If there’s one thing in science fiction and fantasy that irks me more than anything, it’s the tendency for it to be dismissed by non-readers of the genre as filled with pulp and fluff. Even those who have dipped their toes into SF&F may be unaware of the vast swathes of gorgeous writing waiting to be discovered, hovering just out of sight. Very often, SF&F works that are generally considered to be more “literary” such as Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell are shelved not with SF&F… but instead in fiction, solely because SF&F is not perceived as “serious.” Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with pulp and fluff – if that’s what you enjoy, fantastic! I support you! I love it too! It is, however, absolutely ridiculous to relegate an entire genre into the pulp press and is frankly offensively dismissive of the landmark works of literature within it. SF&F has room for all types of writing, from the experimentally ergodic to the pulpiest of pulp.
SF&F has been filled with gorgeous, prosaic writing ever since its inception. To say otherwise is both myopic and factually incorrect. In the 1920s, we had Hope Mirlees. In the 40 and 50s, Mervyn Peake. In the 70s, we had Samuel R. Delany and Patricia McKillip. Janny Wurts entered the genre in the 80s. In more recent decades, voices such as Amal El-Mohtar and Sofia Samatar have made their debut. Today and throughout history, we have had multitudes of authors writing delightfully lyrical prose, every word, every phrase, every sentence forming a love letter to writing and the worlds we’ve created.
The authors and books discussed below are nowhere near exhaustive, but they will provide a wonderful starting point for anyone interested in science fiction and fantasy that takes joy and pleasure not just in plot or worldbuilding, but in the very act of writing itself. By the very nature of the beast, I’ll never be able to include everyone here. This is a beginning, an introduction, not a conclusive be-all and end-all list. The featured authors are featured not always because they are the very best around, but often because I am more familiar with them or have read them more recently. The authors suggested in addition to those discussed in depth are just as worth a look as the ones I dedicate a full paragraph to.
For the sake of convenience, I have split this list up into a few categories. Often, these categories will have significant overlap – think of these less as definitive, discrete categories and more as a convenient method of tagging stories that may have similar elements. We will be covering:
- Lyrical, Surreal Prose
- Dense, Classical Prose
- Experimental Prose
- Traditional Prose
- Uncanny, Surreal Prose
A full list of authors discussed across all categories will be available at the end of this essay.
The authors below are defined first and foremost by the tone of their writing. They craft worlds that are painted in broad, abstract strokes. The landscapes they create are ethereal and ephemeral, oneiric and mythopoeic. To the trained eye, more is communicated with sweeping, musical sentences than could possibly be managed with clipped or workmanlike prose. Often, though not always, this style evokes a fairy tale-esque feeling. This is one of my favorite styles of writing.
Sofia Samatar is perhaps the best example of this writing style. Her prose is dreamy in the extreme, nearly fugue-like. Her best-known work would be The Winged Histories (full review at To Other Worlds), in which the stories of four women interweave into one unified song. Samatar treats prose as poetry, eschewing traditional structures in favor of a stream of consciousness style narrative. I feel as though I’m listening to a symphony, melodies repeated with variations across the piece, voices ebbing and flowing as needed to create chords rather than mere notes. Her other most widely read novel, A Stranger in Olondria, takes place in the same world.
The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window: there were still a few pages under your thumb, still to be sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? – No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining words! And there – the end of the books. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields.
Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world. You look up. It’s a room in an old house. Or perhaps it’s a seat in a garden, or even a square; perhaps you’ve been reading outside and you suddenly see the carriages going by. Life comes back, the shadows of leaves. Someone comes to ask what you will have for dinner, or two small boys run past you, wildly shouting; or else it’s merely a breeze blowing a curtain, the white unfurling into a room, brushing the papers on a desk. It is the sound of the world. But to you, the reader, it is only a silence, untenanted and desolate.
– Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley are two authors who I often find to be indelibly linked in my mind. Both have writing styles which are reminiscent of fairy tales, despite often writing wholly new and unique stories. McKillip’s most widely discussed novel would be The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which has a deceptively simple style. She shows, never tells, relying on the reader to fill in the blanks she leaves. Gyld the dragon, Ter the Falcon, and the mysterious Liralen have the weight of centuries behind them, encouraging a reader to research and discover… did they exist prior to McKillip’s dreams? Surely they must have? And yet, a search will yield scant results. McKinley, on the other hand, writes in both directions. Some, such as Chalice (full review at To Other Worlds), are wholly original, while others, such as Deerskin, contain distant echoes of extant fairy tales. McKinley tends to have slightly more purple prose in comparison to McKillip, turned more towards the poetic and descriptive where McKillip luxuriates in the empty spaces of her writing.
She is our moon. Our tidal pull. She is the rich deep beneath the sea, the buried treasure, the expression in the owl’s eye, the perfume in the wild rose. She is what the water says when it moves.
– Patricia McKillip, Solstice Wood
On the science fiction side of things, Samuel R. Delany is an import author to discuss. Delany straddles the line between literature and pulp. While he borrows heavily from the worst of 70s scifi, he does so in a way that twists and nudges at the oddities inherent in that era’s writing until pulp becomes poem. His writing is purple in the extreme, often employing linguistic quirks and theory to craft new and interesting semantic structures. In Babel-17 (full review), he explores concepts like the interplay between culture, thought, and language, while Empire Star (full review) considers slavery, colonization, and the different degrees of perception from an individual point of view. Dhalgren, arguably his magnum opus, is a surreal, urban fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic cityscape wherein the world is unreliable and ever-shifting. Delany’s work is characterized in large part by the social constraints which exists at the time. While it certainly was not acceptable to write about LGBT+ issues on Earth, Delany used science fiction to explore his experiences as a gay black man in strange, new worlds of his own creation. When the limits of fiction fell away, he was able to shine.
“You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt any more: that’s my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them.”
– Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
Alyssa Wong exists somewhere in the liminal spaces between science fiction and fantasy. She primarily writes short stories, and was a Hugo finalist for A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers (available for free at tor dot com). Short stories benefit greatly from the impressionistic style of writing found in this subcategory, as it allows the author to imply a full story and a full world through structure, tone, and word choice. Wong is particularly adept at atmosphere, bending similes and metaphors to her will.
She could split the horizon in two if she wanted, opening it at the seams as deftly as a tailor, and make the lightning curl catlike at her wrist and purr for her. She could do that with people too; Mel glowed, soft, luminescent. It was hard to look away from her, and so easy to disappear into her shadow.
– Alyssa Wong, A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers
Additional Suggested Authors: Alyssa Wong, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (review), Brooke Bolander (review), Cat Valente, Erin Morgenstern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hope Mirlees, Italo Calvino, Jeanette Ng, Jo Walton (review), Katherine Arden, M Suddain, Mariam Petrosyan (translated by Yuri Machkasov) (review), N. K. Jemisin, Patricia McKillip, Peter S Beagle, Robin McKinley, Samuel R. Delany (review), Sofia Samatar, Umberto Eco.
Every word is deliberately meaningful and often archaic, creating a multi-layered tapestry filled with small, minute details invisible until you begin to examine the individual threads. The authors below incorporate classical traditions in their writing, playing with perspective and style. Although these works are typically low fantasy, some please magic or science fiction at the forefront. Even when this is true, the inclusion feels natural and expects the reader to accept that it’s always been that way. Rather than being foreign, these elements are included in a matter of fact manner.
Ada Palmer, author of the Terra Ignota quartet, is masterful in combining older writing styles with more modern techniques, including fourth-wall breaks when she steps aside to allow the narrator to address the reader directly. She is a present day master, whose works will be discussed for decades to come. She calls up philosophers, both of our era and of the future, and expands on how their ideas influenced and related to the world. She explores gender, government, and society in a sometimes uncomfortable but always thought-provoking manner. Her prose contains hints and breadcrumbs, giving the reader just enough to follow along without truly delineating a full-fledged path; in many ways, her writing is shaped by the content of her books rather than vice versa. Her language is archaic in contrast to the far future utopia she depicts within her worlds, creating a slight sense of dysphoria in the reader. A full review of the first book in the quartet is available at Keikii Eats Books.
