Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Recommend To Non-Science-Fiction Readers

I can remember talking about Ray Bradbury with some very well-read classmates and the professor during a creative writing class.  We were all discussing our favorite authors, and he’s one of mine.

“Isn’t he dead?” someone asked.

“No!  He’s like, ninety, but he’s not dead.  I would know.”

“He’s kind of crazy, though.”

I would have argued, but the professor was nodding sagely, as professors are wont to do.  They told me about his “Ray Bradbury Theater,” which admittedly sounded a bit crazy.

“But ‘Fahrenheit 451,'” I protested to unimpressed ears.  “‘Illustrated Man.’ ‘Martian Chronicles.’  Some Twilight Zone episodes!  The guy practically invented science fiction as we know it.”

It turned out the problem wasn’t entirely with Bradbury – it was with science fiction itself.  They (like many) didn’t consider it literary enough.  Even the genre itself occasionally hides under other names, like “speculative fiction,” in attempt to disassociate from the pulp stigmas of “sci-fi”.  As a result, and as in many genres, some readers overlook it entirely, and they miss out on some incredible works that have shaped not just the genre, but other books and pop culture as a whole.

So for today’s Top Ten Tuesday, here are my recommendations to people who think they’re too literary to try science fiction.  A huge flaw in this list is that I haven’t read many of the genre’s greatest – primarily Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neal Stephenson, or Philip K. Dick.  I can’t really endorse them, having never read them…but I’ll endorse them anyway, especially Asimov and Dick, since many popular sci-fi movies are based on their stories (“I, Robot,” “Minority Report,” and “Blade Runner,” to name a couple).

1. “The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury.  If I was trying to win someone over to Bradbury, this is the book I’d force on them.  A mysterious tattooed man takes shelter with the narrator, and his cursed tattooes come to life and tell stories of space travel, nuclear apocalypse, Martians, and robots, complete with themes of discrimination, religion, censorship, human purpose and destiny, and family.

2. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Oh, dystopias. What is it about them that makes us actually enjoy reading them?  Is it because we’re safe in our comfortable non-dystopian world?  “Handmaid’s Tale” will destroy your comfort within a couple pages, but the beauty of speculative fiction is that it won’t necessarily happen…right?  Right?

3. “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville.  You want literary science fiction?  Give “Perdido Street Station” a try and let me know when your pulverized brain makes it to the last of its 623 pages.  The city of New Crobuzon is neither a utopia nor a dystopia – it’s a city, a grungy, Dickens-in-Marrakesh city full of artists and criminals and politicians and cactus-people.  It touches on just about every theme it’s possible for a book to touch on, and it does so with refreshingly little exposition – what?  There’s cactus people?  No explanation given.  Deal with it.  Your disbelief has been suspended and you didn’t even realize it.

4. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  The world has been ravaged by an unspecified disaster, and an unnamed man and his son struggle through a dead, gray, brutal wilderness towards the coast, for no other reason besides needing a destination and the tiny glimmer of hope it provides.  It’s exhausting and sometimes painful to read, but the characters in “The Road” never lose faith, and they don’t let us, either, in spite of everything.

5. “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.  Giant Martian tripods annihilate nineteenth-century England and all its Victorian sensibilities.  There’s no Will Smith with big guns or Doctor Who with a sonic screwdriver to help save the day – it’s just one ordinary dude, trying to stay alive and find his wife in a world gone utterly to hell.  I yearn for a steampunk-ian period film adaptation, although I did enjoy the surprisingly faithful Tom Cruise version – the death rays, an attack at a ferry crossing, and crazies who want to fight back are all from the book.

6. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.  Okay, I never managed to finish these books either, but that’s because I tried to read them when was twelve or thirteen and “Red Mars” was just too boring.  Maybe I’ll put them on my 2013 reading list…

7. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.  I found this easier to read than “1984” (another one I never finished – I suck!).  I think what drew me to it was its more morbidly compelling “positive” dystopia, where the people don’t even know they’re repressed, as opposed to a “negative” dystopia where people are aware of their forceful subjugation.  People in the world of “Brave New World” are genetically engineered and sorted into castes, then further controlled via drugs and orgies.  This was essentially the first dystopian novel and it addresses many of the concerns of the 1920s when Huxley was writing it, like increasing consumerism, loss of individuality in an industrialized world, and the international political uncertainty following WWI.

8. “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut.  An American POW is abducted by aliens later in life and spends the rest of the book time-traveling and/or going crazy.  If you’re literary-minded, you’ve probably read this anyway.

9. “Dune” by Frank Herbert.  Come on, it’s “Dune.”  It’s like the Star Wars of science fiction literature.  It’s a coming-of-age tale, a religious allegory, and a courtly intrigue all in one huge, imaginative package.

10. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. At first glace, you won’t even know this is science fiction.  Then the mysterious dystopia beautifully unfolds itself, Atwood-style, and you realize this near future has a horrible, tragic secret.

