There were two reasons why I included the phrase "mainly for grown-ups" in the title of my Amazon list of favorite recent science fiction novels: First, I am implicitly conceding that as a genre SF is still associated by many with comic books, silly movies, and adolescence, but I am also insisting that there's something there for mature adults. Second, I'm giving fair warning that some of the novels, in style and content, would not be appropriate for young readers.
Two of the novels on the list, Peter Watts' Maelstrom and John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century, strike me as particularly grown-up in both respects. Both offer decidedly bleak visions of the not very distant future, Maelstrom describing a world in which quasi-governmental and corporate interests must constantly struggle to stay one step ahead of ecological disaster, even while each temporarily successful intervention in turn produces new unanticipated dangers. Eventually, a specialist in the control of "baby apocalypses" realizes that the latest new microbe he's tracking, nicknamed "Behemoth," is moving well beyond infancy:
...[T]he dice had just kept rolling, and the hundredth throw had landed square on the Oregon coast. [He] knew the story: microbes, in sufficient numbers, make their own rules. Now there was a place in the sun where Behemoth didn't have to fit into someone else's world. It had been creating its own: trillions of microscopic terraformers at work in the soil, changing pH and electrolyte balances, stripping away all the advantages once held by natives so precisely adapted to the way things used to be...
It was every crisis he'd ever faced, combined and distilled and reduced to pure essence. It was chaos breaking, maybe unbreakable: little bubbles of enemy territory growing across the face of the coast, then the continent, then the planet. Eventually, there'd come a fulcrum, a momentary balance of some interest to the theoreticians. The area inside and outside the bubbles would be the same. An instant later, Behemoth would be the outside, a new norm that enclosed shrinking pockets of some other, irrelevant reality.
The collateral damage in this biological war is often brutal, an observation that returns me to the original theme on appropriate audiences: When not simply wiped out amidst desperate, remote-controlled quarantining procedures, the human characters in this novel are often driven to extreme anti-social behavior, and Watts does not shy away from direct descriptions of perverse, often sexualized violence. Additionally, his information-dense yet elliptical style might prove difficult for many young readers.
The stylistic texture of Kaleidoscope Century would probably strike the average reader as more congenial than Maelstrom's: Any given paragraph of the novel reads like a "normal" piece of first-person narrative fiction. The following passage deals with the main character's activities behind German lines during the "Eurowar":
...[S]ince these poor bastards just wanted the war to go home and leave them alone, that was what they had predicated their defense on - protecting each individual house. So I could walk right up the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, and though almost everyone telecommuted now to avoid the weapons targeted on transit, nobody was patrolling the streets; they sat in their individual cocoons and waited for the blow to fall on one of them, even though probably half the houses in the village had picked me up on sensors, and the householders were undoubtedly sitting with their hands on their guns, waiting with sweat staining their armpits.
In almost every other way than style on the level of the paragraph, however, the book will be difficult for many readers. Like Maelstrom, Kaleidoscope Century is a highly contemporary version of the traditional SF cautionary what-if? tale, but while Watts sticks mainly to "hard" SF, even providing a helpful appendix on the scientific research on which he has based his extrapolations from current trends and ideas, Barnes takes longer speculative leaps: Just how far he's gone is unveiled only as key underlying questions are (mostly) answered within a narrative that will strike many as perplexingly disjointed and contradictory, in that it follows the narrator's own struggle to sort out memories that seem to suggest an impossibly long life in which key events are being recalled in multiple incommensurate ways. Making the result even more off-putting is that the character's contradictory memories are those of a revolutionary, terrorist, mercenary, and criminal who has played a key supporting role in more than a century of world-devastating warfare. The many atrocities he reports, and sometimes re-reports in slightly altered versions, sometimes suggest up-close-and-personal versions of the worst stories from the Yugoslavian civil war. There is nothing in the works of De Sade, Goya, or the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic that far exceeds the obscene cruelty starkly visualized within Barnes' kaleidoscope.
One element that ties these two dystopias together is a partly repressed political dimension. Both imagine a 21st Century in which the United States has been amputated from history, freeing democratic capitalism's economic, cultural, and ideological competitors to fight each other for pre-eminence. The result is the war of all against all, with technology providing an impetus toward irreversible catastrophe. In Watts' post-American world, an alternative does finally emerge that initially takes on familiar left-revolutionary, collectivist values and outlines, but it remains too contingent and provisional (or, arguably, contrived) to be strongly embraced or criticized. Barnes is much more explicit: He imagines the war of all against all producing a clear victor in the form of a self-perpetuating mind control technology that, in the typical manner of futuristic science fiction, both recalls and imaginatively elaborates upon 20th Century totalitarianism. Wherever either author's personal commitments and political intentions, if any, may lie, each offers a vivid literary argument in support of what we could summarize in the phrase "American global influence."
The socially conservative guardians of virtue and high aesthetics may reject such works as, in a word, pornographic. Others who, like many adolescent boys, are drawn to transgressive escapism may not glean the implicit arguments for moderation that traditional leftist criticism would immediately identify as "reactionary" and possibly "decadent." What's inarguable is that the futures imagined by Watts and Barnes are repellent: They repel us into the present, no more certain than ever what tomorrow may bring, but more aware of what we cannot afford to lose.