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What SF would you recommend to a non-reader?

It’s time for the 2009 edition of a question that comes up on SF Signal every so often. The other day, a colleague of mine recently asked me what five sci-fi books I could recommend to her. She had read what she considered to be some classic authors maybe 20 years ago (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) but wondered what was the best of the more modern sci-fi. Interestingly, she felt most of the genre was plot-driven and was honestly looking for that kind of book, but I didn’t restrict myself to that.

I have listed my answer with a little description of why I included the book. But I would appreciate knowing what others might put on their ‘top 5 of recent sci-fi’ list.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe. I recommended this book/series with the caveat that it required some degree of thinking and only to pick this up if you wanted a meaty read. I think that with the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe is the greatest living genre writer. If that’s true, I think this is his best effort (although I sure am hoping for more!)

Hyperion – Dan Simmons. Remains one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read for all the right reasons – character, story, a degree of horror, and excellent prose. This book and its ties to Canterbury Tales has to be his greatest effort (and I say that having read nearly everything he’s written outside of the short-story collections.)

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card. OK, so while I might dislike the man’s politics but I can’t deny this is a fantastic sci-fi book. What is there to say about this that hasn’t been said a thousand other places. I remarked a few years ago that this is one sci-fi book that looks like it will hold up over time, being held out as simply a great book, not just a great sci-fi book. If only Card would keep his personal views out of the public eye.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi. I still remember how happy I was to be reading this book – I think I was smiling much of the time. It’s exciting, has a strong story, and decent characters. I figured since she had read the venerable Starship Troopers she would enjoy it and get a look at one of the top new writers (he did win the Campbell.)

Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson. This remains one of my personal favorites and I couldn’t help but add it when I found out she hadn’t read it. I think this is a great representation of a cyberpunk book (better than Gibson anyway) and one most fans should read. Frankly there are many books I could put here in my last slot, from When Gravity Falls to American Gods to Revelation Space but I figured there is time enough for these after she finishes the first 5 :).

[UPDATE: See also our previous Reader Challenge, The Harry Potter Outreach Program, which lists book suggestions (sorted by age group, including adults) for readers new to sf/f, and David Hartwell’s Top 32 Gateway Science Fiction Books]

16 Comments on What SF would you recommend to a non-reader?

  1. Interestingly, I just posed something like this question to the SFRA listserv today, following up on an original list of “must read” SF since 2000 the group originally put together in mid-2007. Here’s what the group came up with then, amended to include what emails I’ve received in return to my query today:

    Anderson, M.T. – Feed

    Atwood, Margaret – Oryx and Crake

    Bear, Greg – Darwin’s Radio

    Broderick, Damien – Godplayers

    Doctorow, Cory – Eastern Standard Tribe

    Doctorow, Cory – Little Brother

    Emshwiller, Carol – The Mount

    Farmer, Nancy – House of the Scorpion

    Faust, Minister – Coyote Kings

    Flynn, Michael – Eilfelheim

    Gibson – Pattern Recognition

    Goonan, Kathleen Ann – In War Times

    Heinlein, Robert – For Us, The Living

    Kress, Nancy – Probability Moon

    Le Guin, Ursula K. – The Telling

    Marusek, David – Counting Heads

    McCarthy, Cormac – The Road

    McHugh, Maureen – Nekropolis

    Mieville, China – The Scar

    Morgan, Richard – Altered Carbon

    Nifenegger, Audrey – The Time Traveler’s Wife

    Powers, Richard – Echo Maker

    Pynchon, Thomas – Against the Day

    Robinson, Kim Stanley – Forty Signs of Rain

    Robinson, Kim Stanley – Fifty Degrees Below

    Robinson, Kim Stanley – Sixty Days and Counting

    Robinson, Kim Stanley – The Years of Rice and Salt

    Roth, Philip – The Plot Against America

    Sawyer, Robert – Calculating God

    Schroeder, Karl – Sun of Suns

    Scott, Melissa – The Jazz

    Simmons, Dan – Illium

    Simmons, Dan – Olympos

    Stephenson, Neal – Anathem

    Stephenson, Neal – Cryptonomicon

    Sterling, Bruce – Distraction

    Swanwick, Michael – Bones of the Earth

    Traviss, Karen, Ally

    Traviss, Karen, City of Pearl

    Traviss, Karen, Crossing the Line

    Traviss, Karen, Judge

    Traviss, Karen, Matriarch

    Traviss, Karen, The World Before

    VanderMeer, Jeff – Veniss Underground

    Vinge, Vernor – Rainbow’s End

    Walton, Jo — Farthing

    Watts, Peter — Blindsight

    Willis, Connie – Passage

    Wilson, Robert Charles – The Chronoliths

    Wilson, Robert Charles – Darwinia

    Wilson, Robert Charles – Spin

    Wolfe, Gene – Book of the Short Sun

    Wolfe, Gene – In Green’s Jungles

    To a non-SF reader, from this list I’d probably recommend Atwood, Le Guin, Nifenegger, Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, Swanwick, Willis or any of the Wilson. I don’t think you need to be a devotee to understand any of those. Perhaps the Robinson might even be the best of them for pure all-around quality in every sense of the word for a novice SF reader.

  2. I think you need to find SF with good characterization but with a minimum of “inside baseball”.  SF novels which aren’t so soaked in the traditions of the SF genre and conventions that a newbie can’t get into them.

    I don’t precisely mean “quasi” SF novels, but SF novels which are rooted enough in contemporary literature that a reader new to the genre can pick it up and go.


    I think this phenomenon is happening between the fantasy and romance genres, with the explosion of pananormal romance novels out there which border the more straightforward urban fantasy novels.


    SF is trickier, though.  It doesn’t have a “bordering” genre to serve as an easy bridge.


    I second “The Chronoliths”, for openers. I think Wilson’s work is a good choice for “SF newbies”.  Robinson.  Alternate History might be a good “gateway” for history and historical fiction readers.

  3. Whoa hey there, slow down Scott!

    I’m not sure I’d spring Gene Wolf or Dan Simmons on an unsuspecting, non-SF reader. That’s some very heavy lifting you have there my friend. I’d even put Snowcrash into that category, what with all the big time infodumps on Babylonian myths and brain/consciousness as computer hardware/operating system. Interesting, but not to someone who isn’t in to that sort of stuff.

    The other two books: you bet!

    If you want to ease your friend into SF, Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys is a great read, as is Danial Suarez’s Daemon.

  4. As much as I like Gene Wolfe, he still makes my head hurt at times (and I first encountered his stuff pretty early on). I think I’d start with Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) or Poul Anderson (The Enemy Stars) or many other books before I got that far.

    A lot would really depend on the person I’m making the recommendations to. Age? General interests? Other things read? If the person reads mysteries, there are “puzzle SF” books I would recommend. If he or she reads technothrillers, then there’s a lot of space opera or MilSF to recommend. If he is a fan of Patrick O’Brian, I’d point to David Drake’s Lt. Leary tales (and this was an actual recommendation I made).

    “It depends.”

  5. Yes I agree on the Hyperion book. Always got to mention that Fall of Hyperion with it. as it is the 2nd half(not a sequel) 

    The Great Charector stories of Hyperion and the back drop leading up to the Out of this World energy of “Fall” was and is something that I have never read the equal of.

    (Dune being  the closest)

    the following Hyperion books match up well against almost all sci fi. But was much more bloated comparativly.  Same to be said for his like minded Illium and Olympos.


    SPin by Wilson was fantastic and worthy of the awards. The following book was not worthy of the anticipation.


    Starship Troopers was nothing but a bloated exciersize into prolonging things. (I bring it up because it’s always mentioned as a Top 5 book)


    Stevenson and Gibson wrote some good stuff. not worthy of the Hoopla. But compared to most, some Very good stuff!