You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.
– Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
As I suspect the SF&F community would draw and quarter me if I did not mention him, it’s impossible to discuss authors who write in a dense and classical manner without bringing up Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun is arguably the best know example of this subcategory. Wolfe takes archaic prose to the extreme, digging up words that even Merriam-Webster might not include in their tomes. In a single sentence, Wolfe manages to convey an entire paragraph’s worth of information – sometimes, even, in a single word. Wolfe’s less-read works are often strange and experimental in nature; the Wizard Knight duology, the perspective is from a young boy, around twelve years old, who has been made victim of a portal fantasy gone wrong. He finds himself trapped in a fantasy world, not in his own body… but instead the body of a knight at his prime. He must navigate this world using his limited experience and even vocabulary while trying not only to survive, but also grow up with any semblance of normalcy available to him. The prose is on the extreme opposite end of The Book of the New Sun, but no less well-crafted or engaging.
What struck me on the beach–and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow–was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in everything, in every thorn in every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.
– Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator (Book of the New Sun)
Jacqueline Carey writes on the racier side of dense, classical prose. Her Kushiel series, beginning with Kushiel’s Dart, is certainly not for the faint of heart, though it’s a far cry from true erotica. Sex, specifically BDSM, is a major theme in the book… but at heart, it’s a political fantasy of manners. Her prose is lush with descriptors, hinting at the delicate currents that run beneath the surface level. She develops themes that span across her writing, supported in subtle turns of phrase and created through atmosphere and implication.
There are those who are awkward in the face of sorrow, fearing to say the wrong thing; to them, I say, there is no wrong in comfort, ever. A kind word, a consoling arm … these things are ever welcome.
– Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart
If you’d prefer your fantasy to be decidedly English with a touch of Victorian sensibility rather than Carey’s intense sensuality, you might find that Claire North would be a better fit. Her most recent novel, The Pursuit of William Abbey (full review), is a masterpiece of interconnected prose. It’s nearly impossible to pick out a single sentence – as soon as you tug on one and attempt to isolate it from the text, you soon find that the narrative begins to unravel fully. North does not build her books using discrete chunks of brick and mortar, but instead weaves it from lithe, limber reeds. Every piece relies on the structure surrounding it. You simply cannot pick it apart in any meaningful manner. She tackles challenging themes with grace and tact, putting her prose to the test as she discusses racism, colonialism, abuse, and death.
Nor was the condition of the Bantu peoples within Natal or the neighbouring Boer states slavery, for lo – if a white man killed a black man, beat a black child to death, assaulted a black woman or burnt their property, they would duly be taken before the court of law. There, guarded by white men, they would be judged by their white peers, their plea considered by a white judge, and there might even upon some occasion be a fine passed down, if the case was considered severe. If matters got that far. Of course, should a black man kill a white man, it was unlikely that the wandering lawmen of the wild grasslands would have anything to say on the matter. The white men would come with rifle and rope, and before all his family they would most likely torture that same black man to death, leaving his mutilated body for crows. And if, incensed by this, his black neighbours turned against the white and drove the farmers from the land, impaling hand and head with spears hoarded in the secret places of the kraal, those bruised survivors of Boer or English stock would flee to Pretoria, Durban, Kimberley or the Cape and report on the feared uprising of the natives, and there would come marching with drum and Maxim gun all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men, and the vultures would flock in from mountain and far-off withered perch to feast royally on a spread of flesh.
– Claire North, The Pursuit of William Abbey
If you enjoy dark, brooding, atmospheric prose… Mervyn Peake is for you. He writes fantasy of manners, with an emphasis on medieval intrigue and ambition. The setting moreso than the contents of his famous Gormenghast books place them in the fantasy genre. I’d most compare Peake to an expressionist painting – broad, almost surreal, vivid. Although his writing is dense and gothic, it has a steady flow that carries you through it. It doesn’t feel like a “wall of text” once you get going – if anything, it feels claustrophobic in the same manner of House of Leaves, where you feel surrounded and encased and entrapped in his world in a thoroughly unsettling and uncanny manner. Truly a rather savage fantasy of manners.
