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OTHER Best Lists
Best Literary Science Fiction Books
What does Literary Science Fiction mean? Well not plot-heavy shoot-em-up adventures for a start, but that still leaves a lot of territory. Not 'literary' authors condescending to write sf, because that way leads to junk like O-Zone by Paul Theroux. Not science fiction authors writing mainstream fiction; there are some superb examples out there but, well, it's just not science fiction is it?
No, for the purposes of this list, we're looking at novels by mainstream authors that were published as mainstream, reviewed as mainstream, but subsequently recognised as science fiction. And pretty damned amazing science fiction it is too. Well, just look at the books we've chosen.
Literary SF also tends to focus on literary structures (plot, prose, themes) and there is usually JUST as much focus on HOW the story is told, in the prose used to tell the story, in the narrative structures binding the story (you know, all those literary devices you learned in English lit class), and the themes / subtext present. While SF is genereally concerned with telling a future story, the literary SF focuses on HOW it's told just as much as WHAT is told.
It's the 'HOW' part that makes it complicated to pin down literary -- is it just a publishing term used to categorize a book that's published mainstream rather than genre or does it define a separate style of SF that focuses on themes, language, and literary devices, or is it a genre?
Let me say that perhaps it's 'all of fhese', 'some of these' and 'non of these' and leave it at that.
If you want a breakdown of the what defines SF as 'literary', please read our Literary Science Fiction subgenre guide.
Animal Farm is Orwell's other great dystopian novel. Disguised as a rather charming fable about animals taking over the running of their farm, it is really a chilling account of Soviet Russia as the pigs, particularly Napoleon, become all-powerful rulers indistinguishable from the humans they have displaced. And the great rallying cry: all animals are created equal, is subtly changed to read: all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
We by Yevgeny Zamiatin (which appears elsewhere on this list) is the inspiration behind much of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which also appears elsewhere on this list) is the other great dystopian novel of the period.
One by David Karp is set in a near-future America that believes itself to be approaching perfection, though it is in fact a dystopia. An incredibly complex bureaucracy is in place to keep control of all citizens by encouraging a vast network of informers, but when one informer falls foul of the system he finds himself rounded up and subjected to torture.
The Trial by Franz Kafka gave us the word "Kafkaesque" for any nonsensical bureaucracy which gives no reasonable way forward. Although it is a contemporary mainstream novel, the way that the protagonist, Josef K, finds himself arrested for an unspecified crime by agents of an unspecified force, and brought to trial in the attic of a huge tenement building where the procedures remain ever mysterious to him, all adds up to a powerful and haunting dystopia.
Books in Cloud Atlas Series (0)
Like a greatly extended Cloud Atlas, all of Mitchell's novels feel very different, for instance there's a crime story set in contemporary Japan, the story of a boy growing up in 1970s England, a historical novel about European traders in 18th century Japan. Yet in all of these novels, characters recur, images are repeated, there are distinct and deliberate links. All of this interconnection becomes explicit in The Bone Clocks. What we learn in this novel is that there are two warring clans of immortals, one survives by killing ordinary people, one survives by their consciousness passing into another body when they die. Their war ends up revolving around a young woman whose brother disappeared mysteriously when she was a child, who goes on to become a well-known author, and who ends her days in post-apocalypse rural Ireland. It's not the best thing Mitchell has written (that remains Cloud Atlas) but it is fun and fascinating, and in the way it ties all his other books together it becomes like a big intriguing puzzle.
At the time, The Handmaid's Tale looked like an oddity in the career of an important mainstream writer. But since then Margaret Atwood has not only written a book about science fiction, she has also incorporated science fiction elements into her novel The Blind Assassin, more significantly she has written a science fiction trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood follow two different sets of survivors, which are brought together in the final volume, MaddAddam. Interspersed throughout the novels are long flashbacks to the polluted, heavily industrialised world before the crash, leading up to the deliberate release of a genetically constructed virus that wipes out a large proportion of the population. Some commentators reckon that these books are more ambitious and more powerful even that The Handmaid's Tale.
There are quite a few other utopian and dystopian novels that explore the position of women. For example, The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is set 300 years after a nuclear war has destroyed the United States. Women's Country is an ecologically sustainable matriarchy where the women live within walled towns while the men live in warrior camps outside the walls. But in the novel one of the women finds herself captured by a misogynistic Christian community where women are treated like slaves.
Other literary dystopias from the period that are well worth reading include Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin, in which she imagined the world of Hitler's thousand-year reich, and One by David Karp which imagines a totalitarian future America.
Of course, we can't forget about 1984 as THE dystopian novel to read. Fahrenheit 451 is also another important dystopian novel you should read.
The idea of a small community surviving a disaster by reverting to old ways while every modern convenience they have got used to stops working became a model for much of the post-apocalyptic fiction that appeared in the decade or so after Earth Abides. However, in most cases the apocalypse was not natural but nuclear.
One recent example that's well worth reading is Slow Apocalypse by John Varley. Set in and around Hollywood, it tells of a genetically manipulated virus that renders all of the world's oil unusable. Slowly, modern life grinds to a halt, communities must grow small simply to survive. It's a very modern take on Earth Abides, but that just shows the strength of the original and the power of this late variant.
It may be a sign of the times, but the collapse of society has come back into fashion in current science fiction. There are several examples of the form, of which these are probably the best.
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson is set in an extremely balkanised Europe, where city blocks or country parks or even train lines can declare themselves independent statelets. Suddenly Europe is criss-crossed with new borders. But there is always a need for goods or money or people to be transported secretly across borders, and with so many new borders the need is more acute than ever. Which is where the coureurs come in: a secret organisation dedicated to getting anything across any border. When Rudy, a chef, is recruited by the coureurs, however, he finds himself involved in a secret world that is far more deadly than he had ever imagined, because it turns out there are borders that no-one even knew about.
Wolves by Simon Ings is the story of two childhood friends whose friendship is tested as the world falls apart around them. One of them, Micky, is so convinced that the end times are coming that at one point he even builds an ark at his home, and he goes on to write a novel about a flooded world; but when the rains do come, the novel proves to be eerily prescient. Conrad, on the other hand, wants to know who killed his disturbed mother; while his father's invention of a device to help blind servicemen see doesn't stop him falling through the cracks in society and ending on the breadline. It is a world that is slowly falling apart, and the natural catastrophe that is just beginning as the novel ends is only the final act in a long process of disintegration.
There are many tales of Hitler winning the war, some of the more interesting examples of which are:
The Sound of His Horn by Sarban tells of a British Prisoner of War who is transported to a Nazi dominated future where genetically-modified women are hunted for sport.
The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad presents an alternate history in which Hitler failed as a politician and became a pulp novelist, whose sf novel The Lord of the Swastika reflects much of Hitler's ideology in the form of a lurid post-apocalyptic tale.
Fatherland by Robert Harris is set in 1964 when a detective, investigating the murder of a high-ranking Nazi official, uncovers a conspiracy that leads him back to the Final Solution. There's a similar plot in SS-GB by Len Deighton, in which the investigation of a murder in Nazi-occupied Britain leads to a plot to help the king escape.
Resistance by Owen Sheers is set in a remote Welsh valley where all the men have gone off to join the resistance and have presumably been killed, leaving the women to tend the farms and cope with the occupying German troops.