At any given moment on the inter-webs there are probably dozens of irate Sci-Fi / Fantasy fans getting agitated about those damn literary authors coming and writing genre, while genre writers themselves miss out on the credit they deserve. Which is about as silly as shouting at someone for stealing your flowers when they have plucked some bluebells in the forest. (Unless you happen to own an entire forest. Do you? Well OK then.) SF and Fantasy are common ground that any writer can build their house upon, but pretending to own them just makes you look silly.
And it’s doubly silly if you’re an aspiring writer of the fantastic, because you may be hurling away the best chance to learn you will ever get. If as a writer you are only as good as what you read, then how good can you expect to be if your book diet is filled with derivative works of pulp fiction? A fast food diet may please the taste buds, but you wouldn’t expect to dine out on Big Macs every day and become an olympic athlete. So why expect to write even a good book without reading them first?
What makes these novels distinctly ‘literary’ as opposed to the genre novels they resemble? Put simply, they are better. More ambitious, deeper in meaning, both intellectual and poetic. They might be harder work for readers trained to the easily digested conventions of commercial fiction. But if you make the effort to read these books on their own terms, there are incredible feats of imagination to discover in their pages. They feature many of the tropes of genre SF & Fantasy, but in the hands of writers who understand what those fantastic metaphors are really all about. But most of all these are books which reveal something about what it is to be human and living in our strange world. If genre novels create fantasy worlds to escape in to, these books show the fantastic reality of the world we all live in.
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from it’s first publication in 1943. Hesse spent over a decade writing this, his last novel, which completed the body of work that won him the Nobel prize for literature. The Glass Bead Game of the title is played by the intellectual elite of Hesse’s future world. Through it the eras great thinkers synthesise and interweave all knowledge, from scientific equations to musical compositions and great works of art. It is often noted that Hesse’s novel predates and predicts the digital revolution driven by computer technology, which allows us today to easily manipulate all forms of human knowledge. But the Glass Bead Game is much more than simple futurism. Hesse, who had established himself as one of the 20th centuries great spiritual philosophers in Siddharta and Steppenwolf, is interested in his created game not as a hymn to technology, but as a critique of knowledge and the severe limits of the human intellect. For anyone living and working in the knowledge driven society of the early 21st century, The Glass Bead Game has perhaps more insight to deliver than ever.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is regularly excoriated by genre fans for being just one among hundreds of post-apocalypse novels, and no more worth the literary plaudits it received. Which is about as ignorant as asking what’s so special about E=MC2 when there are so many other five symbol sequences in the alphabet. On one of its many levels of meaning The Road is indeed a post-apocalypse novel. On another level it is an allegory for the history of human civilisation, with each stage of human culture represented, from our tribal roots to modern industrial society, exposing our cannibalistic tendency to exploit other human life for our own benefit. And on another level it is a story about fatherhood, and the devastating weight of responsibility all parents feel bringing their children in to a world which is so often brutal and harsh. And on yet another it is an epic poem, as lyrically muscular as Homer and as critical of modern existence as T.S.Eliot. There simply is no equal to McCarthy’s vision of apocalypse.
Shikasta by Doris Lessing, in which the author of The Golden Notebook succeeded in uniting the infinities of the far future and intergalactic space with the psychological depths of human mythology and spirituality WHILST laying a feminist critique of the entire history of human civilisation. AND it has some of the absolute trippiest, mind warping imagery of any SF novel ever written. The alien civilisation of Canopus, who live on a plane of existence above ours, send an emissary to the colony planet Rhohanda in an attempt to prevent its corruption by the rival civilisation of Shammat. Despite his failure the emissary returns many times to the renamed planet of Shikasta, which it transpires is our Earth. Doris Lessing essentially rewrites the entire history of mankind in this book, to the end of unifying our generally opposed scientific and spiritual worldviews, and argues convincingly that they need never be opposed. All of which helped Lessing become the second Nobel prize winning SF author on this list.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often cited as the leading example of the South American magical realist movement, in which Marquez combined the realist literary tradition of the that continent’s European colonists with the mythic stores told by its indigenous peoples. The novel follows seven generations of the Buendia family and the others who join them in founding the town of Macondo. The fantastic permeates Marquez’ grand metaphor for the modern history of Colombia on every level. From the early appearance of the gypsy Melquiades who brings fantastic scientific contraptions to the town, to the novels incredible conclusion where *SPOILER* the entire village history of the village becomes only a few notes in Melquiades journal*END SPOILER*, any sense of reality in Marquez world is continually undermined by the suspicion that reality is as much a fiction as any story. This book actually left me shaking when I had finished it. And I do not shake easily.
The Magus by John Fowles. Magic. You can’t stumble far in Fantasy without tripping over some, but no other author has ever come closer to describing what magic really is than John Fowles. The young Nicholas Urfe journeys to the greek island of Phraxos to take up a teaching position and escape a relationship he feels trapped in. But Nicholas has all the emotional intelligence of a dishrag, and having abandoned the only person in the world who really loves him, promptly has a complete existential breakdown. In this vulnerable state he is drawn in to the mysterious world of millionaire recluse Maurice Conchis, where he is ensnared in an ever more complex series of psychological games and experiments. Is Nicholas a victim of a sadistic manipulator, or is he being helped to understand the mysteries of a world he barely begins to comprehend? The Magus never entirely resolves the mystery at its heart, but it does explore how the human heart uses magic as a pathway to its emotional and psychological growth.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf is, like all great Fantasy, as much a book about the imagination as it is a product of the imagination. There is probably no writer who epitomises the sterotype of the ‘literary novelist’ than Woolf. English, upper middle class, a Bloomsbury bohemian and the author of plotless novels about upper middle class English women wondering what life is really all about while aimlessly wandering around starring at things. In to which Orlando bursts like an explosion of pure colour and joy. The story of an Elizabethan nobleman who decides to live forever, sleeps with Elizabeth I among many others and changes sex before roving through English history on a quest for sex and adventure. But in amongst all these hi-jinx Woolf plays some post-modern games of literary revelation. Is Qrlando real? Or a character in a fiction? Do we care, or are we happy just to enjoy the ride? Like Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote, which very nearly made this list, Orlando is at heart a story about the labyrinthine quality of the stories we tell ourselves.
Lanark by Alasdair Gray is a novel in four books, presented out of order as Book Three, a Prologue, Book One, Book Two, Book Four and an Epilogue four chapters from the end of the novel, and illuminated with Gray’s own extraordinary illustrations, both book and pictures calling to mind Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell. Lanark awakes with no memories in the city of Unthank where he falls in to a life of bohemian unemployment and poverty. His body begins to grow scales and he is sucked down a tunnel to The Institute where he rescues his love Rima, transformed in to a dragon, from being exploded for fuel. Lanark is shown his history by an oracle, which reveals his past life as Duncan Thaw, a sickly young artist and, possibly, murderer growing up in industrial Glasgow. None of this does justice to the book, which unfolds a vision of heaven and hell so staggeringly forceful that I had to stop reading for a year half-way through to give myself time to recover. Alasdair Gray’s novel is nothing less than a vision of how we create heaven and hell on Earth, through our own selfishness, ignorance and incapacity for love. It has inspired dozens of great authors including Iain Banks, whose novel The Bridge is something of a homing to this great Scottish novel. If you read only one book from this list, make it Lanark.
A few books I did not choose and why…
Anything by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1984 or Brave New World…because you have already read these, right? No? Well then…