5 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books That Treat Mental Illness with Compassion

borderlineAs a way to help erase stigma related to mental illnesses, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has designated May as Mental Health Month. According to the NAMI website, 1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime, and the more we talk about the subject—even in fantastical contexts—the more we can do to understand and assist those who live with the reality of it every day. Here are five works of speculative fiction that address mental illness with compassion.

Borderline, Mishell Baker
This recent debut novel redefines urban fantasy as we know it. The genre often relies on sexy protagonists and their equally sexy supernatural counterparts to move the plot along—werewolves, witches, and all sorts of otherworldly beings. In Borderline, a group of deeply flawed human characters takes center stage. Millie, the novel’s protagonist, is recovering from a suicide attempt that left her a double-amputee—and dealing with a new diagnosis of borderline personality disorder—when she’s approached by a mysterious woman with an offer to join a secret government initiative called The Arcadia Project. It turns out her mental illness makes her a prime candidate to deal with policing traffic between Earth and a parallel reality inhabited by fairies. When a fairy nobleman, working undercover in Hollywood as a high-profile movie star, goes missing, Millie struggles to solve the mystery and juggle the personality quirks of a host os prickly allies and potential enemies, even as she comes to terms with her own mental health struggles and her new place in the world. This might be the only fantasy novel I’ve come across that puts mental illness at the forefront and gives people who face similar issues a protagonist they can root for.

Planetfall, Emma Newman
Emma Newman is known for her Split Worlds urban fantasy series, the first of which was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society’s Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards. She also hosts the Hugo-nominated podcast “Tea and Jeopardy.” Planetfall is her first science-fiction novel, and is absolutely stunning. Newman has been open about her own struggle with anxiety, and it clearly informed the direction of this novel, which follows a new colony of humans inhabiting a seemingly empty alien world. The setting is littered with the remnants of ancient alien architecture that prove key to solving the mystery surrounding the death of the colony’s founder and visionary, but the most fascinating element of the narrative is that we experience everything through the eyes of the deeply troubled Ren, who is coping successfully and not-so-successfully with isolationism, loss, and the burden of carrying secrets in a small, hermetically sealed society. When an impossible stranger enters their midst, the careful balance Ren has struck between herself and the other colonists is threatened. I hesitate to reveal more about the plot, as the shattering beauty of the book hinges so much on the journey of discovery for both the narrator and the reader. I’m very much looking forward to the companion volume, After Atlas, in November.

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire
This gem of a novella from Tor.com Publishing deals with the aftermath of falling down the rabbit hole, so to speak. We often read stories about children finding their way into other lands through a secret doorway or magical portal, but what happens to them when they come back and must readjust to the mundane world? Eleanor West was one of those kids, and she’s opened up a home for others in similar predicaments in order to help them cope with the extreme depression that comes with giving up on ever returning to a magical land. Her charges face a world that feels less like home, where no one believes in their life-altering experiences. A world where nothing has changed at all, but those who have returned are radically different, and can’t figure out how to fit in.

I Am Not a Serial KillerDan Wells
The first in a trilogy that continues with Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want to Kill YouI Am Not a Serial Killer is a readalike for fans of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, who might see a resemblance between the series’ main characters—like Dexter Morgan, 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is also a sociopath who has created rules for himself to avoid becoming the killer he thinks he’s meant to be—but that is where the similarities end, as secrets buried within this novel are of a far more fantastical nature. Wells does an excellent job of sprinkling on dark humor to lighten the mood, but he also portrays John’s mental illness with care. Any teenager struggling to fit in will identify with John as he struggles to communicate and interact appropriately with society. He is aware of his own problems, and does everything he can to fit into the box society wants to stick him in, but even with the help of a therapist, he finds it difficult to control his darker impulses, and sets off to track down a real serial killer, ultimately discovering something he can’t explain. Wells has launched a second trilogy featuring John, including last year’s The Devil’s Only Friend and Over Your Dead Body, out this month. There’s more mayhem on the way, too: the movie version of I Am Not a Serial Killer stars Christopher Lloyd, Max Records, and Laura Fraser, with animation by Toby Froud.

Hystopia, David Means
This novel is radically different from others on this list. It tends toward the end of the spectrum, and delves deep into the trauma and PTSD of veterans returning from Vietnam. It’s also an alternate history novel in which John F. Kennedy has survived seven assassination attempts and is entering his third term in office. And it’s speculative novel that considers how a government-backed program called Psych Corps might “enfold” or erase the traumatic memories of war veterans, with an eye toward returning them to happy, productive lives. Unfortunately, not all vets are successfully enfolded, and the fabric of America threatens to be torn apart as they roam the country, reenacting atrocities from their time at war, with innocent civilians as their victims. For Eugene Allen, the fictional “author” of Hystopia, the trauma is felt not only on a national scale, but on a deeply personal one, as his return from battle has altered the lives of his friends and family. Funny, brilliant, and tragic, this is a novel not to be missed.

What books would you add to our list?

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