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Best Literary Science Fiction Books

Top Literary Science Fiction Reads

What does Literary Science Fiction mean? Well not plot-heavy shoot-em-up adventures for a start, but that still leaves a lot of territory. Not 'literary' authors condescending to write sf, because that way leads to junk like O-Zone by Paul Theroux. Not science fiction authors writing mainstream fiction; there are some superb examples out there but, well, it's just not science fiction is it?

No, for the purposes of this list, we're looking at novels by mainstream authors that were published as mainstream, reviewed as mainstream, but subsequently recognised as science fiction. And pretty damned amazing science fiction it is too. Well, just look at the books we've chosen.

Literary SF also tends to focus on literary structures (plot, prose, themes) and there is usually JUST as much focus on HOW the story is told, in the prose used to tell the story, in the narrative structures binding the story (you know, all those literary devices you learned in English lit class), and the themes / subtext present. While SF is genereally concerned with telling a future story, the literary SF focuses on HOW it's told just as much as WHAT is told.

It's the 'HOW' part that makes it complicated to pin down literary -- is it just a publishing term used to categorize a book that's published mainstream rather than genre or does it define a separate style of SF that focuses on themes, language, and literary devices, or is it a genre?

Let me say that perhaps it's 'all of fhese', 'some of these' and 'non of these' and leave it at that.

If you want a breakdown of the what defines SF as 'literary', please read our Literary Science Fiction subgenre guide.

Orwell was just about the best political essayist that Britain has produced. He wrote gritty accounts of living in poverty like Down and Out in London and Paris and amazing social realist novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Then, right at the end of his life, he produced one of the most haunting and chilling works of science fiction ever, a book that has entered the language. Even if youve never read it, you know about 1984, you know what we mean when we say Big Brother is Watching You or talk about Newspeak or Room 101 (actually his office at the BBC during World War Two).

Winston Smith is a contented-enough cog in this dystopian future built on constant war and deception, but when he falls in love he starts to question the system. Only to discover how quickly the all-powerful regime can make him betray what he loves.There is practically no work of science fiction that has had the impact of 1984: the run-down austerity state, the constant observation, the way the regime maintains power by lying have all affected the way we view the world we live in.

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Search the sf award shortlists for 2013 and you will look in vain for this novel. It wasn't even submitted for any of the juried awards. Yet it is arguably the best sf novel of the year, and perhaps the best sf novel of the decade. The problem is, it wasn't seen as science fiction (the book did win one award, for historical fiction).

It's the story of one woman's life during the twentieth century: surviving the flu epidemic of 1919, marrying an abusive husband, meeting Hitler in pre-war Germany, helping the rescue services during the Blitz. But these aren't all in the same life. Because the flu kills her, the abusive husband murders her, she attempts to assassinate Hitler, she is blown up in the Blitz, and every time she dies, she is born again and lives a slightly different life. The result is a glorious and enthralling account of the different ways a woman might experience the twentieth century as she slowly starts to become aware of the multiple lives she has led.

 

Kate Atkinson won a major literary award with her first novel, and has also written a series of highly regarded detective novels, but although there was a hint of time shifts in Human Croquet she had not really tackled science fiction before this book. The result is one of the most original and most beautifully written novels in the genre.

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Award Nominations:2000 PKD

Iain Banks had written a string of science fiction before he finally burst into print with his brilliant and controversial novel, The Wasp Factory. That and the two novels that followed were clearly informed by science fiction, but they were published as mainstream, where he was regarded as a sort of enfant terrible of the literary scene. It was only after The Bridge was published that he added the middle initial, M, and started to bring out those early unpublished sf novels.

