￼Science-fiction and fantasy novels are often regarded as a sad, fringe area of writing, only fit for nerds and geeks. This is bigotry, since science-fiction and fantasy novels have just as many poor writers as other genres, and just as many good ones. Like any other genre, these two genres do have their traps. For example, many science-fiction writers can become very preoccupied with equipment, technology and scientific theory. This preoccupation does appeal to a certain readership, but it also understandably shuts out many readers who aren’t that interested in exactly how a spacship’s engine works in a story; they just want to know where the ship is going. These novels are known, in the genre, as hard science-fiction stories. Some fantasy novels also go into a lot of depth about the nuts and bolts of their world. They don’t spend pages talking about the hardware required for a singularity-fusion drive to tap into a zero-point field. Instead, they talk about the intricacies of clan history, precisely how a dagger was given a poison spell and where orcs’ great-grandparents came from. This is all fine; I loved Neuromancer and Lord of the Rings but I can see that it would turn off a lot of readers. Unfortunately, it’s also led to these genres being but in the literary ‘sin bin’.
This stereotyping isn’t just confined to the readers. Many literary authors do write science-fiction stories, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let me go, but their stories are not portrayed as a science-fiction story, or placed in the science-fiction section of bookshops, in case literary readers refused to read them. This avoidance is bizarre on one level, as our modern world is science-fiction, by its very nature. We are now using technology that would have been regarded as wildly speculative science-fiction, fifty years ago. Our smartphones are astonishingly advanced devices. Our scientists can tinker with the genetic material of living things and make new versions of life-forms if they wish, some of which end up on our plates, if things are under control, or kill us, if things aren’t.
Nevertheless, many readers avoid anything that’s classed as ‘science-fiction’. Sadly, if they do this, they will miss out on some novels that are as perceptive about the human condition, and as skilled at revealing the human condition, as any literary novel. What’s more, these novels use speculative science ideas as a tool to throw the human condition into sharp relief. Their purpose isn’t escapism, or a glorification of technology, but to perform a piercing and insightful analysis of the human condition and our place in the world.
Here’s ten science-fiction and fantasy novels that, I think, do use their genre in the right way. They are all still clearly science fiction and fantasy novels, containing technology and mythical characters respectively, but they use those genre elements as vehicles, tools that are used by the author to talk about subjects all great literature is concerned with; love, loss, identity, morality, fear, hope and so much else.
Note: there are some plot spoilers here, so don’t read the articles if you want to read the books with a mental blank-slate.
￼What Ender’s Game is about: Ender’s game is about a space war between humans and an alien, insect species. Ender Wiggin is a prodigy, a boy with freakish gifts at assessing situations, defeating or outmanoeuvring opponents and simply winning. He is a supremely talented leader and strategist. His innate gifts attracts the attention of the military of Earth. They send him to a space training camp and train him to fight an alien race that humanity only narrowly defeated years before. Ender learns to fight in zero-gravity, lead a squad, improvise, adapt and win. He also studies the insectoid race who seem to want to destroy humanity. On the face of it, Ender’s Game is a standard, science-fiction, space-battle story.
What ‘Ender’s Game’ is actually about: It’s about loneliness; both physical loneliness but also the loneliness when you know you’re different, extreme, a person that others will both fear and hate. It’s also about morality, because Ender wants to be loved and to belong and be a good person but he is being pushed to destroy other living things because he is very good at it. He is a boy who is needed to save humanity but who has few reasons to love the humanity he is supposed to save. The story is about empathy and understanding because noble self-preservation can easily turn into xenophobic genocide. Ender and his two talented siblings are explored in depth, both in who they are and how they treat each other.
A Scanner Darkly
￼What A Scanner Darkly is about: It is the near-future. Bob Arctor is a junkie, addicted to a new drug called ‘substance D’. He is also a narcotics agent, working undercover to watch the drug users and find their suppliers. He’s therefore in a strange world where he is both watcher and among the watched. Bob, in his role as a narcotics agent, wears a scramble suit at all times. The suit makes him look like anyone and everyone; a constantly shifting, fleeting visual image that blends him into the background, into anonymity. As Both both watches junkies and takes their drug, his mind becomes increasingly psychotic. He begins to watch himself, as if he’s someone else. Finally, he collapses and is sent to a rehabilitation farm that itself holds a dark secret.
What ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is actually about: Reality and society. Philip K. Dick was a visionary writer because he predicted so many of the social issues that have come to prominence in Wester society in the last half-century. Instead of writing science-fiction about alien robots or monsters from the deep, Dick focussed on a different danger; the loss of identity, the loss of certainty about what was real and what wasn’t, the difficulty in working out what was true and important. This shift in focus can be seen as a result of drug experimentation, particularly with hallucinogens, but it was also a wise awareness of rising totalitarianism, of mind-control drugs and the perennial problem of people in power enforcing a particular view of reality. Dick realised that if this enforced viewpoint was done well enough, then the general public wouldn’t even realise that they were following an enforced viewpoint; they’d just believe it was the only sane viewpoint.
