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Oddly enough Dhalgren wasn't mentioned.
January 30, 2014 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Want to introduce your genre shunning friends or family to the wonders of science fiction? A baker's dozen of sf writers and editors, including a certain John Scalzi of this parish, have listed their favourite books to entice new readers to science fiction with.
posted by MartinWisse (103 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dhalgren is how you introduce your friend with a literature PHD to Sci-Fi.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:53 PM on January 30 [13 favorites]


Really happy to see them recommending Ted Chiang's stuff.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 12:54 PM on January 30 [8 favorites]


hate to say it, but in terms of easy reading and a relatively quick starting story that never really lets up, Ender's Game is the first title that comes to mind for me ... and I notice it makes Daniel Abraham's list. "just don't google Orson Scott Card afterward"
posted by philip-random at 12:56 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


I don't need to read the link to know that it's going to be 13 citations of Piers Anthony's book about God.
posted by COBRA! at 12:58 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Dawn, by Octavia Butler. It's very zeitgeisty with radicals right now, and I've lost count of how many people who, upon hearing that I read (and do a little teaching about) SF have told me "Oh, I don't really read science fiction....but I love Octavia Butler".

Also, Marge Piercy's novel Woman On The Edge of Time and Nalo Hopkinson's novel Brown Girl In The Ring.

And did you know that Walter Mosley also writes SF? I haven't read any yet (I just found out about this last Sunday) but I bet that people who have read Mosley's mysteries would be interested in his science fiction.
posted by Frowner at 1:03 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]


"Oh, I don't really read science fiction....but I love Octavia Butler".

I got this from people in re: The Sparrow for the longest time, but none of those people ever read any more SF. So I'm not sure the cross-genre technique really works.

I still haven't read The Sparrow. I kind of assumed there was something horrible about it that sucked out your bones.

Really I think the boring answer to this is "any good book".
posted by selfnoise at 1:06 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I feel like, thanks to J.K. Rowling, fantasy won't have this problem in a few decades.

Aren't there like a million SF books under the YA and Middle Readers category these days?
posted by Artw at 1:07 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I like The Sparrow quite a bit, although it and its sequel do sort of play the game of the author "proving" the existence of God by creating a series of coincidences.
posted by COBRA! at 1:08 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see some of my favorite Ursula K. Leguin titles (Dispossessed & Left Hand of Darkness) on that list.

I'm surprised and not-surprised (at once! There must be a German word for that) to see Cloud Atlas on there.
posted by entropone at 1:09 PM on January 30


Nalo Hopkinson's novel Brown Girl In The Ring.

A failing on my part, but every time I start reading this, I can't get past the dialect in the first couple of pages or the setting.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:16 PM on January 30


For a certain set of readers I think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a great choice. Kind of a shame that the trilogy goes from a great first novel, to an interesting second to an honestly mediocre third. Honestly though I look at that list and see a lot of books full of clunky prose and two dimensional characters (cough* Spin *cough*) , which I really think is part of what drives people away from sci fi.
posted by aspo at 1:18 PM on January 30


Way back a long time ago, I started with Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed, but then never really read much more scifi - mysteries were my main genre.

But over the last few years, I've been reading more and more scifi. I love KSR because so much of his stuff is so policy-wonky. Fell in love with Iain M. Banks thanks to metafilter, and have read most of jscalzi and some cstross because of the same. Am currently reading across a bunch of space opera/AI things. Got a third of the way through The Sparrow and got bored.
posted by rtha at 1:19 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to thank Martin for the charming use of the 'of this parish' construction in the post!

Now to read the links.
posted by winna at 1:22 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


rtha: May I suggest The Quiet War or House of Suns? I feel both those authors do KSR better than KSR does.
posted by aspo at 1:22 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


I still haven't read The Sparrow. I kind of assumed there was something horrible about it that sucked out your bones.

Well, the secret the whole plot revolves around can be a bit triggering and as a whole I found it to be a bit too smug. It's also one of those books that comes at science fiction from an angle, a bit of an awkward fit.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:23 PM on January 30


Why does it have to be novels?

I think great short story collections, based on a single theme (e.g. "robots", or "time travel") or like the yearly "Best of" one Gardner Dozois has been putting out for the past thirty years would make excellent intros as well.
posted by Renoroc at 1:23 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Someone let me know when scalzi shows up.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:25 PM on January 30


You are a terrible person, aspo, for directly suggesting things for me to add to my to-read pile. Which at least is digital, these days, and does not threaten to crush me in my sleep. Thank you.
posted by rtha at 1:26 PM on January 30


The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, Leguin, all good picks I think. I'd include Banks, Heinlein, Asimov, and how about A Canticle For Leibowitz? Hyperion if they like action. OH and some K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle would be one)
posted by meta87 at 1:29 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


My Mom reads JD Robb novels, and when I found out, I asked her how she liked the science fiction aspect. She said, "They're not science fiction...well, except for the robots."
posted by xingcat at 1:31 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


It drives me up the WALL when SF people throw out Spin as an example of the genre with grounded characters who react realistically. Asimov had less cardboard characters and pat social situations than Spin. It's bizarre, because Julian Comstock proved that Wilson could do believable and engaging characters, but those skills are so not on display in Spin.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:35 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Oh, oh oh. No idea if this is a good fit as a book for new readers, but best novel of 2013 to me is Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension, which is just a glorious mess of a novel. And it stars a queer woman of colour trying to keep her working class job going during a galactic depression while her much more successful elder sister swans about holding new agey therapy sessions for rich tourists, so is it any wonder she stows away on a spaceship and falls in love with its glamourous captain?

oh, and it's the sort of book in which the heroine can talk about the health privileges of her sister without it coming out forced and it's great to see a character struggling with a chronic disease without it being either just a DnD style weakness or the sole focus of her character.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:39 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


If we're talking Scalzi, I honestly can't think that anybody would not like Old Man's War if they gave it a try.

But I gotta say, Michael Crichton has done more for introducing sci-fi to the masses than anybody else on this list. Prey and Jurassic Park are top notch.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:46 PM on January 30


The first and only time I have ever written to an author was to Mary Doria Russel about "The Sparrow". This was back in the late 1990's as her book was being optioned for a film (by Antonio Banderas at the time, though I think Brad Pitt got a hold of it later) and she asked fans on her site to email her ideas on who should play the lead, Emilio Sandoz. I emailed her about a then little-known British actor named Alfred Molina. She actually sent me a long personal email back about the whole book-to-film process she was going through (as well as her recovery from recent surgery involving gangrenous fibroids. Not shy, that woman). Very cool.

