The best hard-to-categorize novels

Who am I?

I like books that aren’t easy to categorize by genre because that’s the kind of book I like to write. Most of my novels are defined as science fiction for marketing purposes and placed on the science fiction shelves of book shops, but they aren’t very typical of science fiction and don’t necessarily always appeal to those looking for a lot of futuristic tech, or tales of galactic empires. In some ways, the things I write about are more typical of the concerns of readers of non-SF ‘mainstream’ (I hate the term, but there it is!) literary fiction, but many such readers will find them too science fictional.

I wrote...


By Chris Beckett,

Book cover of Tomorrow

What is my book about?

In an unnamed country with its own unique fauna and history, a would-be author (also unnamed!) has rented a cabin by a river in the remote interior, hoping to write a novel there.  The surroundings are so enchanting that it is hard to get started, and then the outside world violently intervenes, resulting in a long period in captivity and then a grueling escape. 

The story, told in the first person, skips back and forth across the author’s life before and after this episode, and includes a love affair that in the end doesn’t work out, and even an encounter with something that purports to be the Holy Grail. The author’s novel is never written, in spite of many attempts, while the story about the author becomes a kind of lifetime search for identity and meaning.

The books I picked & why

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The Memoirs of a Survivor

By Doris Lessing,

Book cover of The Memoirs of a Survivor

Why this book?

Doris Lessing is one of the genuinely great authors of the 20th century. A true visionary, she moved effortlessly between naturalistic writing and her own unique variety of science fiction/fantasy—the latter written with such conviction that it seems completely real (while her naturalistic writing is so vivid is to seem almost more than real). In this book, a middle-aged woman looks out of her window at a civilization that is rapidly falling apart. As the woman retreats into her own inner world, a strange girl comes to live with her, bringing an animal called Hugo that is somewhere in between a dog and a cat. It’s a spell-binding piece of world-building and a reminder that everything that seems permanent will one day crumble.

The Crystal World

By J.G. Ballard,

Book cover of The Crystal World

Why this book?

Ballard is another of the great visionaries of the mid-twentieth century. His earlier books are often categorised as science fiction but have little in common with science fiction as most people understand it, and he himself increasingly distanced himself from the genre in the latter part of his career. The protagonist of The Crystal World arrives in a tropical forest which is gradually being taken over by a strange process that buries all living things—trees, birds, crocodiles, people—beneath a layer of bright crystals. It sounds bizarre, it sounds unlikely to be enough to fill up a whole book, but Ballard’s extraordinary visual imagination and his sense of atmosphere, make this a completely immersive experience.

The Unconsoled

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Unconsoled

Why this book?

In this extraordinary novel, a famous pianist arrives in an unnamed middle European city to give a recital.  But he is constantly thwarted by events. The story works like one of those anxiety dreams in which you are trying to get somewhere, but can somehow never quite reach it. And this is not a coincidence because Ishiguro quite deliberately set out to write a novel that used the narrative devices of dreams to tell its story.  In dreams, for instance, we can open a door and step right through into a different part of town, or we can hear people’s thoughts, or stumble unexpectedly upon long-forgotten scenes from childhood. In dreams, one person can merge into another. All of this happens in a book that occupies its own, unique one-book genre.


By C.S. Lewis,

Book cover of Perelandra

Why this book?

C S Lewis is best known as the author of the Narnia books, but he wrote all kinds of books, including a science fiction trilogy of which Perelandra is the second (but freestanding) book. Elwin Ransom is summoned to a largely ocean-covered Venus, to take part in an epic struggle between good and evil.  Venus has its own Adam and Eve, who have not yet succumbed to temptation as Adam and Eve did on Earth, and Ransom’s task is to save them from the evil Professor Weston who has arrived on the planet with an agenda of his own. 

If this sounds like some sort of Christian allegory it is, but Lewis’s extraordinary imagination and unique worldbuilding skills make this a spellbinding story, whether you share his faith, or whether (like me) you don’t. So fresh and alive is his imaginary world, that it’s as if he reinvented science fiction from scratch to make a unique genre of his own.

Good Behaviour

By Molly Keane,

Book cover of Good Behaviour

Why this book?

Set among the dilapidated Anglo-Irish gentry in rural Ireland as they sink slowly into decline, what makes this book strange and unique among country house novels is the way it deals with its narrator. The daughter of a landowner in a big run-down house, in a social world dominated by horses and hunting, she sees what’s going on around her but fails to understand it, hemmed in by rules of behaviour that make many things simply impossible to name. We see that her brother is gay, for instance, but she never spots it, even when she walks in on her brother and his boyfriend in a state of undress, and she never finds her own way out of this strange doomed world. 

This book is darkly funny, tinged with gothic, and completely merciless.  No less a writer than Hilary Mantel has said she wishes she’d written this novel.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in good and evil, Western culture, and magic-supernatural?

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