high-concept low-spectacle speculative realistic fiction
July 28, 2014 3:58 PM   Subscribe

What are some good novels that have a high-concept speculative element in the background, but aren't quite about that?

Like, all the animals on earth have mysteriously died-- but the book is actually about an elderly couple's relationship. Or, science suddenly discovers that ghosts are among us-- but the book is a coming-of-age story about someone who just happens to live in that reality. Or whatever.

Looking for speculative twists on reality, not full-blown fantasy/sci-fi worlds. Thanks!
posted by threeants to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Never Let Me Go, about cloning in nearly-our world but actually meditation on mortality.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:03 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don DeLillo, White Noise
posted by scody at 4:19 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also: Ann Patchett, State of Wonder
posted by scody at 4:21 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Last Policeman -- asteroid is hurtling towards earth; detective still wants to solve what he thinks is a murder
posted by foxfirefey at 4:26 PM on July 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles. About the earth's rotation slowing, also about coming of age in an uncertain world.
posted by jeather at 4:31 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't picked it up in 30 years, but the novel that immediately sprang to mind as I read your question is Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 4:38 PM on July 28, 2014

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. People who commit crimes (or perhaps sin) are magically (?) bonded with animals. But it's really a detective noir.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:47 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
posted by perhapses at 4:48 PM on July 28, 2014

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. Tidal-power generator stretches from India to Africa, but it's really about mother/daughter love.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:29 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles.
posted by scratch at 5:31 PM on July 28, 2014

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; friendship and love among survivors following a flu pandemic.
posted by stellaluna at 5:50 PM on July 28, 2014

Among Others by Jo Walton.
posted by Malla at 5:57 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Leftovers
Slaughterhouse Five
One Hundred Years of Solitude
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
posted by gwint at 6:09 PM on July 28, 2014

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot. It's full of weird future stuff but mostly it's about generational interconnectivity. (If you pick it up, skip the first chapter entirely. It's a weird, terribly written short story that reflects nothing of the rest of the book, is written in an entirely different voice, and is actively trying to get you to stop reading the book.)

Anything by Karen Russell. Lots of stuff that Tin House puts out. Most anything in this book review series.
posted by greenland at 6:18 PM on July 28, 2014

A lot of Vonnegut is like this. In addition to Slaughterhouse Five, there's also Cat's Cradle. And I love Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Some of the short stories in George Saunders' Tenth of December (so amazing) also fall into this category.
posted by Brittanie at 7:50 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Peter Watts Blindsight It's about experience and consciousness, set against a first contact story with a ship captained by a vampire.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:11 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Half Made World is like that. It's marketed as steam punk but only because there is *a* steam engine in it. Thankfully I ran across it at a garage sale and didn't know about the marketing because I would have passed on it.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:52 PM on July 28, 2014

This is the Alternate History that Howard Waldrop writes. Nazis won World War II so we get a story about Shemp Howard, Peter Lorre, and Zero Mostel putting on a Brechtian science fiction play in occupied Switzerland. The Technocrats were elected in the Great Depression so he writes about the author Thomas Wolfe "going home again" on an airship in 1943. Then there's "The Passing Of The Western," three fanzine articles interviewing the actors in the classic movies about how the West was won (through weather-control technology invented in the 19th century), and an aeronautical study of the fighter planes used by Crazy Horse to defeat Custer's paratroopers at Little Big Horn. The effects of first contact with a flying saucer on the struggle between two African-American doo-wop groups. Big ideas used to create situations that let him tell small, personal stories which couldn't happen any other way.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:45 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Farthing by Jo Walton. Alternate history; the Nazis won World War II by brokering a peace with the British. But it's really about the insidious nature of prejudice.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:52 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest has plenty of speculative elements in the background, but the novel isn't really "about" any of them.

I'll let you know when I figure out what the book is actually about
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:51 AM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Blindness by Saramago possibly fits your criteria.
posted by catrae at 6:19 AM on July 29, 2014

Came in to say "The Age of Miracles." In the background it's about the slow end of the world, but it's really about a teenage girl coming of age. Incredible book.
posted by jbickers at 7:11 AM on July 29, 2014

Came here to recommend Blindness by Saramago as well.
On the Road by Cormac McCarthy - apocalypse, but the story is about a father and his son
posted by moiraine at 8:05 AM on July 29, 2014

Pretty much everything that Kevin Brockmeier's written fits this description perfectly.
posted by augustimagination at 11:33 AM on July 29, 2014

I was thinking In A Perfect World (although the ending ultimately gets kind of aimless and I'm not really sure what it's about). It takes place during a flu pandemic but revolves around a woman and her relationship with her stepchildren. I do really like it, and would recommend it.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 12:45 PM on July 29, 2014

Annihilation as well as Authority were both thoughtful character studies with interesting speculative elements that drove the plot. They're the beginning of a trilogy, and the third book is due out in September. Authority in particular has stuck with me.
posted by wizardpants at 1:08 PM on July 29, 2014

Seconding Last Policeman trilogy.
posted by ltracey at 6:08 PM on July 29, 2014

The first book I thought of was The Companions by Sheri S. Tepper. A lot of her books almost or fully fit this. But you have to kind of take my word for it, because the reveal is always at the end.
posted by kostia at 8:08 PM on July 29, 2014

Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer is a good example of this. An astronaut's ship is struck by a meteor during a mission to build robots on the Moon; the book is about his wife and their marriage.
posted by audacity at 8:16 PM on July 29, 2014

Someone else mentioned Jo Walton! My Real Children is alternate timeline sci-fi with moon bases and nuclear explosions and stuff, but the story is really just about one woman, her choices, and her relationships with her family. It's one of my favorite books this year.
posted by audacity at 8:20 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Canticle for Leibowitz is another post apocalypse story that doesn't quite hit the same old notes.
posted by so.i.herd.u.luv.butter at 11:24 PM on July 29, 2014

Kevin Brockmeier may be just what you're looking for... His Brief History of the Dead is excellent. The Illumination was also very good.

Many of Kij Johnson's short stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees fit your criteria.

You should also check out Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun - bleak as hell, but gripping and insightful.

Lastly, you should, without a doubt, find Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The backdrop is that the world has undergone an apocalypse, but many years ago. The story takes place after the world has regrown - in very different ways, right down to the language people speak. Utterly brilliant book.
posted by jammy at 11:22 AM on July 30, 2014

How about Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.
posted by brappi at 9:29 PM on July 30, 2014

The Memoirs of a Survivor is a beautiful novel and sounds like what you might be interested in. Post-apocalyptic/dystopian but about a woman who takes care of a growing girl and her strange pet. Closest I've come to feel like I'm dreaming while reading.
posted by parallax at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2014

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