As a side note, my wife has yet to read "The Sparrow" but I gave her a copy of Russel's "Doc" about Doc Holiday and she loooved it. Great read.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 1:47 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]


i love *reading*

i just hate *to read*

got a new kindle for christmas and have read 1 book on it. Maybe some of these will spark my interest more.
posted by rebent at 1:49 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I did like The Sparrow; I despised the sequel, which I thought was the patly religious one. The Time Traveller's Wife also did well though it also didn't pull people to the genre as much as allow them to read genre books that pretended to be general fiction. (Speed of Dark got marketed that way too.)

I don't actually think a lot of the books suggested there are great introductions (Little Brother? Ready Player One? Babel-17? TV show novelizations?) but it's interesting to see how people define introductions.
posted by jeather at 1:54 PM on January 30


Dhalgren is how you introduce your friend with a literature PHD to Sci-Fi.

No, I think Dhalgren is how you introduce James Joyce to Sc-Fi, and as he is dead, I've sort of back-burnered that for now.
posted by Naberius at 1:55 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]


with Dhalgren?





What's wrong
posted by Pistache at 2:00 PM on January 30 [9 favorites]


turbid dahlia: "If we're talking Scalzi, I honestly can't think that anybody would not like Old Man's War if they gave it a try."

Well, it currently has 25 one star Amazon reviews. The SF Site called it "pedestrian." Locus gave it a pretty harsh review.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:02 PM on January 30


but best novel of 2013 to me is Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension, which is just a glorious mess of a novel. And it stars a queer woman of colour trying to keep her working class job going during a galactic depression while her much more successful elder sister swans about holding new agey therapy sessions for rich tourists, so is it any wonder she stows away on a spaceship and falls in love with its glamourous captain?

Sounds more than a little like one of Melissa Scott's sf books from the 90s (which I liked a lot) before she turned to fantasy.
posted by aught at 2:06 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Scott is amazing as well and Trouble and Her Friends is a better cyberpunk novel than either Schismatrix or Neuromancer.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:11 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


Asimov had less cardboard characters and pat social situations than Spin.

Um, no. While I don't think Spin is RCW's best book (Mysterium and Blind Lake as amazing, for example), comparing it to author's-mouthpiece Golden Age sci-fi is going a bit far.

I do think there is a case to be made for criticizing him for having too-similar main characters in many of his books, however - or at least main characters with too-similar hang-ups or neuroses. Personally, I've always found the great prose and concepts in his novels outweigh that problem.
posted by aught at 2:13 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


If we're talking Scalzi, I honestly can't think that anybody would not like Old Man's War if they gave it a try.

Michael Crichton has done more for introducing sci-fi to the masses than anybody else on this list.


(Re Crichton) Sci-fi, maybe. But not quality science fiction. His books are bestseller thrillers with some medical or science props onstage to make shiny.

Scalzi's a good writer, but I think many are shy of anything that might remotely be military sci-fi in this time when there is so much mediocre Extruded Mil Sci-fi Product on big box bookstore shelves - so that might have kept some folks from giving his books a try. Redshirts will probably change that unfairness.
posted by aught at 2:20 PM on January 30


Did you know Louis L'Amour wrote a SciFi novel? Its true! A friend of mine who knew I liked SciFi gave it to me to read.

It may be the worst book I ever finished. So very bad...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:23 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I love you so much right now, Pistache.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:38 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I think I'd be tailoring my recommendations to the reader. The paranormal romance subgenre has totally blown up, but I used to recommend Connie Willis, Sharon Shinn, & Emma Bull to those of that crowd who like Jane Austen. For mystery readers Mosley's scifi is great, as is Joe Lansdale. The people who read Oprahs' book club or nothing but "literature" are a little harder to pigeonhole, but maybe just pointing out this list plus Borges, and Patricia Anthony would do.

Spy thriller & horror readers are often on the border of sci fi already, so I'm not going into it.

I'd add John Courtenay Grimwood as being fun, accessible but not too overladen with explainers.

I liked Scalzi's Old Man's War, but it's not my favorite of his works.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:46 PM on January 30


While I'll admit that the lack of linearity of Dahlgren can be a bit of a puzzle, I've always been confused as to why that book is always references as a difficult book to read. From my memory (it's been over 15 years, damn, I really should reread it. Although I'm worried that early 20s me may have been more easily blown away than I am now.) while the overall narrative is nonlinear, the actual events are pretty clear in the moment (if sometimes unreliable), and if you just keep reading the complexity starts to become a lot more clear.
posted by aspo at 3:01 PM on January 30


Yeah.. Basically if you can make it through the first 15 pages, you're going to be OK.

I'd love to reread it as well. I don't really remember it being SF to be honest. At least not like some other of Delany's books.
posted by selfnoise at 3:09 PM on January 30


"If we're talking Scalzi, I honestly can't think that anybody would not like Old Man's War if they gave it a try."

I read the first page of Old Man's War and thought "This guy is a dick" and put it down never to be lifted again.
posted by nooneyouknow at 3:10 PM on January 30


"I read the first page of Old Man's War and thought 'This guy is a dick' and put it down never to be lifted again."

No gonna lie. I kind of love this comment.
posted by jscalzi at 3:17 PM on January 30 [31 favorites]


And... Here's Johnny...
posted by jgaiser at 3:19 PM on January 30


For adult noobs 25-35 with a scientific bent and imagination, I'd have to go with Niven's Ringworld. (Lots of sequels). 15-25, probably Snow Crash (Doesn't like Stephenson, not fit for a Con, and the book's followed by many amazements). Neither author mentioned on that page, amazingly. Who ARE those guys?

Older adults and/or voracious readers: Simmons' Hyperion, LeGuin, Walter Miller, Farmer, Silverbird.

Who's this Scalzi whippersnapper?
posted by Twang at 3:26 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


geez guys ok i will read old mans war dang

My to read list just keeps growing and growing thanks to this place...
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 3:35 PM on January 30


I don't need to read the link to know that it's going to be 13 citations of Piers Anthony's book about God.

Some of the first comments are recommending Xanth and Discworld novels. . . who'd a thunk a post like that would need a 'don't read the comments' note ;-)

My 5¢ - for authors not previously mentioned Charles Sheffield's Brother to Dragons (for your post-apocalyptic Ender's Game lovers) and Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana (for those who like their tolkien spiced with romantic melodrama).

I'd tell you more about how much I love both those authors (despite their shortcomings), but I've got some new authors to check out.
posted by ianhattwick at 3:36 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Lots of bad recommendations unfortunately.

