17 of the Most Literary Science Fiction Novels

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By now we all acknowledge that science fiction isn’t pulpy wish-fulfillment for nerds and literary novels aren’t pretentious bore-fests for academics.

Well, I mean, they are that, sometimes. But they can also be so much more.

And despite screams of protest from fans of both genres, these paper-bound proton packs cross streams more often than you'd think, with varying results.

The idea that science fiction can explore profound ideas, or that literary works can include fantastical technology, still manages to horrify plenty of people. If your stodgy old middle school English teacher knew that you quote Darth Vader more than Holden Caulfield, she’d have that aneurysm all over again. Some people just don’t want ray guns in their post-modernist malaise, and vice versa.

The truth is that science fiction and more academically acceptable literature have been having secret make-out sessions in the broom closet since long before your English professor was reading Nabokov at Vietnam War protest rallies. (That’s something proto-professors were doing back then, right?)

So let’s explore some of the most literary science fiction novels.

But before we start, let’s define what we mean by “literary.” (Uh oh, I can hear the pitchforks coming out already.) We’re talking about “serious” books that are more concerned with having something to say than telling a story. These novels prefer intellectual ideas and the human condition to simple entertainment, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. (Hey! I hear you snickering. Stop it.) This list will definitely contain those sci-fi novels that carry on the literary tradition of being completely obtuse, overly metaphorical, and obscenely multi-layered to the point that no one knows what’s going on.

Let’s also get a few of the most obvious books out of the way, the ones that have been on so many required reading lists that no one really thinks of them as science fiction anymore. For instance, there are a nice string of Cold War-era dystopias that you’ve claimed to have read for a grade sometime during your education: 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Then you have some of the classics from back when science fiction wasn’t really a thing, yet: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, just about any Jules Verne book, and maybe even Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which all display some varying levels of literary-ness. (I just heard more snickering, but it might have been the ghost of Samuel Clemens this time.)

You may have varying opinions about which books deserve to be on this list. And we’re hoping you have some hilarious English class anecdotes regarding views of science fiction. Either way, sound off in the comments. Now, on to the most literary of science fiction novels.


'Ubik' by Philip K. Dick

I knew you were expecting a Philip K. Dick novel on this list. I could almost feel the vibrations of all your mouse wheels frantically scrolling down to look for Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep. Hopefully I have vindicated and disappointed you all at the same time.

All of old PKD’s novels have that literary quality that can most succinctly be summarized with the word, “Gwuh?”, but they also deal with some deep ideas. Ubik is impossible to summarize in a sentence or two because it’s nuts, but it still feels relevant. Also, you never really figure out what’s real and what’s not. Classic literary move there, Mr. Dick.

Buy Ubik from Amazon.com

'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy

This is for McCarthy fans and the people who like to point out to them that they just read a science fiction novel. If McCarthy’s sentence structure isn’t speculative enough for you, look at the post-apocalyptic wasteland setting. Some pretty serious science fiction tropes there, whether you like it or not.

Buy The Road from Amazon.com

'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s hard to decide whether this or The Dispossessed belongs on the list more. Fortunately, they both take place in the same universe, and they’re equally thought-provoking. LeGuin is widely known in the science fiction community as a very literary writer, so she’s a solid lock for this list. The Left Hand of Darkness appears in particular because it’s (roughly) epistolary and deals with themes of gender, religion, and communication.

Buy The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace Science Fiction) from Amazon.com

'The Handmaid’s Tale' by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood might be a little upset to find herself on this list because she has been very vocal about not considering herself a science fiction writer. Sorry, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale is sci-fi. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel in 1987, for Asimov’s sake. It’s also a pretty harrowing dystopian tale about female subjugation. If feminist themes don’t qualify it as literary, I don’t know what will.

Buy The Handmaid's Tale from Amazon.com

'The Giver' by Lois Lowry

Remember that time in grade school when your teacher told you to read a “kid’s book” with a black cover and a melancholy bearded man on the front? Remember a few weeks later when you finished it and wanted to yell at your teacher for introducing you to something that doesn’t have a happy, conclusive, Saturday-morning-cartoons-style ending? That was this book. The Giver has been terrorizing and (hopefully) expanding little minds for 20 years now. Also, it’s more evidence to support the idea that literary authors love dystopias.

