If you don’t leave this list with a hankering to hit the library, I’m not sure I want to know you.
I’ve always been super-annoyed with people who make comments about fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction not being “real” literature, like it’s all one big pile of garbage books that serious readers are too cool for. Like, way to trash an entire genre. Way harsh, Tai.
Some of the reading I cut my teeth on was science fiction and fantasy. It started with my father reading J.R.R. Tolkien to me at night in a vain attempt to get me to go to sleep, which totally failed because who falls asleep during an exciting battle or hot elf scene with tons of sexual overtones (Boromir/Legolas 4evs)? And then I started hitting the shelves in the library on my own, sometimes with nudges from my middle school librarian, which took me to books like The Mists of Avalon, which led me to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s weird sex pollen books (remember those? — if you don’t, check out the Darkover Series sometime and prepare to be seriously creeped out), which led me to Heinlein (I was so disappointed when I grew up and figured out that he was totally sexist), which led me to Piers Anthony, which led me to Louis McMaster Bujold. All of which you should totally be reading except for probably Heinlein.
There’s some really amazing science fiction and fantasy out there, and I love the totally cheesy along with the completely literary, but in its own way, it’s one of the most powerful and amazing genres out there. If you want super smart, feminist, social justice-oriented fiction, you’re probably going to find it in SFF. If you want to see imagined worlds exploring new and wild things, you’re probably going to find them in SFF. If you want to see authors pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in literature, what you can get away with…you can see where I’m going.
So here’s what should be on your reading list if, heaven forfend, you haven’t read it yet or you have a chip on your shoulder about SFF.
1) The Sparrow — Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow is one of the number one best books of all time, which is kind of a problem because I have to lie on the “What is your favorite book?” security question so that I can rave about The Sparrow without unwittingly giving someone access to my bank account. Russell was actually a technical writer in a past life, and she has an incredible depth of knowledge in the sciences in addition to being a stickler for research.
It shows in The Sparrow, which is about an eclectic crew of people who bravely launch themselves into space after they pick up a mysterious transmission from far across the galaxy. They find themselves on a strange planet with not one but two sentient species, each with their own complex social structure and language. Russell painstakingly lays out what an expedition like this would look like — how the Earthly visitors adapt to the planet, how to pick up a language you don’t know through trial and error, how you suddenly realize that the culture you thought you understood is totally not what you expected it was.
This is straight up a beautiful book. It’s haunting, and devastating, and stunningly written, and it blends an incredible sense of literary fiction with the hard sci-fi knowledge that makes it a believable and exciting read. This is probably why it won a ton of awards, and it’s also why I read it at least twice a year.
2) Blackout/All Clear — Connie Willis
This duology is set in Second World War England, but only sort of — because time travel is involved, and it’s really about what happens when you start pulling at the threads of space and time. We get to know and love these characters as we follow them during the modern and present day and at various points in the historical timelines they’re visiting, and it’s a big tangled wonderful glorious mess in all the best possible ways, with endless twists and turns.
Like Russell, Willis knows how to research, and she did a really solid job with Blackout and All Clear, really getting at the heart of what it was like to live in wartime England, taking readers from country estates to the heart of the Blitz to the evacuation of Dunkirk. It’s very hard to keep that many timelines juggling without making a giant mess even when you’re not distorting the fabric of history, and she accomplished it really well.
3) Among Others — Jo Walton
Jo Walton is a rockstar of speculative fiction and just books in general — her “Small Change” trilogy is really outstanding if you dig alternate history and queer fiction. Among Others is a very strange, sleepy sort of book that in a way is more like an ode to speculative fiction and those who love it, so it may be for advanced players only, but it explores themes that are really rarely seen, like physical disabilities and mental illness, and it does so with really stunning, elegant language that probes at identity, grief, and how we manage to stay alive in a world that sometimes seems stacked against us.
