Literary SF

A friend on Facebook has asked to make a few suggestions of Speculative Fiction that straddles both mass market and literary audiences. I thought the answer might be of more general interest, so here we go…

It’s a good question. As I suggested last week over on The Guardian, while SF is generally perceived as mass market, it’s equally possible for it to be literary. SF is like a set of tools that an author can pick up and use. They might choose to use them to please a mass audience, or to speak to a literary readership.

Why is it difficult to do both? The mass market and the literary readership demand almost polar opposites from fiction:

Mass Market – has expectations it wants fulfilled, hence likes genre. Wants to be entertained, distracted, given an escape from real life.

Literary Readership – wants its expectations to be defeated, dislikes genre. Wants to be challenged, improved, and shown the truth of real life.

Clearly, it’s difficult for one book to give both sets of readers what they want. One of the most popular examples of Literary SF at the moment is China Mieville‘s ‘Perdido Street Station‘. It’s one of the best fantasy novels of recent years. But, many readers of fantasy dislike it. Why? Because PSS is a tough read. Both on the language level, where it frequently departs the ‘transparent’ prose the mass audience enjoys. And as a narrative it is tremendously dark. The stories heroes are deeply flawed. They fail to defeat evil, but instead discover that evil is all powerful and are lucky to escape with their lives. Most works of Literary SF that succeed in appealing to both mass market and literary readers do so in similarly incomplete ways.

This is not a problem unique to SF by any means. All art has to deal with the divide between mass / elite, low / high, popular / critically acclaimed. Its rooted very deeply in how different parts of society engage with and use art and culture. ‘Low’ culture sees art as just another commodified product to be consumed. ‘High’ culture sees art, along with science, as one of humanities great tools of advancement. Its no wonder the two don’t get along! And its no wonder SF writers, readers and critics who believe in its value as part of ‘High’ culture are so determined to make the argument against its continual pigeon holing as ‘genre’ and ‘low culture’.

Its also no surprise that the artists who succeed in being both high and low, mass and elite, are the ones we acclaim as great. So the task of suggesting titles that are both Literary and SF almost becomes the same as listing the classics of SF. So, I have tried to keep to reasonably contemporary authors that both a mainstream SF reader, and a Literary Fiction reader might both read with pleasure:

Light by M John Harrison
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Air by Geoff Ryman
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Iron Council by China Mieville

This is a necessarily incomplete and subjective list. Objections? Tell me why. Suggestions? Let us know your thinking.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

31 thoughts on “Literary SF

  1. It’s a curious list. Some of these works to me would have a hard time bridging the gap.

    Valente’s book falls prey to the “poetic” complaint, which she herself has talked about. Some folks coming from the fantasy direction cannot, as you pointed out, deal well with prose that is not transparent or “clear.” I’ve heard the same from some fans about Mitchell’s book too. I think they are both very good books, but I am not sure if they would cross the gap well.

    The books that I think are best for this purpose are the collections; Link, Hill, Carter & Gaiman all seem like good portals, although some “literary” types might dismiss them. Again, it’s a question of the imagined audience, coupled with our own experiences, observations, and bias.
    But short fiction gives readers small doses to ponder and might give them the conceptual space to engage the essence of the stories and see where the literary and the fantastic come together.

    I would add, going back a bit for a few of these:

    The Wild Shore, by Kim Stanley Robinson
    Among Others, by Jo Walton
    On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch
    The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, by Lucius Shepard
    The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia


    1. @John Stevens – M John Harrison calls the need for transparent prose a ‘failure to retrieve information from complex surfaces’ (or something close, I don’t have the quote to hand) which I think is very true. You sometimes see genre writers compensating for it by using ‘purple prose’, which misses the point that (good) literary writing is not needlessly complex, its often very spare but conveying a lot of information in its choice of words.

      And the point about collections is interesting and occurred to me whilst I was writing. Highlights just how wrong;ly overlooked the short story is at the moment.


