8 gateway novels into speculative fiction

After reading a few lists recently concerning the kinds of books genre fans should get non-genre fans or people who might be new to science fiction and fantasy to read, I feel that people are missing the point somewhat. After reading Which science fiction book you would give to a first-time SF reader? from io9 people seem to think that just because they like a particular science fiction book, if they give it to non-genre fans, they would like it. I’ve read similar arguments elsewhere too. It’s not just that these people don’t know that The Blue Sword and A Canticle for Leibowitz exist. It’s the assumption that once they do, they’ll immediately be interested and hooked. The idea that someone who doesn’t like Science Fiction and would pick up Hyperion and love it is hilarious.

Missing the point.

I previously wrote about 5 books that the mainstream have already embraced. What I now present are 8 titles which I’d describe as gateway novels into genre. I’ve said away from the obvious, such as Pullman, Tolkien, Meyer, Rice and Rowling. These are novels which are, in some ways, half way between genre and non-genre. They are ghost stories, alien invasions, dystopian, vampire and more. Welcome. There are the books that people who might want to venture into the mysterious waters of science fiction and fantasy should read.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984)

The novel: The glamour is true invisibility, bestowed on a few people. It has always been thus, but is almost completely forgotten, until now. The story follows three people. One of these people doesn’t know it, but has lost his memory after a bomb blast. One has the ability and uses it to pursue the third, who only has a partial control of the gift. As the  Glamourcharacter with the memory loss slowly becomes aware of the glamour, the reader joins him in understanding the reality of this invisible world.

The author: To describe Priest as enigmatic is to say that the sun is a bit warm. While generally regarded as literary, he frustrates as many readers as he delights. Many of his novels deal with delusions, perceptions and as a result, seem to play games with the reader. He presents puzzles, some of which, I assume, are not meant to be solved. Most are deeply speculative yet remaining charismatic. He cites HG Wells as a strong influence, although his prose is much warmer.

Why it should be read: Priest is a master of mystery, but not so much as you might lose faith in him or his characters. The Glamour is a character driven piece. The fantastical elements are not thrust to the fore, although they are the primary motivations for the protagonists. This is a work that is genre-defying, and yet wouldn’t work without the central concept. The Glamour is as close to both mystery and literary fiction as fantasy gets.

What to read next: The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce (2013)

The novel: Set in 1976, the protagonist tells us of his experiences of working in the long hot summer of that year. He his struggling with the ghost of his dead father – but is it a real ghost? He gets a job in a holiday camp and becomes involved with a femme fatale and also a pretty dancer. He becomes involved with the National Front and some other dodgy dealings. Will his relationships end in tragedy and will he find the truth about his Dad? Feeling both noir-ish and yet intensely bright, Joyce explores both the nature of relationships and his own history.

17976979The author: Graham Joyce writes young adult and general speculative fiction, mostly described as fantasy. He has won the British Fantasy Award a few times and the World Fantasy Award winner in 2003 for The Facts of Life. You can’t really classify him, however. His stories feature ghosts, mysticism, folklore and fairytale. His prose seems to be effortless beautiful. He is also known for strong female characters. In The Year of the Ladybird, the dancer is called Nikki. For a young woman in 1976, she is especially vibrant and headstrong. Joyce calls his style ‘Old Peculiar’.

Why it should be read: If you take the idea that this is about ghosts of the past, and not real ghosts – and there is some ambiguity in its reading anyway – then this novel is pure contemporary fiction – albeit set in the 1970s. What it does, is take a snap-shot of history – the rise of the National Front, the very real plague of ladybirds, etc – and add some fictional relationship dramas. It may be a real ghost story. After reading this, you will almost certainly want to read more of Joyce’s beautiful prose, regardless of subject matter. After reading this, you will end up reading ghost stories, contemporary fairy tales and more.

Read the full review

What to read next: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The novel: Meet Kathy. Kathy’s life is not all it seems. Her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, has sinister overtones. The teachers are known as Guardians. TheNever curriculum has no life skills. Her friendships are all peculiar, distant. In time, Kathy becomes friends with Ruth and Tommy, before they learn their bleak but inevitable destiny.  The novel moves onto a later time, when the protagonists are in the later teens. They begin to have contact with the outside world. Romance and sexuality are explored, all with a foreboding sense of doom. The final act reveals the full horror of the dystopia.

The author: Ishiguro, as an author, is a complex beast. The Japanese-born writer has published 6 novels to date, covering many ideas and themes: family drama, post-WWII, historical class-based drama, Eastern-European dream/surrealist, historical crime and dystopian science fiction albeit set in a version of 1980s/90s England. Most of his work, however, is about human failings and how life just goes on (or doesn’t).

Why it should be read: The writing. Plain and simple. It doesn’t get much better than this. Kathy’s first person narrative is as evocative and as gripping as any you’d read elsewhere. Of course, the characters are interesting and the relationships are complex. The mood is as bleak as you could imagine but the prose is so beautiful and so well thought out, it feels like these characters could have been friends of yours (if you’re a certain age, of course). Never Let Me Go is the best example of science fiction that examines our very humanity, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What to read next: Spares by Michael Marshal Smith

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

The novel: Set in Scotland, Faber’s debut features protagonist Isserley, who is not exactly a local. Turns out, in fact, that she’s not even from Earth. However, she still has a job to do. Her employer is the equivalent of a multi-national corporation. Her profession is farmer. She harvests hitchhikers who are then sent to her homeworld as a delicacy. This Undersatirical piece is about big business and the environment. Most importantly, however, it is about people and identity.

