When I say lyrical sci-fi, you say...
July 29, 2020 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for novels that fall firmly into the category of literary fiction, but which contain some recognizable element from the sci-fi genre. A shining example of this is Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, about the emotional lives of clones. What are some others?

Another example that comes to mind is Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (about a forbidden zone of weirdness).

What I like about these books is that they're written in more of a poetic register than a technical one. They're like what ordinary literary fiction would feel like – if the world were radically otherwise in some specific respect.

Other preferences:

- Adult, not YA;

- Dystopian is cool, but not purely political (e.g., The Handmaid's Tale) – I'm specifically looking for the involvement of some sort of sci-fi plot device.

posted by Beardman to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
If novellas are cool, Catherynne Valente’s Silently and Very Fast. I haven’t read Space Opera but given her general style it would likely fit the bill.
posted by brook horse at 11:52 AM on July 29, 2020

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:53 AM on July 29, 2020 [13 favorites]

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
posted by LaBellaStella at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. (Novella length, which is helpful if you find yourself reading bits of it out loud and swooning.)
posted by esoterrica at 12:01 PM on July 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

Having read Space Opera, I don't think it's what you're looking for - it's much more of a humorous/Douglas Adams style novel than Catherynne Valente's other (adult) works. Her novel Radiance, however, would definitely fit the bill.
posted by Law of Demeter at 12:03 PM on July 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so far!

I just remembered another good example of what I'm looking for – Michel Faber's Under the Skin.

(I suppose, based on my examples, that another criterion might seem to be a big-time feature film version – that is not a requirement.)
posted by Beardman at 12:10 PM on July 29, 2020

The short story - Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Also hits the big-time feature film brief for Arrival with Amy Adams.
posted by Duffington at 12:19 PM on July 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

How about Solaris?

I will say something controversial here and allege that there's been a ton of so-so social problem "literary" science fiction in the past ten years, like lesser and more boring versions of The Handmaid's Tale, where affluent people confront science fictional, vaguely dystopian or post-apocalyptic dilemmas. If you google "literary science fiction", a whole bunch of these will pop up and you can check them out for yourself. I find this type of book dull - they tend to have no real sciencefictionality beyond the premise - they're just middle class lit fic except with dystopia as the premise - but I have learned that I'm a minority on this point.

But anyway, some books I consider both literary and science fictional:

Samuel Delany's work in general, but good starting points might be Triton, Aye, And Gomorrahand Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Dhalgren is one of the most famous literary science fiction novels out there, but I think you need either to be a fan of Delany or a fan of experimental writing to enjoy it right off the bat.

M John Harrison's dying-earth Viriconium novels and short stories
Alternate English-modernity novel Pavane by Keith Roberts

You might like proto New Wave novels like The Stars My Destination - propulsively and weirdly written, TSMD is a really good example of the "voice" of experimental SF in the sixties and seventies.

Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of A Spacewoman is wonderfully different from almost everything else. Candace Jane Dorsey's Machine Sex And Other Stories has some really good short stories in it, although the title story is so much a "woman deconstructs basic cyberpunk tropes" story that it's not as exciting to read now as when it first appeared.

In general, anything you can find from the Women's Press science fiction imprint is worth looking at. Some of it is clumsy and dull IMO but it's clumsy and dull in an interesting way. A lot of it is out of print - I snap up anything I can find.

Aqueduct Press is a good source for odd science fiction. I really like Love's Body, Dancing In Time. The stories aren't, in general, very well plotted in my opinion - but they're extremely vivid and give you a genuine sense of...I don't know, difference, alterity, dream.

What about Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban? There's a literary novel if you like.

Ursula Le Guin is wonderful but not in general what you're looking for, except possibly for her very odd Always Coming Home.

If you can find
posted by Frowner at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2020 [23 favorites]

Definitely Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a pandemic that kills off 99% of the world’s population. Her most recent novel The Glass Hotel *might* also scratch the same itch for you, but to explain why would entail spoilers. Both are beautifully written.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:24 PM on July 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (time travel)
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (time travel)
posted by catquas at 12:24 PM on July 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

If short stories are OK, check out Jorge Luis Borges.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:26 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Age of Miracles
posted by heathrowga at 12:41 PM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd check out Neal Stephenson, particularly The Diamond Age. He also has a three-book series call The Baroque Cycle that is set in the 1600s with just a hint of science fiction elements mixed in.
posted by juggler at 12:42 PM on July 29, 2020

Alasdair Gray's Poor Things and A History Maker. Both are literature with sci-fi themes. While Gray's Lanark might also hit the lyrical mark, it's grim and might put you off his work entirely.