Buy The Giver (Readers Circle (Laurel-Leaf)) from Amazon.com

'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s Kurt Vonnegut, and it involves alien abduction and time travel. That’s all I need to say. It also supports the theory that when literary writers don’t go with dystopia, they lean toward time travel.

Buy Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) from Amazon.com

'The Time Traveler’s Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger

See what I meant about time travel? This book is unique in that it has been classified as both science fiction and romance. It either won or was nominated for plenty of awards in and out of the science fiction community.

Buy The Time Traveler's Wife from Amazon.com

'Kindred' by Octavia Butler

Continuing the time travel theme, this book follows a young black woman as she is transported back through time to a slave plantation in the old South. Butler is well recognized for the quality and depth of her science fiction writing, and she even received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.

Buy Holt McDougal Library: Kindred from Amazon.com

'Hard-Boiled Wonderland' by Haruki Murakami

This is another great “Gwuh?” novel. Every other chapter, the narrative switches between science fiction and fantasy, and is tied together in some crazy fashion inside the protagonist’s mind. There are human computers, unicorn skulls that deliver dreams, and… well, you’ve just got to read it.

Buy Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel (Vintage International) from Amazon.com

'The Glass Bead Game' by Hermann Hesse

Not only is it a fantastic bit of futurist prose about the limits of technology and intellect, it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. It has all the hallmarks of good literature (heck, it’s often called a bildungsroman, which is German for “My hipster boyfriend demanded that I read this”) and an absurd future quiz game.

Buy The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel from Amazon.com

'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delaney

This one is a doozy. It’s crazy, complex, full of mystery and metaphor, and definitely science fiction. In the grand tradition of literary novels, this one has left many a reader scratching their head or tossing the thing at a wall in frustration.

Buy Dhalgren from Amazon.com

'The Self Reference Engine' by Toh EnJoe

Speaking of challenging literature, this one is completely impenetrable. It’s a series of short stories that combine to form a larger narrative, but they also intertwine and play off one another. Not only is it a slog, it’s pretty mind-bending, too, with plenty of scientific principles twisted into it. If you enjoy deep ideas (that often require a technical, mathematical, or scientific background to fully understand) this book is fun, but you still may find yourself getting lost within the chapters.

Buy Self-Reference ENGINE from Amazon.com

'Never Let me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which safely covers both the literary and science fiction ends of the spectrum. It also seems to be many things to many people, as various critics have place it in the horror, thriller, and coming of age genres.

Buy Never Let Me Go from Amazon.com

'Shikasta' by Doris Lessing

I was going to argue this is literary science fiction based on the fact that the author is a Nobel-prize winner, and the story is basically a history textbook as interpreted by an alien race. But I think author Damien Walter’s summary does it better: Shikasta “unit[es] the infinities of the far future and intergalactic space with the psychological depths of human mythology and spirituality whilst laying a feminist critique of the entire history of human civilization. And it has some of the absolute trippiest, mind warping imagery of any SF novel ever written.” That seems sufficient.

Buy Shikasta: Re, Colonised Planet 5 (Vintage International) from Amazon.com

'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem

Lem is known for injecting philosophy into his works, and Solaris is no exception. The book follows a research team studying a planet that may actually be a sentient organism studying them in return. Cue ominous music.

Buy Solaris from Amazon.com

'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead

We’ll argue about whether zombies are science fiction or strictly horror later. For now, this is a science fiction novel by a widely recognized literary author. Turns out he’s pretty good at mixing genres.

Buy Zone One from Amazon.com

'Super Sad True Love Story' by Gary Shteyngart

Even though Apparats sound an awful lot like regular smartphones, and the GlobalTeens network is basically an even worse version of Facebook (sounds impossible, I know), this story takes place in a dystopian version of New York. As advertised, it tells a love story that’s interesting and deals with some themes that might sound familiar, such as materialism, government oversight, and dependence on media.