In A Scanner Darkly, the protagonists do not share the standard world viewpoint; of a career, of having children, a nice house, a luxury car. They are into drugs, but not wholly so, in the way dramatised in the film Trainspotting. They are also focussed on issues that normal society see as mad, deranged or trivial. What they see as important, the mainstream sees as stupid or dangerous, and vice-versa. They are regarded as immoral by the mainstream but they see the mainstream as immoral. This fundamental divide occurs again and again in the story. It is eloquently summed up in the line, made by a woman, one of the squares, the mainstream people, when she seeks help from the misfits to get rid of an ugly insect. She says, with indignant, when they explain to her that the bug is harmless, ‘if I had known it was harmless, I’d have killed it myself!’
Flowers for Algernon
￼What Flowers for Angernon is about: A lab is testing an I.Q. drug. They first test it on a mouse called Algernon and it seems to work. Algernon gets better and better at navigating mazes and performing complex tasks. Flushed with success at increasing Algernon’s I.Q., the scientists inject the drug into Charlie, a young man of limited I.Q. They hope that it’ll work and transform Charlie’s life for the better. Charlie’s I.Q. does increase, eventually to an extreme degree but at the same time as he becomes brilliant, problems occur with the mouse, Algernon. The creature’s new, high IQ does not seem to be permanent and decay sets in.
What Flowers for Angernon is actually about: The general view of high intelligence, amongst the public and the media, is often very different from the realities of being highly intelligent. For example, in the trailer for the film Limitless, the main character takes a drug that massively increases his I.Q. He uses his new-found super-intelligence to makes lots of money, sleep with beautiful women own flash sports cars. The writers of this seem to have missed the fact that a super-intelligent person may decide that great wealth, shagging pretty women and owning a Ferrari aren’t worth having, that they are trivial and unimportant. Actual stories of highly intelligent people are more likely to show that they retreat from society, live in a remote house and avoid most people. In other words, what highly intelligent people often do is the opposite to what is seen as success.
There is also the down-side of high intelligence. If you are highly intelligent, you are different. You don’t belong. You find it hard to find someone to be with that you are compatible with, that you are happy talking to, that you respect. In that situation, your intelligence isn’t a boon, it’s a curse that has pushed you away from everyone else.
Flowers for Algernon explores all these issues. It’s about belonging in society, how I.Q. divides society through misunderstanding, contempt, envy and attention. It explores a relationship, how compatibility and mutual respect are so important and how all the love in the world can still fail to prevent a relationship from falling apart. It explores change, in all its disruptive, fearful, uncertain countenance, and loss, with all the heart-break that it brings, the sadness of knowing what was and will never be again.
The Day of the Triffids
￼The Day of the Triffids is the first of two John Wyndham novels in this list. I’ll make no apologies for this. John Wyndham is my favourite science-fiction author. I love Wyndham’s stories because they use a science-fiction idea to take a critical look at the human condition. The science-fiction in his stories is not an end in itself but a tool for showing humanity’s good parts, and its bad parts. Wyndham was always thinking about people when he wrote his stories.
What Day of the Triffids is about: Russian genetic scientists create a plant – a Triffid – that produces a highly prized oil. The plant is strange and dangerous but the oil is extremely useful. Humanity therefore keeps the plants alive and farms them. Since the planet is slow-moving, no one believes that they could be anything more than a minor pest.
One night, many of the people on Earth watch a fantastic meteor storm. The next morning, they are all blind. Only the story’s main character, and a few others, who never saw the meteor storm, retain their sight. They face a new world with many threats and the worst of these are the Triffids. The Triffids might be slow-moving, but they have whip-like poison filled sacs and they can sense where humans are. In one fell swoop, they suddenly become the dominant creature on Earth.
What Day of the Triffids is really about: The hubris of Humanity and the fragility of civilisation. Unlike ‘Flowers for Algernon’ or ‘Ender’s Game’, Wyndham was invariably thinking about humanity as a whole, in his books, rather than focussing on an individual. He was perceptive enough to see what humans could do, but also their blind spots, their delusions about their own abilities. He also knew that a lot of people wouldn’t respond heroically in catastrophic situations. Instead, they’d act like panicked rabbits or worse, turn into sadistic monsters. This critical view is much more prevalent now, in stories such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, than it was when Wyndham wrote the book, in 1951. In some ways, like all good science-fiction writers, he was ahead of his time.
Day of the Triffids isn’t a masterful analysis of character. The main character’s love-interest is thinly developed and there is little in the way of character arcs. This isn’t so much a criticism as an acceptance that the story is meant to be thought-provoking about us all, and our true nature, than an analysis of individual people. For a more satisfying study of human character by Wyndham, I definitely recommend the Chrysalids.
