Many people are fans of a particular type of fiction; crime, western, science fiction, horror, literary, whatever. Most genres have their boundaries. They have a definition and you’ll find them in particular places within bookshops and libraries. Science fiction and fantasy in particular live within gated communities, both metaphorical and in some cases it seems, almost literal. Fandom and so-called geek-culture can be very protective of these genres. Look at the reaction from fans about science fiction and fantasy awards shortlists. As soon as they are announced, social media is alive with criticisms and counter-arguments. This book isn’t science fiction. This award is too US-centric. This panel are sexist. This award doesn’t recognise alternative voices within its genre.
I’m thrilled about a growing trend that I’ve noticed over the past couple of years – which in truth has been building slowly for a while longer and is perhaps inevitable thanks to globalisation, social media and diverse culture – and this trend appears to be genre-defying novels. Although that in itself isn’t such a big deal. It is a big deal however, when these novels start being the best novels written. Science fiction and fantasy aren’t dead. Ann Leckie has written a space opera, Ancillary Justice, which has received praise and credit from all quarters. I’ve read some cracking science fiction books recently: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and The Method by Juli Zeh. We have a far future interplanetary thriller, a Mars-based dystopia, an alien mystery, a post-apocalyptic survival tale and a future-medical dystopia. All good stuff although the Adams and the Priest can be said to have sub-genre influences (crime and mystery respectively). These traditional genres probably won’t die either, but like heavy rock music in the 1980s and 1990s, success of a genre leads to diversification which leads to warring factions and eventually something new and exciting. There are still bands creating traditional hard rock and heavy metal and there will always be as long as you can buy a guitar, bass and drum kit. However, it is the alternative rock banks that touch the audience and gain success.
It is the authors that throw off the shackles of tradition and convention who will excite readers and push speculative fiction into brave new territories. If you try to list the genres and sub-genres with science-fiction and fantasy – even if you’re brave enough to try and define those terms – you’ll need a lot of patience and many wasted hours typing on the keyboard.
So welcome to 8 of the best books I’ve read in recent times that I find it hard to classify. This is a good thing. A wonderful and exciting thing. I’m not talking about the example given in Wikipedia where military science fiction can be blended with space opera. In that example we’re talking about semantics. What I am talking about is exemplified by books such as the classic Vurt by Jeff Noon. Vurt has elements of mythology, cyberpunk, drug-culture, metafiction and fantasy. It is not science fiction with a touch of fantasy, but lives in a world on its own. No other book (ok, maybe some of Noon’s others do) sits within the same label as Vurt.
These books make me glad to read. They excite me, not because they break the rules, but because they have no rules. I read once, I think in a Stephen King book, that humans like only one story-flavor at a time. Only one genre. Reading a genre is like eating only potatoes, or cheese, or chocolate. The character Roland asks ‘Does no one eat stew?’ (The Wolves of Calla). I do. Or maybe it’s pizza. A homemade pizza with anchovies and chicken and Yorkshire pudding and strawberries. I’m convinced the authors don’t sit down and think that they’re going to write a science fiction story but set it in a fantasy world, or a ghost story but set it in a world with no ghosts. They want to write great stories about great characters and genre be damned.
Lexicon by Max Barry
What: Words have power. Somewhere in the US, students are taught to persuade and manipulate with the power of words. This is the story of Emily and Wil, a student and a man on the run. Two interweaving narrative as rivalries between factions of wordsmith known as poets intensifies. And what of the mysterious town in the Australian outback where everyone who approaches dies. What if there is a word so powerful it could render language meaningless?
Why: You simply can’t define what this book is and that’s its genius. It could be science fiction, because there are big sci-fi ideas such as evil organisations looking to take control of the ultimate power, but there’s nothing that reflects scientific or technological advancement. It could be fantasy. The poets could be magical. But I don’t think they are. They are only using what already exists in a new way. It isn’t magic realism as it clearly isn’t real. It isn’t horror. It isn’t crime or a thriller. This book is clearly unreal but what it is? I’ve seen it described as sci-fi, action, thriller and more. It is none and all the better for it.
Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
What: This is a middle-eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. He makes his way in the world by protecting dissidents and outlaws from the state. However, when his love leaves him for a prince and his security is breached, his world falls apart. Alif then discovers the secret book of the jinn, he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information.
Why: Wilson has written a book of at least two genres, which don’t compete against each other. The first part is clearly science fiction. Almost classic dystopia with an oppressive regime, technology on the edge of what is real for the reader but clearly derived from the modern world, and big ideas of freedom and rebellion against authority. And then, mythology and magic. The jinn are real. And yet it doesn’t jar. You don’t go, hang on, this is science fiction, you can’t just throw magic in to drive the plot. That is testament to Wilson’s world building. It feels right that in this futuristic dystopia, magic and myth are real.
