“Speculative fiction” is used to describe a wide variety of stories including science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate realities, and a whole host of literature that goes beyond our normal world. It is one of my favorite vehicles for storytelling because of the ability to construct worlds based on “what if” questions.
My opinions tend to shift as I grow, so any list I make is bound to change. But five spec fiction novels currently stand out in my esteem. Some of the novels below I read years ago, and some only just recently. Please drop me a line with recommendations or opinions. Here we go, in no particular order.
Valis by Philip K. Dick
One of Philip K. Dick’s last novels, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a paranoid author with more than his fair share of identity problems. Mired in conspiracies and alternate realities, and with a disintegrating grip on reality, Fat goes on a quest to find Sophia, a two-year-old girl who may or may not be an incarnation of Gnostic wisdom. He is searching for the true meaning of religion, and at the same time trying to explain his life to himself.
This is a theoretical head trip that features the author himself as one of the characters. The best part of this novel is the way Dick treads the schizophrenic line between the real and unreal, conspiracy and truth, and multiple versions of the Self. You can read these themes again in PKD’s earlier (1977) and more popular novel A Scanner Darkly.
This is one of Dick’s most obliquely autobiographical novels, a literary sketchpad of ideas about what happened to him on February 3, 1974, when deep mysteries were revealed to him through a pink laser (or maybe an acid flashback). Appended to the novel are sections from his notorious Exegesis, featuring such gems as:
4) Matter is plastic in the face of Mind; and
14) The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood is a master of the genre. Of the pitiful few of her novels I’ve read so far, Oryx and Crake is her most accessible and brilliant.
Snowman lives in a wild ravaged by severe weather. He is savage, a relic from before the disaster, before the constant storms, unbearable sun, and new genetic humanoids who eat plants and take everything literally. He is from a life we, as readers, recognize. His world used to be like our world, may actually have been our world, in its emotions, interactions, and even technology. But now that Snowman is one of the last living pure human beings, he finds himself remembering life as it was before the disaster. As he remembers, we are carried along in a beautiful, character-driven memorial of his life up until everything changed forever.
Speculative fiction is often alluring because of the ideas it offers, of fantastic worlds and situations, future technologies and the dreams of what could be. Oryx and Crake has all this and more. This story is a powerhouse of character development. In fact, the character development never stops; Atwood takes us right inside Snowman and shows us a resoundingly human being in the center of a weird, new world. And with all her tender, human understanding, her big-thinking doesn’t suffer for it. Her world-building is remarkable, her future history is intriguing and thoughtful, and her prose is beautiful. Despite my utmost respect for Aldous Huxley, Oryx and Crake seems smarter, more grandiose, and yet subtler than Brave New World.
Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
Against The Day is a sprawling megalith, set at the end of the 19th century, spanning thirty years and the known geographical world (as well as places only speculated about). An intricate pastiche of genres featuring dozens of characters, there is enough “speculative” stuff in here to allow it in the genre. At over 1000 pages this is Pynchon’s longest work, and it brims with such a wealth of themes, intrigues and comedy that I enjoyed simply being lost in its enormous and complex telling.
Against The Day is aptly considered metahistorical fiction because of its historical accuracy and frequent self-reflexive detours into the fantastical. In a miasma of comings and goings we meet Nikola Tesla, Franz Ferdinand, a dog named Pugnax who can communicate with the crew of an airship, a psychic detective, an anarchist dynamite terrorist addicted to his explosives, a traveling magician, and a few normal people who can be very confused at times.
Pynchon fans will recognize his trademark wit, his complex wordplay, his penchant for anarchism, pharmacological exploration, dirty sex, ridiculous names, and his ability to lead us into subtly strange cul-de-sacs of theory, only to emerge and find the world has not waited up for us. For people who have not read his work, this may not be the best to start with, but Against The Day is a novel I rate highly in just about any category.
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Arguably history’s best science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke floored me with this one. With no main character to speak of, one might think the story hard to follow, but the development of ideas is so masterful here, so wise and poignant, that I was rapt the entire time.
Aliens have peacefully invaded Earth, and in doing so have brought about unprecedented peace and progress. Their motivations are vague, and the mystery is only amplified by their insistence on governing remotely, not allowing humankind to see them. When an alien is discovered at a cocktail party researching human psychical behavior, and an impromptu Ouija Board session reveals the destination of the alien’s home star, Jan Rodricks decides to stow away on their ship to discover something, anything, about them.
Meanwhile the culture on Earth undergoes a complete overhaul. When technological development creates a peaceful but artless near-utopia on Earth, citizens found New Athens, a cultural center dedicated to creative arts. But something is happening to Earth’s children, and humanity’s dreams of controlling its own destiny collapse. They are being prepared for something strange and new. By the time Jan returns home, he no longer recognizes Earth.
This beautiful, early gem of science fiction (1953) combines mystical, religious and technological transcendence to mind blowing effect.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
William Mandella is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force to combat a distant alien race. Navigation into “collapsars” makes the interstellar distances reachable in very little subjective time. But when William returns after his first successful mission, he finds decades have gone by. The culture shift is too extreme for him. Homosexuality is the new norm, promoted by world governments to curb overpopulation. William has become an outsider. He is unable to wrap his head around the technologies and ideologies that have developed in his absence. Alienated from his home planet, he re-enlists for a new wave of combat. But the more he fights, the further he finds himself from the world he once knew.
With each interstellar jump, society changes too drastically for him to cope, and his only recourse is to the life he knows—military life—with all the murder, calculated brutality, and inhumanity that comes with war. One of the only things keeping him grounded is his lover and fellow soldier Marygay. But the machinery of war is cruel and the soldiers are rarely allowed to stay in once place for any length of time. William has lost his context, lost himself, and he can only move forward.
This amazing meditation on the alienation of war is a beautifully told allegory from a man who knows what he’s talking about. This is military science fiction at its finest, and fans of hard science will be blow away by Haldeman’s innovations, even if they are fictitious. Despite the harsh reality presented in the book, there is an enduring humanity throughout. Through fabulous leaps in spacetime, William Mandella runs a gamut of anger and nihilism and ultimately reaches a kind of acceptance in the ongoing flux of war. This is a beautiful novel that nearly overwhelmed me.
A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.