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Best Literary Science Fiction Books

Top Literary Science Fiction Reads

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.

The words have become so commonplace we hardly realise we are using them: Big Brother is watching you, the Ministry of Truth, Room 101, Newspeak, thoughtcrime. George Orwell gave us a language for describing our fear of any controlling and intrusive government.Winston Smith is a minor clerk in a future where the world's three great power blocs are constantly at war with one another, though alliances shift daily, and his job is to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports whatever is today's party line. It is a world where everyone is under surveillance all the time; the ubiquitous telescreens are always on, always spouting the party line, and always watching you. Winston meets a colleague, Julia, and realises that they both share the same distrust of the regime. They begin an affair that would be forbidden by the state, but the agents of the state are watching them all the time. Eventually they are arrested and Winston is taken to Room 101 to be tortured into betraying Julia and swearing his love for Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four is regularly listed among the best novels in the English language; it is also one of the scariest. No other account of a totalitarian regime has so captured our imaginations. It's a chilling book, but absolutely brilliant and unforgettable.

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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.

Alternative Choice
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.

Search the sf award shortlists for 2013 and you will look in vain for this novel. It wasn't even submitted for any of the juried awards. Yet it is arguably the best sf novel of the year, and perhaps the best sf novel of the decade. The problem is, it wasn't seen as science fiction (the book did win one award, for historical fiction). It's the story of one woman's life during the twentieth century: surviving the flu epidemic of 1919, marrying an abusive husband, meeting Hitler in pre-war Germany, helping the rescue services during the Blitz. But these aren't all in the same life. Because the flu kills her, the abusive husband murders her, she attempts to assassinate Hitler, she is blown up in the Blitz, and every time she dies, she is born again and lives a slightly different life. The result is a glorious and enthralling account of the different ways a woman might experience the twentieth century as she slowly starts to become aware of the multiple lives she has led.   Kate Atkinson won a major literary award with her first novel, and has also written a series of highly regarded detective novels, but although there was a hint of time shifts in Human Croquet she had not really tackled science fiction before this book. The result is one of the most original and most beautifully written novels in the genre.
Iain Banks had written a string of science fiction before he finally burst into print with his brilliant and controversial novel, The Wasp Factory. That and the two novels that followed were clearly informed by science fiction, but they were published as mainstream, where he was regarded as a sort of enfant terrible of the literary scene. It was only after The Bridge was published that he added the middle initial, M, and started to bring out those early unpublished sf novels. But The Bridge, which is one of the very best of all of his novels and which is structured on the model of the Forth Road Bridge which he could see from his bedroom window as a child, can only really be understood as science fiction. It is the story of someone growing up in Scotland from the 1960s to the 80s, gaining material success at the cost of early political ideals. But at the very beginning of the novel he crashes on the Forth Bridge, and in the resultant coma (rather like in Life On Mars) he finds himself on an endless bridge in a complex society where he finds himself having to constantly reassess who and what he is. It's a world that involves curious dreams, a Scottish barbarian, endless wars, his trademark massive structures, and lots of bits of technology that we would soon come to recognise in his Culture novels.   Banks was one of the most important writers of science fiction from the 1980s until his death in 2013, yet though he alternated his work between the mainstream novels of Iain Banks and the science fiction of Iain M. Banks, there are very few of the mainstream novels that don't have some element of the fantastic. And The Bridge, the last thing he wrote before his career bifurcated, really does demonstrate the very best of both aspects of his writing.
Inevitably, there is a continuity between past and future. The present is not a cut-off point between one and the other, but simply a sliding scale in the process of moving along the line. Of course, science fiction novels set exclusively in the future, and historical novels set exclusively in the past, do nothing to display this continuity. Which is what makes David Mitchell's novel so intriguing and so successful. It starts in the mid-19th century with the journal of an American on a sailing ship in the Pacific who slowly comes to realise that the doctor treating him is actually poisoning him. Then there are the letters of a young chancer in the 1930s who becomes the amanuensis to an old composer and starts an affair with the composer's wife. Next is a thriller set in California in the 1970s as a journalist begins investigating events at a nuclear power plant. In the present day there's the comic story of a publisher on the run from gangsters who finds himself trapped in an old people's home. A clone in a dystopian future Korea confesses to her part in plotting a rebellion by the fabricants. And on a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island an old man relates, in a broken language, his meeting with a woman from a more sophisticated society. With the exception of the last, each of these stories breaks off at the mid-point, only to be picked up again in backwards order in the second half of the novel. The central character in each story reads the earlier text, but some of the early texts contain echoes of the later stories. Past, present and future, in other words, interconnect and feed off each other in a story of human predation that gains much of its power from the resonances across time.   There is no other work that is structured like this, there is no other work that so deftly combines elements of historical fiction and science fiction. Cloud Atlas is beautiful, absorbing and totally unique.

