Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
When Haldeman returned from Vietnam, with a Purple Heart for the wounds he had suffered, he wrote a story about a pointless conflict that seems as if it will never end. It was set in space, and the enemies were aliens, but 18 publishers decided it was too close to home before St Martin’s Press took a gamble. The book that “nobody wants to read” went on to win many prizes. It’s not perfect – it’s hard to take seriously a future in which hetereosexuality is a perversion – but the anti-war message is as powerful as ever.
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Known for his intricate short stories and critically acclaimed mountaineering novel Climbers, Harrison cut his teeth on SF. In typical fashion, he writes space opera better than many who write only in the genre. For all its star travel and alien artefacts, scuzzy 25th-century spaceports and drop-out space pilots, Light is actually about twisting three plotlines as near as possible to snapping point. This is as close as SF gets to literary fiction, and literary fiction gets to SF.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Amateur stonemason, waterbed designer, reformed socialist, nudist, militarist and McCarthyite, Heinlein is one of the most interesting and irritating figures in American science fiction. This swinging 60s bestseller (working title: The Heretic) is typically provocative, with a central character, Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after the death of his parents and questions every human assumption – about sex, politics, society and spirituality – on his arrival on Earth. Smith’s religion, with its polyamory, communal living and ritual cannibalism, inspired the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds.
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Set on the desert world of Arrakis, this complex novel combines politics, religion, ecology and evolution in the rise to power of Paul Atreides, who becomes a revolutionary leader and a prophet with the ability to foresee and shape the future. Epic in scope, Dune is primarily an adventure story, though Herbert was one of the first genre writers convincingly to tackle the subject of planetary ecology in his depiction of a drought-stricken world.
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Set in the fictional country of Castalia, Hesse’s last novel tells of a young man’s rise through the hierarchies of an elite boarding school. Step by step, young Josef Knecht is initiated into the mysteries of the “glass bead game” that forms the focal point of Castalian social and academic life – until he starts to question its rules and falls out with the order. That we never find out exactly how this game is meant to be played is part of Hesse’s plan: with its characteristic mix of the arcane and the esoteric, the novel sketches out a timeless allegory about the ivory-tower mentality of communities devoted to a single intellectual cause.
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
After the Bomb – long, long after – humanity is still huddled in medieval-style stockades, cold, ignorant, superstitious and speaking in degraded English, the patois in which this book is written. It takes some getting used to, but Riddley’s misspelt narrative is astonishingly rich and rewarding. As he circles burnt-out Kent, trying to make sense of the fragments of modern-day knowledge that have passed into folklore (a “saddelite” bird flies very high, the “Pry Mincer” is an authority figure), the mythical/religious/scientific allusions whirl so fast that we are left as gobsmacked as he is. Yet his story is still poignant. Will this be us in 2,500 years’ time?
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Suppose you discovered that you were one of the elect – predestined to an bookseternity in paradise not because of the goodness of your actions or the strength of your faith, but by God’s grace. This is what happens to Robert Wringhim, who is brought up in the Calvinist belief in predestination. When he encounters a devilish figure known as Gil-Martin, Wringhim is easily tempted into undertaking a campaign to purge the world of the Reprobate – those not selected for salvation. After a series of rapes and murders, and seemingly pursued by demons, Wringhim yields to the ultimate temptation of suicide. Hogg’s novel, an early example of unreliable narration, was a strong influence on Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Sexist, racist, snob, Islamophobe … Houellebecq has been called many things, with varying degrees of accuracy. The charge of misanthropy is hard to deny, given his repeated portrayal of humankind as something that has lost its way, perhaps even its right to exist. Atomised – set in the world we know but introduced by a member of the superior species that will supplant us – provides two more examples of our inadequacy in half-brothers Michel and Bruno, an introverted biologist and a sex-addict teacher. It is Michel’s work on cloning that will eventually free the world of the burden of humanity.