I might also include Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, too. While not obviously sci-fi, they exist in a warped space between reality and fantastical/logical fancy. O'Brien's actual attempt at sci-fi, The Dalkey Archive, I found to be dreary and slow, as it mostly used its speculative powers to conjure up Catholic saints to bicker with each other.
posted by scruss at 12:46 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I loved Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Speaking of Atwood, have you tried the MaddAddam trilogy?
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
posted by gladly at 12:49 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yoon Ha Lee (see also)
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:54 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lots of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books are like this. Take The Left Hand of Darkness or The Lathe of Heaven. They feel more like fantasy books.
posted by mekily at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Alasdair Gray's Poor Things

Poor Things is great - it's sort of a rethinking of some of the ideas around medicine, bodies and gender from Frankenstein. Lanark is really fantasy. It's a simply terrific book, though - like Dhalgren or for that matter Frankenstein it towers above even other excellent books and is like nothing else. I don't know whether Alasdair Gray is well known in Canada, but he's totally obscure in the US and I only happened on Lanark because there was a colorful copy that just sat and sat for years at my local science fiction bookstore, never selling, and I think I bought it out of a kind of irritation. And then it turns out that he's incredibly famous in the UK and virtually a national hero in Scotland, and talking him up is a bit like telling everyone that they absolutely must read this fascinating, little-known writer Margaret Atwood.
posted by Frowner at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Colson Whitehead excels at this, though a lot of what he does is sci-fi that's set in the past.

I'd check out The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad
posted by Mchelly at 1:03 PM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Try searching "speculative fiction" instead of SF, but first, get both of Ted Chiang's short story collections and ration your reading in order to savor the perfect gemstones they are.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:04 PM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Haruki Murakami gives off sci-fi vibes to me.
posted by jabes at 1:08 PM on July 29, 2020

2nding LeGuin. I'd put the Disposessed into that category, in addition to the others have mentioned. Also 2nding Ted Chiang; his collections of short stories are indeed amazing and I am so so so angry that you get to read or listen to them (his audiobooks are well produced) because they're great and I'm really upset there's no more of them to read.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:10 PM on July 29, 2020

Engine Summer by John Crowley is one of the strangest, most original science fiction books I've read and definitely has a poetic/surreal quality.

Embassytown by China Mieville is very well-written, relatively far future science fiction focusing on contact with aliens.

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge is also well-written, more near future science fiction.

Honestly, most of William Gibson's novels are written in a fairly literary style in addition to being science fiction classics.

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot is another of my favorite literary sci-fi novels, thought it might fall a bit into the more purely weird than a clear sci-fi concept (though you do cite Vandermeer as a guide for what you're looking for, so perhaps it would be up your alley).

The Book of Strange New Things is another Michael Faber science fiction novel, about traveling to an alien planet.
posted by overglow at 1:11 PM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think China Mieville might be good for this, maybe Embassytown or The City & the City (although my favorite thing about TC&tC is that there's a way to read it where it's not a science fiction novel at all). I'd also recommend Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.

Thirding Colson Whitehead - don't skip Zone One, possibly the most literary zombie novel I've ever read.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:14 PM on July 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

novels that fall firmly into the category of literary fiction, but which contain some recognizable element from the sci-fi genre.

FYI, most of the authors who write literary sci-fi are really not fans of the notion "this book is actually good, ergo it is fundamentally not science fiction." I think I've read a Jeff Vandermeer essay on that very topic actually.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:36 PM on July 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Haruki Murakami gives off sci-fi vibes to me.

Hard boiled wonderland and the end of the world is a good example I think.
posted by each day we work at 1:44 PM on July 29, 2020

Jonathan Lethem, Fortress of Solitude

Jose Saramago, Blindness

Lots of Kelly Link and George Saunders and Doris Lessing and Italo Calvino and Ted Chiang, as noted above. But I also want to second that there's squishiness around the premise, which often has more to do with how books have been marketed than with how they were written.
posted by miles per flower at 2:09 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

They're all marketed as SF, not lit fic, but you might enjoy Rivers Solomon (I adored An Unkindness of Ghosts), Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, and perhaps Jo Walton (I feel like her alternate-reality novel My Real Children could have easily been marketed as literary fiction).
posted by toastedcheese at 2:10 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: FYI, most of the authors who write literary sci-fi are really not fans of the notion "this book is actually good, ergo it is fundamentally not science fiction." I think I've read a Jeff Vandermeer essay on that very topic actually.

Yes, I agree, but in addition to my own reading interest, I'm asking my question out of a professional interest in examples of books that would be classified by agents, publishers, and booksellers as literary rather than genre fiction (for better or for worse).
posted by Beardman at 2:12 PM on July 29, 2020

Are people not reading the "falls firmly into the category of literary fiction" part?