"The Dispossessed" is a hard read. No one I've tried to get to read it has finished it.

There's lots of badly written trash. I can't mention specifics, at least one is written by someone I know personally, but I'd never recommend e.g. the Trek genre novels (though Ford isn't bad - considering).

Ender's Game?! Must we? It isn't just the Card's poisonousness, it's the whole "apology for genocide" and "kids killing kids" part of the first book, the anti-gay theme of a later book, and the overall anti-female feeling of it.

Also - tons of these are NOT science fiction. American Gods (fine book), Inaro (um), a whole bunch of others...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:56 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Twang: "I'd have to go with Niven's Ringworld. (Lots of sequels)."

No, there most certainly are NOT any sequels to Ringworld.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:39 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


I'm in the process of luring my teenage nephew into the fold and so this is a timely post.

I started him off with Vonnegut --Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. I actually have no idea where to go now. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is probably next. I've also considered Steven Gould's Jumper.

For adults, I might try something like Ken Grimwood's Replay. I think Niven/Pournelle's Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer would make for good introductory reading, too. Stephen King has several books that might qualify as well: Firestarter, The Stand, etc. And looking at my own suggestions, I think part of the answer might be books that have one foot in a recognizable reality and one foot in a possible (if not plausible) future. While I'm not a fan of it, The Passage by Justin Cronin also fits the bill.

Short stories might work too. Ted Chiang would be an excellent choice here, and I have fond memories of some Joe Haldeman and Bob Shaw collections. It's all a question of knowing your customer, and finding the right gateway drug. If you're a friend and you're interested, the first hit is on me.
posted by zueod at 4:49 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Robert Silverberg... Dying Inside, perhaps?
posted by Wolfdog at 4:50 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


for authors not previously mentioned Charles Sheffield's Brother to Dragons

I have been thinking about Sheffield a lot since that last black hole thread. I loved his books so much, and the knowledge that there will never be any more of them broke my heart!

I kind of guffawed at the one person in the article suggesting reading media tie-ins--because that's so stupid and shallow, right?--except that then I realized that, as far as I can remember, the first grown-up science fiction novel I ever read was Alan Dean Foster's adaptation of Outland, because my dad had it in a stack of books by his recliner, and it looked interesting, and had bad words in it. Before that, most of my science-fictionish reading was about robots, aliens and monsters featured in black and white movies...for some reason my local library had several books about these, and I checked them out repeatedly, over the course of years, staring at the pictures and trying to copy them by hand, salivating over the plot summaries, wishing I knew some way to watch them. When I realized you could get robots and spaceships in novel form, good god, there was no stopping me.
posted by mittens at 4:53 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Sad not to see Zelazny mentioned yet, here or there. He comes in a lot of flavors, heavy and light on the metaphor, poetry, realism, etc. You come for the brisk and accessible storytelling and stay for all the unexpected beauties it contains.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:56 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


Upon further reflection, I think that Paolo Bacigalupi's comment may be most insightful. People are not interested in a genre they've already dismissed with their preconceived notions, but they will be hooked by a good book in that genre that plays to what they like in fiction. The Dispossessed was a great book for my wife because it's ultimately about characters struggling with (and against) society. But it would be like a stone wall for many other people. The trick is to convince the reader that there is a SF genre for them, and you have to start with who they are and where they are.
posted by selfnoise at 4:57 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


"The Dispossessed" is a hard read. No one I've tried to get to read it has finished it.

Not my experience, FWIW.
posted by Artw at 5:01 PM on January 30


Dated as hell but somehow even more fun for all that, Bester's The Stars My Destination deliberately evokes Dickens and Dumas from the very first sentence, without ever actually stealing from either of them. Perfect for hooking a certain kind of non-SF reader... but then, who the hell would you follow him with?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:07 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]


The Dispossessed was a great book for my wife because it's ultimately about characters struggling with (and against) society. But it would be like a stone wall for many other people. The trick is to convince the reader that there is a SF genre for them, and you have to start with who they are and where they are.

It seems like you could take a person's favorite moral or political issue and work some recommendations in around that. Like Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Nicola Griffith's Ammonite, Bellamy's Looking Backward, etc... The utopian/dystopian axis of speculative fiction is perfect for exploring a straw-man model of reality to it's hyperbolic conclusion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:11 PM on January 30


"I read the first page of Old Man's War and thought 'This guy is a dick' and put it down never to be lifted again."

No gonna lie. I kind of love this comment.
posted by jscalzi at 6:17 PM on January 30 [13 favorites +] [!]

I once saw John Irving speak, and he told this great story about seeing someone reading Garp on a plane. It was very gratifying until the person made a disgusted noise, ripped the book, and stuffed it deep into the seat pocket.

Awhile later, with nothing else to do, the person reluctantly pulled it out and started reading again.
posted by not that girl at 5:28 PM on January 30 [9 favorites]


Who are these people who don't like science fiction?

Some comments in the article, and also here, mention people who don't generally like science fiction being given one book and then liking that one book. But do they become fans? Do they branch out and read swaths of science fiction compulsively?

I have no problem with science fiction myself (though my preference runs towards the 70s new wave stuff), but if I did, none of the comments really address why science fiction apart from "it's a good book." What is it about the genre itself that is necessary? Is there something? If I don't like science fiction, why should I?

Most of this article seems to boil down to just marketing, in the sense that some people think that all sci-fi is shit, but look here's some that isn't.

I'm honestly interested in an answer. I think it's interesting the way some genres simply just die. Westerns used to be widely popular across a broad variety of media (books, film, television, radio) well into the 1970s. And now no one really gives a shit about westerns.

But that's across the board. Science fiction is massively popular in certain areas, like video games. And most all the highest-grossing film franchises are science fictional in some way, if not outright science fiction, so it's not like people are unfamiliar with the concept. But what is it about the current state of science fiction that seems to repel so many people and why shouldn't they flee?
posted by fryman at 6:35 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Feh! No Bujold? No Banks?
posted by Bruce H. at 6:47 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


Bruce H.: "Feh! No Bujold? No Banks?"

I got my literary-fiction-focused book club to read Bujold's "Curse of Chalion" and they looooooooooooved it. Not so much that they're suddenly genre fans, but enough that they ask me for recommendations from time to time, and a couple of them have capitulated to the culture and read "Game of Thrones" because "Chalion" convinced them that a book with magic in it might not be automatically terrible.

