Our question this week: What book would you hand someone to get them hooked on SF/F?
Dale Ivan Smith
Our first guest poster this week is Dale Ivan Smith. Dale got into trouble in grade school for sneaking off to the library during class, and later earned a degree in history, so naturally he became a librarian, and has worked for Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon since 1987. He’s had stories published at Every Day Fiction and 10Flash Quarter, a story at Amazon.com, and collaboration with K.C. Ball forthcoming in Perihelion Science Fiction. He is currently revising his weird western, The Hardscrabble. You can find him at daleivansmith.com and on Twitter @daleivan.
What’s a good book to introduce an adult reader new to science fiction or fantasy? It can be a challenging question, since many beloved works, and many award winners, may not be the best starting place for someone unfamiliar with the conventions and tropes of either genre, especially science fiction, and require previous reading in the genre. So I suggest novels that are accessible to a newcomer, works with a strong, distinctive voice, vivid characters and characterization, and engaging dialogue to hook the reader.
For Science Fiction, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is a fine introduction to the genre. A young historian is sent from the late 21st century to the mid-14th century, during the Black Death, rather than twenty years or so after the plague, as originally intended, while her colleagues in the future struggle to save her. Willis creates engaging characters and puts them in compelling situations. She’s also a master of dialogue, and of all her novels, this one packs the biggest emotional punch. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, another time travel novel, is also a great place to start, with its quietly powerful writing and emotion. Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God is a big idea novel, dealing with humanity’s encounter with an alien star faring species that believes in God, and what that means for human belief and culture. Sawyer’s writing is very accessible, and the book is a brisk read.
For fantasy, start with Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. An engaging 1st person account of how Kvothe become a wizard, his trials, travails and loves. Rothfuss created a compelling character with a powerful voice that grabs the reader as soon as he begins telling his story. For readers coming from the mystery genre Jim Butcher Storm Front, the first of the Dresden Files series, is an excellent choice, featuring a wizard who is a private investigator in modern day Chicago, told in the noir style. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey set in a Regency era world with magic, wonderfully told in the mode of Jane Austen, is a book I recommend to new readers who come from an historical or romance reading background.
Our second guest this week, Marta Murvosh is a teen librarian, writer and reader living in the Pacific Northwest. She likes her SF/F with a hefty dose of mystery and her apocalypses to read like space operas. She grew up on cheesy monster flicks. You can follow her at Facebook and she commits occasional blog at Pulp & Pixels.
As a librarian, the last thing I want is a reader to glance at a cover illustration and scream, “I said: No spaceships!” before sprinting away like a wide-eyed, wild-haired horror trope.
To match a reader to a book, I ask: Tell me about a book you’ve enjoyed recently? The responses help me determine a reader’s taste in characters, plot, setting and writing style. I also gauge a reader’s comfort level with tragic or unresolved endings because not everyone enjoys a Ned Stark.
I then suggest titles that a reader may connect with. Here’s some possibilities:
Well, I have to start with the individual–finding out what kind of books they usually read. I often loan out copies of Connie Willis’s short stories (funny! and short, so usually an easy sell). I am also a long-time Ray Bradbury fan, and his work tends to be very accessible.
For the literati? Gene Wolfe short stories. They tend to be edgy, odd, off-balance in a way the literary folks respond to–he’s practically one of them–and yet. . .not. I also recommend Mary Doria Russell to a lot of book groups. Either The Sparrow (possibly still my favorite novel) or Doc, which is technically historical fiction, not SF/F, but I hope it will lead them to other of her works.
For the younger crowd, the librarians, and the reluctant readers, Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. This book is funny, easy to read, blasts a lot of genre tropes, and the whole idea of “evil librarians” tends to appeal to kids and folks who don’t read much.
My real problem comes from people who hear what I write and say, “Oh, I can’t *read* fantasy.” Fantasy has a reputation for long, complicated, unpronounceable names, often used in combination: Sir Gobbledygook of Whudideesay. Stuff like that can put off the average reader of mimetic fiction, so I reach for something with a more familiar basis, like The Child Queen by Nancy McKenzie, which is based on the Arthurian cycle. Half the job is often accomplished by simply describing some of the range of fantasy–that it’s not all elves and dragons, or obscure political struggles you have to keep track of for thousands of pages.
In such conversations, I often find myself quoting C. S. Lewis’s observation that the child who reads about enchanted forests does not despise real forests–rather, to that child, all forests become enchanted.
It’s interesting to me that I find this question so hard to answer. To me, SF/F is not one thing, but many things that somehow got squeezed into one label that isn’t very descriptive or useful. (I’ve always had trouble with genre labels.)
