Though crossover between mainstream literature and the genres of science fiction and fantasy has been going on for quite some time, 2011 was a big year for books traveling from one genre dimension to another. But as Margaret Atwood said in her 2011 release In Other Worlds, “…the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm...” There were a lot of books this year which took that action and Genre in the Mainstream has endeavored to be part of the ongoing conversation about genre divide and crossover. Here are a selection of books published last year which deserve the attention of anyone interested in this phenomenon. They’re also all great reads too, regardless of your genre leanings!
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Topping nearly every end-of-year best of books of 2011 list, you might wonder what makes this debut novel so special? I launched Genre in the Mainstream with this novel because I think Karen Russell’s writing is perfectly representative of a future in which fantastical concepts and solid literary pathos are considered to be the best of friends. You can’t have the big emotional moments in this story without ghosts, improbable alligator wrestling, or absurd bigger-than-life theme parks. Karen Russell’s mind and pen are firmly in this world, but her heart is in another dimension.
We, Others by Steven Millhauser
A combination greatest hits collection, with a lead section featuring new stories, We, Others could serve as a fine introduction to world of Millhauser. In my previous articles about Millhauser, I’ve called him a magical realist, only to listen to him speak about genre definitions and divisions, and realize he doesn’t quite like that term either. He’s certainly not a science fiction writer, but he’s also not remotely interested in realism, magical or otherwise. So, what makes Millhauser’s stories so great? Well, he’s certainly not for everyone and an argument could be made that most of his short fiction emphasize concept over character. But in the grand scheme of literature which bends the boundaries of genre, asking the “what if” question is certainly as important if not more important than who the characters are. Much of what is in this book will haunt you for awhile, whether you like it or not.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Calling Whitehead’s famous novel of dueling elevator repairmen; The Intuitionist, science fiction wouldn’t really be fair. But like Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, The Intuitionist used a slightly absurd and fantastical and unseen part of the world to illustrate social issues on hyperbolic, dare-we-say-it, fun level. Now Whitehead has caused a stir among the genre fans and literary elite alike with an honest-to-goodness zombie novel. While I have doubts about what the zombie thing truly means for genre crossover, there’s no denying the attention they receive. If you’re not excited about reading Night of the Living Trekkies or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies then the excellent prose of Colson Whitehead colliding with his shuffling “skels” will give you your zombie dose and your literary fiction dose at the same time. Are science fiction writers porn stars and is Whitehead slumming it by putting zombies into this novel? Who cares. The guy is a solid writer.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Luckily, this is not a science fiction novel about what you take home in little plastic containers after Thanksgiving. Nor is it a secular version of Left Behind, despite the presence of elements from the Rapture. Instead, Tom Perrotta’s novel explores the human ramifications of tons of people disappearing off the face of the Earth. What would really happen to everyone at the family level? How would fantastical events change our core values if such events weren’t fantastical, but rather quite real? The Leftovers explores all of this and more. A quieter book than some on this list, but satisfying all the same. Read our excerpt here.
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Jim Shepard may be the biggest nerd trapped in a cool guy’s body I’ve ever come across. His short fiction is witty and painful, while his references to monsters and bizarre creatures are numerous. His latest collection is worth reading for the Godzilla stuff alone. And even though there’s no SF in it, “Boy’s Town” is one of the best short stories I read last year. As I mentioned in a longer piece on Shepard’s work, the scariest monsters in his pantheon are the human ones.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
When The Magicians came out in 2008, it was promoted largely as the “Harry Potter for adults.” Now, with a sexier, funnier sequel, Grossman’s series is easily its own thing. He wears his influences proudly however, and in a recent New York appearance joked that Fillory is as “legally close as possible” to Narnia. The self-awareness of the material comes through in the writing, and in this case, that’s a good thing. Lively, fresh, contemporary and an actual page-turner, Grossman has really hit his stride. It’s also nice that he decided to “come out to himself” as a fantasy writer this year. We couldn’t be happier. Read more on Grossman’s thoughts on genre here.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
We’ve always known Marukami was walking the line with his genre-leanings, but his latest is certainly a step further into the future. With shades of Philip K. Dick, this alternate universe tale is splendidly layered and probably better written than a Dick book. I could tell you more, but I think I’ll instead direct you to the fantastic write-up Ron Hogan gave it on our site here. Of the 2011 science fiction books that weren’t marketed as science fiction books, this was probably the biggest.
In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood
This one caused a lot of controversy in the SF community, with many maintaining Atwood’s approach to the non-fiction discussion of science fiction to be reductive and perhaps ignorant. If Atwood is guilty of anything, though, it’s that she wears her biases on her sleeve. The problem with taking pot-shots at this book for not being comprehensive enough is that, regardless of comprehensivness, she’s still a better writer than most people in the room. Basically, if you want a clear, beautiful rendering of how one particular literary author has had a love affair with genre fiction, then this is a great read. (Further, if you aren’t moved by reading about Atwood’s imaginative childhood full of flying rabbits, you may be a cold-hearted lizard.) Worth the reprint of her analysis of Le Guin alone, Atwood has more to say in this book about the genre in this book than maybe even she is aware. Essential.
As always dear readers, tell me what I’ve missed. What were some of your favorite mainstream literary books which seemed to crossover into the realm of genre fiction?
Ryan Britt is the staff writer of Tor.com.