This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
– Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Additional Suggested Authors: Ada Palmer, Claire North (review), China Mieville, Elizabeth Bear (reviews: 1, 2), Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Jacqueline Carey, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Mikhail Bulgakov, Samuel R. Delany (review), Susanna Clarke.
We’ve come around to my personal favorite subcategory of prosaic SF&F. Experimental prose takes risks with format, structure, and content. It’s never going to have a traditional plot arc, nor will it conform to existing tropes or archetypes. While it may retain echoes of the standard fair, it will always contain a dash of the new and unknown. Experimental prose is often ergodic, requiring a high degree of effort on the reader’s part to fully comprehend what it’s trying to state. Navigating the book’s structure may be nontrivial, possibly requiring a reader to flip between pages and footnotes and storylines to create their own reading experience. At its heart, authors dabbling in experimental prose care most about creating an active reading experience unlike any other.
Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen (full review at To Other Worlds) is a prime example of ergodic literature. On the surface level, it’s merely a collection of loosely connected novellas. As the reader digs deeper into the fleshy, mycelic layers of the city of Ambergris, however, they will find a portal fantasy, a maddened author who has written himself into his book, mushrooms that feed on chaos and bloodshed. They will find a library named in homage of Jorge Luis Borges, and a sanctuary from the violence of the Freshwater Squid Festival. It’s strange, bizarre, and asks the reader not merely to come along for the ride… but to actively participate in filling in the gaps and drawing connections to make the story whole.
The city might be savage, stray dogs might share the streets with grimy urchins whose blank eyes reflected the knowledge that they might soon be covered over, blinded forever, by the same two pennies just begged from some gentleman, and no one in the fuming, fulminous boulevards of trade might know who actually ran Ambergris—or, if anyone ran it at all, but, like a renegade clock, it ran on and wound itself heedless, empowered by the insane weight of its own inertia, the weight of its own citizenry.
– Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen
While it is less ergodic in comparison to City of Saints and Madmen, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s newest co-written novella, This Is How You Lose The Time War (full review), remains deeply embedded in this subcategory. Epistolary in nature, the novella is told as a series of letters written between two agents on opposite sides of the titular time war. Each follows the other across the various strands of time, intersecting with one another, undoing each other, delighting in the cleverness of their counterpart. What Blue sets in motion, Red endeavors to destroy; what Red destroys, Blue has planned for and planted a pyrophytic seed ready to sprout in the smoldering flames left behind. Through it all, they write letters in lava, in poison, and in the very fibers of the universe itself. Taken as a whole, the novella is delightfully poetic, stranger, and above all: masterful.
The shifting colors form words that last mere moments, in handwriting now familiar. As the lava flows, those words change.
. . .
. . . Hunger, Red – to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth – is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened it so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?
Sometimes I think that’s what I have instead of friends.
I hope it isn’t too hard to read this. Best I could do on short notice – hope it reaches you before the island breaks around you.
Write to me in London next.
– Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War
Although The Gray House (full review) by Mariam Petrosyan, translated by Yuri Machkasov, is less immediately obvious as an experimental work, it becomes apparent as the reader delves deeper and deeper in the novel. This is a slice of life novel, focused first and foremost on characters, ambiance, and prose. The underlying plot is rarely discussed and doesn’t become apparent at all until the book’s conclusion a bit over 700 pages in. Much like This Is How You Lose The Time War, this is a book read for the sheer enjoyment of reader rather than in pursuit of world-ending plots or fast-paced action. The book is surreal, filled with narrators who tell without quite telling. Sentence structure is often loose or altered to convey specific ideas; Machkasov’s background in poetry translation comes through clearly as he captures the tone and meaning first during his translations. It’s difficult to discern what is reality and what is dream. Each character has a multitude of facets surrounding them, many of which are left as impressions rather than fully explored.
Once inside, he starts remembering the songs he bought with his blood. He needs to repeat them before he forgets. His back is caked in drying mud. He sits up and puts his arms around his legs. The long white stems of his fingers intertwine. He recalls all the songs, from the first words to the very last ones, and falls asleep, satisfied. The Forest waves its dark branches over him.