I got interested in SF/F from reading short fiction, not novels. I bought Hartwell’s Year’s Best anthology every year because of the variety of stories within. I didn’t like every story I read, but I liked enough of them that I knew there would be plenty of things under this “SF/F” label that I’d enjoy.
So I still think short fiction anthologies may be the best way to introduce someone to the field. With short stories, the time commitment for each world isn’t as large, and you get exposed to many more styles and ideas and approaches within the time it takes to read a novel. The various Year’s Best collections are a good bet.
Lawrence M. Schoen
Another brutal vector topic! This is worse than the “pick five books for your deserted island” notion because the one book I hand over has to contain something to appeal to a wide range of readers. It has to start with great writing, possess writing with an unquestionable command of both plot and character, and have enough variety to satisfy.
Originally published more than forty years ago, it contains the Hugo-winning title novelette, as well as such staggeringly compelling and heart-wrenching stories as “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” “The Keys to December,” and “The Man Who Loved the Faioli,” as well as lighter fare such as “The Great Slow Kings,” and “Museum Piece,” and much more as well.
This is vintage stuff to be sure, but it flows with a lyrical ease that contemporary authors would do well to equal. There’s a humanity to Zelazny’s short fiction that speaks to readers, and I think it’s a great way to hook someone on our genre. And speaking of hooks, that opening story is the best fish tale since Melville.
What I would recommend would depend greatly on the person. I think of someone like my mom, who likes some genre works, but doesn’t want anything dark, gruesome or profane. She wouldn’t make it through a page of Chuck Wendig. I’ve let her borrow my copies of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series and she found them enjoyable; she does love that British-style of dry wit.
I bought my niece Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and they introduced her to YA books in a major way. (Fun fact: these books hooked my niece, who was 11 at the time, but I know my mom won’t read them because they are way too intense.)
My husband isn’t much of a reader. As he says, “Book are dangerous.” When he does get into a book, he binge reads the series, if it’s available. He’s read my book, but otherwise the two series I hooked him on were Harry Potter and Hunger Games. There’s something universal about books intended for that age group–that time when many of us still hoped for magic.
For someone who loves to read but tends more to the literary side of things, I would hand them Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin or Jo Walton’s Among Others. I’ve handed Tam Lin to a couple friends of mine with English Lit degrees and said here: this is really about how awesome it is to go to a small Liberal Arts college and study English Lit. (Among Others is really about how awesome it is to read SF, so a little more specialized.) Love both books to pieces.
For someone who enjoys pop culture SF but is less of a reader, I’ve handed out Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and John Scalzi’s Redshirts (the first for the 80’s gaming/pop culture fan, and the second for the Star Trek fan, obviously.)
And for someone who’s more into politics and social issues, I’ve handed out M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (which really is an astonishingly good book – as soon as I read it I promptly bought 3 more copies to give away), and Cory Doctorow. I’ve previously recommended Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Disneyland! Whuffie!), but For the Win and Little Brother (both of which are still in my TBR pile) look like excellent choices as well.
I’m with Beth and E.C.: I think the answer to this question depends on who I’m shopping for. (This is one of the few questions in life to which shopping is the answer, and I’m a big believer in giving books as gifts.) I’m also with Ken; for lots of readers, short story anthologies are perfect entry points. They allow you to skip around without guilt. I’d tell a newcomer to the genre not to try to like everything in the anthology; try every story, and give up on any of them that cannot hold your interest. (That’s how I read SF/F magazines myself. I skip many more stories than I read, but I only read good fiction.)
But these are cop-out answers so far, since I’m just stealing them, so let me try to sink my teeth into this question.
I think the first thing I want to know is, why does this person not read SF/F already? Is it that they won’t read it or they just haven’t read it?
If they poopoo genre fiction on principle, I’ll give them Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. If they prefer nonfiction to fiction, I’ll start them off with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
If they just haven’t gotten around to SF/F, then I lead with the one-two punch of Dune and The Lord of the Rings. If they’re young, it’s Tolkien again (The Hobbit this time), and also a conversation about superheroes so I know which comics to get them started on. This year I’d default to Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years, which includes a lot of the stories I grew up on.
Since I opened with a cop-out answer, I’ll close with one too: NPR and SF Signal have thoughtfully provided 100 answers for this question. I don’t agree with all their answers, and there are some books on this list I wouldn’t recommend to anyone (except perhaps as kindling), but that said, I think this flowchart is a bit of genre reading I’d recommend for any SF/F reader, not just first-timers.