I'm not sure what I'd go with if I wanted to get them into "hard" Sci Fi. Maybe Le Guin. Nobody ever regrets spending time with Le Guin.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:05 PM on January 30


Science fiction has always repelled a large percentage of readers. If anything it's just that the 70s were, well, the 70s. You can't pick the one period that's a clear outlier in almost every way and wonder what changed between then and now.
posted by aspo at 7:08 PM on January 30


I would second the recommendation of Zelazny. Though his female characters are weak, he was one of the best (and most prolific) writers of his generation. Lord of Light has some of the best passages ever (the duel between the God of Death and the acolyte of the Buddha comes to mind) and is sf bordering on fantasy (see Clarke's Law).

His book The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth runs the gamut from amusing to profoundly moving with A Rose For Ecclesiastes one of my favorites.

I would also second anything by Connie Willis who always has wonderful characters, but particularly Doomsday Book and any of the other time travel books. However, I would not recommend Blackout or All Clear because, good as they are, they suffer from an extreme case time travel confusion because who's where, when becomes overwhelming.

She has also written some wonderful short stories, many of which belong to the time travel series. Uncharted Territory is one of her short story collections that comes to mind. FWIW, though not many people seem to realize it, Connie Willis has won more Hugo's (11) and Nebula's (7) than any other writer and has been nominated as many times again for each award.
posted by BillW at 7:23 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


But that's across the board. Science fiction is massively popular in certain areas, like video games. And most all the highest-grossing film franchises are science fictional in some way, if not outright science fiction, so it's not like people are unfamiliar with the concept. But what is it about the current state of science fiction that seems to repel so many people and why shouldn't they flee?

Wait, what? Science fiction is thriving - all that schlocky YA, The Road, Oryx and Crake - SF tropes are massively respectable and creep into mainstream literature far more than they did in my youth. Science fiction studies is an actual thing in which you can get a PhD. Fancy "respectable" editions of Delany and Butler novels come out regularly from highfalutin' presses. I have a subscription to the fucking Journal of Science Fiction Studies.

But to actually answer your question I think you need some genre theory.

I will preface this by saying that if you don't have a general sense of the history of the genre and some vague ideas about big writers both popular and fancy - Delany, Russ, Butler, Le Guin, Gibson, Jemisin, Wolfe, Tiptree, Banks, Mieville just for starters - you're not going to have enough grounding in the genre to readily come up with good speculation about what it does.

A lot of people read science fiction as if it's failed literary fiction and they end up disappointed because it [generally] doesn't do what literary fiction does. Science fiction is didactic and dialogue-oriented genre that priorities collective subjects over individual, is generally morally relativist and tends to operate on a big scale both spatially and temporally. This can happen in a sophisticated way and involve lots of high-culture literary cues, as with Delany or Russ; it can happen in a pop-schlock way as with Tepper. Science fiction tends to be accessible - it's easier to read Delany than James Joyce even though Dhalgren is a difficult book because Joe Reader has more of the background you need for Dhalgren than he does for Ulysses. Science fiction is a genre where non-elites debate history, memory, gender, philosophy - it's not that you can't debate these things if you're a passionate reader of mystery stories or the Nouveau Roman, but science fiction puts them front and center - again, sometimes in a sophisticated way, as with Butler, and sometimes in a thumpingly obvious way as with Heinlein.

The thing is, people who read literary fiction assume automatically that it's normal and natural to care about literary fiction, and that there can't possibly be an intelligent group of readers who care about anything else - science fiction is always already trash, or in decline, or being absorbed by literary fiction. But actually, one reason people read SF is just that they're persistently interested in the aesthetics of the genre. Currently, for instance, I'm interested in the way James Tiptree expanded the kinds of emotionality and writing about the body that were acceptable in SF - just as I might be interested in how, oh, I don't know, the popularity of certain S. American authors in the 1980s brought magic realist tropes into English-language writing in the nineties.

And then there's the whole political history of SF - from Bogdanov's Red Star and Bellamy's Looking Backward to The Dispossessed and Octavia Butler's Earthseed books, SF is a mobilizing literature. If you're not around a particular kind of activist/artistic milieu, you won't know this - but people have grouped around those books to use them as springboards to talk about political action and radical philosophy. (You might want to check out Donna Haraway on this front, too - not just her cyborg essay but also Modest Witness@Second Millenium.

A lot of people opine about SF and its failings based on having read the Foundation Trilogy in high school and watched a couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica.
posted by Frowner at 7:23 PM on January 30 [10 favorites]


My mother-in-law decorates with antiques and a bit of country kitsch. She subscribes to Southern Living. At Christmas, an entire Dickens village comes out of the attic to be set up, complete with cotton batting snow and little figurines. She wears LL Bean. Her phone was set to pulse for a long time, even though it was push button. She only got a cell phone, which she and my father-in-law share, in the past couple of years. The same is true of her ATM card. She has never owned a personal computer of any sort, let alone a smartphone or a tablet. I love her, but we couldn't possibly be more different.

She reads Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, that sort of thing.

A while back, she added some John Grisham to that list. Then some David Baldacci. Michael Crichton. Tom Clancy. Robert Ludlum.

Few months ago, she was at the library, and they were out of her usual favorites. She picked up a new book by an author she'd never read, looked at the book jacket, decided it sounded good, checked it out, and brought it home. Later that week, she and my husband had their weekly phone call, and she told him about the book.

"Have you ever heard of the author George Martin?"

". . . . . . You mean George *R* *R* Martin, Mom??"

"Yes, that's him. I picked up this book called Game of Thrones, I'm really liking it!"

Which all goes to say that there is SF and fantasy out there for everyone. Ev. Ry. ONE.
posted by booksherpa at 7:29 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


I'm going to push up my brass goggles and suggest Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. It's only just barely science-fiction. (Finish the Race JUST IN TIME with this One Weird Trick!) But it has so many qualities that someone foreign to SF can enjoy: it's a race, it's a travelogue, it's a romantic comedy, and it's an historical costume drama. But the sting in its tail is just enough to intrigue the thoughtful. ("Hey! He's right! Why, there are implications to the realization that the world is round!")
posted by SPrintF at 7:52 PM on January 30


The second step after Verne's AtWi80D is Paula Volsky's Grand Ellipse.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:47 PM on January 30


Frowner: I think it's telling that you mention a bunch of 60s, 70s and early 80s authors. The truth was that late 80s to the early-mid 00s were a pretty bleak time for SF. Writing in the style of the 70s just felt dated, and earlier tropes just felt silly. Cyberpunk got dated really fast, etc. And yes, I do agree that we are in SF renaissance, and it's telling to see how the themes have changed since the last time SF was so interesting.
posted by aspo at 9:04 PM on January 30


