Recommend some "Unconventional" Science Fiction


So, I like to consider myself a fan of science fiction but I would be lying if I didn’t say I think a lot of it is all the same and it’s really really boring. To that end, I was rather pleasantly surprised and impressed with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy and am currently enjoying the works of Yoon Ha Lee.

I mention both of these authors in particular because I think what I responded to in their respective works was (1) the strength of the writing (2) the depth of the worlds created (it felt like the civilizations were able to function outside of wherever the plot was taking place) (3) unconventional plots and character driven action (4) the distortion of something we may take for granted (e.g. in Leckie’s work that is the notion of the self and individual identity along and Lee’s technology is all based around calendars in a way I can’t properly grasp but it is fascinating).

The above is not a comprehensive list of the reasons why I like these authors–it is merely what came immediately to mind. But, based on that, what sort of contemporary SF do you think may be comparable reading? (I will confess that I read Leviathan Wakes and while entertained was not compelled to continue the series.)


If you like the Ancillary series, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels will scratch most of the same itches. There’s also a forthcoming book and a couple short stories that take place in the Imperial Radch continuity you can track down if only more Leckie will do:

She Commands Me And I Obey, which explains Breq’s icon, and Night’s Slow Poison which gives us a look at some non-Radch cultures.


Recently I’ve enjoyed The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley. It takes place on these weird flesh-ship-worlds. Very unusual and often rather gross worldbuilding here

I also really enjoyed the world depicted in Revenger by Alistair Reynolds, a strange future where history exists in strange ‘baubles’ which only open up every so often, and ships communicate by reading the skulls of alien skulls


Believe you me, I have got that book pre-ordered at my local store and am looking forward to it!

Thanks for the Banks recommendation.


I’ll back that recommendation for Banks. The Player of Games is a strong one to start with, and a short read. Consider Phlebas is technically the first in the series but it presents a fairly different society than the one in the rest of the series.


Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a recent one I blindly stumbled on to and enjoyed, it has a some conventional aspects early on, but ends up diving into Ancillary-ish type conjecture.


Just finished Europe in Autumn by Dave Hitchinson, after Warren Ellis recommended it in one of his newsletters, and it is a peach! An Estonian chef gets recruited, more or less against his will, into a courier service/espionage service in a future Europe where new countries are constantly splitting off from others and throwing up more borders (one of my favourite nascent nations is a Berlin towerblock which declares itself a nation state but collapses amidst civil war between its rival football holligan populace).

It’s not hatd sci-fi by any stretch but I really enjoyed its le Carre-style spycraft, saviness of European political history and especially its reverence for Eastern Europe - a part of the continent whose rich cultural identities are often overlooked - and a main character who categorically does not want to be whisked away from his normal life into one of excitement and adventure. There are great moments where he reflects on his love of cooking, how it sprung from watching Anthony Bourdain on TV and hanging around local kitchens, even when he’s several years and a half-dozen fake identities into his new border-hopping career. Highly recommended!

Both The Vorrh and The Three Body Problem are waiting to be read on my Kindle, buuuuuut I’m kinda intimidated by them!


Ooh Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is also awesome. Bit depressing too, but it does slowly paced existential horror really, really well.


I read Annihilation and half of Authority and boy did I walk away unsure how I felt about it.


The Vorrh is easily one of the strangest and most beautiful things I have read in years. You gotta give it a shot!


Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Falmbeur novels, beginning with The Quantum Thief are weird transhuman post-cyberpunk stuff set in a pretty cool universe.


For big-screen space opera that is also intensely literate and high concept I strongly recommend Dan Simmons’ two sci-fi series, The Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos which are tremendous, imaginative, fun adventure stories that are also explorations of the nature of fiction, religion and storytelling and changed the way I look at the world. I feel as though that is a mark of good sci fi. I think anyone who enjoyed Iain M Banks would also enjoy those though they are absolutely their own thing.

I feel as though Ann Leckie is very much in the Ursula Le Guin mould and you might enjoy some of her work as well, science fiction that pays attention to social science as much as physics. If you wanted to go a little further in the same direction, Doris Lessing’s Canopus In Argus Archives are well worth a read - I enjoyed them when I read them, a long time ago now, but I especially remember Shikasta and The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8.

