Without new readers, the field of speculative fiction is doomed. In past issues of Strange Horizons we've looked at children's and YA speculative fiction; and we've even run a piece on the best SF of all time.
But what do you recommend to an adult who doesn't read much speculative fiction, to get them hooked?
We've all been in this situation before, whether it's with a significant other, a parent, a sibling, or maybe just a friend who's looking for a good read and wondering about all those books with lurid pictures sitting in the bedroom. This is not the time to trot out your Gene Wolfe dekalogy, brilliant though it is, because it'll require too much effort for someone to decipher the text and they'll never read another piece of spec fic again.
What I've tried to do in this article is to suggest works which are both good reads on their own, and which serve as introductions to a broader aspect of the spec fic universe: gateway works. These are books I've loaned out a dozen times, authors I've recommended to many people, books I buy every time I see them for sale at a used book store to give to friends.
Without further ado, a dozen gateways of the imagination.
Oldies but Goodies: H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine
New readers might have some misconceptions coming into these books. There have been some very free recent adaptations, with varying results: the '80s War of the Worlds TV show was entertaining, if loosely based on the text; but, by all accounts, the latest Time Machine movie is atrocious. It's a shame, since the books are so readable, and also so vital to later fiction.
Wells' vision of the Morlocks, a warped society of workers whose constant exposure to machines has rendered them inhumanly ugly, inspired many later writers; the Shaver/Dero myth may have been influenced by this story, and perhaps such early works as Metropolis as well. The unsettling ending to time, with the last living being on earth perishing, reminds me of some of Lovecraft's future history, with a race of beetles taking over the earth after the passing of man. More directly, a sequel to The Time Machine was written by K.W. Jeter, and others have used its protagonist as a hero. The time machine, preferably a great shiny object adorned with gauges and dials and levers, has become a pop cultural cliché. Nowadays, you can't write a time machine story without irony or mockery. This novel, however, is entirely earnest and therefore convincing. Wells' progressive social agenda colors his perceptions and shapes his horrid futures into something which chills us.
War of the Worlds has given us a great iconic image: the Tripod, which John Christopher adopted for his children's series. There are sequels and prequels within the field (including Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters"). But the story, told from various viewpoints and featuring the destruction of the Earth, is compelling as ever.
When Orson Welles adapted War of the Worlds for his Mercury Theatre of the Air, he created a famous panic, since for many listeners his broadcast blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality, convincing them that an actual alien invasion was taking place. While Welles altered many details of the story to make them fit an American setting long after the author's time, the fearsome, uncompromising nature of the aliens, and the sense that true aliens have motivations and thoughts which would be totally unclear to us, are the strongest parts of the tale.
Joanna Russ, "When it Changed"
Speculative fiction is not a boy's club, and this story demonstrates it in at least three ways: the editor, the author, and the content.
We're not the only online magazine to put up our content for free; Ellen Datlow won last year's Best Editor Hugo, partly no doubt for her annual Best Of anthology, but also for her stewardship of Sci Fiction. Well-funded by the SciFi Channel, Sci Fiction not only publishes original material but also reprints classic stories, like this one by Joanna Russ.
Russ brings an activist, feminist sensitivity to her fiction and critical essays. While novels like The Female Man have a hard, angry edge and an experimental style, this story keeps to traditional narrative techniques and sympathetic characters, while still conveying a powerful message.
The story envisions an isolated world of women, their lives and their technologies, and what happens when they come into contact once again with galactic society: the misunderstandings, assumptions, and stereotypes that a male-dominated culture imposes on them. I remember reading this story when I was twelve or so, and I never looked at science fiction the same way again.
Think of this story, then, not only as a great tale, but also as a useful corrective to some stereotypes that readers might have about the field.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
To introduce a reader to high fantasy, most people would start with the Js or the Ls: J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Le Guin, or Lewis. I take a middle ground, choosing the K. All of the authors that I mentioned above wrote their fantasy stories in trilogy-sized clumps, or bigger. The indefinite size of series like those of Robert Jordan (or even Le Guin's Earthsea) puts many readers off of setting out on the journey. Even Tolkien stumbles; how many of us have had trouble getting through The Two Towers?
But saying that Tigana is good just because it's condensed into one book is damning with faint praise. Guy Gavriel Kay did his fantasy apprenticeship working with Tolkien's notes to help produce the Silmarillion, and he's got a knack for producing great battles and moments of high fantasy, where the actions of a few individuals determine the fate of multitudes. Throughout the excitement, Kay never loses sight of personal motivations: his characters are always caught in webs of love and hate, ambition and pride.
Tigana takes the turbulent political history of the Italian renaissance as a starting point for a saga of love, honor, and patriotism. It marked the beginning of Kay's alternate historical romances, which draw from real-world history to produce a well-grounded fantasy, a trend continuing in works like George R. R. Martin's more recent Song of Ice and Fire.