The Sparrow is brutal, is what it is. Horrible / sucks out the bones is what it's supposed to do.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:23 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'd like to humbly posit that my my Ask MeFi question from last year produced a better list.
posted by Dag Maggot at 9:32 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]


i don't know why everyone considers Dhalgren a bad place to start, it is what convinced me to love SF, because it was about cities, and queerness, and how language worked, and about the potential of otherness...and so much of the SF i read, even the work about cities was so tight and ironically contained. I also started with Disch, just after that. Camp Concentration was just so beautifully written, and so frightening, and so much about power, and authority, and how to lose everything--it is the perfect book for a scared 18 yr old to read and I am sad that i didn't read it until my 20s. Lastly, Ballard, for how ordinary and prophetic his futurism his, and how the language entwined with violence and the flesh of new machines. All of the SF i love came because I read those three writers b/w 20 and 25, when I stopped being a snob. (well and Capek's War of the Newts, which also might not be SF but I read it in an SF class, where I didn't read Disch and Delaney and Ballard)
posted by PinkMoose at 11:10 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


What, no mention of Ken MacLeod? Or Bruce Sterling's short stories? I be disappoint....

Someone mentioned introducing young folks to science fiction. All I can suggest is what worked for me back in the day: Clarke's "Dolphin Island", Heinlein's juveniles (esp. "Red Planet"), and Piper's "Little Fuzzy".

As always, YMMV....
posted by e-man at 11:15 PM on January 30


Of all the books by Ursula K. Le Guin, why would people recommend "Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Dispossessed" instead of The Lathe of Heaven ?

... Actually, I don't understand why The Lathe of Heaven doesn't get more acclaim in general these days ... it's such a wonderful, profound and humane book, with a perspective and sentiment so needed for our time.
posted by Auden at 12:35 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


The truth was that late 80s to the early-mid 00s were a pretty bleak time for SF.

Nooo, I disagree. That time period saw the continuing evolution of Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, the best books Mary Gentle has written so far, the first publications of Banks, MacLeod, Liz Williams, Justina Robson, Charlie Stross, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, China Mieville, Steph Swainston, Susanna Clarke, et bloody cetera.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:40 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, I also did an AskMefi about Dhalgren several years ago.
posted by Dag Maggot at 12:51 AM on January 31


I got a couple of friends hooked on SciFi with Iain Banks' Player of Games over the years, and still could not think of a better introduction to the genre.

For the politically inclined I'd recommend Ken Macleods The Cassini Division.
posted by ts;dr at 2:19 AM on January 31


I really need to update my recommendations (and may steal some from this thread) but Flowers for Algernon used to be one of my go to suggestions for folks who "don't like science fiction". Since a lot of people read it in school, it's often less intimidating pointing them at a re-read of something they vaguely remember liking. Also it's not "hard" scifi and relatively short so makes for a good gateway drug.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:39 AM on January 31


For "people [who] read science fiction as if it's failed literary fiction and they end up disappointed because it (generally) doesn't do what literary fiction does" might I recommend Jack Womack, starting with either Ambient, the first he wrote, or Random Acts of Senseless Violence, the chronologically first book in the series. Both books feature plausible creole languages and pose an intensely probably dystopia. More to the point, Womack writes like the bastard love child of Faulkner and Hunter S. Thompson.

Tangentially related.
posted by digitalprimate at 3:56 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


i don't know why everyone considers Dhalgren a bad place to start, it is what convinced me to love SF

To be honest, its reputation as a hard book to learn to love was largely build retrospectively and for politicial reasons as much as for anything really difficult with it. After all, it was a genuine, 500,000 copies or more bestseller when first published, but for a certain subset of science fiction "fans" it became a symbol of everything that went wrong with sf because of the New Wave.

Dhalgren was too ambitious, too far away from what they considered proper stories, so it became a symbol, something that has ever since been echoed by the sort of fan for whom David Weber is dangerously intellectual.

And yes, most of these were born long after the New Wave came and went...
posted by MartinWisse at 4:02 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


The thing is, people who read literary fiction assume automatically that it's normal and natural to care about literary fiction, and that there can't possibly be an intelligent group of readers who care about anything else

Do you mean *some* people who read literary fiction? Otherwise that's a specious claim. There are people who read both lit fiction and SF/Fantasy/etc. and there are people who acknowledge the validity of other genres even when it's not their cup of tea; for instance, the crime novel has seen a period of acceptance (and may I recommend Simenon's The Blue Room to anyone with a pulse).
posted by ersatz at 4:22 AM on January 31




Frowner: I think it's telling that you mention a bunch of 60s, 70s and early 80s authors. The truth was that late 80s to the early-mid 00s were a pretty bleak time for SF. Writing in the style of the 70s just felt dated, and earlier tropes just felt silly. Cyberpunk got dated really fast, etc. And yes, I do agree that we are in SF renaissance, and it's telling to see how the themes have changed since the last time SF was so interesting.


I disagree. In fact, I'm teaching a mini-class on eighties and nineties SF right now (well, really I'm workshopping it - it needs to be longer because we're just not getting to enough nineties material.)

One thing that jumps out at me is that from the late eighties through the early-mid 2000s was a time when far more queer folks and women of color were starting to write SF or starting to become bigger presences in it - Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Tannarive Due, Nicola Griffith, Hal Duncan, Timmi DuChamp, and that's only the beginning! Really important anthologies like Swords of the Rainbow and Dark Matter came out.

As I've put together my class, in fact, I've been struck by how drab and post-seventies I find eighties SF - cyberpunk and space opera as a rejection of feminism (for all that there were a couple of women considered cyberpunk) and a rejection of the left/liberal tenor of seventies SF, and - god knows! - a rejection of the stylistic experimentation of the sixties and seventies. If you look at, for instance, the Norton Book of Science Fiction, this becomes really clear - even the excellent stories published in the eighties (like Carol Emshweiller's "The Start of the End of It All") have a sad, exhausted feeling.

In fact, the perception of SF as in a dead spot in the nineties has a lot more to do with the centering of white men and conservative space babes/space war SF tropes than it does with what was actually being published. The nineties were great! Full of interest!

The reason I listed the New Wave writers in my previous post was simply that a lot of people who don't really keep up with SF - or who play a kind of respectability politics with it - have at least heard of those writers. I don't expect someone who thinks that queer SF begins and ends with Delany (and I adore Delany, he is the best!) to have heard of Hal Duncan.
posted by Frowner at 6:01 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


George_Spiggott: "Dated as hell but somehow even more fun for all that, Bester's The Stars My Destination deliberately evokes Dickens and Dumas from the very first sentence, without ever actually stealing from either of them. Perfect for hooking a certain kind of non-SF reader... but then, who the hell would you follow him with?"

