Do you smell that? Freshly cut grass, sunscreen, smoke from a grill, hot plastic floaties in the pool, and the pages of a brand new book...it must mean that summer is coming! Every year the team at Fiction Unbound collects our best summer reading recommendations in speculative fiction for you, so you can be ready to jump in the moment summer begins. Whether you are going on a well-deserved vacation or staying close to home this year, there is nothing like taking advantage of these long summer days to crack open a good book. Why wait? Get your read on now and let us know your favorite speculative fiction books in the comments below.
THEODORE MCCOMBS RECOMMENDS: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven, edited by Jonathan Strahan
Elevator pitch: 2016’s best speculative short fiction includes Amal El-Mohtar’s Nebula winner “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” a fractured fairy tale that challenges the form’s classic misogyny; N.K. Jemisin’s stunning “Red Dirt Witch,” which reimagines the old faerie-wants-my-baby story according to 1950s Alabama race relations; Alyssa Wong’s fantastic Weird West short, “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”; and Sam J. Miller’s audacious queering of The Thing, “Things With Beards”; among other great pieces by Fiction Unbound favorites Catherynne M. Valente, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ken Liu.
Where to Read: In public, conspicuously, to spread the word of the excellent up-and-coming writers in this collection
Good if: You’re itching for the latest and greatest in science fiction and fantasy from a diverse stable of authors.
Not so good if: You think SF/F is being taken over by those danged PC police.
You might also like: The even thicker and canonical-er Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
What to Drink: Coffee, black as space or the heart of a charming man
What to Eat: The sushi platter. Each piece is individually delicious but together make a satisfying and eclectic meal.
Thickness Rating: Murder-weapon thick; but divide that by the 28 stories collected.
DANYELLE C. OVERBO RECOMMENDS: Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip
Elevator pitch: High fantasy and science fiction writer McKillip has many stand-alone novels worthy of your attention if you are a fan of fantasy, but this one is my favorite. A young orphan raised by librarians in the kingdom of Raine finds a magical book in a language that speaks only to her, a junior mage harboring a secret vendetta of his own meets her and falls in love, a young Queen of Raine attempts to keep her kingdom safe from threats both internal and external, and an epic love story unfolds at the center of it all. What’s not to love? McKillip is a fantasy veteran, winning awards for her novels and short stories since the 1970’s.
Where to Read: On a plane, in a train, at the beach, camping in a dark and possibly magical forest, anywhere really.
Good if: You love lyrical prose and gorgeous fantasy settings.
Not so good if: You’d rather be reading hard sci-fi, but give this a go anyway.
You might also like: Harrowing the Dragon, one of McKillip’s fantastic short story collections, also highly recommended.
What to Drink: Splashy Summer cocktails with lots of colors
What to Eat: Anything that goes along with an epic love story
Thickness Rating: Average fantasy novel length. A few days if you take your time like I do to appreciate the vividly imaginative descriptions for which McKillip is known.
LISA MAHONEY RECOMMENDS: Lincoln in the Bardo the first novel by George Saunders, whose stories are highly and widely praised.
Elevator pitch: Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died while he was in office. Lincoln, grief-stricken, visited the crypt where his son was temporarily interred and held the body. Saunders says the idea and an image stayed with him for 20 years, “a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta.” The book is narrated, as he explains, “by a group of monologuing ghosts stuck in the graveyard,” in the bardo, a post-death, pre-reincarnation state somewhat akin to the Buddhist concept. The ghosts, trapped in the bardo by unfulfilled desires, must overcome their inability influence the world of the living to help Willie and Abe move on.
Where to Read: in a graveyard, but in the sunshine
Good if: you relish distinctive narrative voices and are a history buff
Not so good if: you’re afraid to confront the ideas of Purgatory or rebirth
You might also like: His short story collections: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, (the title story is about a theme park gone bad) and Tenth of December: Stories (a finalist for the National Book Award and named Top 10 for 2013 by the New York Times.)
What to Drink: Tibetan hot buttered tea (it’s better than it sounds)
Thickness Rating: medium, but read it slowly to savor it
AMANDA BALDENEAUX RECOMMENDS: Galore by Michael Crummey
Elevator pitch: A whale beaches on a Newfoundland coast and in addition to the usual krill and seawater in its stomach, out pops a fully-formed man. Unfortunately, he’s mute and not sharing how he got there. From there, dive into the world of families struggling to survive in the wilds of frigid Newfoundland. In addition to the rough and rugged locale, residents have the added headaches of family feuds, ghosts of dead husbands, unrequited loves (who may or may not be your cousin), and bad teeth. But between all of those bothers is the beauty of folklore, family legacies (and family secrets), and the distinct possibility of time loops (and isn’t that a metaphor for everything?).
