Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Multitude of Favorites 2: Speculative Fiction

"Speculative fiction" is pretty dodgy. It's hard to define exactly what it means. It's not sci-fi, really, although sometimes there are sci-fi elements, and it's not fantasy or horror, although there's sometimes some horrific stuff involved and there's always some fantastical element. It's that Other Genre, basically. It's full of glorious and/or creepy possibilities. It can uplifting or it can be downright chilling.

Here's my four favorite "speculative fiction" writers:

Neil Gaiman. Most of us first heard of him when he was writing the critically-acclaimed Vertigo series THE SANDMAN, but he went on to pen some of the most imaginative and lovely novels and short stories of the modern age. Stephen King called him a treasure trove of stories (or something to that effect). It's true. His novels AMERICAN GODS and NEVERWHERE are absolutely brilliant, and his short story collections, like SMOKE & MIRRORS and FRAGILE THINGS are beautiful, scary, and moving.

George Saunders. Reading CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE was like being taken by the shoulders and shook, hard, for me. It opened my eyes in a lot of ways to what it's possible to do with the short story format. Saunders has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, but I don't think that's quite accurate. Yes, he's a brilliant and cutting satirist, but his stories are loaded with a kind of darkly funny surrealism that Vonnegut never embraced. He's being noticed lately because of his latest release, TENTH OF DECEMBER, but if you've never read him, you should check out IN PERSUASION NATION, PASTORALIA, THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL, and THE VERY PERSISTENT GAPPERS OF FRIP. He also wrote a brilliant collection of essays on popular culture called THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE.

Tim Powers. ON STRANGER TIDES is one of the most exciting and original novels I've ever read, a terrific hybrid of dark fantasy, pirate adventure and alternate history. All of Powers books are well-researched and chockful of bizarre ideas. "Delightful" is a goofy word and not one I use lightly, but that's what Powers does. He's a writer who's not afraid to experiment with some pulp ideas, translated into some kind of high art. I'd also recommend EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, THE ANUBIS GATES (one of my favorites!), LAST CALL, and EXPIRATION DATE. The only thing I haven't read of his yet is THREE DAYS TO NEVER-- I keep putting it off because he's not super-prolific and I hate the thought of not having any more Powers to read.

James Morrow. First thing I read from Morrow was a brilliant novel called CITY OF TRUTH, about a place where lying was illegal, and the hero had to learn to lie in order to save the life of his son. After that, I jumped right into BIBLE STORIES FOR ADULTS, a cheeky collection of Biblically-inspired fables. He's mostly known, however, for the "Godhead Trilogy", TOWING JEHOVAH, BLAMELESS IN ABADDON, and THE ETERNAL FOOTMAN, chronicling the death of God and how the world deals with it, post-mortem. Morrow's books are challenging and funny  and deeply human.

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