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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.

Back in the 1950s, a young Alasdair Gray entered a short story in a competition. It came second. That story was part of what would become, nearly 30 years later, the most significant novel in contemporary Scottish literature. Gray went on to be a successful artist and playwright, but he kept working on the novel that would become one of the sensations of 1984.It is the story of Duncan Thaw, growing up in Glasgow, becoming an artist, dying; but the novel opens in Unthank, an afterlife where a man called Lanark learns to negotiate this dark, bleak realm. And after the middle sections that tell us about Thaw, we return to Unthank to find out more not only about this strange city but about all of the literary influences that have helped to construct this amazing story. Honestly, if you havent read it, what are you waiting for? Youve got a real treat in store.It is probably safe to say that without Lanark Iain Banks would not have written The Bridge, Irvine Welsh would not have written Maribou Stork Nightmare, or indeed most of modern Scottish literature as we know it would not exist. Lanark was that important.
Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite. It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred. The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale. Why It Made the List The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book. Alternative Choice Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

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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.

Ever since H.G. Wells, time travel has been one of the staples of science fiction. Yet with rare exceptions, such as the surreal comedy of Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five, it has remained something of a specialist taste. Non-sf readers seem to be made uncomfortable by the notion that time might be fluid, that we might literally go out to encounter the past or the future. But in her debut novel Audrey Niffenegger solved that conundrum, writing a time travel story that enjoyed massive popularity, mostly outside science fiction. Her secret was to take the central conceit of Slaughterhouse Five, the idea that the central character is cut loose from time, travelling helplessly backwards and forwards along the length of his life, and put it to the service of a romance. The narrator, our point of identification with the story, is a woman living her life normally as we do; her lover, her husband, is a man travelling helplessly backwards and forwards in time whose wild journey might intersect with her life at any point, at any age. How can a romance be sustained when its ending is known even before it begins? How, as you get older, can you sustain a relationship with someone who might be an old man or an infant the next time you lay eyes on him?It is hard to do something original with time travel, but Niffenegger managed it, producing an international best seller in the process.
Some time ago, the critic Gary Westfahl tried to argue that you could use the number of neologisms in a work as a measure of how science fictional it was. The idea was nonsense, of course, but it does suggest how important new words are in sf. And that's why this book, also called The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, is so important. Here you will find everything from the words science fiction has invented, like "robot" or "spaceship"; to the language sf fans use, like "sercon" or "gafia"; to the jargon used in sf criticism, like "expository lump" or "widescreen baroque". Just like any Oxford Dictionary, you'll not only find the definition (or definitions) of the word, but also the citations for where it was first used, and some of the other places where it has been used since.   If science fiction is a language (see The Jewel-Hinged Jaw above), or even if it isn't, the genre certainly uses words in its own very distinctive way, and it invents an awful lot of words as well. So this is an invaluable reference book to help you keep clear about exactly what is being said.

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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. 

