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What Are Your Favorite “Literary” Science Fiction Novels?

As I quietly sidestep the endless debate to be had on what exactly is meant by “Literary” (I leave you to use your own definition), I was wondering: What do you consider to be your favorite two or three literary science fiction novels?

I’ll start the ball rolling by citing ones that that stand out in recent memory: River of Gods by Ian McDonald, The Healer by Michael Blumlein and The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis.

I might also add that my luck with enjoying literary novels, like my track record with sf classics, is mostly hit-and-miss. (For example, my least favorite literary sf novels are 334 by Thomas Disch and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin.) As a result, I tend to gravitate to what literary snobs would call the “lower” side of the literary spectrum…at least until my mood suits me otherwise. Therefore, much to my misfortune, I have yet to read some classics that are sure to be mentioned here, like Gene Wolfe.

What about you?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

32 Comments on What Are Your Favorite “Literary” Science Fiction Novels?

  1. From the last few years I really loved River Of Gods and also The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

    Are they literary?! TBHotD is definitely aimed at a “mainstream” audience.

    In fact, is Christopher Priest Literary? If so, then everything I’ve read by him as well.

  2. I’m just finnishing Cloud Atlas, that was shortlisted for a Man Booker prize so that pretty much counts as “literary”.

    But the greatest has to be 1984, the SF novel which is so good that snobs hate to admit that it’s Science Fiction.

    Another recent honourable mention goes out to Harrison’s Light. I suspect the only thing that kept it from earning wider acclaim was that it was born in the Science Fiction ghetto.

  3. How can you not like the Left Hand of Darkness (but then you were bored by The Dispossessed, so maybe you just don’t like it cause it doesn’t have pictures)!!! That’s like saying you don’t like plot, or characters or idea, but maybe that IS what you’re saying. Maybe your problem is not with “literary” but with your definition of science, which doesn’t include any of the social, clinical or bench sciences, just engineering and physics.

  4. For me it would be the New Sun series of books by Gene Wolfe. That has to be one of the better works I’ve read, period.

    I also liked Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card a lot.

    And jon, John didn’t like Blade Runner either. There’s clearly something wrong with him. 😀 Seriously, I don’t like E.T. and personally was bored with Dune. Everybody can have their opinion…

  5. Kyle Jelle // October 25, 2006 at 10:52 am //

    I’d second that vote for 1984. You can’t go wrong with Brave New World or Planet of the Apes either. Don’t forget the mother of all dark SF novels, Frankenstein. All of these have been filmed at least twice, but not one of the movies is an adequate substitute for its book.

    A lesser known title I’d recommend is He, She and It, by Marge Piercy, a cyberpunkish take on the Golem myth.

    Not recommended: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which was supposed to be funny, but was mostly just boring. What I read of it, at least, before I gave up.

  6. I read Cloud Atlas (oooo! Firefox 2.0 has automagic spell checking, sweet. I noticed because I misspelled cloud…) and I wasn’t that impressed. The links between the stories were superficial at best and didn’t really add anything to the stories, and the stories themselves were kinda interesting, some more so than others (especially the future ones (duh)).

    I see that ‘Jon’ brought his gas can and a match to the discussion. Hopefully he is wearing is asbestos underwear. I, like John, also don’t like The Left Hand Of Darkness or The Dispossesed as much as others. I found them to be tedious and dull. I just don’t like philosophically heavy books that focus on morality, ethics and societal forms. If I wanted that, I’d have taken a class or two in college and kept my textbooks. I’m reading for fun. Life’s too short to read stuff you aren’t interested in, even if its considered a classic.

    My vote would have to be with Scott and the New Sun series from Gene Wolfe. It’s complex, layered, well written and rewards additional readings.

  7. I second Gene Wolfe and admit that I have to read even more of him that I have, but that Wolfe takes effort to read. Sometimes, you want something that deep and broad, and sometimes you just want to amuse yourself on the bus.

  8. James: Which Priest novels would you say are his most literary?

    Paul: Sometimes you just want to amuse yourself on the bus? Whoa, this is a family blog! 🙂

    And…sigh…I really, really must read Wolfe.

