I just finished reading You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to the Coffee Shop: Scalzi On Writing by John Scalzi. Some chapters in the book are adapted from posts off his blog, The Whatever. One chapter, in particular struck me, wherein Scalzi was writing about Outreach and Gateway Science Fiction. Now, this is an older article, from 2005 in fact, so I don’t know that he still feels the same way, but I found it very interesting.
The argument he is reacting to is that Fantasy is overtaking Sci-Fi. Whether that is true anymore, or even was true in 2005, Scalzi argues that one of the reasons for that might be that sci-fi tends to be written for well-informed science fiction fans. As a genre, it’s constantly trying to tread new ground and advance upon the works that are already published. Which is great, but what if you haven’t read those works? What if this is your first science fiction novel? Or even your first fantasy novel? What if this is your first walk on the geek side? Where do you start?
Well, I have ideas about that and I’m going to share them with you, because I’m generous like that.
Let’s start with science fiction. I read probably one sci-fi book to every four or five fantasy books. Partly, because until recently I didn’t quite know what to read. I’d pick up things that looked like this:
Ok, there’s a girl in a Jedi hood and a giant cat man… I guess I could read that. I do, in fact, like cats. And I did read that series and it was pretty good. Good enough that I tracked copies down last year so I could re-read it. It starts off pretty easy. There’s a girl with telepathic powers on a human colony world. Bad aliens who look like lizard-bugs are oppressing the humans and good aliens, who look like cats, have become stranded on the planet. They team up with the girl and a new galactic alliance is started. Also, an inter-species marriage, but more on that in book 2! (There’s a shower scene, it gets weird.)
On the other hand, I wouldn’t pick up things that looked like this:
Nothing against John Ringo, but to my teenage self covers like that made me assume that the book would by hyper-macho and probably full of stupid action scenes. (This was a time in my life before I started to actively seek out stupid action scenes.) I was also pretty sure that there would be long lists of alien names that I couldn’t pronounce and which contained extraneous apostrophes; K’zorth and T’lax seemed like possible species names.
So, I watched Star Trek and Babylon 5 and X-Files, but didn’t consider myself a sci-fi fan. I liked fantasy! Fantasy was easy. It was fairy tales and Tolkien and things I didn’t have to think hard about. But there are only so many retellings of King Arthur I can stand. And so I ventured out of my magic filled cave and once more poked around the edges of science fiction. This has been a repeating pattern for the last twenty years or so. I’ll dangle my toes in the sci-fi pool, but I’m never quite willing to take the plunge and call myself a full-out fan. Well, until recently. So, here are the books that hooked me:
Friday by Robert Heinlein
I know Friday is a somewhat controversial choice. Heinlein seems to either make fans or enemies. There aren’t a lot of people I’ve come across that just feel ‘meh’ about him. Friday, in particular, gets called out for being especially misogynistic. I, personally, don’t find it so, but if you want to debate about it I’ll be happy to. There’s one scene in particular that most people cite. It’s an upsetting scene, I won’t deny that, but I come out of it with a very different message than its detractors. Again, if you want to debate about it, I’d be happy to.
But, for me, Friday is a story about an amazing woman who seems to be part James Bond, part She-Ra, and pretty much pure awesome. Friday, the character, is a genetically engineered woman with strength and speed well above the human average. She has made her way in life working for an organization involved in spying and courier work. The book’s setting ranges from a post-United States North America, to New Zealand, to the Moon, and finally into deep space. Heinlein throws you into an obviously science fiction future within the first page, but you don’t really have to know the how’s behind everything. You just go with it and it works. This is very much a character driven story rather than a setting or gimmick driven story. It’s not about the gizmos of the future, but how Friday uses them to accomplish her aims.
There’s also plenty of romance for those inclined. The book plays with some of Heinlein’s more radical notions of family structure, which I’ve always found fascinating.
I’m a huge Heinlein fan in general, and Friday is probably my favorite of his works, followed by To Sail Beyond the Sunset and I Shall Fear No Evil. (All of which, incidentally, have female, or at least female appearing, protagonists.)
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Ok, even Scalzi admits that Old Man’s War is heavily influenced by Heinlein, so it’s not surprising that I love it. It is probably most similar to Starship Troopers, but clearly has nods toward the breadth of Heinlein’s work. Again, much like in Friday, you don’t need to know a ton about the great works of science fiction to get Old Man’s War. You learn things as the protagonist does. If you don’t get all the nods to Heinlein, that’s ok, the ideas are still cool.
Old Man’s War is set in a future where Earth has achieved interstellar flight (privately) and found itself in a colonial space war. Since space travel is handled by a private company they employ private soldiers in the Colonial Defense Force. When you turn 75 you can enlist and they send you off into space where you are mysteriously turned into a soldier. No one on Earth knows exactly what the process is because the trip to the stars is strictly one way. John Perry, recent widower, decides to take that trip. The novel follows him through the transformation into a soldier, and then into the war he’s signed up to fight.
I loved this book. I read it for the Sword and Laser Book Club and really enjoyed it.
Touched by an Alien by Gini Koch
This book is the sci-fi equivalent of the paranormal romance. Kitty Katt gets caught up in an interstellar war when she takes out a monster in front of the Phoenix courthouse one day after jury duty. Before she knows it she’s being literally whisked off her feet by a handsome alien in Armani. Kitty is unconventional, sassy, and always accessorized with the only purse in creation bigger than mine (it’s a Hello Kitty messenger bag in case you were wondering, because I’m a grown up!).
I’ve torn through several books in this series. It’s a pretty gentle (though full of sexy-times) introduction to the basic principles of science fiction. It’s also just a lot of fun.
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
This is an excellent graphic novel of a regular girl who finds herself lost in space. It’s officially aimed at younger readers, but I adore it and I can’t think of a reason why any other reader wouldn’t. The art is adorable and the story is fantastic. There’s also a sequel called Legends of Zita the Spacegirl. I love them so much! They’re great for readers who enjoyed graphic novels like Bone and are now looking for something with a sci-fi edge to it.
I want to add a couple of Honorable Mentions to the list.
The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey – But Sara, you say, these are books about giant, telepathic dragons! They’re clearly fantasy! True, but the people on Pern are actually space colonists. It’s totally in the books! They’re sneaky, sneaky sci-fi pretending to be fantasy. But, there are totally space ships if you go back far enough. And the dragons are just an awesome happenstance of xenobiology.
Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry – This is basically viral zombies meets the Bourne Identity. I’ve gushed, and gushed, and gushed about Maberry before on the blog, which is one of the reasons I’m restraining myself to keeping in in the Honorable Mention section. This is the perfect book for folks who like super high action stories. These books don’t stop. There are no breaks. They just grab you and drag you face-first through the awesome.
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley – James Bond meets the X-Files. Enough said. (Even though Mary didn’t love it, which makes me sad, but she’s still my friend.)
Partials by Dan Wells – Again, like Maberry, I’ve gushed alot about this book, so I’ll restrain myself this time. I will say that It’s awesome. Post-apocalyptic, dystopian, with androids. Translation: made of win.