My suggestion would be Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie: A bunch of kids born on a specific day have super powers. This is their story intertwined with that of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Much of David Mitchell's work has strong fantasy elements and at least one of the stories nested within Cloud Atlas is sci fi.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:13 PM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - the great concavity/convexity is uninhabitable because all of the pollutants are sucked out of it due to the annular fusion process. Also the central premise of a video that is so entertaining that people can't stop watching it sounds like a sci-fi horror story to me.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:22 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Another Atwood title - The Blind Assassin

Everything by Thomas Pynchon, sort of, but start with The Crying of Lot 49.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

1984 by George Orwell


Also, I can't help but second Riddley Walker. An underread novel and an extraordinary accomplishment. The fact that it's written in a post-apocalyptic pseudo-English is surely why it's underread, but read it aloud and it absolutely sings.
posted by lewedswiver at 3:24 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Michael Chabon. I particularly liked Moonglow, which is alternate history in a low-key way, but Gentlemen of the Road is also a lot of fun, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union puts the alternate history front and center.

I'd also put some of Sofia Samatar's work in this category, specifically Monster Portraits.
posted by yarntheory at 3:46 PM on July 29, 2020

Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon, not really science fiction but alternate history. Chabon's writing is absolutely lyrical. (on preview, call this a second)

Jonathan Letham, particularly Gun, With Occasional Music, Girl in Landscape and As she climbed across the table.

I also really liked Norman Spinrad's books Void Captain's Tale and Child of Fortune, mostly for his prose. I haven't read either in a while, and am open to the fact that they might contain problematic elements that my memory has glossed over.
posted by Gorgik at 3:51 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you've not read it already, Walter M. Miller Junior's A Canticle For Leibowitz probably fits the bill.
posted by Chairboy at 4:23 PM on July 29, 2020

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon et al.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:23 PM on July 29, 2020

The last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
posted by evilmonk at 4:49 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ben Marcus "The Flame Alphabet"
Blake Butler "Sky Saw"
posted by remembrancer at 4:55 PM on July 29, 2020

Seconding the suggestions above for Chabon, Hoban, DF Wallace, Whitehead (I've only read Zone One), McCarthy.

What about Roth's Plot Against America? (Alt-history rather than SF, maybe).

Or Frankenstein?

Also Pynchon - Gravity's Rainbow is undoubtedly literary fiction, but it was also nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Other books by literary authors to be nominated that might be of interest include Calvino's Invisible Cities, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Vidal's Kalki.
posted by Pink Frost at 6:13 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

+1 for Mieville. I happend to pick up and re-read Embassytown a couple of weeks ago. I had completley forgotten the main plot point revolves around something very bad happening to a society. A great book, but it was not a light or escapist read given our COVID stituation. If you wanna read Mieville but want something not quite so dark, I'd start with Kraken.

+1 to M. John Harrison, though some of his stuff (The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy) is pretty dark and twisted, but really good too.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:12 PM on July 29, 2020

I also really dig Jeff Noon (Vurt, Pollen). I just read A Man of Shadows, which has a noir style that's similar to Harrison's Kefahuchi triology, if you like that.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:15 PM on July 29, 2020

Seconding LeGuin, especially her anthology Changing Planes, which involves exploring a variety of other worlds with an anthropologist's eye.

Also: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. A summary from TVTropes:
As indicated by its title, Cosmicomics is a book that is at once cosmic and comic, the sublime and the ridiculous coexisting on the same plane. Each chapter opens with a scientific fact and a following assertion by Qfwfq that he was there to see that science in action, before launching into a narrative that spins an imaginative and strangely human story from a seemingly cut-and-dry factoid with inhuman creatures as the characters. Atoms and galaxies become toys for children. A universe comes into being thanks to a statement about tagliatelle. Major historical events on Earth are the subjects of bidding between immortals. The love between two mollusks enables everyone around them to gain eyesight. Sometimes the scientific premise will actually be a disproven one. This in no way hinders Qfwfq.

Truly, Cosmicomics is a work best experienced through firsthand reading than secondhand telling. If you've ever wanted to know just how inventive stories based on scientific theories and principles can get, this book will be more than happy to show you - and maybe get you to see more than a little bit of yourself in seemingly cosmic and unapproachable beings.
The stories (click to show)

The Distance of the Moon - Calvino takes the fact that the Moon used to be much closer to the Earth, and builds a story about a love triangle among people who used to jump between the Earth and the Moon, in which lovers drift apart as the Moon recedes

At Daybreak — Life before matter condenses.

A Sign in Space — The idea that the galaxy slowly revolves becomes a story about a being who is desperate to leave behind some unique sign of his existence.

