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So you want to start reading Fantasy?

When I was 15 years old, I picked up a tatty old paperback from my uncle John’s old bedroom in my grandparents’ house that got left behind when he moved out. It had a frankly garish cover that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 1980s metal band album cover (complete with the token large-breasted woman), but it was by that guy who co-wrote Good Omens which I’d read a year before and loved so surely it wouldn’t be that bad?

Reader, not only was it not bad, it was one of those books causes such a profound shift in thinkng you know you’ll never quite be the same again. The book was Mort, by Terry Pratchett, the fourth entry into his Discworld series.

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The Josh Kirby illustrated covers were WILD but I do have a certain affection for them

I bring this up not to tell everyone to go out and read Pratchett (I mean, you absolutely should… but more on that later), but because when I was trying to think of how to begin this post, I remembered a snippet of an interview with Pratchett that another author, Patrick Rothfuss, posted on his blog in the days after Pratchett’s death. The interviewer questioned why an author of Pratchett’s immense talent would choose to write fantasy of all things, noting that it is “less serious than science fiction”. This was Pratchett’s reply:

(Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy…Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now—big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections— That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.

…Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.

(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.

As someone who writes and is currently writing novels that fall under the fantasy umbrella, reading that quote gave me such a sense of validation. I love fantasy. I have done since I was too young to remember. I cut my teeth on fantasy, first on the Ladybird editions of classic fairytales (yup, fairytales are totally part of the fantasy genre) before moving to on to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.

Even now, reading fantasy feels like coming home. It has meant so much to me over the years and whenever I hear people deride it as worthless or lacking literary value, I can feel my hackles rise.

Having said that, I completely understand that it can be an intimidating genre to dive into and that certain subgenres of fantasy will not be for everyone. So, in a similar fashion to my previous post on getting started with science fiction, I decided to put together a list of recommendations for anyone willing to expand their horizons and take a leap into the wonderful world of fantasy.

Let’s begin, shall we?

What is Fantasy?

Fantasy might be the one genre that’s even more difficult than science fiction to define. Wikipedia isn’t much help because it opens its entry on fantasy by stating:

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe

Which is already problematic since tonnes of fantasy works take place right here in our universe (The Dresden Files and Harry Potter immediately jump to mind).

The entry goes on to say:

Fantasy is distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the absence of scientific or macabre themes respectively, though these genres overlap. In popular culture, the fantasy genre predominantly features settings of a medieval nature. In its broadest sense, however, fantasy consists of works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians from ancient myths and legends to many recent and popular works.

(Emphasis mine).

So… not exactly helpful then.

Broadly speaking, Fantasy literature includes any or all of the following elements: magic, supernatural elements, fictional creatures, fictional worlds, and fictional history. It can be serious, humourous, epic in scale or focused and contained. Like science fiction, fantasy can be broken down into a number of subgenres. Some common ones include:

  • High fantasy (also called epic fantasy): this is probably what comes to mind when you think of “fantasy”—typically set in an entirely fictional world, often (but not always) medieval-inspired, and epic in scale. Examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, and Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
  • Low fantasy: stories that take place in our world but with an added fantastical element. Apart from the works I listed above, stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper are good examples.
  • Magical realism: sometimes the term magical realism is used to denote books that are thought to have more “literary merit” than typical fantasy stories, but more generally it refers to works of fiction where fantastical elements are commonplace and the nature of reality is questioned. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez are two examples that spring to mind.
  • Grimdark: a relatively new subgenre of fantasy, grimdark works are usually, well, grim and dark. They typically eschew traditional fantasy ideals of good and evil and instead, favour more realistic or gritty interpretations of humanity. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
  • Urban fantasy (also called contemporary fantasy): stories that are set in the present day, usually in cities, which typically contain elements of the paranormal or supernatural and often take the form of noir or police procedurals. They also often include romance or romantic subplots. Great examples of this genre are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.

This is only the tip of the iceberg—there are dozens more subgenres to explore so I guarantee there’s something out there for everyone.

With that in mind, here’s my list of book recommendations to help you figure out what kind of fantasy books you might like to add to your TBR.

Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.

If you enjoyed fairytales growing up try…

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My first Naomi Novik book was Uprooted, a standalone fantasy that also has strong fairytale vibes, but I think that it’s Spinning Silver where she takes the concept and makes it shine. Drawing on elements of the Rumpelstiltskin tale and Slavic folklore and mythology, Spinning Silver is really a story of compassion and power and women doing remarkable things. It has a unique mythos and a darkness that runs just beneath the surface giving the whole book a sense of quiet menace that I can’t get enough of.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.

My second pick for this section isn’t really a reinterpretation of a fairytale but it is a book that feels like the fairytale genre’s spiritual successor—Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

In the land of Ingary, where seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility do exist, Sophie Hatter catches the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a spell.

Deciding she has nothing more to lose, she makes her way to the moving castle that hovers on the hills above Market Chipping. But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls… There she meets Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer the Fire Demon, with whom she agrees a pact.

But Sophie isn’t the only one under a curse – her entanglements with Calcifer, Howl, and Michael, and her quest to break her curse is both gripping – and howlingly funny!

Yes, this is a children’s/YA book but honestly, it’s just so magical I would recommend it to anyone looking to reignite their sense of childhood wonder.

I adore Diana Wynne Jones and I think few children’s authors even come close to her level of creativity. Her books were just so damn weird! But they’re also magical through and through. Plenty of her books have become comfort reads for me but it’s Howl’s Moving Castle I turn to time and again whenever I need a mental hug.

If you’re a fan of detective novels try…

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The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch are similar in premise but very different in execution. Both are about wizards who solve crimes, but whereas Harry Dresden is a bit of a lone wolf with a dark past, Peter Grant is a relative newbie to the magical world and we get to follow along with him as he learns just what he’s gotten himself into.

