7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read

Every genre of science fiction began as literary fiction. For writers and fans of SF it’s useful to get familiar with the literary origins of genre fiction.

Most of us don’t have time in life to deep research the origins of the books we enjoy. But if you look deep into the history of genre fiction, you find literary fiction gazing back at you.

One contemporary example is the Regency Fantasy. This popular new genre takes the Regency period of history, and adds wizards. But long before there was Regency Fantasy there was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Much loved, and much imitated, this work of literature created a genre.

These seven works of literature each created ideas and told stories that would be much imitated in later works of genre fiction. That’s a great tribute to their authors, who are some of the most committed and talent writers in the history of fiction.

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from its 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.

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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…

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.

32 thoughts on “7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read

  1. One additional suggestion–Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (published 1924). As Wikipedia puts it:

    “Through We, Yevgeny Zamyatin has directly inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano.”

    The most direct comparison is 1984, which bears very acute similarities. Characters work under serial number esque names (the main character is D-503), all their time is managed by the state to increase efficiency, sex is regulated and love is avoided. There are some wonderfully surreal moments that reminded me of GK Chesterton as D-503 comes to be disillusioned with the state (through the love of a woman); these moments, to me, are what makes this literature–and what puts it beyond the works it inspired. Anyhow, it’s very short and definitely worth a read if not inclusion on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shame that 3 of those 4 (The Glass Bead Game, Shikasta, and One Hundred Years of Solitude) are not available on Kindle.

    That’s obviously a criticism of the publishers and/or digital rights holders, not your post!

    Just ordered myself electronic copies of Orlando and The Magus to start me off – thanks for the suggestions!


    1. The slow progress of publishers in bringing backlist in to ebooks strikes again. It must be especially annoying for those authors still alive, as they are clearly losing readers by not being in ebook, where backlist sales are a real benefit. Thanks for pointing that out.


      1. Creditable exception must go to Gollancz, who seem to be ebooking as much of the world’s SF backlist as they can lay their hands on – many of my recent Kindle purchases have those recognisable yellow covers…


      2. Depending on when those backlist books were written, and the contract that was signed, it may very well be that the publisher of the print edition does not automatically have the rights to the digital edition. Authors in this situation should get in touch with their agents, as there are plenty of ways to self-publish with very little additional effort (especially when the book is already written and edited)


  3. Some of those books are unavailable on Kindle, true, but they are available as, y’know, books. I don’t want to be obnoxious about this (who am I kidding? I do, and I’m going to be), but this is surely only a problem if a) you have an unbelievably tiny house, and b) you’re so weak that a 600pp. book floors you.

    Anyway, I’ll admit to not reading any of these seven, so this is a sort-of review of the article: I’m sold on The Glass Bead Game, a little less so on OHYOS, The Magus and Orlando, and somewhat indifferent to The Road and Lanark.

    Despite your best efforts, Shikasta sounds absolutely terrible.


    1. Yes, I have a very small house and most spare space is taken up with double-stacked book shelves.

      Don’t get me wrong – I love physical books. That’s why I’ve got so many of the damn things taking up all space. A bookbinding press, plough, and other bookbinding tools take up some room as well, but I use them to make yet more books.

      So, yes, ebook availability makes a huge difference to me, because buying a kindle was cheaper than buying a bigger house.


      1. There’s a place called a library where they let you take books home, read them and then return them so they don’t take up space on your bookshelf.


    2. At least you recognize that you are being obnoxious.

      The kindle is very useful for those who do not have the good luck to live in America or Britain. For the rest of us it can be almost impossible to find such books, especially in the english language (it’s always better in the original language, and most SF are not translated anyway). I imagine this can also be advantage for people living in small towns with small bookstores in USA or UK, although at least they can easily order books online. It must be nice that you can just walk down the street and buy any book you want, but that is not possible for everyone…

      It often seems that the people who most hate e-books are usually the ones that go on to say they have not read very many books (or, in your case, none of the recommended classics), which takes your obnoxiousness to a whole new level. Hopefully after you read TGBG you will begin to enjoy more good SF lit and maybe you too will start to see the beauty of the e-book…


  4. @PieManPie – Books are fine, but those of us who commute via crowded subways appreciate not having to lug around 600+ page books.