When it was first published, Gravity's Rainbow was shortlisted for the Nebula Award, losing out to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. In their introduction to The Secret History of Science Fiction, John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly argue that, if Gravity's Rainbow had won, the entire subsequent history of science fiction would have been different. That is probably too big a claim, most core genre sf would have continued as if nothing had happened, and a few proto-puppies might have muttered about the wrong sorts taking their awards. But maybe, just maybe, the sort of open, experimental writing we've seen in some of the best recent sf might have come along a decade or so sooner. Not that Gravity's Rainbow is an altogether coherent novel; it's by Pynchon so there's always new stuff coming at you from left field. But it is a big, sprawling, invigorating novel full of invention, in which the sexual exploits of one character predict where German rockets are going to land in wartime London, while the search is on for the mysterious black device due to be loaded onto rocket number 00000.   If science fiction is all about novelty and invention and scenes that make you see the whole world differently, then you don't get much more science fictional than Gravity's Rainbow. It may not have been the book that changed science fiction, but it should have been.
Earth Abides is something of a rarity among the work of George R. Stewart. He wrote mostly biographies and studies of American history, and when he did write fiction, as in Storm or Fire, they tended to be accounts of natural disasters with few or no human characters. Earth Abides was not just the only work of science fiction he produced, it is also the only work that concentrates on human relationships. Yet it was recognised as a classic from the moment it appeared.Like Storm and Fire, Earth Abides is a novel of natural disaster, but the main focus of the novel is on showing how unfitting modern civilisation is for coping when things go wrong. Ish Williams is a resourceful young man out in a remote part of California who falls ill from a strange disease. He manages to pull through, but when he gets back to civilisation he finds that by far the greater proportion of the population has been killed by that same disease, and many of the survivors aren't coping very well. One is drinking himself to death, another couple seem to have gone mad, and so forth.Slowly, Ish begins to gather a small community around him, but as the conveniences of modern life break down the younger members of the community grow ever more suspicious, while reverting to old ways, like making bows and arrows or hunting with dogs. Eventually, in old age, Ish recognises that the old ways are gone for good and hopes that the new society will not get around to reinventing civilisation.(Although not a science fiction author, there is an oblique connection to the genre in the book. The name "Ish" is a reference to the Yahiindian, Ishi, who was the subject of anthropological work by Alfred Kroeber, the father of Ursula K. Le Guin.) Earth Abides is a classic that has barely been out of print since it was first published. It was one of the first works of science fiction to introduce ideas of ecology and anthropology to the genre, and still today it is recognised as one of the most influential of all science fiction works.

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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.

In 1898, the British scientist Ronald Ross, working in Calcutta, made a major discovery about the transmission of malaria for which he would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize. But the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests that the discovery was not Rosss alone.Within the complex timelines of this novel, in which different periods sometimes seem to merge and overlap, a researcher in near-future New York begins to investigate the disappearance of a former colleague who had disappeared in Calcutta many years before. In turn, the colleague, Murugan, had been researching the true story of Rosss discovery. Slowly, as the story moves back and forth in time, we discover that Rosss research was secretly guided by his Indian assistants who were part of a secret organisation trying to discover immortality.Part historical novel, part detective story, part post-colonial revision of existing ideas about the past, part dramatization of real controversies surrounding Rosss Nobel Prize, this is a complex, multi-part story (including, at one point, a powerfully effective ghost story) that won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
William Golding was a not very good school teacher and would-be novelist who realised that real children would never behave the way they are presented in Victorian novels like The Coral Island. So he decided to write a novel about how children actually would behave if they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. The manuscript was rejected again and again by publisher after publisher before it was eventually accepted, but it made Golding one of the most highly acclaimed writers of his generation who would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Golding incorporated contemporary nuclear fears into the novel, so the schoolboys are fleeing the threat of nuclear war when their plane crashes and they find themselves on a desert island. At first they try to maintain school discipline, but gradually this breaks down and they revert to barbarism.   Golding would often incorporate science-fictional or fantastic elements in novels like The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and Darkness Visible, but this remains the novel for which he is best known.