Tigana ends on an open note: the fate of three characters is left in the balance. But it's left open for the reader to decide, not for the reader to wait for the next installment of the series. It's a fat book, but the action simply flies by, and it's that combination of open-ended freedom and swift action which, I think, make it a compelling starter novel. A doorway mustn't yawn like an abyss; it must allow access while not intimidating its reader.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
As an unrepentant utopian, I always enjoy my science fiction mixed with politics, and this is my favorite of those texts. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series bogs down near the end, and everyone's read cranky dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 in high school.
The Dispossessed offers its readers two realms: one an enormous capitalist world-state, another an anarchist colony in a barren, lifeless space. The main character, the scientist Shevek, navigates between these two realms, discovering the freedoms and the flaws inherent in both. Alternating between hope and bleak despair, it's a nuanced look at carefully-imagined political systems, with enough of a story to retain the reader's interest.
This is a good starter for someone who feels speculative fiction doesn't tackle "issues."
Samuel R. Delany, Aye, and Gomorrah: and other stories
So is this one. Delany's writing career has included criticism, history, and even pornography, and so his spec fic deals with broader themes than most. While the scope and structure of some of his novels, like Dhalgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand can be daunting, he deals with many of the same ideas in bite-sized form in his short fiction.
Whether it's alienation and sexual attraction, as in title story "Aye, and Gomorrah," drugs, race, or loneliness, Delany's artful prose attacks issues of great importance. Equally important for dragging in newbies, his stories are also great reads, winning multiple Hugos and Nebulas, like the classic "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones," a picaresque tale of thievery with an underlying commentary on society.
Delany brings the eye of a scholarly world traveler and the ear of a poet to his fiction, and an attention to social issues to his fiction, and it's that breadth and language which makes him compelling.
David Brin, Startide Rising
The science fiction genre got its start in the pulps, and many of its early writers started their careers writing Westerns. So the slam-bang action story has its roots way way back in the annals of SF, and it's still an important part of the field (especially if you look at Hollywood). This story comes right out of that "space opera" tradition.
Startide Rising also introduced Brin's idea of "uplift," creating sentience in animals so that they can serve as proper companions for man. While the idea is hardly original to him, his treatment of the neo-fin dolphins and their close companionship with humans is enormously appealing. The idea that we can atone for our past ecological sins by allowing the animals to become smart enough to forgive us for our actions is heartening, and the idea of cute cuddly animal companions that can come along with us makes for a fun read. Of course, the dolphins aren't all sweetness and light, and his conception of the sociopathic Stenos, as well as his evocation of dolphin speech and poetry, adds depth to the story.
Brin has worked this theme into a tremendously satisfying grand free-for-all space battle featuring colorful alien antagonists with sharply-drawn unique cultures. We never forget that this is an adventure tale, with space fleets clashing, lasers flying, psychic warfare, lost alien civilizations and mysterious alien ships, and world-shattering explosions. Even if it doesn't obey A.E. Van Vogt's dictum of introducing a new plot point every 3,000 words, the plot moves at a lightning pace and introduces so many mysteries that it took Brin four more books to unravel them all. (Startide Rising is a sort-of sequel to the earlier Sundiver, but it's a much better read and therefore a much better starting point.) Despite all this backstory and frontstory, the action-oriented plot means that you don't need to read any future books to enjoy the thrills of this one, and the satisfaction of the resolution.
At its best, Star Trek presents a tasty melange of colorful alien races, white-knuckle diplomacy, moral dilemmas, and space combat; Startide Rising accomplishes the same sorts of things in book form.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Snow Crash is a candy-coated Everyman's Neuromancer: probably the best way to introduce cyberpunk.
A likable Hiro Protagonist gets caught up in crimes and skullduggery in a neon-corporate near future. He isn't a murderous cad, like Neuromancer's hero Case; he isn't a godlike hacker like the leads in The Shockwave Rider or True Names; instead he's a more-or-less average Joe caught up in some oft-hilarious adventures. Snow Crash always maintains its sense of humor, not unlike the Hitchhiker's Guide.
The plot rambles a bit until the unsatisfying ending, but cyberpunk has never been about plot, so the ludicrous storyline doesn't matter (the evil scheme which threatens the Earth is particularly daffy, predicated upon ancient Tower of Babel nonsense). Instead, cyberpunk is interesting partly because of its obsession with the flow of information, with human and computer interfaces, and with spaces of shared information space. Snow Crash joins that tradition with reflections on brand identity and nationhood in the future age. Cyberpunk is also compelling because of the punk in the title, the attitude, the style exemplified in Gibson's adoption of Chandler-like prose; in Sterling's acid "Cheap Truth" manifestos; in Wired magazine's aesthetic and the existence of things like The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook.
Snow Crash has style in spades. From the opening scene, with Hiro Protagonist as the high-tech engine of pizza delivery destruction, to his nemesis on roller blades, to the heavy who drives a badass motorcycle with a nuclear weapon attached to it, Snow Crash exudes style. It's that combination of funny and hip which makes it a good starting point.
Neil Gaiman, The Doll's House
Neil Gaiman has written short fiction and novels, created a TV miniseries, and translated Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke into English, but his most popular work remains the Sandman comic book series, with good reason. The saga of Morpheus, Greek god of dreams, spans almost a dozen graphic novels, a form he helped revitalize.
