Call it SF, call it speculative fiction, call it slipstream – hey, we hear you can even call it structural fabulation. We’re not going to quibble on the nitty-gritty of nomenclature. What we do know is that these texts, however diverse, are yoked together by their reimaginings of reality – think parallel and sinister sister societies, alien worlds, or our own Earth, subtly altered. And the power of SF is that by lifting us into an alienating place or time, it allows us to see our own world differently. Below is a brief selection of our particular SF mind-blowing favourites. Feel free, as ever, to add more in the comments…
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
Okay, it’s the obvious one, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book that actually has changed the way we see and talk about the world around us. Big Brother, the Thought Police – Orwell was speculating, sure, but his vision of a totalitarian, panoptic, revisionist society is one that we can actually recognize. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, give it a shot: it’ll change the way you look at history books, for a start. Truth in the media? Think again…
2. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (1961)
Popularized latterly by Andrei Tarkovsky’s and Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptations, Lem’s novel about psychic alien oceans, guilt and isolation is creepier than either movie (though we’re fans of all three). How will it change your outlook? It’s a hugely thought-provoking meditation on heartbreak, loss, and what it means to be human. What would you do if your bleakest memories were made flesh, if you were forced to relive your worst moments, over and over again? If anything’s going to trigger an existential crisis in its readers, this book will. How’s that for a solipsistic revisioning of life on Earth?
Ishiguro’s sixth novel, and his most overtly SF (though The Unconsoled comes close), Never Let Me Go is a very literary piece of near-future speculation. Kathy (the book’s narrator), Ruth and Tommy grow up Hailsham, a private school in the English countryside. Although their life seems idyllic, we’re given hints of some sinister goings-on, and we eventually learn (spoilers!) that the trio have been bred for their organs and each headed for eventual ‘completion’, as their innards are harvested and they die. How will it affect you? Hey, it’s hardly unimaginable, given the march of science, and it’s sure to get you wondering about certain strands of biological and genetic research.
4. The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010)
Apocalypse! Psychics! Disease! The Stand with vampires! Cronin’s first venture into SF/horror, The Passage is also the first of a trilogy about humanity’s last stand against the monsters it’s brought upon the world thanks to a man-made virus breaking out of containment. As well as being a truly excellent page-turner, this is another one that’ll make you think about the ramifications of scientific research. We’re not anti-science here (ought to emphasise that!) but Cronin’s work, grand post-apocalyptic adventure story that it is, just like the work of George A. Romero or Russell Hoban really gets you thinking: how would I handle it?
Straying slightly out of our novelistic remit here (but short stories are too often neglected, so we’re unrepentant), Asimov’s influential collection of nine stories revolving around the emergence of AI and the Three Laws of Robotics are fantastic reflections on morality and technology. As well as making robots cool, in this era of Siri and the all-knowing eye of Google, I, Robot is a reminder of the legal and ethical position of artificial life as it might come to be…
6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
If you ever thought gender equality is an old debate, give this a read. Atwood’s vision of a theocratic slave society, in which women like her heroine, Offred, aren’t allowed to read, work or choose their own sexual partners, in which they’re kept as terrified concubines under a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian regime, is about as scary as they come, and, we think, made even more so because it’s so convincing. We’ve already got misogyny, theocracies and totalitarism; what if they all came together at once? Even aside from visions of the future, this book will make you think again, and think hard, about women’s working conditions and reproductive rights.
7. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
Camaraderie, Sacrifice, Responsibility: that’s what it’s all about. Or at least, that’s what it’s all about for Johnny Rico, young recruit to the Mobile Infantry of Terran Federation, the future elite Earth federation fighting force, who’s been sent to fight a deadly enemy (space bugs, natch). This is a controversial one: whether you read it straight, as a pro-militaristic account of the value of patriotism, or as a satirical critique of the same, some of Heinlein’s/Rico’s debates (see corporal punishment, for one) make for dated, and uncomfortable reading. It is still popular though, and it’s interesting for its ideas about citizenship and political and moral responsibility. Even if, like us, you’re unconvinced by Heinlein’s apparent conclusions, you’ll find yourself really debating the worth and necessity of active military forces.
8. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes (1966)
More spoilers: Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled guy who works as a cleaner in a bakery, is plucked from his life and transformed by scientific experimentation into a genius, intellectually outperforming his ‘makers’ in all arenas, before it all backfires and he’s returned to his prior state. It’s SF, definitely, but more than that it’s a psychological study of human relations, frustration, desire, hope and disappointment: it’ll certainly make you think again about compassion and eugenics, and it’s just as affecting now as it was back in the sixties.
9. Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott (1882)
This one is sui generis: it’s a sociological survey of a world lived in two-dimensions; how class, gender and profession function in relation to one another; how we can be punished for intellectual curiosity. A kids’ story on one level and a geometrical treatise on another, it’s definitely a satire and definitely SF – what other way could we read it? Most interestingly, and thought-provokingly, Abbott’s curious narrator, Square, will get you wondering about dimensions and physics and other worlds while you’re reassessing the way you categorize people in this one…
10. Blindness, Jose Saramago (1995)
From the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer, Blindness is a headlong plunge into societal collapse. What if everybody went blind at once? An innovative take on apocalyptic plague fiction (like The Passage), this text takes the micro-view, zooming right on the filth, degradation and criminal chaos that ensues when the usual rules can’t be enforced any more. Just how savage could you become if nobody was watching?
Joel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello.