Fiction Unbound is a space to celebrate and explore great writing in speculative fiction--a space where genre and “the Western canon” mean nothing next to story, imagination, and quality.
Do you like elves and aliens, but also good sentences? Do you love big novels, but can’t stand to read another searing, humane chronicle of a marriage in crisis? Welcome. You’re among friends.
In this inaugural post, we, your faithful contributors, wish to introduce ourselves and share an example or two of the kinds of books we’re thinking of, the kind of fiction you’ll be seeing a lot of round here.
Amanda’s first foray into speculative fiction writing came in 1991, at the tender age of seven, with a fan-fiction tribute to the cinema classic, The Worst Witch. (Haven’t seen it? Stop what you’re doing right now--you must Netflix Tim Curry at his finest.) While her induction into wizard school never came, that hasn’t stopped her from browsing Southwest fares in hopes of finding passage to Middle Earth, duct-taping flippers into mermaid tails for deep sea exploration, and writing yarn after yarn about magic immortals, secret doors to other worlds, and more mermaids.
Transportive historical fiction, like the works of Geraldine Brooks, that mix strong characters and more period details than a Renaissance Faire top my list of favorite speculative fiction works. I’m also prone to fangirling over authors like Ernest Cline (no really, I met him, touched his Delorean, and almost fainted). Even more than 80’s film paraphernalia, I love when authors speak to each other across the centuries through their themes and subjects, like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
No one knows who Sean is or what he is doing. But he probably needs to go to prison to have time to read the piles of books he’s bought. And then he needs to stay there to protect us all from the arcane knowledge he will have unlocked.
Those who have emerged sane from the deserts Sean is said to wander say Sean claimed the Harry Potter books and Infinite Jest are two of the best reading experiences of the last 25 years, though David Foster Wallace probably wished he were J.K. Rowling.
CH Lips is a Bohemian Taoist and writer, jonesing for ventures in hope in the art of the written word. Which is why she writes and reads speculative fiction. It is in the stories that go beyond the bounds of the known world where uncommon hope abides.
Fair warning: Her posts will invoke fierce hippie-chick language, resurrecting terms like “groovy” and “far-out.”
So, sisters and brothers, when you are down and the light has gone out, pick up Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s a fable with gorgeous, lyrical, spare language and adventures among crystal merchants, Bedouins and Pyramids. The elements of the world have things to say. And somewhere among the quick-turning 167 pages, you’ll be able to hear your dreams again. There are a few hints of slightly un-hip religiousness where you might want to go, “Oh no, this is getting too Jesus-y for me.” Keep reading. Coelho takes those rare moments beyond religion to something greater.
In middle school Lisa devoured John Carter of Mars and The Foundation Series which inspired her to pen volumes of romance sci-fi which she keeps locked up as reminders of how not to write. A vacant look usually signals that she is wandering through an alternate incarnation of the Earth or constructing conversations with characters no one else knows.
Dune takes the cake for best genre-busting novel. Guilds of floating navigators are dependent on a controlled substance; a man tells the future after a very bad trip; massive warships travel the galaxy faster than light speed; witches trained in esoteric self-defense control breeding; and advisers return as zombies, as our hero carries on a love affair and rides giant sandworms, all while mastering his galaxy’s tradition of political intrigue! Bonus: plenty of fan fiction. Only the strange, isolated world of One Hundred Years of Solitude immerses you so fully in rich detail with hauntingly lovely prose. Great literature leaves you rejoicing that what’s happening isn’t “real.”
Theodore McCombs is a writer in Denver, who was raised on space operas and Tolkein. He now has an unhealthy love for Booker-Prize winners, Russian novels, and whatever James Wood reviewed three months ago.
Who can beat Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness? More than its celebrated high concept--genderless aliens!--The Left Hand of Darkness commits to its icy world of intriguers with the attention to craft and interiority that characterizes the best literary fiction. But Le Guin is an easy choice: let me also urgently recommend M.G. Lewis’s The Monk a loony, Gothic fever dream published in 1796. It’s got ghost nuns! It’s got bandits! It’s got a cross-dressing, clergy-banging novice with the face of the Virgin Mary! It’s the most fun you should have had in your college English classes.
When CS Peterson was a little girl she spent her summers in Ashland, Oregon watching live Shakespeare, reading Ursula K. Le Guin and going for long wanders in the woods. By middle-school she was staying up late, hiding under covers with a flashlight and re-writing Tolkien to include the feisty female character she wished he’d written. These days she writes and wanders in Colorado.
I’m in love with the visceral terrors and fireside comforts in Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, and with the lyrical tone and poignant humor of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books. Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is my current obsession. Richly drawn, complex characters, a house full of psychics, a sleeping Welsh king, trees that whisper in Latin, ghosts and dreams that draw power from ley lines arcing through the wooded hills of Virginia. And did I mention the hot cars and and the drag racing?
Mark is an entropy fan. Order decays into disorder, systems fail, things fall apart. The world moves on, never again what it once was. Or maybe it was never what it seemed to be. Illusion is everywhere, after all. Violence, too. And injustice. Entropy always wins, but don’t confuse that for fatalism--a lot can happen between now and the end of the multiverse. Why not explore as much as you can along the way?
For starters, I recommend Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road. Both are beautifully written speculative tales about the end of human civilization, depicting not-too-distant futures that could all too easily become our own. Atwood’s vision of life among the ruins is as funny as it is bleak, at times almost lighthearted, which makes the tragedy of it all the more heartbreaking. In contrast, McCarthy’s unsparing parable of a father and his son trekking across the cold, dead wastelands of the American Southeast after a nuclear holocaust is pure nightmare. And yet, for all the horrors the man and the boy encounter, the poetry of McCarthy’s prose compels you to push on to the end of the road. Because even when all is grief and ashes, we can still hope to find light in the darkness.
For the month of January, we’ll be focusing our posts on fairy tales, the original speculative fiction. Don’t miss our pile-on review of Into the Woods (topical!)--and more to come!