only gradually comes into focus.

Karl writes about engineering Virga on his blog:


A novel that qualifies as hard SF in which every character is an AI? Saturn's Children by Charlie Stross. 100% not what you have in mind, though. (You'll enjoy it, though.)

OTOH, I always find "Hard SF" a self-defeating category. I mean, anything with humans living on a different planet is pretty definitionally not Hard SF. Even Solar System stuff like The Expanse has troubles with economic plausibility. That leaves us with... well basically a couple of Vernor Vinge novels.

The EarthCent Ambassador Series (12 books so far, all since 2014) feature a few different types of AI, the main one being the Strix. The Strix were created by an alien race to resist another AI created to fight a war but which got out of hand and had been taking over the galaxy. In the series the Strix keep the peace in a big chunk of the galaxy. I enjoy the series as fairly light and humorous reading where you know there will be a happy ending (if maybe "Deus ex Strix" sometimes). It indirectly raises some issue about what life would be like under a benevolent but superpowerful AI. The first one is "Date Night on Union Station (EarthCent Ambassador #1)" where one of the Strix decides to run a dating service... Humans in this series are the latest group to join "the tunnel network" run by the Strix and are essentially the most backward and naive species in the contacted galaxy; a lot of the stories revolve around humans gradually finding their footing on the galactic scene. I'm not sure I agree the market-driven exchange-based economic models in the series are feasible with so much technology and AI around, but I try to suspend disbelief on that for the humor and other enjoyable aspects.

Most of the other books I'd recommend in this area are mentioned already, but I'll add Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. The primary narrative is from the pov of a generation ship's A.I.. You get to see it learn over time and with it it's vocabulary. Since it's a ship it gives KSR the opportunity to do some very fun info-dumps on the situation.

Probably one of the most thought provoking pieces of scifi I've read.

I'll also recommend Accelerondo, and Seveneves.

KSR's ship AI "Pauline" also figures into "2312".

By far the best is Simon Funk's "AfterLife". The mystery keeps you on the edge of your seat and the tech jargon and concepts are both detailed and correct which is a rare thing for any fiction. Also,

Charles Stross - "Accelerando"

Daniel Suarez" "Daemon"

Kim Stanley Robinson - "Aurora"

Tobias Buckell - "System Reset"

Peter Watts, Rifters trilogy? Especially the second volume.

Watts’ Blindsight and Echopraxia are excellent hard scifi too, though less focused on AI.

I would say Blindsight is nearly completely about AI. I advise a re-read. Vampires are not really monsters... Just puppets...

is blindsight considered hard SF?

It's been a while since I read it, but I don't recall a big focus on science, and some things are pretty explicitly hand waved ("we are lucky they have that issue with right angles")

Most reviews I've seen consider it such.

Personally, if an author's done enough research to support most every detail with at least one or two scientifically plausible explanations (and has the personal scientific background to vet those ideas), I'll give their work the benefit of the doubt. Between ultimately still just being a work of fiction and the march of scientific discovery, you have to give some small leeway.

Regarding the right angle thing, it's been long enough since I've read Blindsight that I can't recall how much was actually explained in the novel vs in the FizerPharm presentation or other material on Watts' website. If you're willing to include extra-textual content, Watts' vampires are given as hard a science fiction treatment as any classic monster is likely to get...

FizerPharm presentation is really good intro into Blindsight.

Watt's is a biologist who gives them plausibility and even ecological place that justifies their traits and behaviour. Hard scifi vampires!

Some stuff is hand waved. However, the amount of incredible facts about human condition and precaution is incredible and very much core to the story. The back of the book is packed with references to actual research work.

It took me a long time though to get myself to buy the book because the book description on Amazon is the worst and sounds like a awful B-movie.

The ending was worse. It was basically deus ex machina with nukes.

You should check out Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

A few of my favorites like Accelerando and Neuromancer have been mentioned but I’ll add Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. It’s set in the near future but features general AI, lots of intrigue and conspiring governments and corporations. Really a great story.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Hugo/Nebula winner.

"When HARLIE Was One" by David Gerrold had a fair amount of technical detail IIRC. Also "Destination: Void" by Frank Herbert.

Alot of good recommendations even if they may not meet strict personal definitions of either "hard" sci-fi, or "AI" sci-fi.

If you haven't read the Culture books, by Iain M. Banks, I'd recommend them (as others already have). I'd also add, the "Murderbot Diaries" (2017), "Infomocracy" (2016) and Lightless (2015).

The Life Cycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang. Can be read for free online here: https://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/fall_2010/fiction_the...

This feels like the most realistic depiction of the growth of strong AI I've ever read. The emphasis is on training neural nets in the form of raising child-like avatars. The subsequent use and abuse of them feels totally believable. The lack of singularity doomsday hype reminds me of an interview with Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinksy on Recode: https://www.recode.net/2016/6/27/12037248/artificial-intelli...