But The Bridge, which is one of the very best of all of his novels and which is structured on the model of the Forth Road Bridge which he could see from his bedroom window as a child, can only really be understood as science fiction. It is the story of someone growing up in Scotland from the 1960s to the 80s, gaining material success at the cost of early political ideals. But at the very beginning of the novel he crashes on the Forth Bridge, and in the resultant coma (rather like in Life On Mars) he finds himself on an endless bridge in a complex society where he finds himself having to constantly reassess who and what he is. It's a world that involves curious dreams, a Scottish barbarian, endless wars, his trademark massive structures, and lots of bits of technology that we would soon come to recognise in his Culture novels.

 

Banks was one of the most important writers of science fiction from the 1980s until his death in 2013, yet though he alternated his work between the mainstream novels of Iain Banks and the science fiction of Iain M. Banks, there are very few of the mainstream novels that don't have some element of the fantastic. And The Bridge, the last thing he wrote before his career bifurcated, really does demonstrate the very best of both aspects of his writing.

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Practically the earliest appearance in print by David Mitchell was writing reviews for the British Science Fiction Association, so it is hardly a surprise that science fiction has become an increasingly significant part of his complex and varied fiction. Yet his first two novels, Ghostwritten with its whirlwind tour of the planet including a trip into space and a meeting with ghosts, and Number9Dream with its manga-like account of Japanese nightmares, were both seen as purely mainstream. Even the ventures into the future that formed two of the six narratives making up Cloud Atlas, were seen as being enfolded within more familiar mainstream tales.

Yet these two future sections are the hinge upon which the whole novel turns. The various narratives take us from a diary of a 19th century ocean voyage, letters from an amoral chancer working for a composer between the wars, a 1970s crime story uncovering corporate greed in California, and a comedy about a hapless publisher trapped in an old peoples home. Then we shift to the confession of a clone in a dystopian near-future Korea, before arriving at the oral account of a young man growing up in post-collapse

It is these two very different but very vivid worlds that make explicit what all the other narratives are leading towards.Cloud Atlas may be Mitchells masterpiece. It is also central to everything else he has written with various links and themes connecting it to all his other novels, whether the coming of age story, Black Swan Green, the historical novel about Japan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or his story of an eternal war between immortals in The Bone Clocks.

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Back in the 1950s, a young Alasdair Gray entered a short story in a competition. It came second. That story was part of what would become, nearly 30 years later, the most significant novel in contemporary Scottish literature. Gray went on to be a successful artist and playwright, but he kept working on the novel that would become one of the sensations of 1984.It is the story of Duncan Thaw, growing up in Glasgow, becoming an artist, dying; but the novel opens in Unthank, an afterlife where a man called Lanark learns to negotiate this dark, bleak realm.

And after the middle sections that tell us about Thaw, we return to Unthank to find out more not only about this strange city but about all of the literary influences that have helped to construct this amazing story. Honestly, if you havent read it, what are you waiting for? Youve got a real treat in store.It is probably safe to say that without Lanark Iain Banks would not have written The Bridge, Irvine Welsh would not have written Maribou Stork Nightmare, or indeed most of modern Scottish literature as we know it would not exist. Lanark was that important.

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Awards Won:1987 CLARKE
Award Nominations:1986 NEBULA, 1987 LocusSF

In her recent collection of essays and reviews about science fiction, In Other Worlds, Atwood tells us she spent her childhood reading and writing sf and comic books. But you wouldn't have known it from her early novels, which established her as one of the great writers in contemporary realist literature.

Then cameThe Handmaid's Tale, the harrowing, haunting story of a near-future America in which the religious right has gained power and women's rights have been destroyed. The handmaid of the title was caught before she could escape to Canada with her family, and as a result she has become a virtual slave of one of the leaders of the new regime.

After this the flood gates opened, and science fiction has become one of the most consistent features in Atwood's work ever since, but none of them match the shock and the power of this novel. As an awesome vision of the abuse of women when men have all the power, it is one of the most chilling and effective satires in the entire history of science fiction.

The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and has since gone on to be made into a film and even an opera, it is taught in schools and universities, and as a result it is one of the most widely-known works of science fiction among those who don't read the genre.

