The words ‘unusual’, ‘fascinating’, and ‘surreal’ may seem synonymous when it comes to science fiction. That is not the case! The science fiction genre is as diverse as the realities it depicts. From a pen-pal romance that defies time and space to a distant planet inhabited by extraterrestrials who cannot lie in their native language, there are plenty of unusual, weird, or surreal science fiction books to add to your reading pile.
Science Fiction is an expansive genre comprised of many different realities, some shockingly similar to our own, others vastly different to anything we could have imagined. From unusual novels set on our very own planet to surreal novels set on distant planets, and every weird thing in-between, there are many great mind-bending novels out there.
No matter what level of strange you’re looking for in your following science fiction read, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll break down the differences between unusual, fascinating, and surreal science fiction and give you the best recommendations for each!
Unusual Science Fiction
Oxford dictionary defines ‘unusual’ as a word that refers to something that is deemed remarkable or interesting due to the way it differs from other things that may be considered similar in some regards. Within science-fiction, ‘unusual’ refers to those narratives that can often feel familiar, but there’s something about it that sets it apart from those familiar narratives. You could almost consider these unusual science fiction books as offbeat; the beat that makes it science fiction is there, it’s just slightly off.
Our Unusual Picks
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)
Klara and the Sun is the first novel that famed literary author Kazuo Ishiguro has published since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This novel tells the story of the titular Klara, who is an Artificial Friend, an android who was built to be a human child’s companion. Every day, Klara sits upon her shelf in the store, observing the many customers that pass through while waiting to be chosen.
Ishiguro blends many different fiction tropes in Klara and the Sun, from the interaction of humans and Artificial Intelligence to notions of faith, spirituality, and love. Without spoiling anything, we’ll just say that ‘and the Sun’ refers to an important part of Klara’s journey. Though you may be familiar with many of the classic themes present within Ishiguro’s novel, he delivers a compelling narrative from a unique perspective with a powerful message about the ever-changing world we live in.
This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019)
This unique epistolary novel follows the correspondence between two rivaling agents across time and space. Both equally determined to secure the best future for their factions, this novel and the relationship between the female leads is never quite what it seems. El-Mohtar and Gladstone, both award-winning writers, take the reader on a powerful and emotional journey in this genre-bending novel.
Winning both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novella, this star-crossed romance set against the backdrop of a dying world will keep you enthralled right until the shocking ending. El-Mohtar and Gladstone have revealed that their book has been optioned for television and that they will be writing the scripts.
Fascinating Science Fiction
To best explain the meaning of the phrase ‘fascinating’, Oxford dictionary uses these words to describe it: ‘very unusual or difficult to explain’. In this sense, ‘fascinating’ science fiction takes a step beyond mere ‘unusual’ territory and into the downright unexplainable. When it comes down to fascinating science fiction books, mysterious, enthralling and engaging sounds about right to us!
Our Fascinating Picks
The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
This seminal novel by Joanna Russ is weird in the best way and more topical than ever before! Both sinister and darkly humorous, this novel follows the meeting of four alternative versions of a woman – Jeanine, Janet, Joanna, and Jael – from different realities. The different realities these women come from echo our own, from a world where men and women are in a literal war of the sexes to one where men died out centuries ago. Russ’s novel was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1975, and it still holds up (a mirror to our society) today!
Ubik, Phillip K. Dick (1969)
Commonly cited as one of the greatest novels published in the last century, Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik is a short but powerful novel that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it. Chances are, if you’re searching for more information on this novel, the various plot descriptions might sound like they’re for entirely different novels!
One of the main characters in this novel, Joe Chip, works at an organization responsible for protecting people’s thoughts from invasion by telepathic individuals. Even more sinister, the man who runs the agency receives help from his physically dead wife, with who he is able to communicate with via futuristic technology. From there, Ubik continually descends into weirder and weirder territory. Every time you think you know what’s plotting in this novel, Dick will pull the rug out from beneath you.
This novel from one of America’s most acclaimed science fiction novelists is a must-read. In fact, the Phillip K. Dick Award, which was named for the author of Ubik following his death, is an annual science fiction award that celebrates the best (and weirdest) novels the genre has to offer.
Surreal Science Fiction
Continuing the above trend, the Oxford dictionary firstly defines the word ‘surreal’ as referring to that which is considered ‘very strange’. The definition goes on to explain that ‘surreal’ can refer to that which feels ‘more like a dream than reality’ and can even refer to a complex amalgamation of different ideas. In terms of art and literature, surrealism is actually an artistic movement. Surrealist science fiction books are known for their bizarre, often disjointed narratives that convey meaning in off-kilter and unexpected ways.
Our Surreal Picks
Embassytown, China Miéville (2011)
Embassytown is a town established on a far-off planet that humans have colonized. This planet is home to the Ariekei, sentient beings who speak a language in which you cannot lie. On this colonized planet, only a few human ambassadors are able to speak the language of the Ariekei and keep the peace. The arrival of new ambassadors sends Embassytown spiraling into surrealist chaos.
Miéville blends a whole host of unique ideas in this novel which will leave you thinking about it long after you have finished reading it. Winner of the 2021 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, this book is a worthy addition to your reading pile.
Kefahuchi Tract Series, M. John Harrison (2002-2012)
This mind-bending saga begins with the first book, Light, and continues in the two sequels, Nova Swing and Empty Space. To adequately describe these surreal novels is no easy feat. A serial-killing physicist, a cybernetically-altered pilot, and a drifting adventurer walk into time and space… unfortunately, we can’t give away the punchline without spoilers!
This series begins with three outlawed individuals whose journeys intersect in surprising ways in a corner of the universe known as the Kefahuchi Tract, a boundless ocean of light. Forced to grapple with a universe of their own devising – one where they make the very rules they break – this darkly funny and absurd novel will grip you from the very beginning and won’t let up. The novels in this trilogy have won numerous awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick Awards.
Science fiction has long held a mirror up to the society we live in. How bizarre you want the reflection in that mirror it holds up to be is completely up to you. When it comes to unusual, weird, or surreal science fiction books, your reading list will always be a long one!