20 genre-defying sci-fi books that broke the mold
February 16, 2023 12:54 PM   Subscribe

BookRiot.com, a bit breathlessly, gives us 20 genre-defying sci-fi books that broke the mold. I've read four of these, and they were all very good, so I'm taking a chance on sharing the full list.
posted by Harald74 (84 comments total) 133 users marked this as a favorite
I might recommend A Psalm for the Wild-Built for it's positive outlook, something I've been actively seeking in these trying times.
posted by Harald74 at 12:59 PM on February 16 [17 favorites]

Of the 20, 15 were written in the last three years, 4 others since 2010, and... we'll tack on one from 1979 for good measure?

I seriously question what this listicle is trying to accomplish.
posted by 7segment at 1:20 PM on February 16 [19 favorites]

I recommend "The Haunting of Tram Car 015" by P Djeli Clark, it's a lot of fun.
posted by evilDoug at 1:22 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

AND a "Psalm for the Wild Built" as Harald74 said.
posted by evilDoug at 1:24 PM on February 16

> I seriously question what this listicle is trying to accomplish

Same thing we do every listicle, Pinky...try to get people to click on it.
posted by jferg at 1:27 PM on February 16 [48 favorites]

I just finished Gideon the Ninth and enjoyed it a lot. The writing is witty and funny. The milieu feels inspired by Warhammer 40k maybe?
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:30 PM on February 16 [13 favorites]

I like that the list begins with a statement about what they mean by "genre-defying" and I wish that they'd had the space/eyeballs to flesh out the genre-defying nature of each book a bit. Also, I think it would be good to limit it to "genre defying books [of the last ten years] or whatever because otherwise, yes, one does wonder why Hitchhikers's Guide, which everyone has heard of, is here when innumerable other genre-defying SF books are not.

But! This looks like a super interesting list. If anyone deserves to be better known, it's Aliette de Bodard. If you like that sort of thing at all, you will like her Xuya stories.

Tower also looks really interesting and I like the cover a lot.

"Genre-defying" is such a vexed term, though. Often it just means "a lot of people think science fiction sucks and these don't suck" or "a lot of people think science fiction is about space lasers and robot bikinis and these books are not about that" or even "this book contains both science fiction and fantasy", which isn't news at all. "Your expectations about science fiction probably don't map neatly onto reality - a list" usually seems like the real principle.
posted by Frowner at 1:33 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

a lot of people think science fiction is about space lasers and robot bikinis and these books are not about that

I feel like anyone who still thinks that in the year 2023 - or 2010 - or even 2000, really - is unreachable.
posted by dmd at 1:35 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

It's also tricky because there's so much really good science fiction, a lot of it pretty recent. Like, I think you can do a reasonable amount of reading and get a broad sense of the greatest hits from proto-New-Wave (start with, say, The Demolished Man) through the mid-eighties, but the genre just fractals out after that. And you basically need to be professional science fictioneer to keep up after about 2010 - there's so much outstanding stuff getting published that even if you read all the big award nominees you'll miss an immense amount. I'd say that a lot of the really great stuff I've read never ever makes the Hugo noms, for instance.
posted by Frowner at 1:44 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

I loved Light from Uncommon Stars. Makes me want to try out the rest of these books. I guess that's confirmation bias at work...
posted by gofordays at 1:47 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Okay, I've read a few of these and I'm happy to share my thoughts:
Gideon the Ninth - I loved this so much I have the cover art on my office wall. Gideon is a foul mouth reluctant hero in the very best way. I love her almost as much as I love Harrow. Add in a locked room mystery, weird ass gods, necromancers, and I was bought and paid for with this book. I will warn you that the second and third book have very different vibes and some friends had a hard time with the second book of the series. I loved it but there is a serious tone shift when the main character changes.
This is How You Lose the Time War - seriously one of the most romantic and beautifully lyrical books I've read in the last ten years.
Others have already talked about A Psalm and I second it. Such a comforting and kind book about what happens in a world where your meaning and your work is separated. This book gave me such a sense of relief and hope.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 starts off great and the fact that there is another story from that universe that was recently published and more to come makes it even more awesome.
posted by teleri025 at 1:50 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

I am currently reading Mary Robinette Kowal's The ThinSpare Man, complete with wealthy heiress married to a detective plus cute dog, set on a luxury cruse liner in space. It's tasty.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:53 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

I have read exactly one of the books in this list ("Annihilation") and I haven't even heard of almost all the others.

That makes this an excellent list
posted by chavenet at 1:57 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

This looks like a great list. This is how you loose the time war is a remarkable book, and I really enjoyed Nino Cipri’s novellas set in a multiversal ikea.

To add to what others said above, from New Weird (a group including China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer) onwards, the best SF really did away with a lot of genre trappings and just ran with ideas. It’s been an amazing time to be a reader.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:04 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

Upvotes for This Is How you Lose the Time War, A Psalm for the Wild Built and Gideon the Ninth. I've read the first of Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire triple and would commend their writing to you for being unwilling to compromise on stretching what the form can hold. Hitchhiker's was formative reading.

I'll save you from reading How to Live Safely in a Fictional Universe because I felt cheated by how it "defies genre" in that it does so trivially.

Read There Is No Antimemetics Division by QNTM instead as your own brain has to make do with "this item can't have a description because it will melt your brain" and my head fizzed carrying null in place of the written word.

And/or read Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang from the anthology Stories .... and Others.

And/or read Heinlein's ...All You Zombies for definitive timey-wimeyness. It's even free to download the short PDF.

