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

Who am I?

I’m still in love with good sci-fi and fantasy after 30 years, but folk can get most terribly sniffy about it: ‘Lack of character’, ‘leaden exposition’, the list of accusations rolls on (sadly, a chunk of today’s SFF earns it). But. Every so often a work pops up that looks to the unwary book clubber like a ‘proper novel’; beneath its sexy but abstract cover and pared-back blurb lies a world of adventure that’s like LSD in an innocent mug of tea. Some writers just refuse to accept that speculation (about time and/ or space) needs to sacrifice truth. I’ve picked a few books that stand out to me for this reason – debate their merits with gusto, preferably over a good Martini at 2am.


I wrote...

Echo Cycle

By Patrick Edwards,

Book cover of Echo Cycle

What is my book about?

Gladiator meets 1984 in this near-future thriller featuring timeslips, ancient magic, and a disturbingly plausible dystopian Britain. 68 CE: Fleeing disaster, young Winston Monk wakes to find himself trapped in the past, imprisoned by the mad Emperor Nero. The Roman civilization he idolized is anything but civilized, and his escape from a barbaric home has led him somewhere far more dangerous.

2070 CE: As the European Union crumbled, Britain closed its borders, believing they were stronger alone. After decades of hardship, British envoy Lindon Banks joins a diplomatic team to rebuild bridges with the hypermodern European Confederacy. But in Rome, Banks discovers his childhood friend who disappeared without a trace. Monk tells a different story: a tale of Caesars, slavery, and something altogether more sinister. Monk's mysterious emergence sparks the tinderbox of diplomatic relations between Britain and the Confederacy, controlled by shadowy players with links back to the ancient world itself.

The books I picked & why

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Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami,

Book cover of 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.

Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Kafka on the Shore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A stunning work of art that bears no comparisons" the New York Observer wrote of Haruki Murakami's masterpiece, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. In its playful stretching of the limits of the real world, his magnificent new novel, Kafka on the Shore is every bit as bewitching and ambitious. The narrative follows the fortunes of two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home at fifteen, under the shadow of his father's dark prophesy. The aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, finds his highly simplified life suddenly overturned. Their parallel odysseys - as…


Gnomon

By Nick Harkaway,

Book cover of 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.

Gnomon

By Nick Harkaway,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gnomon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A GUARDIAN BOOK OF THE YEAR

'Gnomon is an extraordinary novel, and one I can't stop thinking about some weeks after I read it. It is deeply troubling, magnificently strange, and an exhilarating read.' Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

'The best thing he's ever written ... It is an astonishing piece of construction, complex and witty ... It is a magnificent achievement ... He's never written a bad book, but this is the one that'll see him mentioned in the same breath as William Gibson and David Mitchell ... This book seriously just destroyed me with joy.'…


The Business

By Iain M. Banks,

Book cover of 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.

The Business

By Iain M. Banks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Business as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kate Telman is a senior executive officer in The Business, a powerful and massively discreet transglobal organisation. Financially transparent, internally democratic and disavowing conventional familial inheritance, the character of The Business seems, even to Kate, to be vague to the point of invisibility. It possesses, allegedly, a book of Leonardo cartoons, several sets of Crown Jewels and wants to buy its own State in order to acquire a seat at the United Nations.

Kate's job is to keep abreast of current technological developments and her global reach encompasses Silicon Valley, a ranch in Nebraska, the firm's secretive Swiss headquarters, and…


Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell,

Book cover of 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. 

Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Cloud Atlas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Six lives. One amazing adventure. The audio publication of one of the most highly acclaimed novels of 2004. 'Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies...' A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified 'dinery server' on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation - the narrators of CLOUD ATLAS hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great…


Dune

By Frank Herbert,

Book cover of 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.

Dune

By Frank Herbert,

Why should I read it?

42 authors picked Dune as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's lifespan to making interstellar travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of…


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