    Enders game is just something i could not get into. I’m just not partial to little kids being super Bad asses. And im guessing he has yet to grow up. since there continues to be more and more books about him.




  6. This would be a list for someone who loves literature and reading, but not necessarily genre books (which is a very different list than someone looking for plot-driven stories)


    1. Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

    2. The Female Man, by Joanna Russ

    3. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

    4. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

    5. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

  7. I think you’ve got two winners there with Old Man’s War and Ender’s Game though I’m not sure Ender would count as recent being published in 1985!  I agree with JP about the others.  A bit heavy for someone just coming back to the genre.

    My list of 5 recents would be something like:

    Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Like you said, it’s just a fun book to read and it’s very cinematic.  This would make a great movie or series.

    Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer – Great story with great characters and light on the tech.  For those who think SF is all lasers and space battles this is a great choice.

    Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan – This one is just a thrill ride.  Great SF concepts, gritty and brutal action and a great anti-hero to boot.  Morgan pulls no punches in his depiction of the seedy underbelly of society.

    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – Beautifully written and haunting with excellent and very real characters.  This is one you’ll think about a lot after you’ve read it.  A superb depiction of first contact and all the perils that go with it.

    Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – A great exploration into the next step in human evolution and how our society might deal with the changes.  Bear is always good quality.

    Altered Carbon can be a love it or hate it kind of book but the others are pretty safe bets for just about anybody who wants to read great SF.   If I was to go farther back I’d include Ender’s Game for sure.  It’s pretty much the first book I reach for when I’m trying to lure somebody over to SF.  After that, A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Stars My Destination come immediately to mind.

  8. Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson) is the book that snared me, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.  The world is plausible enough not to alienate the reader and Stephenson is just a great writer.  Cool ideas, fun scenarios (just the opening pizza delivery is enough to hook any reader), and just enough satire and humor.

    River of Gods (Ian MacDonald) is very character driven and might qualify as a good gateway book. I’d definitely recommend it .  Tucked into that near-future India, there are military drones and robots, some nice nano- virus hunting, some crazy medical/gender transformation , and a lot of other “hidden” genre ideas.  The science fiction fits into the story and because it is a character driven novel, itmanages to  cruise by in a very sneaky fashion.

    Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) is book that will hold any fan of action films.  Tak Kovacs is as cinematic as a character can be.  Men will love the Kovacs novels, although I’d hesitate to recommend it to a woman (unless she fits that sort of mold).   If they need to ease into the Kovacs novels, Market Forces would be a safe alternative – just enough future extrapolation to keep things easy.

    American Gods (Neil Gaiman) is a bit on the fantasy side of things, but Gaiman is pretty accesible for most people.  I find a lot of people have read this book and it sometimes surprises me.

    The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffinger) are books for someone that is extremely cautious.  Having read those, they may get interested in similar books, leading them down that road that will eventually have them sniffing out the sf section at the book store. Likewise,  Alan Lightman’s very light musings about relativity in the small book, Einstein’s Dreams, is a great way to introduce physics into the conversation.  It’s light and small and might be just enough to open the door deeper into the genre.

    Space and space opera is a tough sell, so something like Old Man’s War (Scalzi) is a safe bet, especially if the reader likes military fiction or likes the marine ideas from films like Aliens or Starship Troopers.  Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds) is something I’d love to get someone into, but it might be a tougher sell.


  9. I’d definitely agree with Simmons’ Hyperion cantos, Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, Wilson’s Spin, and Ruff’s Bad Monkeys.

    But, while I agree with Dave that Rob Sawyer is an author with an easily accessible style, I’d probably recommend Flash Forward before I’d toss Rollback at a newbie.

    I would also encourage someone new to SF to try Spider Robinson’s Very Hard Choices, Kit Reed’s Thinner than Thou, Nick DiChario’s A Small and Remarkable Life, Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Of course, it all depends on how well you know the reader and what they’ll probably like. I got my wife started with a Bradbury anthology and the Hitchhiker’s Guide, she’s since read other stuff and is considering taking a crack at Hyperion.


