Paths of Approach

A delightful sign on the walk to Arwah Cave, Sohra.
A delightful sign on the walk to Arwah Cave, Sohra, 2022.

In conversation a few weeks ago, Tarun Bhartiya asked me for a specific kind of reading recommendation: a list of ten books of speculative fiction—from any period and any genre except horror—that would be a good introduction to the form for a reader of fiction who hasn’t had much exposure to it so far. This is what I’ve come up with, after thinking about it some.

First, it turns out that many of my favourite books are, in fact, horror; a lot of others are kind of inside baseball, in that they are more enjoyable if you’re familiar with other books of their genre, or the texts they may be referencing. Ruling all these out as much as possible, I tried to find points of exit, rather than points of entry, into what Delany likes to call our paraliterature.

To me, speculative fiction is not a subset of fiction “in general,” or even a parallel to literary fiction where they exist side by side as equivalent genres on a shelf. Strict naturalism in literature is the exception, not the rule, an insistence on navigating capitalist realism strictly on its own terms, which can be a fruitful asceticism but is best understood, to my mind, as a special case. Fiction is by its nature speculative: all literature is about making shit up, events if not worlds. And much of what is considered mainstream or general or classic or literary or otherwise non-genre fiction does not in fact respect a strict constraint of naturalism. Pale Fire has psychokinesis, poltergeists, and a made-up country. Beloved revolves entirely around a haunting. Peter Wimsey solves his mysteries in a world where ghosts are real. And so on. There is an ocean of story in which strict naturalism is merely a jetstream—powerful and of tremendous consequence, to be sure, but not the whole of the thing. And the name of that ocean is the fantastical, which is to say, the realm of the unconstrained imaginary: into this ocean feeds the epics, the tales, the utopias, the experiments, the poetry, the rayguns and the rakshasas, all our gods and ghosts and demons, all that can be made from wild and molten language. We may choose constraints as we will—the corset and bustle of whatever passes for hard science in a given decade, the full metal diving suit of strict long 20th century naturalism—but we wear them by choice, and many great writers not commonly identified as fantasists will divest themselves of those constraints at will, for effect or for joy.

That said, an introduction to speculative fiction should consist of writers whose work is recognized as belonging to the form, because that recognition is an important social reality. And within that, I particularly wanted to showcase speculative fiction’s capacity for politics, and a range of very different styles and stylists over a fairly wide span of decades. And so this list begins to take upon itself its own set of constraints. Nothing on it is at all likely to be surprising to the aficionado: they are all popular books, some extremely acclaimed. And yet I think as a selection it’s still a little idiosyncratic: I came up with several such lists and picked this set over others, after all, because I wanted its global and historical spread, and because it suggests a particular genealogy of the fantastic, one from which a great many well-known names are missing. This is intentional, because my assumption is that if a reader of fiction has not yet found their own way into speculative fiction, that many of its more popular manifestations have failed to appeal so far. Far more than two roads diverge in the wood, that is to say, and I don’t know whether to call this trail pleasant or rugged, because after all the paraliterature and everything it contains is not a forest with defined paths but an ocean, trackless but mappable. These are some of the islands I love best.

Reiterated in the form of a list, the books are:

  • The Invention of Morel (1940), Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • Titus Groan (1946), Mervyn Peake
  • Solaris (1961), Stanislaw Lem
  • The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), Gene Wolfe
  • The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), Amitav Ghosh
  • Amatka (2012), Karin Tidbeck
  • A Stranger in Olondria (2013), Sofia Samatar
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), Ahmed Saadawi
  • The Queue (2013), Basma Abdel Aziz

This list (as distinct from the gallery of book covers above, which is in no order whatsoever) is in chronological order of publication. This is not a recommended reading order, of which I have nothing specific in mind. Perhaps if in need of a starting point among these ten books, I’d suggest starting with Saadawi or Ghosh. And arguably, in some cases there are meaningful connections suggested by the books themselves—for example, you could say the Tidbeck is speaking to, or through, the Le Guin in some ways—but that doesn’t necessarily require anything in response. Each exit point is its own creature, its own path of approach, suiting different readerly moods. I don’t know if any given reader would love all ten of these as much as I do, and it’s certainly possible, even likely, that there are enthusiastic readers in entirely different terrains of speculative fiction to whom none of these are of particular interest, but you’d need a different guide to go where they go.