Plus, read (mefi's own) Peter Watt's short Malak (free pdf) if you don't want the longer story of Blindsight (free web read & previously).
posted by k3ninho at 2:07 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

I've read most of these and I don't think I'd call any of them genre-defying, or having broken any molds... but they were all really great and I've re-read many of them. Take out the hyperbole and just call this "here are some great recent SF/F books" and it'd be solid.
posted by curious nu at 2:09 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I've read 9 of these and many of the others are on my to-read list. Those that weren't, are now!

This Is How You Lose The Time War is one of my favorite books ever. I read bits of of it out loud to myself. It's so good it makes me shivery.
posted by esoterrica at 2:10 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I do want to congratulate the author of this listicle for presenting a reasonably even balance of gender representation among authors, plus some trans representation as well, and at least half a dozen non-white authors. I get extraordinarily hissy when books/music/etc lists don't do this, and I'm thrilled I can give this one a thumbs-up pass.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:11 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

F3 Blindsight. Nope. Fail.
posted by Splunge at 2:37 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

This Is How You Lose The Time War is one of my favorite books ever. I read bits of of it out loud to myself. It's so good it makes me shivery.

^^^^^^ This is How You Lose the Time War is incredibly beautiful. its dark and strange and dreamy and I loved every second of it.

the Locked Tomb series (Gideon et. al.,) is very fun so far.
posted by supermedusa at 2:46 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

(I cover-blurbed Gideon the Ninth. I'm not smug or anything :)

Strong rec for a not-published-yet book: I just got to read (for blurbing purposes) the manuscript of Fight Me by Austin Grossman, a kinda-sorta thematic sequel to his 2007 supervillain novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Fight Me is ... well I offered up as a blurb, "a spiky, fierce, erudite riff on silver age superhero tropes" because that's what it is: it's your classic superhero life story. It's also a classic litfic Sad Boner Professor novel that subverts that genre, a meditation on growing into middle age, Millennial style, and a love story (although the love affair mostly consists of boss fights right up until the very end). Oh, and it explores how becoming a superhero at 16 is about the worst thing that can possibly happen to you (aside from becoming a supervillain, at the same age).
posted by cstross at 2:47 PM on February 16 [38 favorites]

I’m going to add April Daniels’ Nemesis trilogy, starting with Dreadnought, as a similar “superhero at 16” story except the protagonist is trans and her parents do not accept her and it’s quite vibrantly written and harrowing from a number of angles. It turns out having all the power in the world doesn’t make people accept you for who you are.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:09 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

That’s MeFi’s Own Yoon-Ha Lee!
posted by sixswitch at 3:17 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

Gideon was very much Not For Me, but I'm so happy so many love it.

Psalm has a sequel, "A Prayer for the Crown-Shy". All of Becky Chambers' books are good, and have that sort of lovely hopefulness in them, though. Like with LeGuin's Hainish books, I really just want to live in her universe, even though bad things still happen there.
posted by emjaybee at 3:26 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Ooh Soon I Will Be Invincible was great and I am 100% on board for a sequel.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:01 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

everything by P. Djèlí Clark has been wonderful, I want more from his wonderful steam-punk Afrocentric future
posted by mbo at 4:09 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

I think I have read five of these, and every one of them was outside the space opera ghetto that I suspect the author was alluding to.

Can't wait to pick up most of the rest of them!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:13 PM on February 16

Some of my hot takes:


Genre Defying Scale: 2/5. There's a long history of time travel books involving closed loops, bootstrap objects, and perplexing chronology. I will give it a little bit of genre defying cred for a melancholy, meditative, literary quality not common to time travel narratives (although not unknown, either -- This Is How You Lose The Time War, which I'll get to later, has a bit of that, too.) But if you want a truly genre-busting work from Yu, read INTERIOR CHINATOWN instead. That one gets full marks for its seamless blending of filmic and conventional realities.

Personal Rating: 4/5. I am, in fact, a sucker for melancholy, meditative, literary time travel books, as it happens.


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. I've heard it said that The Hitchhiker's Guide simultaneously invented and destroyed the science fiction comedy, creating the concept in a manner so perfect that subsequent entries were rendered unnecessary. That is, of course, untrue -- excellent examples of sci-fi comedy can be found both before and after the Guide. But it's undoubtedly true that the book was such an innovator of tropes and concepts within the form that it towers over the field like a Colossus, provoking inevitable comparisons whenever anyone new makes an attempt at it.

Personal Rating: 5/5. I mean, it's considered the classic of its form for a reason.


Genre Defying Scale: 3/5. Alt-history, steampunk science fantasy, mystery stories, and Afrofuturism were all around before this book. But Afrofuturism in particular is still has a lot of area left to explore, and Clark's clever and creative world-building within that genre can definitely be viewed as innovative. (Slightly perplexed by the choice here, though -- why neither the first story in this universe, A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO, nor the first novel, A MASTER OF DJINN?)

Personal Rating: 4/5. Good story, well told.
posted by kyrademon at 4:51 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

Light From Uncommon Stars is wonderful.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:05 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

More hot takes:


Genre Defying Scale: 3/5. There's a lot of well-explored territory here, from generation ships to growing tensions aboard them as travel grows long. But the main character's voice still isn't a common one in SF in a variety of ways, and the sharp look at racial injustice, past, present, and future, gives this narrative a strength that a lot of generation ship rebellion stories fail to match.

Personal Rating: 4/5. A difficult book to read, in many ways, but definitely a worthwhile one.

Bonus Suggestion: If genre-defying generation ships are your thing, the Nicky Drayden's ESCAPING EXODUS may also be in your wheelhouse.


