Jason Heller

At one point in his hilariously searing novel Black Card, Chris L. Terry pauses the narrative to issue a list of what makes certain people racist.

Ever since George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series stole our hearts, minds, and television screens, fantasy literature has gained a reputation for being so grim and dark that there's a whole subgenre of it called, unimaginatively, grimdark. But it was not always thus. Granted, in the '70s and '80s, fantasy contained plenty of proto-grimdark works, most notably Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Roger Zelazny's Amber books.

Don't enter Claiming T-Mo with any immediate need to be comfortable or oriented. This debut novel by African Australian author Eugen Bacon is an instantly confounding and mysterious tour de force of imagination.

Robert Jackson Bennett has a wicked sense of humor. His 2013 novel American Elsewhere trained a satirical eye on small-town America even as it straddled the boundaries of science fiction and horror. Yet with his latest work, a novella called Vigilance, the Austin-based author and two-time winner of the Shirley Jackson Award tackles one of the most deadly serious — and sadly relevant — topics of all: mass shootings. As in American Elsewhere, there's both science fiction and horror in Vigilance. There's also that wicked Bennett sense of humor.

As yet another record-breaking summer heats up, the effects of climate change — and the debates surrounding it — aren't going away. It only makes sense then that literature has continued to respond in kind. Authors as varied as Paolo Bacigalupi, Jenni Fagan and Ben Lerner, in their novels The Water Knife, The Sunlight Pilgrims and 10:04, have tackled just how devastating climate change in the 21st century might be.

"Brain matter will squeeze through a keyhole," says Jake Baker, the main character of Craig Davidson's new novel The Saturday Night Ghost Club. Jake should know. He's a neurosurgeon, and he spends his days cutting into people's brains, hoping to heal the mysterious maladies that afflict the human brain. The Saturday Night Ghost Club is his story, although most of it takes place in the past — one summer during the '80s, in which he turned 12.

Richard Kadrey has never faced a deficiency of darkness. From his early cyberpunk novel Metrophage to his bestselling fantasy-noir series Sandman Slim to his stint on DC Comics' Hellblazer, the author's work has steeped itself in the murkier extremes of morality, technology, and the supernatural. At the same time, there's a pulp sensibility to Kadrey's fiction that's become almost a brand — a brand that he's rebelling violently against in The Grand Dark.

When Xavier Wentworth was 12, his parents took him to a party. Bored with the adults, he wandered into a room of the host's house where he saw, hanging on the wall like some rare tapestry, a quilt. It was crude, ugly, with clashing colors and roughhewn shapes, but something about it called to him. Images seemed to flicker across it. The pattern pulsed. And the longer he stared at it, the more it came to resemble a portal — a window on the wall that opened up into a place of salt water and tall grasses, of lush trees and a certain purple-pink color that infused the very air.

When, exactly, was disco born? Was it when Billboard magazine began tabulating a chart devoted specifically to dance music in 1974? Or is that the tail wagging the dog, since armies of club DJs had been playing dance-conducive rock and pop music in discotheques since the '60s? And to put a finer point on it, what was actually the first disco song? We know all the big artists and hits of the original disco era, from The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff." But where did that sound come from: those sweeping strings, the lush funkiness, the hi-hat-heavy beat?

Roky Erickson was rock music's ambassador to inner space.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.

Ever since Led Zeppelin took it up on themselves to sing songs about hobbits, rock music and fantasy literature have had an intimate relationship. But rarely has anyone explored that overlap as effusively as Nicholas Eames.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

In the 2010 documentary Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion, director Ron Wyman explores the culture of the Tuareg people of North Africa — specifically their music. As pointed out in the film, one name has become synonymous with Tuareg music. The guitarist and singer-songwriter Bombino, born Omara Moctar, grew up amid the social, political and economic unrest in the Sahara in the 1980s and '90s.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Dragons, thanks to Game of Thrones, are cool again. But for many of us, dragons never stopped being cool. Even during the long stretches where the mainstream has largely ignored these awesome, ancient lizards of genre fiction, authors from Lucius Shepard to Robin Hobb to Naomi Novik have kept dragon lore alive, radically reinventing the scaly beasts along the way. On the considerable merits of her new novel, The Sky Is Yours, Chandler Klang Smith should be added to that list — although it would be a mistake to think that dragons are the book's bread and butter.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

On the second page of Curioddity — the debut novel by Eisner-winning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins — the book's protagonist Wil Morgan wakes up and looks in the mirror. Thankfully he doesn't do the expected thing, which is describe his appearance for the benefit of the reader. Instead, Jenkins writes, "Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away." It's a tiny scene, but it's telling. By and large, Curioddity tries to subvert — or at least smirk at — a whole host of fictional clichés and tropes.

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Lower Dens' last album, 2012's Nootropics, dealt with singer-guitarist Jana Hunter's preoccupation with transhumanism — the notion that human evolution is far from over, and that we may have to alter our own species radically in order to survive the challenges of the future, both here on Earth and in the far reaches of space. It's far-out stuff for sure, although Hunter has decided to probe a little closer to home on Lower Dens' arresting new album, Escape From Evil.

"It was a great time for storytellers," says Matthew Biggs, the central character in Kenneth Calhoun's haunting debut novel, Black Moon. The irony of his comment comes with a horrific aftertaste: The world is suffering from a sudden, unexplainable pandemic that's made everyone a perpetual insomniac. Biggs is one of the few who can still sleep. Humanity's state of chronic wakefulness has caused mass insanity — in the noonday sun, dreams overflow and chaos reigns.