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. 

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Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

                              -Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

            2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in which a few years after the establishment of Jamestown, a trade route was formed amongst 3 continents. Europe would travel to the Americas with colonists and supplies, the Americas would provide goods and resources that would be imported back to Europe. And, Africa would provide workers—I mean, slaves—to be relocated either to Europe, or to the Americas. This was the beginning of the colonies, the execution of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans. All the while, a new culture was being established in the Americas, a land that was always inhabited. Now, in the year 2020—a year of the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election—the world is witnessing non-stop protests and riots that are the result of this glossed over history. 

            2020 started promising with the world anticipating and dreading upcoming events: the Summer Olympics, the Euro Cup, E3 2020, the U.S. Elections, etc. However, a pandemic the living world has never experienced before consumed everything. The entire human population was at a standstill and there was no choice but to have everyone hunker down and wait for “normalcy” to return, knowing that “normal” would take on a new meaning for everyone. At first, it was amusing to see European politicians taking charge of the quarantined guidelines (i.e. walking the streets and cursing at anyone who didn’t remain indoors), and after the first panic wave, U.S. citizens became “adjusted” as well. Unfortunately, COVID-19 reminded people about the little things they used to enjoy and have taken for granted. Suddenly, going to the movies and getting a haircut became missed luxuries. At the same time, millions of Americans lost their jobs, but still had bills and rent to pay. Not to mention, several towns in rural America—where the number of cases were low—were eager to return to work and were ready to reopen schools and businesses. When this was denied to them, the locals stormed the State’s Capitol Building(s) armed with guns and other weapons. When this was presented on the news, many people were surprised that the protestors were all Caucasian. Where were the local minorities, and why weren’t they participating in the protests? Meanwhile, it became clear to minorities that societal practices were still being carried out regardless of a global pandemic. In addition to the lack of medical testing for Blacks, Latinx, and people of lower income, there were several attacks on Asians due to the growing prejudice from the fear of COVID-19. I say Asians because some of the victims were NOT Chinese, but were Japanese, Korean, and other Asian descent. It looked like the United States was starting to return to normalcy, and racism was the start of it. 

            By May 2020, after 2 months of endless reruns and news coverage of COVID-19, the U.S. had returned to harassing and to killing unarmed Black Americans. First, was the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot and killed by two White civilians while jogging in Georgia. The two gunmen stated that they were protecting the neighborhood from robbers. Next, was the shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Police in Kentucky. The police officers were conducting a drug raid when they entered the wrong house and shot Taylor 8 times, killing her. Then, there was the incident involving Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park. Amy Cooper was ignoring park guidelines when she was confronted by Christian Cooper. Ms. Cooper decided to play “the victim” and called the cops claiming she was “being threatened by a Black man.” Luckily for the Black man, the entire incident was caught on camera thanks to a smartphone. Last, there is the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officers. After a case of mistaken identity, Floyd was said to be cooperating with the police when one of the officers knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd yelled over and over again that he couldn’t breathe while witnesses—both White and Black—begged the officer to get off of him while recording the incident. Within one month, 4 different, but common, incidents of American racism captured the attention of people who’ve been living a stagnant life and searching for something to watch either on T.V. or online. Suddenly, people started looking into these incidents and realized that there were too many names to shift through. 3 months of emotions boiled over into nationwide protesting. And suddenly, COVID-19 was no longer the “top story” on the news, and people took to the streets to voice their concerns and their outrage. 

            Yes, some of the protests turned violent with riots and looting occurring. Yet, Internet videos presented the reality within these protests: many of those who lost their jobs joined the protests alongside racists and Antifa, trying to turn the peaceful protests into something else. Now, why would racists and Antifa participate in these protests? It’s because they know they can cause as much destruction and anarchy as they want and blame it on Black Lives Matter. And, for a while, it was working. However, witnesses, security cameras and police work demonstrated some truths: many of the vandals were Caucasian. That’s not to say that some of the looters were NOT Black (the looting I witnessed at my job was done by minorities), but it goes to show how racism continues to dominate everything in the U.S. 

            Now, if I asked you to name 5 Black comedians, would you be able to do it? How about 5 victims of racism and/or police brutality from the last 20 years? I bet you can name more comedians than victims, and hence we reached one of the many issues regarding these protests. You’ve heard the names and many excuses have been made for those who killed them, but you all claim you understand now why we’re angry. Sorry, but a lot of minorities don’t believe you because these incidents repeat over and over again. Then, older people claim that these protests remind them of the ones during the 1960s and the 1970s. Did they forget about the protests that occurred during the 1990s and the early 2000s? Let’s take a look at America’s racial protest history. 

            Emmett Till’s murder on August 28, 1955 was the spark of the Civil Rights Movement—Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells were some of the prominent figures from the movement during the 1920s. Yet, it seems modern American society wants to acknowledge only Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. due to his “non-violent policy,” which was influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. People forget that the non-violent protests were Dr. King’s way of presenting the brutality of White culture towards Coloreds; and, he made sure it was all caught on television. It seems that the efforts of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael were for naught, especially when the first two activists were assassinated before Dr. King. That’s right those three Civil Rights leaders were assassinated including the “peaceful” one. It was Dr. King’s death which saw the rise of the Black Panther Party led by both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panther Party scared Americans throughout the 1970s because they bought guns (and used them) in order to protect themselves. Ironically, this would lead to a change in the open carry law in California. 

