Beyond the bread-and-butter science fiction (take your pick: milSF, space opera, alt history, what have you) lies the realm of metaphysical sci-fi, a subgenre that plunges headfirst into the surreal. In metaphysical science fiction, the boundaries of reality can stretch and break, and the human mind is as uncharted and alien as the outer reaches of the universe. Technology has the ability to bend and reshape reality, humankind’s place in the universe is always in question, and there’s actually an answer for that ago-old question, what does God need with a starship? Where science fiction asks questions about where we’re going, metaphysical science fiction asks us questions about what going that far will mean for us as humans, and for reality itself.
In the end, that’s really the essence of science fiction: not just a genre that makes us think about the future, but that makes us act on the things we think about, spreading new ideas and concepts. The seven books on this list will leave you with new questions to act on—or at the very least, some interesting reading material.
Light, by M. John Harrison
If there exists one book I would eagerly press into readers’ hands, and then run away before they have a chance to ask me any questions about it, it would be this one. A metaphysical horror novel about quantum physicists, a quasi-cyberpunk meditation on individuality and identity, and a blackly comic riff on far-future science fiction itself, Light is about three people whose various adventures bring them to a strange area of space-time known as the Kefahuchi Tract, where things get truly weird. It’s a beautiful book, full of biomechanical starships, future-predicting fishtanks, and unorthodox gods, and it ends on a surprising, kind of funny, and very sweet note. I wish I could give more away, but part of the fun is discovering each twist as the K-Tract and its inhabitants collide.
Slaughtermatic, by Steve Aylett
In this utterly surreal cyberpunk satire, the city of Beerlight treats crime as the ultimate art form. Career criminal Dante Cubit decides to pull off the perfect bank heist by time-shifting a clone of himself into the future to enter a vault while he stages a highly conspicuous and heavily armed diversion. Everything seems to go perfectly, until Dante’s future-clone refuses to die, causing Dante’s own existence to rapidly decay. To make matters worse, the corrupt, violent Beerlight PD has been put on the trail of Dante and his heist-mates. The book brims with absurd black humor and vivid violence, but never seems to lose its edge, even as reality and existence break apart for its characters. It’s also a great introduction to Steve Aylett, one of my favorite science fiction authors of all time.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick
No list of metaphysical sci-fi could be complete without at least one book by the established grandmaster of the field. Palmer Eldritch is certainly one of his stranger works, set in a future where Palmer Eldritch, a godlike cyborg recently returned to the solar system, has introduced an alien hallucinogen and “evolution treatments” to the human populace, and as a result, seems poised to develop his own empire. As the protagonists try to discover Eldritch’s true intentions, reality and the nature of what Eldritch is begin to shift, leaping across time, space, and drug-induced hallucinations. Dick creates a frightening and surreal story about the nature of humanity and misguided attempts to push its boundaries—every character is either more than human, or trying to become more than human, and Eldritch himself cannot really be considered human either; he’s something more, a part of a larger force in the universe. Mind-blowing.
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway has made a name for himself by mixing philosophical and existential concepts with pulp science fiction and B-movie tropes to create engaging and weird novels. The Gone-Away World, his debut, takes place after an apocalyptic disaster has covered the world with clouds of “stuff,” essentially blank spaces filled with nightmares made real. When a pipeline of “stuff repellent” catches fire, Gonzo Lubitsch and his salvage team are dispatched to repair it and save the world. But as the job goes wrong, it reveals things about the relationship between Gonzo and his friends that lead them into stranger and stranger conflicts—with ninjas, Trappist mimes, martial artists, and monsters. Harkaway’s strong narrative voice and unnerving powers of description make this one heck of a ride, and it’s still my favorite of his works, if only because it makes a plot twist you’ve definitely seen before seem brand-new.
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
A pioneering work of science fiction, Bester’s second novel traces the Ascent of Man through the story of Gully Foyle, a barely sentient engineer living in a storage locker on the wreck of a starship. When Gully is left stranded after a potential rescue ship decides not to retrieve him from the wreck, he embarks on a wild, dangerous journey, fixed on the desire to “kill” the Vorga T-1339, the ship that left him stranded. Throughout the novel, Gully “evolves,” learning to talk and act more human, and even use psionic powers. By the end, it’s not clear if he’s still human or has somehow transcended his humanity, even as he gains super-powered enhancements and…well, I wouldn’t want to give away the ending. What I will give away is this: the crime-thriller plotting, imaginative world design, and bizarre typography help to drive home Bester’s angered final message, that all of us have the power to raise ourselves up and better ourselves, to shape ourselves into something new.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
Once described as science fiction’s answer to Ulysses, Dhalgren is a massive, post-apocalyptic headtrip that begins in the middle of a sentence, follows the main character as he watches a woman turn into a tree, and then proceeds to rush headlong into a metafictional narrative about a nameless protagonist who might actually be the Fisher King of a doomed city, before ending (once again) mid-sentence. If this sounds impossibly weird, it is. It’s a strange, abstract, and poetic examination of myths and literature, witnessed via a character whose most distinguishing feature are his hideous hands. It’s wildly original, and even attempting to read it is an experience worth having. The imagery alone is worth the ride.
Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
Vicious might seem like an outlier on a list full of bizarre, new-wave concepts, but Schwab’s novel of superheroes and villains is a strangely beautiful and yet horrifyingly brutal deconstruction of the mythological struggle between the forces of good and evil. In this world, two scientists, Victor and Eli, discover that a near-death experience will grant people superpowers. Ten years after an experiment gone wrong destroys their friendship and lands Victor in prison, he escapes to exact revenge on his former friend and research partner, even as Eli puts his own ambitious plans into action. While the novel certainly carries the signifiers of a classic tale of good and evil, Schwab adds a staggering complexity to her heroes and villains, while at the same time flipping the classic iconography of “light is good, dark is evil.” The result is a fascinating and heady noir where two flawed people try to out-gambit one another in the hopes of resolving their inner pain.
What books would you add to our list?