Speculative fiction is taking over the world. From the prospect of new Star Wars films, to blockbuster book success of The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones and their associated adaptations, to the yearly deluge of comic book films and TV shows, it can often feel like everything is SF/F.
And for those who insist they don’t like speculative fiction, that’s a huge problem. What do you do when you want your heroes grounded in reality, and the world keeps handing you dystopias, vampires, and Norse Gods who inexplicably choose to live on Earth? The answer is surprisingly simple: read one of these 6 speculative books that don’t feel all that speculative. Note: some spoilers follow!
The Martian, by Andy Weir
With the film’s promotional campaign in overdrive, everyone’s aware of this used-to-be-a-sleeper hit. The trailers may look sci-fi to you—Mars, spacesuits, that sort of thing—but don’t be fooled. This novel rocks thanks to its fantastic narrative voice in the personage of sarcastic, desperate, a hilarious astronaut Mark Watney, and it’s ideal for people who think they hate science fiction because it’s only SF element is that it’s set on Mars during a near-future manned mission to the planet. Everything else is rooted entirely in real science, and involves one man struggling against nature to survive—the fact that the nature involved isn’t Earth’s is just a detail, really.
The Stand, by Stephen King
One of King’s most famous and least-easy to categorize novels, The Stand has plenty of speculative elements, ranging from the fast-acting plague that wipes out most of the human population, to a battle between good and evil that features a clairvoyant old woman and a man who might be a demon (or the Devil himself). But King infuses the story with so many characters who ring true and gives them realistic and believable motivations that it’s easy to forget about the speculative aspects and concentrate on one of the most epic stories in modern literature.
Swan Song, by Robert McCammon
Fine, you say, but I’ve already read The Stand. Well, here’s another one for you: McCammon was a big name in horror in the ’80s, and his books have the scope and rich characters of early King. This cult-classic (if a million-selling author can be considered a cult anything) is sort of a mirror universe version of King’s apocalyptic tale, substituting a nuclear disaster for a viral one, but it is just as wide-ranging, powerful, and engrossing, following the survivors of an end-times global conflict as they attempt to stay alive and forge a new, better society—including a young girl named Swan who seems to have the ability to make grass grow from the poisoned land and husks of trees sprout new growth.
In Death series, by Nora Roberts (as J.D. Robb)
The brainchild of romance author Nora Roberts (writing under a pseudonym), this 50-novel (to date!) series follows the adventures of mid-21st century New York City Police and Security Department Lieutenant Eve Dallas as she investigates homicides. The reason this series is perfect for people who think they hate speculative books? The “futuristic” elements are subtle, and Roberts focuses on the relationships as much as she does on the setting, making these great little mysteries and thrillers that could easily, in most cases, be placed in the modern day without losing much steam. The sci-fi elements are well-rendered, with a down-to-earth style that emphasizes the everyday quality that all technology eventually acquires.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguru
This dreamy, bleakly fascinating story takes a long time to bring its sci-fi concepts to the fore, and until it does, it’s a beautifully, character-based story about young friends developing relationships and jealousies and exploring the larger world. Even after it’s revealed that they are (spolier alert!) actually clones being raised solely to “donate” organs to their genetic originals, it remains laser-focused on the three young leads as they struggle with the challenges of growing up, facing their mortality, and understanding their own feelings. If you revised the book to exclude the dystopian elements, you’d still have a gorgeous, universally affecting story about doomed relationships and a longing for the past.
The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
Asimov famously wrote this novel in response to an argument that science fiction and mystery could never mix, because the freedom to invent any technology the author needed would render the central mystery nonsensical. The result is a story that, although set in the far future when mankind has colonized dozens of worlds, and featuring a robot as one of the main characters, is essentially a classic murder mystery through and through. Hate the idea of space colonies and robots? Don’t worry—you’ll be too absorbed in the fantastic whodunnit Asimov has constructed to even notice the speculative elements.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
Ostensibly this is a time-travel tale: a young black woman is transported by mysterious means to a Maryland slave plantation in the pre-Civil War era. She meets her ancestors and learns about (and experiences) the struggles and hardship of the era, even as she attempts to keep history on course and secure her own future. Yes, there’s time travel, but this is really a book exploring inequality, interracial relationships, gender, and race—one that reveals that, even in the modern era, we still have a lot of work to do. (For a similar, similarly affecting story, pick up Delia Sherman’s recent The Freedom Maze.)
What books would you give to a non-SF/F fan to convert them to our side?