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. 

A Look Into: America’s Top 10 Books Based on “The Great American Read”

Tonight, Tuesday, October 23, 2018, PBS will announce, based on votes, which book is “America’s Best-Loved Book.” The series and the vote were announced last spring, and the last few weeks have given viewers and readers a brief in-depth look into each book. The 100 books were categorized based on theme, not genre, which makes it for a more relevant look into the books. Now, PBS has reached the end of the series, viewers have reached the end of voting, and American readers will know which book was selected as “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

Twelve days ago, the Top 10 Books, based on voting were announced. Here they are, not listed by vote rank:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White                       Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell         The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis        Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë                         Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling           Little Women by Louisa May Alcott                    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien        Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen       Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon        To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Take a look at the way I listed PBS’ Top 10 Books. Have you noticed anything? The column to the left has a list of books that can be categorized under the “fantasy” genre; and, the column to the right has a list of books that can be categorized as “historical” fiction. What does this say about America’s taste in literature? What does it say about the notions surrounding fantasy literature?

First, the historical fiction books; two novels take place (before,) during (and after) the American Civil War, two novels are about society in England during the 1800s, and one novel is about segregation in the United States during The Great Depression. All of these novels give readers insight into the social dissonance occurring during certain moments in human history. People have either read one or more of these books for school, or saw the film adaptation at some point in the lives. Their stories are familiar by all, and well loved by readers.

Now, for the fantasy books, all of which have at least one media adaptation whether or not it’s movie or television. Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling are from Britain, and E.B. White—not to be confused with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King—and Diana Gabaldon are from the United States. Each of these fantasy novels (and series) falls under different subgenres. Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia are for children and have talking animals, which comes from Aesop’s Fables; Harry Potter is a bildungsroman series that follows Harry Potter and his friends and schoolmates as they learn about magic and prepare to fight against the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort; and, The Lord of the Rings and Outlander are fantasy novels that make up a larger compendium of books set in the world the characters reside in, Middle-earth and 18th Century Scotland, respectively.

It’s interesting how fantasy fiction is beloved enough to keep the genre growing and going. Fantasy and fairy stories are not only for children—read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories—but also they are not enjoyed by all children. Children who grew up reading fantasy and fairy tales grow up and write stories of the same genre as adults. And, some of those stories are for adult readers. The author determines the audience whom his/her/their story is read; and yet, two of the fantasy books in the Top 10 are fantasy stories for adults. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fantasy world, and in Outlander, the protagonist time travels to the past by means of supernatural elements.

Fantasy has been an established literary genre since the publication of both The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Lewis and Tolkien are recognized as being two of the authors who helped solidify the genre. Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, respectively, which were a few of the early fantasy books in which the fantasy genre emerged. All of the mentioned books were popular enough for media adaptations, and those films brought more attention to the books. Harry Potter brought fantasy to a towering level that no one saw coming. Fantasy literature is an established, recognized, and read genre. Hence, the books that made it into “The Great American Read” Top 10 List.

Do I believe any of the fantasy novels in the Top 10 will be chosen as “America’s Best-Loved Book”? No, I do not, but not due to the reason you may or may not believe. While I am an enthusiastic reader of the fantasy (and other speculative fiction) genre, I—like everyone else—had to read certain books as a student in grade school and in college. And, I enjoyed reading some of those books for my English classes. I was able to relate to the characters and comprehend the social issues mentioned throughout each novel. Some of the themes found in those novels still resonate in today’s society. I’m not saying that that isn’t the case with the fantasy books in the Top 10, but one novel calls out “America” to me whenever I think about the title. And, that book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

First published in 1960, during the American Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout and her family who are living in Alabama during The Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel illustrates the loss of innocence Scout and her brother, Jem, experience when their father, Atticus—a lawyer, defends a disabled black man accused of raping a white woman. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been said to be a literary response to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till’s murder sparked outrage nationwide, and was the event that would eventually lead to the start Civil Rights Movement.

Over 60 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains on school reading lists and is listed as an “American Classic.” Personally, I believe this novel has just as many life lessons and memorable characters such as Aslan from Narnia, Gandalf from Middle-earth, Professor Dumbledore from Hogwarts, and Charlotte from Zuckerman’s Farm. As someone who grew up during the publication of the Harry Potter books while old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the former books to be enjoyable and the latter book to be more thought provoking as I continue living in a changing United States.

Harper Lee does not shy away from the issues of race and class in her novel. In addition, she was not afraid of including the harsh reality of life that her child characters had to witness and to endure. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to teach readers of all ages that judging people based on their traits and not their appearances or their living situation is essential to being a good person. Yes, there are people who harm the innocent and get away with it, but treating people the way they deserve to be treated—with respect—goes a long way.