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. This is far from the first SF book to look at humans reacting to the unknown and incomprehensible. But VanderMeer is an innovator of the already innovative New Weird, and this book takes both the oddness and open questions to a level seldom matched.

Personal Rating: 5/5. My mind. It was blown.


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. Cozy SF is a relatively new subgenre, rejecting the tensions, drama, and action of traditional SF narrative in favor of smaller scale difficulties and more personal problems. Becky Chambers is justly regarded as one of the founders of the concept.

Personal Rating: 3/5. Yeah, OK, I'm a weirdo. I'm a big fan of Chambers, and everyone else loved this one, but I just didn't care enough about the main character for this to be a fave. If you have the same reaction, I might suggest THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN as an alternative -- it's the point within her loosely connected Wayfarer books when, I think, her writing was at its best and her goal of finding the large within the small was most successfully achieved.
posted by kyrademon at 5:08 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

Interesting to me that the books on this list I have read are 50/50 "really loved" and "really didn't love". Quite a few of them I would like to read, though - I'm way behind on Becky Chambers, and Nino Cipri's stuff sounds right up my alley. I mostly just agree with Frowner that there's too much really good SF for anyone to read these days, so I am trying to be at peace with my increasingly-pathetic hit rate (especially as my personal reading habits have branched out a little lately.)
posted by restless_nomad at 5:12 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Annihilation is a favorite of mine. Anyone who enjoyed it should go on to Authority and Acceptance. Then go back and read all 3 again. The books resonate with each other.
posted by kingless at 5:19 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I feel like this is a list of "it books", but the ones I have read (Haunting of Tram Car 15, This Is How You Lose the Time War, and of course Hitchhiker's back in the day) were really good. I'm delighted to see some more personal reviews of the books on the list because a few of them, like Gideon, I'm conflicted about.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 5:23 PM on February 16

Yet more hot takes:


Genre Defying Scale: 3/5. The concept travel through strange and unusual alternate worlds isn't new. Making those worlds deadly and hilarious variants of a cheap Ikea knockoff store is pretty original, though.

Personal Rating: 4/5. This book pretty much won me over when, in the second chapter, there was a cheaply produced corporate video explaining what to do when a wormhole opens up in your furniture store.


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. Competing forces vying to impose their will on the timeline so that a single side will (always have) reign(ed) supreme isn't at all a new concept. But that fails to adequately describe this lushly written, literary, semi-epistolary star-crossed queer love story where much of the exterior story needs to be read in the gaps.

Personal Rating: 5/5. It is fantastic.


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. I mean, you could look at all the individual pieces of a queer gothic scientific investigation necromancy space opera death cult haunted house murder mystery and say, all of those things have been done before... but I'm not sure they've ever been mashed together in quite this way, you know?

Personal Rating: 5/5. If there's one thing I love, it's SFF novels that drop you into the middle of a fascinating world with minimal explanation or exposition. And when that fascinating world can be described as "queer space necromancers", well, I'm pretty much sold.
posted by kyrademon at 5:25 PM on February 16 [10 favorites]

I didn't connect (an understatement really but I don't want to be fighty about it) with Becky Chambers' oft recommended, on Metafilter at least, Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet so I'm wondering - for those who've read it does the listed book A Psalm for the Wild-Built have a similar vibe? Mostly just curious as I always feel I should give beloved authors more than one go before walking away (well not for Dan Brown or Ernest Cline but as that's for reasons). From that list, of what I read, VanderMeer's Annihilation (and its sequels) was/are one of my favourites of the decade - superior to the movie that got me to read it in the first place. I'll nthing the weirdness of having Hitchhikers on the list - I love it and certainly a classic at this point but not really like the others on the list.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:37 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

I didn't like the last Becky Chambers I tried, The Galaxy and the Ground Within (too much of nothing happened, I got bored) so we'll have to see about Psalm. But I've read This Is How You Lose The Time War and loved it beyond reason, and Hitchhiker's Guide is on my list to re-read for the first time in 30 years, so.

This is a good list. I made several additions to my to-read list.
posted by lhauser at 5:42 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Final hot takes:


Genre Defying Scale: 4/5. Science fantasy is a long-established thing ... but most of the time, the science and the fantasy are enmeshed together in some comprehensible way. Not here, where a refugee alien building a warp drive in doughnut shop might start exploring a relationship with a human who happens to have sold her soul to the devil to become the world's greatest violin teacher. It's wild.

Personal Rating: 3/5. I know, once again, I'm the weird one. Literally everyone else I know who has read this book adores it. And there are things I like about it a lot, especially its exploration of the inability of trans people to simply exist in the world without the weight of other people's opinions imposed upon them. But something about it never entirely gelled for me.


I haven't read PHOENIX EXTRAVAGANT, but I have read several other books by Yoon Ha Lee, and genre-defying is a good word to use. They have that same "dropping you in the world" quality that GIDEON THE NINTH does. I would definitely recommend NINEFOX GAMBIT (although I was a bit disappointed in the later books in that series because my favorite character largely disappears from the story.)