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Philip Roth is one of the two or three leading American novelists from the second half of the twentieth century, whose work consistently explored the Jewish experience in modern America. But he had never produced anything even approaching science fiction before, late in his career, he produced this stunning alternate history. Like much of his work, it incorporates his own family's history, but in this case he imagines the election of anti-semite Charles Lindbergh as President (a real possibility), and an America that therefore comes closer to Hitler's Germany than Churchill's England. Gradually, anti-Jewish laws are passed and the lives of Roth and his family become ever more curtailed. In one brilliant chapter, perhaps the best you'll find in any alternate history novel, he demonstrates how the broad political changes we have witnessed in the background have a profound and immediate personal effect on the young Philip Roth and his brother (though in fairness it should be said that this is followed by one of the most cack-handed chapters you will find in an alternate history novel).   Alternate histories tend to be rather distanced affairs, interested in the intellectual puzzle of how the changes would play out, but Roth puts a human face on those changes and counts their personal cost. This is a profound and deeply moving novel.
Karen Joy Fowler isn't really a mainstream writer: she began writing science fiction, practically all of her short fiction is sf or fantasy, and she jointly founded the James Tiptree Award. Yet she isn't really a science fiction writer either: her novels are primarily mainstream, though there are unresolved suggestions of the fantastic in some of them, such as Sarah Canary or Wit's End. It is this ambiguous literary position that is at the heart of much of her best fiction, particularly this brilliant novel. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a straightforwardly mainstream story, but it is written with a science fiction sensibility that allows us to see twists that are not apparent on the surface of the novel. In an experiment in animal behaviour, a family raises a chimpanzee as part of the family, but when the youngest daughter is five (the same age as the chimp) unforeseen issues force the family to send the chimpanzee away. The girl, too young to understand what is going on, blames herself for the loss of her sister, and now, twenty years later when her eco-terrorist brother reappears in her life, all of these issues come to the surface. So far, so straightforward. But what makes this science fictional is that subtly, without ever drawing attention to what she is doing, Fowler makes us aware that not only did the chimp learn from her human sister, but the girl learned from her chimp sister, and much of her adult behaviour now is actually chimp behaviour.   We are All Completely Beside Ourselves was shortlisted for several science fiction awards, so the science fictional elements of the book were recognised by a lot of readers. But you don't have to read it as science fiction to recognise that this is an extraordinarily powerful and moving book that makes us think again about human and animal behaviour.
As we've seen with Philip Roth, alternate history is a popular form with authors who would not normally be interested in writing science fiction, think, for instance, of MacKinlay Kantor's If the South had Won the Civil War or Len Deighton's SS-GB. But of all such novels, this is easily one of the best. Harris was a successful political journalist (one of his early books was about the exposure of the so-called Hitler Diaries as fake) who has used that knowledge and experience in his fiction. Most of his novels have been political (The Ghost) or straightforward historical (Enigma, Imperium), but his first novel combined the political and the historical into a superb alternate history. It is set in 1964, twenty years after Germany won the Second World War, and as Berlin prepares to celebrate Hitler's 75th birthday a policeman investigates the murder of a top party official. But as the investigation proceeds, he starts to uncover terrible secrets from the war that the party would rather he didn't reveal.   This is everything a good alternate history should be, a gripping story and a convincing recreation of a victorious postwar Germany.
Is there anything new to be done with a post-apocalypse scenario? Well, read Station Eleven and find out.In a performance of King Lear, one snowy night in Toronto, the leading actor, Arthur Leander, collapses and dies. A child actress, Kirsten, watches in horror as a trainee paramedic, Jeevan, tries and fails to save Arthur's life. Later, leaving the theatre, Jeevan hears about a virulent strain of flu and instead of going home heads for his brother's apartment where the two can barricade themselves in against the collapse of society.This is the central point of the novel, the hinge around which everything turns. From here we go back in time to witness Arthur's career, and we leap forward in time to when Kirsten is a member of a troupe of players travelling between remote communities. There are many of the familiar devices of post-apocalyptic fiction here, the small-town dictators, the religious fanatics, the simple struggle to survive. But these are not the point of the book.Rather, the importance lies in the links that Mandel draws out between the world before the collapse, and after. With a hand-drawn comic, "Station Eleven", providing the connection as it somehow survives the apocalypse. Station Eleven has already made the shortlists for a variety of mainstream and science fiction awards, an indication of the quality of the book. From the very first sentence you will be captivated by the sheer beauty of the prose. It is, above all, just a marvellous book to read.

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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.

Fowles is known as a postmodern writer, though some of the postmodern techniques he uses could equally be considered fantastic: the god game in The Magus for instance, or the shifts in time in The French Lieutenant's Woman. In his last novel, A Maggot, we are offered various interpretations of the curious events at the heart of the novel, religious, satanic, criminal, sexual, but at the end the only one that seems to make sense of it all is science fictional. We follow a group of travellers in Exmoor in the middle of the 18th century. Through interviews, letters and newspaper articles we learn that the leader of the group is a nobleman's son who may be eloping and who disappears. One of the group hangs himself, another claims she was raped by Satan. Eventually, although it is never made explicit, we realise that they are visiting a spaceship or time machine, which shows them films of the future, and which takes away the nobleman's son at the end.   Fowles's novels always upset our expectations, and this is one of the best, starting out like a very precise historical fiction, then shifting perspectives so that each succeeding explanation is undermined until we are left with science fiction as the only possible truth.
If there is one overused cliché in science fiction, it is the alternate history novel in which Hitler won the Second World War. But this is a novel about the Nazis triumphant that is not clichéd for the very simple reason that it was written even before the war began.Burdekin was an early feminist writer who saw fascism as an ideology that extolled the masculine, and following Hitler's proclamation of the "thousand-year Reich", she wrote the novel to show just how far such an ideology might go in a thousand years. The novel was published under the name Murray Constantine, a pseudonym designed to protect her family from the sort of attack her strong condemnation of fascism was likely to generate. It was 20 years after her death before it was discovered that Constantine was really Burdekin.It is 700 years after the Nazis won the Twenty Year War, and Hitler is revered as a tall, blond god who personally won the war. The Jews have been eliminated long since, Christians are marginalised, and women have been deprived of all rights. The rise of a misogynistic society has led to the physical degeneration of women, and with that the race has declined, becoming ever weaker so that they are struggling to continue their perpetual wars against the only other superpower, Japan. This is, quite simply, one of the finest works of science fiction from between the wars, a stirring, passionate denunciation of fascism at a time when appeasement was popular.

