Altered States: Suggested Readings
This guide suggests many exemplary books (and authors) that are official Altered States: Adult Winter Reading Program selections. All official selections are available for checkout from the Library.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis.
Ten-year-old Hubert Anvil is an English choirboy with such a lovely voice that the Pope has decreed that he will join the ranks of castrato singers. Hubert flees, and his escape serves as an excuse for Amis to explore a world in which the Reformation never occurred, Martin Luther ascended to the Papacy, and the Cold War is a struggle between Christians and Muslims. Even James Bond is a priest. An acclaimed comic novelist, Amis does not let his sense of humor distract from this novel of ideas.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
A violent revolution has replaced the United States with the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy where women are second-class citizens who are no longer even permitted to read. The novel follows the struggles of a nameless handmaid, a concubine who is the property of a government official for whom she must bear a child. Atwood creates a feminist hell in which the only weapon available to the handmaid is also what subjugates her. Author Valerie Martin describes the novel as an instant classic because “its timeliness increases with time.”
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Bioengineered plagues and pests have ravaged worldwide food supplies, making calories the most valuable commodity on Earth. Anderson is an economic hitman in search of a government seedbank in Thailand. When Anderson starts trading information with a genetically engineered prostitute, he sets in motion a sweeping revolution that is not good for business. Bacigalupi won a 2010 Hugo Award for this debut novel.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” The opening line of this classic novel is a pleasure to read, as is the entirety of this dystopian tale of fireman Guy Montag, whose job is tossing books into the flames. As his position among the thought-police of a totalitarian government is jeopardized, a rebel literary culture prepares to receive him. A prescient piece of social commentary decades ahead of its time, Bradbury critiques more than censorship, as he also takes on the dangers of a multimedia entertainment-driven culture.
Kindred by Octavia Butler.
Past and present have little distinction for Dana, a young black woman who is summoned back to the antebellum South to protect her future. Unable to control her time travel, she finds herself transported whenever her slave-owning great-grandfather Rufus Weylin is threatened. Tensions are heightened and relationships become blurred when Dana’s white husband is also pulled into her time warp. This innovative blend of science fiction and historical fiction helped earn Butler a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 1995 for her distinctive writing.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
Following the destruction of the newborn Jewish nation of Israel in 1948, a refugee state is created for Jews in the Alaskan coastal city of Sitka – a metropolis of Yiddish language and culture that is on the decline 60 years later. Chabon begins the story – a tribute to classic crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – with deteriorating shamus Meyer Landsman investigating the suspicious death of a junkie with a chess habit. The narrative frequently incorporates Yiddish vocabulary as Landsman investigates the thoroughly imagined streets and holy sites of a mesmerizing Jewish city-state.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Described in Kirkus Reviews as “one of the finest fantasies ever written,” this voluminous novel is a seamless blend of history and folklore told in an engaging Victorian voice. The story follows two British scholars who rediscover magic in the early 1800s – and how one of them helps transform Europe by fighting alongside Lord Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. But the battlefield takes a backseat to demonic pacts, unbreakable curses, and a faerie conspiracy to supplant King George III. With Clarke’s mock-scholarly footnotes and literary allusions, this novel is a true enchantment.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
It is 1962 and the United States (as well as the world) is divided between the Greater German Reich and the Empire of Japan, which emerged victorious from World War II. In the opening pages, the Fuhrer dies and international tensions are strained amidst the battle for succession. A series of intertwined plotlines depicting daily life under totalitarian Fascist rule dissolve into one woman’s search for the reclusive author of a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This Hugo Award-winning novel incorporates a novel-within-a-novel structure as well as the I Ching, which serves as a major literary device.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.
It is 1985. England is still at war with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula and British popular culture is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday Next is a veteran of the Wessex Light Armoured Brigade turned government literary detective. When Jane Eyre is kidnapped from the pages of the Brontë classic, Next is on the case. This first-in-a-series blends Douglas Adams zaniness with Lewis Carroll wordplay and established Fforde as a leading comic novelist, though his allusions to classic literature are all serious.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Amid a raging nuclear war, a group of school boys crash lands on a deserted island. As time passes and the likelihood of rescue wanes, a faction of castaways reverts to a fervent primitivism that threatens the entire island community. This classic novel delivers a not-so subtle critique of human nature that is as timeless as the story it tells.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway.
