We all know what science fiction is right? Aliens, spaceships, laser guns? Something about the future where the science is a bit hokey, but consistent within the specified universe. Okay, so warp drive is impossible, but in Star Trek, they can’t cross the universe in a by just thinking about it.
We all know what fantasy is, right? Right? Wizards and elves and magic. Or maybe ghosts and demons. Although most fantasy follows its own internal logic, there’s no limits to what might happen. After all, in Supernatural, they are arguing with God!
Wrong. Dead wrong. So, here is a list of fiction that might be described as literary fiction? Contemporary fiction? American fiction? Science fiction and fantasy fiction, every one of them. So, in no particular order, as all the best TV competitions say:
The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy – post apocalyptic
A father and son journey in a post-apocalyptic America, trying to survive the winter.
Why it’s SF – it follows that if it is post apocalyptic, something must have happened to cause the apocalypse. Not hint is given of anything magical or supernatural. No demons or zombies are walking the earth. The theme is of survival in an altered environment, common in many SF novels.
Awards – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Believer Book Award
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart – dystopian
A middle class man and a young woman pursue love while America falls apart around them.
Why it’s SF – the technology used in this near-future speculation is just beyond our current capacities, while the political and cultural situation is a dystopian vision of what might be around the corner. It is a warning regarding the path we are currently on.
Awards – Salon Book Award; New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) by Haruki Murakami – supernatural surrealism
A man begins an adventure hunting for a particular sheep that hasn’t been seen in years.
Why it’s fantasy – there are elements of this fiction that cannot be described with regards to any given reality. A woman appears to have magical ears that seduce the protagonist. It is a tale superbly told in which the absurd is believable.
Award – Noma Literary Newcomers Prize
Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago – apocalyptic dystopia
An unexplained mass epidemic of blindness affects an unnamed city and society crumbles.
Why it’s SF – while there is no explanation of the cause of the blindness, it is described as if it were a pathogen, rather than something fantastic such as a curse, although it could well be…Unusually, this describes the apocalypse and ensuing dystopia as the rules of society rapidly disintegrate. It is showing us how fragile our values are.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro – dystopian
Three friends grow up in a boarding school with a dark secret. As they grow older, complex relationships develop and they are introduced to the chilling outside word.
Why it’s SF – the children are products of a technology that doesn’t quite exist yet. They are supposed to make the world a better place, but in truth it is a bleak and soulless place. Our hopes and dreams have not made a utopia, but the opposite
Award – ALA Alex Award
A famous pianist arrives in an unnamed European city to perform the concert of his life, but fate continually intervenes
Why it’s fantasy – Ryder, the protagonist, is prevented from his purpose by characters that appear to have the power to manipulate reality. The result is a dreamscape where you can turn the corner of a street and be somewhere else or a person becomes someone else in the blink of an eye.
Far North (2009) by Marcel Theroux – post-apocalyptic
Civilisation has returned to a more primitive way of life, but when Makepeace sees a plane above the Siberian sky she sets out looking for something more, finding something horrific on the way
Why it’s SF – Similar to The Road, as in it’s a post-apocalyptic road novel, it is the story of the after events of society’s decline. In this case, global warming is the global villain, while man is still the monster. The fragility of morality is again they key.
Shortlisted – Clarke Award
Once again, human folly has brought about an unspecified event resulting in the collapse of civilisation. A hermit wanders among hybrid creatures while flashbacks tell of his pre-apocalypse life.
Why it’s SF – Despite Atwood’s protestations, this is as much SF as any alien adventure. Genetic engineering beyond what is currently possible is the main plot driver, while in flashbacks, multi-nationals have separated society into privileged and not-so-much. It even has a mad scientist cf. Victor Frankenstein. It is a tale of potential moral bankruptcy, as most post-apocalyptic novels are.
Shortlisted – Man Booker
On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute – apocalyptic
Shute describes the end of the world following World War III from the perspective of the last survivors in Australia, as the deadly radiation drifts their way.
Why it’s SF – Well, WWIII never happened and there was no nuclear war. It was set in the future from the point of the date of writing. The Australian government provides its citizens with a suicide solution. All good end-of-the-world science fiction.
In the Country of Last Things (1987) by Paul Auster – dystopian
Anna searches a chaotic city for her lost brother, hoping to discover her family heritage, while making a living as an object hunter; a scavenger
Why it’s SF – Government and industry have collapsed and people survive as best they can in a disordered society. Morals have been forgotten and cannibalism is common. This is a world we can recognise if we remove authority and self-worth.
So, my friends. 10 examples of fiction that is really science fiction, but is enjoyed by the non-geek literati. There are other examples such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y which are clearly fantasy or science fiction, and yet have been embraced by literary snobs and reading groups as genre fiction it is okay to like. Maybe they should be forced to read fiction with space ships just so they realise it’s no different to the above examples.
Free your inner geek!