I haven't read THE RED SCHOLAR’S WAKE, but I've read other works by Aliette de Bodard, including some set in the same Xuya universe. The Xuya books remind me a little bit of Iain Banks Culture novels, but with a distinctive Vietnamese-influenced slant of their own that arguably gives them some genre-defying cred. THE TEA MASTER AND THE DETECTIVE was one I particularly liked.
posted by kyrademon at 5:43 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

i will add my vote to the whole ‘area x’ series by vandermeer. agree with comment above - mind blown (gently). and absolutely deserves rereading. as bizarre as these three books are, they are remarkably tender with rich character stories.
posted by buffalo at 5:49 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

also second author china miéville (who admittedly is fairly well known) as worth trying, specifically, ‘the city and the city’.
posted by buffalo at 5:53 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I'd say Psalm is similar to Long Way, although the story is more focused--if you bounced off the cast of thousands or the louder personalities in Long Way, you might like Psalm. If you're looking for antagonists and high stakes, then same problems.
posted by kingdead at 5:57 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Honestly, Gideon the Ninth isn’t that genre-defying on its own, but each sequel goes in a different direction while still pushing the central story along. And all of the characters are some sort of hot garbage, excepting Noodle, who is pure and good, and Nona, who would like to be hot garbage but can’t quite manage, and yet each of these characters are lovely and outrageous in their own way. Assuming Muir can stick the landing in the final book, it will be a book for the ages.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:02 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

Some of my favorite genre-defiers that weren't listed:

What-genre-even-is-this books:
SOLARIS and THE CYBERIAD, by Stanislaw Lem
CIRCUS WORLD, by Barry B. Longyear
INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace

Inventing-a-genre-means-defying-what-came-before books:
FRANKENSTEIN, by Mary Shelley
DUNE, by Frank Herbert
THE FEMALE MAN, by Joanna Russ

Like-other-books-if-those-books-did-drugs books:
SHADES OF GREY, by Jasper Fforde
RADIANCE, by Catherynne M. Valente
THE RIFT, by Nina Allan

This-seems-pretty-normal-what-do-you-oh-wait-what? books:
THE STEERSWOMAN, by Rosemary Kirstein
THE CHILD GARDEN, by Geoff Ryman
posted by kyrademon at 6:25 PM on February 16 [15 favorites]

In case anyone needs to read the following titles one more time to be convinced to pick them up:
This Is How You Lose The Time War
Gideon The Ninth, et seq.
Annihilation, et seq.

I can't speak to how well they defy genre, but they are all good reads. (I just finished re-reading the Area X trilogy and then saw that a fourth has been announced, titled Absolution. A fourth book may not be necessary, but it sounds interesting.)
posted by mersen at 6:29 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

This thread makes me happy.
You people have good taste.
posted by signal at 6:40 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

I guess I'd say A Psalm for the Wild-Built has a similar vibe to Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but there are fewer characters (a lot fewer) and less happens (a lot less.)
posted by Redstart at 7:24 PM on February 16

Folks in the thread who loved Annihilation, would you tell me why? Not as justification, or persuasion - but I just could not connect with it, and would love to try to see it through other eyes.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 8:22 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

There are some books on that list that I've been meaning to check out, but the only one I have is This Is How You Lose The Time War, and I'll admit, the title is what caught my eye. There were definitely parts I liked, but I thought the gimmick kind of got in the way. For those who haven't read it, (and no, not a spoiler, it's front and center in the book) it was written by two different authors who took turns writing the book back and forth to each other.

It's an interesting experiment, and some of the writing is just hands down gorgeous, but at points, I got the impression that the writers got a little carried away, and they became each other's main audience. It felt, in places, like the turns of phrase and the words choices seemed to be more about impressing each other, if that sounds not-crazy?

It is definitely two people with a mastery of language going all out and trying to top/impress each other, and there's some greatness in it, but I guess the closest image I can conjure is having two amazing guitarists just taking turns playing incredibly intricate solos at each other for over an hour. For some concert-goers, yeah, that's literally their jam. For me, I kind of tune out and wait to get back to the songs.

I did enjoy the book, but for me, on the arbitrary rankings, I'd go 3.5/5
posted by Ghidorah at 8:31 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

I've read and liked a lot of these (Gideon and How You Lose A Time war are great! But so are many of the others.)

I started Light From Uncommon Stars and Psalm for the Wild Built and just couldn't get into them. This, I think, is more on me than a fault in the stories.

However, I did not enjoy Annihilation. It was a slog. I mean slloooooooooooooooow and I didn't find the psychology compelling. I'll put it this way, I found out there is at least one sequel and my thought was "not going to read that" which is deeply unusual for me. It's just not for me, I guess.

(A brief tip on the Locked Tomb series (Gideon, Harrow, Nona), Muir seems to like treating each book as a way to experiment with very different styles. So, it's good to go into each expecting something new, not just more of what you like from the previous one.)
posted by oddman at 8:36 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

Oooh, this thread went excactly the way I hoped it would!

If you bounced off A Psalm for the Wild-Built and/or The Galaxy and the Ground Within but still think you would enjoy Becky Chamber's writing if there were just slightly higher stakes and more plot, I would recommend the earlier Wayfarers books.

And oddman, that is an excellent way to describe The Locked Tomb. I just loved the characters in the series, and you get a good look at them from different angles and viewpoints throughout both Harrow and Nona. Muir has also written fanfiction, which is still online even after she got published, so you might check that out if you're curious about her writing but do not want to commit to an entire book series.
posted by Harald74 at 9:15 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Folks in the thread who loved Annihilation

Apologies in advance for this rant. The Southern Reach (Annihilation) Trilogy are some of my favorite books written in the past 10 years.

For one, it was some beautiful writing about ecology and ecosystems. Especially about an ecosystem that I personally don't think about much: the mangrove forests and swamps around the Gulf of Mexico coast. So many details. The writing about it is as lush as the landscape.

