The best high-brow books that’ll change your mind about science fiction

The Books I Picked & Why

Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore

Why this book?

Murakami does textbook-grade, serious literature on the face of it but (and this is important) he is also endless fun. Not so much sci-fi – see Hard-Boiled Wonderland for him to commit to that – as metaphysics on Speed, his disregard for any kind of convention in Kafka on the Shore is joyful in its playfulness. It has talking cats and the living embodiment of a famous whiskey brand all while being a profound study of teenage angst, solitude, and sex, resting in a hammock of breezy prose. This book (frankly, any of his books) hits you square in the feelings and draws you into its utterly convincing but topsy-turvy world. You will never have this much fun chasing elusive literary truth.


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Gnomon

By Nick Harkaway

Gnomon

Why this book?

Harkaway has serious literary pedigree but is determined to put exactly what he damn well likes in his books. Gnomon is labyrinthine, its characters sizzle with personality and it is set in researched, vibrant worlds that reek of authenticity, from antiquity to modern-day Greece. It’s also, partly, set in a dystopian, ultra-surveillance future (an arch glance at the political developments of recent years) and shamelessly combines mysticism, time-bending, and no shortage of sharks. Its rejection of convention but adherence to good, thoughtful writing is one hell of a ride.


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The Business

By Iain M. Banks

The Business

Why this book?

Banks is a freak of nature: he wrote sci-fi of the pinkest blood as well as prize-winning literary fare; all it took to indulge this duality was the use of a spare initial. The Business is one of the subtler interlopers: a minimalist, monochrome cover and a tale of corporate greed. Banks dials what could have been a staid techno-thriller up to 11 with killer prose, a razor-sharp protagonist, and outrageous flirting with the edges of possibility: magnates who get their jollies beaching cruise liners, hollowed-out mountain lairs, revving supercars to the destruction around the Swiss mountains. This is a novel that pops with the wit and flair of a writer at the height of his powers and determined to have a blast.


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Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas

Why this book?

I almost never read this (people were just going on about it) but relenting left me with a lifelong addiction to this man’s books. It ticks big, literary boxes: clever structural gubbins (nested, found books), well-researched historical scenes (an amanuensis in 1930s Belgium), luscious prose; it’s then that Mitchell brandishes the salmon of Sci-fi and whops you athwart the face with it. Robot constructs in dystopian future Seoul? Post-apocalyptic barbarism, complete with dialects? Full-bore future fiction, it is, losing nothing of its heart or power for its flights of fantasy. 


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Dune

By Frank Herbert

Dune

Why this book?

This one is the wrong way round, but bah to rules: this is explicit sci-fi with literary chops. It has spaceships (a bit) and lasers (plenty), not to mention mysticism, magic, and martial arts. It’s also the story of a young man ripped from his ordinary life and burdened with the dread responsibility of his forebears; expect grief, disillusion, betrayals within betrayals within betrayals. And if that doesn’t tickle your spice mélange, how about riding 300m carnivorous worms across the wind-scraped dunes? It arrests me at 40 as much as it did at 13: not even the weightiest of literaries can outdo Arrakis for sheer sense of place in all its raw, dry-boned beauty. From pole to erg, graben to sink, Dune is an ode to un-caring nature and of mindful solitude.


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