A Matter of Blood (and the rest of the Dog-Faced Gods books) by Sarah Pinborough
What: In the near future, the economic collapse is complete and crime is everywhere. One institution, The Bank, controls everything, including governments. Meet DI Jones. Cass. He’s just trying to deal with some regular crime, his failing marriage and his past. Now, a couple of innocent schoolboys have been shot and there’s a new serial killer in town. His brother shoots his family and kills himself. Cass starts to see his ghost, and the owners of The Bank begin to show their true power.
Why: Pinborough’s Dog-Faced Gods books are pretty much marketed as crime fiction. They are written from the perspective of DI Cass Jones. They feature underworld criminals, murder, serial killers and police corruption. They are written as if they are traditional police procedural crime thrillers. The skills of the author are clear in the telling of this story. She writes as both a seasoned horror fiction author and a thriller writer. Yet. The novel is set in the near future, although the science fictional elements are barely mentioned. Of course, the Big Corporation essentially runs the world. However, in this world, magic exists. Gods and ghosts are real, and they infect the lives of our hero. As well as the reader.
The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
What: 1976. The long hot summer that led to a veritable plague of ladybirds. College student David takes a summer job at a holiday camp on the Norfolk coast. The same camp where his Dad disappeared when David was a young boy. He meets some interesting folk while struggling with his loss, including two women who vie for hi affections and a group of fascists. As he gets close to the truth, David has to work out if the ghosts of his childhood are real.
Why: In this short novel, Joyce has taken a traditional genre and distorted it, toying with the reader. On the face of it, The Year of the Ladybird is a simple ghost story, mixing the possibly of the real ghost of David’s father with the ghosts of his childhood (possibly both David’s and Joyce’s own real). It is something more, however. It reads almost like a memoir or homage to a young man’s view of a changing world. This could be called magic realism in the sense that the events described could well have happened and any magic or supernatural elements are restricted too or even imagined by one person. For everyone other than David and the reader, the world they inhabit is as real as ours.
The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
What: A complex tale of books, a dreamworld, quantum physics, homeopathy and nineteenth-century scientists. This metafiction features a book called The End of Mr. Y, which is a book no-one alive is known to have read. Ariel comes across a copy in a second hand bookshop she decides to follow in the mysterious Mr Y’s footsteps into the dreamworld of the Troposphere. Or is the potion she swallowed simply causing her to hallucinate? But that wouldn’t explain the missing professor and the particularly anomalous men in suits.
Why: Such a complex novel brimming with ideas runs the danger of being a confusing and confused mess. How can you weave a plot about some many disparate ideas and themes? One page it is a literary mystery, then it is a science commentary. Soon it feels like a cyberpunk novel set in a madman’s dream. Based on a central science fiction theme of multiple worlds and quantum mechanics, The End of Mr. Y might be a science fiction novel but only in passing, as other ideas and genres zoom past a million miles an hour.
The Company by JK Parker
What: The war is over and it was hard. Unbelievably hard. A group of veterans want a new beginning so they move to an uninhabited island. They tale all they need to be self-sufficient, including wives. They dream of a new colony. But one of their number has a secret which brings the back to their very doors.
Why: Feels like a fantasy. Set on another planet. No magic, no fantasy, no science fiction. There are so many false paths in Parker’s novel that the world building almost becomes an unreliable narrator; a character in its own right. Early on, it reads like a medieval fantasy. You expect it to become a swords and sorcery but it doesn’t. You then realise that this probably isn’t Earth. But there is nothing in this that would be familiar to a science fiction reader. So it’s a simple war story? But there’s no fighting (not much, anyway). This is a story of people, of men, and it is true in any genre.
The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
What: Two very different novels but both have an underlying theme in that they have a premise which goes unexplained. In Zoo City (in South Africa) people convicted of crimes carry animals. Zinzi has a sloth on her back. It is a familiar. It gives her a psychic power. Zinzi needs to repay a debt so takes on a missing person case for a famous music producer. Zinzi becomes embroiled in a world of crime and magic. In The Shining Girls, a serial killer in Chicago uses a house as a time machine to stalk and kill girls; those shining with potential. Kirby is one of those girls but somehow survives her murder attempt. Harper pulls together the threads of an impossible mystery, searching for justice.
Why: An urban fantasy novel that wins a science fiction award. A time-travel novel with no discernible time machine. In Zoo City, Beukes tells a story that in a world that has echoes of Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe. The familiars are not s magical, but they have powers that don’t fit in a science fiction world. Zinzi’s sloth gives her an unnatural edge in her search. While the world isn’t quite ours, is it a magical one or a science fiction? Meanwhile, the nature of time travel in The Shining Girls is never revealed. The killer, Harper, travels in time using the house but is it magic as opposed to science. Certainly, the shining quality of girls that Harper needs to kill them for hints at something that doesn’t belong in the science fiction genre. In both Beukes’ novels, there are no genre rules and few explanations. It is up to the reader to inhabit these worlds with complete freedom from expectations.