  2. I find i could care less about literary fiction. I was a Sci-fi and Fantasy (or as it seems more trendy to say, Speculative fiction) reader for many of my formative years. I continued to read favoured authors but moved away from wholesale SF & F reading and turned my attention to contemporary fiction and those novels deemed as literary fiction thinking i must have missed out on something. I read many of the classics but also started reading many newer ‘prize listed’ novels.
    I have found many new authors and novels which i will cherish for ever but i had become increasingly frustrated with authors and novels that seemed to be written specifically to win prizes, which use obscure artistic devices, overblown descriptive or overly lyrical text, just aimed at getting nominated. The wholesale duplication of successful covers, styles and stories has driven me away from anything that looks like attracting a nomination in the main literary awards or likely to be discussed on the Newsnight review or BBC Radio 4.
    I have now gone back to my spiritual home of SF and Fantasy and am enjoying catching up with some of the great authors whom i may have missed out on in the years of searching for something that didn’t really exist. First and foremost, reading is a form of entertainment. I received and education from the SF and Fantasy books i read without realising it. I looked up words i didn’t understand and researched concepts and theories which were unfamiliar and absorbed a tremendous amount without effort. Our idiotic Education Minister has recently suggested that a child of 11 should be expected to read 50 books a year but i would say to him who decides the books and if by the age of 11 he/she is not already reading that many, requiring them to do so (probably much of the rubbish i tried and failed to read) will not help them develop a love of reading which will stay with them through their lifetime.
    Let’s not forget, literary fiction has a small readership and there are many thousands of supposedly great works sitting on shelves which are either unfinished or completely unread. Iwould say to your friend, don’t worry so much about the literary merits of the books he/she reads but rather did you enjoy it, did it make you think about things that may not have previously occurred to you and did it make you want to read more?


    1. @28daysearlier – i’m glad you have read around and come back to what you love. I did the same, coming back to SF in my late 20’s. I seem to be wandering off again now however.


  3. I’m not sure that PERDIDO STREET STATION can be considered a ‘tough read’. I found it pretty smooth and flowing (though admittedly one friend gave up on it as she rejected any book to feature overuse of the term ‘chitinous’), brimming with intelligent ideas and a dark atmosphere. The problem with it is that the basic plot is pretty mundane.

    The follow-up non-sequel, THE SCAR, continues the superior writing but the plot and characters are much more compelling and complex.


  4. Damien I think that Perdido Street Station is actually fairly weak when you compare it with The City and The City which I thought was better written, more creative and reaching for something much more interesting. I thought the language in perdido st was fine. The story was easy to follow but the ending was dissatisfying – and not because good didn’t win or anything like that – it just didn’t satisfy. Maybe that’s a personal thing though. I haven’t gotten around to reading Iron Council yet so thanks for reminding me.

    If we go by the modern standards of post modernist work why not include Stand on Zanzibar? Or the Vurt Books by Jeff Noon (though I think that Automated Alice is his best in terms of creativity, reach and style).

    And no Iain Banks or are you just trying to avoid those already with much acclaim?

    PS. I had to study the Bloody Chamber. I hate that book with a passion. I found it interesting when I was talking to the lecturers about it that some of them hated it too but just didn’t seem to talk about it.


    1. @antihippy – PSS tries to balance its literary ambitions with an action adventure plot. The two don’t mesh fully. I think The City and The City has similar problems with its noir plot. Yes, could easily add a Banks to that list.


    2. I’m not sure Stand of Zanizbar or any John Brunner really crosses the divide. (This is the same general argument I’d use for Philip K. Dick, so watch carefully.) Brunner is very definitely a writer of ideas. He’s great at defining a concept and extrapolation, but because of his rate of production, his prose was often workman like. There is also a problem with the fact he’s not very contemporary. And as Brunner is a writer of ideas, what I suspect made Brunner memorable was that high density of ideas stuffed into the texts which have in time decayed in wonder and many of them have become ordinary.

      I think for Iain Banks (with or without the M. ) you’d have to pick titles carefully.


      1. Complicity didn’t really challenge me or my opinions, but Espedair Street really made me think.

        Although I did enjoy both and did read Complicity mostly because he’d be preaching to the choir at me. It’s a well drawn political thriller, nothing more. In his M. books I think there’s a similar division that can be found. Some of these novels do talk about grander things, but others are well written entertainments.

        Iain Banks I find is at his best when he finds a narrative structure he’s interested in (The Wasp Factory is a Gothic Horror. Complicity is an espionage/detective thriller) and uses that as a tool to express his opinions while jazzing around with the conventions implied by the chosen dramatic structure a little. Iain Banks is a good example of story as essay.