Buy Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel from Amazon.com


This is just the beginning of literary science fiction. Check out other novels by these authors because most of them don’t disappoint. Just don’t read PKD while on drugs. The nightmares are bad enough while sober.

Tell us in the comments which books should or shouldn’t be on the list, or alternatively, go on a rant about what the true definition of “literary” is, you literary crusader, you.

Daniel Hope

Column by Daniel Hope

Daniel Hope is a writer, ukelele player, and unrepentant nerd. He has worked as a technology journalist (too frantic), a PR writer (too smarmy), and a marketing writer (too fake). He is currently the Managing Editor of Fiction Vortex, an online publication for science fiction and fantasy short stories. At FV, he's known as the Voice of Reason. That means FV staff members wish he would stop worrying all the time. He thinks they should stop smiling so much.

Daniel Hope lives in California and dreams of writing more. When distraught about his output, he consoles himself with great beaches and gorgeous weather. He recently published his science fiction novel, The Inevitable, on the Kindle Store and Smashwords. Find out more at his site: SpeculativeIntent.com.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 13, 2013 - 6:17pm

Dan Simmons' Hyperion & Fall of Hyperion, as well as Ilium and Oympos I believe count as very literary science fiction. Aliens debating Proust vs Shakespeare while interrupting the quantum-gods' battles during the Trojan War. It's very apropos.

I liked Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell. Self-realization through alien abduction. And a nobel prize.

Although I've only read about half of those listed. I'm definitely interested in the other half. Thank you for the article.

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 13, 2013 - 9:38pm

UBIK is sci-fi, literary or pulp, at its weirdest and greatest. 

R A Deckert's picture
R A Deckert November 13, 2013 - 10:35pm

Alma Alexander's work - whether historical fantasy like "Secrets of Jin Shei" or "Embers fo Heaven" or more contemporary novel like "Midnight at Spanish Gardens" - is always, whatever its genre on the face of it, a lush and literary experience.

Some interesting choices on your list. A handful I haven't read, and probably should.

 

True Romaine Spence's picture
True Romaine Spence November 14, 2013 - 1:46am

Any list of Literary science fiction that does not include the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons is  definitely incomplete.  I take exception with Slaughterhouse Five because I simply thought it was pretentious and silly -- but then I think that way about most Vonnegut stuff.  No idea about UBIK, but then again, I haven't liked any book of his that I read, so I'll probably never know. 'Hard-Boiled Wonderland' by Haruki Murakami sounds very interesting.  I've read a number of his works and liked them all.  When reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, I thought he had the makings of an interesting sub-genre and hoped he would pursue it.  Sheep Chase was a bit disappointing, but still interesting.


As for the other's on the list, I'll put them in my phone for the next time I hit the bookstore.

 

 

Damon Paine's picture
Damon Paine November 14, 2013 - 7:39am

Where is Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz," for Asimov's sake?!

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff November 14, 2013 - 7:43am

Anyone here ever read The Book of Dave by Will Self? I'd say it definitely falls into the catagory of literary sci-fi. Especially considering the author's previous work.

 

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Night Film November 14, 2013 - 11:08am

Glad Zone One made it on this list - an underappreciated effort in my view, wish it would gain more attention.

Garnet Whyte's picture
Garnet Whyte November 15, 2013 - 3:20am

Asimov's Foundation trilogy is missing as is the Gap Cycle from Stephen Donaldson.

Go ahead and try to dismiss either of those works, and I'll crank out a paper defending them as great literary works. 

Martin Jul Post's picture
Martin Jul Post November 15, 2013 - 6:18am

I always want Zamyatins We to be on these kind of lists, but then again the more known "copies" of Brave New World and 1984 would always get ahead of him. I also miss Hyperion, like alot of others. Cool list though, definitely a couple of books to get in the reading-stack.

dyawilson's picture
dyawilson from Canada is reading Infinite Jest November 15, 2013 - 6:55am

I second the shock at the lack of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables November 15, 2013 - 1:07pm

"The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell. So, singing aliens, nuff said. But seriously, it deals deeply with themes of love, friendship, slavery, materialism, religion, and survivors guilt. And it has one of the best lines in literature that I've ever read (and I majored in lit with a minor in classics). 

