MIND MELD: The Perfect SF/F/H Books to Give to People Who Don’t Read SF/F/H
We’ve talked before about Non-Genre Books for Genre Readers, now let’s take it in the opposite direction. We asked this week’s esteemed panelists:
Read on to see their answers, and be sure to let us know yours!
Well, besides writing science fiction, I’m also a practicing futurist, which means I talk to business audiences about the future. Many people in those audiences have never heard of me as a writer and don’t read science fiction. But I recommend they start. I suggest Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, which is about climate change. KSR does excellent research and climate change is a topic those audiences are usually interested in. I also recommend Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End for near-future work, and his A Deepness in the Sky for more classic sf. Dune, by Frank Herbert, of course. For readers who like adventure, I often recommend Allen Steele’s Coyote and Coyote Rising. I like Nancy Kress’s work for accessibility and interest, and I think I’d also recommend Wake, a recent book by Robert Sawyer. Then there’s Connie Willis. My favorite is To Say Nothing of the Dog. I guess I’ll stop now…
For fantasy, I’d recommend anything by Charles deLint, but particularly Moonheart and The Mystery of Grace. Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a lovely fantasy writer. The Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson books. I can’t count how many copies of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Price series I’ve given to teenagers. And then there’s the dragonladys from Anne McCaffrey to Naomi Novik. Jay Lake’s Mainspring and and Ken Scholes’s Lamentation…
I could list a lot more, but mostly they have to be books that speak in the common tongue instead of science fictionese, and which treat character as at least as important as the big idea and have an element of adventure in them.
Genre literature, like science fiction, fantasy and horror, imprint on us when we are young, and if we don’t become fans then, I think it would be very strange to become addicted to these types of stories later in life, say after college. It’s almost impossible while growing up in our culture to avoid science fiction, fantasy and horror, but maybe a few have. More common are those hardcore fans that stick to their specific genre and refuse to read outside of it, for example the science fiction fan who sneers at any book with fairies or vampires.
Since I have a word limit, I shall stick with science fiction, my specialty, and try to think of science fiction books to recommend to people who turn up their nose at anything with robots and space ships on the covers. This is especially challenging when I think about all my friends who are completely blind and indifferent to the wonders of science.
Science fiction is so pervasive in our society that I can probably get anyone who likes to read to try a science fiction novel as long as it is character driven. Even my science hating friends loved WALL-E. But turning these people onto any novel that depends on having a sense of wonder for science would be a hard sale. What we need is a gentle approach with some simple goals.
To introduce new readers to science fiction really means finding readers whose minds dwell in the mundane and expand their consciousness to the far out ideas of space travel, robots, artificial intelligence, alien life forms, homo sapiens 2.0, and most of all, the immense concept of time. If I had a chance to seduce some science fictional virgins, I would slip one of these novels under their pillow:
- The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
- City by Clifford Simak
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
- Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
However, I can’t believe even the Amish have been able to avoid all the main concepts of science fiction. I don’t think there are any science fictional virgins. The more interesting question is: Why do so many people chose to become science fictional atheists? The masses prefer CSI or Law & Order over Battlestar Galactica. Why is murder so much more appealing than sense of wonder?
If I had such a friend, with zero interest in speculative fiction of any kind, I would very likely begin to expand his or her horizons by slipping Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman) under his or her nose. Then I’d chase that with Pratchett’s entire canon. I’d throw in a little Dan Simmons for the history fans who don’t yet know they’re going to totally love horror; and maybe I’d sneak some Joe Hill in front of the suspense fans who haven’t yet figured out that a mystery can have ghosts in it, sometimes, totally.
At least, that’s where I’d start.
This is rather a difficult question to answer, as it depends on the personality of the friend, and their familiarity and/or experience with the genre. I’ve been trying to get my wife to read an SF book for years (she prefers Christian historical fiction) and have been quite unsuccessful. Recommendations are tricky business, but to recommend a few books to the others holding onto the elephant, here is what I would suggest:
Media tie-in novels. Yes, you read that right. MEDIA TIE-IN. Or at least, good media tie-in. I have found that a reader will read a book based on an SF or fantasy show or movie he or she likes, even if they generally would not read SF otherwise. But be sure to get a good writer of media tie-in novels. This takes a bit of research on your part. But if you check out the yearly International Association of Media Tie-In Writers’ Scribes Awards, you will usually get the cream of the crop. Though the awards are in all genres, SF/F/H usually makes a good showing.
If your particular friend is not a watcher of SF or fantasy shows or movies, then you will have to broaden your horizons a bit in coming up with recommendations. (I don’t mention horror in this list because I am sadly not very well read in that genre and so not qualified to make recommendations.)