    That said, I own the omnibus edition of the Canopus in Argos series (of which Shikasta is a part. and at 1000+ pages it is not a light read), and I can say that it is one of the most moving, beautiful, and well written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. At the risk of overselling it, it changed the way I look at the world. It combines sufism, science fiction, geoeconomics, psychology, history, and the old testament into an amazing tale, and I second the article. It deserves a wider audience.


  5. I find it a shame that Doris Lessing is almost never mentioned among the top sci-fi writers of all time – “Shikasta”, “The Sirian Experiments”, “Briefing for a Descent into Hell”. All great works, all books that challenge and enrichen their readers.

    Same for Garcia-Marquez, Cortazar, Borges and Bioy Casares being ignored as fantastic (in every sense of the word) writers in the genre canon. I could add Guy de Maupassant, ThĂ©ophile Gautier, Italo Calvino, Voltaire (“MicrĂłmegas”), Rabelais.

    Dostoievsky did very few fantasy, but his “Crocodile” is also a must-read for any serious fan.


    1. Perhaps there’s an argument that the segregation of writers into the realistic and fantastic is a Anglophone phenomenon? I imagine if I looked hard enough I’d find a critical theorist already exploring that idea.


      1. Not necessarily the same thing, but you’d find R. Scott Bakker exploring that idea:

        “The same is the case with the sacralization of the quotidian and the corresponding debasement of the spectacular. Spectacle is also a universal default value: for whatever reason the bulk of humanity loves hyperbolic representations of action and reality. Transformed into a negative value, it became a convenient way of differentiating certain literary practitioners from the unwashed masses. Once this selection mechanism became institutionalized at the university level, the process became self-perpetuating. Every writer with a yen to argue learned very quickly–as quickly as I learned not to mention my scribblings in my undergrad literature classes–that the only serious narrative arguments were quotidian narrative arguments.”

        From http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/essay-archive/the-incredible-shrinking-sublime-the-battle-of-the-quotidian-and-the-spectacular-in-the-war-for-the-cultural-high-ground/

        I haven’t read any of Bakker’s fiction, so he might be overcompensating for crap work, for all I know. But the argument put forward doesn’t seem to be completely off-base.


  6. Damien, just curious as to why you’re giving the “enemy” (literary works) a leg up on genre?

    And I have to take exception to the inclusion of McCarthy’s The Road. Time would be far better spent on a re-read of Miller’s Canticle.

    Honestly. An appropriately brief review of The Road: former darling of the literati engages in depressive masturbation. The end.


  7. You know, my original comment made it sound like one of those people whose bluebells are being stolen from his world-girdling forest.

    I don’t object to any writer trying their hand at any kind of writing. What I do object to are those authors with literary credentials whose “ground-breaking” genre works are:
    given support and promotion that far exceeds genre contemporaries
    given a pass when what they’ve written is a retread of things we’ve seen before
    don’t use their new-found platform to give credit where credit is due (to the starving and ignored genre writers that came before them).
    Perfect examples? Chabon vs Atwood. Michael seemed to go out of his way to acknowledge the roots of Yiddish Policeman – and in doing so demonstrated that he’s grounded his work in the genre by becoming familiar with that genre.


    1. There’s still quite a claim to ownership there though. So yes, sometimes writers plunge in to SF and the marketing hype tried to pretend they invented it. That’s what hype machines do. But that aside, and what you have are some really really good books which SF readers seem set to ignore in some kind of imagined tit for tat war with ‘literature’. Why?


      1. simple answer? Because “literary” fiction sucks and science fiction ROCKS!. More complex answer: because for years the two were at odds, with the “literary” camp dominating academia and making their dislike known in any way they could (academic respect leads to literary awards which leads to better deals – so they’ve been in genre’s pocket for decades) and now that genre fiction is beginning to gain just a little bit of respectability and acceptance on par with vaunted ‘literature’, the bastards are changing the game again by poaching in my preserve.

