by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940) Written by Adolfo Bioy Casares — stoner fave Jorge Luis Borges’ protégé and collaborator — The Invention of Morel is a mind-blowingly bizarre novel. At a slim 100-pages, the plot unravels with a suspenseful pace but leaves the reader mostly disoriented until its surprising climax. Combining mystery, satire, a touch of Kafka-esque science fiction, and plenty of philosophical provocation, The Invention of Morel deserves a close read (and repeated rereads). In addition to offering some clue to Lost, the book also served as a model for cryptic art house classic Last Year at Marienbad.
by Abraham Merritt (1919) Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool elaborates on a tradition of subterranean fiction that includes everyone from literary luminaries like Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe to pulp heroes like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Featuring an advanced civilization living at the Earth’s core, the plot concerns an epic battle of good and evil that defies the typical Heaven/Hell clichés. Subterranean fiction as a genre has mostly fallen out of fashion since outer space became the final frontier, but Merritt’s fantasy epic is an enduring classic from a bygone era.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce (1890) A sardonic satirist if ever there was one, Ambrose Bierce is best remembered for his cynical view of human nature — most notably in the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The deceptively simple plot revolves around the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer, but Bierce stretches out only a few seconds over multiple pages. This novel experiment with narrative time was a crucial influence for later writers like William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut (who considers anybody who hasn’t read the story a “twerp”).
by Walker Percy (1977) Walker Percy’s career-long preoccupation with dislocation and modernity emerged in his Southern Gothic classic Lancelot. Told through the reflective memories of Lancelot Lamar, a lawyer institutionalized after the murder of his wife, the story transposes the symbolism of Arthurian legend onto 20th century existential gloom. Though not exactly an uplifting read, Lancelot is nonetheless a thought-provoking study of morality and the modern age.
by Jules Verne (1874) From aquatic adventures (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to seminal subterranean fiction (Journey to the Center of the Earth) to early outer space stories (From the Earth to the Moon), Jules Verne produced some of the most enduring sci-fi classics of all time. Though less well recognized than some of his other titles, The Mysterious Island has already found its way into pop culture via a combined narrative with 20,000 Leagues (for which Island is a quasi-sequel) in the latter’s 1916 silent film adaptation. The novel itself is a breathtaking read, however, featuring pirates, a message in bottle, several literary cameos, and plenty of suitably mysterious discoveries.
by Aldous Huxley (1962) Aldous Huxley’s Island optimistically reassesses the dystopic nightmares he portrayed in Brave New World. After revisiting his famous novel some 30 years after its publication, Huxley wrote Island as a counterpart that would offer solutions to many of the problems he had recognized in society. Set on the utopian island Pala, the novel inverts many of the elements that made Brave New World so terrifying — drug use, assisted reproduction, group habitation, contraception — as Huxley shows how these same technologies can be used for good.
by Philip K. Dick (1981) Even in a canon of outlandish work that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report, Philip K. Dick’s VALIS stands out as the most unique of the bunch. Narrated by a fictionalized Dick and his protagonist proxy Horselover Fat, the book is an extended, at times utterly surreal, meditation on the pursuit of religion and philosophical query. Addressing doctrines like Christianity, Gnosticism, and Taoism, the story is a subtly paced romp toward the meaning of life.
by H.G. Wells (1933) Forget Nostradamus — H.G. Wells was the 20th century’s most apt prophet. We probably don’t have yet to worry about Martians attacking Earth, but Wells’ novels foretold many of the scientific and political events that changed the modern landscape. In The Shape of Things to Come, he maps out a chronology of the world between the years 1933 and 2106 — including, among other notable predictions, a German-Polish conflict that would incite a second world war (which, in turn, took place only four months ahead of Wells forecast timeline). Though most of the events remain pure fiction, Shape is still an engrossing look at an alternative history of the world.