The two most common caveats booksellers are given when asked for recommendations are “no short stories” (more on that another time) and “no sci-fi or fantasy”. In fact, if I was asked off the cuff to narrow down my reading habits, I’d probably find myself demoting any science fiction or fantasy to the bottom of my to-be-read pile.
But that’s crazy. I grew up reading Harry Potter and am as big a JK fan as any other die-hard who queued outside their local bookshop at midnight to pick up the final instalment. I’m an embarrassingly geeky Doctor Who fan – so much so that I stood up one of my best friend’s on her birthday to go to a live screening of the 50th anniversary episode. And I’m on my fourth cycle of complete viewing of the seven series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in three years and good luck to anyone trying to challenge my assertion that it’s one of the greatest television series of all time.
So yes, perhaps when it comes to my current reading, I’m more likely to pick up the latest Anne Tyler than the George RR Martin Game of Thrones prequel, and my bookseller head leads me towards recommending not-so-secret gem Stefan Zweig to the average customer rather than Lalinne Paul’s impressive and Bailey’s Prize shortlisted The Bees, but for the life of me I can’t tell you why.
One of my favourite books this year was Out in the Open by Spanish writer Jesús Carrasco – admittedly not science-fiction or fantasy so much as pure-bred dystopian nightmare à la McCarthy. Indeed the central trauma of the book was so deeply rooted in contemporary and social reality, it was all the more shocking for it and the otherworldly nature of the novel’s setting was made almost redundant. Similarly, one of my all time-favourites is Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s dystopian masterpiece Blindness. In it, a city is struck down by sudden and contagious white blindness and those afflicted are quickly shut away in an old abandoned hospital. As with all his work, darkness and anger permeates his dense, punctuation-light prose and the reader cannot ignore the political critique that hangs over the story. Despite this, and the fact that most of the characters remain anonymous, identified only as “the doctor’s wife” or the “the boy with the squint”, the characters he builds are some of the most developed, true and overwhelmingly human that I’ve ever read – the doctor’s wife has to be one of the greatest female characters in literature. While neither of these novels are perhaps what we think of when sci-fi springs to mind, they are both placed within created dystopian societies and these settings are used to reveal the truest essences and flaws within humanity and society.
I’ve had more fervently enthusiastic feedback over the last year about Emily St John Mandel’s superb Station Eleven than any other book of recent memory. And rightly so, it’s a dazzling book; deeply visceral, as compelling as any thriller and incredibly humane, it stayed with me long after I put it down. Indeed this is perhaps the crux of the matter for however infrequently I pick up a more genre-led novel, they are the ones that I remember, that tap into social and emotional truths and hit you without you even realising. A big fan of Patrick Ness’ other groundbreaking novels, I recently found myself reading his most praised book A Monster Calls that focuses on the living nightmares of a thirteen year old boy as he comes to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Beautifully illustrated throughout, it is short and simple but so powerful I found myself still sobbing 10 minutes after finishing the book. Telling anyone other than a discerning young adult reader however that the relationship between this boy and a walking, talking tree is worth reading about isn’t something I find myself doing on a day-to-day basis.
I’ll hold up my hands right now and acknowledge that any die-hard science-fiction or fantasy fan reading this will balk at my amateur references. I’m no expert and there are hundreds of truer science-fiction and fantasy books that are worth touting but I’m only here to urge anyone to open up their mind, let go of their genre-based stereotypes, and read something just a little bit different. As a non sci-fi reader myself, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.