The place to start with The Dresden Files is Storm Front:

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.

As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.

Storm Front is a solid beginning but like any police procedural/detective series, I feel like it takes a few books before you really start to care about any of the characters. For me personally, it was book three, Grave Peril, where things really took off. Harry is such a compelling character to follow and as the series progresses we get to see him grow and change. He’s funny and sarcastic and (stupidly) brave. There’s also a nerdy pathologist with a penchant for polka music and a filthy-minded talking skull called Bob. I mean, come one. That’s pretty great.

Having said that, there are a few…um…let’s just say weaker entries to wade through (I won’t get into it here because of spoilers, but there’s a fairly icky storyline that I really struggle to deal with whenever it rears its ugly head). There’s also a slightly misogynistic undertone (in the vein of describing every woman’s body in excruciating detail) that makes me roll my eyes every now and again, but if you’re able to get past these quibbles, Dresden Files really is such a fun series.

The series is currently 15 books deep with book number 16 (hopefully) due out in 2020 so there’s plenty to keep you occupied.

(P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend listening to these books on audio. James Marsters is Harry Dresden).

Moving on…

Rivers of London kicks off the Peter Grant series which is currently up to seven books with the eighth coming out in 2020.

Probationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

It suffers from a few of the same problems as The Dresden Files (every woman being a total babe who’s hot for the protagonist) but is maybe a bit more self-aware.

Definitely worth checking out if you like British police procedurals.

If you don’t believe that Fantasy can tackle some big questions try…

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His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. I read the first entry in the series, Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it was renamed in North America) for the first time when I was around eleven years old and it blew my tiny mind. It was the first time a book made me question things like religion and the afterlife and it may or may not have thrown me into a mild existential panic (spoiler alert: it totally did).

Outside of that, it’s just a gorgeously written story and every entry in the series adds layers of nuance and depth to the story of Lyra Belaqua and her quest to save the world.

Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.

I’ve gushed about Terry Pratchett already so I’ll keep this one brief. Small Gods is part of the Discworld series but can be read as a standalone novel in its own right. It’s also the funniest book about religion and the nature of faith and belief that you’ll ever read. It posits that Gods can only exist as long as they are remembered and the more followers you have, the more powerful you are. The Great God Om learns this the hard way when he loses almost all his followers and is forced to live life as a small tortoise. Hilarious and thought-provoking, Small Gods is a fantastic introduction to Terry Pratchett and the world that made him famous.

Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’ Religion is a controversial business in the Discworld. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods. Who come in all shapes and sizes. In such a competitive environment, there is a pressing need to make one’s presence felt. And it’s certainly not remotely helpful to be reduced to be appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book. In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast. Preferably one who won’t ask too many questions…

If you love heist movies try…

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The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is probably one of the most fun fantasy books I’ve ever read. It’s got strong echoes of Oceans Eleven as well as mafia movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather… if they were set in a fantasy version of 18th century Venice.

I have seen some people complain that it takes a while to get going, but I was so immersed in what, to me, is one of the more unique fantasy settings that I didn’t mind the slower pace at all. There are also a lot of flashbacks which, again, didn’t bother me. In fact, they were some of my favourite parts. I loved seeing who Locke and Jean were before they became The Gentlemen Bastards and it opened up so many questions about what happened to them in the intervening years. If you’re ok with a slower pace and lots of lush description (peppered with very colourful language) then give this one a go. Honestly, this book is so damn good I think it’s high time for a reread.

An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.

On the surface, The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (which comprises of The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater, the first three books in The Spirit War series) sounds very similar to The Lies of Locke Lamora. Both feature charming and witty thieves with burly best friends planning the biggest heist of their career, but the similarities pretty much end there. Eli Monpress is very much its own beast and it includes one of the most unique magic systems I’ve ever read. Happily, it’s also a completed series (five books in total, collected into two omnibus editions, The Legend of Eli Monpress and The Revenge of Eli Monpress) so you can binge-read it to your heart’s content.

Eli Monpress is talented. He’s charming. And he’s a thief.

But not just any thief. He’s the greatest thief of the age – and he’s also a wizard. And with the help of his partners – a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls – he’s going to put his plan into effect.

The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he’ll need to steal some big things. But he’ll start small for now. He’ll just steal something that no one will miss – at least for a while.

Like a king.

The Legend of Eli Monpress includes the novels: The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater.

If you’re ready to explore the genre a little deeper and want a soft entry point to epic fantasy try…

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Brandon Sanderson is rapidly achieving legend status and his first series, Mistborn, is a great place to start if you’re a newbie to high fantasy. With an unbelievably well-thought-out magic system (also called a “hard magic” system — i.e. a system where the rules, limits, and cost of magic are very clearly established) and a brisk, pacy plot, Mistborn is the story of what happens after the evil Emperor wins.

For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.

Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.

But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.

This saga dares to ask a simple question: What if the hero of prophecy fails?

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, the first book in the Farseer Trilogy (which itself is the first Trilogy is the larger Realm of the Elderlings series), is a slower story than Mistborn but it has become one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. Very character-driven, the slower pace of Assassin’s Apprentice allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world that Hobb creates. Published in 1996, it’s also a great bridge between the more old-school fantasy works of the ’70s and ’80s and contemporary fantasy.

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.

As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

*****

This post is monstrously long so I’ll wrap it up here. What books have I missed? Where would you send your fantasy-skeptic friends to get a taste of the genre?

So you want to start reading...

So you want to start reading Science Fiction?

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”?

Oh boy.

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…

1.jpgLong 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…

Untitled design.jpgI 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…

4.jpgThe 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!