Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response. 

Speculative Fiction: A Label for the Growing Spectrum of the Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror

*My 100th Blog Post!*

For the past year in which I have devoted more time to working on my blog, I have gained a larger audience—followers, readers and other supporters—than I thought possible. Remember, even the most successful bloggers and vloggers start out as “small channels” and are thankful for those who support them. I feel the same way. Knowing that you all have taken the time to read, to comment, to subscribe/follow, and to share my content is a great feeling. I’m extremely grateful for all of you, and it’s because of you all I know what I’m doing is being appreciated by the macrocosm. 

            One of several topics I’ve been discussing with other fans, readers, bloggers and vloggers is the concept of genre and the limitations its definition bestows upon it. The notion that genres can and should be placed within “fixed” classifications is similar to the concept that gender is binary—which, it isn’t! Over the last 100 years, the genres have become more ubiquitous and more successful due to books written by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.K. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Shirley Jackson, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, Alan Moore, Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. And, due to movies such as: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira, etc. Toward the end of the 20th century, other formats of literature and visual entertainment such as comics, graphic novels, manga, video games and music were becoming more popular and expansive. Imports from around the world—i.e. Japan, India, Spain, etc.—have presented popular works of these genres to fans as well. 

            Before the 2000s—I want to say around the 1970s—an emergence of works were presented and released to the public. Besides the Harry Potter Phenomenon and The Lord of the Rings movies, there was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, and the continued book releases by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Robert Jordan. In addition, video games were growing in popularity and in addition to Mario, Sonic and Zelda there were Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Shin Megami Tensei. Even those who weren’t reading the books, watching the TV shows or movies, or playing the video games were exposed to fantasy, science fiction and horror. Yet, why did some people prefer Harry Potter over The Lord of the Rings? What was it about Laurell K. Hamilton’s books that had some readers prefer her books over Anne Rice’s? What is it about Shin Megami Tensei, which has several spinoffs—including Persona—that has more of a cult fan base that players find appealing? 

            What I’m getting at is: how would you describe a book like The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the Dragon Quest video game series (besides Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs), or even the Batman comics? Yes, one is a Young Adult novel, one is a JRPG, and the last is a superhero comic book series; but, aren’t there other genres to classify these works besides their marketing ones? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is a blend of fantasy, science (fiction), religion and philosophy—what did you expect from an Oxford professor? Dragon Quest is a JRPG with elements from the fantasy and adventure genres. Batman—one of the oldest and greatest superhero series of all-time—is a gritty and dark story about a traumatized man who uses his wealth and his wits to go up against the most dangerous criminals in his city. Nowadays, we would consider Batman to be a psychological thriller superhero series with elements of grimdark. Then again, with the recent success of the TV shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there were many non-readers and fans who said things like, “I don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones,” or “I don’t like zombies, but The Walking Dead is a great show,” etc. Yes, those shows were media adaptations, which are examples of fantasy and dystopia books that “divert” from “traditional” or “familiar” tropes. However, there are fans of those tropes who are not interested in neither the TV show nor the books. So, why are those the exceptions? They are NOT!

            Speculative fiction is a term that is being used more and more in order to describe literature and media that fall under the “traditional” genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics. According to Marek Oziewicz, speculative fiction, “includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales and more,” (3). In other words, speculative fiction includes: urban fantasy, mythological fantasy, zombies, paranormal, space operas, metaphysical, silkpunk, occult, military, historical, romance, etc., etc. Any and all of the genres and subgenres makeup this term.

            So why do some people—authors, writers, readers, critics, academics, fans—use this term? It’s because there are times when a medium either has more than two genres associated within it or displays aspects of speculative fiction that doesn’t fall under any of the “fixed” genres. For example, the Super Mario Bros. franchise is a video game series classified under both “action/adventure” and “platformer,” but could it be categorized in the fantasy genre due to the levels being in an imaginary world, or could it fall under horror or paranormal due to the ghosts and the skeletons, or even science fiction, especially in the context of the Super Mario Galaxy games? In this case, the term speculative fiction would fit best for this gaming franchise. I should mention that I’m not the one who should be recategorizing video games. Then again, this is proof that the term speculative fiction is becoming both recognizable and interchangeable. 

            Speculative fiction seems to become the more acceptable them to use when explaining works and forms of non-mimetic fiction without listing all of the many subgenres associated with it. Recent examples include The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The first has been categorized under fantasy, science fiction, dystopian literature and magic realism (the last one was on Amazon); and, the second has been categorized under fantasy, mythology, magic realism and historical fiction. Which is easier: listing all of those genres and subgenres in a description, or saying speculative fiction containing elements of certain genres and subgenres such as: a story about the end of the world and Mayan Gods during the Jazz Age? While speculative fiction is an umbrella term, many of us have been using it as a shortcut to explain a collection of books, films and video games. 

            Another factor surrounding speculative fiction concerns education and academia. How many of you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe and/or Turn of the Screw by Henry James in school and in college? How many of you remember reading The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories in school or in college? And, how many of you remember reading one of the many dystopian books: Lord of the Flies, A Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Brave New World, etc., in school and in college? Now, how many fantasy, fairy tales, and myths and legends were assigned to you after primary/elementary school? Keep in mind, there are courses and electives about these genres in college, but not everyone gets to take those classes (I was lucky enough to do so). Without going into too much detail, I’ve had disputes about fantasy literature with a few academic professors. Some of them believe that fantasy has no place in higher education except for in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (i.e. teaching, library science). However, scholars are responsible for some of the most recognized works in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman were Oxford professors. In addition, there are academic scholars who study and write books and articles about fantasy, science fiction and horror such as: Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, John Grant, Nnedi Okorafor, John Clute, Jack Zipes and Tzvetan Todorov. This history and the study of these genres are just as essential as reading the fiction. I hate to say it, but speculative fiction seems to be the “safer” and the “more acceptable” term to use when it comes to discussing these genres. 

            So, why do I use the term speculative fiction? My simplest answer is because it signifies all of the genres I enjoy to read, to watch, to write and to game the most. Saying speculative fiction instead of the longlist of genres and subgenres is the easiest and the quickest way to describe certain works of media. If a book can be categorized in more than one genre or subgenre, then why not save the breakdown for a discussion with others in a fandom, or with authors and publishers? Most important, using the term speculative fiction does not limit the story of any medium to one genre. It allows a fan of a metaphysical book to say that “there’s elements of fantasy in this story,” or “the religion in this book is based on the myths and the history of this ancient civilization.” Speculative fiction is a term that allows an audience to observe the broader spectrum of a medium with similar beginnings and interconnecting styles of storytelling. However, there will continue to be moments where a book is categorized as “hard sci-fi,” a video game is of the “horror” genre, and Disney continues to fracture fairy tales. This is the new Golden Age of Speculative Fiction so we might as well enjoy everything that is presented to us while opening the doors for an open interpretation. 

            Thank you for reading my post(s), following my blog and my social media pages! Here’s to many more posts in the future and to several open discussions! Please like and comment here or on my other posts; and, be sure to check out the following references about our favorite genre(s). 

                                                                        References

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2012.  

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Martin, Philip. A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment. Crickhollow Books, 2009.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 2017, p.1-22. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.