Er, with The Demolished Man?
posted by Chrysostom at 6:41 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


I believe both Kage Baker and Kristine Kathryn Rusch began writing SF in the 90s.


Sadly, Baker died four years ago today.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:50 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I would also second anything by Connie Willis who always has wonderful characters, but particularly Doomsday Book and any of the other time travel books. However, I would not recommend Blackout or All Clear because, good as they are, they suffer from an extreme case time travel confusion because who's where, when becomes overwhelming.

Wow, this is why recommendations are so difficult--because readers' opinions vary so much. I've enjoyed some of Willis's stuff, but I find her characters to be the opposite of wonderful. For me, the "throw-the-book-across-the-room" aspect of Blackout/All Clear was that the characters didn't feel like living, breathing people, but like self-flagellating neurosis-machines manipulated at the will of the author. The lack of communication really bothered me--they're supposed to be people who can handle dangerous situations, but they don't share vitally important information, because the plot she wanted wouldn't work if they communicated.

And the BIG SPOILER (that Willis is so proud of that she compares herself to Agatha Christie) is achieved by writing certain POV characters in a particularly remote, bloodless, un-engaging style through large sections of the book. And none of the characters ever does or even thinks about doing something that would offend the sensibilities of a 1950's suburban housewife, and I just. couldn't. care. about any of them.

If I wanted to recommend a time-travel novel to a newbie that shared my taste in characterization, I'd probably go with Kage Baker's Company stories / novels.
posted by creepygirl at 7:36 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


If I don't like science fiction, why should I?

On the one hand: no reason. There are enough books around in all the other genres to keep a reader busy their whole life. On the other hand: there are truly excellent science fiction books.

To me it comes down to: why don't you like science fiction (or fantasy, which could be kept separate)? "I read a few books in the genre and I didn't like them/prefer other things" or "Ewww, aliens/wizards"?
posted by jeather at 7:40 AM on January 31


none of the comments really address why science fiction apart from "it's a good book." What is it about the genre itself that is necessary? Is there something? If I don't like science fiction, why should I?

If you're shrugging off an entire genre, I think it's a problem. I feel the same about music. You say you hate Country + Western or hip-hop (or whatever) -- sorry but that's like shrugging off an entire culture, which starts to feel way too much like racism or certainly xenophobia. We've got to do better than, "Oh, I just don't like it." We've got to, at some point, decide that if very many people are getting something positive from a certain something, it's worth trying a little harder, digging deeper.

Though I have to follow this by saying that the only real reason to read any book, regardless of genre, is because "... it's a good book". I love Elmore Leonard's crime writing and have read pretty much everything he wrote. But it doesn't follow that I feel remotely the same about the genre as a whole. Because, like whatzizname said a long time ago, "90% of everything is crap" (or whatever).

So what is it about the sci-fi genre itself that is necessary? Other than the obvious, "It's a necessary genre, because it contains genuinely great books", I'd go a little deeper and say, it's a necessary genre, because when it's handled well, when it's truly mastered, it moves into a realm of imagination and vision that no other genre can touch. Personally, my understanding of the world and its various currents would be vastly impoverished were it not for the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Frank Herbert, John Brunner, Robert Anton Wilson ... and so on.

No sci-fi in your diet -- that's been directly linked to premature aging.
posted by philip-random at 10:07 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Philip K. Dick, definitely.
posted by mareli at 10:20 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I have shrugged off most of the horror genre because I scare too easily and my imagination doesn't need any help coming up with terrible things that could be lurking in dark corners.
posted by rtha at 11:01 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


philip-random: "Because, like whatzizname said a long time ago, "90% of everything is crap" (or whatever)."

Ted Sturgeon, of course.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:04 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


I'd recommend:

The Lathe Of Heaven because it's concise, straightforward, and contains multitudes.

The Martian Chronicles because it's a work of divine poetry; an exaltation of adjectives.

The Stars My Destination because it's an astonishing work, even now.

The Ophiuchi Hotline because it is a masterpiece of worldbuilding.

Ecotopia because it's richly detailed, plausible, and is not another goddamn dystopia so beloved of everyone these days now that we've all just surrendered to the bitter mythology that we, as a species, suck, and deserve only more ruination, corruption, and despair (i.e. the mortification tics of the Puritan pollution of Western literature).

And, of course, I'd vigorously recommend the first three Hitchhiker's Guide books (and the fourth, with a bit less vigor), because they really are verging on Wodehouse for hilarity, clarity, and wickedness, though I would always prefer for folks to listen to the transcendent radio series as preamble to the books.

I have a hard time recommending many recent SF books because I just don't think a book should always be eight hundred pages long unless it's an exhaustive study of the history of the Roman Empire. I find the recommendation of The Left Hand Of Darkness curious for beginners in that it's like recommending Ulysses to recent graduates of ESOL classes, and I really don't get the love for Atwood, whose career has seemingly been a droning dirge of unstirringly glum science…oh, I'm sorry, I mean speculative fiction, but obviously, to each their own.

I prefer books that, once read, just stay, and keep one looking upwards.
posted by sonascope at 11:44 AM on January 31 [5 favorites]


I add that no one needs to like science fiction. Science fiction is a genre that does some things really well and does other things not so much poorly as not-that-often. Like, when I want to read a really dense novel with complex prose, deep characterization and a lot of subtext about class and sexuality plus a lot of baroque descriptions of small physical stuff, I'm far more likely to read Henry James than a science fiction writer. On the other hand, for structural reasons science fiction has some of the best writing by radicals about radical activism out there (The Fifth Sacred Thing, the Marq'ssan Cycle). If I want to read books that play with time and space - that shift perspective vastly and rapidly, that dislocate me - I might read Olaf Stapledon or Iain Banks or Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. If I want to read stories that are thoughtful and creative about gender expression, I'm more likely to find those in SF.

Honestly, a substantial reason that I read science fiction is just that there's a lot of radical left/anarchist/marxist authors, and most of them aren't rich so they have a social perspective which is at least sorta-kinda like my own. (Why are there lots of left SF writers? That's a structural/genre history question that is very interesting and fun but protracted to talk through.)

But seriously, there is no good reason for science fiction to seek to "appeal" to a mass audience. First, quite a lot of science fiction reaches a mass audience anyway; second, massness is no guarantee of worth - hardly anyone would say that the problem with, like, high modernism is that it does not have mass appeal. (Why didn't Djuna Barnes write in a more accessible style, people?) If some people are repelled by SF, so what? I'm repelled by the Noveau Roman, early epistolary novels and the work of Sir Walter Scott, but that's hardly a referendum on those things' importance to literature. Oh, I'm not super into the picaresque, either.

