Science fiction sometimes feels like the least welcoming genre. Fantasy and science fiction often get lumped together, but I think science fiction is even harder for a someone new to get into: fantasy usually has more complicated story lines (and series that stretch across entire shelves), but science fiction has classic geek-elitism on its side– plus, Game of Thrones has made fantasy cool in a way Star Trek never did for science fiction.
NPR compiled a list of readers’ top 100 sci-fi picks (there’s even an interactive flowchart here), so you could start there. Honestly, all of their recommendations look great, but I’ve got a few of my own suggestions based on what you already like!
If You Liked. . .The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd’s 2003 coming-of-age novel, spiced with a little magic and a lot of lady friendships.
There’s a line people sometimes find it useful to draw between “hard” and “soft” science fiction; in hard science fiction, the emphasis is on science: “how did these wormholes get here and how can we weaponize them?” In soft science fiction, the emphasis is (you guessed it) on the fiction, and Becky Chambers’ 2014 debut (!!) novel epitomizes this subgenre’s best qualities. It’s basically a super self-aware, hilarious sitcom that challenges social norms. . . in space.
I love the way fictional alien species allow us (paradoxically) to think more deeply about what it means to be human. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, we follow a small group of characters (four humans, an artificial intelligence, a lizard-like pilot, and several even stranger aliens) who learn to live and work together on a spaceship despite their differences. Every character has a different idea of what happiness, love, and loss look like, and as we get to know the characters better, we learn how their race, culture, and family have helped to define their perspectives, whether they embrace their background or push back against it. One particularly memorable character, Dr. Chef (who, as his name implies, is the ship’s medical officer and cook), is one of the last remaining members of his species. When he tells this to Rosemary, the character whose arrival on the spaceship opens the book:
Rosemary’s hand went to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. Such a quintessentially Human thing, to express sorrow through apology.
“I’m not,” Dr. Chef said. “It was our own doing. Our extinction wasn’t caused by a natural disaster or the slow crawl of evolution. We killed ourselves. . . For generations, my species was at war with itself.”
Later in the conversation, Dr. Chef offers this piece of insight:
“The truth is, Rosemary, that you are capable of anything. Good or bad. You always have been, and you always will be. Given the right push, you, too, could do horrible things. That darkness exists within all of us. You think every soldier who picked up a cutter gun was a bad person? No. She was just doing what the soldier next to her as doing, and so on and so on. And I bet most of them– not all, but most– who made it through the war spent a long time after trying to understand what they’d done. Wondering how they could ever have done it in the first place.”
The book is filled with moments like these, where we see our world, our humanity, through the lens of a fictional member of a fictional race on a fictional planet. What should be alienating manages to bring these important ideas even closer to home. It’s lovely, and I can’t recommend it enough.
If You Liked. . .Gone Girl
You almost definitely know of this book, even if you haven’t read it. Unreliable narrator, the dark side of domestic bliss, and a constant undercurrent of dread make Gone Girl a don’t-put-it-down-til-you’re-done thriller.
Try Dark Matter
Dark Matter belongs to whatever the science version is of magical realism. It’s our world, just with one important difference: the many-worlds theory (each choice we make splits our world in two: we stay in this world, but a copy of us exists in a world where we made the other choice) is definitively true.
Here’s what happened while I read this book (in one sitting, I should probably add): the analytical part of my brain was saying things like “Wow, this is a really compelling discussion of long-term relationships and the notion of settling, as well as the impossibility of ‘having it all,'” but those thoughtful meditations were drowned out by the rest of my brain screaming, “WHAT’S NEXT? OH GOD. WHAT’S NEXT? NO WAY!”
This book offered the best of both worlds (no pun intended): I was totally swept away while I was reading, but once I was done, I felt like I had a lot to think about. Often, books only offer me one or the other– they’re either quick and breezy or they’re ponderous and capital-I-Important– but Dark Matter managed to do it all!
If You Liked. . .Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Though the people in these stories (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel) find themselves in outrageous magical situations, they always remain relatable, displaying our best and worst human qualities. Note: I’m thinking of the darker, un-Disneyfied versions of the fairy tales, which makes them even more compelling for adult readers.
I debated about this one– if I’m recommending science fiction to new readers, should I complicate things by throwing in a graphic series?
Uh, yes. Yes I should. Saga is absolutely special enough to span two genres; my copy of Volume 1 alone has converted at least three of my friends from “Comic books are for kids, and sci-fi is for nerds” to “Oh, you don’t need to lend me the next volume–I already bought my own copy.”
In the same way that fairy tales are so much more than children’s stories– as the countless adaptations, reinterpretations, and descendants show– Saga is so much more than a story about two lovers from warring cultures who flee to the stars. The narrator is the main characters’ child telling the story of her parents’ exodus, which lends depth and warmth to the story. Like in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Saga’s characters are obviously not human (as you can see from the cover–wings, horns, etc.), but underneath, their fears and desires are ones we can all see in ourselves.
The best science fiction, despite its name, makes us see ourselves in a new light– ourselves as individuals, but also who we are as a culture and a species. Those larger-scale perspectives are hard to see from anywhere but space! I hope these recommendations make their way onto your shelves or into your ereader, and that you enjoy them as much as I do. If you’d like a personalized recommendation, just comment with a book or two you’ve loved, and I’ll offer a science fiction book in return that I think would fit your taste!
(The galaxy image for this article was published by National Geographic— check out their space photo galleries to get in the mood for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet!)