PBS’ “The Great American Read” allowed denizens in the U.S. to review what many people read and enjoy. The great thing about the special was that all genres of literature were considered. Furthermore, the special gave insight into which books, many which remain on school reading lists, are and remain popular by readers and non-readers alike.

Why You Need to Read: Battle Royale: The Novel

 

Battle Royale: The Novel

By: Koushun Takami

Translated by: Yuji Oniki

Published: April 1999 (Japan); February 26, 2003 (in English)

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Horror

 

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

Shuya took a moment to think before he received his black day pack, and he did the same as he approached Fumiyo Fujiyoshi’s corpse, shutting his eyes. He wanted to remove the knife from her forehead but decided against it.

            When he stepped out of the classroom, he felt a pang of regret, wishing he had removed it for her.

            40 STUDENTS REMAINING(Chapter 6).

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1924) by Richard Connell and Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding are two of the many required readings for schools in the United States and in other countries. Their plots are straightforward: protagonist(s) ends up on an island in which they have to survive on and survive from the individual(s) who are trying to kill him/them. Then, on September 1, 2009, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was published with a movie deal in the works. After the movie was released in 2012, a few critics of “independent” and “foreign” movies were mentioning Battle Royale. Some fans of the movie accused Suzanne Collins of “stealing” the concept of Battle Royale for The Hunger Games. And, that’s not true. Adults (and children) killing each other for no reason happen all the time, sadly.

It is said that the author, Koushun Takami, read Lord of the Flies and found it to be good, but “outdated.” Inspired by other books and action movies, Takami wrote Battle Royale.The text is an expansion to Golding’s book in that there are both male and female students, there are 42 of them, there are more point-of-view chapters from many of those characters, and the deaths are plentiful and gruesome!

In addition to the 42 students and two teachers, there is the “Team Leader.” While we don’t get the P.O.V.s of all of the characters, we gain both the personalities and the upbringings of all of them. And, since this is a novel about adolescents in a dystopian society, it’s not a spoiler to let you know that some of these students do NOT come from good homes. Plus, multiple P.O.V.s means that the readers will learn the reasons the students either participate, or don’t participate in the “program.”

The plot of Battle Royale is straightforward: an entire class of Japanese students are abducted and forced to participate in a deadly game of manhunt. Each student is given a duffel bad with supplies and a random weapon. All of the students are set loose on an island and the “game” remains active until one student is left alive. Additionally, someone must die every 24 hours, or a detonation device goes off, killing ALL OF THEM!

The narrative goes from 1st person to 3rd person over and over again. This is done when more than one student is around to comprehend the mood of the story. Plus, we learn the backstory of several of the students and we learn why, or why not, each of them participates in the “game.” Some of these students are damaged, some are entitled, and the rest are scared.

The style is action-paced with students dying throughout the “game” in numerous ways. Takami’s tone reflects what he’s attempting to pull off: a cringe-worthy and addictive story of kids who are forced to take part in what their broken society wants them to, without their—or their families’—consent.

The appeal—like any other story of this sort—was originally controversial. It turned out Takami was worried that his novel would be classified as “dark” and “violent,” and he waited two years to have it published! At first, critics in Japan were disturbed by the violence. Afterwards, it became both popular and a best seller. The quick-paced plot and the storyline and believable characters intrigued the public. Takami gave his readers something that William Golding did not: female characters. Battle Royale reminds readers that everyone has a dark and lethal side within themselves.

Almost immediately after Battle Royale’s publication, a movie was ordered and released in 2000. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku, the movie matches the pace of the book, and the death of the characters. The film adaptation was a success in Japan and was going through “the undergrounds” outside of its home country. You can watch it on Netflix. Of course, the movie has been called “one of my favorites” by Quentin Tarentino, and is labeled as “the story ripped off by The Hunger Games, which (again) is not true, but more on that another time (Read: “It All Started with…Lord of the Flies). There is a manga adaptation that I have NOT read, but will eventually, but the movie will NOT let you down!

I enjoyed this novel because the author took the concept of “fighting to the death” to a whole different level. Unlike The Hunger Games, the location is deserted, so the characters are allowed to reside inside the buildings. Similar to Lord of the Flies, the characters, these adolescents, run amok due to their emotional state. And, let’s not forget the influence from The Most Dangerous Game! A handful of these students are hunting down their classmates! Battle Royale is an update and an expansion to our school assigned readings. But, keep in mind you’ll need to read those three stories in order to appreciate this import from Japan.

My final rating: Enjoy It!