  9. Jon Austin // October 25, 2006 at 12:23 pm //

    I don’t understand. If you don’t like heavy books, why are you talking about literary novels?

    The Left Hand of Darkness is an AWESOME book. If it weren’t for LeGuin, Butler (I’d add Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower/Talents to this list), and other authors like them, SF would still be seen as popcorn novels for losers. To more people who don’t already.

  10. What is “literary”? For me, that is the problem.

    Is Alastair Reynolds literary? I would say yes. Others probably would not. Are the various members of the late (sometimes lamented) “New Wave” “literary”? If so, I’m mixed. Some (Delany) I enjoy. Others (Ellison) are mixed. Some (Russ), I can’t take.

    The problem I have with questions like this is that either the “canon” is not well defined or I disagree with those defining what the “canon” is.

    Since Our Glorious Leader has neatly sidestepped the whole debate (wimp!), I’ll throw in three titles of my own:

    Earth Abides, George Stewart. One of the best in the post-holocaust genre.

    Nova, Samuel R. Delany. A great mix of space opera, Tarot, the Grail and more.

    The “Cojoiner” stories of Alastair Reynolds. I think Mr. Reynolds has redefined the “space opera” genre, working off the previous generations, plus improving on many of the folks working in “The New Space Opera” (is that a combination of “New Wave” and “Space Opera”?).

    This, by the way, only scratches what I would put in a list of “favorite literary SF”. But then again, SF Signal always puts in that annoying “only pick two or three”, like my mother or father would, whenever we went to a candy store as kids…


    (NOTE: Second attempt at posting this. I got a error message the first time about “This account has exceeded its CPU quota.” So if this post shows up twice, I apologize.)

  11. Tim Bartik // October 25, 2006 at 12:46 pm //

    I think several of Iain M. Banks’s science fiction novels could be considered to be literary science fiction. Candidates include: “Use of Weapons”, “The Player of Games”, and “Look to Windward”. Why Banks isn’t more popular in the U.S. is a mystery to me.

    Connie Willis’s “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is really a comedy of manners in a science fiction setting.

    This is cheating a bit, because you asked for novels, but Ted Chiang’s short story collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others” would be a prime book I would give anyone looking for literary science fiction.

  12. “I don’t understand. If you don’t like heavy books, why are you talking about literary novels?”

    Are all literary novels ‘heavy’? Ok, so probably yes. But does ‘heavy’ mean only dealing with philosophical or societal issues? Quite clearly no. As I stated, I don’t like the areas LeGuin chose to cover and I certainly don’t want to waste my time reading about them, even in SF form.

    I’d rate Gene Wolfe right up there with LeGuin, perhaps even higher, when it comes to literary-ness. And I find his settings much more interesting to read about. But yes, he does take effort to read, as does LeGuin. So it all comes down to personal preference. Again.

    “SF Signal always puts in that annoying “only pick two or three””

    Usually correct Fred, but not in this case! John’s question was open ended and you still limited yourself to three picks. I see our conditioning is working! 😉

    I’d like to add that, upon further review, I want to add Simmons’ Hyperion books to the literary list. His Illium and Olympos books could probably be added as well.

    As far as Banks go, while I really like his stuff, I think that Use Of Weapons would be considered his ‘literary’ SF novel, based mostly on its unique narrative structure.

  13. Gene Wolfe has some pretty heavy philosophical and societal themes, he just doesn’t hammer you over the head with them. Probably makes LeGuin a little more apropos for academia.

    I guess we can’t argue personal preference. I tend to give a few more props for authors who blatantly try to give the genre a little more respectability amongst the mainstream.

    If you’re talking about the “literary” as an excellent example of composition, Gene Wolfe is probably among the best out there. I just got to the middle of Claw and didn’t really see him going anywhere with the narrative. (He obviously did since just about everyone who’s read New Sun has loved it, and I’ll have to revisit it soon.) I guess we’re exact opposites.

