A Book Riot post: 20 MUST READ SCI-FI BOOKS FOR READERS WHO DON’T LIKE SCI-FI
And I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. I don’t think anything is “must read” when it comes to genre fiction, that’s one. And I hate the term sci-fi (you may have noticed I never use it myself; always SF). And of course this is Book Riot, so who knows what they might consider the ur-SF novel that everyone must certainly read?
On the other hand, sure, I’m interested. What DO you think are good SF books for people who don’t read SF? Not must-read titles, not books that formed the foundation of the genre, not seminal works or important works. I mean: Titles that would be enjoyed by someone who doesn’t like SF? Books that would stand a chance of coaxing them into the genre?
I think this kind of book should:
–Be compelling from page one, possibly because the protagonist is immediately relatable even if the setting is an SF setting, but possibly because the situation is exciting and understandable.
–Offer a setting that gives a non-SF reader somewhere familiar to stand; eg, not too weird even if it’s definitely an SF setting.
–Kind of reduce the importance of classic SF trappings, at least early in the story, because this reader is by definition someone who “doesn’t like SF” and therefore may well be pushed away by spaceships, rayguns, aliens, and so on.
–Yet at the same time, I sort of feel that if you don’t have “real SF elements,” then you’re cheating. That is, suppose you offer someone who reads historicals or fantasy something like Kindred by Octavia Butler. In what sense is that a departure for that reader? It isn’t a departure at all. It’s historical fantasy, and don’t try to tell me that time travel is an SF concept. No. In this case, time travel is an element used to build a fantasy novel, not an SF novel.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no point saying, “Let’s introduce readers to SF” and then carefully picking books that are actually much more fantasy than SF. If you’re introducing readers to SF, then do that. This also takes out a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels. If there was a plague and everyone died and now we’ve got this new society emerging from the rubble, that may well read much more like a historical or a fantasy novel, or a literary novel, or something that isn’t what people actually think of when they hear the term “science fiction.” I think that’s cheating.
As a side note, my mother always reads my books, even though she never reads fantasy ordinarily. She’s murder mysteries all the way, and strongly prefers murder mysteries written in, oh, the 1960s and before, such as the Nero Wolfe mysteries and Ellis Peters and classics like that. She thinks modern mysteries are too silly (lots of them are, the “Cutsies” that occupy the lightest part of the Cozy spectrum), or badly written (sorry, but lots of them are, especially when compared to Nero Wolfe and Ngaio Marsh and so on), and she detests cussing (she leaves me many little notes about this when she reads a Black Dog book).
So, as I say, she doesn’t read fantasy except for mine. And she has never, ever read an SF novel. And here I am, with two SF novels coming out (three if you count Invictus twice), and of course she will read them. I wonder very much what she will think. No Foreign Sky emphatically fails to meet the above criteria. The opening scene very definitely throws the reader into a hard-core SF setting and situation. Invictus is definitely more approachable. But still very much SF and not fantasy or anything else.
I wonder if Book Riot’s list will include anything at all that fits those criteria? I’ll look in a moment, but first, here are four novels that I think perhaps many readers would enjoy even if they (think they) don’t like SF.
a) The Martian. My mother wouldn’t like this, probably. All this technology, Mars, I don’t think it’s her thing. But I do think someone who ordinarily reads thrillers, say, would probably love this book. Trilling events, check. Familiar setting, check. Not too weird, check.
b) Midshipman’s Hope by David Feintuch. I’m not picking this one quite at random, but I do think a lot of military SF is pretty accessible. This particular example doesn’t have aliens — I mean, not in the first book. (As far as I can remember.) The setting should feel rather familiar to anybody who’s read and liked Horatio Hornblower. Midshipman’s Hope is also just a good story that stands alone really well. Various things about the sequels don’t work as well, but still.
c) Shards of Honor. I mean, if you’re going to have alien planets and spaceships and other obvious SF-style worldbuilding elements, then you can’t do better than LMB. It seems to me that practically anyone who reads any kind of genre fiction ought to like the Vorkosigan books.
d) Illuminae trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff. Zillions of classic SF elements, from crazy homicidal computers to brain-eating parasites, but wow, what a fun trilogy. Just delightful. I’m not sure my mother would like it, but seriously, almost anyone else.
Now, after all that, what does the Book Riot post say? Here’s how it starts:
Sci-fi can be intimidating. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. There’s a whole set of rules to the genre and a new vocabulary to keep up with. On top of that, sometimes sci-fi can feel unwelcoming to the uninitiated. Where do you even start? Don’t worry, I, a very casual reader of sci-fi, am here to guide you. I read sci-fi the same way I watch it — infrequently and usually with popcorn.
Science fiction does not have to be all battle sequences and triangulating flight paths. The beauty of speculative fiction, which is the umbrella that sci-fi resides under, is that there is room for the fantastic, and for questioning the mundane.
Sci-fi, like most fiction genres, goes through trends. While this does mean that older sci-fi can feel extremely outdated in terms of values and even technology, it does mean that there’s an abundance of different sub-genres of sci-fi to choose from now. Even if you decide that space operas and hard sci-fi are not for you, there are still space westerns, dystopian worlds, and first-contact novels for you to check out. My best tip for finding a sci-fi book you’ll actually like is to try looking at your favorite genres for a sci-fi twist like time travel, aliens, or space travel. Ready for more? Let’s go!
Notice that the author of this post doesn’t really like or read SF. I have to say, that’s not a good sign. This person isn’t going to be widely read in the genre and they’re almost certain to try to suggest books that are as light as possible on SF elements. That’s what I’m betting. Also, of course you noticed they mention time travel. This is so very much a fantasy plot element so very much of the time, and I’m not betting that Kindred is going to appear on this list. I would bet money. Five bucks says Kindred is on this list. (I am not cheating my looking ahead, I promise.)
Oh, you can definitely tell I wasn’t cheating because I lost this bet. (With myself, so that’s the cheap way to lose a bet.)
We do have Station Eleven here. That’s very good, but it’s not that science fictiony. It’s post-apocalyptic, a slow apocalypse, with a lot of the story set in a contemporary world. People who go for literary novels like this, as is signaled by putting “A Novel” on the cover. As far as I can tell, that’s always a signal that literary readers are expected to like the book.
But there’s a lot of definite no-hold’s-barred SF on this list too, including The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and This is How You Lose the Time War.
Oh, there’s Airborne by Kenneth Oppel! That’s really interesting. My first reaction: Oh, that’s a charming story, I liked it a lot, good job picking it! My second reaction: Wait, this is fantasy, not SF!
Here’s the description:
Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow’s nest, being the ship’s eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there’d been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud. . . .
Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt’s always wanted; convinced he’s lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist’s granddaughter that he realizes that the man’s ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.
In a swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Oppel, author of the best-selling Silverwing trilogy, creates an imagined world in which the air is populated by transcontinental voyagers, pirates, and beings never before dreamed of by the humans who sail the skies.
We have zeppelins and the air is populated by magical creatures and somehow this strikes the author as a good example of SF? How is that possible? This is an alternate history FANTASY. It’s not SF, and the word “hydrium” doesn’t make it so. This isn’t as weird as declaring that Watership Down is an example of classic urban fantasy, because nothing in the world is that weird, but it’s definitely a misstep. I’m not sure if anything else on this list is actually fantasy because I haven’t read most of them, but I’m now suspicious about the criteria used to select books for this list.
Okay! How about you? ONE SF novel that is definitely SF, no fooling, and that you think might be a good choice to appeal to readers who are into other genres, but not really familiar with and perhaps suspicious of SF.