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Ever since H.G. Wells, time travel has been one of the staples of science fiction. Yet with rare exceptions, such as the surreal comedy of Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five, it has remained something of a specialist taste. Non-sf readers seem to be made uncomfortable by the notion that time might be fluid, that we might literally go out to encounter the past or the future. But in her debut novel Audrey Niffenegger solved that conundrum, writing a time travel story that enjoyed massive popularity, mostly outside science fiction.

Her secret was to take the central conceit of Slaughterhouse Five, the idea that the central character is cut loose from time, travelling helplessly backwards and forwards along the length of his life, and put it to the service of a romance. The narrator, our point of identification with the story, is a woman living her life normally as we do; her lover, her husband, is a man travelling helplessly backwards and forwards in time whose wild journey might intersect with her life at any point, at any age.

How can a romance be sustained when its ending is known even before it begins? How, as you get older, can you sustain a relationship with someone who might be an old man or an infant the next time you lay eyes on him?It is hard to do something original with time travel, but Niffenegger managed it, producing an international best seller in the process.

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If there is one science fiction novel that challenges 1984 as the book that is best known to non-sf readers, it has to be Brave New World. At the time, Huxley was best known for his satirical novels about the febrile nature of 1920s society, such as Chrome Yellow and Antic Hay, but he was the grandson of T.H. Huxley and brother of Julian Huxley, which led to a concern for the dangers of science. This, combined with his pacifism, fed into the biting satire that was Brave New World.

It is set in a world shaped by uncontrolled industrialisation (years are dated After Ford), where even birth has been mechanised, where social class is fixed at birth by genetic manipulation, and where the population is kept pacific by the drug soma. Into this ordered and not unhappy society comes a stranger, a savage, who has not been controlled since birth and who thus brings novelty and disorder into the world.Brave New World was easily the most successful and the best known of Huxleys works.

He returned to the theme with a collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited, and late in his career wrote another dystopia, Ape and Essence, and a utopia, Island, though neither achieved the power or the effect of Brave New World.

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Award Nominations:1973 NEBULA

When it was first published, Gravity's Rainbow was shortlisted for the Nebula Award, losing out to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. In their introduction to The Secret History of Science Fiction, John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly argue that, if Gravity's Rainbow had won, the entire subsequent history of science fiction would have been different. That is probably too big a claim, most core genre sf would have continued as if nothing had happened, and a few proto-puppies might have muttered about the wrong sorts taking their awards. But maybe, just maybe, the sort of open, experimental writing we've seen in some of the best recent sf might have come along a decade or so sooner.

Not that Gravity's Rainbow is an altogether coherent novel; it's by Pynchon so there's always new stuff coming at you from left field. But it is a big, sprawling, invigorating novel full of invention, in which the sexual exploits of one character predict where German rockets are going to land in wartime London, while the search is on for the mysterious black device due to be loaded onto rocket number 00000.

 

If science fiction is all about novelty and invention and scenes that make you see the whole world differently, then you don't get much more science fictional than Gravity's Rainbow. It may not have been the book that changed science fiction, but it should have been.

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George R. Stewart was an historian and an early environmentalist who often wrote about environmental catastrophes. He wrote one novel, Storm, which is the story of a massive Pacific storm, while another novel, Fire, had no human characters in this story of a dramatic forest fire. It was no surprise, therefore, that his next novel after Fire should also be about environmental catastrophe, only this time he made the focus of the novel what would happen to people in the aftermath of the catastrophe, and in the process he wrote one of the greatest of all science fiction novels.

Earth Abides is the story of Ish (named after the Native American, Ishi, who was studied by Ursula K. Le Guin's father) who returns from the wilderness to find most people have died from a new disease. He and a few other survivors must learn to cope as the benefits of civilisation fail and they revert to earlier models of society.

 

It won the first International Fantasy Award and regularly appears on lists of the best ever science fiction. It is also the first modern science fiction novel to have an explicit ecological theme.