Neal Stephenson books often leave me thinking about them long after I have finished reading them, Anathem is essential reading and SevenEves is very intense and probably the best thriller based largely around delta-v, which I know a lot more about since I read it.

I really enjoyed Jeff Noon’s books back in the late 90s, they’re in a sort of weird somewhat psychedelic cyberpunk near-future setting where various new drugs are changing the world in strange ways and there is strange video game/virtual reality technology that is never explained, which is something I find quite convincing - when was the last time anyone mentioned how a mobile phone works? He also has a joyous playfulness with language, which makes his fiction very readable- one could do worse than read Vurt or Pollen.


I’m glad @thundarrshirt mentioned The Three Body Problem. I’m about halfway through it after earlier running out of steam on it. Some of it’s very approachable, and some of it’s sort of work for me, but it’s really good.

I’ve been a fan for many years of the Gardner Dozois-edited sci-fi short story collections and recently found this one in e-book from my library: – it’s a collection from his years of editing anthologies and it’s kind of spectacular. I remember reading many but not all of these stories, and, geeze that table of contents is really something. A lot of these stories are just striking to me.

Edit: I realized after posting that the anthology may not really fit into the “unconventional” category, but it’s so diverse that I think there’s probably something appealing there.


I’d start with Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Tackles the question of what meeting a truely alien sentient being would be like and challenges many preconceptions. Doozy of a story as well.


I read C. J. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur a novel about the difficulties of first contact when I was living alone in a foreign country unable to speak to the people around me. I really liked it at the time.


I really liked the story in The Three Body Problem but found the writing really flat. Or the sentences were very broken and choppy. I liked the book every time I put it down and thought about what happened but wasn’t enjoying actually reading it.

I understand your running out of steam but I hope you finish it–it’s worth it.


This short story from Benjanun Sriduangkaew, “The Universe as vast as our longings” about a war orphan adopted by her conquerors has a masterful grasp of how to worldbuild without lore dumping with little room and is just gut punch after gut punch from a POV that mainstream SFF doesn’t really show often, check it out. Really one of my fav stories on queer and anticolonialist themes.

Now, if you want something DEEP and long as fuck, I recommend you check Wildbow’s web serials. They have a superhero story, a urban fantasy story and an ongoing Biopunk story, all deeply character driven but with astoundingly deep worlds. I think cape stories and Biopunk stuff are a bit of a stretch for Science Fiction but both Worm and Twig fit your 4 points pretty well IMHO and offer pretty refreshing takes on those sci-fi adjacent genres.

Also I haven’t finished reading the Binti trilogy but the first one a pretty good novella.


I was a avid reader of Jeff Noon in the late nineties as well. He lyrical writing style and non-science sci-fi really appealed to me at the time (non-science might be going too far, but anyway). Loved Nymphomation in particular, concepts like a lottery played with dominoes filled with strange sex crazed math nanite goo.
Hyperion is also one of the best contemporary science fiction novels out there. It could be categorized as a space opera? I’m not sure about that, also unsure of the definition of unconventional in the context of science fiction…


@sputnik It’s a tricky area, right? I think the last two in the series are relatively space operatic, but Hyperion itself is a little different. Once you get towards those boundaries where do you stop? One could probably get stuck on that question just trying to figure out where that boundary falls in China Mieville novels…

You might go as far as the Book of the New Sun which is generally classified as fantasy but is super far future to the point that nobody distinguishes between sailors and spacefarers and the world is full of old technology that no-one seems to understand or remember the purpose of. Gene Wolfe is a very clever writer and this is one of the few genre series that seems to be universally accepted as a mainstream literary classic. Heavy and sometimes confusing but worth reading, another that I often think about.


Hyperion is one of those books that was big and ambitious and expansive, and that I read at just the right age that it left a big impression on me. I got interested in Keats via that book! Funny how those paths go, huh?

I was going to recommend Mieville here, too. City and the City and Embassytown are both close enough to sci-if, I think. The former in particular I thought was just such a well executed concept AND story – to me, Mieville sometimes gets a little lost in the allegories in his writing, but not in this one.