What SF to recommend to non-genre readers?

Fried Egg

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After reading Ian Sales' blog entry on what sort of SF books one should use to introduce non-genre readers to the genre, I felt that he was being, as usual, somewhat unfair to classic SF. He suggested that pretty much all classic SF is both badly written and not relevant to today's readers.

So, I was inspired to produce my own list of five books I would recommend to non-genre readers. In deliberate contrast to Ian, I have confined my choices to only novels published prior to 1980. I also decided that I would exclude novels that featured particularly abrasive protagonists as it seems to me that many modern readers want someone they can root for and empathise with. They all have (I believe) something about them that makes them as relevant today as they did when they were first published. They should also subvert common stereo typical notions about what SF novels are all about and/or feel fresh.

The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth (1952)

I was blown away by how fresh and relevant this was even though it is some 60 years old now. The book envisages an intensely consumerist future in which advertising has become not only ever more subtle and effective at manipulating people's desires, but also it has become viewed as unpatriotic not to want to consume as much as possible, that we are all somehow duty bound for the good of society to keep buying. One only has to look at how much companies spend on advertising and marketing to see that this is as important as ever to the business world. How many times have we been told that the economy is in the doldrums because we, the consumers, aren't spending enough?

The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester (1953)

Whilst being dated in some minor ways it was surprisingly fresh in the way it was written, feeling very contemporary yet with an intensity and confidence that I think is very rare to find in SF these days. With corporate greed being an issue never as high in the public's awareness, it remains as relevant as ever.

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman (1974)

Although inspired by the author's own experiences in Vietnam, the allegorical point the author was making here is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. The relativistic effects of close to light speed travel are used with great effect to intensify the experience that soldiers used in such conflicts must endure.

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick (1977)

This is a great choice because the SF aspects of this novel are under emphasised, enough invented only to enable the author to tell the story that he wanted to tell. This is probably Dick's most well written novel as well. It's relevancy arises from its exploration of philosophical timeless questions and of course the damaging effects of drug abuse.

The Foundation Trilogy - Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

Okay, I admit that at least part of my reasons for nominating this for is to annoy Ian ;) but I do have several reasons for thinking this makes a good recommendation to introduce people to SF:

1) Despite being set in the distant future when Humans are traversing the galaxy, it rejects many of the usual SF tropes. There are no aliens and no robots. Most importantly, there are no battles. At least the pivotal moments that decide the future course of events are resolved by personal, intellectual confrontations, with cutting dialogue and careful planning. As Salvor Hardin quoth "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent", so Asimov demonstrates, here at least, that disagreements are solved by battles of intellects and not physical force.

2) The question that psycho-history posits an answer to is a problem that still presents itself to us today. How do we predict the outcome of social phenomena and make adjustments in society to achieve the desired effects? In this respect at least, it is as relevant today as it was in the 50's.

3) It's a tried and tested success at impressing non-genre readers of the merits of SF. I've personally recommend this to several people who have all been suitably impressed.
 
Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore (1953). Good introduction to alternate history, with a premise that SF readers might consider overdone (what if the South won the American Civil War) but which might be fresh to non-SF readers. There's also an "explanation" as to why we have an alternate history (time travel) so the reader doesn't just have to accept it as a given. The alternate reality is at a technological level not much different from our own (except the time machine) so there aren't any gadgets to turn off the non-SF reader.
 
Good thread Fried Egg. I agree, there are some excellently written classic SF out there that resonate very well now. I would agree with The Space Merchants. Beautifully written, and it precedes modern takes on the Ad world, like Man Men so well. I would also suggest a few others: Gateway, by Pohl, is a terrific book - very well written; also I would not hesitate to recommend something by Clarke. Even though his work is no doubt representative of "sh*t books written ninety years ago by some dead old white bloke", the likes of "A Fall of Moondust" or "2001: A Space Odyssey", would be well accepted by non-genre readers, I think. Lastly, I think Aldiss translates very well to non-genre readership. He writes extremely well, and I'd recommend both Hothouse and Greybeard.
 
The Foundation Trilogy - Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

Good one. I've never not been a science fiction fan in the sense that I think I was hardwired that way and was casually watching and enjoying TV/movie stuff and whatever "fantastic" fiction a kid might come across in a non-genre sense already but it worked for me, in the sense of turning me specifically into an SF fan.

I think Caves of Steel (1957) or the like could also work - it does have robots but they're Asimovian robots and the crime/mystery aspect might give the non-SF fan something to hold on to.