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In 1898, the British scientist Ronald Ross, working in Calcutta, made a major discovery about the transmission of malaria for which he would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize. But the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests that the discovery was not Rosss alone.Within the complex timelines of this novel, in which different periods sometimes seem to merge and overlap, a researcher in near-future New York begins to investigate the disappearance of a former colleague who had disappeared in Calcutta many years before.

In turn, the colleague, Murugan, had been researching the true story of Rosss discovery. Slowly, as the story moves back and forth in time, we discover that Rosss research was secretly guided by his Indian assistants who were part of a secret organisation trying to discover immortality.Part historical novel, part detective story, part post-colonial revision of existing ideas about the past, part dramatization of real controversies surrounding Rosss Nobel Prize, this is a complex, multi-part story (including, at one point, a powerfully effective ghost story) that won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

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William Golding was a not very good school teacher and would-be novelist who realised that real children would never behave the way they are presented in Victorian novels like The Coral Island. So he decided to write a novel about how children actually would behave if they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. The manuscript was rejected again and again by publisher after publisher before it was eventually accepted, but it made Golding one of the most highly acclaimed writers of his generation who would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Golding incorporated contemporary nuclear fears into the novel, so the schoolboys are fleeing the threat of nuclear war when their plane crashes and they find themselves on a desert island. At first they try to maintain school discipline, but gradually this breaks down and they revert to barbarism.

 

Golding would often incorporate science-fictional or fantastic elements in novels like The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and Darkness Visible, but this remains the novel for which he is best known.

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Award Nominations:2005 CAMPBELL

Philip Roth is one of the two or three leading American novelists from the second half of the twentieth century, whose work consistently explored the Jewish experience in modern America. But he had never produced anything even approaching science fiction before, late in his career, he produced this stunning alternate history.

Like much of his work, it incorporates his own family's history, but in this case he imagines the election of anti-semite Charles Lindbergh as President (a real possibility), and an America that therefore comes closer to Hitler's Germany than Churchill's England. Gradually, anti-Jewish laws are passed and the lives of Roth and his family become ever more curtailed. In one brilliant chapter, perhaps the best you'll find in any alternate history novel, he demonstrates how the broad political changes we have witnessed in the background have a profound and immediate personal effect on the young Philip Roth and his brother (though in fairness it should be said that this is followed by one of the most cack-handed chapters you will find in an alternate history novel).

 

Alternate histories tend to be rather distanced affairs, interested in the intellectual puzzle of how the changes would play out, but Roth puts a human face on those changes and counts their personal cost. This is a profound and deeply moving novel.

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Karen Joy Fowler isn't really a mainstream writer: she began writing science fiction, practically all of her short fiction is sf or fantasy, and she jointly founded the James Tiptree Award. Yet she isn't really a science fiction writer either: her novels are primarily mainstream, though there are unresolved suggestions of the fantastic in some of them, such as Sarah Canary or Wit's End. It is this ambiguous literary position that is at the heart of much of her best fiction, particularly this brilliant novel.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a straightforwardly mainstream story, but it is written with a science fiction sensibility that allows us to see twists that are not apparent on the surface of the novel. In an experiment in animal behaviour, a family raises a chimpanzee as part of the family, but when the youngest daughter is five (the same age as the chimp) unforeseen issues force the family to send the chimpanzee away.

The girl, too young to understand what is going on, blames herself for the loss of her sister, and now, twenty years later when her eco-terrorist brother reappears in her life, all of these issues come to the surface. So far, so straightforward. But what makes this science fictional is that subtly, without ever drawing attention to what she is doing, Fowler makes us aware that not only did the chimp learn from her human sister, but the girl learned from her chimp sister, and much of her adult behaviour now is actually chimp behaviour.

 

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves was shortlisted for several science fiction awards, so the science fictional elements of the book were recognised by a lot of readers. But you don't have to read it as science fiction to recognise that this is an extraordinarily powerful and moving book that makes us think again about human and animal behaviour.

