Speculative fiction is a difficult genre to define, blurring the lines between (or perhaps encompassing) science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian fiction in a blend of otherworldly adventures. The most broad definition would be fiction set in a time and place different to the present version of the world, or featuring a character with abilities unlike those possessed by regular humans. In any case, speculative fiction often provides a lens through which to view the world in which we live, exploring a contrasting or exaggerated version of society to examine issues of the present. Here are 8 speculative fiction novels that allow a reader to look at the world differently.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Beginning with the classics of the genre, Atwood’s novel is set in a dystopian future society in which women have virtually no freedom. The protagonist, Offred, belongs to a class of women called Handmaids whose only purpose is to bear the children of high-ranking men. In the course of the novel, Atwood intersperses stories of Offred’s pre-dystopian life as well, allowing a reader to understand the events that led to the establishment of the oppressive regime of Gilead. In outlining an extreme social order, Atwood draws a reader’s attention to the issues women face in real life, among which is the idea that a woman’s worth is based on her ability to produce children or service men in other ways. The book has been adapted to a series on Hulu, and Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, has just been released.
1984, George Orwell
Another definitive work of the category, 1984 explores a dystopia in which the totalitarian government does not allow any form of dissent, including opposition in thought. Its main character, Winston Smith, is secretly defiant as he works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting historical records. In a world of constant surveillance and government suspicion, the mere act of Smith’s mental resistance could lead to his “disappearance.” Orwell’s classic has become a reliable trope for authoritarianism, giving rise to the term ‘Orwellian’ and the idea of 'Big Brother'. The novel provides an insight into the consequences of policing free thinking and expression and rewriting historical narratives in favour of propaganda, among other dangers of autocratic rule.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The late Toni Morisson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning horror novel, Beloved, tells the story of a family of former slaves living in Cincinnati, Ohio after the Civil War. The protagonist, Sethe, lives with her daughter Denver in a house haunted by a spirit they believe to be the ghost of Sethe’s eldest daughter. There is a temporary peace after the arrival of Paul D, another former slave who worked on the same plantation, but the family’s life is turned upside down again by the appearance of a mysterious young woman named Beloved. The narrative explores the ways in which Beloved’s presence and behaviour affect the relationships between the residents of the house. Morrison brilliantly uses this shocking tale to examine the effect of slavery on the psyche of free African Americans, speaking to ideas of memory, repression, guilt, and an array of other issues.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
This popular science fiction novel is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series set in a futuristic universe exploring the idea of interplanetary relations. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai of the planet Terra travels as an envoy to the planet Gethen in order to persuade its leaders to join an alliance known as the Ekumen. This interplanetary political drama features a very interesting detail: the inhabitants of Gethen are androgynous, and Le Guin uses this fact to consider a society where gender and gender roles are practically nonexistent. As Genly Ai journeys in attempt to carry out his goal, the novel examines themes of loyalty and betrayal as well.
Earthseed series, Octavia E. Butler
Comprising of the novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, this series is set in a dystopian future America, where a gated community in Los Angeles provides a safe haven for 17-year-old Lauren Oya Olamina. As this haven and her family are taken away from her in the first novel, Lauren journeys to the north and becomes increasingly convinced that humanity is meant to leave planet earth and settle elsewhere. In the sequel, Lauren has settled with a community of like-minded people in northern California, and has a daughter. The subsequent narrative includes points of view from both of these characters, as Lauren’s belief system, now a religion called Earthseed, grows in popularity and influence. Butler uses her story world to warn against the real dangers of religious fundamentalism, climate change and inequality, which she cites as the reasons for the initial collapse of society.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
In this fantasy novel, Neil Gaiman reincarnates the old world gods of various mythologies and scatters them across the United States. The protagonist, Shadow, comes into the employ of Mr. Wednesday, a reincarnation of Odin, and visits other old gods along with him. In the face of an imminent clash with the new gods, who embody aspects of the modern world, Mr. Wednesday aims to bring the old gods together. Drawing from legends from all over the world, Gaiman leads folklore into the present, placing it at odds with technology and globalisation. The book was adapted into a television series that premiered in 2017.
Binti series, Nnedi Okorafor
This science fiction series begins when its protagonist Binti is accepted into Oozma University, the best academic institution in the galaxy. Binti is one of the Himba people from southwest Africa, and is the first of her people to be accepted into the university. She ventures outside of her world, defying tradition, but gets caught in a conflict between the Khoush and the Meduse peoples during her journey to Oozma. The subsequent two novellas focus on Binti as she returns to her home and comes to play a vital role in the age-old conflict. The series takes the familiar trope of the teenage girl with the world on her shoulders to the next level, as Okorafor explores ideas of culture and identity against the backdrop of this intergalactic war.
Leila, Prayaag Akbar
Leila is set in a dystopian version of India in the 2040s where resources are scarce and a totalitarian government is in power. Shalini, who has spent the last sixteen years enslaved in a purity camp, is determined to find her abducted daughter Leila. Within the context of Shalini’s search, the novel looks at issues of class, caste, and communal identity, as in this future society, people are segregated on these bases. Although similar to The Handmaid’s Tale in both theme and style, Leila speaks specifically to Indian society, constructing a world that in today’s times, could be looming around the corner. The book was adapted to a series on Netflix that aired earlier this year.
Speculative fiction opens up a multitude of possibilities, providing authors with a chance to explore every “what if.” Whether they’re set in a distant future, an alternate history, or a present that is slightly different from our own, these novels allow readers to venture into new worlds as well as develop a new perspective on our own societies.
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