8 New Novels that Envision an Alternate Future

Colin Winnette, author of "Users," recommends books that imagines a new reality in unique and startling ways

Photo by Aideal Hwa on Unsplash

When I sat down to write Users five years ago, I had no intention of writing a particularly topical novel. At the time, a story about a lead creative working at a VR start-up who goes to war with his user-community, whose hasty solution ultimately leads to his downfall, felt like an exaggeration—a hyperbolic expression of fears and dissatisfactions that were bubbling up in me after going to work as a writer in a variety of tech settings. But, with the rise of web3, and the scramble by major corporations from Microsoft to Alphabet to Facebook to wrap us in their virtual or augmented nets, it’s starting to feel like reality has caught up to the exaggeration. I wish I could claim it was intentional, but I have trouble predicting what will happen in the next few hours, let alone several years.

When I write, I’m often using my imagination to process an immediate world that would otherwise be overwhelming. I think that’s one great power fiction has, and part of why I’ve always been drawn to it. Intentionally prescient or not, I’ve always turned to writers for depictions of life, not only as it is, but as it could be, or will be, that make the living of life feel a bit more manageable. That’s a tall order, given the past decade. And the future has started to feel more unpredictable than ever. But here’s a list of books about the future that make those distant (or not-so-distant) days feel a bit less daunting—either in the way they imagine the future or in the way its being imagined is made meaningful.

Out There: Stories by Kate Folk

Weird how writers called “weird” wind up predicting the future with what feels retroactively like utter clarity. A woman is tasked with keeping her house moist. Another must navigate a world of online dating full of artificial men called “blots” distributed by Russian hackers. Folk writes stories about the future in a way that feels both absurd and inevitable, which is what the future always is.

Flux by Jinwoo Chong

This time-bending work of speculative fiction takes place in the 1980s and the 2000s, decades into the future, and on an iconic television show called Raider. At its heart, it’s a story of generational trauma and grief, but on its surface, this neonoir is about a defunct tech startup that may have disrupted space-time. What’s not to love?

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

In the last few years, Serpell has put out two powerhouse novels. Most recently, the breathtaking and grief-soaked The Furrows. Before that, her massive speculative sci-fi debut The Old Drift. This is a multi-generational tale about a colonial settlement in Zambia that starts in 1904, where a mistake alters the course of generations for decades to come. We witness the rise of the charismatic huckster behind a homegrown technological movement called the Afronauts, traveling from riverside mosquito tents to a world of microdrones and viral vaccines.

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

In a ravaged future that is not so hard to imagine, this lush novel follows a downward-spiraling chef brought to a land of plenty, where wonder, delight, and violence change her in shocking and surprising ways. In Zhang’s hands, you know the prose will be impeccable, the insights will be keen, and the circumstances will be both dire and beautifully rendered.

Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

I still haven’t read a book that comes anywhere near the experience of reading Notable American Women for the first time. To call it experimental is an oversimplification, but it’s not inaccurate. This unpacks and reassembles toxic family relationships in a landscape that could be the future, or could be the past, but is perhaps more accurately described as an alternate reality manifested by great feeling. Who hasn’t wanted to keep their dad in a hole out back, with a special yelling tube for essential communications, while you and your mother pursue a life of complete stillness and silence through behavior modification?

Y/N by Esther Yi

In this bracing and brilliant debut, a young woman loses herself in Y/N fanfic (short for “Your Name” where the reader is part of the story) borne of her revelatory obsession with a K-pop star named Moon. It’s a funny, surreal, and rousing search for the unattainable that reaches beautiful heights of absurdity, paranoia, and existential panic.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Called a “perfect” novel by both Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, The Invention of Morel is a spiraling piece of shocking speculative fiction. Blending crystal clarity and surreal shadows, it tells the thrilling story of a strange island, where an image-based machine may be able to recreate reality for eternity by capturing and replaying the souls of the island’s inhabitants, as well as that of one love-sick visitor.

Forthcoming: Real Americans by Rachel Khong 

This is a multi-generational love story about a mixed-race family involved in genetic silencing. Tracing a devastating arc from Maoist China to near-future San Francisco, this novel uses wit, heart, and powerful intelligence to examine the choices we make in the wake of the choices that have been made for us, and it considers how we might come to know the difference.

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