SF for readers Who don’t like SF


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.

Please Feel Free to Share:


21 thoughts on “SF for readers Who don’t like SF”

  1. Is alt history okay as long as it doesn’t put you in a fantasy world? If so, I’d suggest Kowal’s The Calculating Stars for anyone who enjoyed Hidden Figures or The Code Girls or histories, especially of the space program or women in science, of the 50s and 60s.

    Also Kowal, The Spare Man might appeal to your mom, but I haven’t read it yet so I’m not sure how much it is SF rather than fantasy.

    (You said one book, but I can’t do it, sorry.) Maybe John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society for someone who likes monster movies or comics, although I’d expect there to be a lot of overlap there with people who are already SF fans.

    And maybe Murderbot. There’s a ton of SF furniture in the worldbuilding, but Murderbot’s voice is so vivid that if it appeals (and clearly it does to many of us) it might pull someone in.

  2. How about Ender’s Game? Is that sci-fi? Even my oldest daughter, who does not like to read, loved that one.

  3. I do read SF enthusiastically, but also mysteries and fantasy and ‘classic’ literature. I would suggest The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin (also her The Dispossessed.) Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Virtual Light by William Gibson.

  4. Archangel by Sharon Shinn.
    Local Custom by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
    I suppose saying “anything by Anne McCaffrey” is too broad?

    For me, the best SF is not the stories that have cool science-y things, but the ones that have great stories about the PEOPLE who just happen to live on space ships or interact with aliens or whatever. It’s being able to drop normal humans into a completely unique situation and see what happens that I always find fascinating.

    Like, the TV show Quantum Leap was very definitely SF, but it was all about how Sam could help PEOPLE an it very much kept its humanity front and center rather than geeking out about the technology that made it possible. (The sequel is doing a decent job with that, too.) In fact, that’s always been my biggest complaint about the original sci-fi writers–they loved the science part more than the people.

  5. OtterB, on Jenny Crusie’s blog Argh Ink, where everyone reads romance (and some also read other genres) Murderbot is a favorite.

    I tend to say I like F/SF books, as the edges of those two blur together for me.
    Do you count the Touchstone trilogy as SF or F? If it counts as SF, it falls nicely within your criteria, and has a very appealing voice to pull readers in.

    My own introduction to the genre was through the Heinlein juveniles: Farmer in the sky, Red planet, Have spacesuit will travel, Citizen of the Galaxy, The moon is a harsh mistress etc. – probably too dated for young people now, but older readers might find it a comfortable entry point, as (from what I remember from long ago) the SF elements are introduced more gradually or explained more, rather than supposing everybody already knows all about those ideas and terms. Plus no swearing, so for someone of your mother’s generation the language would be comfortable.

    For someone looking for a high-adrenalin exiting story, but not military SF, Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur might work, despite the immediate immersion in SF elements.

    In general, I’d try to find an SF book that overlaps with a genre they like to read, rather than going for a universal introduction book.

    For those who like thrillers an urban fantasy like Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thomson series might strike some of the same chords.

    Lee and Miller’s Liaden series contains books that fit into several different genre-combinations, e.g. Pilot’s choice, Local Custom are an SF-romance-comedy of manners combination that people who like regency romances might enjoy, while the Agent of Change books are a spy-thriller and SF combination.

  6. I was going to recommend Nancy Kress, “An Alien Light.” But after a peek at Goodreads, the reviews are mixed, and confused by fpreign language reviews. (I suspect the translations were weak.)

    Instead I’ll pick another author of anthropological SF: Ursula LeGuin. She is just the stand-out candidate.

  7. I very much agree about the Liaden books. I think some of those would be perfect. Maybe Muerderbot — hard to see anybody not loving those. I have to say, I think Chanur is a little … much … for someone who thinks they’re not an SF fan.

    I was actually going back and forth on Touchstone. Because, yes? Probably? And if so, then BY ALL MEANS, there’s a PERFECT choice! I think I would allow that one even though some elements are pretty fantasy-like. I also thought of the Heinlein juveniles, but for me, I must admit, they haven’t held up as well as I had hoped.

