Science fiction for people who don’t read SF

Gareth L Powell and Damien G. Walter have been compling lists of science fiction novels to recomment to friends who don’t read SF.

This is my list. Like Gareth Powell I’m avoiding the “classics” of the genre by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven or Robert Heinlein in favour of more modern works, on the grounds that they’ve dated quite badly, coming from a time when it was still acceptable for SF novels to contain cardboard cutout characters. And don’t even get me started on Heinlein’s and Niven’s view on sexual politics…

Some of these take place in the ill-defined borderland between science-fiction and fantasy. I find hair-splitting arguments over genre boundaries are never productive, all I’ll say is that this is my list, and they fall under my personal broad definition of SF.

Yes I am aware that I’ve only got one book on the list by a woman; my bookshelf is filled overwhelmingly with the work of men in the way my record collection isn’t. I do need to do something about that, but that’s really a topic for another blog.

Century Rain” by Alastair Reynolds.
Part noir detective story, part alternate history, and part space-opera, most of the action taking place in a version of Paris that isn’t quite our own rather than in outer space. A couple of the central characters reminded me of some musicians I know.


Ash: A Secret History” by Mary Gentle.
This starts out as if it’s a straight historical story about a medieval mercenary company, with a framing story formed from the correspondence between a present-day translator and her editor. Then things start to get strange, as it’s slowly revealed that things are not what they seem.


The City and The City” by China Mieville.
No aliens, spaceships or vampires, and set in something resembling the present-day, but with a central concept that does require an SFF-style suspension of disbelief. May not work for everyone, since I do know both SF and non-SF fans who have failed to get their head round this one.


The Bloodline Feud” by Charles Stross.
Marketed as fantasy but actually science-fiction, with the science in question being economics with a side order of dynastic politics, and very cleverly inverts a lot of fantasy tropes. Biggest downside is it’s the first volume of a trilogy.


Anathem” by Neal Stephenson. An ambitious work that’s partly about philosophy, part social satire (I do love the concept of the word “bullshytte” as an academic term), and part rattling adventure yarn. Not really a lightweight popcorn novel, though; one of those works that’s hard work but ultimately rewarding, so it’s one for your friends who are into heavyweight literary stuff rather that mass-market bestsellers.

What would your recommendations be?

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7 Responses to Science fiction for people who don’t read SF

  1. Serdar says:

    I should make my own full article to reply, but here’s my off-the-cuff list:

    “WE”, Evgeny Zamyatin
    “The Star Diaries” or “Solaris”, Stanisław Lem
    “The Stars My Destination”, Alfred Bester
    “The Revolving Boy”, Gertrude Friedberg

    And maybe something by Daniel M. Pinkwater.

    … And my own books, but I’m biased. :D

  2. Kevin prince says:

    Iain Banks’. Inversions should surely make the list. Two interwoven stories set in Medieval world.

  3. JinjaBeardy says:

    I was interested by your comment about women authors in your list. I had a think about that and realised that I don’t – and wouldn’t consciously – pick the fiction books I read based on any characteristic of the author, but it just so happens that the first book I thought of is by a female author who is likewise the only one amongst my choices. Anyway here’s my list.

    If you know someone who likes crime procedurals then Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series is the SF for you. Strong and believable characters set in a universe where humans are struggling to find their place in amongst some pretty unpleasant (and unfathomable) alien races.

    “The Disappeared” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. ‘CSI in spaaaaaaaace’

    If your intended victim, oops sorry, reader is into spy novels then I’d go for a second dose of Charles Stross to add to your choice, in the form of his ‘Laundry Files’, Another cross-genre series, part SF, part horror, part spy novel and more besides.

    “The Atrocity Archives” by Charles Stross. If James Bond had started in I.T. …

    If you’d like the reader to get the ‘sense of awe’ that science fiction is often quoted as inspiring and they are wondering what that’s all about, there are plenty to choose from but using the ‘No established golden oldies’ criterion then I’d pick Jack McDevitt as a relatively easy read for SF newbies.

    “Engines of God” by Jack McDevitt. Archeology in space, with fighting.

    Time travel. A staple of SF, and the one plot device that even a person who has never read a word of SF will know. A vaguely related field is alternative history. For newbies there is much to choose from, and while it’s a little dated now I still enjoyed the plot of my selection, mainly because it doesn’t actually involve direct time travel (which appeals to the hard-SF fan in me) and it has a heavy dose of alternate history too. Take this stone, two birds.

    “Timescape” by Gregory Benford. Time travel (ish), Alternate history, eco-disasters and scientists as the central figures.

    Finally, we need something for the action fiction fans. If your intended SF reader-to-be likes their action full-on, and isn’t put off by some pretty graphic depictions of violent action, then you could do worse than Richard Morgan.

    “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan. Not a rose-tinted pair specs to be found in this future vision.

    There, that’s my tuppence-worth.

  4. Tim Hall says:

    This one’s generated quite a bit of discussion across the interwebs.

    I probably could have worded the bit about Golden Age writers to read a little less dismissive, but I still don’t think works dating from the 1950s are necessarily the best introductions for new readers. There’s probably a bit of “Standing on the shoulders of giants” at play, and without Heinlein and Asimov to blaze a trail we’d probably never have had writers of the calibre of Iain Banks working within the SF field. But I still feel more modern writers are more accessible to readers of mainstream contemporary fiction.

    Probably guilty as charged of ignoring the 60s/70s generation of writers such as Ursula LeGuin and Michael Moorcock, though.

    @JinjaBeardy – I love Stross’ Laundry novels, but I’m not sure how they read to someone without prior knowledge of H.P.Lovecraft. Ditto the near-future police procedurals Halting State and Rule 34 – They’re full of MMORPG and other geek culture references that strongly appeal to the sorts of readers who are probably reading SF&F anyway.

  5. Craig West says:

    Bennett Coles Casualties of War was a good introduction into sci fi for me.

    I have always enjoyed military fiction so this was a good cross over book for me. Absolutely loved this book so I’m going to backtrack and grab the first ‘Virtues of War’. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys exciting stories and strong characters, not just sci fi fans.

  6. Serdar says:

    Another aside. I’m creating and maintaining a list of non-SF books for people who write SF:

    I did this because one of the problems I see with many would-be or budding SF authors is how they often read SF and nothing but.

  7. Tim Hall says:

    That’s an equally good point. I’ve always believed writers must read outside their genre to avoid being clichéd and derivative.

    Same goes for musicians. The reason there are too many derivative indie, metal and prog bands out there is that too many of them don’t listen nearly widely enough.