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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.

Even when the British new wave was introducing literary experiment into science fiction, the genre has been suspicious of the avantgarde. There is a sense that no nonsense storytelling does not belong with the wilder inventions characteristic of the literary fringes. But the suspicion is not always justified, as the case of C demonstrates. McCarthy is the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society which is devoted to mind-bending art projects about death, and his first novel was only published when a Paris-based art collective took it up. Not a background that science fiction would feel comfortable with, but like science fiction McCarthy believes that technology shapes and controls our world, and that idea is central t this novel. The central character, Serge, is the son of an eccentric inventor who runs a school for the deaf. These inventions include work on wireless transmissions, and that becomes the guiding principle of Serge's life, taking him on a series of extravagant adventures including operating wireless sets on World War One spotter planes, escaping from a German Prisoner of War camp, exposing fake mediums in postwar London, and eventually establishing an international communications network for a sinister organisation in Egypt.   Like Thomas Pynchon, with whom he has many similarities, McCarthy writes stories that depart from the real world into realms of extravagant invention and surreal technological twists, while always staying true to a central science-based idea.
Perhaps it is the fact that he is the son of Paul Theroux that tends to get Marcel Theroux tagged as a mainstream novelist. In fact his work has often shown awareness of genre: his second novel, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, nodded towards the great detective story, while his fourth, Far North, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. But it is his next novel that really stands out. At first it reads like a mystery: a man turns up claiming to be the academic Nicholas Slopen, even though he looks nothing like Slopen. Then we read Slopen's story: he was hired by a mysterious stranger to authenticate some writings by Dr Johnson, but when he investigated, he found they were being written by a man held prisoner in a London house. Yet the writing seems to be authentic, and when he talks to the man he seems to have Johnson's personality. Eventually, we find this is a case of identity transfer that is a by-product of a failed Russian experiment.   Strange Bodies won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Because Theroux resolutely treats the strangest of events as though they are perfectly rational and everyday, so that the wildness of the story is all in the minds of the characters, it is easy to read this novel as if it were mainstream, until you sit back and think about exactly what is going on here.
Hoban first made his name with books for children, such as the wonderful The Mouse and His Child. When he turned to writing novels for adults, although they seemed to take place in our normal world, there was always something off-kilter about them: the mystical lion in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz or the talking street furniture in Kleinzeit. Even so, nothing hinted at what was to come in Riddley Walker, one of the most brilliant and original post-apocalyptic novels ever written. Like all of his books, it is precisely located in place, in this instance a small area of Kent between Canterbury and Folkestone. Here, some 2,000 years after the nuclear apocalypse, survivors live an essentially hunter-gatherer existence in small tribes. Language has been debased, memories of nuclear war have transmuted into myth (Saint Eusa, the legend of the LittlShynin Man the Addom), and the Gummint exerts its control through the medium of a touring Punch and Judy show. But gunpowder has been rediscovered, and with it the danger of a return to the old ways.   At first the look of the words on the page can seem off-putting – "On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the laswyld pig on the Bundel Downs" – but read it aloud and it makes perfect sense, a rich and vigorous language that really encapsulates the nature of this society. The whole novel is a tour-de-force, a breathtaking and entirely captivating work. No wonder it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
This first novel seems like a fairly conventional historical fiction telling the true story of the death of the Stuart beauty Venetia Stanley in 1633. In her thirties she began to fear that her beauty was fading, and since her whole sense of being was tied up in how she looked, she took to using one of the mad beauty concoctions common at the time, Viper Wine, which is here described as including snake blood, horse urine and opium. Given that, it is probably no real surprise that she died, though at the time her husband, Sir KenelmDigby, the son of one of the Gunpowder Plotters and one of the more eccentric scientists of the Stuart court, was suspected of poisoning her. Even at its simplest there's enough of a story here for a fascinating novel. But while the story of Venetia Stanley provides a satiric take on the whole cosmetic industry, her husband, Sir KenelmDigby, wanders in and out of the background of the novel quoting lines from Monty Python and David Bowie, and clutching pieces of technology that wouldn't be invented for centuries yet. He is, in other words, a time traveller, giving the whole novel an extra and extraordinary twist.   Viper Wine won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for best debut, and certainly lives up to that awards remit of honouring the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works.
