To those who aren’t science fiction aficionados, the genre can seem pretty out-there: spaceships, aliens, complicated jargon, foreign worlds, unnecessarily long character names and titles. As exciting as those things are to genre fans, they’re turn-offs to civilians. But some books out there are sneaky about their sci-fi. Their covers and even their jacket descriptions masquerade as something more mainstream, and there’s no mention of laser beams or warp-speed travel. But they are slyly, sneakily science fiction, hooking readers who don’t think of themselves as drawn to the genre. The following novels prove that sci-fi is more widespread and mainstream than many might think.
1. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The cover and description of The Blind Assassin both scream “literary novel” or even “this is a lady book”. It also won the Booker Prize, which is a mainstream literary award, not sci-fi specific like the Hugo Award.
But nestled in the middle of a sedate story of an old woman reminiscing upon her life, family dynasty, and unhappy marriage to a wealthy businessman — all standard literary fare — is a batshit crazy sci-fi yarn complete with space societies, ritualistic murder, aliens, and child slaves. The Blind Assassin is the ultimate Matryoshka doll: You think you’re getting into a sedate literary novel on the outside, but it’s a gloriously batty space opera on the inside.
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is the gentlest post-apocalyptic novel ever. Even if dystopia doesn’t interest you in the least, you’ll like it, because it’s sneaky. After a minimal focus on the disaster du jour — a disease that wipes out most of humanity — the novel pivots, somewhat improbably, to an actor’s life and the importance of art in a crumbling civilization. It’s technically a science fiction novel, but its lack of interest in its own premise led to it being shelved with literary fiction, where mainstream audiences have embraced it.
3. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Like Station Eleven, this is a disaster novel that is unconcerned with the cause of its own disaster and instead nurtures the humans struggling in its wake. Perrotta takes a deep dive into human psychology, plausibly sketching out a world where people react to an unexplained event by forming cults and grassroots religious movements. Its sedate, literary take on the apocalypse. It helps that its television adaptation is even better.
4. Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
This delightfully daffy story initially reads like satire that just so happens to involve mythical creatures: A judgmental couple on their honeymoon accidentally discover mermaids while snorkeling. A kidnapping caper mixed with an eco-terror tale ensues. The final two pages, however, take an unexpected turn for the sci-fi. The sharp turn doesn’t work for everyone, hence its mixed reviews, but it’s worth the read just for lines like this: “‘Mer-people could be read as a colonialist term,’ explained the biologist.”
5 The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
The sedate cover befits a literary novel, with no hints of science fiction shenanigans. The story opens in a fairly normal fashion, following a struggling third-year medical student (albeit bookended by narration from angels). But plenty of literary novels have their quirks. There’s copious description of the daily grind of working in a hospital, broken up by the occasional bout of storage-closet sex. So far, so mainstream. But things get progressively weirder as it continues, eventually building to an apocalyptic tale in which the protagonist can shoot green magical fire.
Novels don’t need to contain space ships and laser beams to qualify as science fiction. It’s a wide and diverse genre that permeates the mainstream more than most people would guess. Chances are, if you think you don’t like science fiction, you wouldn’t even care that I filed this piece from the year 2319.