It's the middle of summer — the time of year when wanderlust takes over our brains. You want to leave your home and your job and explore what the world has to offer. But here's the next best thing — 15 books that take place in science fiction and fantasy versions of the most fascinating places on Earth.
Top image: Windup Girl, cover art by Raphael Lacoste.
Paolo Bacigalupi's Bangkok, The Windup Girl
Bacigalupi's Thailand manages to be geopolitically unique in a future that's both distant and familiar. And his Bangkok, a "drowning city" stands out in his dystopic Asia, where almost every other country is starving. This Bangkok is drowning in its own abundance, awash in gray and black marketeers.
Ian McDonald's India, River of Gods
Like Bacigalupi's Thailand, McDonald's India is instantly recognizable in the terms of its contemporary geopolitical logic. A hundred years after India's partition and independence, India has, again, been sliced into smaller principates. In McDonald's Varansi, the titular river Ganges is the natural backdrop for the swirling apocalyptic events of this novel.
William Gibson's Sprawl, Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, etc
What Gibson calls the Sprawl, the "Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis," geographer Jean Gottman labeled the Northeast Megalopolis, although as yet it lacks Gibson's geodisc roof. Speaking as a megalopolitan myself, Gibson's vision gets more and more accurate.
Image by Rudolf Herczog
Nnedi Okorafor's Niger, The Shadow Speaker
Okorafor's novels are set in more-or-less fictionalized versions of real African nations. The real Niger, in a dystopic future, is the site for The Shadow Speaker, in which a third world war combining both nuclear and magical weapons has rearranged the world. But Okorafor situates this novel in a Niger that is decidedly real — and even though this novel incorporates another world entirely, Okorafor's attention to the specifics of Igbo and Wodaabe language and culture is meticulous and impressive.
Octavia Butler's Eastern Shore of Maryland, Kindred
Butler wrote Kindred in Maryland, and despite setting the contemporary parts of the novel in California, when Dana, the protagonist, time travels to her enslaved ancestors' home, she arrives, not in the deep South, but on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the birthplace of both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Ruined plantations remain as a legacy of the Union's complicity in slavery.
Jules Verne's Reykjavik, Journey to the Center of the Earth
Obviously the center of the earth is the most extraordinary place in this novel, but Reykjavik is a pretty close second. The "immense bed of lava" that bounds the city, in the book at least, conjures an otherworldly landscape as exciting as anywhere in Verne's imagination.
Amitav Ghosh's Calcutta, The Calcutta Chromosome
Despite its title, Ghosh's Calcutta isn't exactly the primary setting of the novel. Instead, it's the site of two superimposed histories: one, of the problematic discovery of Malaria's means of transmission, by Sir Ronald Ross, at the turn of the 20th century; and the other, of a contemporary man obsessed with Ross, who disappears into the city, and yet perhaps somehow influence's Ross's discovery. The city, in this novel, is a living testimony to the contradictory logics of colonialism.
Mary Shelley's Geneva, Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein's earliest inspiration comes from witnessing a lightning storm over the Swiss Alps. Indeed, the forbidding mountains that are Victor's ancestral homeland are beautiful and terrible, and inspired the mad scientist to the same.
Karen Tei Yamashita's Los Angeles, Tropic of Orange
Los Angeles is a transformative and transforming place in this apocalyptic novel, which emphasizes the city's intersecting underworlds even as the novel depicts the Tropic of Cancer's inexplicable movement towards the city.
Walter Mosley's New York, "The Electric Eye"
Mosley's speculative efforts go under-appreciated, and Folio Johnson, the "electric eye" of the title (a successor to generations of noirish private eyes) combines the best of what Mosley is better known for with a more cyberpunk sensibility. But his gritty New York is also recognizable here, even though this is a world where the geographies of data are superseding those of cities.
Cory Doctorow's Disney World, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
In Doctorow's post-scarcity future, the Disney theme park has become the site of insane factional conflict, in part over whether to maintain its status as arguably real or become increasingly virtual. A good excuse to visit, while there's still an opportunity to have fun outside one's own head!
Phillip K Dick's San Francisco, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
Especially as the Bay Area grows ever more crowded and affluent, there's something appealing about Dick's empty, dusty, radioactive San Francisco, where people's robot animals graze on half-empty apartment roofs.
Edgar Allan Poe's Sullivan's Island, "The Gold Bug"
Sullivan's Island is, in Poe's description, tiny, "little else than sea sand." The obsessed hero of this story occupies a "small hut," where he conceives his—ultimately fulfilled—obsession with Captain Kidd's buried treasure.
Sam Watson's Brisbane and Northern Territory, The Kadaitcha Sung
Both urban Brisbane and a forbidding Northern Territory are sites of horrific violence in this novel, yet as the site of both the beautiful and the terrible, these contemporary Gothic landscapes are absolutely compelling.
Vandana Singh's Delhi, "Delhi"
Many stories want us to see cities as living organisms, but this story makes Delhi into a giant computer, transforming its past, present, and future, and its people, into parts of a large, interconnected, and self-perpetuating system.