Earl Marischal David Greybeard's picture
Earl Marischal ... November 15, 2013 - 1:09pm

I'd suggest adding THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD  by Dave Zeltserman

It's a monumental novel that should be read in every high school. It's one of the greatest pieces of American literature I've ever read. It stands right along side the best of Shirley Jackson, Hawthorne, Hemmingway, Twain, Vonnegut and Poe.

Garnet Whyte's picture
Garnet Whyte November 15, 2013 - 4:53pm

Pearl Griffin is right about "The Sparrow"

One of the most haunting and beautiful works of scifi I've ever read.

Kevin Mcveigh's picture
Kevin Mcveigh November 15, 2013 - 5:55pm

Ironic that you chose to jibe at Nabokov in the introduction there, since his Ads or Ardor is a great sf novel.
Other contenders? Iain Banks' The Bridge, Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, Primeval by Olga Tokarczuk, etc.
But please, Dick couldn't write a coherent sentence to save his life. He epitomizes pulp not literature.

Matthew Graybosch's picture
Matthew Graybosch from New York is reading William Hazlitt's Life of Napoleon November 17, 2013 - 12:40am

I've read most of these, but haven't heard of the rest. I'm surprised there isn't at least one Culture novel on this list, considering that Iain Banks wrote both SF and literary fiction.

leo johnson's picture
leo johnson November 17, 2013 - 2:15pm

Another one though almost more novella/short story length is Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov.  A professor implants a human pituitary gland and testicles into a stray dog, creating "The New Soviet Man"  The dog becomes human but still hates cats, and heads up what is essentially animal control rounding up cats.  

Martin Thomas's picture
Martin Thomas November 17, 2013 - 2:20pm

Does anyone know who's the artist behind that Dhalgren cover?

Jared Brooks's picture
Jared Brooks November 17, 2013 - 2:37pm

How are neither Dune nor Stranger in a Strange Land on here?

Rob St Amant's picture
Rob St Amant November 17, 2013 - 2:54pm

"Slaughterhouse-Five" arrived in the mail on Friday and I was finished with it by Friday evening. My only regret is that I waited so long to read it. I look forward to reading the rest of the books on this list!

Michael Mroczkowski's picture
Michael Mroczkowski November 17, 2013 - 3:04pm

Wow, no Dune?

Phantomlimits's picture
Phantomlimits November 17, 2013 - 5:12pm

Good list! But no Gene Wolfe?! The Book of the New Sun is literary science fiction at its finest!

screaming88's picture
screaming88 November 17, 2013 - 6:09pm

Not a bad list at all, 

Matthew Graybosch mentioned the Culture novels, and I agree , but, even more so, The Bridge, and Walking on glass by Iain Banks. They make my list along with a few of those you have listed.

Chris Blank's picture
Chris Blank November 17, 2013 - 7:21pm

No Gibson?

 

Veronica Vazquez's picture
Veronica Vazquez November 17, 2013 - 8:03pm

_The Sparrow_. By Mary Doria Russell.

 

Nelly Rafaela McCausland's picture
Nelly Rafaela M... November 17, 2013 - 9:37pm

The Neuromancer by William Gibson should be in the list and James Blish The Quincux of Time.

I cherish also Asimov´s Pebble in the Sky.

 

Nelly Rafaela McCausland's picture
Nelly Rafaela M... November 17, 2013 - 9:55pm

Paul Theroux surprised me once with what I think was a very literary science fiction novel: 0 - Zone.

RiRi416's picture
RiRi416 November 18, 2013 - 12:55am

Re: Herman Hesse, books don't win the Nobel. People do.

dmappin's picture
dmappin November 18, 2013 - 1:27am

I would have included "When Worlds Collide" and its sequel "After Worlds Collide," both written by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie in the early 1930s.