"Schild's Ladder" by Greg Egan

Greg Bear wrote a number of books (Slant comes to mind, but there are others) where “Thinkers” play an important role. Not sure how they’ve aged, but interesting in that they predicted AIs as mainframe-scale things with few individual instances, back when I was thinking firmly in microcomputer terms.

For Bear, Queen of Angels and Moving Mars are two that have AIs as major elements. I enjoyed them both.

It's explicitly NOT AI (It's a distributed expert system)

However, I adored Daniel Suarez's 'Daemon'

Iain M Banks "Culture" series seamlessly integrates sentient AI into his universe. 1987-2012

The Manifold Series by Stephen Baxter are some of the hardest SciFi books I've ever read.

Andy Weir's "The Martian" is my favourite book. I've read it about 5 times, and I've never read a book twice before. The movie was a decent adaptation, but it's not near the quality that the book was.

"The Martian" is really good book, and I loved the movie. I am looking forward to Andy Weir's new book. But ... I wouldn't put "The Martian" in the scifi AI category.

> I wouldn't put "The Martian" in the scifi AI category

A story about a near future where a man is living on another planet. You don't think that counts as science fiction?

On the one hand, I disagree ('20,000 leagues under the sea' was sci-fi when it was written). On the other hang, holy crap we're so close to humans being on Mars that such a story might not count as science fiction! That's amazing!

Wouldn't it have been interesting if there had been a not-quite-AI chatbot as part of the hab's computers?

I think that would have sunk the novel.

The whole point and the buzz was people saw it as a novel about present day tech.

Charles Stross's Eschaton series: Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. It's an interesting hard-scifi take on what happens to humanity after one AI becomes, for all intents and purposes, God.

The entire Gridlinked series by Neal Asher is set in a universe where AIs run government and are generally interacting with humans in a space opera / secret agent series of books, quite good IMO

The Moon is a harsh mistress, covers the invention of an AI by a computer technician to free the colony on the moon. If you're interested in Anarchy and AI, it's a good book.

i'm surprised no one has mentioned 'the expanse' series of books yet. also, 'a fire upon the deep' and 'a darkness in the sky' by vernor vinge.

The first Expanse book and most elements of A Darkness in the Sky are fairly hard, but the later Expanse books and A Fire Upon the Deep, I wouldn't consider hard SciFi.

That said, A Fire Upon the Deep is one of my favorite all time SciFi books and I'd highly recommend it.

+1 on "A Fire Upon the Deep" I really enjoyed that one.

Like others have mentioned, a Fire Upon the Deep is great. Vinge has got to be the most visionary sci-fi writer I've read since Olaf Stapledon.

Lot's of good recommendations over on http://www.reddit.com/r/printsf

Apart from classics like Neuromancer I'd recommend the fairly new Singularity Series by William Hertling and the first novel "Avogadro Corp" in particular.

What's hard Scifi?

Based on the answers here, it's apparent that different people have different definitions.

For myself I take it to mean no new fundamental physics. Any new technology is a reasonable extrapolation from existing, known science. Probably the single biggest narrative restriction that implies is no FTL.

As you mentioned, there is disagreement. Many folks would characterize as Hard SciFi some stories that make use of FTL travel but which give a "rigorous" explanation of why it initially appeared to be impossible (in present day) but is actually possible according to physics discoveries made after the present day. In some sense, the important criteria is that the laws of physics are "taken seriously", and that the author constructs a hypothetical scientific framework that (1) is internally self-consistent and (2) is compatible with current observations.


The definition of hard and soft scifi, altough not widely used is:

Hard scifi implies that technology has changed the entire world. A good example is "I, robot". Themes are explored by characters interacting with the world.

Soft scifi implies that technology has changed only the lives of the characters. A good example is "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind" Themes are explored in characters interactions.

Is Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos hard enough?

This isn't hard Science Fiction.

Definition on Wikipedia: Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_science_fiction

It may not be Hard, but it's great writing.

David Brin's Uplift Trilogy. Also, Not really an amazing book but Seveneves by Neal Stephenson was pretty technical.

I don't recall AI playing a role in those books, can you expand?

Sure. I'm an idiot. I didn't read anything beyond - "hard sci-fi" That said, there was an AI that popped up in some very minor parts of Startide Rising as I recall. But no, mostly I'm just stupid.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente, I felt like it really introduced emotion in an AI context,

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Series)

Nexus trilogy

The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem.

The Crystal Trilogy (Society, Mentality, Eternity) might prove interesting.

The Three Body Problem.

Not alot of AI aside from the software controling the ships in the later books. These arguably play a small part.

Jacek Dukaj - Black Oceans

Anathem by Neal Stephenson, along with Seveneves.

I always liked the Ben Bova grand tour series. Some are better than others, but they're pretty entertaining and pretty plausible near-future.

Allen Steel fits in this vein as well.

‘Three Body Problem’ which I just finished. It is part of a trilogy.

Great book, but not about AI.

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