Speaking of that ecosystem, the book is a nice counter to reality. In the book, the Zone centered in that space is growing. Consuming towns. Spreading slowly. The boundaries are never firmly set. It's a nice counter because in reality those spaces are deeply threatened by all sorts of development. And much of it has already been lost.

Also some beautiful writing about love and loss. At one point in the trilogy (without trying to be too spoiler-y) there's a long romance between a swamp monster and an owl that just about made me cry. Difficult to put my feelings about that one into words.

It was scary & weird in all the right ways for me. Where things are unknowable but the scientists are doing their damned best to even slightly increase the knowable.

This is a sub-genre of scifi that I just love: the whole "99% of the world is still 'normal' but there's this territorial zone of extreme weirdness that we're trying (and failing) to explain." The trilogy is a distant cousin to Roadside Picnic. The second book makes the connection somewhat explicit. In Roadside Picnic, there's the zone where the aliens landed. It's largely unknowable. But the world has established a base just outside of the zone. Where the scientists and adventurous looters (stalkers) live and operate.

There's something very similar in book 2 of the trilogy where the US has a scientific & military base right on the edge of the zone. It's essentially bureaucracy meets eldritch horror. Or, basically, Law meets Nature. And Law is losing. That sort of interaction is like catnip to me. Especially when the interaction remains thoughtful and doesn't devolve into an action movie of good-guy soldiers blasting evil monsters. The Annihilation trilogy really delivers on that score, even if there is occasional confrontation with 'monsters'.

Also, that stuff appeals to me because it's a twisted mirror of the US (or the world in general). Where the dystopias and utopias are unevenly distributed. Where weirdness & terror & cruelty coexist with the 'normal'. And the normal is just a thin skin over so much in the universe that's not understood. Annihilation hits those marks near perfectly for me.

Finally, the books hit me at just the right time. I had just started hiking again. In a place very different than the trilogy's coastal estuaries, but still had its own similar qualities. My personal Zone was a creek, with small wetlands, running through a twisty and slightly spooky forest. The forest itself was surrounded by open prairie. The spookiness ringed by almost happy grasslands & farms. A place full of a gloom and wildness which separated it. Sometimes full of strange omens. Like the cold fall day I found a dead swan (or goose) lying in the forest with open wings and bright white feathers almost in a circle around it. Felt like a small moment out of the books. The books matched the strangeness and uncertainty of my life at the time.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 12:23 AM on February 17 [13 favorites]

Well, it's a list. None of them are genre-defying, none broke the mould, and Sturgeon's Law applies throughout.

In conclusion, pictures of cute puppies > SFF listicles.

And now the weather with Artie.
posted by fallingbadgers at 1:18 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Folks in the thread who loved Annihilation

Most of what I appreciate has been captured in previous comments. To name another attraction, I think VanderMeer is really good at creating and maintaining a narrative voice.
posted by kingless at 3:35 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

I adored Psalm, and its sequel, so soft, hopeful, and I loved the world building. Also, Sibling Dex is adorable. Her Wayfarer's series was excellent as well, and the last one had definite pandemic gardening vibes, which was comforting in a way, that something was going right even when the world wasn't.

I just went & put a few on hold at my library, and marked them in GR. Several of them were already there, so that was a delight.
posted by tlwright at 4:48 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

Becky Chambers blends "cozy" into "scifi" and it's wonderful. Her books are more "Ode to Joy" than "Mars, Bringer of War" and it's great that we can have pleasant books where not much happens other than minor conflict that is resolved with a bit of conversation over a cup of tea, as well as sweeping space operas full of shit blowing up and sacrifices being made. I like both of these things.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:17 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

The Hitchhiker's Guide definitely threw me. I have read some of these, and they were good enough that I went, "Oh, maybe the genre I need more of is a 'genre defying' genre."

I was surprised Simon Jimenez wasn't on there. Loved his books and they are kind of...genre defying I suppose.
posted by routergirl at 5:52 AM on February 17

Folks in the thread who loved Annihilation, would you tell me why? Not as justification, or persuasion - but I just could not connect with it, and would love to try to see it through other eyes.

It grew on me
posted by chavenet at 6:31 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]

posted by kyrademon at 7:01 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Honestly I think the fact that these books are consistently pretty polarizing is a very good comment on their originality, if not their quality. I loathed Gideon, myself, but it definitely is unlike pretty much everything else on several axes. Light From Uncommon Stars is also tonally and content-wise pretty novel, even if I found it to be a little debut-novel earnest and unpolished to really land (but I am a cynic, and that is as much about me as it is about the book.)

(The ones I loved are Hitchhiker's Guide, for obvious reasons and not new ones, and This Is How You Lose the Time War, because it's fucking brilliant. But my wife, whose taste substantially overlaps but is not identical to mine, didn't care for it - I'm not sure she even finished it.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:13 AM on February 17

Folks in the thread who loved Annihilation, would you tell me why? Not as justification, or persuasion - but I just could not connect with it, and would love to try to see it through other eyes.

For people who have read the series, this is one of the most beautiful unintentional meta comments I've ever read.
posted by curious nu at 8:25 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]

Well, it's a list. None of them are genre-defying, none broke the mould

A question for all: How would you define "genre-defying"? Secondarily, is "genre-defying" always good?

It seems like "genre-defying" means different things at different moments - for instance Woman On The Edge of Time was a fusion of a popular women's novel format with feminism with time-travel and wasn't much like other contemporary SF, even New Wave SF, but that approach wouldn't strike people as especially novel now.