– Mariam Petrosyan, The Gray House
RJ Barker’s The Bone Ships (full review) is, on its surface, a nautical adventure fantasy. However, a closer look reveals some fascinating language uses. Barker creates an entirely new vernacular and incorporates structures that reflect the social hierarchies in place. In his matriarchal society, people do not say “men and women,” instead, they say, “women and men.” The economy revolves around ships made from sea dragon bones, and thus the terminology surrounding the ships is draconic in nature – wings for sails, etc. The prose is dense with strong slice-of-life elements and creates a sense of “otherness” without crossing over into inaccessible. The use of his created vernacular is masterful, neither too extreme nor too campy, contributing to the je ne sais quoi that pervades the novel as a whole. The world is strange, disturbing, and filled with dangers the characters must navigate at every step… yet which is rendered as normal and everyday in context.
The closer Tide Child came to the creature, the more of it he could make out: the filth of its once-white robes, the bright colours of the leaf mask that covered the pits where its eyes had once been, the sharp and predatory curve of its beak. Underneath the robes was an inhuman body, three-toed feet with sharp claws, puckered pink skin tented against brittle bones and punctuated by the white quills of broken feathers. He did not know why the gullaime lost their feathers, only that they did, and he guessed it was due to the filth they chose to live in. The source of all lice and biting creatures on any ship was the windtalker, as any deckchild knew.
– RJ Barker, The Bone Ships
Additional Suggested Authors: Jeff VanderMeer, K. J. Parker, Katherine Addison, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mariam Petrosyan translated by Yuri Machkasov (review), Marina and Sergey Dyachekno translated by Julia Meitov Hersey (review), Mark Z Danielewski, N.K. Jemisin, RJ Barker, Samuel R. Delany (review), Yoon Ha Lee
Traditional Prose is essentially my catch-all category. Is this lovely, beautiful writing that doesn’t really fit into the other categories I have listed for one reason or another? Well, folks, here we have it. Prose that is “normal,” but excellent. The writers below have an incredible talent for tackling SF&F settings and characters with grace and poise, yet without necessarily breaking the mold in terms of stylistic choices.
Alix E. Harrow‘s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (full review), released earlier this year. The whole book is frankly gorgeous. Her use of metaphor and simile is masterful, creating a tone that is wistful, nostalgic, and filled with longing. While the time period (early 1900s) is certainly reflected in the prose, do not make the mistake of assuming this book will feel dense or dated. The era floats alongside each passage, gently flavouring the book as a whole. The fourth wall is frequently peeked behind, as January comments on the shapes of letters and what they might be used to communicate. The opening page is one of the best I’ve read:
When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden- or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.
When I was seven, I found a Door. There – look how tall and proud the word stands on the page now, the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing. When you see that word, I imagine a little prickle of familiarity makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
– Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Alix’s short fiction is similarly beautiful. This year, she had one new short story published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Do Not Look Back, My Lion (full review). In it, she showcases the breadth of her ability as a writer. Not only can she write young girls in the 1900s, but also a world filled with motherhood, matriarchy, and the destruction caused by empire.
The Inda Quartet by Sherwood Smith is, heart and soul, a traditional epic fantasy. A young boy must go on a quest to save his homeland, along with a group of treasured friends. What sets Inda apart from the rest, however, is Smith’s ability to create strong, believable character and place them in a world that lives and breathes. I laughed, I cried. Smith takes us from Inda’s young school days in the first book and brings us through to his adulthood and legacy in the last. Do not be fooled into thinking the first novel has touches of YA due to the young cast; this is a quartet that takes on complex, adult themes.
“It is a shame when we must regard a people as an enemy. It is a shame and a regret when the two peoples share so much. And it is a shame, a regret, and a tragedy when those peoples meet as individuals and find much to admire.”
