Read This! Or This? Or, Maybe, This?

At a meeting last week, an older (but still very active) writer of SF told how he had been asked by someone who had never read SF where she should start.

Eyes shining, this gentleman said his reply was something along these lines.  “I said I wished I could be where she was, starting all over again.  Then I mentioned H.G. Wells and Jules Verne…”

What to Suggest?

What to Suggest?

On some level I couldn’t place at the time, this answer bothered me.  It wasn’t until a couple of days later that why I was bothered crystalized.  I’d finished my current read (Dorsai by Gordon R. Dickson) and, when looking at my “to be read” shelf, I realized that I hadn’t finished the new translation of Jules Verne’s Sphinx of the Ice Realm.

My not finishing had nothing to do with the novel as such, but rather with the volume’s format.  In order to pack a considerable amount of material into a 413-page trade paperback –in addition to Verne’s novel, the volume also includes a fascinating introduction, annotations, and the complete text of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which inspired Verne’s Sphinx) – the publisher used very tiny print.  This challenged my eyes – especially at the end of the day, which is when I usually have time to read.

As I skimmed the opening, trying to decide whether Sphinx would be my next read, I found myself remembering what had been said at the meeting.  Would I recommend Verne and Wells to a new reader of SF?  My gut feeling was “absolutely not.”  Both writers were born in the 1800’s: Verne in 1828, Wells in 1866.  While both were quite creative for their time, much of what they wrote about has become part of the “furniture” of the field: time travel, invisibility, moon shots, mutants.

Moreover, their technology and science is distinctly dated.  When Verne wrote about Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, the submarine and its capacities were purest SF.  Today, submarines are reality.  Another example… Frederick Paul Walter explains in his notes to From the Earth to the Moon, Verne’s original story in its full text (often abridged by English translators) contains formulas that were solidly based on the science of the time.  These days, even with the formulas, the story is more likely to generate derision.

The issues the authors wrote about reflected the political and social agendas of their day.  For a modern reader, unfamiliar with those issues, character motivations are less comprehensible.

Verne offers a special problem in that his works in English were not well served by their translators.  Books were frequently abridged to the point of incomprehensibility.  Therefore, a new reader of SF who picks up an inexpensive reprint of a translation now in the public domain is quite likely to be confused.

None of this is likely to inspire the sort of “gee whiz” excitement that gets a new reader hooked on SF.

Moreover—going back to the original question – the person who asked for recommendations was female.  While both Verne and Wells have occasional interesting female characters, these are the rarities, not the rule.  The majority of their female characters reflect the time period’s values.  They’re homemakers, eager to become wives and mothers.  For a modern female, accustomed to seeing women depicted on television and in movies as starship captains, warriors, detectives, and pretty much any profession at all, this exclusion could be repellant.

Now that I’d figured out why I was bothered, the next question was how would I answer?

I realized that I wasn’t sure.  When I started reading SF, the majority of available books still featured male protagonists, and females in more or less traditional roles.  I just finished re-reading three of Gordon R. Dickson’s “Dorsai” novels.  Although the author says in his intro that the goal of these books is to speculate as to how humanity might evolve in the future – and although each of these novels is set several centuries in the future – female characters are almost invisible.  One spaceship, as I recall, has one female officer and she gets knocked unconscious during a battle.  Each book has a female secondary character, but these serve little purpose but to confuse the male character by being so alien, so female.

I’ll admit.  This didn’t bother me when I started reading SF.   After all, the landscape wasn’t all that different from what I encountered in school, where the majority of the books assigned were by male authors and about male characters.  What female characters appeared had few goals beyond getting a good husband.  But how would a modern reader – male or female – react?

So I toss the question out to all of you…  What books and/or authors would you recommend if asked by someone who wanted to start reading SF?  Don’t assume your audience is a kid.  Lots of adults, made newly aware of SF by movies and television, are interested in finding out what’s going on between the pages.  Would your recommendations change if the person was female?  What questions might you ask to help refine your choices?  Would you feel comfortable recommending the books that got you started?

I’ll be thinking about this, too.  I look forward to comparing notes!


16 Responses to “Read This! Or This? Or, Maybe, This?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    I never warmed to Verne (perhaps he had a bad translator). But I’ve always loved H. G. Wells’ short stories — I have a one volume complete collection which I was given as a prize at school, and I can still dip into it and read here and there with enormous pleasure. Wells was a pioneer; he opened doors that later (and sometimes greater) writers strode through in full explorer gear.

    But you’re right. He’s probably not the best introduction the field for modern sensibilities.

    So who would I recommend? Arthur C. Clarke never wrote a bad novel, in my opinion. His style is very English and may not appeal to some people as a result, but if your sympathies lie in that direction you cannot do better. (He was also a very Wellsian writer, in my opinion).