  14. Unfortunately, I am a big fan of the pulp at the roots of the SF tree, so I have trouble coming up with Literary SF I’ve read. In my minds, ‘Literary’ means primarily concerned with observations into the human condition, detailed portrayals of realistic characters, and emphasis on the beauty of language and expression.

    This knocks most of my favorite books out the the running from the get-go. My tastes run to GALACTIC PATROL, and Black DuQuesne is my idea of an in-depth character study, my idea of true poetry is “Bugs, Mr. Rico! Zillions of ’em!”

    I cannot list anything by CS Lewis, much as I love his work, because his characters were simple, and nothing of background, description, or art is remarkable in his tales. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is perhaps the most famous SF book paid honors by the literary establishment (regarded so highly that most people refuse to call it SF), but it has neither characters nor description worth mentioning, nor is it a meditation on any deep human question aside from the intellectual dishonesty of totalitarianism. ATLAS SHRUGGED is arguably dystopian SF, but the characters are deliberately romanticized into perfect heroes and utter villains.

    Lemme see…

    1. SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is the best living novelist in America today, and all Academia would be enraptured by him, were it not that he writes what is marketed as SF. Like all geniuses, he simply transcends genre. Don’t get me wrong: THE DYING EARTH by Jack Vance is SF; so is ZOTHIQUE by Clarke Ashton Smith. Both men wrote things I very much admire—but SHADOW OF THE TORTURER is something else, deeper, richer, grander. Read them side by side and you will see what I mean.

    2. LORD OF THE RINGS by Professor Tolkein. I am not sure if his characters are sufficiently details to count as ‘literate’, but they surely suffer and overcome, and ponder the meanings of deep things in the world, the nature of man and mortality, the meaning of honor, the character of mercy. The language is elevated, and in places soars to poetry, not to mention the actual poetry in the text. He not merely transcends genre, he created it. The fantasies written before him, such as VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS or THE WORM OROBOROS were a different sort of creature, more odd and more unreal, not speaking in plain terms to the pains and pleasures of common men.

    3. LITTLE BIG by John Crowley. Good, if odd, character development, many passages showing poetry and craft, but a little weak on weight and depth of speaking to the great ideas. I add it here because I honestly cannot think of any other literary SF at all.

    Also a genre-breaker. One might argue that is actually a mainstream book with fantasy elements, not really a fantasy; but in truth it can be classified only with itself.

  15. 4. Honorable mention goes to: HYPERION by Dan Simmons. The artist here changes his narrative style in this retelling of Canturbury Tales, and does indeed touch on the great ideas of literature: predestination and hope, freedom and security, God and Time. The characters are better developed and studied more in depth than John Crowley’s quirky Drinkwater family.

  16. How about Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop? Surely the Frankenstein monster as a major character qualifies as sf?

  17. 1. Elfeheim – M. Flynn – very dense book about alien contact in 1348-9; excellent contrast of the medieval mindset with the modern scientific mindset, with the twist that the aliens are the ones at roughly our scientific level plus a working string theory that allows them interstellar travel – M. Flynn wrote also the wonderful Wreck of the River of Stars and if you loved/hated that I guess you will have the same reaction to Elfeheim.

    2. Cloud Atlas – D. Mitchell – not quite 100% SF, but had some absolutely wonderful stories with a loose connection between timelines though that’s not that important. Ghostwritten also had fantastic elements, and again both are probably love/hate together, though reading Cloud Atlas first, I appreciated it more.

    3. Blindsight – P. Watts – this one qualifies to my mind as literary for several reasons (no cheery optimism, very interesting scientifico-philosophical speculations about consciousness, style of writting), though it’s also a hard sf book with lots of references to scientific literature included. Great book.

  18. Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell.

    Winner of:

    Spectrum Classics, Hall of Fame, 1999

    American Library Association Readers Choice Award, 1999

    Hugo Award Finalist, 1999

    The Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature, 1998 Winner

    I guess one of these qualifies it as literary. Though I have to say I prefered it’s prdecessor, The Sparrow, over this one.

  19. I’d say Heinlein’s “Stranger in a

    strange land.”