        Ownership? Hell yes. If only based on how much I’ve spent on the genre over the past forty years, I am entitled to a sense of ownership.

        Like I said – write in a new field – welcome aboard – but follow the writerly advice – write what you know and get a little history and background first before rushing off to write an epic that’s nothing more than a rehash (with literary trappings) of something already written in the 40s


  8. I have to say that Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” was mediocre at best. I see red when people claim it is a sci-fi master piece. No. Just no. McCarthy has simply rehashed the human sacrifice and hardship theme that so many other authors (who use quotation marks) do so much better. I’ll go postal if I see another list with that piece of crap in it.

    I challenge anyone to read “Children of the Dust” by Louise Lawrence, and tell me it’s not more powerfull than “The Road”. Children of the Dust is aimed at young teens and deals with post-apocalyptic themes much better than The Road. Even “Z for Zacharia” is a better read than The Road.


    1. You’re going to have to go postal then chap. The Road is a masterpiece, and people will remember it as such for centuries to come. Sorry!


  9. Great article! I haven’t seen anyone talk about Fowles’ THE MAGUS in a long, long time. It happens to be one of my favorite novels. Period. It was probably the most meaningful influence on one large piece of my own creative work. And several of these other titles have done much good for me as well. Garcia Marquez’s 100 YEARS O’ SOLITUDE, and McCarthy’s THE ROAD (about which I completely agree with you; in acknowledgment to other commenters, on first read it does come off as simple, derivative; it’s quick, sparse; but on closer inspection it’s dripping with things like unusual Platonic imagery–think Cave, think “Good”–and Hero’s Journey tropes fashioned in some surprising ways; and it’s a deeply touching story about the fear of losing another person–Chabon’s article on this aspect of it is illuminating). I’ll have to check out some of these other titles you recommend. I’ve read other works by Woolf and Hesse, but not these. Might Henry James’ THE TURN OF THE SCREW fall under this heading?

    I gotta say, it does my heart good to see someone extol the virtues of writers coming from a literary background (and/or approaching a work with such sentiments) but who also love incorporating weird, fantasy, or otherwise speculative elements in their work. Your description of writers who see the world in all it’s “fantastic reality” reminds me of some other subtle examples of this: Flannery O’Connor (see her discussion of same(ish) in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”) and Dostoyevsky, who labeled his own work at one point as “fantastic realism” (consider the disturbing life-like dream sequences in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT).

    It’s the same blend of tones I can’t help but work with myself, not that I feel any kind of need to steal from genre for its marketability, or to try and squeeze myself into Pretentious Literary Circle A; it’s just what comes out. And it actually seems kind of hard to find places that really embrace the mix (for new writers, at least), and I mean the mix in books like those you listed above, not in the kind of thing that’s sort of a 90-10 mix (with just a drop of something from the other end of the spectrum). You wouldn’t necessarily think it was hard from looking around, but I’ve found it to be the case (as many a good genre buff’s language will echo) that lots of people looking to represent, buy, or sell genre fiction tend to look askance at anything with a ‘literary’ flavor to it and call it masturbatory. And people looking for ‘literary’ fiction seem, oftentimes, scared off by anything that smacks of some particular genre or other. That seems to be changing (as the existence of this very article probably suggests), but in doing my own searching for representation the yield of even possible marriages for me seems depressingly small. But it’s early yet. I think the field may be more promising than I’m starting to assume. The really hard part is knowing how to pitch a project that really straddles the line (without any clear, single ‘genre’ that foot # 2 stands in).


  10. Great list. Must get around to reading more of it.

    Don’t understand the Road hate. At all. I’ve never read anything else in that particular subgenre that affected me in anything like the same way.

    The line that broke my heart was when the man says “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” and the boy says, “I am the one.”

    The real burden for parents isn’t bringing a child into the world. It’s knowing you’re going to have to leave them in it.


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