Bradbury and Vonnegut (50s-60s) are always good for the non-SF reader.

Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels (1950) or maybe More Than Human (1953) or even The Cosmic Rape (1958 - aka To Marry Medusa) have very humanistic angles to them and an emotional weight that many non-SF people like, and they're excellent SF, too.

Some Heinlein juveniles like Starman Jones (1953) might do nicely - the realism of the home life prior to the interstellar adventure and the sympathetically conceived Max would probably orient and appeal to most people.

Budrys' Rogue Moon (1960) is superb, with psychological depth and realism.

I think Simak's Way Station (1963) might have similar effects to the Heinlein though, the last time I read it, I was less pleased with the sort of action-resolution - but it's still a great book that would not be too initially disorienting but would still open up that ol' sensawunda.

Taking a slightly different PKD angle, Dick can be pretty Kafkaesque and could be a great gateway drug to surrealist litcrit types who might not know they'd like certain types of SF - don't know the best starter but maybe Ubik (1969) or something like.

Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) could pull in the anthropology/cultural/gender folks.

Silverberg's Dying Inside (1972) should impress most anybody. No Buck Rogers stuff, but just a single thought experiment element.

Another Pohl that would be a great, heh, gateway drug, might be Gateway (1977) which, again, has a psychological/character interest aspect as well as a wild alien tech aspect.

Of course, these are mostly shaded to some combination of a realistic orientation or a literary sensibility or not scaring folks off with the Strange but none of this really applies to the Foundation stories and it might be better to just hand them a bunch of Clarke and Clement and Forward and see if they sink or swim - if it's meant to be, I think most any quality SF would do. Perhaps the best thing is no particular novel but just an anthology of great stories that would give them a range and diversity of exposure.
 
Silverberg's Dying Inside (1972) should impress most any body. No Buck Rogers stuff, but just a single thought experiment element.
Yes, good call. I can usually be relied upon to respond with "Robert Silverberg" as a stock response to just about any SF question, but on this occasion I had a mental slip. I'd definitely add this - its hardly SF at all, and would suck the reader into the genre by stealth. I'd then quietly suggest they try The World Inside. Probably not Downward to the Earth though. I can see alien elephant creatures in a retelling of Conrad being a bit of a stretch.
 
Seems as if I've mentioned this one a million times in such discussions, but...

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (either the short story -- my own preference -- or the novel)

I'd also agree with The Demolished Man, though either that or The Stars My Destination would be a good choice.

Given that Heinlein was so popular with sf fans and those not normally inclined to the field alike (his shorter fiction appeared in a very wide variety or venues, while a great number of his novels attained best-seller status), any number of his books might be good suggestions. (I remember that my high school offered a course in science fiction, as an experiment, and one of the few books chosen was his The Green Hills of Earth... not a bad choice, really.)

Jack Williamson's The Humanoids; Cliff Simak's City; Bradbury's Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man; Richard Matheson's Born of Man and Woman or The Shrinking Man (or even I Am Legend, though this is usually seen as a horror novel); John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up; Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; Ballard's The Drowned World, The Crystal World, The Voices of Time, or several others; Moorcock... well, there's such a broad range there which might at least nominally be considered sf, from The Warlord of the Air or The Land Leviathan to Blood to Mother London to The Cornelius Quartet to the Dancers at the End of Time... all of which are aimed as much at general audiences as the sf audience; Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz; Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven or The Left Hand of Darkness; Silverberg... again, quite a lot to choose from (personally, I'd throw in Thorns as a possibility); nor would I neglect Asimov, as a fair number of his works have appealed to a much broader audience than just the sf fans, several having remained in print almost continually for some decades, such as I, Robot, the Foundation Trilogy, etc. (again, several of his later novels became best-sellers, appealing to a wide range of readers).
 
And again, no women writers other than Le Guin. Don't books by women make good introductions to science fiction? Is perpetuating the myth that women don't write sf a good way to introduce the genre to those not familiar with it?
 
But for the date range, I was going to mention Vorkosigan by Bujold, but the first came out in 1986. A more user friendly intro, for non genre lovers, is hard to think of.
 