"Genre-defying" would seem to mean "does something that the genre does not typically do and that genre conventions militate against". (It also seems to postulate that SF as a genre is pretty constrictive, which I think hasn't really been true since the nineties - not that one couldn't publish outlier books before 1995, but there was a lot more consistency in style/publishing/fan expectations/marketing.)

Of course, "genre-defying" shouldn't mean "good", but in our post-GenX, post-Xtreme-marketing world it does, because "defying" things is good and exciting by definition. I mean, there are lots of really crap (or at least mediocre) literary SF novels from the last fifteen years or so that "defy" the conventions of the genre and are boring, trite, the middle-class-goes-to-the-apocalypse productions written by people who aren't super interested in SF. (This was true during the late seventies/early eighties wave of literary SF as well). But they sure do things that the genre militates against, mostly because those things are boring.

You would think that by definition a genre-defying book would be one that broke an almost totally new path (whether anyone else took that path or not) - books where there's a break between them and their influences/progentors. Again, this doesn't mean the same as "good" - Riddley Walker is a genre-defying SF novel and it's extremely good, but is it better than an innovative series like the Stone Sky books? Those have a really original setting/world/history, but they're written in a recognizable SFnal idiom and a lot of what they do so incredibly well is to create surprise and intensity by repositioning SFnal ideas*. I'd say that the Stone Sky books are an apotheosis of a kind of science fiction, if anything.

* I know I've said this before here, but the part where the moon thing is introduced, that just, like, gives me chills because of how perfectly it science fictions. At no point did Ridley Walker give me chills because of how well it worked the genre, even though it's also an amazing book.
posted by Frowner at 8:39 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

That's a good question, and I'll chew on it a bit. It's funny you mention Stone Sky because that didn't feel genre-defying to me, either; she uses so much imagery that maps really cleanly to video games and anime that it was really familiar, plus the usual post-apocalypse tropes. And from her twitter I know the author is extremely familiar with those - I don't know if she still does, but at one point was regularly streaming Mass Effect, Skyrim, Dishonored, and other games. The trilogy is also clearly iterating on her themes in previous books around mortals being loved/chosen by gods or godlike-beings and who in turn become them (and this continues with the City books).

I dunno, I probably am being annoyed at the concept of "genre-defying". It maybe feels prescriptivist? Which is pretty weird since I feel like "sci-fi" is a pretty poorly defined genre anyway, so if you don't have a solid definition, how can something defy it? Like, part of what I think of as sci-fi is a HUGE category and tons of things seem to fit into it pretty easily.

Mm. I guess if something is claimed to be "genre-defying" I'd like to see some bullet points or SOMETHING that talks about why. Which parts of the genre? Is it genre-defying, or just subverting specific tropes? Or bringing in tropes that are not often seen in similar stories? The intro paragraphs in the article kind of try and define this but I don't think it's successful. It seems to say, "genre-defying means it didn't something I didn't expect," which.. okay, so it's defying your particular expectations? That's maybe a good way to describe your specific relationship to material, but I don't know if it's a good way to describe the material itself.

I wonder if many of these books are more like genre-defining, marking an inflection point? re: Locked Tomb: Muir wrote a lot of fanfic, and I want to say something involving Homestuck, and the number of internet memes thrown about the books is pretty wild. If someone wanted to make the statement, "Locked Tomb is when the fanfic writers' approach to stories got big in SF/F publishing," then that seems like a much more interesting conversation to have. (I'm not well-versed in the fanfic world so that might not be true, just a random example) A lot of the books on this list have queer (and trans!) relationships as the primary romance, which I certainly see a lot more of these days, and from Tor especially.

I'm worried I'm coming across as a little grindy or something about this term; I don't feel upset about or dismissive of the article or the author. :) This is an interesting idea to explore!

I continue to dislike genres and champion tags.
posted by curious nu at 9:08 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

That was an interesting list of literary science fiction, which I think would be a better description than genre breaking. It does often soothe or lure in people who aren't as comfortable with speculative fiction, but it doesn't exactly break the genre for all that.
posted by blueberry monster at 9:15 AM on February 17

I interpret it less as doing things that "genre conventions militate against" and more about breaking new ground, inventing new forms, or creating new spaces within the genre. Of course that doesn't necessarily track with quality, but innovation and originality can add a book's quality, too.
posted by kyrademon at 9:21 AM on February 17

(Also, I really wish people would stop bagging on literary SF like there's something inherently wrong with it, rather than it being a genre that includes great works and crap works just like any other.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:41 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

Nothing can be a list of literary SF that does not include Ortus Nigenad.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:04 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]

Teegeeack AV Club Secretary, rants of adoration are the BEST - thank you! Your description reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy’s art, which I didn’t connect with initially, either… but now adore it, after watching Rivers and Tides. And chavenet, applause for laughs.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 11:38 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

I wonder if many of these books are more like genre-defining, marking an inflection point?

I interpret it less as doing things that "genre conventions militate against" and more about breaking new ground, inventing new forms, or creating new spaces within the genre.

It seems like "genre-defining" would be a more useful term, since once you bring in "defying" you get all kinds of "just WHAT are we defying here anyway" baggage - I think you can say that The Female Man, for instance, is both an inflection point and "genre defying" since it specifically sets itself against very, very well-established genre conventions about gender. But if you fast-forward and talk about the excellent In The Mothers' Land, which considers some of the same 'what happens in a society where women [are the vast majority, in this case, rather than are the only people]' stuff. It's a great book and it did not shock or anger people like The Female Man did because there had already been a wave of feminist SF in the late seventies/early eighties.

