These days, it seems like every other literary novel has speculative fiction ideas buried in it. This isn't a trend that suddenly burst out of nowhere — "literary" writers have been playing with fantastical notions forever. Here are 10 great literary books you didn't know were science fiction or fantasy.
Top image: Heart of a Dog.
We all know about the obvious literary/SF crossovers, like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star, or Doris Lessing's experiments — but there are tons of others you probably didn't know about. In fact, here's a huge list of books that straddle the literary/SF divide, courtesy of Bruce Sterling and the "slipstream" fiction movement. So here are some great literary books, in particular, that you probably didn't know were SF or fantasy:
This novel by the master of post-modernism might seem like an obvious choice — it was nominated for a Nebula Award, after all — but people don't describe it as speculative fiction that often. It's a weird travelogue, with Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about the cities he's visited, many of which are completely fantastical, like the city with no walls. This book inspired Jeanette Winterson, who went on to write some famously science fictional novels.
This famous post-war German novel has a lot of fabulist elements as well — Oskar stops growing at around age three, so he retains the stature of a child throughout his life. Although after the end of World War II, he decides to start growing again, and gets a bit taller. Oskar also has a piercing shriek with the ability to shatter glass, a talent he demonstrates with alarming regularity. Grass uses surreal and fantastical elements to create a metaphor for Germany during and after World War II.
Every science fiction fan should read this book, which was a National Book Award finalist. Geek Love is the story of a family of circus performers, who use radiation and chemicals to turn their children into mutants — including Chick, who has telekinetic powers and the megalomaniac Arturo, who has flippers instead of hands and feet. One of these mutated kids, Olympia, has a daughter named Miranda who has a tail and becomes a stripper at an unusual fetish club. This is a really fantastic book that everyone should read, everywhere.
This ultra-weird and incredibly famous 1925 novel is a classic of anti-Communist satire from the heart of the Soviet Union. Circulated as a Samizdat until its official publication in 1987, this novel tells the story of a dog who undergoes an experimental operation to give him the pituitary gland of a human, along with some other human parts. Soon, the dog starts to look and act like a human, and it rejects all of the moral and social strictures of the former Tsarist regime.
Long before Haruki Murakami was achieving fame with his weird reality-warping novels, Kobo Abe was channeling Kafka. In this novel, a former nude model is searching for his missing wife, but he keeps being visited by a horse that talks to him about its penis. And meanwhile, a hospital nearby is doing weird sex experiments on its patients — the whole thing culminates in a bizarre "body horror freakout."
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. And it's a story about a family after the Civil War who are haunted by a revenant — apparently the ghost of the two-year-old girl they killed — and later meet a young girl whom they believe to be the ghost brought back to life. Here's an interview where Morrison talks about the importance of ghosts in her work.
The Pulitzer Prize finalist has made a name for herself with tales of magical realism, including the story of a girl sailing away in a crab's exoskeleton in her first collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove is chock full of off-beat premises, including a vampire's shifting relationship with his mortal wife, and a massage therapist who experiences someone's memories through his tattoos.
This acclaimed mystery novel was made into a movie starring Julia Ormond. And its central trope is that Smilla has developed an intuition about snow, in which she understands it on a deep, visceral level. She's able to deduce or understand things by looking at snow. And the novel's McGuffin turns out to be a meteorite that crashed years earlier, and a mysterious parasite has infected several of the main characters.
The author of Trout Fishing in America and A Confederate General From Big Sur also wrote this strange novella about a group of people living in a surreal commune called iDEATH, which is either the last outpost of humanity after an apocalypse or some kind of experimental community. The book is full of strange hints and portents, and inspired Neko Case's song "Margaret Vs. Pauline."
This classic 1987 novel starts out as a realistic story of California in the 1980s — and then a nuclear holocaust happens, and the latter part of the novel takes place in post-apocalyptic Malibu. (Similar to the transformation that takes place in Doris Lessing's Martha Quest novels and Jennifer Egan's recent A Visit from the Goon Squad.) The early part of the novel, in which we get to know this disaffected woman in a "realistic" world, inform the later sections, where we see her struggling after the end of everything.
Thanks to everyone who helped me with this one!