While they may not be the most intensely literate works in the most traditional sense, they are extremely effective, very moving and both were VERY influential to many SF writers since! How many books have been written since that involved asteroids, meteors and comets striking the Earth. I am not certain, but I believe WWC and AFW was the first novel to detail the death of the Earth in such a fashion.

I love these two books a lot. I've read them both hundreds and hundreds of times! 

I wish Steven Spielberg would film the book... as he said he was going to do in 2005!

dmappin's picture
dmappin November 18, 2013 - 1:24am

What about Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke's works?

edrybicki's picture
edrybicki from Zambia, then South Africa is reading "On the Steel Breeze", Alastair Reynolds November 18, 2013 - 7:16am

What?!  No "A Canticle for Leibowitz"?  No "Camp Concentration"??  What about "A Case of Conscience", by James Blish?  "More than Human", by Theodore Sturgeon?  And Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan" and Gore Vidal's "Kalki"?

And that's just off the top of my head - I could get (and have got) a LOT more defensive of the literary merits of SF, with hardly a one of the list detailed here included. 

http://edrybicki.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/when-i-hear-the-word-literatur...

http://blogs.uct.ac.za/blog/retroid-raving/2007/11/05/the-new-golden-age

Terry Spall-Jarboe's picture
Terry Spall-Jarboe November 18, 2013 - 9:45am

I've been reading science fiction since the 1960s, and I agree with edrybicki. You left off all early science-fiction--Jules Verne isn't literary? How about Dune and the very first anti-hero that was lambasted by the sci-fi world for its creation? And not one Asimov on the list? Or Heinlein and his literary forays?

All science-fiction is literary--you are once more pushing the genre back into the "pulp" world from which it did a long haul to climb out. It was stuck in the pit of literary nonetity. Shame on you for trying to "literarize" this genre. And McCormac doesn't do anything literary--he's one of the most commercial writers today. And commercial writing is no longer literary!!!!

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! November 19, 2013 - 2:50am

I just finished teaching (again) Slaughterhouse 5. Just wanted to make the point that I don't read it as science fiction, even though most of Vonnegut's books are that. Slaughterhouse 5 is very real, about his own very real experiences during the bombing of Dresden in WW2, but he chooses to hide behind a character who basically has flashbacks and PTSD (and thinks he's traveling in time, which is his way to cope with death and destruction). 

Someone above said it's pretentious and silly. Well, I think it's the best that he thought he could do trying to write about some horrors he saw in the war, and it's a masterpiece, if you ask me.

TigerSauer4's picture
TigerSauer4 November 19, 2013 - 10:17pm

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny has the rest of these beat by a mile.

Michael Lowrey's picture
Michael Lowrey November 24, 2013 - 4:55pm

McCarthy's fans hate anybody who accuses THE ROAD of being science fiction. He is clearly not scientifically literate, but their argument is that he isn't writing genre fiction, and doesn't care about things like scientific plausibility, so it's misleading to call it SF. Look at the talk page of the Wikipedia article about the book for examples of blatant literary snobbery mingled with rational arguments about genre and expectations/standards.

 

Niffenegger's publishers, on the other hand, just don't want her sales to be limited to people who admit that they are reading SF or might read SF; they wanted big, fat, Nicholas-Sparks-level sales numbers.

 

dbjo's picture
dbjo October 10, 2014 - 5:30pm

An interesting list; I would certainly find room on my list for Le Guin, Murakami, Hesse, Delaney and Lem. I'd probably make several different choices otherwise, but there are only two that I disagree strenuously with:

PKD's Ubik. He wrote other novels that expressed his ideas about reality in a more coherent and literate manner  (e.g.: The Man in the High Castle), but I wouldn't put any of his novels in a 'best literate' category. Ubik is very pulpy, although I did enjoy it!

The Time Traveler's Wife. I don't understand the hype for this novel. Full disclosure: I didn't like it (probably my loss), and I certainly didn't find it 'literate.'  

I would replace the above with:

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.

 

thanks for posting the list,

dbjo