So-called literary science and speculative fiction

The way I see it, a creative work is literary if it is written down; it is not literary when it is realized in some other medium. Pieces of writing that are not creative works are also not literary in and of themselves (though they may have unintended literary qualities). Literary works can be judged as good or bad based on a variety of criteria, but the bad works are not any less literary (except in the special case when we want to say they are bad because, upon closer inspection, they are not creative texts after all, but technical manuals or phonebooks).

Accordingly, I have strong reservations about using the word “literary” in an evaluative sense (and even stronger ones about using it comparatively, as in “this novel is more literary than that one”). Having said that, I’m not going to argue with people who use the popular phrase “literary science fiction”, and that’s because I undestand what they mean.

What they mean is a subset of written science fiction works distinguished by the alleged high quality of prose, formal and stylistic ambitions, psychological complexity, and the capacity to approach themes, subjects, or ideas that are deemed serious, mature, deep, or complex. Now, I realize that every term of this definition, along with its underlying assumptions, can be questioned and critiqued; I’m not going to engage in any of that, however, because I’m just introducing a list here.

As with all of the lists posted on this website, I made this one for my own reference. Soon after I set about to “get into science fiction”, I discovered that many of the highly-regarded and oft-recommended books are, in my estimation, very poorly written and, at times, frankly quite silly. I wanted to find some books that weren’t like that, and that’s when I learned that the accepted term for what I call “good” is “literary”. (It also turns out that a lot of the supposedly literary stuff is closer to alternate history or fantasy, hence the “speculative” part of the title.)

On the About page, I make it clear that the lists I compile are indicative of other people’s opinions and not my own. The present list is a case in point. I gave it my best effort to read some of the books listed here, and found a good part of them seriously lacking. Still, I liked the other part, so it wasn’t all for naught. I hope that my findings will be useful to others; after all, my data shows that many people liked these books very much and indeed recognized them as “literary”, perhaps even “very literary”.

The list