    For me, the Archangel series, while good, are fantasy with very slight handwavy SF elements around the edges. A better version of the same thing — I mean a harder SF version — is the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kierstein. Now THAT is SF only disguised as fantasy. But it still seems like cheating to offer that to someone who wants to try SF, because it sure looks like fantasy.

    Ann K, I agree that LeGuin would be a very good choice. Very human-story-centric, but clearly and undeniably SF.

  8. Well, I don’t read a lot of sci-fi but I liked the Jao series by Eric Flint, KD Wentworth (book 1-2) David Carrico (book 3), but it’s unfinished and two of the authors passed away. I wonder if Carrico can/will finish them. Quite human (and alien) centric stories and we can see the interaction and influence between the species.

    Also Ilona Andrews mentioned on their blog that some readers wouldn’t try the Innkeeper series because it’s sci-fi. Which is a bit strange to me because, at least in my opinion, it has a lot of fantasy elements.

  9. Maria, I’m laughing a bit at the notion that the Innkeeper series is SF. Thus we see that adding a spaceship doesn’t necessarily make a novel SF. This is now the example I’m going to point to when I say “Look, it’s not SF just because it has a spaceship in it! Look, SEE? This is not science fiction! It’s not even science fantasy! It’s urban fantasy with a spaceship and “aliens,” but it’s not actually science fiction!”

    Which is a kind of interesting reaction, of course, and certainly begs the question, “Okay, then, what IS science fiction?”

  10. What is SF? Always a fun discussion! My rule of thumb is that science fiction has two words in it – hard SF leans on the science part, and soft SF leans on the fiction part. If I could change the special effects in the series from SF to fantasy without fundamentally changing the series, then it’s soft SF. Consider a five masted aether ship sailing to Mars in a few days, armed with lightning cannons. Now call it a spaceship with a “frictionless ion drive” and “ion cannons.” Multi-stellar empire with wormhole gates on the planets created through dilithium crystals vs. multi-stellar empire with dimensional portals created through ioan stones. Klingons or orcs. For soft SF, it’s basically SF if the author says it’s SF. Now consider The Martian, or Dragon’s Egg – the science is the star of the show. If I tried to write a fantasy version of The Martian where the character displays extreme competence porn in figuring out nifty ways to survive using magic theory that also has to be explained in the book, I don’t think it could work. The book relies on basic understanding of actual physical principles. The lines aren’t bright, of course, and they can change over time! Lensman tried to extrapolate existing technologies (really, really fast index card readers!) but these days it reads more like fantasy because it’s gotten so disconnected from the actual science. Steampunk is generally fantasy, not SF, because it’s deliberately distanced from any actual science.

  11. Mary Robinette Kowal for sure. The Spare Man is a funny murder mystery set on a cruise ship—the cruise ship just happens to be in space. There are a few futuristic technologies that play into the plot, so I think it’s safe to call it SF.

    Robert J. Sawyer writes accessible thriller/adventure style sci fi (in the same vein as Michael Crichton, who would also count for this list). (I would call Jurassic Park fantasy, but I think some of his other stuff is more legitimately SF.)

    The Book Riot list is interesting: I haven’t heard of most of them and I question the ones I’ve heard of! Dragon Pearl is fantasy in space. The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ones We’re Meant to Find both have quite challenging speculative elements, in my opinion. But yes, Becky Chambers! (And I think I’ll try Humans—that one looks fun)

  12. Hanneke, my introduction to the genre was with Andre Norton and the Heinlein juveniles followed not long after. I find some hold up better than others, but I still wouldn’t hand them as a start to anyone.

    I agree the Liaden series might be a good starting point. It’s funny, Deb suggested Local Custom but even though I’m a fan in general, I have never liked that one very much. Scout’s Progress, on the other hand, is one of my very favorites.

    Kim, I also haven’t heard of most of the Book Riot list but agree that Becky Chambers is a good choice, and I found Humans looked interesting.

  13. Allan: you’re talking about Space Opera. That is not where I’d start for SF. Anthtopological SF usually is far closer to ordinary fiction, with a few notable exceptions like David Drake (and, yes, the Jao occupation of Earth. Alas, both primary authors are now dead, so a satisfactory resolution is unlikely.)

