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The best sf to recommend to non-sf readers

By / November 3, 2016 / no comments

Every sf blog does a post like this eventually. And they all get it wrong. Because they are all about what turned the author onto sf, not what a non-sf reader might be looking for.

EmbassytownYou can see the thinking, time after time: oh Embassytown by China Mieville blew me away, so it’s bound to have the same effect on everyone else! Er, no! It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but if you don’t have that sort of geeky interest in language structures or you don’t really understand what he’s doing with the aliens, the book is more likely to turn you off sf than turn you on.

Triplanetary (Lensman Sagas)Years ago, when I was in my teens, I picked up Triplanetary by E.E. “Doc” Smith, the first part of his Lensman series, and in the very first sentence he talked about two galaxies colliding. Wow! It wasn’t the first sf novel I’d read, so the ground was prepared, but that sense of scale was what made the teenage me an sf reader. But now I see how trite the images were, and how godawful bad the writing was. Back when I was receptive and uncritical, it was an ideal introduction to science fiction; now, I wouldn’t even recommend it to me, let alone to anyone who’d not read sf before.

The point I’m making is that when a friend or colleague comes up and says: “I’ve never read scifi. Where should I start?” (and yes, that has happened to me) don’t immediately start thinking of the books that turned you into an sf reader. That was a different time and you were a different person.

Warm Worlds and OtherwiseIn the introduction to one of the James Tiptree Jr. collections, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Robert Silverberg quotes a description of Tiptree’s technique: “Start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then DON’T TELL THEM.” That’s great, it’s why we love Tiptree, that’s a perfect description of what an sf reader is looking for. We enjoy working out the mystery of what is the story being told. To any sf reader who hasn’t previously encountered Tiptree I would unhesitatingly recommend those stories, because I know you’ll get an awful lot out of them. But to a non-sf reader? One of the most common complaints you hear from people trying sf for the first time is: “I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t work out what was going on.” So, brilliant as she is, Tiptree probably doesn’t make it as a first recommendation.

The other complaint you hear all the time from non-sf readers is: “I can’t get on with all the silly names.” We are so used to that we probably don’t even notice it most of the time. A concatenation of consonants that don’t really belong together has become a convenient way of indicating the alien, and that, after all, is a large part of what sf is about. But for people not practiced in reading science fiction, they can be alienating in a different sense: stopping them identifying with the characters, stopping them reading what is going on. This can even happen with authors they like: witness the many, many people who devoured every novel by Iain Banks, despite the fact that many of them incorporated elements of the fantastic, but never ever got on with the novels of Iain M. Banks (the obituaries were very instructive on precisely this point).

In other words, when someone asks for a recommendation, don’t immediately think of the most amazingly science fictional book you’ve ever read, the sort of thing that gets you hyperventilating with glee, because that’s precisely the sort of thing that’s likely to turn off the other person.

Stories of Your Life and OthersSo, when somebody asks for a recommendation, I’d start by asking why. It’s usually one of two reasons. The first is: well, I saw this really great film … In which case, it’s easy. Just suggest the source material for the film: if they’ve seen the new film, Arrival, for instance, point them to Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, with the added advantage that the other stories in the collection will give them a sampler of other types of sf as well. Or if there isn’t a source book, suggest something similar. Anyone who enjoys Avatar, for example, really should read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. And Philip K. Dick is always a handy standby, given how much of his work has been filmed. After all, if they know the film, they’re already half way there with the more science fictional elements of the work.

The second reason isn’t so clear cut. It’s usually something like: well, I thought I should; or, I saw you reading something and it looked interesting. This really isn’t much help, so I’d come back with: what do you normally like reading.

1984 (Signet Classics)If they give you a list of literary classics, then you can give them a list of books that usually get included in the same company: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Oh, but I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four, they’ll probably say; I didn’t realise it was sf. Of course it is, and if you like that, have you tried We by Yevgeny Zamiatin which was the book that inspired Orwell, or One by David Karp, or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. You get the idea.

ASH: A Secret HistoryIf they like historical fiction, you’re also on good ground, because there’s a great cross-over between the two types of fiction. Try something like Ash by Mary Gentle, an epic account of warfare in late-medieval Burgundy, but with the sort of science fictional twist that won’t scare the neophyte. Or there’s Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, which is the sort of colourful romantic story Byron might have written. Or Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson, an extraordinarily convincing account of the life of Galileo, but with a vision of the far future thrown in.

Rule 34Fans of crime fiction are also in luck, because there’s an awful lot of science fiction that makes use of crime story plots, everything from Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel to Charles Stross’s Rule 34. Or if they prefer spy stories, try Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson, which makes free with John Le Carre’s tradecraft but puts it at the service of a politically charged novel about disintegrating Europe.

RestoreeEven readers of romance fiction can find things to latch onto in science fiction, though the works of, for instance, Anne McCaffrey (RestoreeThe Crystal Singer) may be just a little too science fictional to allow a non-sf reader to get to the love story at the heart of them.

The Big Book of Science FictionOne of the odd things about science fiction readers is that we are still excited by short stories. They really aren’t that common in other areas of literature, so your non-sf reader may not be interested in reading an anthology. But if they are, then that is another excellent way of introducing the genre. I’d suggest a big fat anthology like, for instance, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. But when I recommended it, I’d include the proviso that there are a lot of stories in here. Some you’ll probably love, others you’ll probably hate, some are by writers you’ll have heard of, others are by people even I’ve not heard of, some are exciting, some are tediously predictable. That’s fine, just skip the ones you don’t like, but you should find enough good stuff there to give you an excellent introduction to sf.

The only thing to remember is that everybody’s different, so no one is going to like exactly the same sf that you do. The trick is matching their tastes to the sf they are going to like.

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