The best speculative fiction novels in which a neurotic misfit conjures a world blending dream and reality

Martin B. Reed Author Of The Hammond Conjecture: The Third Reich meets the Swinging Sixties, cyberpunk meets neuroscience, in a comic meta-thriller
By Martin B. Reed

Who am I?

I was a student in 1968-71 (see photo) and the memories of that vanished world still haunt me. When I was supposed to be studying relativity and topology I was reading Blake and Jung, Marcuse and Mao—all misfits in their own way. After a long and undistinguished career as a mathematics lecturer in far-flung locations—Lesotho, New Guinea, Uxbridge—I retired in 2019 to write speculative comic fiction which would bring the Swinging Sixties back to life. Something of a misfit myself, I look at today's world and ask despairingly, “Is this really happening?” The books on my list provide me some solace.


I wrote...

The Hammond Conjecture: The Third Reich meets the Swinging Sixties, cyberpunk meets neuroscience, in a comic meta-thriller

By Martin B. Reed,

Book cover of The Hammond Conjecture: The Third Reich meets the Swinging Sixties, cyberpunk meets neuroscience, in a comic meta-thriller

What is my book about?

The Hammond Conjecture is an alternate-history novel that explores themes of memory, identity, and historical narrative. It is also a lot of fun. 

Are you sure you know who you are? If your memories disappeared and were replaced with someone else’s, would you still be you? And what if those memories were not just from a different person—but from another world? That’s the dilemma facing Hugh Hammond, an anti-hero for our times of fake news and subjective truth. Hugh is imprisoned in an isolation hospital in the 1980s, but recalls his life as a secret agent battling the Third Reich in an alternative 1960s Europe. Has he lost his mind? Whatif anythingis real? A darkly comic tale of sex, drugs, and quantum mechanics. 

The books I picked & why

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The Unlimited Dream Company

By J.G. Ballard,

Book cover of The Unlimited Dream Company

Why this book?

Published in 1979, but it reads like 1960s psychedelia. The hero, Blake, descends—literally—on the sleepy riverside town of Shepperton (where Ballard himself lived), and conjures it and its inhabitants into a sensual Amazonian Eden. I imagine Ballard walking the streets each day and seeing visions: flamingos perched atop the filling station, orchids overrunning the hardware store, his neighbours throwing off their business suits and coupling naked in their front gardens. Seeing, like his hero’s namesake, "a world in a grain of sand, or heaven in a wildflower." The rich prose, evocative but never repetitive, works the same magic on the reader.  


Against Nature (À Rebours)

By J. K. Huysmans,

Book cover of Against Nature (À Rebours)

Why this book?

I always assumed that nineteenth-century French literature would be either too highbrow or too earnest—until I read this book. A Parisian aristocrat, immensely rich, neurotic, and reclusive, despises bourgeois society and dedicates his life to satisfying his aesthetic passions. A passion, above all, for artifice: the exotic, the unnatural, the perverse. There’s his liqueur organ, the jewel-encrusted tortoise, the poetry he writes with perfumes. It’s a perfect complement to the modern exotic fantasies of JG Ballard.

Oscar Wilde said this was the ‘yellow book’ which seduced Dorian Gray to a life of decadence. As a university student in the Swinging Sixties it introduced me to the Symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau, to Baudelaire, Poe, and de Sade—a whole new world.


Remainder

By Tom Mccarthy,

Book cover of Remainder

Why this book?

If you were suddenly awarded 8.5 million pounds, what would you do with it? Would you take the advice of the financial consultants and invest it sensibly? How boring. If you were a visionary you might create a sensual paradise of your imagination. But if you are just an ordinary young working-class Londoner? You might remember an instant—on holiday, or at a party—when you felt happy and content, and decide to recreate it. 

This time the writing is sparse and matter-of-fact. I hardly noticed as the hero’s project proceeds gradually, logically into realms of absurdity, told with deadpan humour. For me, speculative fiction involves a world that is recognisable and familiar—but which gradually becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

It’s a story that makes you think—though without telling you what to think.


Fu-Manchu: The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu

By Sax Rohmer,

Book cover of Fu-Manchu: The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu

Why this book?

At first glance, a pulp fiction potboiler in which Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (clones of Holmes and Dr. Watson) struggle to foil the devilish plans of an evil mastermind. But as the pair are thrust into ever more fantastical dangers, I started to wonder. Is Nayland Smith’s obsession with Fu Manchu (like Holmes with Moriarty) making him see the Chinaman’s omnipotent hand behind every crime? And Dr. Petrie, the narrator (like Watson a blinkered stuffed shirt) becomes infatuated with Fu Manchu’s beautiful Egyptian slave/concubine Karameneh. Even more improbably, she falls in love with him, according to his account. Are the two Englishmen actually living out their own (or their author’s) fantasies?

I love to wallow in the pure excitement and polished prose of these pre-war thrillers. I penned my own homage in the Chinatown chapter of my own book.  


The Invention of Morel

By Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ruth L. C. Simms (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of Morel

Why this book?

A friend recommended this book when I told her about my Shepherd theme. A neurotic fugitive, hiding on a deserted island, discovers that he is not alone. This novella is classed as magical realism—there’s a foreword by Borges—but like my book it eventually provides a scientific explanation for the strange occurrences. And like almost all my other choices, it’s a first-person narration, so we are kept wondering how much is true. It flags a bit after the initial premise, but once the revelations start, it grips you. Amazingly for a book written in 1964, its speculations address issues at the forefront of digital technology and science today. I won’t say more, except: don’t read the introduction or foreword, which contain plot spoilers!     


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