Fundamentally, Among Others is about and for people who really love books, however they’re led down the path of becoming readers and through whatever genre. In a sense, it almost reminds me of Fangirl in ethos though not style — this is a book about a bookish subculture, a book that will seem familiar and cozy to all of us who grew up hiding in the corners of the library with a surly expression.
4) Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi is a writer you absolutely need to keep your eye on, because she’s coming out with great young adult and adult fiction alike. In Lagoon, an alien lifeform has made contact in Lagos, Nigeria, and an unlikely group of individuals have to save the world from some really terrible decisions. A rapper, a biologist, and a soldier find themselves standing between aliens and the end of the world, in a landscape that is deliciously strange even before the aliens show up. This book is absolutely saturated with magical realism and, frankly, super weird shit. It’s amazing.
Okorafor has an incredibly strong, beautiful, unique voice and it’s present on every page of all her work — this is a book that really speaks also to the blending and exploration of cultures as well as the African diaspora. There’s first contact and conspiracy theories, but also Nigerian culture, and elements of other reading and writing traditions to boot. If Lagoon doesn’t get you hooked on Okorafor’s work, I don’t know what to tell you.
5) Sea Change — S.M. Wheeler
Do you like seriously weird books? I’ve got a doozy for you. This young adult debut almost defies explanation in an irritating “you just have to read it” kind of way — but it really is an outstanding read. There are fairytales and folklore and krakens and genderbending and strange parents and magical creatures. It’s a coming of age novel but it’s also about coming into a sense of self, and I recommend it to a lot of teens struggling with their sense of identity.
Like Russell, Wheeler really has outstandingly beautiful, elegant prose. This is a book that’s rich in craft every bit as much as it’s rich in story, so don’t consume too much at one go. You’ll also find that Sea Change is a bit of a slow burner, not the short, fiery fuse a lot of people expect from science fiction and speculative fiction, but it is totally one hundred percent worth it.
6) The Pure Trilogy — Julianna Baggot
Okay I know we are all super done with YA dystopias, but Baggott was doing it before it was cool, so give her a break. Pure, Fuse, and Burn present a fascinating world that really explores identity and disability in some interesting ways. Before the Detonations, the world was glossy, bright, beautiful, ordinary. After, things are…different, in a society living in the aftermath of a devastating day of nuclear explosions. Some people live with the genetic legacies as well as the result of hybrid fusion with whatever they happened to be close to at the time of the explosions, whether it be birds, dolls, or other people, but others live more sheltered lives — they’re Pure, untouched by the toxic world around them.
What happens when a Pure and a Wretch, as outsiders are known, meet? It could be a formulaic star-crossed love story, but instead it delves into issues of class, ability, and structural divides in a way that I found really intriguing. It’s also, again, just plain beautiful — this is speculative fiction that takes advantage of the huge dynamic range of the genre and the ability to play around with language, with culture, with characters.
7) The Starglass Sequence (Starglass and Starbreak) — Phoebe North
Jews…in SPAAAAAAACE! Phoebe North took on the classic science fiction vehicle of the generation ship, and brought it to a whole new level in this series, in which those aboard the Asherah aren’t just charged with preserving the human race. They’re also attempting to preserve Jewish traditions. But what happens after hundreds of years of wandering in the vacuum of space? North imagines a world in which ubiquitous and ordinary practices seen in Jewish households all over the world today are slightly warped and twisted in the future as people have forgotten why anxd how they did them in the first place — and she also delves into the problem of life aboard a ship where your own autonomy is less important than your ability to reproduce, and where you are expected to marry the right people along the way.
Starglass and Starbreak aren’t just about the Asherah, though, but about the alien race they find on the planet they thought was their new homeland, set aside and ordained for their use, bringing colonialism into the plot with a vengeance. The current occupants of the planet aren’t thrilled with their visitors, and they’re also distinctly not human — which makes things super awkward when our heroine Terra starts getting friendly with Vadix, one of the planet’s inhabitants. The truth about Vadix is totally, deliciously, amazingly bizarre, and you definitely want to find out what it is so you’d better go read about it.
Photo: Lucas/Creative Commons