  10. If recent means last year, you have to add Charlie Stross and his “Halting State” (although that might be a tad to geekish for starters). Cory Doctorow is good, too. Resnick’s Starship series also has great entertainment value if you read SF only occasionally (and frequently…).

  11. You do realise that your “modern” sf isn’t modern, don’t you? The Book of the New Sun is nearly 30 years old, Hyperion is nearly 20 years old, Ender’s Game is 24 years old, and Snow Crash is 17 years old. Only Old Man’s War is recent.


    SF fans spend far too much time looking back at old works, which is ironic when you think about it. There are plenty of sf novels published in the past two to three years which would provide an excellent introduction to the genre – by authors such as Richard Morgan, Ken MacLeod, Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke, John Varley, Bruce Sterling, Sean Williams, Stephen Baxter…


  12. While Book of the New Sun is probably my favorite work of fiction, ever, I’m not sure it qualifies as “recent” SF, unless you mean “post-Silver Age” when you say recent.  It’s also pretty heavy sledding for a gateway into SF for the non-SF reader.

  13. Literatewench // February 10, 2009 at 10:37 am //

    Wow, you people go straight for the hardcore stuff. Seems like it would be likely to put someone off if they weren’t mentally adjusted to the sci-fi concepts, ya know? And it does depend on the person, doesn’t it? Presupposing the people reading aren’t complete science geeks like most of us are, you might want to keep to sci-fi lite for a bit, ease them into the concepts gradually. 


    Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card is a good one for aggressive people. (He may be a jerk but it’s a good intro book.) 

    If they’re a non-geek chick, “The Ship Who Sang” is a good intro book. (Guys just don’t seem to like this one as much.) Also good non-geek-girl-friendly intro books are the entire Vorkosigan series. 

    “The Stainless Steel Rat” series is nice and funny for the jester type person; So is the Retief series starting with “Retief of the CDT”. 

    The Fuzzy series by H. Beam Piper is wonderful for almost anyone. 

    “Beyond the Blue Event Horizon” is a bit dated but still a nice intro to the standard tropes of black hole physics. 


    Ringworld by Larry Niven and The Integral Trees are nice.


    The “Expendable” series is fun and funny, a bit in-jokish in some respects but still accessible. “The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge is nice… 


  14. Back during the Oil Embargo days of the Carter Administration, my mother, hardly a science fiction reader, asked her geeky son (me) for books to read while she waited for hours in the long gas lines. I deliberately chose books I thought a non-SF reader could appreciate.

    And what is it that a non-SF reader appreciates? They appreciate the same things we like, but the Muggles have no taste for flat out weirdness, and no fondness for hard SF techno-talk.

    Science Fiction is basically the genre that delivers those two things: a sense that the world is seriously weird beneath its commonplace exterior, or that the future will be, and a sense that the things once thought impossible, like space rockets, are technically feasible. The first kind of science fiction is like that penned by A.E. van Vogt; the second is like that penned by Arthur C. Clark. Neither are good for the first time reader.

    So what did I lend to my mother that she liked? While my mother’s tastes cannot necessarily stand for all Muggles, I can tell you what about each book I recommended made it open to the reader not familiar with the standard tropes and gimmicks and assumptions of the SF world:

    1. DUNE by Fank Herbert. First, this is a great book, one of the best, and an award-winner. There is remarkably little in here that will strain or pain a Muggle’s imagination. We all know what a desert is, and so picture a desert world is no biggie. The characters are well-drawn (by science fiction standards, anyway) and the action and intrigue are engaging. It is the fall of Byzantium to the Turk IN SPAAACE! 

    2. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein. The ‘Man from Mars’ gimmick is easy enough to understand, Heinlein’s satire is equally amusing to Muggles and Slans, and who (aside from me, that is) does not like a book mocking monotheism and monogamy?