        Often Iain Banks falls between the two poles you suggest down thread rather than neatly fitting into either side.


  5. Hm. You could be right about the plot problems in PSS and it would certainly explain my own problems with it. For the City and The City I didn’t feel that the noirish plot suffered as badly (though there’s a point right at the end where it almost comes apart…).

    I’ve been thinking about my previous post and I would definitely add these to improve your list:

    Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
    Fifth Head of Cerebrus by Gene Wolf
    Automated Alice by Jeff Noon (I’ve decided)

    You’ve already largely picked some litfic I would recommend (Angela Carter aside). So I would need to spend more time thinking about that one. In fact I am sitting in the office doing a bit of chin stroking over it prior to a meeting!
    And I am conciously avoiding some of the more well known (outside of SF) authors such as Ballard or Bradbury.

    I also believe that there has always been SF literature that should be considered to straddle both the high low and aspects of literature. The problem is that many litfic fans will not read SF and many SF fans will never read litfic. So ideas explored in one often are missed in the other until someone within that group suddenly writes something “new” and then everyone starts carping.


  6. @Will

    That’s an interesting point and one that I hadn’t considered. By him I’ve only read Stand on Zanzibar and I found it a fascinating book, not because of its central idea but because of the construction and style in which it was composed. It certainly reads like many contemporary novels and it’s constructed in offbeat way.

    If we only consider the central idea of that book (over population and its effect on the human condition) then it’s still very resonant.

    But yeah, your point is very interesting.


    1. The central idea is still resonant, but the caveat is that it’s explored from a perspective rooted heavily in the 1960s. I recommend The Shockwave Rider if you want to read any more John Brunner.


      1. Well all things age. Even if we step outside of the over population then the themes of poverty, immigration and race are also highly relevant in the US – even today.

        Thanks for the other recommendation. I’ll chuck it on the pile!


  7. Suggestion: Anything by Dan Simmons, including (but not specific to) DROOD, THE TERROR, The HYPERION Cantos, CARRION COMFORT, and ILIUM/OLYMPOS.


  8. A few older science fiction titles that a self-described reader of literary fiction might find of interest: A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller), The Crystal World (Ballard), Camp Concentration (Disch), The Dispossessed (Le Guin), Easy Travel to Other Planets (Mooney), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Into the Forest (Hegland). There are probably more that are science fictional in some senses but shading over into some other non-genre fantasy variant (like House of Leaves).


    1. Canticle for Leibowitz! I always forget about that.

      I deliberately avoided Ballard because I felt that there are some authors out there that the litfic crowd should already be familiar with: Bradbury, Le Guin, Atwood and Lessing being the ones that sprung to my mind. Lessing should certainly be familiar to anyone who’s read Carter…


  9. Damien,

    I came back to ask whether you had consdered non-English SF?

    For example Picnic by the Roadside by the Strugatsky brothers of We by Zamyatin.

    I read some Japanese SF recently and while I found it quite generally lightweight (apparently a cultural thing) there’s the occasional gem which is quite thought provoking. Though I am uncertain how it well it would actually appeal to the litfic crowd (who have already been exposed to Ishiguro who I really don’t like).

    And similarly for SF readers I would heartily recommend something like Focault’s Pendulum or The Island of the Day before or anything by Umerto Eco.


    1. Name of the Rose is undeniably Umberto Eco’s best effort imo. I think it would appeal to an SF audience, though it’s obviously not SF. It does explore the alien world of mediaeval thought, and in an odd way it could be morphed into an SF novel just by changing the names of things. Foucault’s Pendulum is a good detective novel, but suffers horribly from his academic pseudointellectual bigotry. I found myself unable to read The Island of the Day Before, it was most disappointing, though I struggle now to remember what I found so distasteful, as it was several years ago that I threw it down in disgust.


      1. (apologies to Damien if I have inadvertanly hijacked his comment thread)

        Foucault’s Pendulum is a good detective novel, but suffers horribly from his academic pseudointellectual bigotry.

        I’ve not read it in years so it may be that I am looking through the fog of nostalgia but I remember I enjoyed it. I get what you are saying… It’s not the easiest read.

        Have you read the Illuminatus?

