Catherynne M. Valente's new novel Space Opera imagines Eurovision in space, with high and deadly stakes, resulting in a frenetic, imaginative intergalactic extravaganza set many years after the brutal Sentience Wars roiled the galaxy. The hero is “leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambitious glamrock messiah” Danesh Jalo, aka Decibel Jones (“Dess”) of the glam-rock trio Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. Valente picks 10 of her favorite offbeat science fiction novels.
Science fiction is such a huge tent that discussing what does and does not fall inside the big top has become something of a cottage industry. It's a wonderful place, but the trend of late has leaned toward grimdark and serious, full of the very best furrowed brows, gunmetal grey, and violence have to offer. But SF can also deliver the same bite and punch using humor and off-beat oddities and a great deal of snark, and sometimes, just sometimes, those books that seem easy and fun can hit just as hard as the big boys. Hopefully, my recently novel, Space Opera, is one of those. But these ten novels definitely are, some of the best off-roading and triple-flips SF has pulled off, while most everyone was busy looking at the big exploding trapeze show in the center ring of the tent.
Don't mind the mixed metaphors. Mind the list.
1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
This is one of my all-time favorite books and I can never not recommend it. It takes time travel and all the tropes inherent to it to a whole new level of emotional resonance, humor, and philosophy. It’s light on plot (and linearity) and heavy on meaning, but the whole thing is so deeply human, and at the same time, takes its science fiction so seriously that it’s no surprise author Charles Yu went on to write for Westworld.
2. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow
A rather un-Doctorow Doctorow novel, it is nevertheless one that lives closer to my heart than any of the others. It concerns the life and times of Alan, whose father is a mountain and whose mother is a washing machine, and if you don’t want to read it after hearing that, I’m not sure we have enough in common to be friends.
3. Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery
Brian Francis Slattery’s debut novel is the definition of a tour-de-force. With prose like quick, staccato jazz, he guides us through the New York superhero apocalypse we’ve been waiting for but never knew it, along with one of the sweetest and most moving LGBT love stories in all of SF.
4. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
There is simply no one like Stanislaw Lem. Or his translator. I have never fully understood how the incredible alliteration and wordplay and punning he accomplishes in Polish can transfer over so completely to English, but it does. The Cyberiad is a collection of linked short stories about artificial intelligence and politics, which sounds dry, but it’s one of the funniest, wildest, most imaginative books you’ll ever read. One page serves up more ideas than most of us will have in a lifetime.
5. Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut
My favorite Vonnegut novel rarely appears on other people’s lists, but I love Slapstick with my whole soul. It is a post-apocalyptic elegy for the world and love and family and gravity starring the last President of the United States, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, a character who I have never felt so close to in my life. I almost teared up just now writing out his name—because of course, his name has enormous meaning within the context of the end of days in the U.S. Yet somehow, it remains hopeful. It’s a book we need right now and I hope you are already reading it.
6. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
It’s impossible not to recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, often, and to anyone who, rather improbably, hasn’t read it. But you may recall that there are actually five books in the series—why not branch out and give some of the later books a re-read? They’re actually tighter plots and weirder turns of the imagination than the iconic first, and will reward you just as much, if not more.
7. Lucky Wander Boy by D. B. Weiss
I am aware that this is not an oft-read book, but it should be. D. B. Weiss went on to great success co-helming Game of Thrones, but this, his debut novel, will always have a special place on my bookshelf. It feels these days like something of a precursor to Ready Player One, just a precursor that came a little too early to capitalize on the '80s nostalgia craze. If you have ever loved a video game, this is the book for you. Despite having some issues with its female characters and the protagonist’s treatment of them on his quest for the eponymous game, the transcendent ending takes it firmly into speculative fiction territory. The Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments entries alone are worth the price.
8. The Museum at Purgatory by Nick Bantock
Though short, this little book is a whole world between two covers. The concept is fairly simple and very novel—those who cannot move past their obsessions when they die go to Purgatory and curate exhibits based around them until they can purge their souls and ascend. Several, some rather famous, spirits’ exhibits make up the spine of the book—and what’s more, the exhibits themselves are shown in full color, in sculpture and art by the author Nick Bantock. Though he is more well known for the Griffin and Sabine books, The Museum at Purgatory is so much more dear to me, as someone who, occasionally, has trouble moving past obsession herself.
9. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Parts of this incredible space opera by a master of the genre read like beatnik prose poetry, and I love it for that. 2312 is a technological thriller-mystery, but it is also a tour through the inhabited solar system of one hundred years from now, with all its weirdness and wildness and thrill-seeking denizens behaving more weirdly and wildly than in almost any other near future SF I’ve ever read. The protagonist’s love interest is part frog, and she (though she is actually intersex, and pronouns are iffy when you can shift genders with little surgical trouble) is part songbird. That, in and of itself, should tell you this book is worth every moment of your time. I used up an entire pen’s worth of ink underlining lines I thought were utterly arresting.
10. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
Time travel forms the core of the science fiction in this beautiful book, but it is so much more. A combination of The Ice Storm and Back to the Future in which the protagonist can move in time, but only in the confines of her small English village, the book is so captivating and perfectly turned that I read the entire thing on my mobile phone, unable to look away for a second. It immediately vaulted into the ranks of my all-time favorites.