Ten sci-fi and fantasy novels that aren't really about sci-fi and fantasy.



Science fiction and fantasy novels are often viewed as fit only for nerds and geeks. Many mainstream readers are reluctant to read a science fiction story that has lots of technical references and descriptions. They are worried such content will make the novel incomprehensible, confusing or just plain boring. Even if they get past the techno-babble, they think the story will be a piece of mediocre writing with little insight into real peoples’ lives, human emotions and the complexities of character. Basically, they’re suspicious that the book will be shallow, techno-fetishistic junk.

Some of the time, they’re right.

But there are science fiction and fantasy books out there that don’t have these limitations. They do this because their purpose is not escapism or a glorification of technology but a piercing and insightful analysis of the human condition and our place in the world. Instead of wallowing in technology or science, these novels use it as a tool for taking a perceptive look at the human condition.

Here's a double top five list of science fiction and fantasy novels that, I think, do just that. They are all still clearly science fiction and fantasy novels, containing technology and mythical characters respectively, but those genre elements are vehicles, tools that are used by the author to talk about subjects all great literature is concerned with; love, loss, identity, morality, fear and hope.

Off we go...

What 'Ender's Game' is about: A space war. Ender Wiggin is a boy whose freakish gifts at assessing situations, defeating or outmanoeuvring opponents and simply winning attracts the attention of the military of Earth. They send him to a space training camp and train him to fight an alien race that humanity only narrowly defeated years before. Ender learns to fight in zero-gravity, lead a squad and study the insectoid race who seem to want to destroy humanity.

What 'Ender's Game' is actually about: Loneliness; both physical loneliness and the loneliness when you know you're different, extreme, someone to both fear and hate. Morality, in that a boy who wants just to be loved and to belong is used to destroy other living things because he is very good at it, a boy who is needed to save humanity but who has few reasons to love the humanity he is supposed to save. Empathy and understanding because the enemy can be the enemy out of misunderstanding, out of paranoia rather than out of noble self-preservation. Love and forgiveness because cold violent acts don't necessarily mean the person who does them is without compassion or is someone who does not need and deserve kindness.

What 'A Scanner Darkly' is about: A futuristic drug. Bob Arctor is a junkie, addicted to a drug called 'substance D'. He is also a narcotics agent, working undercover to monitor the drug users and find their suppliers. Bob, in his role as a narcotics agent, wears a scramble suit at all times. The suit makes him look like anyone and everyone, a constantly shifting, fleeting visual image that blends him into the background, into anonymity. Slowly, substance D erodes Bob's mind until psychosis takes hold, making the task of monitoring himself seemingly reasonable, until it finally sends him into a rehabilitation clinic whose owners have a chillingly modern approach to addiction and rehabilitation.

What 'A Scanner Darkly' is actually about: Addiction to a substance, addiction borne out of boredom and curiosity, addiction that gets its claws into vulnerable people. Rejection of the addicted by the larger society that spurns and fears them without any compassion, that regards them not as individuals have succumbed to a sickness but as social pariahs that have failed, that are dangerous and immoral. Identity, a perennial subject in Phil Dick's work, both its fragility in the addicted and the lack of it in the larger, suburban masses whose own material and safety obsessions act as a counterpoint to the protagonists wayward adventures, summed up eloquently in the line 'if I had known it was harmless, I'd have killed it myself'.

What 'Flowers for Angernon' is about: A man with medically enhanced I.Q. A mouse called Algernon is the successful recipient of a drug that increases his I.Q. Flushed with success at increasing Algernon's I.Q., the scientists inject the drug into Charlie, a young man of limited I.Q., with the belief that his life will improve markedly once his I.Q. increases. Charlie's I.Q. does increase, eventually to an extreme degree but at the same time it becomes clear that the I.Q. of the mouse, Algernon, is not permanent and decay sets in. Charlie's I.Q. follows the same path.

What 'Flowers for Angernon' is actually about: Belonging in society, how I.Q. divides society through misunderstanding, contempt, envy and attention. Relationships and how compatibility and mutual respect are so important in a relationship and how all the love in the world can still fail to prevent couples falling apart. Change in all its disruptive, fearful, uncertain countenance and finally Loss and the heart-break it brings, knowing what was and will never be again.

