The best speculative fiction novels that blew my mind

Who am I?

I was a political journalist in London for the BBC and HuffPost for many years, so thinking about our current politics, and where we are headed kind of fixates me! From the day I read 1984 as a twelve-year-old, I’ve been obsessed with how novels set in the near future or an alternate past can be intensely political, and instructive. I enjoy sci-fi, but it’s the extrapolation of our world into a similar yet different one that can tell us so much about our own society. 

I wrote...

Weeks in Naviras

By Chris Wimpress,

Book cover of Weeks in Naviras

What is my book about?

Weeks in Naviras is a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, where the worlds of British and American politics converge in a Portuguese fishing village. The narrow streets of Naviras are the backdrop to the secret life of Ellie, the wife of the British prime minister. Now she’s back to remember her time there, recalling the secrets which sprang up at Casa Amanha, the home of a weather forecaster where her love for two men begins and ends.

Ellie has returned to Naviras just as a conspiracy to destabilise the Middle East is erupting. The village is the first and last place she ought to be, but Naviras has saved its biggest and deadliest secret for last.

The books I picked & why

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Machines Like Me

By Ian McEwan,

Book cover of Machines Like Me

Why this book?

Can a novel live simultaneously in the future as well as the past? I admired Ian McEwan for pulling off this lofty feat. He imagined how if just one historical event had played out differently, we would have already been living in our own future by the time of the 1980s, with AI and robots already part of everyday life. Set in London, some of the events of our past are still there, but also so much has changed. The result is an entertaining but troubling mix of nostalgia, imagination, and ultimately speculation about what robots will mean for our lives, our relationships, and our sense of self. It’s a page-turner packed with ideas – the best combination in fiction, I think!

The Heart Goes Last

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of The Heart Goes Last

Why this book?

Not her most famous speculative novel, but one which has a lot to say about where our societies might be headed. Automation and the soaring cost of living have wrecked the economy. The solution seems bizarre at first – people spend half their lives in prison – but as the novel progresses, it starts to seem normal, plausible even. Atwood is asking us how much we really value our freedom, and what conditions might prompt us to surrender it willingly. This has a dotted line to human relationships and love, exploring why people get together and stay together – or not. More than ever Atwood’s dark wit is on display here, though whether we should be laughing about these things is an open question!

War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command

By General Sir Richard Shirreff,

Book cover of War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command

Why this book?

Published in 2016, the provocative title of this novel seemed outlandish at the time, but regrettably, some of what it predicted has now come to pass. As you’d expect from a novel written by such a senior Army officer, this is a military novel delivered with technical accuracy and an eye on strategy, but also contains some interesting political elements – and how military chiefs interact with them. The politicians have often been renamed, but it’s not too hard to draw a dotted line to the real world. Owing to the author’s closeness to the events he describes, sometimes this doesn’t feel like a novel at all, more like a work of military history viewed from an unknown future, particularly when viewed through the lens of the horrors we’ve seen in Ukraine. 

Notes from the Burning Age

By Claire North,

Book cover of Notes from the Burning Age

Why this book?

Post-apocalyptic novels based on eco-disaster aren’t new, but Claire North goes a step further and imagines what kind of society might emerge from the ashes of our current one, should things go really wrong. Her world-building is frenetic and detailed, but never loses the reader in its creation. What I love about North’s writing is her often lyrical style and vivid descriptions, there’s plenty of that in this novel. Above all this is an oddly spiritual novel, asking what role religion might play in a world where the old gods appear to have deserted humankind. 

The History of Bees

By Maja Lunde,

Book cover of The History of Bees

Why this book?

I’m personally fascinated by bees (there are a few of them that turn up in my own book), so a speculative novel where they play a starring role was always going to be a must-read for me. Lunde’s novel spans 150 years and reminds us that for all our ingenuity and invention, humans are nowhere near as smart as the natural world, and we mess about with it at our peril. For bee aficionados, there’s a great deal of knowledge in these pages. There’s also thoughtful, reasoned speculation about what the 21st Century will mean for China’s place in the world, and a seamless interweaving of narratives. It’s an often sad novel that reminds us that we’re not as powerful as we think we are. 

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