If you’ve seen the acclaimed film Arrival, then you’re at somewhat familiar with Ted Chiang’s fiction, as he wrote the short story that inspired it. Chiang’s fiction blends big ideas with meticulously-drawn characters, resulting in powerfully resonant stories. His new collection offers nine new visions of other worlds and times, told stunningly.
At the center of Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control are a pair of grieving parents living in the aftermath of horrific events in the near future. The fact that one of them is at work on a device that’s not unlike a time machine suggests where this book might be headed, but Palmer’s rigorous approach to a mind-bending plot keeps things deeply (and memorably) unpredictable.
Some of the most gripping speculative fiction blends past, present, and future to create a stunning and interconnected narrative web. (See also: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.) In her novel Dark Constellations, Pola Oloixarac brings together a 19th-century scientific expedition, modern hacker culture, and futuristic surveillance technology into an ambitious and sometimes chilling narrative.
We Cast a Shadow
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Among the most memorable works of speculative fiction are those that use a futuristic setting to explore contemporary sociopolitical issues. That’s the case with Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow, about the relationship of a father and son living in a near-future city where new technology has conflated issues of race and class, creating an abundance of ethical dilemmas along the way.
David R. Bunch
David R. Bunch’s Moderan compiles a host of short stories set in a world in which mechanization has decimated the natural world, and whose characters blend extreme body modification with a bizarre strain of toxic masculinity. It’s an unsettling portrait of the future, deftly told through Bunch’s distinctive prose style.
Karen Thompson Walker
What happens when something as familiar as sleeping and dreaming turns into something much more bizarre and uncanny? Plagues of sleep are a recurring image in speculative fiction, and Karen Thompson Walker ventures into this territory with her new novel The Dreamers, putting her own spin on it by exploring the repercussions on the dreaming lives of those now slumbering.
Machines Like Me
Many of Ian McEwan’s novels have grappled with deep moral dilemmas and questions of class, desire, and humanity itself. His latest novel, Machines Like Me, takes that a step further by telling a story set in an alternate 1980s where two dozen robots are a part of British society. How that dovetails with the era’s complex politics is the haunting story that McEwan tells in this volume.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in a projected trilogy, moves from the historical settings of his previous novels and into another world altogether. With this book, he’s delved further into mythology to tell a story of a mercenary searching for a missing boy in a world of shapeshifters, deceit, and bizarre creatures.
Brian Allen Carr
Brian Allen Carr’s Sip brings together a host of uncanny ideas for a thought-provoking and surreal reading experience. There’s the concept of drinking one’s shadow, a vision of a future abounding with domed cities, and a mismatched group stranded on the outskirts of civilization and seeking to make their way home.
The beguiling fiction of Helen Oyeyemi blends familiar and archetypal stories with hauntingly resonant psychology to create something both timeless and new. Her latest novel, Gingerbread, involves fraught friendships, mysterious lands, delicious food, and a bond between mother and daughter that’s both recognizable and decidedly unique.
The Girl in the Road
Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road offers two parallel stories set in a futuristic India and Africa. It abounds with grand ideas, including a massive bridge across the Arabian Sea on which a portion of the novel is set; stylistically, seeing how two disparate plotlines link up also provides an abundant narrative tension, leading towards a rewarding conclusion.
Kate Hope Day
The allure of parallel universes isn’t hard to understand: there’s something primal about wanting to know how one’s life might have gone had a decision gone differently. In Kate Hope Day’s novel If, Then, a quartet of Oregonians begin having glimpses of themselves living very different lives, and struggle to understand both why this is happening and how it might affect their existence.
Black No More
George S. Schuyler
This new edition of George S. Schuler’s 1931 novel Black No More, with an introduction by New People author Danzy Senna, offers a glimpse of how a satirical take on speculative fiction boldly upended its era’s discussion of race and class. Black No More is also considered by some to be one of the earliest Afrofuturist novels, a pioneering work in its genre.
The Women's War
In her novel The Women’s War, Jenna Glass utilizes the scope and density of a modern fantasy epic, but adds a bold narrative element: in this world, women have obtained the ability to control their own fertility, creating a shift in the power dynamic controlling it. It’s a novel that blends the familiar and the incisive, charting out new territory.
Nick Harkaway’s fiction blends pulp trappings, ingenious setpieces, and a warm humanism to create something wholly unpredictable. Gnomon opens with a futuristic murder investigation, which slowly evolves into something much more narratively complex, as a series of parallel subplots slowly congeal into a gripping tale of surveillance and consciousness.
Some of the most enthralling speculative fiction is that which takes us to another world. Sometimes, this can be literal: novels and stories that take readers to a near and distant future, or a world shrouded in myth and fantasy. In the hands of the right writer, these can be the building blocks for a gripping story, memorable characters, and deft prose.
Whether speculative or surreal, these books offer a glimpse of an altered world. Some of them extrapolate aspects of our own world; others use more bizarre or uncanny settings to delve into powerful moral and ethical debates. These are books that will leave you unsettled and riveted to your chair, even as they transport you to another world.