Just because a novel is on a bestseller list—or sells tens of thousands of copies—doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. In fact, some of my all-time favorite science fiction and fantasy novels have been books that most mainstream readers may have never even heard of before. As a book reviewer, I run across this all the time: truly extraordinary novels that, for whatever reason—bad cover art, inadequate promotion, distribution issues, etc.—don't get noticed by the masses and eventually sink into oblivion. So, in an effort to unearth some outstanding science fiction and fantasy novels and bring them back into the bibliophilic consciousness, here is a short list of five novels that could have been, should have been—and in my mind, are—towering, genre masterworks. (Yes, only five—I could’ve included dozens more but I didn’t want to overwhelm you!)
1. Grey by Jon Armstrong (2007)
Set in a near future that is garish, superficial, and obsessively self-absorbed, Jon Armstrong's stellar debut novel is as thematically compelling as dystopian classics like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and, most notably, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.
In a society controlled in large part by an elite group of corporations and characterized by its wild extremes—economic, political, sexual, etc.—young Michael Rivers is a demigod. The heir apparent to high-tech security juggernaut RiverGroup, the 19-year-old has it all: he's handsome, fashionable, and literally worshipped by millions of people who monitor his every movement through the media. And his future looks even brighter. His girlfriend, Nora is the daughter of the head of a competing conglomerate and is his ideal partner. They share the same understated tastes in music, clothing, and philosophy, and even have a private language based on slogans from advertisements in their favorite fashion magazine. But days before the couple is set to announce their engagement—and the historic merger of their families' corporations—an assassin almost succeeds in killing Rivers. When he recovers from the attack, he finds his engagement off and RiverGroup almost bankrupt. Disregarding threats from his egomaniacal father, Rivers begins a perilous quest to reconnect with his true love—only to come face-to-face with the horrible reality of his existence.
Equal parts ill-fated love story à la Romeo and Juliet, poignant coming-of-age tale, and disturbingly provocative glimpse into humanity's future, Armstrong's debut is simply unforgettable—nothing short of a science fiction masterwork. A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century. – Paul Goat Allen
2. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of award-winning novels like the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), and Icehenge, has written one of the most ambitious novels in decades with The Years of Rice and Salt, a book that is breathtaking in scope, chillingly timely, and profoundly powerful. Although it's billed as an alternate history of mankind's last 700 years, it is so much more than that. It's about the significance—or lack thereof—of religion, fate, and the human spirit. It's about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Is there a god? Is the soul eternal? Does it all really matter?
The story begins in the 14th century, as the Black Death is spreading throughout Europe. But instead of killing approximately one-third of the population, this time the plague destroys almost everyone: 99 percent. Civilization is wiped out, and Europe becomes a forgotten wasteland. There is no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, and no colonization of the New World by the British and French. Christianity and Judaism are all but forgotten. Buddhism and Islam become the world's two major religions.
Bold Bardash is a Mongol horseman who has witnessed the plague firsthand. Utterly alone and barely able to find enough food to keep himself alive, Bold wanders aimlessly until he is captured by Turkish Muslims and eventually sold as a slave to Chinese traders. While sailing back to China in the largest ship Bold has ever seen, he meets a black slave boy named Kyu. During the trip, the boy is made a eunuch, and only Bold comforts the boy as he struggles to survive the horrific ordeal. Once in China, the two fatefully work together in a busy restaurant, where Bold learns more about local culture and Kyu plots revenge against the entire Chinese Empire.
After Bold and Kyu experience life to the fullest and eventually die, their souls go back to the bardo, where they await reincarnation. The deeds of their past lives help decide who (or what) they return as. In each incarnation, the two try to improve themselves and the world around them, with varying levels of success: Chinese revolutionaries, an elderly widow and a poor monk, a Native American Indian chief and a clan matriarch, a tiger and a pilgrim, a Chinese naval captain and a young island girl from the other side of the world?
