Top Ten Self-Aware Genre Novels

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A list of genre novels that use their genre to do things that literary fiction just can’t.

  1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. House of Leaves just about counts: it’s much more self-consciously literary than the other novels on this list, but it’s also taking on some quintessential horror themes – the violation of the domestic space, the unreliability of story.
  2. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. There’s a lot going on in this massive, pulpy piece of weird fiction: themes of art and race and revolution and the city bubble and fester beneath its adventure-horror surface.
  3. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. I think the first sentence of God’s War is my favourite first sentence anywhere: “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Because this is a far-future SF-noir full of guns and recrimination and violence that’s centrally and unapologetically about women, and about femininity, and its exploration of such is unflinching and complex.
  4. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente. Not only is this a gorgeous, lush fairytale, it’s also intensely aware of its own antecedents, and uses that awareness to pack itself chock-full of symbolism and references to create this deeply subversive network of shifting meaning.
  5. Railsea – China Mieville. I suspect it’s cheating to use two Mievilles in this list, but Railsea gave me such a lot of food for thought: a novel about capitalism and the ruins of capitalism, about waste and salvage, about storytelling and the end of story, all wrapped up in a yarn about trainsfolk hunting giant moles.
  6. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon uses the conventions of the alien-disaster genre to create a defiant and polyvocal story about an often-overlooked city and nation (Lagos, Nigeria), one that highlights the ridiculousness of Anglocentricism and anthropocentrism.
  7. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. As its title suggests, How to Live Safely is deeply concerned with what science fiction actually is; a story about a man in a time machine, its handling of the genre and its conventions is intensely self-aware and thoughtful. It’s a novel that, refreshingly, affirms the value of science fiction, relating the contradictions of the genre to the contradictions of what we so laughably call “real life”.
  8. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the novels of an SF academic should be in themselves exercises in re-reading the genre. Jack Glass is an interrogation of Golden Age SF and Golden Age detective fiction, a very readable puzzle-box busy avoiding the easy answers.
  9. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. I think the legacies of Tolkien and Lewis have retrospectively rather flattened the multivocal possibilities of this kind of very English fairytale, and that’s a shame. Lud-in-the-Mist is much more than the mannered fairytale it appears on the surface: it’s a deeply unsettling Modernist fable about art and loss and pastness, none of which would be possible without those folkloric trappings.
  10. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. A modern novel which reaches back to the kind of folklore Lud-in-the-Mist is steeped in, this historical fantasy uses the tropes of both to interrogate the systems of racism and misogyny which still plague the West, narrating the beginning of the civil rights movement through the unsettling imagery of Faerie.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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