– Sherwood Smith, King’s Shield
Given that I complained about her being shelved in fiction at the start of this post, it’s only fair that I give a little extra attention to Margaret Atwood. Although she’s best know for The Handmaid’s Tale given its recent relevance to the current political climate and the spin-off television series, Oryx and Crake has always been my personal favorite. Although Atwood herself might argue others and attempt to distance herself from SF&F, I think it’s hard for any reasonable person to argue that a book about a future in which humanity has been wiped out by a genetically engineered race of blue humanoids following a period of dystopian tech development is anything other than SF&F. Although I agree with her that speculative fiction is also an apt label for her works, I think it’s unfair to the SF&F subset of speculative fiction to decry it as being wholly unrealistic or wholly unfounded in reality. Much of science fiction is speculative – what happens if we learn to travel at light speed? What happens if we learn to simulate humans in a computer? The fact that it could happen makes it no less SF&F.
But I digress. Atwood uses perfectly formed sentences and experiments with punctuation to create a specific flow and voice within her work. Lack of punctuation is something that is a common stylistic choice in fiction, but is less often seen in SF&F, meaning her work stands out slightly in that regard. That said, she’s certainly not along in doing so – Cormac McCarthy experimented similarly in The Road, as did KJ Parker in My Beautiful Life (full review). A conversational tone or fluid syntax can help draw a reader in, make them feel as though the author is speaking as a friend, and creates an openness to new ideas that may otherwise not exist.
Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere though of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or rabbit doesn’t behave like that. Take birds — in a lean season they cut down on the eggs, or they won’t mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.
As a species were doomed by hope, then?
You could call it hope. That, or desperation.
But we’re doomed without hope, as well, said Jimmy.
Only as individuals, said Crake cheerfully.
– Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Additional Suggested Authors: Alix E. Harrow (review), Caitlin Starling (review), Guy Gavriel Kay, Helene Wecker, Janny Wurts, Josiah Bancroft, Kacen Callender (review), Margaret Atwood, Mary Robinette Kowal (review), NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Robert Jackson Bennett, Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch, Seth Dickinson, Sherwood Smith, T. Frohock (review), Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. Le Guin
Uncanny, surreal prose is just what it says on the tin: uncanny and surreal. The following authors are masters of creating discomfiting and often dream-like atmospheres. Usually, they sit on the border between fantasy and horror and adopt aspects of both.
John Hornor Jacobs is a tragically under-known author who writes tales of both cosmic horror and folklore-inspired horror. A Lush and Seething Hell (review) is a duology of two novellas, The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, the latter being closer to a novel in length. However, neither of these two books feel like novellas. It is shocking to think back and realize how short they actually were. It is an illusion, a conceit, but never a façade. They are so well-crafted that they have the feel of length due to their depth. They are two very different stories, yet they complement one another perfectly. The expectations set up in the first novella are subverted and twisted in unexpected ways, almost a sucker punch to the reader.
While reading The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, I found myself searching online repeatedly for the country of “Magera,” located somewhere in South America. This country is fictional, and I suspected as much while reading and due to the futility of my online searches… and yet, I doubted myself. This felt real. This felt like a country that ought to exist. And, perhaps, in a way it did exist – only to slip down a voracious, toothy gullet that had been coaxed open with a surfeit of human suffering and cruelty.
A thousand voices caromed in my head. From such a remove, I can see now it was just the tugging of the flesh, trying to find something to grasp onto to protect itself, the quivers of an organism in distress sorting through experience and conditioning.
My life up until then was just a fabric of verse and poems.
Now my life was no longer mine.
– John Hornor Jacobs, A Lush and Seething Hell
My Heart Struck Sorrow, in contrast, is a tale woven from the fabric of North America, the United States. This is a story of Southern Devils, of the hell that exists in the hearts of men and women. A story of racism, sexism, discriminations large and small, present and past; a story of the sheer disregard we hold for our fellows. It is neither a comfortable nor palatable read, yet, it is seamless, perfectly done.
Thomas Ligottiprefers to explore an even darker side of humanity: that is, that humanity is inherently evil. That existence is inherently evil. To Ligotti, it is a fundamentally horrific act to even consider bringing new life into this world. Being alive, Ligotti argues, is not all right. It is not better than the alternative. He is more than a nihilist; he fundamentally believes that existence is unbearable and must be eradicated in all forms.