    Isaac Asimov’s short stories are also well worth seeking out. He was a terrible novelist but he was utterly brilliant at shorter lengths. The early Alfred Bester never fails to inspire.

    But (please excuse my sycophancy) Roger Zelazny has something for everybody. Anyone who loves a good story and perfectly formed prose will find something in Roger’s work to suit any mood.

    Among more contemporary writers I’d have to raise a cheer for Kage Baker. She died far too young but the work she left behind is utterly wonderful. I’ve introduced her to several friends and one and all they have become huge fans.

    John Brunner once remarked that he’d turned many a person into a rabid SF fan by getting them to read Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man In The High Castle. Hey! Two of my very favourite novelists mentioned in a single sentence. That’s probably as good as it gets. I’ll stop now…


  2. Peter Says:

    Ai. My answer to that one boils down to “depends on the person who’s asking”. Even two people of the same age, ethnicity, and gender may have radically different interests, and even Wells and Verne might be good stepping-off points for somebody with an existing interest in 19th century literature.

    “SF” covers a lot of ground, and I think you could probably find authors and novels to fit just about any taste – the trick is in tailoring the recommendation to the audience. Somebody who enjoys Margaret Atwood is probably going to like Sherri Tepper but bounce rather violently off Heinlein, and somebody who enjoys hard-boiled detective novels might enjoy Leviathan Wakes but throw Lord of Light against the wall.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I’m with Peter, about tailoring the selection to the person at hand.

    My screwball choice would be James Schmitz, simply because he wrote kick-ass female characters a long time before they got popular in movies and on TV. I suspect that if anyone ever tried to film Telzey Amberdon, she’d suffer the fate of John Carter–everyone would yawn and see they’ve seen her a dozen times before, not realizing that in many ways she and other Schmitz heroines were in many ways the prototypes.

    I’d also suggest thinking about William Gibson, with Neuromancer. Sometimes feels like we’re living in his world.

    Other choices would be more conventional: Anne McCaffrey, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Elizabeth Moon, and David Weber.

    If the person’s more of an intellectual who likes big books, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is about as big an idea series as one can get.

    If the person’s a cheapskate and genuinely interested in old fiction, Project Gutenberg has some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series available free, and Lovecraft’s free on the web too.

    Anyway, what were we supposed to suggest, the Illuminatus Trilogy?

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      So, what’s with the final snark?

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Nothing much. I was just trying to think of the worst famous series possible to introduce someone to SFF with. I remember how much of a slog it was to get through that one.

        Actually, the one I’d like to add is Herbert’s Dune. Not necessarily the rest of the series, but most people seem to like the first book.

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    I’d second a vote for James H. Schmitz–the novella “The Demon Breed” is one of my favorites. And also Elizabeth Moon’s “Vatta’s War” series (the Serrano novels should wait until you’ve got the subject hooked). I’d also suggest Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold. H. Beam Piper has some gems in Little Fuzzy and its sequels, as well as the Lord Kalvan stories. Ender’s Game and Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card also get strong endorsements, with the caveat that there’s a lot of other novels by him that I really did not care for at all. Oh, and maybe some of Heinlein’s “juvenile” novels–Red Planet, Space Cadet, Between Planets–that sort of thing.

    Basically, this list is the result of a mental trawl through my bookshelf, wondering what I’d feel comfortable recommending to my mother, sister-in-law, or nephews.

  5. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I may understand exactly what that writer was thinking, because I probably came to SF in the same way he did, especially if we’re close in age. But what he is suggesting would be for someone who wants to study the HISTORY of SF, not just start reading the stuff. And as has been said here, it would depend on the novice reader’s tastes. Space opera? Time travel? Paranormal romance? Military SF? Social SF? Utopias? Dystopias? Robots? SF mystery? Comic book stuff (now the most popular movie genre)? Scientific breakthroughs? Early “classics”? Cyberpunk? New Wave? Strange inventions? I could go on and on. It would be interested to know just why the person suddenly wanted to start reading SF.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    David Weber.

    His Honor Harrington books are well thought out and well written. The science, even the stuff that goes over your-head (which is a fair amount in my case), still leaves a mark. The rest is absorbed to build the world. Honor may be female, but really anyone should identify with her. Or if not her, if they start with book one (which you always should), you get to connect with her first officer instead. There really is someone for everyone to connect to.

    Now Weber doesn’t pull any punches. The combat is real, and so are the consequences. He doesn’t hold back in talking about a missile crew dying when their ship takes a hit. I don’t mean in detailed descriptions. Just the fact that he tells you it happened, which makes the battles very, very real.

    Thus, for something lighter, same author, same world, different time. The tree-cat books are actually a pretty good place to start. Alien world, alien creatures, sci-fi tech, but not at heavy as a military sci-fi. Kind of an intro to sci-fi that’s not all lasers and ship-to-ship battles. Just a futuristic world, with futuristic problems.