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I used to be a teacher, and no single book intrigued high school boys as much as this novel. But this book in content, form, style, and tone, and appeals to many no matter their usual taste.
- The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson – This tale by a master of SF is broad in scope, as it covers a great deal of human history and then moves even beyond it to the future. That broad scope is its greatest attraction. It was one of the first SF books I ever read, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
- Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell – Perhaps a strange choice, but I think Buckell’s space opera is great fun and one I often recommend to new readers as a way to wet their feet in SF.
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – For much the same reason as Buckell, especially with the added twist of humor Scalzi has. Old Man’s War is great for the same reason the Uncle John Bathroom Readers are great. They are easy reading, entertaining, funny, and a quick. This makes sense of course, as Scalzi is a contributor to those books and so knows how to write to appeal to a broad audience, even when writing in genre.
- Redwall by Brian Jacques – Personified animals, mystery, action, and moles with a speech impediment make this one of my personal favorites and one I often recommend. In many ways, it is a Watership Down, with a modern voice, and hence more approachable. This recommendation comes from my former days as an educator. I had a student who despised reading and would rarely touch a book. After a look at his tastes, I recommended Redwall, and the kid hasn’t looked back since. He is a voracious reader now. The book appeals to more than just kids though, and I admit to continuing to read Brian Jacques even into the present day.
- The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb – I know this seems like an odd choice, but the recommendation comes from observation. I have a younger brother who is the typical entrepreneur who reads much more business and personal development type books than fiction. However, he loves Robin Hobb and has read all her works. If my brother, who normally avoids fiction, likes her works, and swallows them whole when he reads them, then that is high praise and reason enough for me to recommend them to non-SF readers.
- Discworld by Terry Pratchett – Any Discworld novel is a good entry point to the universe of Pratchett, and Pratchett is a good entry point to fantasy. The humor and satire are the focal points of the story, the fantasy only providing the veneer of setting, and I have known many a non-reader of SF who read Pratchett, even if they read nothing else. My particular recommendations from the series would be Men at Arms, Going Postal, Mort, and The Truth.
These are books I consider good starting points for the non-reader, and books I have successfully recommended which got readers into the genre. Obviously some of the recommendations do depend on the tastes of the reader, but nonetheless, my recommendations are good novels that I have found have broad appeal.
Tough question to answer… I’d be inclined to go for something like Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside: an intensely human and impassioned story about loss and rediscovery that just happens to revolve around a science-fictional premise. But really, it would depend on that friend’s reading preferences – the answer would be very different depending on whether they like to read thrillers or romance, say, or action adventure entertainment, or lit’ry stuff. For a good intro to contemporary SF I’d be inclined to go for Robert Charles Wilson, or maybe Eric Brown’s Kethani stories; for big ideas about the world and society it’d have to be Kim Stanley Robinson; for that near-perfect balance between SFnal eyeball kicks and sensational prose it would be Ian McDonald.
- SF: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
- Fantasy: The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll.
- Horror: Song of Kali by Dan Simmons.
- Famous Science Fiction Stories edited by Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas
- The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- The Midwich Cuckoos or Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
- October the First Is Too Late or The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle
- The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur Clarke
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- Future History by Robert Heinlein
- Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur Clarke
- Timescape by Gregory Benford
With regard to science fiction, I would recommend authors who focus on the sociological impact of science (figuring that books that are character-based and sociology-driven would *generally* be more accessible to readers who aren’t accustomed to hard-core science and who might be intimidated by the full-fledged hard science in some of our genre’s best works.) Sociology-driven SF does not have to be “dumbed down”; complex scientific and social issues can be explored in intriguing ways worthy of any new reader’s time. I’d point readers toward Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower series and Nancy Kress’s Beggars series. If I knew that the new reader was likely to enjoy grand, epic space travel with a touch of romance and an accessible sense of wonder, I’d hand them Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden series.
With regard to fantasy, I would focus on authors who create richly-patterned worlds that are new or different or tangential to our existing, contemporary world. The sense of wonder associated with fantasy (at least in my mind) is often more accessible than that in science fiction; readers don’t need to be well-versed in particular academic disciplines like physics or biology. I’d point new genre readers toward Maria Snyder’s Study series to get a view of traditional fantasy and toward Jeri Smith-Ready’s vampire radio station series (starting with Wicked Game) for urban fantasy. (Both of these authors are relatively new to the field, and I think they have their respective fingers on the pulse of audience enjoyment.)