For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.
– Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
Ligotti is well known for his cosmic horror, specifically his short stories. Grimscibe and Teatro Grotesco are great entry points. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, however, takes all the ideas in his short stories a step further in a very, very unconventional and disturbing manner: this is a nonfiction book. This is a nonfiction book that deconstructs the human existence into an obscene, nightmarish set of circumstances. I have yet to complete this book – I’ve given it a try several times now. I always put it down due to its weighty and awful ideas, but it never leaves my mind. The idea that we might merely be flesh puppets, that being alive is not all right worms its insidious way into my brain. This is a book that equates our real, tangible experiences as a product of cosmic horror and a summation of our pain and misery. That which is beyond our comprehension is only bearable because we lie to ourselves and pretend that we are not living in a meaningless nightmare filled with demons and horror.
Elizabeth Hand is in her own class, writing horror novels that tend towards the experimental. Wylding Hallwas a book that surprised me; I went in with no prior expectations, and found myself reading not the medieval or gothic horror I had expected, but rather a series of interviews with members of… a folk band? I was initially taken aback, not having expected this and thinking to myself that it was not the sort of book I was interested in at all. However, as I continued to read, I was drawn in by her lyrical use of language to describe the fay goings-on and the strange occurrences within the hall. When I moved on to read Black Light, I found that the change in tone and scenery produced prose that was, if anything, even better than what I had found in Wylding Hall. She takes sex, desire, and even wealth, mixes it with the uncanny and wraps it all into one awful, bloody bundle, subsuming human identity and personhood into merely a piece of the monstrous.
Her earliest memory was of wings. Luminous red and blue, yellow and green and orange; a black so rich it appeared liquid, edible. They moved above her and the sunlight made them glow as though they were themselves made of light, fragments of another, brighter world falling to earth about her crib. Her tiny hands stretched upwards to grasp them but could not: they were too elusive, too radiant, too much of the air.
― Elizabeth Hand, Poe’s Children: The New Horror
Additional Suggested Authors: Elizabeth Hand, John Hornor Jacobs, Jorge Luis Borges, Scott Hawkins, Thomas Ligotti
At the end of the day, SF&F is a genre that is simply overflowing with lush, vibrant writing. It includes everything from that which is horrific and uncanny right on over to books that are cozy, friendly, and the sort of novel you’d curl up with in front of a warm fireplace. This post is not all inclusive, and again, it carries my own personal biases. I have read many books… but not every book (and I never will, which is an excitement all its own!). I have included works I am familiar with, and my deepest apologies if I’ve glossed over your favorite author – please do share them in the comments below for either myself or other readers to discover.
Here is a full list of all 60+ authors who have been mentioned here.
Ada Palmer, Alix E. Harrow (review), Alyssa Wong, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (review), Brooke Bolander (review), Caitlin Starling (review), Cat Valente, China Mieville, Claire North (review), Elizabeth Bear (reviews: 1, 2, 3) Erin Morgenstern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gene Wolfe, Guy Gavriel Kay, Helene Wecker, Hope Mirlees, Italo Calvino, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack Vance, Jacqueline Carey, Janny Wurts, Jeanette Ng, Jeff VanderMeer, Jo Walton (review), Jorge Luis Borges, Josiah Bancroft, K. J. Parker, Kacen Callender (review), Katherine Addison, Katherine Arden, M Suddain, Margaret Atwood, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mariam Petrosyan (translated by Yuri Machkasov) (review), Marina and Sergey Dyachekno translated by Julia Meitov Hersey (review), Mark Z Danielewski, Mary Robinette Kowal (review), Mervyn Peake, Mikhail Bulgakov, N. K. Jemisin, N.K. Jemisin, NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Patricia McKillip, Peter S Beagle, RJ Barker, Robert Jackson Bennett, Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Samuel R. Delany (review), Scott Lynch, Seth Dickinson, Sherwood Smith, Sofia Samatar, Susanna Clarke., T. Frohock (review), Terry Pratchett, Umberto Eco, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yoon Ha Lee.