The Years of Rice and Salt (a term coined by Chinese women in wealthy households, signifying the busiest times of a women's life: raising children, taking care of elderly family members, managing servants, etc.) is a truly visionary work. Kim Stanley Robinson shows us what could have been, and what could still be. Will humankind ever get it right? Or are we destined to make the same mistakes over and over again? – Paul Goat Allen
3. The Troika by Stepan Chapman (1998)
How can I even begin to explain this absolutely glorious, euphorically mind-blowing novel? Working simultaneously on numerous narrative levels, The Troika a tale of a solar-powered jeep, a brontosaurus, and an old Mexican woman as they journey across an endless desert purgatory trying to find a way out. It’s also a story of three dead people trapped inside an insane angel’s music box: there’s Alex, who has no hands and dreams of someday being a machine; Eva, who was born an angelfish and was almost sacrificed to the whale emperor; and Naomi, an autistic child who joins the army and gets trapped in cryonic suspension.
Chapman’s The Troika is singularly unique, challenging, experimental, cutting edge speculative fiction—I will guarantee you that you will never read anything quite like it ever again in your entire life. Plain and simple, The Troika is an unparalleled surrealistic masterwork. – Paul Goat Allen
4. Enemy Glory by Karen Michalson (2001)
Brilliant. Unforgettable. Mesmerizing. Pure poetry. Enemy Glory is a masterpiece of fantasy and Karen Michalson is a storytelling genius. You don’t read this book—you experience it. It’s like listening to beautiful otherworldly music whose slow, hypnotizing melodies have the potential to take you away to some heavenly transcendence or drive you completely insane—the level and depth of lyrical narrative throughout is simply breathtaking.
The story revolves around the deathbed confessions of an evil priest of Hecate named Llewelyn. Weak, disoriented and far from home, Llewelyn feels compelled to tell his astonishing life story to a fisherman before he dies. The narrative begins when Llewelyn was a child, living in poverty with parents who frequently neglected him. He spent much of his time with Grana, an old witch who lived next door. The boy witnessed numerous dark wonders in her presence, including the crone create a baby out of insects and grass, but when she eventually died the baby—named Lord Cathe—was taken away and quickly forgotten about. When civil war erupts, Llewelyn flees his home and finds friendship of sorts with a wizard named Mirand, Baniff the Gnome and twins named Wadworth and Caethne—but his surreal childhood experiences turn out to be an integral key to the future of the realm…
It’s not surprising that Michalson is the lead singer and bassist for the gothic rock trio Point of Ares—this novel is like dark poetry and anyone who reads it will become immersed in this richly described and intensely philosophical novel. If you’re looking for a quick, light read, don’t buy this book. Enemy Glory is heavy in every sense of the word. – Paul Goat Allen
5. Open Your Eyes by Paul Jessup (2009)
Originally attracted to this small press release because of the eye-catching cover art (by Daniele Cascone), I was pleasantly surprised by this long novella, which blends the Golden Age ambiance and awe of Alfred Bester and A. E. van Vogt with an impressive array of striking and surrealistic images—like the literary lovechild of Arthur C. Clarke and Salvador Dali.
The story starts off with a literal bang: “Her lover was a supernova. She smiled when he came, his bright burning light rocking her body, impregnating her with the essence of stars. Through the metal bones of her ship she felt the gasses enter her, felt the compound light exploding inside her. Her hands clawed at the cracked vinyl of the chair, her legs spread to either side with toes stretched out, her mouth in piercing screams of ecstasy…”
But when Ekhi’s astral lover dies—and with a strange new life growing inside her—she finds herself barely alive within her destroyed ship. When she is rescued by a starship with a small crew on a mysterious mission, she becomes witness to a deep space drama that includes a homicidal giant, mechanical doll girls, sentient starships that resurrect crew members, and a linguistic virus that could annihilate humankind once and for all. “We must go soon, before the words infect us. Before the I is gone and we are all dust puppets to the sentient language.”
Powered by bizarre imagery and a stark, spare narrative, Open Your Eyes was a sublime read whose narrative resonance will haunt readers for days… – Paul Goat Allen
Hey, if you guys want me to do more of these "Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novels That No One Has Read" lists, just let me know!
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.