Speculative fiction is my favorite genre, so I’m beyond excited to share some recommendations! Speculative fiction includes books that are written about events or societies that are theoretically possible, but don’t actually exist. This definition can be a bit tricky to understand, so I like to think of it as the genre where realistic fiction and dystopian/science fiction overlap. It’s a great genre for readers like myself who enjoy a little bit of everything. In hopes that you’ll eventually fall in love with the genre as much as I have, I want to share five speculative fiction books that are a great place to get started!
Life After Life—Kate Atkinson.Life After Life is the story of a woman named Ursula Todd who relives her life numerous times in twentieth-century England. Each life is an alternate possible reality in which she vaguely remembers the events of her past lives and is able to avoid events which would otherwise have lead to her death. This book is a great place to start for anyone who enjoys character-driven novels. Not to mention the best part: it has a sequel!
Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Butler’s work, or at least recognize her name. And there’s a reason for that! Parable of the Sower was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1994 after its release and recently became a New York Times Bestseller again in September of 2020. The novel follows the life of a young woman named Lauren Olamina as she navigates Butler’s vision of America in 2024. I was completely engrossed in this novel when I read it. It is definitely a must read for anyone who is looking to ease out of teen dystopian novels and into adult dystopias.
The Road—Cormac McCarthy. This was my first speculative fiction novel and let me tell you, I was floored when I read this book. The novel follows a man and his young son as they travel across the remains of a post-apocalyptical North America in search of a better life. The pair are accosted with difficult weather and unwelcoming travelers during their journey. I will warn you that this novel is intense, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys realistically unhappy endings as much as I do.
The Dreamers—Karen Thompson Walker. Romance and domestic fiction fans, you’ve found your next read! Walker’s novel tells the story of a small town in California that is plagued with a deadly sleeping disease. The novel focuses on a young college student named Mei who is suddenly pulled out of her typical college lifestyle because of the strange disease. Mei finds a companion in one of her classmates, and together they attempt to save the town from the sickness. This novel is a great option for fans of bittersweet realistic fiction who are looking to expand their reading horizons.
1984—George Orwell. I doubt there’s much need for me to introduce this book to you. I’m sure you’ve heard of it one way or another, and possibly even read it in high school, or just for fun. Orwell’s novel had to make this list, though. 1984 is a classic in the genre of speculative fiction. His vision of life in the year 1984 has been the inspiration for many other speculative fiction writers who came after him. He certainly inspired some of the writers on this list. So, if you’ve read my list and now you’re wondering which of the five novels to start with, this is the one!
In a dystopian world, the United States has become a monarchy named Illea where citizens are forced into a One (royalty) through Eight (criminals and outcasts) caste system. The prince of the country is looking for a new wife and will hold a competition with ordinary girls from all different castes and locations around the country to choose his new princess.
Kiera Cass’s novel, The Selection, is another classic 2010’s dystopian piece similar to Divergent, Hunger Games, with even a little bit of “The Bachelor” mixed in. The main protagonist in the story is a fiery red-head named America, a Five, who does not want to follow the rules of this repressive government. She is already in love with Aspen, a Seven, but when she is selected to enter into the Selection (basically the Prince’s version of “The Bachelor”), she is forced to leave behind her old life and enter into this cutthroat competition against girls of all different castes and locations for the crown.
Throughout the book, America comes to learn more about herself and what she is capable of and questions the beliefs and prejudices she has held for her whole life.
The Selection in its plot is very ordinary, almost fulfilling that checklist of YA dystopian novels: the love triangle, the feisty main character who has a blatant disregard for the rules, and the clear mistrust between the protagonist and the main leadership character (in this case, America and the King Clarkson). Despite its seemingly “normal-ness,” the book actually always sticks with me. Why? It’s not only because I have a taste for these dystopian YA novels, but because the book used such descriptive language so that I could see each character, emotion, and location clearly in my head. The images and feelings that were described by America and her backstories to help the audience understand the context of the situation are so detailed that I could imagine each of the scenes in my head, play-by-play. I knew exactly how the palace looked, her feelings about the Prince, the Selection, and even the strawberry tart she had before her first official meeting with Prince Maxon. The imagery in the text was strong and will make it memorable in this way for the audience.
One of the most interesting themes of the story was actually along the lines of judgement and prejudice. Throughout the book, each of the characters has some sort of a judgment about the other characters due to the stereotypes of the castes and royalty that they have learned growing up. This stubborn prejudice clouds America’s judgement and prevents her from seeing the important and caring qualities that Maxon has, and her innate quality to rule. Maxon, on the other hand, also had prejudices about those from lower castes but he was quick to learn from his mistakes, which shows a stark contrast between America and Maxon’s characters and learning curves.
Overall, although the book was a bit predictable and followed the classic YA fiction tropes, I still found that it combined interesting themes and borrowed from pop culture in ways that were new (such as using the concept behind The Bachelor). It was the perfect before-bed read—relaxing, interesting, with the perfect amount of romance mixed in.