Now, how many of those names were you familiar with? And no, Dr. King doesn’t count. While Dr. King does deserve the praise and the recognition, the issue lies in the fact that he receives all of the glory. Dr. King has so many printed biographies that some can be labelled as a poor resource in comparison to the other ones. And, his quotes are used and taken out of context so often that they’re starting to lose their meaning. Meanwhile, The Autobiography of Malcolm X continues to be removed from the curriculum in schools across the U.S. And, what about James Baldwin and Richard Wright? They’re books were instrumental during the Civil Rights Movement, but they have been moved to Black History readings and potential mentions on A.P. and I.B. examinations. It’s almost like Black Americans have to do the research themselves. Speaking of which, now that the majority of the current population now knows what “The Black Wallstreet Massacre” is thanks to WATCHMEN, then maybe now is a good time to watch the movie, Rosewood.

The same can be said about other “minorities” and their history in relation to American society. We should know who Che Guevara, Rigoberta Menchú, and the Mirabel Sisters are and their significance to the Latinx culture and history. We need to understand why the Cambodian genocide and the Rape of Nanking were just as horrific as The Holocaust and the Bombing of Guernica. And, we must learn why Africa continues to be a “hot spot” for large corporations even now. And, we cannot forget about Malala Yousafzai!

The last 30 years has had cases of police brutality caught on video in one format or another. The Rodney King video was, until recently, the most infamous recording of police brutality. Four police officers beat Rodney King—who was pulled over for a DUI—with batons, while someone just happened to be out with their camcorder and recorded the entire incident. The majority of Americans believed that the tape was enough proof of the tales surrounding police violence, until the verdict of “not guilty” was announced, and the Los Angeles Riots occurred in response and in reaction to that verdict. When Eric Garner was killed, the person who recorded the incident was arrested, but not the officer who was responsible for his death. Philando Castile’s death was streamed on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, and the officer was found not guilty. I’m not saying all police officers are racist. When I was 14 years-old, a White cop started following me in his patrol car. It happened more than once, and he even followed me to my (parents’) house—I dangled my keys in front of me show he could see that I lived there. The other Black students at my school and one teacher, who was White, took my fear of that police officer seriously. That teacher had me recount my tale to another police officer who was visiting my school. I told him where I lived and gave him the car number. His anger caught me off guard. The police officer, who was also White, knew who that other officer was, and he told me he would take care of it. He did, and I never saw that police officer in town (where I lived) again. In hindsight, that officer could have had any malicious intent. My point is that it took the efforts of another officer to put an end to my police harassment. Unfortunately, it seems that the good cops are in the same positions as Black Americans: helpless. 

One would like to believe that with the amount of attention this issue is getting we might see some progress. Then again, let me be straightforward and tell you that all of the media coverage is due to the fact that Americans have been dealing with a lack of purpose for months. That is not to say that there is a lack of compassion, just a knowledge that unless new laws, policies, and practices are put into place, nothing is going to change. And, I don’t mean the police. All American denizens need to admit and to accept that systematic racism is constant in our country. We allow White Americans to carry themselves however they want, but minorities have to have “The Talk” with their children when they’re as young as 6 years-old. Minorities are taught how to be “themselves” while conforming to White America’s standards, while White children are able to exploit their minority teachers and peers with racist taunts, names, and hand gestures. White children are labeled “sensitive” and minority children are labeled “difficult.” And, before you comment, it’s not all White children who are taught how to get away with these things—it was a bystander who recorded the chant of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma—but it is common knowledge. To make matters worse, society isn’t doing enough to implement change. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made it onto the American Library Association’s “Most Challenged Books” for the reason that the book is “anti-cop.” With recent events, will more parents and teachers read both that book and Dear Martin by Nic Stone? Will (book) publishers make more of an effort to publish more books by diverse authors about issues that affect them and those groups. While we all want “happy endings” both in stories and in reality, everyone should know better to believe it’ll fall into our laps. Work and awareness helps everyone deal with everything the world throws at us. 

So, let the media “care” about systematic oppression and let the sports moguls pretend to “acknowledge” racism in sports. But, unless actual change involving laws and societal practices come into play, I will remain skeptical. And, I believe it’s safe to say that many minorities feel the same way. In addition to violence against Black Americans, there have been prejudice and bigotry against the Latinx, the Asian, the Jewish, and the Muslim communities; not to mention, the few incidents involving Native Americans—remember “The Trail of Tears.” Recognition is appreciated, but we need acknowledgement and action before we know that things will begin to change. We’re just waiting to see whether or not the police officers involved in George Floyd’s death will receive a guilty verdict. We can only hope for so much, but we don’t allow our expectations to cloud the possibilities. Those who choose to remain ignorant are not allowed to be “shocked” when things don’t go as expected. 

It’s been 155 years since the emancipation of slaves, and oppression has evolved in order to maintain control over minorities. From slavery to Jim Crow to prison to systematic racism keeps us in fear, not in control. And, when the obvious gets ignored over and over again, the emotions shift from fear to anger. Anger can only be bottled up for so long before it becomes rage. And, a lot of people are ready to release their rage. While we don’t want that to happen, it looks as if the rage will burst sooner rather than later. I will continue to hope for the best with low expectations. 

Let us remember the following “known” victims of past lynchings (courtesy of BabyNames.com):