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Huxley’s dystopian vision of a “stabilised” world, based on the philosophies of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. Conflict has been eradicated with the aid of sexual hedonism and the drug Soma; babies are factory-bred in bottles to produce a strict class hierarchy, from alpha to epsilon. It is the year AF (After Ford) 632. “Alpha plus” Bernard Marx takes a “pneumatic” secretary on holiday to an Indian reservation in New Mexico, and brings back with him a native, John Savage. Savage is disgusted with the “civilisation” he finds, making an ultimately suicidal case for self-determining misery.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
A man arrives in a central European city, where he is greeted as a VIP, though he’s not sure why. Eventually he recalls that he is an eminent concert pianist, scheduled to perform. Ishiguro’s most extraordinary novel gives us not only an unreliable narrator but an unreliable city and even unreliable laws of time and space. The man is shepherded through an expanding and contracting world, his own memories and moods changing like the weather. Yet the dream-logic is rooted in real, poignant, human dilemmas. One for readers who have grown out of Philip K Dick.
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Hill House is haunted, but by what? The ghosts of the past or the people of the present? Here is a delicious, quietly unnerving essay in horror, an examination of what makes us jump. Jackson sets up an old dark house in the country, garnishes it with some creepy servants, and then adds a quartet of intrepid visitors. But her lead character – fragile, lonely Eleanor – is at once victim and villainess. By the end, the person she is scaring most is herself.
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
In this most suggestive of ghost stories, James set out “to catch those not easily caught” – and critics have argued over the meaning of his novella ever since. Are the ghosts that a new governess in a country house believes to be steadily corrupting her young charges apparitions, hallucinations or projections of her own dark urges? The Times called it on publication “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern”, and it has lost none of its power to disturb.
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
A blend of the literary mainstream (Oxford don going through unhappy divorce) and well-worn SF elements (human end times, advancing sterility, civilisation’s collapse and the rise of an authoritarian government), The Children of Men gained a fresh lease of life in 2006 with the bleak, compelling film staring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. The book divides SF critics and puzzles fans of her crime novels, but remains one of the great British dystopias and a trenchant satire on our times and values.
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
This environmental fable is set in the vague distant future (our “now”?). After a mysterious disaster (“the event”), society has relapsed into barbarism, and the countryside has reverted to idyllic wilderness. In the centre of England, a vast crystalline lake has formed. Felix Aquila sets out in a canoe on a voyage of discovery and finds London “utterly extinct”, surviving only as a pestilential swamp. The novel continues with him moving west – “ever towards the sunset” and his idealised dream-love, Aurora Thyma. A strong candidate for the most beautiful of all Victorian novels.
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
A near-future, rock’n’roll retelling of the Arthurian myth featuring Ax, a paradigm of Englishness contained within a postmodern, bisexual, half-Sudanese guitarist, and Sage Prender, a bear-like technowizard. Owing debts to Jimi Hendrix and offering a decidedly 60s summer festival vibe, Bold as Love is the first in a series of novels that mix politics with myth, counterculture and dark age sensibilities. It deservedly won Jones the 2001 Arthur C Clarke award.
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
On the morning of his 30th birthday, Josef K is arrested by two sinister men in dapper suits. What for? K doesn’t know and can’t find out as he is sent on an increasingly absurd wild-goose chase through the labyrinthine sub-faculties of the legal system. A year later, he is executed – “Like a dog!” – for a crime he still cannot name. Incomplete and published posthumously, like all Kafka’s three big novels, The Trial captures the essence of moral guilt like no other novel in the 20th century. Watching Orson Welles’s film adaptation (with Anthony Perkins as K) is no substitute for experiencing what one critic memorably described as “not the literary presentation of a nightmare, but its literal transcription”.
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Begun as a short story, expanded to a novella, and finally published as a novel, Keyes’s science fiction fable has won numerous prizes and been successfully adapted into drama, film, and popular music. The story has two central characters. Algernon is a mouse, whose intelligence is surgically enhanced to the level of rodent genius. The same technique is applied to Charlie Gordon, a mentally subnormal fast-food kitchen hand. The narrative, told by Charlie as his IQ soars, traces the discontents of genius. Alas, the effects of the surgery are shortlived, and the end of the story finds Charlie back in the kitchen – mentally challenged but, in his way, happy. Being smart is not everything.
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
The most powerful, and in places interestingly autobiographical,
of King’s horror stories is based, as are many in the genre, on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and failed schoolteacher, racked with remorse for breaking his son Danny’s arm while drunk, takes the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in remote Colorado. The hotel is haunted by unexorcised demons from brutal murders committed there years ago. Torrance is possessed and turns, homicidally, on his wife and child. Danny, gifted with telepathic (“shining”) power, saves himself and his mother. Jack is beyond salvation. The film was brilliantly filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980.