What ‘Gateway’ is about: An ordinary man on Earth gets the opportunity, through a lottery win, to pilot exotic, alien spacecraft. These ships were discovered in a hollowed out asteroid at the edge of the solar system. No one understands how they work and all attempts to dismantle one of them, to investigate its workings, have only resulted in massive explosions. But the ships work. They can take their occupants to other stars, other planets and, potentially, enable their pilots to find advanced and valuable technology. As a result, some of these pilot become extremely wealthy. The problem is that these ships can also take their occupants on journeys so long that they die of starvation, or put them too close to suns, cooking them to death. They are an interstellar Russian roulette; if you’re lucky when you pilot one, you discover a new valuable resource and become hugely wealthy. If you’re not lucky, you die. The main character must somehow find the courage to pilot a ship and take his chances.
What ‘Gateway’ is really about: Fear and guilt. The main protagonist of the story – Rob Broadhead – has the courage to sign up to Gateway but when it comes to choosing a ship, he dithers, delays and procrastinates. He is scared, petrified of suffering a slow death. He is also petrified of giving up, of returning to Earth as a failure, having wasted his lottery win. We know that he did something, because he is narrating what happened while living on Earth as a wealthy man, but we can see that he has terrible guilt, as well as reporting on his paralysing fear. Gateway is therefore a very human story but also the antithesis to genre sci-fi stories where everyone is brave and intelligent, skilled and noble. Instead, its spaceship pilot is greedy, scared and a guilt-ridden liar. That doesn’t mean that all space-farers need to be so flawed but it’s healthy that some of them are.
The Sirens of Titan
￼What The Sirens of Titan is about:A rich kid, Malachai Constant, suddenly finds himself penniless. He is recruited by two odd characters, who whisk him off to Mars, where he joins a rag-tag space fleet being trained to attack Earth. The Martian Fleet are not the scary, dangerous army that we see in so many Hollywood movies. Instead, they are a pathetic crowd and the man who’s masterminded their invasion of Earth is doing it for his own, complex reasons.
What The Sirens of Titan is really about: In many genre stories, the main character is heroic and will overcome an enemy through his exceptional abilities. He falls in love with an impressive person and they get together at the end of the movie. The Sirens of Titan does include these elements but also turns that whole approach on its head. Vonnegut survived the bombing of Dresden, an experience he uses in his most famous book, Slaughterhouse Five, and the appalling randomness of success, failure, suffering and reward, shown so tragically in the Dresden bombing, permeates his writing. The Sirens of Titan is no different in this matter to his other works. Like other perceptive science-fiction writers, he pulls no punches in his critical insights into the human condition. It’s no surprise that in his book Galapagos, mankind devolves into penguins. Again and again in his books, Vonnegut shows the beauty of human experience, of love and courage, but he also wants us to know that our grand visions and self-importance, our power and intelligence are invariably ridiculous and insignificant.
The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy
What The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy is about: A very ordinary human, Arthur Dent, concerned about his house being bulldozed to make way for a bypass, ends up escaping the destruction of Earth by a Vogon Constructor fleet, who destroy it in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass. With the help of his friend, Ford Prefect, Arthur travels through the universe, meeting all sorts of strange beings and people, before returning to a different Earth.
What ‘The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ is really about: Douglas Adams once said that his book was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. The connection is clear, because Hitch-Hikers also explores, with brilliant humour, quite how daft humans are. Both books are rambling, filled with throwaway ideas but they also cast a sharp, perceptive eye on humanity’s foibles. Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy is a much easier read than Sirens of Titan because it is much funnier and less bleak. It is a work of genius and is probably my all-time favourite book.
Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy was followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which is effectively its second part and is just as good. After that, Adams’ ideas began to dry up and the quality faded. This decline may also be due to his book being stuck in development Hell in Hollywood, as they tried to make a movie that was accessible to a US audience, seemingly by removing all the quirky, British content that made it such a classic. A film was finally made, after Adams died, but I can’t recommend it.
The Midwich Cuckoos
￼What The Midwich Cuckoos is about: The residents of a quiet English village are suddenly sent to sleep one day, their town cut off from the outside world by an invisible force field. Twenty-four hours later, they wake up. They unaffected by the strange event, that is until, nine months later, a host of women in the village give birth to children with supernatural gifts and a very alien attitude to the place in which they’ve been born.
What ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ is really about: Much of science-fiction focusses on mankind’s non-animal behaviour. For example, we are thinking, tool-using, conscious creatures who can act selflessly and make rational, scientific decisions. This idea is probably not only incorrect, in the sense that animals can do many of these things too, but also blind to the fact that we are still animals, at heart. We fight, we compete for mates and we care for our young.
In the Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham cleverly plays on the conflict between our animal side and our rational side. When the mothers in Midwich realise that the children they have given birth to are fundamentally alien, they are in a dilemma. Their children look human and they’re their children, so their animal, emotional side says ‘take care of them!’ But their rational side says ‘they’re alien! They have nothing but contempt for us. They will kill us all to protect themselves! Destroy them!’
There have been several film version of the Midwich Cuckoos. The best of them play with two themes; the contrast between the bucolic, tranquil English village and its very alien visitors, and the dilemma of having to kill aliens that seem, at first glance, to be the people you most want to protect.
I hope this list has been useful and interesting. If I can come up with another eight books of similar quality, I’ll post them on this website and add a link.