Mythago Wood is the only fantasy book in this list. I think this is because of the mixed blessing of Lord of the Rings. On the one hand, LOTR is a marvellous adventure and a simply incredible in-depth creation of an imaginary world. On the other, its success has left British fantasy strait-jacketed. It is impossible now to talk about Elves (historically dark, malevolent creatures) or any other mythical character without the reader automatically thinking of Tolkien's versions, versions that are coloured with Tolkien's Edwardian attitudes to sex, violence, death, shamanism and feminine power. As a result, the dark and fascinating reality of Celtic myth and history has been pushed into the background, leaving films such as 'The Wicker Man' to explore that entirely more visceral side of Northern Europe's ancient history and myth.

Fortunately, some British fantasy books have been written that look afresh at our ancient mythical past. 'Mythago Wood' is my favourite one of them all and, personally, has become more important to me than Lord of Rings. I adored Lord of the Rings when I first read it as a fourteen-year-old; I am still fond of it now but Mythago Wood resonates more deeply for me, it is truly British in its content, ideas and heart.

What 'Mythago Wood' is about: A magical wood. Stephen Huxley returns from the war to his family home by Ryhope Wood. His distant, obsessed father has died, leaving his brother Christian alone. The wood by the house fascinates them, an ancient woodland untouched in possibly thousands of years. The brothers realise that the wood is magical, not in a wizard way but in a primal way; its trees and wildlife bend reality so that the more one ventures into it, the larger and older it gets and the more figures from our collective past come alive in its realm. As the brothers understand and explore the wood, the wood's effect and the presence of an enigmatic, wild young female pushes them apart, eventually setting them violently at odds and causing a chase and rescue that takes them far beyond everyday reality into the oldest heart of the wood.

What 'Mythago Wood' really is about: Love, pure and simple; brotherly love, family love and romantic love, but also love of the forest, of the land, of a deep connection between people and the land they live on. It is also about envy, forgiveness, loyalty and pain but above all else, Mythago Wood is about a person doing everything for love.

The Day of the Triffids is the first of the two John Wyndham novels in this list. I'll make no apologies for this. John Wyndham is my all-time favourite sci-fi author, partly because he is a sci-fi author who uses sci-fi situations as a tool to take a critical look at the human condition. Wyndham was always thinking about people when he wrote his stories. His ingenious fictional events or creations were there solely to put us under the microscope. Technology is a tool and the story is rarely about what it is but how it is used.

What 'Day of the Triffids' is about: Cannibal plants. A genetically created plant - a Triffid - is reared for its highly prized oil. Humanity needs the plants and is confident they can always keep these semi-sentient and very dangerous creatures under control. This confidence is tragically refuted when nearly all of humanity are rendered blind by a strange meteor storm. Into the vacuum steps the blind but well organised and lethal triffids. The few scattered seeing survivors watching civilization collapse overnight and their sophisticated skills rendered mute in the face of the Triffids' primitive but effective powers.

What 'Day of the Triffids' is really about: Humanity's hubris and self-delusion. Unlike 'Flowers for Algernon' or 'Ender's Game', Wyndham was invariably thinking about humanity as a whole in his books, rather than focussing on an individual. This creates a different narrative, with the results being less emotionally involving for some, but ultimately, for other, just as profound. Wyndham, in 'Day of the Triffids', highlighted the fragility of civilization, the unwarranted confidence of humanity in its status as the top creature on Earth and the fallacy in thinking that humanity would collectively act nobly and selflessly in the face of collapse. These views are much more mainstream now, with books such as Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road', along with the rise of environmental destruction and Climate Change, but they must have been a bombshell when 'Day of the Triffids' was first published in 1951. Truly a story ahead of its time.

