Vacation season, ahoy! If you’re stuck at home this summer, you can always set off to faraway fictional lands with a new science-fiction or fantasy novel. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from. Below, I picked the best of 'em.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
The breath of an aging dragon casts a spell on a row of Arthurian villages, and their residents can’t seem to recall the details of their own history. In an attempt to relearn their past and find their missing son, an old couple sets off on a journey where they run into valiant knights, mad dogs and a mysterious boatman who carries the sick and dying to a peaceful, nearby island. Less science-fiction oriented than Ishiguro’s past books, the novel nevertheless wields fantastical elements on a quest to understand the function of collective, societal memories.
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser
Like Ishiguro’s novel, Millhauser’s short stories aren’t squarely science fiction, but they are peopled with phantoms, mermaids and other mythical creatures. Also like Ishiguro, Millhauser is attempting to characterize hard-to-define social phenomena by personifying town gossip and rituals. A man buys a strange surface cleaner from a door-to-door salesman and soon becomes transfixed with his reflection when viewed through newly polished mirrors. A mermaid washes ashore in a small town, sparking a new fashion trend among citizens. Millhauser’s wry humor adds a layer of cheeky self-awareness to the “X-Files”-like events he relates.
Speak by Louisa Hall
Of Alan Turing’s myriad contributions to computer science, his test for differentiating between human speakers and computers programmed to speak like humans is probably discussed the most. It’s a fun philosophical question: what about our use of language makes us human? And, if a computer were to pass Turing’s test, what would this imply about the value of interpersonal communication? Louisa Hall brushes against these questions in her subtle saga Speak, which spans centuries of humans attempting to communicate with one another, hoping their messages don’t get lost in translation. Turing features as a cast member, as he pens letters to distant relation. He’s joined by a Silicon Valley tech bro and a Puritan woman traveling to America, in a narrative that attempts to explain what we talk about when we talk about talking.
A, B, C: Three Short Novels by Samuel R. Delany
A contemporary sci-fi stalwart, Delany’s won a bunch of Hugo and Nebula Awards. This collection jumps back to his earliest works and runs the gamut of sci-fi and fantasy themes. In They Fly at Çiron, a society of winged, god-like humanoids watch over warring villages in a story that could’ve been plucked straight from Greek mythology. In The Ballad of Beta-2, a “Star Trek”-like mission goes awry, and a budding academic tries to make sense of it all. There’s something for everyone in Delany’s collection of short novels.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
If there’s anything we sci-fi fans relish, it’s a good end-of-the-world plot. Chaos induced by a worldwide flu-like epidemic? Sign us up! Massive asteroid? Sure! Stephenson’s take on the apocalypse focuses more on how humanity would respond politically, making for an epic volume worth embarking on. A few survivors remain after the world as we know it ends, and they form seven disparate societies, comprised of seven distant races. For 5,000 years, these groups form their own new traditions. Stephenson’s story centers on the moment in their histories when they finally return to Earth.
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball’s book is another that’s tough to classify. The premise -- a government agency that clears citizens’ minds upon request, sending them through a detailed treatment built to recover from trauma -- is science-fiction in the way that “Eternal Sunshine” is. Ball relies on mythical technologies to tell a story that is, at its heart, a romance tarnished by tragedy. In doing so he raises questions about the value of memories, both pleasant and painful, as tools to shape who we are.
The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson
Readers who enjoyed Divergent, or who’ve taken the Myers-Briggs personality test more times than necessary, will relate to Robert Charles Wilson’s latest novel, which divides all of humanity into 21 faction-like sectors based on both personal and social preferences. The process of being placed into an affinity is a little more involved than putting on a sorting hat, and because there are so many options, each affinity is tailored perfectly to its members’ interests. Sounds ideal, right? Nope. Naturally, the affinities begin to take issue with one another, and war looms on the horizon.
Glow by Ned Beauman
Ned Beauman’s book takes its name from the hottest new recreational drug, which is less innocuous than it may seem; it very well may be the side effect of a corporate conspiracy responsible for missing citizens and bizarre animal behavior. Raf, a 20-something with time on his hands no thanks to a sleeping disorder, stumbles into the throes of pharmaceutical mayhem, falling in love along the way.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Like Millhauser, Link humorously fuses the real with the imagined, skirting the line between the two. But, while Millhauser is chiefly concerned with collective responses to strange phenomena, Link’s stories are more personal and psychological -- she throws the reader head-first into her weird worlds, peopled with ghost hunters and evil twins.
The Grace of Kings by Kevin Liu
Liu’s another decorated science-fiction writer. His bevy of Hugo and Nebula awards speak to his world-crafting abilities, on full display in this first book of a new trilogy. Those looking to fill the void left by maddening wait times between Game of Thrones books can occupy themselves with this fantasy novel centering on political relationships in a world comprised of evil emperors and deceitful gods.
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