"Genre-defying" and "genre-defining" end up being historicizing terms rather than critical terms - sometimes you know that a book is an inflection point when you see it and sometimes you don't. I know that Octavia Butler's tentacle-aliens books were well-reviewed when they came out, but I never got the sense that they were immediately recognized as the game-changers that they proved to be. And of course, something can be an inflection point later - like her Parables books, which were well-reviewed and widely read when they were published but became real touchstones SFnally only in the 2000s.

And of course, this whole thing is about books that get a lot of notice. I love the extremely weird chamber books of Aqueduct Press and, like, no one reads them but me, apparently. Occasionally they publish a real aesthetic or political clunker (how about the one with the sinister murderous genderless people?) but they are always looking for subtle and interesting stuff....that influences nobody, mostly, who isn't already in that orbit. I have met one, count them one, person in real life who read an Aqueduct Press book that I had not literally given them. Aqueduct Press books might defy the genre pretty regularly - I think they do, often by being weird in ways that are not Jeff Vandermeer weird! - but they will never be inflection points unless the field radically changes.

In re literary SF - I personally wouldn't think of most of these as literary SF. What gets marketed as "literary SF" in my neck of the woods is the contemporary bourgeois mimetic novel plus an apocalypse or aliens - what would happen if you wrote Normal People or A Little Life except that there's an SF plot or world element.

A literary SF novel, again as I've encountered it, is mostly concerned with depicting an SFnal situation through the viewpoint of, basically, a contemporary person (even if it's in space, they're basically contemporary people) whose personal growth arc and interiority structure the novel. In general, these novels read like non-SF novels - the same kind of use of language, the same structures, the same approaches to description and interiority - except that there's science fiction.

The Handmaid's Tale is paradigmatic - genre defining! - literary SF. It's a good, compulsive read. It works so well partly because it's natural that the narrator sounds like a contemporary, educated, professional person since that's who she is; she's just fallen into an apocalypse. I've encountered a bunch of others (here nameless) where frankly the SF adds nothing to the story and the concerns are so transparently those of a 30-something American that it feels like the novel would work better if it were just a regular novel about real life.

It does feel like contemporary literary SF is written much less from a standpoint of contempt for SF than in the past - even the books I don't like don't seem to have been conceived with the good old "science fiction is so shitty, I'll extract the one good thing and show them how a real writer writes" attitude that was so overt and widespread in the 1990s and early 2000s.
posted by Frowner at 11:42 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]

Good points. Agree with you about them being largely a historicizing rather than critical terms. Although (and as you do point out) sometimes a book blows the genre open so wide it becomes immediately apparent.

Incidentally, I would think of a number of Aqueduct Press titles I've read as literary. (I'd definitely put, say, The Breath of the Sun in that basket. And maybe Dangerous Space. But not, for example, The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum.)

This may simply go back to the longstanding question of, "what the heck is literary fiction, anyway?" My definition is pretty broad. I'd put Atwood in there, sure, and I see how a lot of her stuff fits your definition. But I'm not sure that definition leaves room for Cloud Atlas, or Grendel, or A Cure for Cancer, or Naked Lunch, or 100 Years of Solitude, and if those aren't literary SFF then I'm honestly not sure what they are.
posted by kyrademon at 2:03 PM on February 17

My kid wasn't much of a reader. Then I gave her This is how you lose a Time War. After reading that, she read the 9th tomb trilogy, the Poppy War trilogy, Mexican Gothic, and a host of other books. I don't know about it breaking the mold, but it is something special.
posted by Spike Glee at 2:49 PM on February 17 [6 favorites]

Literary science fiction seems like its own beast, though - respectable science fiction that people who don't read other SF do read. Lots of people read The Handmaid's Tale who don't find any other science fiction interesting, and that's precisely because it has that bourgeois-mimetic format.

The sciencefictionality of the world gets muted because the foreground is the interiority of your typical literary subject who thinks in typical ways about love, sex, careers, family, possessions, etc. Again, this works amazingly well in The Handmaid's Tale because the narrator is thinking of all those things since they've been stripped away from her. It makes sense that she's a bourgeois subject who has gotten caught up in a dystopia; it makes much less sense when the same type of person appears on a generation ship or in a far future deep sea colony on another world.

The Breath of the Sun is a fantastic book, one of my favorites. But what's so great about it is how fucking weird all the people are - far, far weirder than the necromancers in Gideon the Ninth, etc. Their character arcs are nothing like those of contemporary Americans, their baseline assumptions are strongly and clearly shaped by their world. There's a lot that is really grotesque and unsettling - it's so great!

My feeling is that if science fiction includes One Hundred Years of Solitude, then "science fiction" is so broad a term that it doesn't mean anything, ditto Grendel or Naked Lunch. I have taken against Cloud Atlas so I will leave it out.

I mean, either science fiction has some kind of loose but explicable definition (time travel is science fiction, Hogwarts is not; science fiction starts with [persian wonder tales, Frankenstein, the pulps, whatever your personal starting point is; for me it's the pulps;]; science fiction uses these approaches) or it's a publishing category (science fiction is whatever publishers market as science fiction, whatever is likely to appear in science fiction magazines and anthologies - this is also a productive approach!).

But really, I just don't think it gets us much forwarder to say that anything that is not strictly realistic is science fiction. Marquez didn't think he was writing science fiction, science fiction fans don't particularly seek out his work, people who read highbrow novels seek out his work but not Gideon the Ninth; he's not really concerned with anything that is at all typical of other science fiction and doesn't seem to be in dialogue with any of it.