        The Island of the Day Before, it was most disappointing, though I struggle now to remember what I found so distasteful, as it was several years ago that I threw it down in disgust.

        That’s interesting. If you like Name of the Rose I am surprised you don’t like Island of … Not much happens and that’s probably a very fair criticism and perhaps why you threw it down?

        And by the way I don’t know why I didn’t just mention Name of the Rose other than I thought it was too obvious a recommendation.

        A whjle back I had an interesting chat with an Italian acquaintance who said he prefers Eco in English because he thinks the translation forces Eco to get to the point!

        @Damien: Yeah – very interesting author.


      2. Foucault’s Pendulum is a good detective novel, but suffers horribly from his academic pseudointellectual bigotry.

        I’ve not read it in years so it may be that I am looking through the fog of nostalgia but I remember I enjoyed it. I get what you are saying… It’s not the easiest read.

        What I was referring to was his denunciation of all sorts of ‘alternative thought’ people. He decided to stigmatise them all as potential criminals and make them into a gang of villains called ‘diabolicals’. They were such a varied crew that in real life they would have had nothing in common at all! He seemed to be venting spleen in a fairly malicious way. There is a certain type of academic who has very conventional views and doesn’t like ‘unqualified’ people dissenting from the establishment. The Internet era has turned these guys into angry men!

        Have you read the Illuminatus? Nope. Might give it a try if I luck into a copy. I rarely buy full-price these days, as funds are tight.


  10. “Air” was a fantastic book – something that, along with “American Gods”, my non sci-fi reading mother has enjoyed. She read the latter independently and it opened her up to reading novels from outside her comfort zone. But, if I suggested something “not of this world” or set in space, then I’m not sure she would take to it as easily.

    Which seems to be a feeling that many others have towards sci-fi. Their favourite film may well be “Star Wars” or “Aliens”, but they’ve not even touched on the likes of Robert Heinlein or Joe Haldemann or even more recent work by Peter F. Hamilton or Alistair Reynolds. The label of sci-fi is a major stumbling block for many when it comes to printed media.

    One thing about “Cloud Atlas” – whenever a non sf reader has mentioned it to me I’ve always suggested that they read Mitchell’s “Number 9 Dream”. Yes, it’s a much more linear piece and whilst I can see what he was attempting with “Cloud Atlas”, I’ve always maintained that he never quite got there.

    I would recommend David Zindell’s “Neverness” (and the subsequent “Requiem for Homo Sapiens” trilogy) to anyone that loves literary science fiction. Not something that’s likely to attract readers of literary work, but work that was lauded at the time it was written that seems to have not been recognised beyond that.


  11. This whole topic fascinates me, as on a certain level it is an ambitious attempt to move beyond the venerable slanging match between F&SF and ‘mainstream’, and ask what it is that people want from a story. Here I want to move away a little from the dichotomy that Damien poses in the stem article, and suggest that there is a genuine difference between the SF and mainstream audiences which doesn’t have anything to do with low/high culture, but has to do with the escape/kitchen sink dichotomy.
    Some of us want a fiction which challenges us, tells us about reality and the meaning of life, but not in a mundane setting. If we want to know about real people in an everyday setting, we don’t need to pick up a book, we can go down the pub. Everyday reality is available without literature.
    The mainstream fiction I’ve enjoyed, wasn’t set in Middle England. I couldn’t read more than a few pages of that literary fiction which is obsessed with documenting middle-class everyday life. Yawn. I’ve enjoyed writers like Eco, Dostoevsky, Graham Greene and William Boyd because they do the same thing for me that good F&SF does, which is to stimulate the imagination, to take me to a different world. Perry Rhodan takes us to a different world, but doesn’t say anything interesting when we get there, so I don’t read about him either.
    I recommend ‘Brazzaville Beach’ as my William Boyd selection. An eye-opener.


  12. A bit quiet on this interesting topic, so I’ll also recommend ‘Shadow of the Wind’ by Zafon, as a mainstream novel which will appeal to the F&SF audience. I absolutely loved it. I was lucky enough to get a remaindered copy, hyuk hyuk.
    I believe it’s since been reissued at full price in a new edition, and has become very fashionable.
    I was reminded of it by his recent recommendation of Mieville’s Embassytown.



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