I’m not a big reader of horror, so I’m not qualified to make recommendations there. I can note, though, that as a non-horror reader, I was *captivated* by Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, a book that recently sparked my interest in a genre I’ve not explored in the past.
The trouble with genre readers is they’re all like Hannibal Lecter. They start off eating pizza like everyone else, but after a while that doesn’t excite their tastebuds any more so they move to more gourmet fare. Eventually even the white truffle sauces and Wagyu beef won’t do the job, and only human flesh will give that pure, rare dining sensation. One of the reasons I think SF has declined in sales is that there’s too much human flesh on offer, stories which cater for the increasingly jaded, highly specialised tastes of the regular genre reader, and not enough that means anything to anyone out in the real world. No way in, you see.
Which is probably by-the-by, but it was something on my mind while working out the criteria for this Mind Meld. In my other job as a TV writer, I’ve found that any story, any genre, will work with the mainstream viewer if there’s an affecting, human story at the core, a bit of honest emotion to nail down the wilder story ideas. That’s why the new Dr Who ended a near-twenty year SF drought on the BBC, and why BSG gets a major feature in The Guardian newspaper under the headline ‘As good as The Wire?’ This is genre fiction for real people.
So if I’m going to offer an SF/F/H book to people who don’t read those genres, I’m going to look for something with a good human story at its core, something that shines a light on the human condition. So for fantasy, forget the secondary world stuff: you need to have read Lord of the Rings at thirteen, or played Dungeons and Dragons, or probably both, to get ninety per cent of it. My fantasy for the non-fantasy reader would be Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. It takes the reader gently by the hand and guides them into an unfamiliar world, like stumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia. In this case, the wardrobe is Ryhope Wood in the Kentish countryside in England, a wood which is potentially infinite on the inside and contains the heart of all myth and legend. The sheer potency of the magic within Ryhope Wood is greater than you’ll find in most secondary world novels, but it becomes understandable and acceptable to a reader unfamiliar with fantasy because of the tale of love and loss and yearning that envelops it. You want to know about the lives of the central characters as much as you want to know about the fantasy world, and that’s the real key.
Stephen King is the true master of the “genre story for the non-genre” reader, which accounts for his massive sales during the eighties. He wasn’t writing for the genre reader, he was writing for the mainstream but with stories packed to the brim with genre. I could have chosen any one of half a dozen of his early novels, which all followed a pattern that worked well: set up the human story in the real-world environment, then move slowly into the fantastic horror. His stories end up seventy-five per cent real world, which then makes the collision with the unreal so much more powerful and affecting. I think I’ll plump for The Shining. It’s not a story about a haunted house; it’s a story about a deeply-flawed man who can see his dreams slipping through his fingers, and anyone can understand that.
For SF, I was torn between a couple of stories. The first, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, I wasn’t sure fit the spirit of the question, as it’s generally found on the literature shelves and not on the SF ones. In the end I went for Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, which fit my criteria of an affecting human story to anchor the ideas. The story of Isherwood Williams helping to rebuild the world after a disaster looks at what it means to be human from many different angles. It is also, I think, a great way in to SF by showcasing the genre’s strengths and encouraging the reader to go on to read deeper.
The big problem with recommending genre books for readers who either intentionally do not read genre or deny that they do, even when some of the books they have read clearly fit into the speculative fiction rubric, is understanding that the reading mentality in these individuals is different from people who actively and avidly read speculative fiction. It would be foolish for anyone to tell a fan of Salman Rushdie that a good starting place would be Isaac Asimov. There’s a reason why non-genre readers refuse to read genre fiction and it tends to be because they dislike the flashy staples of the genre (spaceships, elves, alien invasions, Star Trek, Star Wars, magic swords, etc.).
With that in mind, I would never recommend a non-genre reader to start with the science fiction or fantasy “canon,” because that is a surefire way to ruin genre for them indefinitely (and it should be noted that the kinds of books you recommend should be based on the preferences of an individual, which makes recommending books even more difficult if you don’t have that information beforehand; thus a person who only reads romances is likely not going to like a military science fiction, but a person who loved military fiction might; but for the purposes of this response, I think it would be fair to assume we’re dealing with someone who only reads what is considered to be “real literature”).
A good place to start, I think is with some of the more prominent social science fiction writers, specifically Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Margaret Atwood’s various works. You could certainly toss some Samuel R. Delany in there to mix things up. I think Parable of the Sower would certainly be a good introductory novel depending on whether the non-genre reader enjoys some of the classic dystopian works such as 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (and even Utopia by Thomas More). We by Yevgeny Zamyatin would also be a great addition to the dystopian “canon,” and anyone who enjoyed 1984 should be familiar with it, as it acted as a precursor to Orwell’s influential novel.
