Think of this microgenre as “minimally speculative futures,” if you like—a mode of storytelling that seems wholly mundane and normal until something goes a bit wrong. Fiction writer Brendan C. Byrne calls it the “day to day debasement of Super Late Capitalism.”

What to read

Madeline Ashby, “Domestic Violence” (2018)

“I couldn’t get out of the house,” a character says. “The house—well, I mean, the condo—wouldn’t let me out. The door wouldn’t open.” Ashby’s short story about smart home technology being weaponized by abusers was published by Slate three months before the New York Times reported on this topic as factual reality.

Tim Maughan, Flyover Country (2016)

Maughan’s story for Vice describes a world of universal basic income and iPhones made in America. At the Foxconn-CCA Joint Correctional and Manufacturing Facility, Miguel replaces the chips in faulty handsets. It’s an elegant, taut story that Jeff Bezos might read for assembly line optimization notes.

Chris McCrudden, Battlestar Suburbia (2018)

In McCrudden’s debut novel, a pleasingly ridiculous take on “kitchen sink dystopia,” machines rule—not as superpowered AIs but as sentient bread makers, Machiavellian smartphones, and a mobile hair salon. Human beings are now the servants of the domestic appliances, good for little more than mopping floors and a bit of flirty dial-fondling. Think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Sears Catalogue and you won’t be far wrong.

8. Woke Space Opera

A slightly cheeky name here, as suggested by Tim Maughan, author of both Flyover Country and the forthcoming novel Infinite Detail (2019).

At the other end of the scale to kitchen sink dystopias is this microgenre, which features the familiar elements of classic hard sci-fi—faster-than-light space travel, deep futures (like 20,000-years-deep), and, of course, aliens—with a contemporary sociopolitical twist.

Several of the writers we’ve seen already are working at the interstellar scale, including N. K. Jemisin (see №2, Afrofuturism, above) with her Broken Earth trilogy, and Kim Stanley Robinson (№5, Solarpunk) with 2312.

Three more to read

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (2013)

The main character is a warship, formerly part of an AI hive mind, who’s on a quest for revenge—so the “hard sci-fi” label might seem fitting. Yet it’s also a feminist book, set in a genderless universe (with default female pronouns), and is filled with questions of identity, selfhood, and free will—which makes it pretty woke, too. Leckie won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards in 2014, becoming the first writer to receive all three for the same book.

James Tiptree Jr., (The pseudonym of Alice Sheldon), Up the Walls of the World (1978) and Brightness Falls from the Air (1985)

Tiptree/Sheldon’s only two novels deal in human telepathy and alien species near extinction—and themes of interspecies care, space-colonial atrocities against indigenous inhabitants, and tragic consequences of unjust socioeconomic systems.

China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)

On the planet Arieka, a colony of humans live next to the Hosts, a species so alien that their language has no capacity for abstraction or lying. Tragically, contact changes this, and the Hosts turn on humanity in the hope of wiping out the source of their corruption. It’s a novel about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the nature of otherness, and the Opium Wars.

9. The New Weird

Time for some tentacles!

It’s not actually new—the name has been around since 2002—but definitely weird. Unlike the other speculative fiction subgenres discussed here, The New Weird draws on supernatural horror as much as on fantasy and sci-fi tropes. Bodies often don’t get to be wholly human: a central character may be a mutated bear, or have a scarab beetle for a head. Plants and fungi tend to be able to do a lot more than plants and fungi are supposed to be able to do. The mood is eerie and uneasy.

Definitive texts

China Miéville, The Scar (2002)

Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) may have kicked off this whole genre, but to my mind, The Scar is the better read. It’s set on the vast floating pirate city of Armada, amid mosquito-people, walking cacti, criminals punished by being surgically “Remade,” and a fine and disconcerting cast of monsters (from the murderous “grindylow” to the incomprehensible “avanc”). The rulers, known as the Lovers, carve matching scars into each other’s faces—but another gash in space-time awaits as well.

John Langan, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013)

Langan is known as a horror writer—but then again, speculative fiction isn’t just sci-fi. This collection of seven short stories and a novella, “Mother of Stone,” takes classic tropes of vampires, werewolves, and zombies, and turns them upside down and inside out in inventive and thoroughly unnerving ways.

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (2014)

The government science agency sends expeditions into Area X, but they tend to disappear unpleasantly. Annihilation plays on fears of both the real-life Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone and the radical otherness of nature itself.

This article was originally published on How We Get To Next, under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Read more about republishing How We Get To Next articles. Sign up to the How We Get To Next newsletter here.

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