The Livable Zone cradles civilization in the wake of the Go Away War, which wrecked large swaths of the Earth that are now obscured in mist and populated by creatures literally pulled out of human imagination. When a fire along the Jorgmund Pipe threatens the Livable Zone, the nameless narrator ventures into the hazy Gone-Away World to preserve humanity. Harkaway presents an ultracool epic that critiques international relations, fascism, and the military-industrial complex – with plenty of ninjas and mimes thrown in to keep it light.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
In 1990s England, medical science is waging war against disease with the intent to purge sickness from humanity. In this merciless campaign, there are casualties. Kathy is a young professional caregiver who is reunited with two classmates from a secluded academy. As they reminisce about their school days, they begin to confront the true purpose of their unique education. Ishiguro is a masterful storyteller, negotiating the nuance of a love triangle even as he reveals the ethical horror story that binds his characters.
The Children of Men by P.D. James.
In the near future, the world is a place bereft of children. Humanity has inexplicably become an infertile race, as no child has been conceived in the past 26 years. Instead, families baptize their kittens. With no future on the horizon, mankind suffers from extreme ennui – the cultural arts have died and sex is pointless and dull. This is the backdrop for a riveting story that follows historian Theo Faron, whose political connections make him a target for political dissidents demanding reforms from an autocratic British government.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.
In 1936, the American electorate votes a populist presidential candidate into the White House, where he rewrites the Constitution and declares Congress obsolete – thereby ushering fascism into the United States. The story follows dissenting newspaperman Doremus Jessup as he works against the government. Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received prior to publication of this novel, which was inspired in part by “maddening” conversations about European politics with his wife, the influential anti-Nazi journalist Dorothy Thompson.
The Iron Heel by Jack London.
Considered the first modern dystopian novel, The Iron Heel is presented as the fictional autobiography of American revolutionary Avis Everhard and her struggles against the Oligarchy, a group of robber barons that co-opted the U.S. Army and forced the middle class into serfdom. The narrative is complemented by sometimes extensive footnotes written from the perspective of a future scholar and descendent of the revolution inspired by Everhard. The Iron Heel proved a strong influence on George Orwell as he wrote 1984.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
In the wake of a post-apocalyptic tragedy, a man and his son wander an ash-blanketed landscape with a mission: to keep civilization alive in a land where no other human can be trusted. A handgun with just one bullet is their protection. Survival instincts blur the line between barbarism and animalism, as few people try to reverse the plummeting trajectory toward extinction. This haunting yet lyrical depiction of mankind at its worst won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Watchmen by Alan Moore.
Originally a limited edition comic book series, this graphic novel follows a group of superheroes who helped America defeat the Nazis in World War II and later win the Vietnam War. But New York City in the 1980s (during President Nixon’s fifth term) is a place where superheroes are outlawed – and yet the former heroes are targets of a conspiracy to imprison or murder them. A shocking view on international relations makes for an explosive climax, while the brilliant script makes Watchmen highly re-readable.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
This genre-hopping steampunk adventure imagines that the Klondike gold rush occurred amid rising Civil War tensions in the 1860s, and that boom-town Seattle was destroyed by a gigantic prospecting machine run amok. The action revolves around the teenage son of a disgraced scientist as he ventures into the ruined city to clear his father’s name. While Zeke confronts zombies, outlaws, and underground syndicates, readers confront sobering ideas of how technological advances might have changed a prolonged Civil War.
Pavane by Keith Roberts.
In the 400 years since the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, the world has operated under a Catholic hegemony preserved by a victorious Spanish Armada. A reinvigorated Papacy suppressed the nascent Protestant Church and instituted a never-ending Inquisition that largely quelled the Industrial Revolution. More like a series of interconnected short stories, this novel – arguably the first in the steampunk genre – completes a picture of rising revolution and human innovation.
The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope.
The residents of Britannula have 67 years to live – period. This enforced lifespan was among the early laws adopted by the young republic (a former British colony located off the coast of New Zealand), but as its first citizen nears his termination date, the rumblings of rebellion shake the government. Writing in 1882 (as he turned 67 himself), Trollope offers a satirical vision that is remarkably relevant to contemporary social issues while anticipating modern technologies. The brisk first-person narrative is unusual for Trollope, but the novel remains an accessible introduction to his work.
The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.
While Confederate General Robert E. Lee is still reeling from his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, his weary army is resupplied – with AK-47s. The new technology is truly revolutionary as Lee routs Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of the Wilderness and then seizes his advantage to march on Washington, D.C. But Lee is soon disillusioned by an independent Confederacy and the eerie politics underlying his military victories. A must-read for Civil War enthusiasts.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.
Hank Morgan is a stranger in a strange land – both in terms of its geography and its time period. A factory altercation is somehow responsible for his unexpected trip to Camelot, where his dazzling technological proficiency (and instant recall of some leisurely almanac reading) makes him the chief rival of the mythic Merlin. Along with the works of Jules Verne, this comic novel is often cited as the start of the science fiction genre.