Other good starters:
- Ursula K. LeGuin (The Dispossessed or one of her other non-fantasy novels, which puts little attention on the flashy science fiction elements, and more on the social aspects of diametrically opposed “utopian” societies)
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Jo Walton’s Farthing and Ha’Penny (and Half a Crown, though I haven’t read it; all are part of an alternate history that even non-genre folks should enjoy)
- Black No More by George Schuyler (social commentary on race issues with a science fictional element, all disguised as “literature”)
- One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak (barely “fantasy”)
- Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery (highly “literary” in style)
- Works by Zoran Zivkovic (Seven Touches of Music and Steps Through the Mist)
- The Steam Magnate by Dana Copithorne
If you really wanted to push it, you could recommend some of Philip K. Dick’s more prominent novels, such as Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Man in the High Castle, but again, that would be pushing the envelope and flirting with that line between getting someone to actually read genre fiction and getting them to hate it even more.
Genre fans need to understand that what we find enjoyable in literature does not necessarily apply to people who openly avoid science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Probably the best way to break through to these folks is to understand what they are already reading and pointing out where fantasy and science fiction has already slipped into their favorite books. Someone who read Salman Rushdie may be surprised to find that he writes some very obvious fantasies, and even today we’re seeing science fiction and fantasy worm their way into practically every other genre of literature out there, from romance and westerns to “literary fiction” (or that lovely section in Borders that says “literature,” as if such a title actually means anything in a book store).
I stumbled into the world of genre novel with Pandora’s Star by Peter F Hamilton back in 2004 – it hooked me and gave me a thirst for all things SF. I’ve discovered since then that multi-volume, multi-perspective, brick sized door stoppers are not the easiest introduction to the genre. Hell, it puts off people that read in the genre.
So what to suggest? Luckily enough I’ve been fortunate to read a lot of SF since then and have found that some of the best reads are the shorter, lighter novels. I think one of the first that comes to mind is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War – it’s a great, quick read that has equal amounts of set-up, world-building and action, plus the writing is addictive, funny and gets the pages turning very quickly.
Space Opera is my preferred sub-genre and as such I would have to recommend something that is representative of it. Hyperion by Dan Simmons is one of the best novels in SF, period. Simmons is very much a literary writer and Hyperion is an excellent first step into genre reading. The follow ups are also great and by reading the four books it will give an excellent representation to the reader of what SF has to offer.
Neal Asher is another that could be a stepping stone into SF with his weird and wonderful alien creations. The Skinner is one of his lighter sci-fi novels while his Cormac books throw you into the action with some solid storytelling. There really is nobody else out there that can create an alien ecology as good as him.
A last recommendation would be The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. This is a first contact science fiction novel that tends to be looked upon as a piece of literary work rather than a genre novel. It certainly has all the ingredients for both and gives a religious take on meeting an alien civilisation. Definitely one for the literary reader who hasn’t ventured into SF before.
In my experience, the primary reason that intelligent, literate people avoid speculative fiction is its ghettoized reputation paired with a misunderstanding of its scope and depth–the perception that genre fiction is vacuous and aimed at the sensibilities and tastes of teenage boys (and now, tween girls). It remains a pervasive belief that science fiction is exclusively ray gun space operas, fantasy is elves and unicorns, and horror is vampires and werewolves. And even though there can be thoughtful discourse presented alongside ray guns, insightful commentary made with unicorns, and meaningful observations expressed with vampires, anything that smacks too obviously of those tropes tend not to be well received.
I also think it’s important when recommending genre works to non-genre readers to remember that what longtime genre fans may consider as a basic tenet-unto-painful-cliché ingrained in the cultural consciousness may be utterly foreign to their friends who’ve never delved into genre fiction. Once I overheard a conversation between a couple moviegoers who were confused by Underworld because they didn’t understand that vampires are traditionally unable to withstand sunlight or the connection between werewolves and the full moon.
So for readers who have always veered away from SF/F/H but who are open to reconsidering and reassessing their assumptions, I’d point them to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. These books, in addition to being masterfully written and engaging, provide thoughtful and insightful commentary about society and the human condition. They’re typically not marketed as genre even though they possess resoundingly genre elements–talking animals in Animal Farm, aliens and time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five, etc.–so they serve to weaken the boundaries and misconceptions of what genre is while remaining accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with genre tropes. They also address adult subject matter (e.g., censorship in Fahrenheit 451, feminist issues in The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.), which further serves to stretch genre beyond its juvenile roots.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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