I think one of the problems with finding women to recommend as entry-level sf for non-genre readers prior to 1980 might be that so many of them were purist sf (and f) writers -- uber-geek and proud. Which gives the lie to sf/f being a male domain, as does the fact that the genre was effectively started by a woman at the end of the 18th Century. Now, that's just my experience of reading, of course, but Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr, Anne McCaffrey (and some others) were all pretty full-on in the genre. It was certainly one of the reasons I never thought of sf as not being for women and girls.

That said, McCaffrey's Restoree (1967) might be an option. I'd also nominate Vintage Season (1946) by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner (her husband). I know it's a novella, but it's in plenty of collections, which I think are a good way to get people into the genre. Someone who's 'not into' sf might try a shorter story rather than commit to a full novel, and be hooked in that way. Vintage Season seized my teenage imagination. It's time travel, which perhaps has a broader appeal in 'mainstream' media than space.

There's also Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles (started 1976). Not sure if totally the thing to reel in a non-genre reader, but as her work is amazing (yes, I'm a little bit of a fan, although haven't read all of her work), I'll put it forward.

I'd agree with J-Sun's suggestion of The Caves of Steel. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is good for the film tie-in, as well as for the story. Even though it's very different, it has broad appeal that could open the gates.
 
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And again, no women writers other than Le Guin. Don't books by women make good introductions to science fiction? Is perpetuating the myth that women don't write sf a good way to introduce the genre to those not familiar with it?
Not sure of the logic here - and how did this become about gender? I realise your questions are rhetorical, but to turn it around, how is recommending some good books (that happen to have been written by men) a poor way to introduce readers to the genre of SF? It's not, of course - if the books are good, the gender of the author ought to be irrelevant. Le Guin is a good shout. Brackett or Norton might be a good way to go too, but I have little experience of their work to go on, so cannot in all honesty recommend them ahead of the best stuff I have read.

As an aside, personally I wouldn't recommend Bujold as an entry to the field, as I'm not convinced about the quality of her writing; but that's just me.
 
Re: "Dying Inside" by Robert Silverberg. While it is one of my favourite SF novels, I excluded it on the basis of one of my self imposed restrictions; that it has a deeply unsympathetic protagonist. Nothing wrong with that, but I know the sensibilities of many modern readers and I would avoid recommending it on that basis.

To a lesser extent, the same criterion helped me choose "The Demolished Man" over "The Star's My Destination".

Plenty of other excellent suggestions though.
iansales said:
And again, no women writers other than Le Guin. Don't books by women make good introductions to science fiction? Is perpetuating the myth that women don't write sf a good way to introduce the genre to those not familiar with it?
And what do you propose, a little positive discrimination in order present a more gender balanced list? What about gay people? Black writers? Am I implicitly saying such people can't write good, introductory SF?

Or, am I simply reflecting my own reading experiences? In terms of classic SF, the vast majority of what's been published is by white men. My reading history no doubt reflects that. I loved may of Leigh Brackett's stories, they were usually very well written but didn't think they were suitable because of being quite typical genre material. Kate Wilhelm's "Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" I loved but didn't think it retained that fresh quality that I was looking for. I think Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness" a very good contender certainly. At the end of the day I simply chose my list without regard to gender and the lack of women on it (and the lack of representatives from any other kind of minority group) simply reflects what I've read.
 
Bujold's writing is variable, esp. in the early books, but, and I think this is a big thing that sf often misses - a lot of non-genre writing is based around the strength of the characters, not of their ideas, if that makes sense. So, to suggest sf that is ideas focused - and I find Dick, for instance, often is, as is Asimov - means we are asking those readers to embrace a totally new type of story, which is not the way to make a genre accessible, imho.

For that reason, I'd put ones where either the characters are strong enough for buy in - which Bujold's undoubtedly is, Miles is a fantastic character, irrelevant of genre, or arguably great writing skills ( though I'd challenge most of us here to manage to come up with such a strong and popular character, it's an art of itself that goes way past the actual writing nuts and bolts) - or the situation is presented with enough relevance to an everyday reader who doesn't wanted to be presented with a world they do not believe could be real (I hear this a lot when I tell my mostly non sff friends I write sf) that it overcomes that prejudice. i think something like Rendezvous with Rama is good for that. So, from my perspective, it's about making non genre readers, who aren't turned on by the fantastic nature of the stories, feel the story has something they can buy into, which means I think you need to look to character based sf, and I think Bujold is one of the strongest at that. I'd also put a vote in for Flowers for Algernon on that basis, too.
 
Speaking about female SF authors to recommend to non-genre readers. I recommended Kesrith first book in Fades Sun series by CJ Cherryh to my little sisters who wanted to try SF finally.