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As we've seen with Philip Roth, alternate history is a popular form with authors who would not normally be interested in writing science fiction, think, for instance, of MacKinlay Kantor's If the South had Won the Civil War or Len Deighton's SS-GB. But of all such novels, this is easily one of the best.

Harris was a successful political journalist (one of his early books was about the exposure of the so-called Hitler Diaries as fake) who has used that knowledge and experience in his fiction. Most of his novels have been political (The Ghost) or straightforward historical (Enigma, Imperium), but his first novel combined the political and the historical into a superb alternate history. It is set in 1964, twenty years after Germany won the Second World War, and as Berlin prepares to celebrate Hitler's 75th birthday a policeman investigates the murder of a top party official. But as the investigation proceeds, he starts to uncover terrible secrets from the war that the party would rather he didn't reveal.

 

This is everything a good alternate history should be, a gripping story and a convincing recreation of a victorious postwar Germany.

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Emily St John Mandel's first three novels were elegant literary thrillers set in contemporary Canada. Nothing about them suggested that she might next turn to science fiction. In a sense, she didn't. Station Eleven is elegant still and literary still and set in Canada again. It's a story about touring actors, it's just that they are touring in a post-apocalyptic world where disease has wiped out a high percentage of the population and removed many of the familiar conveniences of modern civilisation.

Moving back and forth in time, the novel follows a famous actor in the years before the pandemic, a paramedic watching the world collapse from a barricaded tower block, and a young actress in the post catastrophe world where a mad preacher digs graves for anyone who tries to leave his town. What holds it all together is the comic, Station Eleven, drawn by a girl who watches the disaster unfold.

 

Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Written in a calm, elegiac tone is an object lesson in how the beauty of literary fiction and the ideas of science fiction can be combined.

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Fowles is known as a postmodern writer, though some of the postmodern techniques he uses could equally be considered fantastic: the god game in The Magus for instance, or the shifts in time in The French Lieutenant's Woman. In his last novel, A Maggot, we are offered various interpretations of the curious events at the heart of the novel, religious, satanic, criminal, sexual, but at the end the only one that seems to make sense of it all is science fictional.

We follow a group of travellers in Exmoor in the middle of the 18th century. Through interviews, letters and newspaper articles we learn that the leader of the group is a nobleman's son who may be eloping and who disappears. One of the group hangs himself, another claims she was raped by Satan. Eventually, although it is never made explicit, we realise that they are visiting a spaceship or time machine, which shows them films of the future, and which takes away the nobleman's son at the end.

 

Fowles's novels always upset our expectations, and this is one of the best, starting out like a very precise historical fiction, then shifting perspectives so that each succeeding explanation is undermined until we are left with science fiction as the only possible truth.

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Katherine Burdekin wrote a series of romantic novels during the 1920s and 30s, often with a time travel element and usually strongly feminist in character. Increasingly, however, her work began to include striking criticism of fascism, and she adopted the name Murray Constantine to protect her family from retribution. It was only when her finest novel was republished in the 1980s that it was confirmed that Murray Constantine was in fact Katherine Burdekin.

That novel was Swastika Night, which first came out in 1937 and was reissued by the Left Book Club in 1940 as a way of demonstrating what Britain was fighting for. It is the clearest and most coherent attack on Nazism made before the war, presenting it as a masculine cult that so devalued women that in the end it weakened the race. Set some 700 years after the Nazis have dominated Europe, it shows a world in which Jews have been eliminated and women are treated as subhuman beings kept in pens and used only for breeding. As a result, the race is now so feeble that it is locked in an endless war with Japan that neither side is now strong enough to finish.

 

The SF Encyclopedia describes Burdekin as "one of those twentieth-century figures whose absence from view during that century now seems very close to tragic." Certainly she was a major writer who made a major contribution to science fiction, even if it wasn't seen as such at the tie.

