Literary science fiction is simply science fiction that’s better-written, has more realistic characters, and is more ambitious in exploring deep ideas than other books. Instead of just exploding spaceships and smart-mouthed robots, they can contain wrenching emotions that look at what it actually means to be human.
Its polar opposite would be something pulpy like Amish Vampires in Space.
Fortunately, there’s room for both brilliant, tortured writers and Amish Dracula in science fiction.
When Herman Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy said that The Glass Bead Game “occupies a special position” in Hesse’s work.
The novel is the story of Joseph Knecht, who lives in Castalia, a 23rd-century utopia in which the intellectual elite have distilled all available knowledge of math, music, science, and art into an elaborately coded game. We follow Knecht’s life from a youth to a man attempting to become a master of the game, and see his mental and moral development.
It might take some work to get through the first fifty pages, but slog on, and you’ll be rewarded for it. It picks up after page 100.
The Glass Bead Game was published in Switzerland in 1943 after being rejected for publication in Germany due to Hesse’s anti-Fascist views. It is Hesse’s final full-length novel.
A strange and dreamlike novel, the chapters in Murakami’s novel alternate between two bizarre narratives—”Hard-Boiled Wonderland” (a cyberpunk-like, science-fiction part) and “The End of the World” (a virtual fantasy-like, surreal part).
The unnamed narrator is the last surviving victim of an experiment that implanted the subjects’ heads with electrodes that decipher coded messages. In alternating chapters, he tries to reunite with his mind and his shadow, from which he has been severed by the grim, dark “replacement” consciousness implanted in him.
In both narratives, none of the characters is named. Each is instead referred to by occupation or a general description, such as “the Librarian” or “the Big Guy.”
“Murakami’s fast-paced style, full of hip internationalism, slangy allegory, and intrigue, has been adroitly translated.”
— Library Journal
In a locked ward of a notorious psychiatric hospital sits a man who insists that he is Dr. Nicholas Slopen, failed husband and impoverished Samuel Johnson scholar. Slopen has been dead for months, yet nothing can make this man change his story. What begins as a tale of apparent forgery involving unknown letters by the great Dr. Johnson grows to encompass a conspiracy between a Silicon Valley mogul and his Russian allies to exploit the darkest secret of Soviet technology: the Malevin Procedure.
An eccentric combination of Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and well-written craziness, Strange Bodies is a thriller than manages to ask questions about identity, authenticity, and what it means to be truly human.
“This is a superb technological fantasy, a tense thriller and a brilliantly imagined debate about the relationship between body and soul. Wonderful.”
— The Times (London)
Antar’s mind-numbing job is to monitor a somewhat finicky computer sorting through mountains of information. When the computer finds something it can’t catalog, it brings the item to Antar’s attention. A string of these seemingly random anomalies puts Antar on the trail of a man named Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995 while searching for the truth behind the discovery of the cure for malaria. This search for Murugan leads, in turn, to the discovery of the Calcutta Chromosome, which can shift bits of personality from one person to another. That’s when things really get interesting.
The Calcutta Chromosome is part medical thriller, part science fiction, part literary conspiracy novel, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997.
Ursula Todd is born in 1910, strangled by her umbilical cord. She dies before she draws her first breath. Then, she is born again, to the same family, her umbilical in a better place. Unfortunately, she is doomed to die again and again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same family.
Eventually, she gets a hint of what is going on.
“Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny.”
— Booklist (starred review)
Roadside Picnic was refused publication in book form in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship and numerous delays. Heavily censored versions published between 1980 and 1990 significantly departed from the original version written by the authors. The original Russian-language novel was finally published in the 1990s.
Roadside Picnic takes place in the aftermath of an extraterrestrial event (called the Visitation), which simultaneously took place in half a dozen separate locations around Earth for a two-day period.
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the Zone and the thriving black market made up of alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news Red gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.
After being bitten by a rattlesnake in the mountains above Berkeley, California, Isherwood Williams gets a measles-like disease. He can’t get home and moves in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he recovers and makes his way back to civilization to find almost everyone on Earth is dead. He is one of the few survivors, and they must decide how to keep humanity alive.
“This is a book…that I’d place not only among the greatest science fiction but among our very best novels.”
— James Sallis in the Boston Globe
Full title: Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta: Personal, psychological, historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Period of the Last Days
Shikasta is the history of the planet Shikasta (Earth) under the influence of three galactic empires, Canopus, Sirius, and their mutual enemy, Puttiora. It is presented as a compilation of documents, reports, letters, speeches and journal entries.
Johar visits Shikasta over the millennia from the time of the giants and the biblical great flood up to the present. With every visit, he tries to distract Shikastans from the evil influences of the planet Shammat but notes with dismay the ever-growing chaos and destruction of Shikasta as its people hurl themselves towards World War III and annihilation.
“An audacious and disturbing work from one of the world’s great living writers.”
It’s hard enough being a middle-aged divorcee and single mother in Los Angeles. It’s harder when the nuclear bombs start to fall.
“A sureness of tragicomic touch that could only be the work of an experienced writer striking into bold new territory.”
— Publishers Weekly
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence.
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015.
“Darkly lyrical… A truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down.” — The Seattle Times
Cosmicomics is a wild imagination’s love letter to science. It’s a series of tales told by a creature named Qfwfq, who’s been around since before the universe began.
Mildly neurotic Qfwfq and his family, including Captain Vhd and sister G’d(w)n, witness the birth of matter, gamble with hydrogen atoms, become dinosaurs, fall in love, and invent vision.
Author Italo Calvino has one of the most astounding imaginations I’ve ever encountered, and these short stories, which feel like a mixture of tall tale, myth, and confessional, combine scientific rigor with total abandonment of logic. If you don’t try to make too much sense of these stories, you’re in for a wonderful ride.
This Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel is known for its rich characters and moving story and not, say, for non-stop action.
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking the past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin—barely of age herself—finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
“[A]n intelligent and satisfying blend of classic science fiction and historical reconstruction.”
— Publishers Weekly
It looks like a good deal at first: a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia. However, they refuse to answer questions about themselves and govern from orbiting spaceships. Clarke has said that the idea for Childhood’s End may have come from the numerous blimps floating over London during World War II.
A mysterious disaster has stricken the mid-western American city of Bellona: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a man who can’t remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, and the outcast.
If you start reading Dhalgren, don’t be discouraged by the opening pages. Just keep pushing on—it gets easier.
“Stand[s] with the best American fiction of the 1970s”
— Jonathan Lethem (author of the excellent Gun, with Occasional Music).
Kindred involves time travel, so while being technically science fiction, it’s often shelved under “literature” or “African-American literature,” due to the protagonist shuttling back into a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Butler herself called it ”a kind of grim fantasy.”
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
Author Octavia E. Butler is a multiple-recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and one of the best-known female writers in the field. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant.
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
“This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best, will garner Bacigalupi significant critical attention and is clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, is set in a society which is at first presented as utopian, but gradually appears more and more dystopian. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness,” a plan that has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Twelve-year-old Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with its weight.
The Giver is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many challenged book lists and appeared on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of the 1990s.
Ubik is one of Dick’s most acclaimed novels. It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.
Glen Runciter runs a lucrative business—deploying teams of anti-psychics to protect corporations from psychics who are trying to steal trade secrets. But when he and his top team are ambushed by a rival, he is gravely injured and placed in “half-life,” a dreamlike state of suspended animation. Soon, though, the surviving members of the team begin experiencing some strange phenomena, such as Runciter’s face appearing on coins and the world seeming to move backward in time. As consumables deteriorate and technology gets ever more primitive, the group needs to find out what is causing the shifts and what a mysterious product called Ubik has to do with it all.
Time critic Lev Grossman described it as “a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from.”
In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President, defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.
For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threaten to destroy his small, safe corner of America—and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.
“A terrific political novel…sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible.”
— The New York Times
451°F may or may not be the actual flashpoint of book paper, but that hardly matters in this dystopian (rare for Bradbury) tale of censorship run amok.
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well-intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. It’s certainly the first biopunk one (though who knows what Shelley would have made of that term). It delves into the humanity of the monster and those around him, as opposed to the precise methods the doctor used to animate him.
Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.
It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.
A nameless son and father wander a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all life on Earth.
The Road is another list entry where the term “science fiction” may or may not apply, but it’s so freakishly good that the list would feel thin without it.
The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and critics have called it “heartbreaking,” “haunting,” and “emotionally shattering.”
The Time Traveler’s Wife is the story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap.
It’s more love story than sci-fi, so keep that in mind.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
Satirical, surreal, and darkly funny, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s most important, i.e., influential, and popular work. One can argue that there are real aliens since the main character (in addition to the narrator) is an unreliable witness to his own life. One can also argue, “Who cares?” It’s a great story.
“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…”— Kurt Vonnegut
The most political and literary entry on this list (with the possible exception of Brave New World), 1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.
You might have seen the movie. Cloud Atlas is six narratives, taking place in the 1850, 1930s, 1970s, and several dystopian futures.
“[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”
— The New York Times Book Review
Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships). This androgyny feels entirely alien, since our language has “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.”
“A jewel of a story.”
— Frank Herbert
Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules, where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.
Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time, she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
From this description, Never Let Me Go doesn’t sound like a science ficiton novel. It is, but saying exactly how would give too much away.
Best Novel of 2005
— Time Magazine