The author: While living in Scotland, Faber, perhaps best known for the novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is Dutch who was raised in Australia. Like Ishiguro, he writes a variety of genres about a range of subjects. His work has been described as, at the very least, informed by feminism. He also takes inspiration from Scotland, Dickens and mythology.

Why it should be read: No doubt that this is an alien invasion novel, although the invasion isn’t as Hollywood as you’d imagine. It is discreet and subtle. Nevertheless, this is as science fiction as they come. The aliens are ‘people’ too, however, with motivations, flaws and desires we can relate to. The writing is easy yet subtle and to be honest, it takes a while before you even notice that Under The Skin isn’t just a character study, but instead a satirical study of corporate greed. If your idea of aliens comes from Star Trek or Independence Day, this will surprise and delight you.

What to read next: Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

The Radleys by Matt Haig (2011)

The novel: A vampire novel like no other, The Radleys is the story of a middle class family in middle England whose lives are over-turned when an outside influence is added to their mildly dysfunctional, but perfectly normal existence. The thing is, they are abstainers. The parents hide the truth from their children, but inevitably, the fact of the secret leads to inevitable chaos. While this is a novel about vampires and how they exist in England, it is really a family drama. It is about children growing up and fleeing the nest, and all the pain and trauma that brings. There are emotional truths found here that are not usually found in horror fiction.

The author: Haig is a journalist and so is well aware of human stories. His debut was published in 2005 and he’s been producing novels every couple of years since. His main theme is family life and how outside elements affect it. He doesn’t always write in speculative genres and is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. Indeed, his first and second novels are Radleysre-tellings of Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet.

Why it should be read: It would be easy to say that this is just like Twilight or the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but it isn’t. It’s so much more. This is a genuine novel about family and the pressures they face. It is witty and thoughtful and you think back to your own teens and relate to the situations the characters find themselves. And of course, it has elements of horror and vampire mythology, which aren’t too overblown for the novice. You start off interested about the lives of the family and end up wondering all about the lives of vampires.

What to read next: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Generosity by Richard Powers (2009)

The novel: Imagine a book about happiness. Imagine a book about tolerance and acceptance. Think about all those science fiction novels and films about post-humans and then imagine the story set just around the corner where all these begin. Professor Kurton has found the genetic key to happiness and wants to re-wire all of us. He found it in the DNA of Thassadit Amzwar, studying at Chicago University, who is otherwise known as Miss Generosity. Despite the many hardships in her life, she radiates bliss. Her writing teacher is determined to find a medical explanation. This is a witty examination of mental health, jealousy and medical ethics. It is also a work of near meta-fiction, as it examines the act of reading.Gen

The author: Wikipedia classes Powers as an exponent of literary fiction, and yet his work is intensely speculative and mysterious. A fan of the Greek classics, he trained in English literature and computer science. His novels reflect this, mixing arts and science, history and philosophy. Generosity is not his first foray into science fiction as he has previously delved into nuclear war, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for 2006’s The Echo Maker.

Why it should be read: This book is the beginning point to a whole section of science fiction and yet it has no such pretensions. It is an engaging and intriguing human story. Sure there is some science that takes it away from a straight relationship drama, but it is no more off-putting than, for example, a forensic crime drama. If you are interested in what will happen next in human evolution, whether that is a speculative fictional version, or a more genetic/science-based curiosity, Generosity is a great place to start. Plus it has interesting characters with depth, and of course, it’s very well written.

What to read next: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

A Matter Of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

The novel: In the not too distant future, the recession has hit hard. The world is run by a mysterious company called The Bank, who seem to control everything, including the police in London. Cass is a dodgy detective who couldn’t care less about the bigger picture. A failing marriage, a serial killer called Man of Flies, the shooting of school boys and the suicide of his loving brother are more than enough to keep him busy. And who is Mr Bright and what does he want with his family? Hints of ghosts and other, bigger, supernatural goings on weave all these plot points expertly into a gripping climax.A Matter of Blood

The author: Before the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Pinborough was known for straight forward horror and, young adult fiction and writing Torchwood spin-off novels. She expertly blends super-natural and the mundane. Taking only a few elements away from A Matter Of Blood would leave it to be a complex police procedural thriller. A prolific user of social media, Pinborough is clever, dark and very witty.

Why it should be read: Just read it. It’s great.

Read the full review

What to read next: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

 The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

The novel: The initial glance at this story might but it in the same bracket as AS Bryant’s The Possession as the protagonist – Ariel – is a PhD student who’s research of a 19th Century writer seems to have a direct effect on her life. Set in an (un-named Canterbury), she finds a rare copy of this writer’s titular book, which is apparently cursed. Ideas in the book come to affect Ariel’s reality as Thomas explores homeopathy and quantum physics. The themes of exploring multiple realities are common to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

YThe author: Previous to The End of Mr. Y, Thomas, a Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Kent, had not written anything remotely genre-esque. Her earlier books explore youth culture and her most recent, Our Tragic Universe, is an examination of the story and the writing process, and how they affect by cosmology and physics. She is clearly interested in both the bigger picture and the smaller details. How the large affects the small and vice versa.

Why it should be read: Thomas has managed to put a whole bunch of disparate ingredients into a blender and come up with something rich, flavoursome and memorable. It takes a recognisable story and moves it to an unusual place. For an authority on creative writing, the plotting and characterisation are as great as you’d expect. I love the way that, although the name of the city is never mentioned, the descriptions of it are so accurate (and sharp) that it is a delight to read.

What to read next: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Honourable mentioned: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall.

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