    Though I also always recommend Star Trek, but that’s a TV show, not a book. Still, I’ll note it anyway. Yeah some may call it cheesy by current standards, but if they start with the Next Generation rather than the Original, I don’t think it would scare them off.

    Just my two cents. Take it or leave it.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      if you want to point somebody at Star Trek, you could do far worse than James Blish’s adaptations of TOS scripts. He actually makes a lot of it seem almost rational 😉

      And Blish was no slouch in his own right; most of what he wrote is worth consideration. Another James who’s worn well is James White – the Hospital Station books in particular, but all are good.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        I really liked the Blish Star Trek adaptations. Reading them and knowing the shows taught me a lot about different ways of telling a story.

        And they led me to more of Blish, which was all good.

        I’ve missed James White. Must see if I have any.

  7. noneyah Says:

    Recommending classics has always seemed the safe bet to a new person. They are often synonymous with being well written, nicely balanced, and compared to modern books/movies/etc. fairly mild. I see it as the equivalent of starting a child off with either vanilla or chocolate ice cream. I typically ask questions along the lines of whether they want a book about people or about a world, if they have a time period in mind, something light or a morality tale, etc. If their preferences match something I’ve read I’ll mention it, if not, I’ll say as much and mention my thoughts of the classics and to see if any of them seem interesting.

    As to the sex of the protagonist and their role… The human race is a dichotomous species, regardless of current in vogue thought about that fact. For myself, a decade or so ago if I liked the synopsis of a book I bought it and had, at minimum, an enjoyable read. Now, I’m getting very tired of Strong but Flawed Heroine #7356031, insertprefixPunk, or even X Tale Reimagined. IMO, they’ve become as trite as others seem to find Men being Men and Women being Women.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Oh, yeah… The fill in the blanks “tough” female is making me crazy — especially in the “new” urban fantasy/ Buffy fic. Some of those women are postively interchangeable.

      I really worked to give Adara in ARTEMIS AWAKENING some real dimension.

  8. Jane Lindskold Says:

    There are SO many interesting thoughts here I’m not even going to try to tackle them in a short Comment. Instead, I’m taking notes and going to do a fuller post next week.

    (Side note: Thanks for the reminder of James H. Schimtz. I’d forgotten how much I love his works — and he’s so outlandish at times that his work doesn’t date.)

    Please feel free to keep the suggestions coming!

  9. Paul Dellinger Says:

    It’s hard for me to resist pushing the “classics” – Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov – or the early stuff. Wells pretty much laid out many of the basics of what SF was about for decades and decades. I wouldn’t recommend Verne, unless it’s one of the recent translations as the old ones (the ones I grew up reading) were very poor for many reasons.

    • Peter Says:

      If I’m going to push somebody from that era it’s much more likely to be Norton, honestly. The softer edges on the tech means it holds up better (they’re calculating the route for their FTL drive with…a slide rule, you say?) especially for younger audiences (how many teenagers today know what a slide rule looks like, much less that they were known as “slipsticks”?)

      Plus her characters usually weren’t refugees from Flatland…

  10. julietbartel Says:

    I’m late chiming in, but that won’t stop me from first dancing around the question and then listing a handful of stand-by titles. Reader’s advisory is one of the very best parts of being a librarian (for me, at least) so I would have answered the original question VERY differently. Like most of you I would have asked a whole bunch of questions for recommending a specific book. What have you read and loved recently? What genre(s) do you read most often? What is your favorite book and what do you like best about it? And my favorite question: what book do you hate, and why?

    Follow-up questions are even more important, though. Non-objective elements, like what do you remember most about a book? (setting? characters? plot? language? narrative structure? pace?) and objective elements like emotional response are good to know. And in this particular case, I’d probably ask them what prompted them to try something new–something they read or saw? a comment from a friend? an urge to branch out?

    One weird thing I’ve noticed over the years is that when people are trying something new I tend to have a lot more success with newer titles rather than older. I’m not sure if people simply want to feel like they’re reading something more timely or relevant, or if if they want to be on the cutting edge, or… But unless I was asked for “classics” of the genre or, as mentioned above, something involving the history of the genre, I would skew new (relatively speaking) just about every time.

    So I’d suggest 4 or 5 titles and BOOKTALK them briefly to see whether any sparked an interest–and that’s what I’d recommend.

    All that said, I don’t want to cop out on the actual question, though there are already a lot of good recommendations on this thread, so here are some of the go-to science fiction titles I hand over when I don’t feel like I have enough information to give a more personal recommendation. They aren’t all books I love (though many are) but they’re books that a lot of people seem to like, that have proven accessible to non-genre readers in my experience.

    Lefthand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill
    Dune by Frank Herbert
    Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
    Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
    Feed by M.T. Anderson
    Cinder by Marissa Meyer
    Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
    Asimov or Bradbury short stories

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