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Award Nominations:2011 CAMPBELL

Even when the British new wave was introducing literary experiment into science fiction, the genre has been suspicious of the avantgarde. There is a sense that no nonsense storytelling does not belong with the wilder inventions characteristic of the literary fringes. But the suspicion is not always justified, as the case of C demonstrates.

McCarthy is the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society which is devoted to mind-bending art projects about death, and his first novel was only published when a Paris-based art collective took it up. Not a background that science fiction would feel comfortable with, but like science fiction McCarthy believes that technology shapes and controls our world, and that idea is central t this novel.

The central character, Serge, is the son of an eccentric inventor who runs a school for the deaf. These inventions include work on wireless transmissions, and that becomes the guiding principle of Serge's life, taking him on a series of extravagant adventures including operating wireless sets on World War One spotter planes, escaping from a German Prisoner of War camp, exposing fake mediums in postwar London, and eventually establishing an international communications network for a sinister organisation in Egypt.

 

Like Thomas Pynchon, with whom he has many similarities, McCarthy writes stories that depart from the real world into realms of extravagant invention and surreal technological twists, while always staying true to a central science-based idea.

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Perhaps it is the fact that he is the son of Paul Theroux that tends to get Marcel Theroux tagged as a mainstream novelist. In fact his work has often shown awareness of genre: his second novel, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, nodded towards the great detective story, while his fourth, Far North, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. But it is his next novel that really stands out.

At first it reads like a mystery: a man turns up claiming to be the academic Nicholas Slopen, even though he looks nothing like Slopen. Then we read Slopen's story: he was hired by a mysterious stranger to authenticate some writings by Dr Johnson, but when he investigated, he found they were being written by a man held prisoner in a London house. Yet the writing seems to be authentic, and when he talks to the man he seems to have Johnson's personality. Eventually, we find this is a case of identity transfer that is a by-product of a failed Russian experiment.

 

Strange Bodies won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Because Theroux resolutely treats the strangest of events as though they are perfectly rational and everyday, so that the wildness of the story is all in the minds of the characters, it is easy to read this novel as if it were mainstream, until you sit back and think about exactly what is going on here.

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Hoban first made his name with books for children, such as the wonderful The Mouse and His Child. When he turned to writing novels for adults, although they seemed to take place in our normal world, there was always something off-kilter about them: the mystical lion in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz or the talking street furniture in Kleinzeit. Even so, nothing hinted at what was to come in Riddley Walker, one of the most brilliant and original post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

Like all of his books, it is precisely located in place, in this instance a small area of Kent between Canterbury and Folkestone. Here, some 2,000 years after the nuclear apocalypse, survivors live an essentially hunter-gatherer existence in small tribes. Language has been debased, memories of nuclear war have transmuted into myth (Saint Eusa, the legend of the LittlShynin Man the Addom), and the Gummint exerts its control through the medium of a touring Punch and Judy show. But gunpowder has been rediscovered, and with it the danger of a return to the old ways.

 

At first the look of the words on the page can seem off-putting "On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the laswyld pig on the Bundel Downs" but read it aloud and it makes perfect sense, a rich and vigorous language that really encapsulates the nature of this society. The whole novel is a tour-de-force, a breathtaking and entirely captivating work. No wonder it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

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This first novel seems like a fairly conventional historical fiction telling the true story of the death of the Stuart beauty Venetia Stanley in 1633. In her thirties she began to fear that her beauty was fading, and since her whole sense of being was tied up in how she looked, she took to using one of the mad beauty concoctions common at the time, Viper Wine, which is here described as including snake blood, horse urine and opium. Given that, it is probably no real surprise that she died, though at the time her husband, Sir KenelmDigby, the son of one of the Gunpowder Plotters and one of the more eccentric scientists of the Stuart court, was suspected of poisoning her.