All at One Point — The fact that all matter and creation used to exist in a single point. "Naturally, we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?"

Without Colors — Before there was an atmosphere, everything was the same shade of gray. As the atmosphere appears, so do colors.

Games Without End — A galactic game of marbles back before the universe had formed much more than particles.

The Aquatic Uncle — A tale on the fact that at one stage in evolution animals left the sea and came to live on land. The story is about a family living on land that is a bit ashamed of their old uncle who still lives in the sea, refusing to come ashore like "civilized" people.

How Much Shall We Bet? — A story about betting on the long term evolution of mankind.

The Dinosaurs — How some dinosaurs lived after most of them had become extinct, and how it felt to be that last existing dinosaur in an age where all the current mammals feared his kind as demons.

The Form of Space — As the unnamed narrator "falls" through space, he cannot help but notice that his trajectory is parallel to that of a beautiful woman, Ursula H'x, and that of lieutenant Fenimore, who is also in love with Ursula. The narrator dreams of the shape of space changing, so that he may touch Ursula (or fight with Fenimore).

The Light Years — The unnamed narrator looking at other galaxies, and spotting one with a sign pointed right at him saying "I saw you." Given that there's a gulf of 100,000,000 light years, he checks his diary to find out what he had been doing that day, and finds out that it was something he wished to hide. Then he starts to worry.

The Spiral — A story about life as a mollusc, and the nature of love and writing.

His novel Invisible Cities also edges into SF/fantasy -- more magic realism than anything, tbh, but the prose is so rich and deeply beautiful I can't not recommend it.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:17 PM on July 29, 2020

While more historical fantasy, I can't help but recommend Guy Gavriel Kay as he fits so well otherwise.
posted by slide at 8:08 PM on July 29, 2020

Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers maybe.
posted by azalea_chant at 8:42 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid features doors that can teleport people around the world. I don't think the source of the doors was ever identified so that might read more fantasy than sci fi.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:44 PM on July 29, 2020

If no one has mentioned it, The Four Gated City, by Doris Lessing. Not the first four books, (Children of Violence is the name of this series) just the last one, has Sci-Fi elements woven into the plot. Her book, The Fifth Child, also fits this category as you describe it.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:48 PM on July 29, 2020

I'm not sure that all of Haruki Murakami's work would fit your bill, but 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are probably the most in this vein of his that I have read. The rest I would say are more surreal and sort of magical realism-lite.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:45 AM on July 30, 2020

The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson Beatifully written and the ending has really stuck with me.

Also found it very interesting to read in close succession 'the sparrow' and 'the book of strange new things' as mentioned above. similar themes and problems, but both have stayed with me.

'the bone clocks' by david mitchell might also scratch your itch, although i found a lot of its themes previously explored in 'regular' science fiction.

Personally, I used to read a lot of Mielville, but have gone off his depiction of women/alien women to the point that I don't read anymore.

nthing 'this is how you lose the time war'. short, lovely writing, lyrical and mind-expanding
posted by sedimentary_deer at 4:50 AM on July 30, 2020

I know you rule out Handmaid's Tale in your question but I would argue that Atwood's Oryx & Crake and its sequels are more in the vein of science fiction vs. the speculative fiction we see in Handmaid.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:03 AM on July 30, 2020

Also, my book club (back when we were afforded such luxuries--wah!) loved Claire Vaye Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus, which is cli-fi about what the American southwest will look like once all the water is gone.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:05 AM on July 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone!
posted by Beardman at 4:15 PM on July 30, 2020

Dan Simmons' Hyperion books are in this vein I believe.
posted by TheCoug at 9:02 PM on July 30, 2020

maybe richard powers' galatea 2.2 or jack vance's elegiacal dying earth?
posted by kliuless at 9:41 PM on July 30, 2020

Ada or Ardor is my favorite.

Also, seconding Murakami (Haruki, mentioned above, but also consider Ryū in this list) and Dan Simmons. Pynchon might also count.
posted by eotvos at 8:04 AM on July 31, 2020

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 6:40 PM on August 3, 2020

Moderan by David R Bunch is right up your alley. It was just republished in NYRB's Classics series with an introduction from Jeff VanderMeer.

Another science fiction author known for his literary prose style is R. A. Lafferty.
posted by davedave at 6:32 PM on August 5, 2020

I know I’m late to my next obsessive reading list here but I just came to recommend The Brief of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It stays on my mind.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 2:44 AM on August 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Children of Men by PD James! Which is interesting because generally she's a mystery novelist.
And I have to second Geoff Ryman, especially Air and The King's Last Song, because Geoff Ryman never gets enough attention in my opinion.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:04 PM on October 2, 2020

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