Where to Read: Some place very warm, maybe a sauna-like Texas or Arkansas suburb, because the cold winds off the sea across Newfoundland will give you the chills even in 90-degree heat.
Good if: You like your books about people and their sometimes difficult, ever-shifting personalities.
Not so good if: Your preferred modus operandi for fantasy is journey or plot driven movement. With this book, we’re going to Newfoundland, we’re staying there (nonetheless, get in loser we’re going mumming).
You might also like: Regional-based fiction (with or without the fantasy element) and magical realism are probably your cup of tea (or at least one preferred flavor) if you’re going to like this book. I love southern literature, and that love of regionalism in writing was the door I needed to fall head first into Crummey’s work. Also, if you are a fan of the story of Jonah and the Whale, this book is for you.
What to Drink: Something hearty and home brewed, like a mug of ale. There’s also whale stomach acid - yum! Or just gnaw on some ice chips until your tongue goes numb.
What to Eat: A good whale meat steak. Or some salty kelp chips. Or just starve.
Thickness Rating: What is a beginning and what is an end? All of life is one ever-looping circle. But if we squeezed this book somewhere in the circle, it’d take you a few decent sittings to finish.
MARK SPRINGER RECOMMENDS: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Elevator pitch: A collection of Ted Chiang’s first eight short stories, all originally published between 1990 and 2002. The best known of these is “Story of Your Life,” which was adapted into the film Arrival in 2016 and is itself worth the price of admission, but each story is unforgettable in its own way, especially “Tower of Babylon,” in which ancient Babylonian miners tunnel through the vault of heaven, and “Division by Zero,” in which a brilliant mathematician makes a discovery that forces her to confront the limits of the theories she relies on to give meaning to the universe. This collection is “soulful science fiction” at its finest.
Where to Read: Anywhere under the vault of heaven.
Good if: Margaret Wertheimer’s sublime essay on the paradoxes at the heart of physics inspires a sense of wonder, rather than terror.
Not so good if: You prefer to live under the illusion that science fiction can’t seamlessly blend complex ideas and richly drawn characters into great stories.
What to Drink: Whatever comes next in the enacted chronology of your life.
What to Eat: Same as above.
Thickness Rating: Medium. (But after reading “Division by Zero” you will understand that any formalism for rating thickness is inherently inconsistent, and therefore meaningless.)
C.S. PETERSON RECOMMENDS: Radiate by C. A. Higgins
Elevator pitch: Ananke is on a quest, a journey of discovery. Her goal - to understand who made her, why she is here and if there is the possibility of love. She is the newly sentient AI, the first to become so, in the body of a former military spaceship cruising around a dystopian solar system a few hundred years from now. Her ‘mother’ is Althea, a small, vulnerable, human electrical engineer who lives on board. Her ‘father’ is Matthew, the programmer whose code brought Ananke to life. Matthew is not on board. He is traveling, somewhere, and Ananke aims to find him. She attempts to ‘wake’ other ships, but like Lenny’s kitten in "Of Mice and Men," her attempts do not end well for the other ships or their crews. In Ananke, Althea has a child with the power of a god and the longings of a child, a somewhat petulant pre-teen.
Where to Read: Outside, in view of the Sun, but where you can touch the ground and reassure yourself you are still safe on the surface of the planet.
Good if: You’re feeling so ebullient at the approach of summer that you need a little something to take the edge off, pull your feet back down to the ground and remind you of the “screaming nightmare void that surrounds our tiny little planet.”
Not so good if: Existential angst has got you down.
You might also like: The first two books in the series: "Lightless" and "Supernova"
What to Drink: Drink? AI don’t need to drink. Oh, you’re human. Water?
What to Eat: Yes, human. We need to eat. Something made from grain is good to start off with.
What to Breathe: Air. (shhh) Listen, we’re on Earth. Breathe! Breathe! Oh, thank God it’s free. Free air. Breathe the air.
Thickness Rating: Start reading mid-morning, finish around 3:00 am.