Most great science fiction and fantasy novels leave you with a sense of wonder, and maybe a final moment of hope and awe. There aren't that many authors who are willing to leave you so depressed and apathetic, you might forget to recommend their book. But some brave genre authors just go for it, and punch you in the gut on their way out the door. (Who here thinks George R.R. Martin will end A Song of Ice and Fire with everyone holding hands and singing?)
Sometimes you just want a book with a downer ending. And for those times, here are 10 science fiction and fantasy books that will leave you wanting to go back to bed and hide. Massive spoilers for old books ahead...
1. The Giver – Lois Lowry
Synopsis: Jonas, a twelve year old boy in a utopian society, is assigned the job to become the receiver of memories in his community. He finds all feelings both good and bad have been repressed and sealed away by the community. With the help of the Old Memory Receiver training him, known as "The Giver", Jonas plans to run away and release all of the community's collective memories back to them.
Why it's great: This book is a Newberry award winner — and is one of the most banned and challenged books in the U.S., according to the American Library Association.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: The ending is ambiguous in a way that messes with your mind. Jonas manages to flee with a baby named Gabe. The baby has lived with his family for six months, and was scheduled to be killed for not sleeping through the night, despite extra "nurturing". They manage to escape, but they're stranded in the wilderness and dying of exposure. The book's end is pretty hallucinatory, and the reader isn't sure what is real and what is the onset of hypothermia — Jonas uses memories of sunshine and family to sustain him. And then, it appears he's walked completely into his own memories when he inexplicably finds a sled and joyfully sleds to an improbable town of twinkling lights, singing, and music. Did Jonas actually escape into a welcoming wonderland, or freeze to death with the baby?
2. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Synopsis: The book starts as a seemingly low-stakes tale about a group of boarding school friends who face the normal challenges of adolescence and friendship. And then, it turns out they're clones being raised for organ donations.
Why it's great: This book was short listed for the Booker prize in 2005. This book starts out in a deceptively innocent way, detailing the adolescent relationships of the main character Kath and her two longtime friends Tommy and Ruth. The beauty of the book comes from the way it chooses not to idealize youth, but catches all the cattiness, pain, and flailing around of young people trying to figure out their identity. It is the well-drawn and complicated friendship that makes the ending so heart-breaking.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: At the end of the book, Kath is coming to the end of her time as a carer. Carers are clones who haven't yet been called to start donating vital organs, and assist in the recovery of active donors between donation operations. She cares for her best friend Ruth, who goes through the donation process and dies. She then cares for her longtime friend Tommy, who becomes her lover during the time, and sees him "completed" as well. (One reason this book is painful is the dehumanizing euphemisms, such as "completion" instead of death.) At the end of the book, a tired Kath is looking forward to the peace of entering a center and starting her donations.
3. 1984 – George Orwell
Synopsis: The classic dystopian novel about a totalitarian government that controls the population through propaganda, terror and the altering of history to meet the party line. Winston Smith tires to join a revolution to bring down the tyrannical and controlling government.
Why it's great: Terms from 1984 have become part of our vernacular, such as "Big Brother" and "Thought Police." This book is so iconic, it spawned the adjective "Orwellian." Plus, this is yet another regularly challenged and banned book.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: Winston Smith completely fails, and gets caught, tortured and reprogrammed. He and his love, Julia, both betray each other to make the torture stop. And in the end, Winston Smith has been fully indoctrinated, and sincerely celebrates the victories of the state he once hated.
4. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Synopsis: The Martian Chronicles is a series of small short stories linked together to recount the settlement and history of Mars by "Earthlings."
Why it's great: This is a classic novel that captures the failed 1950's American dream of space exploration. These stories have inspired radio, television, film, and graphic novels. The collection itself has stood the test of time, due to its lyrical style.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: It might be easier to point to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as yet another example of a dystopian future, but The Martian Chronicles is actually more depressing, since its stories span many years of history. Many of the tales and characters seem light-hearted and rather absurd at first blush — like the luggage salesman getting ready to turn a profit as colonist returns to earth to fight in a world war — but then the horror seeps in. The book can be summed up in the famous quote, "We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things". The earth men manage to destroy the indigenous life, their own colonies, and even earth throughout the book. At the end of the book, a family of refugees from the Great War on earth comes to Mars to resettle. This isn't a particularly hopeful scene, since the reader reflects on all the horror and destruction people have wrought over the course of the book. In the final story, the father promises to show his sons some real Martians. He takes them to the river and points to their own reflection. It is a bitter reminder of how humans destroyed all of the real Martians and even their own colonies. The columnist Jonathan Kay blames Bradbury's depressing outlook for turning him off science fiction entirely.
5. Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
Synopsis: Charlie, a low-functioning adult with an IQ of 68, has an operation that makes him a super-genius. Unfortunately the effects are temporary, and Charlie reverts back his previous state, except that he still has his memories.
Why it's great: The book won the Nebula in 1966, and was nominated for the Hugo. This book also has the honor of being regularly challenged and banned in schools. The book's written as a series of first person progress reports from the main character, and the reader can see his development through the use of spelling and language skills. This style gives the book a lot more power.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: The ending of the book is devastating, because the readers witness the deterioration of Charlie through his journal. The reader bears witness to Charlie's regression directly, instead of just reading about it. His new life falls apart, and his old life has been destroyed by his gain in intelligence. In the end, Charlie goes to a home where nobody knows his past.
6. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Synopsis: An unnamed father and son travel across a post–apocalyptic United States on a journey to find a better home by the sea. On their journey they counter unimaginable trials and horrors, such as survivors resorting to cannibalism.
Why it's great: The book has two major strengths: the poetic language, and the moving father-son relationship. The novel reads like blank verse, with stark dialogue that avoids standard punctuation and writing rules, surrounded by desolate but beautifully rendered scenery. After getting the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval, it introduced the post-apocalyptic genre to a whole new group of readers.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: What really sets The Road apart from a lot of other apocalyptic stories is the fact that it doesn't explain the apocalypse. There's also no political or social criticism being hammered home. Instead, the focus is on the father and son struggling to survive. The emphasis on the relationship makes the death of the father at the end of the book way more shattering. The father tells his son to keep talking to him even after his death, in his head, to keep himself going. The books backs off a complete bummer of an ending though when the boy is taken in by another family. Still, the story of loss and trying to maintain morality during an impossible time leaves you with an aching sense of nihilism.
7. The Pride of Baghdad - Brian K. Vaughn
Synopsis: A pride of lions escapes the Baghdad zoo during the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003.
Why it's great: This might be the most celebrated of Vaughn's graphic novels, thanks to a clever take on the "talking animals" trope. Prior to the invasion, we see the different species of animals plotting their own revolution in the zoo. The entire story uses animals to comment on the war and its effects on people, with the animals symbolizing political groups.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: In the end, the entire pride is gunned down by American soldiers. And the sad artwork just twists the knife further. (Want another great, tragic graphic novel about cute animals? Check out Grant Morrison's We3.)
8. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
Synopsis: A scientist named Isaac is presented with the unique challenge of helping a Garuda, a flying species, regrow his wings. In his quest he accidently unleashes monsters, slake moths, onto the city of New Crobuzon and is forced to battle them.
Why it's great: This book was nominated for the 2002 Nebula award and Hugo award, and it won the Arthur C. Clarke award. The strength of the book is in its world-building, possibly to detriment of the story. The first part of the book lays out a city of grime, dirt, and corruption. The entire cityscape is bleak and depressing.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: In the end of the book, all the main characters are ruined and nobody is rewarded. Isaac's girlfriend Lin is raped, tortured, and mind-wiped into an imbecile who is no longer able to keep creating her art. The Garuda, Yagharek, turns out to be a rapist, never gets his wings back, and is forced to masquerade as a human. This dystopian ending happens in spite of a potential deus ex machina in the form of supernatural creatures like the Weaver, who could have fixed everything, a realization that just twists the knife further.
9. On the Beach – Nevil Shute
Synopsis: After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the world, the survivors in Australia await the inevitable radioactive cloud that will arrive and kill them all. A U.S. navy sub forced to Australia goes in search of life but only finds a dead world.
Why it's great: The book is different and significant because it's so quiet and powerful. There are no grand moments of conflict and explosion. There are also no moments of hope. The reader is forced to accept the inevitable fact of death, along with the characters. The greatness of the book comes from the unflinchingly deadpan narration.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: There is only one possible outcome in this book. The only power the characters have is deciding when and how to die. The book excels by making each death poignant and the ending more depressing. A young family decides to die together, when they become ill from radiation poisoning. They climb into bed, the father lethally injects the baby, and the parents take suicide pills together. Another character takes a suicide pill behind the wheel of the car he's been restoring. Humanity ends with a whimper, and not a bang.
10. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr.
Synopsis: The novel is a centuries-spanning tale that follows the rebuilding of civilization after a nuclear holocaust. An order of monks follows Saint Isaac Leibowitz, an electrical engineer of the U.S military that survived the war and preserved knowledge from the anti-science purge that came afterword.
Why it's great: This novel won the 1961 Hugo award, and regularly appears on recommended reading lists in both mainstream and genre publications. In particular, people praise its themes of the cyclical nature of history.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: The end of the book is bleak, because mankind manages to rebuild, only to destroy itself once again. A spaceship of monks does manage to escape, presumably to colonize another world, but this is not particularly comforting, since the circular nature of the book suggests humanity will repeat the same cycle yet again. The ending image of the book is evocative:
There were shrimp carousing in the breakers, and the whiting that fed on the shrimp, and the shark that munched whiting and found them admirable, in the sportive brutality of the sea.
A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season.
The world is broken and dying but the predator survives. Or is the shark like the spaceship fleeing the destruction? He is hungry, but survives by waiting it out.
BONUS: The Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Synopsis: A man and woman spend their whole lives in love with each other, but their romance is complicated by the husband's unusual genetic disorder that causes him to slip in and out of time.
Why it's great: Along with the similarly great Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, this book was in the vanguard of new wave fabulism, a movement of literary books that used speculative conceits to tell deeply personal, emotional stories.
Why it'll leave you feeling miserable: In the end, two lovers that shared a passionate life together are separated by time and ultimately death. Oh, and Henry gets shot in a pretty pointless fashion, that he sees coming a long way off.