Beyond Pulp: The Rich Landscape of Literary Science Fiction.
In this article we examine how this unique subgenre of literature masterfully balances the imaginative world-building and speculative ideas of traditional science fiction with the depth and complexity of character-focused literary fiction.
Much like its genre sibling, literary science fiction propels us into futuristic vistas, outer space, or alternative realities. However, it equally emphasizes the profound human narratives within these settings, exploring not only the awe-inspiring implications of technological and societal advancements but also the intricate ways these shifts impact individual lives, relationships, and societies.
Our journey begins with Mary Robinette Kowal's 'The Calculating Stars,' a compelling narrative that skillfully intertwines the tension of a space race with human resilience. Brian Evenson's 'Song for the Unraveling of the World' follows, offering a collection of stories that meld unsettling speculation with an exploration of our deepest fears. 'The Old Drift' by Namwali Serpell is a tapestry of interconnected lives, highlighting that even amidst the most futuristic of landscapes, the echoes of our past continue to resonate. Concluding our exploration is Alison Stine's 'Road Out of Winter,' a post-apocalyptic tale that doesn't merely focus on survival but delves into the adaptability and perseverance of the human spirit in drastic circumstances.
Each book we'll explore in this article presents a unique aspect of literary science fiction, showcasing how this genre uses the framework of futuristic speculation as a lens to delve into the heart of human experiences. By bringing the human aspect to the forefront amidst a backdrop of speculative futures, literary science fiction allows us to connect more intimately with the characters living in these possible worlds.
Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson (2019)
Song for the Unraveling of the World is a collection of short stories written by the acclaimed American academic and writer Brian Evenson. This stunning collection has been described as walking “the tightrope between literary fiction, sci-fi, and horror”. This prestigious collection of short stories was awarded the 2020 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.
This masterfully crafted, haunting collection of twenty-two stories explore themes of doubt, delusions, and paranoia. In this acclaimed and breathtaking collection, Brian Evenson considers the many ways we use self-deception as a means for justifying some of our darkest, most inhuman urges.
From the face of a newborn baby that appears on the back of a stranger’s head to a filmmaker willing to go to extreme lengths in order to perfectly capture his vision for the final scene of his film, this surreal collection will grip you from start to finish.
In addition to the World Fantasy Award, this collection also won Evenson the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award in the single-authored collection category. Shirley Jackson, of course, is the author of acclaimed novels such as The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House.
Whether you tear through the entire collection of stories in one sitting or devour it slowly, story by story, piece by piece, this outstanding collection of literary science fiction and horror is sure to scintillate your literary senses!
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (2019)
The debut novel of Zambian-born author Namwali Serpell follows three generations of three families as they assimilate into Zambia. The Old Drift is a sprawling novel that takes place in many countries at different periods in time. This debut blends science fiction themes with historical fiction. In this novel, Serpell is able to reimagine Zambia’s history in surprising and creative ways.
At the start of the novel, readers are introduced to Percy Clark, a vagabond photographer who has found himself living near Victoria Falls at the start of the twentieth century. This is merely the starting point of this expansive novel, which stretches to the 1960s – a time when Zambia attempted to send a woman to the moon – and beyond!
This novel has everything, from love affairs to political affairs, from viral vaccines to advanced drones. The magical realism in this novel allows Serpell to consider many current issues we are facing, including the impact of colonization and third-world poverty. This is the perfect story to immerse yourself in as Serpell takes you on a beautifully worded journey that spans more than a century.
In 2020, The Old Drift won the Arthur C. Clark Award, which is awarded by the British Science Fiction Association to the best science fiction novel published in Britain during the previous calendar year. Fellow science fiction author and Arthur C. Clark Award winner, Tade Thompson, described Serpell’s novel as “the great African novel of the twenty-first century”.
Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine (2020)
When Wylodine is abandoned by her mother and left alone at her family’s farm, she is forced to tend to her family’s illegal marijuana plants. However, when winter doesn’t end for more than two years, Wylodine takes her grow lights and her pouch of seeds and sets out on her journey to find a new beginning for herself.
When Wylodine finds herself all alone in the world, the world proves to be more treacherous than she could have ever imagined. Wylodine, armed with her unique ability to make things grow, is forced to navigate this new landscape, from the icy roads to the sinister strangers she meets along her journey in order to carve out a new life for herself in this apocalyptic thriller.
Despite the science fiction elements that are present in Stine’s novel, she presents her readers with a dystopian narrative about a society on the brink of collapse due to climate change. This is a society facing a future that could, in many ways, become our own if we’re not careful. That is where the true power of Alison Stine’s novel lies: forcing her readers to consider the devastation that could result from climate change.
Stine’s Road Out of Winter was awarded the prestigious Phillip K. Dick Award. This annual award is named after the famed science fiction writer himself, the author of many acclaimed novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ubik. The Phillip K. Dick Award is annually awarded to the best paperback science fiction novel published during the previous calendar year.
As we delve into these narratives and navigate the intricate fabric of human experience they present, we realize that literary science fiction is far from a simple escape into futuristic worlds. Rather, it's an exploration of the depths of our collective consciousness, a mirror held up to our society's hopes, fears, and ethical dilemmas in the face of rapidly advancing technology and a changing world.
This journey through some key works of literary science fiction reminds us that these stories have the power to inspire us, provoke our thinking, and challenge our perspectives. They bring to the forefront the profound connection between science, technology, and the human condition. As readers, we not only immerse ourselves in compelling tales of future societies but also engage in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human in an evolving universe. The beauty of literary science fiction lies in its ability to merge the rigors of scientific speculation with the emotional resonance of literature, creating a genre that continues to enthrall and illuminate.