    Alan Dean Foster’s “Sentenced to

    Prism” because of its facinating

    uae of characters and they way

    he delivered a tight ambitious


    Clifford D. Simak’s “City” for

    the same reaons above.

    Both authors died the same year.

    And a finale mention to Dune,

    Frank Huber. Unfortuneatly

    the series has tunred into


  20. JP, the question states: “What do you consider to be your favorite two or three literary science fiction novels?”

    So you might say, “Usually correct Fred, but not in this case! John’s question was open ended and you still limited yourself to three picks. I see our conditioning is working! ;)”, but it sure seems to be stated that the usual annoying SF Signal limit of “two or three” is in place!


  21. Jim…you might want to make your posting a bit clearer. Which two author’s died in the same year?


    Also, it’s “Frank Herbert”.

  22. I think the main reason that all of academia is not enraptured with Wolfe is that he is still alive and can protest. They sure don’t seem to have a problem with Philip K. Dick, who was IMNSHO, mostly a pulp writer.

    Next up in the enrapturing process will no doubt be “James Tiptree, Jr.”

    Look for sainthood to be bestowed on Ursula K. LeGuin or Samuel R. Delany when they shuffle off this mortal coil.

    (To avoid misunderstanding: Yes, I like the authors mentioned. No, I don’t like mostt of academia. Yes, I’m mostly being sarcastic. Your Mileage May Varying. Madness brings a toll, please use exact change.)

  23. Fred, an explanation on the “2 or 3” comment…I wanted to get more than a single title from people. If you’d like to post more than that, have at it. Oh, I see you have! 😉

  24. Well, here’s the definition of literary that I used to think about this question. I don’t claim it’s The definition. I think a literary book must contain one or more of these three elements: prose that indicates that the author not only cared about what they were saying, but how they were saying it; a statement on social, philosophical or psychological issues; and/or an innovative approach to the art of written storytelling (structure, viewpoint, chronology, etc.) So, here are my, admittedly genre-bending, nominees:

    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    Viriconium by M. John Harrison (debatable whether this is a uniquely structured novel or a series of interrelated novellas and short stories)

    The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and Schrodinger’s Cat by Robert Anton Wilson

    The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

    Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

  25. Fred:

    Henlein and Simak died in 1988.

    Herbert, of course. I was rushed

    getting that out :0


  26. I’d have to agree with some of Dan’s choices. China Mieville’s series which includes Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council are tremendous literary Fantasy Novels.

    The Dark Tower series is one of my favorites but I’m not sure I’d clsssify it as literary. It certainly is epic though.

    I’d put in a vote for Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast Trilogy.

    I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. While not SF, it fits into the speculative fiction category. A post-apocolyptic story a la “The Stand” or “Swan Song”, if they were written by Ernest Hemingway. It was excellent and I think, quite literary.

  27. I’ll have to throw in with all the other Wolfe fans, although I’m only up to “Urth of the New Sun.” I haven’t tackled Long Sun or further yet. One thing I found particularly appealing about his books was the beautiful prose style and rhythm as well as the layered story-telling, imagery, etc. I tore through them because the prose just sucked me in, which of course means I’ll have to reread them at some point to try to absorb more of the detail.

    For literary I’d also mention “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis – it seemed more ‘literary’ than “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” but maybe that’s simply because it’s more tragic?

    I’d also say “Light” by M. John Harrison, although that also falls into the category of “depressing and hard to fathom – it must be Literature!”

  28. 5. Honorable mention also must go to Cordwainer Smith, for such gems of the art as “Scanners Live in Vain” or “Dead Lady of Clown Town.”

    Truly touched with the genius of the Hippocrene.

  29. How about Zelazny’s Lord of Light? I think I did a high school literature paper on one or two of Poul Anderson’s short stories (Marius and Goat Song, maybe)–does that make them literature? 😉

  30. Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

    Some times I think Dan goes out foraging for the best in class of Philosphy no matter how unrelated and then does his thing to glue it all together.

  31. M. John Harrison’s Light: One character routinely masturbates while watching his sister and her friends, and another character kills a whole ship of people. A very pleasant read. No wonder Neil Gaiman loves it.

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