People talk about ‘desert island books’, but as a lifelong science-fiction and fantasy reader I tend to think about different types of castaways – like being stuck on a lonely spaceship or desolate planet (with or without a malevolent alien or artificial intelligence construct as a ‘friend’). Or, perhaps, like Frankenstein’s monster, the loneliness of being the only creature of your kind. Apocalypse novels have also taught me the importance of pragmatism, like having a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and the collected works of William Shakespeare all in one bound volume (I actually have one of these, a gift from my best friend on my twenty-first birthday).
This list is a mix of all of the above, with a few extra suggestions. The mid-century science-fiction can, I believe, be read as a field guide for surviving these present times. The other books explore the emotion of isolation, in the past or present or future. And, then, there are some classics which are often listed among the greats but who ever really has time to read them? Well, now you can (and they really are worth the time).
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Most ‘oh no it’s the apocalypse’ books focus on the hero or the antagonist. But what if you happened to just be a friend of the Boy Who Was Destined to Save the World and all you really wanted was to have a normal teenage life, fall in love, those sorts of things? I love everything by Patrick Ness and this is one of my favourites – it’s comforting, and funny, and reminds us that it’s not only the big stories or the protagonists that have stories worth telling.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve chosen this book for two reasons. One, it really is a flipping work of genius. Nobody I have ever read captures human emotions the way Tolstoy does – his observations are timeless, minute, loving miniature (on that note, I have a personal mental bookmark to read up more on Tolstoy’s translator). Second, if you have a Kindle or e-book reader you can probably nab a copy for free because it’s no longer in copyright. When you’re on the bones of your ass (like writers and academics can sometimes be), it’s a real boon. [On this note, you can also read most of Charles Dickens’ works for free or nearly free this way. If you’re looking for an easy starting point, go with Great Expectations].
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey
Anne McCaffrey is best known for her Pern books, set on a fictional world (Pern) where dragonriders fight a deadly alien spore. But The Ship Who Sang is a deserved science fiction classic, about a spaceship built around what is left of a human brain – a ‘brainship’ – who sort of emerges from her physical and metaphorical steel shell to become more human. A sort of literal space opera, if you will.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
In the same vein as McCaffrey, contemporary French-American writer Aliette de Bodard draws on her Vietnamese ancestry to craft a hauntingly beautiful novella about a ‘mindship’ collaborating with a detective to solve a space mystery. De Bodard’s re-imagined tea ceremony is exquisite, and deeply clever. It’s also not a very long read, if like me you are struggling to focus for longer periods of time and just want pleasant distraction.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Some books affect you deeply. This book intruded into my dreams in a way I had not experienced since I was an honours student writing a thesis on holocaust films. It is one of the most powerful works I have ever read, a telling of stories of slaves and freedom using the real (historical) slave smuggling network (the ‘underground railroad’) as a device and a metaphor, creating alternate histories made real through raw and genuine human emotions. I recommend this book because it uses allegory to disguise and reveal human states of joy and sadness, bravery and apathy, loneliness and togetherness, which may also be a little close to the surface for many of us right now.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Another personal favourite and now, it seems, also a useful handguide for surviving in a strange world where to go outdoors means to expose yourself to potentially fatal dangers. Like most great science fiction writers, Wyndham’s tale – of a mysterious human apocalypse, with the remaining population left mostly blind, and stalked by ravenous man-eating plants called triffids – succeeds not because of any reliance on fancy technology or computer hacks, but because it is a brilliant parable of the best and worst parts of human society. This book was published in 1951, but I do believe if you read it today you will identify many characters in recent news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bad Land by Jonathan Raban
Sometimes loneliness can also come in wide open spaces, not just in closed rooms. Bad Land is Jonathan Raban’s lyrical exploration of the southern part of the Montana plains. He describes the sense of vertigo the earliest colonial settlers experienced on their arrival – where the land stretched so far, there were no marks, not even mountains, to allow a human to feel comfortable in their smallness. If you’re feeling cooped in, but still anti-social, this is the read for you.
Nechama Brodie’s new novel Three Bodies is out now. The follow-up to her 2018 fiction debut, Knucklebone, Three Bodies is a crime thriller set in Gauteng that follows Joburg detectives Reshma Patel and Ian Jack in pursuit of a serial killer. Buy the ebook online here.