    3. CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein. Again, the spaceships are part of the background: the story is really about Thorby trying to discover his origins, something anyone can understand. The plot is clear and the characterization sharply drawn.

    4. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell. Has the huge advantage that most Muggles don’t even think of this as Science Fiction. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley has the same advantage.

    5. Any ‘Retief’ stories by Keith Laumer. Humor overlaps genre boundaries.

    5(a). Anything by Terry Pratchett for the same reason.

    6. The ‘Demon Princes’ books by Jack Vance (THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE, THE BOOK OF DREAMS). The opulance of the language will beguile anyone, SF or mudane, and nothing in the books is too startling for a mundane to absorb. It is basically The Count of Montechristo IN SPAAACE!

    7. MOTE IN GOD’S EYE by Niven and Pournelle. Very crisp characterization, nice and clear plot.

    8. FIRESTAR by Mike Flynn. Some of the best character development in any SF book, a clear plot, taking place on an Earth any muggle could recognize as our own.

    9. Just about anything by Kieth Laumer. He writes in a direct, masculine, clean prose style any non-SF-reader can appreciate.

    Let me add some books I would never introduce to a Muggle for the same reason I would never throw a kid into the deep end of the pool for his first swimming lesson:

    1. SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. No one is going to recognize what the towers of the citadel are, or how the extract of the Alzabo works, if he has not read other SF. The standardized trope of the old-red-sun-at-the-end-of-the-world magic-is-technology, swords-and-spaceships is too odd to take in at one grasp. Muggles will read it and be puzzled why Severian always described sunrise as the Eastern horizon dropping away from the sun. Muggles have not read so many books about Black Holes, for example, that they would recognize the description of one based on a pseudo-futuristic Byzantine icon-esque description of the Worm Abaia.

    2. VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS By David Lindsay. This is a seriously weird book, and does not have any of the things normal books have in them: plot, character, action. Maybe if your muggle friend is a Gnostic he might like it, but for your average mind-in-a-rut materialist votes-Democrat scoffer, it is too strong a drink too soon.

    3. Anything by Phillip K. Dick. Heck, Dick is too weird even for me.

    4. Anything by R.A Lafferty. Heck, Lafferty is too weird even for me.

    5. FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov. There is no plot here, merely a background of immense scope: it is Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire IN SPAAACE! The sense of wonder of the hugeness of events will not appeal to your average non-SF-ian. The book has pure SF appeal and no appeal aside from that. No one reads it to wonder at the detailed characterization of that tormented soul, The Mule.

    6. PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS by Donald Kingsbury. This is an example of a ‘second generation’ book, that is, a book that only makes sense if you’ve read the previous book and you know what he author is riffing.

    7. CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C. Clarke. Like Foundation, this book is more about a science fictional idea than about plot or characterization.

    8. GATHER, DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber. Like SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, any book where the old standby tropes of the science fiction universe (rayguns, force-shields) are described by the way they would look to someone who did not understand them, will merely puzzle someone unfamiliar with the field.

    9. DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer. The plot is too complex for someone who has no taste for SF ideas like time paradox stories. I would put ‘By His Bootstraps’ and ‘All You Zombies’ on the ‘not for first time readers’ list for the same reason.






  15. @Ian – crap your right, man I’m old.  Of course sometimes my idea of ‘recent’ includes things I’ve read recently versus when it was written.  But you are right.

    @JP & others – I know this is somewhat hardcore, but why wouldn’t I recommend the best?  Should I really focus on ‘gateway’ books or some books that aren’t ‘all that really sci-fi’ when responding to somebody who asked?  She did tell me she read Henlien and Asimov after all, so it’s not like she’s coming from romance novels šŸ™‚

  16. Let’s see…if John Wright was a geeky son during the gas crisis and presumably was not driving (otherwise his mother would have had him wait in those gas lines)…that makes him younger than me.


    Oh, God, like I need more bad news today.



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