10 Literary Authors You Didn’t Know Wrote Science Fiction

It’s common wisdom that in the last decade “literary” writers have fully embraced genre fiction. Whether it’s zombies (Colson Whitehead’s Zone One), superheroes (Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude), fairy tales (Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves), or the apocalypse (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), you can find it shelved in the literary section of your local bookstores. These writers are hardly the first literary writers to toe the genre line though. Here are ten other literary authors who you may not have realized wrote speculative fiction, as picked by our friend Lincoln Michel, who is the co-editor of the forthcoming science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds, which will include work from Jonathan Lethem, Lynne Tillman, J. Robert Lennon, J. G Ballard, and many more. You can find more information about the anthology on their Kickstarter page.

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Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson

Known for his dreamlike tales of drug-fueled outcasts (Jesus’ Son, Angels), Denis Johnson’s sophomore novel took a more nightmarish turn: a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age tale set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, written in Johnson’s characteristic poetic and hallucinatory style. 

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Cosmicomics and t zero,  Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s work tends to fall in an unclassifiable zone between Borgesian parable, experimental exercise, and postmodern fabulism. In the story collection Cosmicomics and its follow-up t zero, Calvino turns his attention to particles, moons, planets, and the cosmos for a series of moving and inventive science fiction tales. 

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf 

Virginia Woolf is rightfully celebrated as one of the greatest modernists. Her novels explored modern society and human consciousness with razor-sharp prose. However, one of her most intriguing works is Orlando, a gender-switching fantasy set in Elizabethan England. Gender reassignment is possible now, but Orlando was published in 1928 and successful gender reassignment surgery was almost 25 years away.

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Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo has always been interested in technology and science, but in the 1976 novel Ratner’s Star his science fiction leanings are overt. The novel follows a child genius named Billy who is recruited by bizarre scientists to decipher alien communication.

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In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan 

Richard Brautigan’s works are famously unclassifiable and In Watermelon Sugar is no exception. The novel does, however, play strongly with speculative fiction themes. Set in a commune named iDEATH after an unexplained apocalypse, the characters navigate interpersonal relationships and a fantastic landscape of different colored suns and talking tigers.

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Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson

Shelley Jackson is celebrated for her postmodern literary experiments, such as the ongoing “Skin,” a work composed of single words tattooed on volunteers. Her 1995 work Patchwork Girl is a radically inventive hypertext retelling of one of the first works of science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe

In the literary world, Kobo Abe is best known for his dark and surreal ’60s and ’70s novels such as The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man. In the speculative world, however, Abe is most famous for his 1958 science fiction novel, Inter Ice Age 4, in which scientists genetically modify children to survive a newly waterlogged world.

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Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov 

Vladimir Nabokov’s large oeuvre covers a wide variety of styles and genres, from the Kafkaesque nightmare of Invitation to a Beheading to the lyrical realism of Pnin. Ada, or Ardor is a sprawling tale of two incestuous lovers set in an alternate timeline where the Americas were settled by Russia and the planet is known as Antiterra.

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is often thought of as a magical realist, so perhaps most of his works could count as speculative fiction. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is especially speculative with its two interweaving narratives, one a science fiction story about subconscious data encryption and the other set in a fantasy world in which unicorn skulls hold the keys to dreams.

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One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin

Lastly, we’ll leave you with one forthcoming (McSweeney’s, August 2013) literary SF book: the new story collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, from the innovative Lucy Corin. The title says it all.