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
A young married woman, Melanie, scours antiques shops to furnish her new home and comes back with an old chaise-longue, which is perfect apart from an unsightly reddish-brown stain. She falls asleep on it and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar time – and an unfamiliar body. At first she assumes she must be dreaming. But gradually she starts to piece together the story of Milly, the young Victorian woman in the last stages of consumption whom she has apparently become, and the nature of the disgrace she has brought on the household run by her fearsomely stern elder sister. Why does the sight of the doctor make her pulse beat faster? And can she find a way back to her own life? Laski’s chilling little novel crackles with a darkly erotic electricity as Mel/Milly confronts the intimate connection between sexual ecstasy and death.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
This is frequently judged the best ghost story of the Victorian period. On the sudden death of her father, Maud, an heiress, is left to the care of her Uncle Silas, until she comes of age. Sinister in appearance and villainous by nature, Silas first plans to marry Maud to his oafish son, Dudley (who is, it emerges, already married). When this fails, father and son, together with the French governess Madame de la Rougierre, conspire to murder their ward with a spiked hammer. Told by the ingenuous and largely unsuspecting Maud, the narrative builds an impending sense of doom.
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Popularised by Tarkovsky’s masterly film adaptation (and Soderberg’s rather more stolid second attempt), Solaris is by far Lem’s best-known novel – a humane, intriguing attempt to posit the nature of alien intelligence, and how contact with it might actually play out. Lem’s faraway world of Solaris is a sea of psychoactive imagery, making it an effective tool to plumb the contradictions of human consciousness as it reacts to those who would study it. Lem never liked Tarkovsky’s treatment of his story: not enough of the science made it to the screen.
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
Set in a near-future in a disintegrating city, where lawlessness prevails and citizens scratch a living from the debris, this dystopia is the journal of an unnamed middle-class narrator who fosters street-kid Emily and observes the decaying world from her window. Despite the pessimistic premise and the description of civilisation on the brink of collapse, with horror lurking at every turn, the novel is an insightful and humane meditation on the survivability of the species.
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
A Voyage to Arcturus sold only a few hundred copies at the time of its first publication, but has subsequently been recognised as one of the most striking novels of imaginative fiction, Colin Wilson ranking it the “greatest novel of the 20th century”. On the surface it tells of Maskull’s travels on the planet Tormance, passing through exotic landscapes, finding love, murder and monsters, but through these themes Lindsay explores the meanings and origins of life and the universe.
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
The world has entered the Second Enlightenment after the Faith Wars. In the Republic of Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson investigates the murders of religious leaders, suspecting atheists but uncovering a plot involving artificial intelligence. MacLeod’s police procedural is a wise indictment of fundamentalism of all kinds and a stark delineation of how belief systems can corrupt, as well as being an incisive character study of a man coming to terms with the brutalities of his past.
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Mantel’s ninth novel is a beyond-black comedy about seedy, exhausted millennium-era Britain and an obese, traumatised medium called Alison who is cursed with the gift of second sight. Her familiars are the torturers – or projections – of her abusive childhood; they and the other lost souls of the spirit world clamour for Alison’s attention as she tries to record her life story. It’s a shocking, upsetting, often painful read; but Mantel’s rich capacity for amusement and the sheer power of the writing save it from unremitting bleakness.
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Before his current incarnation as a thriller writer specialising in conspiracy theories and psychopathic gore, Marshall Smith wrote forward-thinking sci-fi which combined high-octane angst with humour both noir and surreal. His debut features a bizarre compartmentalised city with different postcodes for the insane, the overachievers, the debauched or simply those with unusual taste in interior design; as well as adventures in the realm of dreams, a deep love of cats and a killer twist.
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
Robert Neville is the last man standing, the lone survivor in a world overrun by night-crawling vampires. But if history is written by the winners, what does that make Neville: the hero or the monster? Matheson’s pacey fantasy charts its protagonist’s solitary war against Earth’s new inhabitants and his yearning, ongoing search for a fellow survivor. The ending upends the genre’s moral assumptions, forcing us to review the tale through different eyes. Clearly this was too much for the recent Will Smith movie adaptation, which ran scared of the very element that makes the book unique.