I didnt recommend Cherryh book because she is a female author who might fit gender wise to my sister but because Cherryh is one of the best SF authors when its about writing smart alien, human contact stories.

I never thought about the authors gender but i thought she was a great SF writer to recommend. I wouldnt recommend a dated golden age SF classic that is not as good as her. Some of early SF classics even if they are great might also be too genre,too much science for newbies. Asimov Foundation, Heinlein books is too much Hard SF for first time readers.
 
Not sure of the logic here - and how did this become about gender? I realise your questions are rhetorical, but to turn it around, how is recommending some good books (that happen to have been written by men) a poor way to introduce readers to the genre of SF? It's not, of course - if the books are good, the gender of the author ought to be irrelevant.

It's always about gender, because gender is never irrelevant as long as list such as those above are 99% male. It doesn't matter if your bias is conscious or unconscious, either way it needs to be addressed. And the best way to do that is to take note of the gender of writers. Being "gender-blind" is actually worse, because by not noting the gender of authors you follow your own unconscious values - and that invariably leads to male-only lists.


And what do you propose, a little positive discrimination in order present a more gender balanced list? What about gay people? Black writers? Am I implicitly saying such people can't write good, introductory SF?

Yes. For every book written by a man you think of, think of one written by a woman. Do that and you'll find more women appearing in your lists. And yes, when you produce an all-male list you are implicitly saying that women do not meet the criteria you've set - even though gender is not one of those criteria.

Mentioning black and gay people is derailing, and should be avoided.
 
Yes. For every book written by a man you think of, think of one written by a woman. Do that and you'll find more women appearing in your lists.
If I did that, I wouldn't be being honest; My list was an honest reflection of the best classic SF for new readers I could think of from what I had read. If I hadn't chosen my books purely on the basis of their qualities (as I perceived them) but also on the basis of a hidden agenda, that would be simply politicising my choices. Something I abhor.
And yes, when you produce an all-male list you are implicitly saying that women do not meet the criteria you've set - even though gender is not one of those criteria.
People might well, erroneously, assume that. But that's not what I'm saying, implicitly or otherwise.
iansales said:
Mentioning black and gay people is derailing, and should be avoided.
And you haven't derailed the thread mentioning gender?
 
I never classified "Foundation" as hard SF. It's far more predominated by social themes in my opinion.

Not Hard SF but there is alot of science talk about social sciences like changing history. Social science or hard science fiction its too much explaining,exploring that we SF readers are used to. We can take info dump, logical SF world building but newbies isnt used to that.


The SF classics, great authors who has worked for me to drawn in new readers are The Stars My Destination, The Man in the High Castle/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Any kind of top,mid level PKD seems to work for newbies.

Philip K Dick, Bester have in common they dont focus on any type of science but the stories, characters in SF settings. There is a reason why those authors are easier first time reads of the classic SF books. You dont need to become use to Hard SF to read PKD human dramas. Gully's story is another great revenge story in SF form.
 
I'm not sure how mentioning that there's been some cracking SF written by women in the time frame, and that it often gets ignored (consciously or otherwise) in favour of men in these sorts of lists, is particularly derailing. It happens a lot, and has again here. Is there a problem with adding great female SF writers to the mix?


I see someone's mentioned Cherryh. Good. She was the writer who got me back into SFF after a few years away, and some of her stuff is up there with the best. She's one of the writers I always recc for people looking to get into classic SF&F. Octavia Butler is a good choice to recc too, as is Doris Lessing

A lot will depend on who you are reccing to though, and what they like to read at the moment. This is not a one size fits all thing.


Depending on who you are reccing to, and which particular books, some of the older guys could actually put people off SFF. I'm certainly glad that I already knew at least one author mentioned in your original list wasn't representative...if his books had been my first in SF, I'd never have picked up another!
 
I'm not sure how mentioning that there's been some cracking SF written by women in the time frame, and that it often gets ignored (consciously or otherwise) in favour of men in these sorts of lists, is particularly derailing. It happens a lot, and has again here. Is there a problem with adding great female SF writers to the mix?
Not at all. I was responding to Ian's post that lambasted the recommendations so far for not including many women authors. When I asked Ian if we should likewise lambast them for not including gay or black authors he said that would be derailing. I only meant that it was no more derailing than picking us up for the lack of female authors.

There's no reason not to recommend female authors.
 

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