16 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Recommend To Non-Science-Fiction Readers

  1. So. I’m a sci-fi nerd, but I’ll tell you the truth I’ve never read a lot of the classic scifi and it doesn’t quite call to me, which didn’t quite hit me until now. For example, no offense, Fahrenheit 51 wasn’t something I enjoyed much. So I guess I’ll amend my label as a sci-fi/fantasy nerd. But I think one of the best books in scifi/fantasy that I have ever read is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. (Granted I love pretty much everything he writes). But this book is an easy read, but it brings you into the genre. It is the book that I pull people into scifi with. Also many Michael Crichton books could be labeled as scifi simply because they tend to push the bounds of scientific knowledge. These are also fast paced and exciting. They usually help people not into the genre get a feel for the different worlds. Also I love Dune.

    • Thanks for your comment! It took me a while to learn to like F451 – assigned reading in high school is like that sometimes – but it’s such a quick and thought-provoking read that I can’t help going back to it.

      As for Ender’s Game, I’ve had people tell me both that it’s totally amazing, and the most boring thing they’ve ever read. I haven’t attempted it yet, but I know I should.

      And I love Michael Crichton – I almost included “Timeline” in here – but I felt like he wouldn’t really win over the folks who were judging SF based on it not being “literary” enough. 🙂 If it was someone who had just never read any SF before, and didn’t have, uh, very high standards, I’d definitely send them home with a stack of Crichton.

      • Fair, Crichton is a story-teller, not a literary figurehead, but I do love him. So the thing with Ender’s Game is that it’s not super clear about what’s going on behind the scenes. And if you don’t like reading about war strategy, then yes, it can be boring. Orson Scott Card also does this thing where in the beginning of the chapter there is a short bit of another storyline happening and then the rest of the chapter is the main story. He does it with a lot of books. I’m sorry. I could go on. Anyway, I guess my point is that if you’ve never read Orson Scott Card, I highly recommend him. If you liked Timeline, try Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus.

  2. My dad grew up reading classic scifi, but it was never really a part of my world. Then I started getting hooked on scifi television programs (Doctor Who, Battlestar, etc.) and that led me to the literature. I still haven’t read a lot of the classics, but I love me some Bradbury, and Ishiguro. I tried Mieville’s “Kraken,” but it just felt too pretentious. Maybe another time. And Margaret Atwood is the queen, but of course.

    • I was too busy being totally confused by “Perdido Street Station” to figure out whether he was being pretentious or not. I think he’s either an actual genius or on some hardcore hallucinogens.

      Although, now that I look it up, Kraken is very far down on my list of his books to read. I’m much more interested in “The Scar” and “The Iron Council,” which are set in the same world as “Perdido Street Station.”

  3. I agree with the first commenter, Ender’s Game should probably be the first book on this list. I don’t even consider The Road to be a SciFi novel, but it is a very well written book. The Handmaid’s Tale is another book that I don’t think I’d include on this list. Yes it’s dystopian, but other than that there really aren’t any SciFi aspects to the book. I’ll concede that Never Let Me Go has a much stronger element of SciFi than The Road or The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s so subtle in the story that it doesn’t really feel like a SciFi novel to me.

    While I didn’t like the novel as much as many others, The Left Hand of Darkness was a very well written SciFi novel. I’d also suggest putting something like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or The Time Machine on the list as those two books are in large part the origins of the SciFi genre. The last book I’d suggest would be The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle. Mote in God’s Eye is considered by many to be one of the greatest SciFi books ever written.

    • Some these are definitely on the softer end of SF since I was aiming for people who are biased against the genre and would want to start with a more realistic story. “Time Machine” would be a good addition, especially since it’s already a pretty familiar story, but I haven’t read “20,000 Leagues.” I’ve actually never heard of “Mote in God’s Eye,” although apparently I should have!

  4. Man, I need to read more Ray Bradbury. I went with my dad to one of his book signings when I was eight or so, but don’t really remember much of it. I’ve read three of those books so far: Handmaid’s Tale, Slaughter House 5 and The Road. I enjoyed all of them for different reasons.

    Oh man, you haven’t read Asimov? Dude is the king of SciFi in my heart. Foundation is a really intense, interesting read. DO IT. Go pick up one of his books. Any of them. LeGuin is similarly fab…Mia leant me some a while back and I really enjoyed them.

    Hmm…we should set up a book exchange. :3

    • Yes to all of that! I’m adding some Asimov and apparently Ender’s Game to my TBR list (which has gotten alarmingly long in the last couple weeks). I’d like to try some LeGuin but I wouldn’t even know where to start.

      But yes, I am totally down for a book exchange! My friend and I hosted a book-swap party over the holidays and it was a lot of fun.

  5. There are some great suggestions on your list here. I am excited to read Mieville myself. I have both Embassytown and Perdido Street Station on my shelves. I’m not sure which one to start with.

    • I have the collection of 100 Bradbury stories and I’m always surprised by how many of them aren’t SF. I love all of his “October country” stuff – it’s not always the best-written, but it just overflows with nostalgia and mystery.

    • Thanks to you as well! Ender’s Game is on TBR list…which is admittedly very very long, but I’ll get to it someday 🙂

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