Genres serve purposes, but the purpose alone isn't a reason to have a genre. SF does a lot of social and political stuff that I find interesting and exciting, but if all SF vanished like a yanked DRM file tomorrow, other interesting forms of fiction would spring up to do those same things. I mean, in the end "why do you like SF" always boils down to "because I, for this group of idiosyncratic personal reasons, enjoy reading it".
posted by Frowner at 12:17 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


because they really are verging on Wodehouse for hilarity, clarity, and wickedness

You, sir or madam, just made my day. Seriously I was reading "My man jeeves today", and totally expecting it not to hold up to a 4th reading - and yet it made me laugh out loud, again, just like PG always does. God bless 'im.
posted by ianhattwick at 9:01 PM on February 2


The first Connie Willis book I read was To Say Nothing of the Dog and subsequently worked my way through most of the rest of her stuff looking for the same, um, lightness of spirit? Fun? She has a great sense of humor, but it didn't really come through for me in the other works.

That said, I usually start my recommendations with Douglas Adams, Neal Stephenson, or Neil Gaiman, depending on who's asking.
posted by ElGuapo at 9:15 AM on February 3


Ecotopia because it's richly detailed, plausible, and is not another goddamn dystopia

Well, if you don't count the "voluntary" aparheid state introduced in Ecotopia, the nuclear blackmail ala the Turner Diaries or the fact that these peaceloving ecologists leave the rest of the US to destroy itself, it's not a dystopia no.

James Nicoll reviewed this as part of his Millennial Reviews:
The great thing about books like this, from the author's POV, is that the naif wandering through the scenery asks questions like "Oh, do explain to me the benefits of a subsidised rail system" and not "How is it, given that the prevailing winds blow from west to east, that airborne pollution from the rest of the US is a bad enough problem that it gets mentioned several times?" and the naif can be relied on to admire the handwoven clothes everyone wears without wondering who makes it all. Although since they've re-introduced child labour and everyone only works a 20 hour week, they may have the spare man-years needed.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:25 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


it is what convinced me to love SF, because it was about cities, and queerness, and how language worked, and about the potential of otherness...and so much of the SF i read, even the work about cities was so tight and ironically contained.

I'm a Delany fan, but the one time I tried reading Dhalgren, I had to stop about fifteen pages. But this has convinced me to retry it. 160 pages in so far, just started yesterday.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:35 AM on February 3


The first Connie Willis book I read was To Say Nothing of the Dog and subsequently worked my way through most of the rest of her stuff looking for the same, um, lightness of spirit? Fun?

Yeah, Connie Willis has two modes: frothy fun and really depressing, and you cannot always tell which one you are going to get before you start. (This is something I like, but not everyone does.)
posted by jeather at 11:02 AM on February 3 [2 favorites]


I really don't get the love for Atwood, whose career has seemingly been a droning dirge of unstirringly glum science…oh, I'm sorry, I mean speculative fiction, but obviously, to each their own.

I waited until I was sure nobody else was reading the thread, before sneaking back in to confess I'm reading The Year of the Flood right now. And I know everyone hates her, but she is just so good. Even if the Oryx and Crake-related books are a little dismal, they are still so well-observed. There's this one scene where a character is considering how long she has been friends with another, and she takes out an eyeliner and begins marking the walls to figure it out: "I've done it like those old cartoons of prisoners -- four strokes and then one through them to make five." And there is so much going on in the one short paragraph that sentence concludes, all packed in and a little hidden, the loneliness and isolation of living at the end of the world, but also how memory and humor keep you alive unbidden.

(My favorite of hers is still The Blind Assassin, though, with its pulp roots and its novels within novels.)
posted by mittens at 4:06 AM on February 5


Oh, I think Margaret Atwood's science fiction is quite good. It's just not super embedded in the rest of the genre and not very concerned with the rest of the genre. In that sense, when she says she "isn't writing science fiction", she's quite right. I doubt she's read very much SF, her work really isn't in dialogue with other authors...it's only "science fiction" because it's fiction-with-science-in, or fiction-with-scientific-speculation-in.

A lot of fuss about her work by science fiction fans could have been avoided by a little more thinking through of genre theory, what science fiction tends to do and how it tends to work.

Atwood is writing dystopian speculative fiction for the Margaret Atwood audience, some of whom are science fiction fans but most of whom are not. She's interested in using speculation about the near future to work through some of her particular concerns. Unlike a lot of SF writers, she is not interested in what previous, similarly-themed SF has had to say; she's not interested in literary dialogue with, say, Marge Piercy's Heart of Glass or Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl In The Ring; she's not interested in the whole history of SFnal dystopias and the various debates about what they're for or how they work. She's using estrangement, but she's not interested in Delany-an displacement or the good old "sense of wonder"; she's not interested in epic scope. Unlike Joanna Russ or James Tiptree, she's not thinking "I am a science fiction writer; I would like to bring [these emotional concerns, these women's concerns] to the genre"; she's thinking "I am a literary novelist, I would like to use certain SFnal tropes to explore my main concerns".

I think you could totally get into SF via Oryx and Crake (and you'd have the wonderful advantage that almost everything else you read would feel cheerful by comparison). I mean, natural follow-ups could be anything from Marge Piercy (Heart of Glass, Woman on the Edge of Time) to James Tiptree (for the parody of crass commercialism) to Starhawk's underrated Fifth Sacred Thing to KSR's Pacific Edge books to Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl In The Ring...or any other number of accessible and influential dystopian novels of landscape.

But I also think that Oryx and Crake doesn't require much interest in SF for the reader to enjoy the book.

I was just thinking of Crake last night, and reflecting right he is that humans are no damn good at all.
posted by Frowner at 7:42 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


A lot of fuss about her work by science fiction fans could have been avoided by a little more thinking through of genre theory, what science fiction tends to do and how it tends to work.

One complaint I've heard from SF fans and writers, that I'm not sure I think is valid exactly, but which is still interesting, is that these interlopers always go straight to the dystopia. And this at least seems to be true, with literary writers giving us The Road, Never Let Me Go, and Oryx and Crake...but where are the other subgenres? Where is the literary writer who writes the Big Engineering Project novel like Ringworld or the Clarke/Sheffield space elevator? Where is the novel about the Complex Alien Society And Problems Appertaining Thereto? (Aside from Banks!) Where, even, is the pow-pow space opera by a literary writer? If Hilary Mantel is capable of creating the entire world surrounding Thomas Cromwell, a world alien in its technologies and motives...how come no literary writers are doing the same thing, only pushed forward ten thousand years in the future? (Or maybe I am just missing them all and need to go back to the library.)