Even at its simplest there's enough of a story here for a fascinating novel. But while the story of Venetia Stanley provides a satiric take on the whole cosmetic industry, her husband, Sir KenelmDigby, wanders in and out of the background of the novel quoting lines from Monty Python and David Bowie, and clutching pieces of technology that wouldn't be invented for centuries yet. He is, in other words, a time traveller, giving the whole novel an extra and extraordinary twist.

 

Viper Wine won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for best debut, and certainly lives up to that awards remit of honouring the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works.

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Matt Ruff isn't exactly a mainstream writer, his previous novels, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric were both overtly works of the fantastic, but Set This House in Order seems mainstream. At least it has a realist, contemporary setting, and it deals with a genuine psychological disorder. But one of the things that science fiction does is make the metaphorical, real, and that's exactly what Ruff does in this novel.

It is a common metaphor for multiple personality disorder to talk about it as several different people inside the head. For Andy Gage, his personality splintered as a result of childhood abuse, and in order to lead a moderately ordinary life he imagines all the different personalities occupying a large house inside his head. Different personalities emerge to deal with particular situations, and the calmer ones tend to keep the more disturbed personalities in order. It's not perfect, but it works.

Then Andy meets Penny, who also suffers multiple personality disorder, though she is only dimly aware of it, and doesn't have the different characters working in the way that Andy does. Or at least, he thinks he does. But when Penny asks for his help in coping with her own problems, he discovers a secret inside the house inside his head that the different personalities have been keeping from him.

 

Set This House in Order won the James Tiptree Award. It is a superb example of the way science fiction can take a complex and difficult issue and render it comprehensible and moving simply by making the metaphors concrete.

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Sheers is a Welsh poet who chose an unlikely topic for his first novel, because it is basically another version of the Germans winning World War Two, an old and tired theme. Yet he managed to make something fresh out of it by concentrating not on the broad politics of the situation but on the human story of those affected.

The got the idea when he heard about the "Auxiliary Units", groups of civilians who are trained to go underground and form a resistance should the Germans invade. In his story the D-Day landings fail, the Germans counter-attack and manage to conquer Britain. The story is set in a remote Welsh valley in the Black Mountains where all the men have gone off to join their Auxiliary Units and are supposed dead.

This leaves the women behind to look after the farms and cope with the occupying army. It's a harsh life, a struggle to cope even at the best of time and for the women of the valley these are not the best of times. Meanwhile the commander of the German patrol stationed here sees it as a way of keeping his men out of a war that is clearly ending, and the soldiers start dressing in civilian clothes, helping the women rescue sheep caught in the snow, and generally taking the place of the absent men.

It is a novel with no villains and no heroes, a novel in which the bleak landscape is one of the leading characters, a story of flawed people trying to find a modicum of peace in a cruel world.

 

Sheers rescues a tired and over-familiar sub-genre by concentrating on the women left behind, and by situating his story so precisely and so viscerally in the rhythms of the farming year. It is the sheer humanity of the story that makes this novel so memorable.

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There was a rather grisly trend in the early 1980s for television plays such as The Day After and Threads to portray the horrific aftereffects of nuclear war in the most startling imagery. But such imagery rarely carried over into literature, where post-apocalyptic fiction still tended to pass lightly over the immediate horrors and turn to the plucky survivors some time afterwards. One surprising exception to this rule was Golden Days by Carolyn See.

See tended to write feminist novels about wealthy women in Los Angeles, and for much of its length that is exactly what Golden Days seems to be. The women lead a privileged existence of shopping and cocktails and gossip and infidelity, but in the background international crises mount. Only towards the end of the novel does a full-scale nuclear war break out, and the rather self-satisfied women of the first part of the novel suddenly have to cope with the resultant devastation and disease, the radiation sores and the riots. It is a harsh, nightmarish reversal, all the more effective because See does not shy away from describing the resultant horrors.

 

The fact that nuclear war comes so unexpectedly in this novel, the fact that an easy and comfortable life is so abruptly overturned, give this an air of disturbing realism that is curiously absent from all too many post-apocalyptic stories.

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