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
In Maturin’s extravaganza of transgression, beloved by authors from Byron and Balzac to Wilde and HP Lovecraft, the supernatural terrors of the Gothic novel begin to bleed into the psychological dread of Dostoevsky or Kafka. Melmoth ranges the earth, looking for some poor soul to take over the pact he’s made with the devil in exchange for extended life, as the narrative zips from London madhouse to Spanish dungeon to deserted Indian island. It’s a fascinating mix of wild ideas threatening to run away from the author, and a new realism that takes in poverty, social depredation and very human cruelties.
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Francie Brady is a rambunctious kid in 1950s Ireland. He likes his best mate, Joe, and he hates his neighbour, Mrs Nugent, and he’s always getting into trouble, and this is mainly because of Mrs Nugent. McCabe leads us on a freewheeling tour of a scattered, shattered consciousness, as Francie grows from wayward child to dangerous adult – nursing his grievances and plotting his revenge. Chances are that old Mrs Nugent has a surprise in store.
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel is a tale from the near-future and a possible foretaste of things to come. In stark, bare-bones prose, it describes a father and son’s trudge across a nation devastated by an unspecified environmental calamity – an endless valley of ashes dotted with desperate, deadly survivors. These two figures are pushing south towards the sea, but the sea is poisoned and provides no comfort. In the end, all they have (and, by implication, all the rest of us have) is each other.
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
Mercurio’s first novel, Bodies, which he adapted for TV as Cardiac Arrest, lifted the lid off the NHS; his second makes a stellar leap to relate the adventures of Soviet flying ace turned cosmonaut Yefgenii Yeremin. During the Korean war and then the space programme, Yeremin closes down his emotions even as his horizons expand, from the Arctic skies to the moon itself. The prose is suitably chilly yet strangely beautiful, with Mercurio’s technical know-how lending the flight scenes a compulsive believability that lifts the reader, along with Yeremin, to the bounds of space and beyond.
China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
Miéville was a near-miss for the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003, but his “weird fiction” transcends genre pigeonholing. The second of his sprawling steampunk fantasies detailing the alternate universe of Bas-Lag follows Armada, a floating pirate city, in its search for a rip in reality. Miéville relishes the magic, the monsters and the limitless possibilities of the genre – from the vast “avanc” towing Armada through uncharted waters to the surgically altered “Remade”, plus horrifying mosquito women and underwater ghouls – but his books are also stylishly written, politically engaged, daring and always surprising.
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Miller breathes new life into the Gothic antihero with his beautifully written Impac-winning first novel. “Cold-blooded and apparently indestructible”, James Dyer is born into the Enlightenment dawn without the capacity to feel pain; he becomes first freak-show then fearless surgeon, as immune to human compassion as he is to bodily fear. Moving from rural England to Bedlam, Russia’s snowbound tundra to the surreal court of Catherine the Great, the novel is at once a glittering tour of medicine and madness, cruelty and art, science and magic; and a delicate fable about how strange we are to one another.
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
The most influential SF novel of the cold war era, chronicling the rise and fall of human civilisation, Miller’s tripartite novel opens (“Fiat Homo”) with a post-atomic dark age. Dead Sea scroll-like fragments of Isaac Leibowitz’s shopping list have survived, around which a monastery cult forms amid the universal barbarism. The second section (“Fiat Lux”) chronicles a new Renaissance of learning, growing out of the Leibowitzian monasteries. Technology emerges. The third section (“Fiat Vountas Tuas”) foresees another cataclysmic atomic war terminating civilisation yet again. In an epilogue, a spaceship leaves Earth with a cargo of monks, children and the Leibowitzian relics. The Wandering Jew makes recurrent and enigmatic appearances.
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
A great palindrome of a novel, Mitchell’s third book begins with the unfinished journal of an 18th-century mariner and hops through time, space and genres right up to the distant post-apocalyptic future. Then it hops all the way back down again, resolving each story in turn. These include a camp Ealing-style misadventure, an American thriller and an interview with a clone, all connected by a mysterious comet-shaped tattoo. Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, but it’s a lot more fun than the literary plaudits on the back cover might suggest.
