As a teenager, Emily St. John Mandel loved reading science fiction, especially time travel stories.
Now, the Vancouver Island-born, New York City-based author writes books on similar themes, including her blockbuster Station Eleven, set in a dystopian future where a global pandemic wipes out most of humanity, which was adapted into a successful HBO Max TV series. Yet before Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction in 2015, Mandel didn’t consider herself a sci-fi writer, she told The Globe in an interview. “It doesn’t contain science fictional technology, so it can’t be science fiction,” a literary agent had told her. But gradually, Mandel came to understand that kind of prescriptive thinking was offensive to sci-fi readers. And more importantly, she realized a more obvious point: Books can be multiple genres and putting them into silos does a disservice to both writers and readers.
Now with her latest book, Sea of Tranquility (HarperCollins), Mandel has fully immersed herself in the tropes of science fiction. There’s a moon colony, a dome city, simulation theory and time travel – a plot device and concept she’s always wanted to write about. She credits the pandemic for allowing her the “creative recklessness” to abandon any writerly anxieties.
“I felt like, you know what, everything’s terrible, I’m going to do this thing that’ll make me happy. I’m going to write whatever I want and not worry about being taken seriously or any of those other unhelpful ideas that can attach themselves to you as a writer.”
For Mandel, speculative and science fiction allow readers to better understand our current moment, but also to imagine futures we might want to avoid. “Sometimes seeing the worst case scenario play out in fiction is helpful in cementing for ourselves what we don’t want the world to look like,” says Mandel.
Here, Mandel recommends her favourite sci fi and speculative fiction novels, which tackle themes spanning from the climate crisis and otherworldly phenomena to the ramifications of extreme partisanship.
American War (Penguin Random House) by Omar El Akkad
Written by the 2021 Giller Prize-winning author of What Strange Paradise, the novel imagines an American civil war happening at some point in the near future. “An incredible masterpiece of speculative fiction,” says Mandel. “As you read it, it’s hard to shake this uncomfortable feeling that this is where politics in the United States could plausibly go as we’re in this era of obsessive partisanship.”
The Southern Reach Trilogy (HarperCollins) by Jeff VanderMeer
Named after a secret government agency, this series follows the expeditions into Area X, a mysterious zone that’s been cut off from the rest of the world and possesses otherworldly and dangerous phenomena. The first volume, Annihilation, was adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. “They’re so beautifully strange, wonderful and immersive. I couldn’t put them down,” says Mandel.
Gold Fame Citrus (Penguin Random House) by Claire Vaye Watkins
In her debut novel, Vaye Watkins envisions a dystopian world where drought and extreme wind have ravaged California. Most people have been rounded up into internment camps, but a few holdouts remain and try to survive on their own. “It’s a climate crisis novel about a desert that engulfs a huge part of the Western United States. It’s so interesting, and Vaye Watkins is so good,” says Mandel.
Migrations (Flatiron Books) by Charlotte McConaghy
Another climate crisis novel, Migrations is set in a near future where the world is devastated by ecological collapse and mass extinction. The novel’s protagonist, Franny Stone, heads to Greenland to follow the last Arctic terns on possibly their final migration to Antarctica “It’s about a woman trying to make her way through a world where, because of the climate crisis, all the animals are dying,” says Mandel. “It’s a hard read, so beautifully executed. I found it heartbreaking.”
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