Is it that the dystopias are relatively easier to create, since so much of the world will look similar to what we've got around us now? Or is the dystopia more a method of ironic distance than a subgenre, really, a method adopted by multiple genres?

Or, do we just have a set number of subgenres that our culture can handle being used as a lens for literary author concerns? I'm thinking about the way so few horror elements can make it to the mainstream. We can manage a vampire or zombie, especially if we can drain as much mystery from it as possible, but the more world-bending, psyche-exploring horror doesn't get picked up in popular, non-horror-reading culture.
posted by mittens at 12:49 PM on February 5


Where is the novel about the Complex Alien Society And Problems Appertaining Thereto? (Aside from Banks!)

Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos books?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:03 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Is it that the dystopias are relatively easier to create, since so much of the world will look similar to what we've got around us now? Or is the dystopia more a method of ironic distance than a subgenre, really, a method adopted by multiple genres?

Again, I think this has to do with what genre is. Genre is social. Science fiction is dialogic, which Atwood's SFnal novels are not; it is didactic, which they are. It is about estrangement and progressive displacements of viewpoint and scale, which Atwood really isn't - estrangement a bit, displacement of viewpoint and scale not so much.

People always want to define genre by topic, because that seems so intuitive - science fiction is science fiction because it's about rocket ships and space babes, or ringworlds, or genetic trading, or computers...but that's really not what makes SF into SF, right down at the core. And that's why Margaret Atwood really isn't writing science fiction. She's writing speculative near future dystopias or something.

So dystopia as it appears in science fiction does science fiction things. When it appears in non-science-fiction, it does non-science-fiction things. Atwood's use of dystopia is not a commentary on science fiction, or related to science fiction at all.

Sometimes there are novels - like, for example, Lud-In-The-Mist or A Stranger In Olondria - which exist, as it were , in two realms. They do genre stuff well and they also equally do well what another type of writing does. (Oryx and Crake doesn't do well what SF does; it just does well what dystopias and satires do.) And that gets confusing, because it's easy to assume that - say - lyrical landscape writing or strong psychological-individual characterization are also inherent to SF, instead of being just something that some SF novels do sometimes.

Honestly, I think it's silly when SF fans get all het up about what non-SF authors do with SF tropes. I can't imagine a non-SF-author writing, like, the Proustian version of Ringworld - because for Ringworld to make sense, it needs all that SF stuff. Ringworld works because it's dialogic, pulpy, has handwavey science...Ringworld works because it is written by someone committed to writing SF. The Proustian Ringworld would just be a weepy middle class mess, devoid of the things that make Ringworld good SF and weighted down by trivialities and self-absorption...maybe Jonathan Franzen or someone could write it.
posted by Frowner at 1:08 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


What I'm trying to say is that Ringworld (which I don't even like!) hangs together because it's written in a specific SF register. Saying that we need a "high culture" version of Ringworld is like saying we need a chibi style manga version of an Eli Weisel novel, or Infinite Jest rewritten as a Western - it treats a novel as a thing where form and content are totally separable and have no effect on each other.
posted by Frowner at 1:10 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


One complaint I've heard from SF fans and writers, that I'm not sure I think is valid exactly, but which is still interesting, is that these interlopers always go straight to the dystopia.

The Sparrow wasn't at all dystopian -- it was space exploration, it was aliens. The Time Traveller's Wife was, obviously, time travel. I don't know what Murakami is, exactly and probably more fantasy than science fiction, but it's not dystopian. The Age of Miracles was about the world spinning more slowly, but was really a coming of age. I think dystopias are big right now, but that in time other tropes will take over in literary fiction.
posted by jeather at 1:45 PM on February 5


The Proustian Ringworld would just be a weepy middle class mess, devoid of the things that make Ringworld good SF and weighted down by trivialities and self-absorption

I would so read that book. Although I'd probably hide the Oprah's Book Club sticker.


So dystopia as it appears in science fiction does science fiction things.

But...but...what are those things?

I am having trouble with this point about genres not being defined by topics. I mean, on the one hand, I get it. If we were to rewrite Little Dorrit to be set in a debtor's prison on an asteroid being piloted around the solar system using nuclear pulse propulsion, we wouldn't have moved it into the realm of science fiction, we would have just dropped some new furniture into the scene.

On the other hand, science fiction is dominated by a fairly limited domain of topics (with exceptions, obviously, since there are so very many books), and its interest in other things drops off sharply. So, yes, one thing the genre likes, is to be didactic, but didactic only among those topics it is interested in. A thousand explanations of time-travel, surprisingly little interest in, I don't know, organic chemistry or algebra. The things it is doing, in other words, seem limited by the span of topics.

The most recent two SF novels I read were Embassytown and Matter. Both written by good socialists, both my first exposure to the fiction of these two writers. And I was really shocked--shocked!--by how little interest either book took in economics or production. Both feature main characters whose only job in life seems to be, "Be at the place interesting things are happening." The Culture's post-scarcity economy feels like a cop-out, a magic wand that erases the problems that would have made for some really interesting fiction by someone who is obviously well-versed in the problems of money and production. Embassytown's farming and export economy seemed like it would lead naturally into an explanation of how the farms and trade really worked, and the problems with them (I mean, come on, you're settling a colony down whose economy is based entirely on extraction!), but instead the book didn't seem interested...and, I thought, it even tried to hide intraspecies class concerns, with a mysterious lack of poverty, and with all the interesting stuff happening to people who specifically never had to worry over the material parts of their lives, while the masses were left in the rioting shadows. There was so much interesting stuff in both books...but what they wanted to say was, look at this crazy big planet. Look at these inscrutable aliens. Listen to this strange language.

That's not to put the books down at all (I really really loved Embassytown), it's to say that the limited range of topics really defined how they fit into the genre, subsuming the individual author's outlooks. What they did, and how they did it, seemed totally defined by the stuff, the topics.

(Hm. Apparently I wanted to gripe about those two books more than I realized.)
posted by mittens at 5:59 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Jacobin on Atwood's trilogy. (Spoiler: Atwood doesn't dive deeply enough into labor or industrial concerns!)
posted by mittens at 4:31 PM on February 6


160 pages in so far, just started yesterday.

And finished. I had to actually hunt down an ebook version of Dhalgren halfway through because the paperback I had was starting to fall apart. Boy this was a great, difficult book, it demanded my attention throughout reading it to the point where I could read nothing else.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:08 PM on February 25


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