What 'Gateway' is about: Alien spaceships. An ordinary man on Earth gets the opportunity, through a lottery win, to sign up to travel in Heechee spaceships. These ships were found in a hollowed out asteroid at the edge of the solar system. No one understands how they work and all attempts to dismantle a ship to investigate its workings have resulted in a massive explosion. They do, though, work, and can take their occupants to other stars, other planets and, potentially, advanced and valuable technology. They can also take their occupants so far that they die of starvation, or put them too close to suns so they are incinerated. It is an interstellar Russian roulette; if you're lucky, you discover a new valuable resource and are hugely wealthy. If you're not, you're dead.

What 'Gateway' is really about: Fear and guilt. The main protagonist of the story - Rob Broadhead - has the courage to sign up to Gateway but when it comes to choosing a ship, he dithers, delays and procrastinates. He is scared. Only desperation, guilt, defiance and the greater fear of returning to a nonentity life back on Earth, where everyone will know he chickened out, forces him to go on a mission. The guilt comes later and it is worse than the fear. These emotions dominate the story and make it stand out. In a genre where noble idealism, bravery and fortitude are the default personality flavours, this very real portrayal of people makes the novel stand out.

What 'The Sirens of Titan' is about: An alien robot. Actually, it's about a lot of things. It's quite hard to describe the outward, sci-fi element of this novel. Unlike most of the other books in this list, the Sirens of Titan doesn't dwell on a specific element of the sci-fi universe; aliens, robots, spaceships, advanced technology, alteration of humanity through drugs or devices. It does them all but does it in a throwaway way, rendering them both immaterial and ubiquitous in the process.

What 'Gateway' is really about: The insignificance and powerlessness of us as individuals and as a race. Not the most impressive sales pitch, is it? But that, I think, is what the Sirens of Titan is all about. Vonnegut makes not attempt to pull his punches. Most of his novels are about this, from the World War 2 farcical, tragic, mad futility of the Dresden bombings to Galapagos where mankind devolves into penguins. Every time, Vonnegut wants us to know that our grand visions and self-importance, our power and intelligence are ridiculous and insignificant. Fortunately, he explains it to us with wonderfully evocative, emotional and memorable prose.


What 'The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy' is about: The Earth blowing up. Well, that's how it starts anyway. Fortunately for one ordinary Earthling, Arthur Dent, his friend Ford turns out to be not from Guildford, as he had always claimed, but from a planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Ford and Arthur hitch a lift on one of the ships come to blow up Earth, escape the destruction and head off into the Universe.

What 'The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy' is really about: A neat exploration of quite how daft we really are. In some ways, this premise is almost identical to 'The Sirens of Titan'. Adams in one interview admitted how much Vonnegut's book had inspired him. Both books are rambling, filled with throwaway ideas and cast a sharp, perceptive eye on humanity's foibles. The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy though steers clear of Vonnegut's dark cynicism and finely honed tragedy. Instead, Adams opts for a very funny, endearing approach where Arthur Dent's desire for tea rather than a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster just makes you love him all the more. If I could be a book, I'd be the The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

What 'The Midwich Cuckoos' is about: Alien impregnation. The residents of a quiet English village are suddenly sent to sleep one day, their town cut off from the outside world by an invisible force field. They later all wake up and seem unaffected by the strange event, that is until, nine months later, a host of women in the village give birth to children with supernatural gifts and a very alien attitude to the place in which they've been born.

What 'The Midwich Cuckoos' is really about: We're animals. Much of science-fiction focusses on mankind's nobler features and particularly, what we have that makes us different from other animals; our tool making skills, our language, our imagination and for the more arrogantly anthropocentric of us, the fact that we alone are conscious. Our animal natures; our automatic love for our progeny, our propensity for horrible violence and immorality in times of starvation, our ability to inflict horrors on others if they are deemed 'sub-human' or simply remote, all these features are usually quietly ignored or at least downplayed. When they are used, it can be to devastating effect. Much of the emotional punch of the film 'Alien' comes not from the alien itself but the corporation's utter callousness towards the fate of the Nostromo's crew. In 'The Midwich Cuckoos', the target is our biological protection of our young. We may be intelligent and sophisticated, but we can still suffer a fate similar to a bird whose young have been replaced with those of a cuckoo. We cannot kill what we have given birth to, even though our thinking minds know our progeny are aliens who have empathy or love towards us at all.