Chosen by Helen Phillips
In Helen Phillips’ new novel, The Need, a scientist and mother of two is losing her grip on reality even before she confronts a home intruder. Below, the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat recommends other novels involving alternate realities.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (2017). After Amanda and her young daughter Nina have some strange encounters with their summer neighbors, they realize that the landscape around them is not as benign as it appears: Amanda is powerless to protect Nina from the threats rising up from the grass itself. Told in surreal retrospection, this recent award-winning novel from Argentina is an eerie and brilliant story of maternal love, overpowering anxiety, and environmental degradation.
Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979). Dana, a writer living in 1970s California, gets yanked back in time to a pre–Civil War Maryland plantation, where she encounters her enslaved as well as her slave-holding ancestors. As Dana struggles with the challenges to her identity amid this change in context, the reader is pulled ever deeper into a narrative that raises the hardest questions about America’s history.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Genly Ai is an ambassador from Terra to the cold planet of Gethen, where everyone is androgynous—a fact that has profoundly affected societal structures. The relationship that Genly develops with Estraven, a Gethenian political leader, fits into a category of care and compassion that is difficult, if not impossible, to label.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck (2012). Vanja is a bureaucrat in a dystopian society where everything that isn’t properly labeled with a name tag turns to sludge. On assignment in the town of Amatka, Vanja starts to engage in small acts of defiance and strains her social bonds, including her relationship with her lover, Nina.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017). In this novel, magical doorways enable people to step from one place on Earth to another, allowing the characters to shift between many different global realities. The conceit serves to collapse our planet, illuminating the challenges refugees face as they search for a feasible future.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (1979). A reader in pursuit of a novel called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler ends up falling into a kaleidoscope of wildly varied narratives. Calvino’s structure creates a sense of awe at the infinite possibilities of the written word. ■