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
Moorcock spills out such varied books that he often feels impossible to nail down, which is probably the point. Mother London, his most literary – it was shortlisted for the Whitbread – shows him at the height of his powers. Three mental patients as flawed as the city they inhabit tell their own and London’s recent history through the voices they hear in their heads. It’s a touching and humanistic novel in the best sense of those words.
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Morris’s late-life vision of the future socialist utopia was strongly influenced by the American Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular Looking Backward (1888). Having gone to sleep on the London underground, the narrator awakes to find himself in 20th-century Hammersmith. He bathes in the now crystalline Thames and spends a day in what used to be the British Museum, airily discussing life and politics. He then travels up the river to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, going on from there to some idyllic haymaking in Oxford. “Guest” (as he is called) returns to dingy present-day Hammersmith with the sense that what he has experienced is “a vision, not a dream”.
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Sweet Home is a deceptive name for the Kentucky plantation where horrific crimes have been committed, as Beloved is for this shocking and unforgettable account of the human consequences of slavery. Sethe lives in Ohio in the 1870s; she has escaped from slavery, but cannot escape the past, which quite literally haunts her. In the 20 years since publication, Nobel laureate Morrison’s novel has achieved classic status, and in 2006 the New York Times named it best American novel of the previous quarter-century.
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
You could hardly call this a cult classic – it’s too popular for that – but you almost wish it was, so you could tell people about it. At the start of Murakami’s story, a young man receives a mysterious phone call. It sparks off a 600-page adventure that sees him trapped at the bottom of a well, marked with a strange blue stain and taken on many otherworldly adventures, all in search of his missing wife. Murakami has the Japanese trick of writing about surreal events in a matter-of-fact way, making them all the more disturbing.
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
How to sum up Nabokov’s last great novel? Ada or Ardor is part sci-fi romance, part Proustian memoir. It plays out on a fantasy planet, a marriage of contemporary America and pre-revolutionary Russia, and details the love affair of precocious Van Veen and his sister Ada, chasing them from lustful puberty to decrepit old age. It is a gorgeous display of narrative wizardry, at once opulent, erotic, playful and wise.
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
“I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true,” explains Henry, who is afflicted with chrono-impairment and thus liable to vanish and reappear without warning to his wife Clare. As a device for thwarting the course of true love, unintentional time travel might wear thin, but Niffenegger’s humour and conviction keep the reader enthralled; and like all the best fantasy, it is grounded firmly in the details of everyday reality. A moving affirmation of the continuities of love against unusual odds.
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
Niven’s later career has been dominated by bloated collaborations with lesser writers; you might almost say he has spread himself too fat. But this novel, which won Hugo and Nebula awards, reminds us he was once one of the most exciting names in hard sci-fi. Part of the Known Space series, it follows a group of humans and aliens as they explore a mysterious ring-shaped environment spinning around a star like a giant hula-hoop. Science fiction fans sometimes describe such structures as “big dumb objects”, but Niven has thought every detail through.
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Set in Manchester in the near-future and in a phantasmagorical virtual reality, Vurt is the story of Scribble, his gang the Stash Riders and his attempt to find his sister Desdemona, who is lost in a drug-induced VR. It’s a postmodern rollercoaster ride, nodding to film, literature and contemporary culture. Linguistically pyrotechnic and stunningly imaginative, it’s been described as the spawn of Alice in Wonderland and A Clockwork Orange. Noon’s first novel, it won the 1994 Arthur C Clarke award.
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
O’Brien’s publisher rejected his 1940 follow up to At Swim-Two-Birds on the grounds that “[we] think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so”. It was eventually published posthumously a quarter-century later, and this bizarre union of Dante’s Inferno and Father Ted – inspiration for the TV show Lost – is indeed fantastic in every sense. Set in a rural Ireland that is also a vision of hell, it features policemen turning into bicycles; that SF standby, the universal energy source; and any number of scientific and literary in-jokes. It’s also gleefully dark and properly creepy.
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
According to Yoruba tradition, a spirit child is one who has made a pact with his fellows in their other, more beautiful world, to rejoin them as soon as possible. Azaro breaks the pact, choosing to remain in this place of suffering and poverty, but the African shanty town where he lives with his parents teems with phantoms, spirits and dreams. Okri’s masterpiece is a powerful novel of sustained brilliance and vision, which draws the reader into a vibrant world both claustrophobic and without limits.