Ten Works of Speculative Fiction That Qualify as Great Literature
(And Ten More That Don’t)
Please see PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3 for the previous installments.
7. Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsey
Written in the late 19th Century, ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ is a foundational piece of science fiction that is, in actuality, not very scientific at all. After a séance, the pragmatic Maskull takes a rather impromtu journey to the planet orbiting the star Arcturus, where he engages in prolonged philosophical conversations with the planet’s inhabitant. ‘Voyage’ reveals science fiction’s roots in stories like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, where the protagonist journeys to distant and unknown lands that are somehow allusive, allegorical, or germane to the author’s present time. Lindsey writes in a characteristically Scottish style, combining cool-headed rationalism and practicality with a sense of weirdness that will leave the reader agog. The critic Harold Bloom has spoken highly of this work, praising it as one of the best works of the Western canon to explain and expound upon the religious philosophy of Gnosticism.
A Good, Non-Literary Alternative Might Be:
‘The Flight to Lucifer’ by Harold Bloom. Bloom’s only work of fiction, the literary equivalent to ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’. Written as a spiritual sequel to ‘Voyage’, ‘Flight’ is described as a confusing mish-mash of Barbarella and the Dead Sea Scrolls, an unholy mixture of heavy-handed philosophical and scholarly exegesis and lurid psychedelia… I have not read this book, since it is out of print and hard to find, but I suspect time might have given it an ‘it’s-so-bad-that-it’s-good’ quality, and I would be quite interested in judging it for myself (which I will do now that I work at Portrait, where we specialize in finding just such books.)
8. Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner
If ‘The Last Unicorn’ seeks to carry over the conventions of fantasy into the modern era, then ‘Kingdoms of Elfin’ looks to go in the other direction, returning fantasy to its mythic roots in the ferocious, ancient, and hidden realms of the collective unconscious. Warner’s stories follow communities of elves who exist hidden from man around the world, leading endless, amoral lives of magic and pageantry. Generally, the convention of Elves and fairies in fantasy fiction has been highly shopworn by years of authors writing them as sensual, whiny teenagers who act and behave only with the most baffling of affectations, dress like they were going to Renaissance Faire, and who serve no other purpose in the story than acting as the protagonist’s main love interest. Warner’s chilling, capricious, misanthropic elves are a relief to anyone who grimaces at this convention. Like the aliens in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ they must be respected for their separateness from humanity. ‘Kingdoms of Elfin’ underscores this point, examining one of the key themes of speculative fiction: how do we relate to that which is the Other, how do we coexist with what we cannot understand? Warner does not try to answer this question in her series of stories; rather, she ponders the tragic and confusing nature of life, as the familiar and the fantastical remain unreconciled.
A Good, Non-Literary Alternative Might Be:
Anything by Mercedes Lackey. Personally, I think Lackey should bear some of the blame for introducing the ‘elves make good boyfriends’ convention to speculative fiction, but her body of work and perspective on the fantastic are indeed laudable. Usually, Lackey’s works take place in worlds inhabited by both ordinary humans and all manners of supernatural beings, and since they all have to make due with each other, complex relationships evolve and develop. Lackey is a fun, readable author who can put many authors to shame with her consideration for realistic social interactions and high degree of plausibility.
See you back here next week for the final installment.
One response to “Works of Speculative Fiction -PART 4-”
Hmmm. “communities of elves who exist hidden from man around the world, leading endless, amoral lives of magic and pageantry. Warner’s chilling, capricious, misanthropic elves….. Like the aliens in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ they must be respected for their separateness from humanity.” Reading some of the Goldman Sachs internal emails this morning, I can’t help wonder if the Elves infiltrated Wall Street… /// But seriously, thank you for this great series of reviews. This is normally not my genre, but I have to say it’s growing on me!