Matt Ruff isn't exactly a mainstream writer, his previous novels, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric were both overtly works of the fantastic, but Set This House in Order seems mainstream. At least it has a realist, contemporary setting, and it deals with a genuine psychological disorder. But one of the things that science fiction does is make the metaphorical, real, and that's exactly what Ruff does in this novel. It is a common metaphor for multiple personality disorder to talk about it as several different people inside the head. For Andy Gage, his personality splintered as a result of childhood abuse, and in order to lead a moderately ordinary life he imagines all the different personalities occupying a large house inside his head. Different personalities emerge to deal with particular situations, and the calmer ones tend to keep the more disturbed personalities in order. It's not perfect, but it works. Then Andy meets Penny, who also suffers multiple personality disorder, though she is only dimly aware of it, and doesn't have the different characters working in the way that Andy does. Or at least, he thinks he does. But when Penny asks for his help in coping with her own problems, he discovers a secret inside the house inside his head that the different personalities have been keeping from him.   Set This House in Order won the James Tiptree Award. It is a superb example of the way science fiction can take a complex and difficult issue and render it comprehensible and moving simply by making the metaphors concrete.
Sheers is a Welsh poet who chose an unlikely topic for his first novel, because it is basically another version of the Germans winning World War Two, an old and tired theme. Yet he managed to make something fresh out of it by concentrating not on the broad politics of the situation but on the human story of those affected. The got the idea when he heard about the "Auxiliary Units", groups of civilians who are trained to go underground and form a resistance should the Germans invade. In his story the D-Day landings fail, the Germans counter-attack and manage to conquer Britain. The story is set in a remote Welsh valley in the Black Mountains where all the men have gone off to join their Auxiliary Units and are supposed dead. This leaves the women behind to look after the farms and cope with the occupying army. It's a harsh life, a struggle to cope even at the best of time and for the women of the valley these are not the best of times. Meanwhile the commander of the German patrol stationed here sees it as a way of keeping his men out of a war that is clearly ending, and the soldiers start dressing in civilian clothes, helping the women rescue sheep caught in the snow, and generally taking the place of the absent men. It is a novel with no villains and no heroes, a novel in which the bleak landscape is one of the leading characters, a story of flawed people trying to find a modicum of peace in a cruel world.   Sheers rescues a tired and over-familiar sub-genre by concentrating on the women left behind, and by situating his story so precisely and so viscerally in the rhythms of the farming year. It is the sheer humanity of the story that makes this novel so memorable.
There was a rather grisly trend in the early 1980s for television plays such as The Day After and Threads to portray the horrific aftereffects of nuclear war in the most startling imagery. But such imagery rarely carried over into literature, where post-apocalyptic fiction still tended to pass lightly over the immediate horrors and turn to the plucky survivors some time afterwards. One surprising exception to this rule was Golden Days by Carolyn See. See tended to write feminist novels about wealthy women in Los Angeles, and for much of its length that is exactly what Golden Days seems to be. The women lead a privileged existence of shopping and cocktails and gossip and infidelity, but in the background international crises mount. Only towards the end of the novel does a full-scale nuclear war break out, and the rather self-satisfied women of the first part of the novel suddenly have to cope with the resultant devastation and disease, the radiation sores and the riots. It is a harsh, nightmarish reversal, all the more effective because See does not shy away from describing the resultant horrors.   The fact that nuclear war comes so unexpectedly in this novel, the fact that an easy and comfortable life is so abruptly overturned, give this an air of disturbing realism that is curiously absent from all too many post-apocalyptic stories.