The key bit of "literary SF" as it's marketed is stuff like the Atwood - a mashup of "literary" novels and well-known science fiction tropes, the highbrow version of all those Jane Austen-plus-zombies books.

I guess you could say that "literary science fiction" is what happens when you think, "genre science fiction is for men, we can make it appeal to women by recasting it as sentimental novels" instead of "genre science fiction publishing has long assumed that straight white men with engineering degrees are the target audience, but a lot of other people like reading about spaceships and creepy interstellar empires too".
posted by Frowner at 5:11 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear, I had without being totally explicit broadened what I was talking about from literary SF to literary SFF, mainly because I wanted to talk about The Breath of the Sun. I don't consider One Hundred Years of Solitude or Grendel to be science fiction either; I was using them as examples of literary fantasy. Naked Lunch, though, I might argue the point with you.

I don't think we're ever going to agree on what literary SF (or SFF) is, though. I kind of feel like you've defined literary SF as "the SF thing that genre SF readers don't read", which I don't find a useful (or in my case, correct) definition.

But since I don't define literary SF(F) that way, to me The Breath of the Sun hits all the hallmarks -- very broadly speaking, a focus on interiority and prose and a lack of focus on action or conventional narrative structure. That the characters don't have contemporary middle-class American attitudes doesn't factor into it for me because that isn't remotely part of my definition of the genre.

I suppose it doesn't really matter much -- discussing the books themselves is always more interesting than splitting hairs over the pigeonholes they get slotted into by marketers or readers.
posted by kyrademon at 5:43 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

A writer friend of mine (who also teaches literature) was talking about genres as the collections of works that are in conversation with one another. This seems useful, as a lot of literary SF is very much more in conversation with works that aren't considered SF, and, to the SF-familiar reader, not nearly enough in conversation with works that are. Not all, certainly, but that explanation made it clear to me why I bounce so hard off of some of what is classified as "literary SF".
posted by restless_nomad at 5:59 PM on February 17 [7 favorites]

In terms of "books with interesting conversations in them" I feel like Texicalaan is definitely worth mentioning. Colonialism and othering and what it means to be a person. Structure-wise it's not my favorite (way too many italics in seemingly random places) but I re-read them recently and was appreciating what they're engaging with.

And they haven't done anything for me, but Nnedi Okorafor's books felt like they were breaking some significant ground in terms of cultural representation and should probably be on a list like this.
posted by curious nu at 6:44 PM on February 17

Oooh thought of one: The Carpet Makers by Andreas Esbach. Maybe The Sparrow as well.
posted by sixswitch at 7:18 PM on February 17

> "This seems useful, as a lot of literary SF is very much more in conversation with works that aren't considered SF"

That makes a certain amount of sense. Even if I consider Naked Lunch a form of SF, it pretty clearly doesn't come from the same tradition as Foundation, whereas Gideon the Ninth, however distant the lineage, does.

But I still don't think that leaves room for writers who are familiar with and write comfortably on both sides of the fence. Where do you stick Michael Moorcock's experimentalism? Where do you put Michael Chabon? Or Emily St. John Mandel? What happens when Margaret Atwood or George Orwell writes such an influential literary SF work that genre SF starts being in dialogue with it? Or the simple fact that in the post-Star Wars era, some genre SF has become so mainstream that the tropes pop up practically everywhere?

I guess I think the barrier between literary and genre SF is a lot more fluid than any definition would indicate.
posted by kyrademon at 2:31 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

(On a closer read, I notice you pretty much acknowledged this, restless_nomad, and were only saying *some* literary SF isn't in dialogue with genre SF. Apologies, it's early morning here ...)
posted by kyrademon at 2:41 AM on February 18

Yeah, "literary SF" is as broad a subgenre as anything else and can't be that neatly pigeonholed. I think you could safely call Time War a "literary SF" book, in that it's very much playing with literary forms and in conversation with the epistolary novel tradition, but in terms of its content it is 100% in conversation with the Forever War, tech vs. nature, and and time travel traditions within SF. I don't have the background to really engage with the former - I've read a couple of epistolary novels but I don't have any sense of the tropes and customs around the form - but I very much recognize and have feelings about its relationship to all of the latter. So it's a book I can get into pretty deeply and easily.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:37 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Phoenix Extravagant but not Ninefox Gambit? What?
posted by meehawl at 4:08 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

seanmpuckett: "t's great that we can have pleasant books where not much happens other than minor conflict that is resolved with a bit of conversation over a cup of tea, as well as sweeping space operas full of shit blowing up and sacrifices being made. I like both of these things."

How about sweeping space operas full of shit blowing up that are mostly about cups of tea?
posted by signal at 12:01 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

An interesting list - some things I've read and loved, some things I've bounced off quickly, and more ideas for my to-read list.

Not genre defying, but a book with some biological horrors that have haunted me - the Expert System Series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, in which human adaptation to an alien planet goes horribly wrong.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 9:03 PM on February 19

I'll have to check some of these out. A Psalm for the Wild-Built was especially intriguing; I love the idea of a "wild robot".

I just wanted to pump the book that I would have put on the list: Atwood's The Year of the Flood.
posted by nemo_sum at 11:30 PM on February 19

Aw, I love the discussion on this post. I want to favorite the comment section and then unfavorite the listicle's title. Is there any way to do that? :-)
posted by cattypist at 1:20 AM on February 20

> Anciliary Justice

Already on hold with my library, thanks.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:50 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

I described Gideon to a friend as “Diablo Cody’s Juno walks among the Chronicles of Riddick Necromongers”, but it grew on me.
posted by theclaw at 8:26 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

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