  14. I would recommend Timothy Zahn’s books to anyone who doesn’t like SF; they’re more space opera than hard SF, but they’re fast, fun reads and a good entry point. I would particularly mention his YA series Dragon and Thief; it’s an adventure story set in space with alien dragon symbiotes. Or Icarus Hunt, which is basically a heist story with a hefty twist in the last two pages.
    I also like the Solace Chronicles by Roger MacBride Allen. They start off as fairly hard SF, but get more speculative as they progress, specifically as regards terraforming. However, the main characters are all quite compelling.
    Is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy SF or comedy or fantasy? Who knows? But it’s a fun read if you’re in the mood for wildly zany weirdness.

  15. @OtterB, I have the two books with ErThom & Ann, and Daav & Aelliana published together as Pilot’s Choice on my bookshelf, so I may have misremembered the individual titles.
    I prefer the one with Ann & Shan, as I hate Aelliana’s brother, and was saddened by the next ending.

  16. I can’t recommend one. I would ask what they like and go from there. A Jane Austen fan would get a different recommendation than a Raymond Chandler one.

  17. Agree with Mary, couldn’t put a list of recs together without knowing what a person *does* like, not just what they don’t. While there are crossover hits, I don’t really get the point of a list like this. If someone doesn’t like SF, they don’t have to – there’s so many books out there, and people are allowed to have preferences. I don’t like “literary fiction”, for the most part, and I wouldn’t want someone saying “ok, but try this one” over and over.

  18. I basically agree with the comments that it’s important to know, for this purpose, why someone doesn’t like SF? It may be because they mostly read/like specific things and didn’t think SF was a place to search for it, in which case knowing what they do want would make a huge difference in the recommendations (Do they mostly just want romance? historical fiction? war stories? spy thrillers? mystery? books with dogs and horses? books with food and cooking? … ).
    Alternately, there may be something specific they don’t want and think SF generally/always has, so knowing what it is would be necessary to find books that don’t have the same problem (they don’t like aliens? robots? stories that take place in wide open space? technobabble and/or the need to learn new words that won’t mean anything in the real world? the chrome and LEDs aesthetic?).

    Otherwise, well, it’s really just a much more generic list of good beginner-friendly SF recommendations. Which, yes, fine, maybe useful, but not particularly interesting… (and even exclude options for good books which are more heavy/complex and would be a bad blind recommendation for a beginner reader but maybe a good one for experienced reader who just didn’t read genre).

    Plus, well, in practice I’m extremely unlikely to come at someone out of the blue and try to push SF on them. If something like this is useful, it’s either if they actually ask, or if we’re talking on reading/genres anyway and the chance comes up organically. In which case getting the no-SF-yet reason would be really easy to do, as just a natural part of that conversation, blind recommendation won’t even have a chance to be a thing.

    About the Fantasy vs SF thing, considering that the author of the original post is clear that they don’t really read/see a lot of SF, it’s sort of understandable. There are some very clear distinctions (and a huge and very fuzzy border), but for someone who isn’t interested in either they would sort of go together for the most part. It doesn’t matter, in this context, if it has space aliens or space wizards or dragon wizards. For me, and obviously everyone here, there are substantial differences. But in general it’s not unusual to hear people who say things like “I don’t like all those science fiction things like star wars and harry potter” or “I don’t watch all those fantasy shows like star trek and charmed and the expanse”.

    BTW, right now the list on book riot doesn’t show Station Eleven. Looks like they edited the list for some reason? There are still 20 books on the list, though, so if once went off then there’s a new one added since you read it.

  19. I would actually not do blind recommendations either, but I wouldn’t start by saying, “What don’t you like about SF? What prevents you from trying SF?”

    I’d start — and this is implied by Mary Catelli’s comment — by asking, “What do you read now?” And then saying urgently, “Oh, you MUST try THIS!”, suggesting something that specific person ought to love.

  20. This depends on how the conversation until that point went. Usually I’d agree, talking about reading/stories in general, with them mentioning that they don’t read SF, if they seem open to recommendation then of course the main thing is asking what they do read and like.

    But if it comes after them being explicit about disliking SF, rather than just not having really tried, then I’d absolutely want to know why they think they don’t like it. Otherwise the recommendation may be a perfect fit for what they usually read and still be something they’re practically guaranteed to not like.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top