Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself…Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about — Ray Bradbury
Science Fiction (or SF as its often abbreviated to) is one of my favourite genres, but up until I was maybe 20-years old, I thought I didn’t like it. I suspect it’s because (like many people) I had a very particular idea in mind of what constitutes Science Fiction and that vision often felt very exclusionary.
In my mind, SF was a genre dominated by old, white men obsessed with (space) war. It was overly technical and focused too much on the nuts and bolts of intergalactic travel and advanced weaponry.
This—and I cannot emphasize this enough—is so far from the truth! Science Fiction as a genre is so broad that there really is something for everyone to enjoy. And yes, while there is a certain subset of angry (and vocal) old white dudes who think they own SF, there’s also an amazing and growing body of work out there by women, POC, LGBT+, and other marginalized writers.
But isn’t Science Fiction for nerds?
Well…yeah, but it’s not just for nerds. Science Fiction is for everyone and there is so much more to it than a bunch of space wizards shooting lasers at each other (although there’s plenty of that too and believe me, it can be a lot of fun).
To understand what I mean, let’s get some of the basics out of the way:
What exactly is “Science Fiction”?
Listen, there’s no easy way to define SF… so let’s turn to our old pal Wikipedia to do it for us:
Science fiction (sometimes called Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that has been called the “literature of ideas”. It typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, time travel, parallel universes, fictional worlds, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific innovations.
By that definition, SF covers a lot of ground (a notion that’s hotly-debated among certain circles but we won’t get into that today) Some common subgenres include:
- Hard Science Fiction: this type of SF leans heavily into the technology aspect, think the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark. It’s concerned with scientific accuracy and logic and this can sometimes (though not always) come at the expense of character development.
- Soft Science Fiction: this is a little harder to define. Soft SF doesn’t typically place as much emphasis on scientific accuracy as Hard SF does, but instead uses common SF tropes to examine questions of morality, sociology, anthropology etc. A good example of Soft SF can be found in the work of Ursula LeGuin, specifically her Hainish Cycle of books.
- Cyberpunk: juxtaposes advancements in technology with a breakdown in social order (think the movie Blade Runner). Usually features lots of androids, AI, and Cybernetics. A seminal novel in this genre is William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
- Steampunk: Science Fiction meets old-timey steam-powered technology! Stories are often set in an alternate Victorian Britain or American Wild West but there’s a growing body of work that looks beyond the typical eurocentric trappings of the genre. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are two of the best-known works in this genre.
- Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: as the name suggests it’s fiction set in the period after a world-altering event. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood jump to mind.
- Dystopian Fiction: related to but not necessarily the same as Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopias usually deal with societies where personal freedoms have been curtailed in some way. Famous examples of this include 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
There’s also Afrofuturism, Alternate History, Space Opera, Military Sci-Fi, Biopunk, New Wave…the list goes on (and on and on and on).
The point I’m trying to make is this—there is no one type of science fiction and in your reading, you’ll probably find that many novels lie across several different subgenres. Because of this, looking for an easy entry point to the genre can be overwhelming. Luckily for you, I’m here to help.
I’ve put together the following list of books that play with some common SF concepts to help you understand what kind of science fiction books you might enjoy. Some are more firmly entrenched in the genre than others, but I hope that even the most ardent space-wizard-haters will find something they can appreciate.
Without further ado, let’s go!
You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted — H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.
If you like stories bursting with character try…
Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and The Martian by Andy Weir are almost exact opposites in a way. Chambers’s work features a diverse ensemble cast of characters while Weir’s book is largely told from the perspective of one person stranded alone on Mars with diminishing odds for survival.
In another way, both these books are quite similar because they’re both excellent examples of how to create memorable characters that feel utterly real.
Long Way to a Small Angry Planet tells the story of the Wayfarer, a “tunnelling” ship that travels across the galaxy creating shortcuts between two distant points. Its motley crew is made up of different alien species who live together for long periods of time, isolated from anyone else.
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.
But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.
Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.
But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.
Although there is a solid plot here, the thing that makes Long Way Down so special is the interplay between the various characters. Some beautiful relationships emerge and you’ll find yourself caring about the disembodied AI Lovey more than you thought was humanly possible.
My other pick in this category—The Martian by Andy Weir—is arguably the best-known book on this whole list, and for good reason.
When the bulk of your story centres around one person stranded somewhere all by themselves, you better be damn sure that person is someone your reader is willing to spend some time with. Luckily, Mark Watney is just that kinda guy. He’s funny and nerdy and resourceful and you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for him to survive. The Martian is such a good summer read, it’s suspenseful and entertaining to the last.
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
If you’re a fan of literary fiction fan try…
I love a good slow-burning novel, the kind of book you can really sink into and allow the prose to wash over you. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a book that does just that. Set in a post-apocalyptic North America, this book explores what remains of humanity and culture after a disease known as the “Georgia ‘Flu” wipes out most of society.
One snowy night, a famous Hollywood actor dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend and a young actress with the Travelling Symphony caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Fun fact—I read this back when I worked in Toronto General Hospital, which in the book was ground zero for the disease outbreak. So that was fun…
Station Eleven is a great example of why Science Fiction can be such a contentious label since the author herself resists the classification. Maybe that’s why it makes such a great entry point for SF-skeptics out there—it’s a classic post-apocalyptic story with literary overtones that’ll appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood.
My second pick in this section is one of my SF-hating sister’s favourite books, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.
Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.
Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.
Honestly, the less you know about this book going in, the better. It’s a beautiful and lyrical dystopian story that does what all good dystopias do—forces you to question what it truly means to be human.
If you like fiction that tackles the big questions try…
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut are probably two of the most important books I’ve ever read. Though they cover very different subject matters, both will leave you questioning fundamental aspects of the human experience.
The Left Hand of Darkness forms part of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle of novels, each of which is set on a different planet during a time when intergalactic civilizations are making contact with each other and setting up diplomatic relations for the first time. Each book in the cycle tends to focus on a different sociological or anthropological concern, e.g. The Telling explores religious and political conflict, The Dispossessed centres around two types of society—one founded on capitalism and one on anarchism, and The Left Hand of Darkness, well…
A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
The Left Hand of Darkness is an extremely important book in the history of SF. It’s considered one of the first feminist SF texts and though it hasn’t been without its share of controversy, no one can deny it sparked conversation around established and outdated ideas of gender and sex.
Though Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five also tackles weighty subjects—the futility of war and whether or not free will exists—it goes about it in a very different way.
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous World War II firebombing of Dresden, the novel is the result of what Vonnegut describes as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he himself witnessed as an American prisoner of war. It combines science fiction, autobiography, humor, historical fiction, and satire in an account of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a barber’s son turned draftee turned optometrist turned alien abductee. Billy, like Vonnegut, experiences the destruction of Dresden as a POW, and, as with Vonnegut, it is the defining moment of his life. Unlike the author, he also experiences time travel, or coming “unstuck in time.” Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
It’s irreverent and surreal and is the kind of book that even your biggest book-snob friend can get on board with because besides being funny, it’s also deeply profound. Reading it made me want to go out and get “so it goes” tattooed somewhere on my person and as a giant needle-phobe that’s saying something. I’m legitimately jealous of anyone who gets to read this masterpiece for the first time.
So there you have it—my picks for gateway books to allow the genre-curious out there to dip their little toes into the Science Fiction pool.
Whether you’re totally new to SF or an old hand, I hope this post has given you some food for thought and let me know what SF books you would recommend to a newbie!