So the new Star Wars movie is finally out (no spoilers, please, for those sad few of us who haven't seen it yet). And, as with all mighty sci-fi franchises, the new Star Wars has forced us to confront the deeply upsetting fact that some of our friends, family members, and assorted loved ones might not like science fiction. I know. It's a harsh truth, but we must try to accept them for who they are. Even if they say things like, "I only read real literature," or, "A trekkie is someone who likes Star Wars, right?"
Look, all genres are created equal, and there's no shame in liking your reading material sans spaceships and laser battles. However, if you or someone you love is suffering from sci-fi hate, don't lose all hope quite yet. Sci-fi is a vast (and often confusing) genre, filled with many literary novels to satisfy even the the biggest hater. Because science fiction doesn't deserve it's reputation for pulpy nonsense and cliches (although some of the pulp is pretty fun to read). It's not all bug-eyed aliens and post-apocalyptic hellscapes. As Kurt Vonnegut himself put it: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction'... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
There's at least one speculative fiction book out there for everyone, so here are a few novels to check out if you don't think science fiction is for you:
1. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
It's like The Jungle Book, only instead of a human boy being raised by wolves, he's raised by martians. And then when he's all grown up, he returns to Earth with no concept of religion or jealousy or monogamy, and he starts living a funky "free love" lifestyle that freaks out all the squares. OK, that's a vast oversimplification of Heinlein's famous novel. And to be fair, Stranger in a Strange Land is a little dated: even the more progressive attitudes in the book come off as somewhat sexist today, and the intentionally sexist characters come off as chauvinist monsters. But it's still a fascinating, philosophically charged novel about non-monogamous love and sexuality (with just a touch of martians).
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
If you're going to dip your toes in the science fiction genre, why not start with the first sci-fi novel ever? Yes, Frankenstein is widely considered the first modern sci-fi novel, and it was written by a teenage girl (that's a good fact to have in your back pocket if anyone tries to tell you that sci-fi is for boys). It still holds up, too. Frankenstein is a beautifully written novel that raises complex questions about the nature of life. Don't be fooled by the bolt-neck movie monster — the original novel is a far more nuanced piece of work.
3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go takes place in a world very much like ours. The crux of the novel is the close but complicated relationship between three students at a boarding school as they grow and change. It's not until almost halfway through the novel that we start to understand the chilling truth of who these students are and why they are being raised away from the public. It's a novel with a disturbing, speculative premise, but the heart of the story lies in the loves and losses of three very human characters (even if their society views them as less than human).
4. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut writes the (arguably) most poignant, hilarious, and bleak sci-fi novels out there. The Sirens of Titan is no exception. It's a darkly humorous, cynical, outrageous story. The richest man in the world takes a journey through the solar system, and Mars invades Earth, and yet this is not your typical spacey science fiction romp. It is more of an exploration of free will (if it even exists), and of the purpose of human history (which was mostly engineered by aliens from Tralfamadore, apparently).
5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
If you made it through middle school without reading The Giver, now is the time to actually read (or re-read!) it. It takes place in some sort of dystopian society, yes, but The Giver is far from a flashy sci-fi story. Jonas is a young boy who lives in a conformist town called the Community, a closed society that seems to be running quite smoothly. But over the course of the novel, Jonas comes to understand that the peaceful, colorless world he grew up in is all an illusion and that there is life beyond the boundaries of the Community.
6. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
It's a love story, it's updated 1940s noir, it's a thrilling whodunit, and it's a story about faith and salvation (with just a touch of science fiction). Jewish refugees have fled to the Alaskan panhandle, and for 60 years their "temporary" safe haven has developed into a full-on Yiddish society. Now, however, they are in danger of losing their frontier city, and in the midst of all this, homicide detective Meyer Landsman must deal with his failing marriage and his wreck of a career (and of course, solving the murder of a former chess prodigy).
7. Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde
Originally titled Shades of Grey (can you blame them for changing the title?), this is a wild satire and romance wrapped up in a vision of a color-based future. Yes, color-based: Jasper Fforde has created a strange new world in which people are categorized based on which colors they can see. The Greys are at the bottom, of course, being unable to perceive any color, and the Purples are the ruling class. Cross-color mingling is strictly controlled. And yet Eddie Russet, a promising young Red, ruins everything by falling head-over-heels for a Grey. The rules of this world are futuristic and strange, but the writing is so clever and full of wit and the characters so bent on changing their class-based society, it's an enjoyable read even for dystopia-haters.
8. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
Is Fledgling a book about sci-fi vampires? Well... it's not not a book about sci-fi vampires, but it's also a book about "otherness" in general. Shori appears to be a little girl, but she is actually a 53-year-old member of a vampire-like species, who have cohabited with humanity for hundreds of years. But this isn't a traditional vampire novel or a traditional sci-fi adventure. It deals with profound themes of race, class, and difference, and it tells the story one young girl learning her own past and choosing her future (even if she does occasionally suck some blood along the way).
9. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
If you like your accessible sci-fi to be on the lighter, more hysterical side of thing, then try Dirk Gently. He's a holistic sleuth who uses the interconnectedness of all things to solve the mystery (or not), and this time he'll have to find the connections between a dead cat, an Electric Monk, and quantum mechanics. He'll also eat a lot of pizza. This is classic Douglas Adams in every way: absurd, painfully British humor and a great deal of genius parody of our existing world. But it's much lighter on the spaceships and exploding planets than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Dirk Gently has you covered for your more Earth-bound, funny sci-fi needs.
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