[A list, in installments, of Ten Works of Speculative Fiction That Qualify as Great Literature (And Ten More That Don’t) as constructed by the newest member of our little family, Kevin. Along with an unhealthy penchant for spending most of his life in bookstores, he brings along a love for a genre the rest of us look forward to learning more about.]
It is the pet bugaboo of readers and writers of speculative fiction that their preferred genre is frequently overlooked, ignored, and derided by the mainstream. Authors often point out the trajectory of their careers as long, slow, uphill slogs towards credibility, rarely reaching that goal, and the fans find themselves isolated by their tastes, separated from readers of realist literature by a wall of mutual incomprehensibility, finding the quotidian mainstream somewhat dull while worried their own tastes will be deemed unpopular, obscure, or immature. Of course this is not the case; science fiction and fantasy are together a pillar of the publishing industry and a widely-flung and lively community of fans exists to sing the genre’s praises and discuss its merits. Still, speculative fiction is rarely considered great literature, and perhaps this is reason enough to grouse. It is my intention with this list to point out ten works of speculative fiction that can stand with the greats of the Western canon. Of course such a list is not exhaustive and highly personal; I would encourage any readers with differing (or any) opinions to post their own comments.
Also, to show I have no bias against good ol’ fashioned meat-and-potatoes fantasy and science fiction, under each entry I have submitted I will also list a slightly less high-minded alternative, works of slightly less-than-great status that nonetheless deserve recognition.
1. The Lord of the Rings
The original. Read it. Live it. Love it. It would be redundant to point out the merit of what is the most widely read and critically praised work of high fantasy of all time, so I will simply point out that LoR is where my love of speculative fiction began, and that two decades and several rereadings later I am every bit as enchanted by Middle-Earth and the story of Frodo and the rest as I ever was.
A Good Non-literary Alternative Might Be:
Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I must say I am in fact slightly less enchanted by these books than I used to be, but boy did they make adolescence more bearable. A pure, unapologetic exaltation of all things nerdy, written with a high degree of competence and workmanship.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin bucks the trend of speculative fiction authors languishing in obscurity; from the seventies onward she has enjoyed widespread acclaim and popularity for her fiction. And rightly so, for, in my opinion, Le Guin is one of the greatest authors this planet or any other has produced. The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s most popular book, follows the exploits of Earth Ambassador Genly Ai as he navigates the intrigues of the planet Winter, populated by a race of human-like hermaphrodites. Now, while this may sound to some like the story from some lesser episode of Star Trek, Le Guin’s imagination and spare, masterful writing transform this tale into a thoughtful and compassionate meditation on gender, love, loss, belief, politics, individuality, and all the other things that make us human. If you have not done so, go out and read this book, even a reader with the lowest of tolerances for flights of fancy will find himself enmeshed in the story of Winter and its more-human-than-human aliens.
A Good Non-literary Alternative Might Be:
The Orthe Duet by Mary Gentle. Earth Ambassador Lynn Christie is sent to the planet Orthe, populated by human-like hermaphrodites. Though derivative, Gentle’s work stands on its own feet thanks to skillful worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and a viewpoint much darker and more cynical than Le Guin’s.
Stay tuned for more next week.
5 responses to “Speculative Fiction: A World Largely Uncharted by PoaB-ians, In Installments”
Yes! I am so happy with the idea of your series. Being a PoaB-ian (I wondered what I was), I welcome a speculative fiction advocate at Portrait. Such a good writer you are Kevin. Look forward to meeting you!
Thank you, Judy. It’s so lovely to recieve a response such as this. Having read a very limited number of books of speculative fiction myself, I truly do look forward to boadening a little.
Your comments, criticisms and ideas are welcome. Please let us know what else you’d like to see here that would pique your interest.
I didn’t even know the term speculative fiction, but I have heard of magical realism…thanks for broadening my literary horizons.
Hello all. Thank you for the comments and much appreciated. The term ‘speculative fiction’ is just another way of saying ‘science fiction and fantasy’ without the loaded connotations, and I have used it interchangeably with those two genres. Personally, I prefer the term ‘speculative fiction’ since it fairly self-explanatory, and also because it ties a ribbon around many authors who write ‘mainstream’ fiction that is actually plain old tried and true sci-fi. Some day in the future I may write a list of novels that are actually speculative fiction but are not marketed or categorized that way.
Brilliant! I look forward to the rest!