Exciting news! “Born from Memory,” the short story I wrote to go with the first-place winning piece in the Science Fiction and Fantasy website art competition is now available as a free download. I really loved this story and I hope you will take the opportunity to read it.
And now, back to virgins. I mean books for new SF readers… Last week I raised the question of what books (or authors) you might suggest to someone who wanted to read SF, but didn’t know where to start.
A Few Suggestions
Lots of interesting suggestions came in, both via the Comments and to me directly. They kept coming in all week, so even if you looked last week, I hope you’ll go take another look.
One thing lots of people agreed upon was that any recommendation should be based on the reader’s interests. One Commenter, who is a professional librarian, even suggested some strategies for eliciting a helpful response. While I agree wholeheartedly that learning a bit about the potential reader is a good idea, I still think it’s helpful to have some ideas already prepared.
I don’t think I’m alone in that as soon as I’m asked to recommend a book, my mind goes blank. That’s one reason I have a list on my website. Even with that, I often finding myself recommending whatever I’ve read recently, even if that’s not the most appropriate choice, simply because it’s what I think of first.
However, lots of the books I list on my website wouldn’t necessarily be the best choices for a new reader. I’ve been reading SF for a long time and have developed rather quirky tastes.
Moreover, last week for reasons I detailed in that piece, I asked people to restrict their suggestions to SF, rather than Fantasy or Horror.
(Yes, yes, I know the designations are sometimes arbitrary. Alan Robson and I discussed this at some length on this site on starting 11/29/12, with additional entries on 12/06/12 and 12/13/12; we then spent weeks using these designations as an excuse to discuss books. Check these out!)
So, let’s take a closer look at books and authors we might suggest to someone who was interested in reading SF, but didn’t know where to start.
One of the “off-stage” commenters said that he would tend to recommend short fiction over novels. Certainly, SF has its roots in short fiction, but I’m not sure I’d agree with this choice. Many SF shorts are “idea” stories, clever enough in themselves but with a possibly off-putting element for a new reader, since idea stories often sacrifice character and setting to focus on a cute idea.
Readers, by contrast, at least modern readers – as supported by numerous comments on this site and elsewhere – are usually drawn to character over plot or setting.
That said, this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend short fiction. Especially when the stories have some sort of internal connection – perhaps a continuing character or serving as part of a future history – short fiction can provide a wide sampling of SF themes and tropes.
Isaac Asimov’s “Robot” stories strike me as a good choice. They have a continuing theme to tie them together and a few recurring characters. Since humanoid robots have never become part of mainstream reality, stories built around them don’t “date” as easily.
When I was in college, I found Heinlein’s future history stories fascinating. Even though some of the concepts were already dated, the sense that the various pieces had a shared continuity provoked my interest. I haven’t looked at these stories in years but, I suspect that if I did, I’d find myself slipping into that parallel universe with ease. Other future histories – I’m very fond of those set in Larry Niven’s “Known Space” and of Poul Anderson’s Earthbook of Stormgate – also have potential.
We didn’t get much feedback from younger female readers, so I don’t know if these largely male-tenanted futures would present a problem or not.
One of the authors mentioned, James H. Schmitz, was ahead of the curve when presenting a future which included female characters who were presented simply as people – without in the least ignoring that when you put men and women in the same place they aren’t going to forget they’re men and women. I particularly love his Witches of Karres, which, despite the title, is full of spaceships and strange planets and stranger people.
Many of the authors suggested (Clarke, Asimov, Zelazny, LeGuin, Dick, McCaffery, Brunner, Norton) were older or, as marketing is starting to term them, “classic.” One of the off-site commenters noted that, in her opinion, a new reader was often looking for a newer book rather than a “classic.” There’s something to be said for this. Reading something “new,” when everyone else is, lets a new reader enter the discussion. A drawback, of course, is that a new reader may be impressed out of proportion with something that is “old hat” to a long-time reader.
Back when I was still teaching at Lynchburg College, I gave a reading at a campus event. One of my colleagues was impressed out of proportion by the fact that my characters paid for items with “credits.” She saw in this a projection of the evolving monetary system that was already taking place around us, where the use of cash or checks was being replaced by credit cards. (I’m not sure debit cards had entered widespread use.)
A new reader, unfamiliar with what is often termed the “furniture of the field,” might need to digest a whole bunch of new concepts – but, since this immersion in new ideas is the sort of exciting experience that often creates a lifetime reader of SF, I don’t see that as a bad idea.
So which “newer” writers might we suggest? David Weber’s name came up several times. I would strongly agree – with the caveat that if the potential reader didn’t like military settings, his “Honor Harrington” books might not be the best place to start. I usually recommend his Path of the Fury. (I’m not as familiar with the expanded reissue, In Fury Born.) The three Stephanie Harrington novels (two of which I co-wrote with him) are less military in nature and are solidly rooted in SF coolness.
Elizabeth Moon was mentioned. I’m not familiar with all of her work, but I was impressed by her Speed of the Dark. Firmly rooted in our current culture and its concerns, Speed of the Dark, nonetheless has some fascinating SF speculation and shows how those who are often seen as our misfits might be our path to the stars. I also really like her Remnant Population.
C.J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” novels have good aliens and lots of action without becoming overtly military. I’m not as familiar with her more recent work, but I’ve heard many good things.
Another current author I’d solidly recommend for beginners is Jack McDevitt. McDevitt often writes about continuing characters (star pilot and reluctant politician Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchinson in one series; art dealer Alex Benedict and pilot Chase Kolpath in another) but each novel stands on its own. The “Hutch” novels frequently include little news squibs at the end of each chapter, creating a nifty “future history” in miniature. The Alex and Chase novels have interstellar archeology, lost civilizations, and lots of intrigue.
Whether written ten years ago, twenty, or fifty, one of things that seems to give an SF novel longevity and make it interesting to a beginning reader is a “big” setting or concept. Those novels tied to immediate social concerns or trends date quickly. For this reason, “hard” SF, no matter how carefully thought through, often seems to go stale faster than the wildest space opera.
I’m sure there are lots of other books and authors that could be suggested… Perhaps some of you would care to offer your own suggestions of “non-classic” but still gripping SF tales that would lure in a new reader.