While the Sandman, his sorrows, loves, and tribulations, shape the storylines of much of the series, supporting characters steal the show at times, which is certainly the case in the first story in this collection, "The Sound of Her Wings," featuring Gaiman's conception of Death, as portrayed by Mike Dringerberg and Malcolm Jones III. Her look, all black with a prominent ankh, became an icon for Goth culture, and she eventually received her own comic. "The Sound of Her Wings" remains one of the most touching comics I have ever read, with great emotional impact -- perhaps that's why it was packaged into two different Sandman collections.
The Doll's House is the second Sandman collection, but this is where Gaiman began to find his voice as a storyteller: the stories here are more memorable than the ones in the first collection, Preludes and Nocturnes, including the introduction of the likable immortal foil Hob Gadling and a chilling convention of serial killers.
The Doll's House starts with a beautiful and moving story, descends into horror, and includes enough humor and light wit to carry the reader through, and ensure that the reader takes comics seriously in the future.
Japanese anime is a rapidly-expanding facet of science fiction right now, but a lot of people, even many science fiction fans, retain a knee-jerk reaction that cartoons are for kids. It's true, a lot of Japanese animation is intended for a juvenile market, and a lot of the anime which plays on network television (Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z) is intended for children. Even today's best-known anime movies, those of Hayao Miyazaki, while enchanting for grownups, retain an innocence and a sense of wonder which makes them perfect for children, perhaps explaining why they were optioned by Disney.
Cowboy Bebop goes against the kiddie tradition. When I first saw this show, I thought to myself, this could play in America on network television in prime time.
From its dynamic opening sequence, featuring freeform jazz, rapid-fire images, and broken text cascading around the screen, Bebop announces its swift pace and information overload style. There's a lot happening in the margins of the screen, a lot of action going on in the background, too much to catch on one viewing.
The main characters are bounty hunters, and one is a former mob killer. Violence is not sugarcoated. Characters suffer and die; guns kill people; and death begets more death. Drugs, sex, and gender identity appear as serious themes -- unheard of in most animation.
Most importantly for the purposes of this article, Cowboy Bebop takes place in a richly-imagined future solar system whose different planets and orbital cities obey very different physical rules. Venus feels like Venus, and topics like terraforming are covered in depth. We learn how the solar system has developed, and the different physical effects that govern different areas of the solar system play important roles in the action. Things are explained to us effortlessly, through casual actions and voiceovers in the background as the main story goes on; I think writers could take notes from the way in which the backstory comes through in this series. It's a great example of show, not tell.
Bebop shows both the beauty of modern Japanese animation and its potential to tell a lengthy, speculative fiction story: the show spans 26 episodes before reaching its resolution, and it doesn't feel crowded or empty. The stories the show tells range from farcical comedy to tense action thrillers to melodramatic romance, but every episode showcases some futuristic technology or exotic setting, grounding it firmly in the spec fic tradition. Thus, it's a perfect gateway to bring someone to appreciate both anime and speculative fiction.
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Alternate history is another growing part of science fiction right now, and while Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South is a bestseller, Turtledove's fascination with the minutiae of warfare both narrows his books' appeal and turns me off. Although The Man in the High Castle is about War, specifically the aftermath of an alternate World War II after an Axis victory, it has no battles, no gunfire, no armchair tacticians debating strategy. But it's just as compelling a tale without the militarism. Part of this is due to the chilling it-could-have-happened awfulness of a Nazi victory: I don't think I can name any other book whose title character is Adolf Hitler.
But its appeal is not so simple as a frisson of horror. The Man in the High Castle's multiple points of view, discussions of philosophy and religion and aesthetics, and meditative, slow quality all help to make it a stained glass window through which to view our own world.
It's also an avenue into Philip K. Dick as well as into Alternate History. Scholars and filmmakers love Philip K. Dick. He's one of the SF authors who gets the most written about him in academic circles, and by my count he's had five big-budget movies made from his works (Total Recall, Screamers, Blade Runner, The Minority Report, and Impostor). While Hollywood tends to add fireworks and explosions, the focus of Dick's written fiction is often the self: he writes paranoid fantasies about doubting one's own identity and even doubting history. This story, which involves characters questioning their patriotism and even the reality of their timeline, is no exception.
This was a tough choice: it's not an easy story, and the point of departure for the alternate history is easy to miss (FDR is assassinated, and a nonentity becomes president of the US). Still, the style, the setting, the difficult choices the characters have to make, and even the meta-commentary on the idea of an alternate history (through the characters' discussion of the [fictional] alternate history novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) all make it into a very thought-provoking story.
I'll end with one of the more delightful writers out there in any format, Howard Waldrop. I've already mentioned his sequel to War of the Worlds; but it's in the field of short fiction where he's at his best.
It's very difficult to describe Waldrop's work: he brings a twisted mind to a number of familiar stories, resulting in genre-bending and history-altering wonders. Luckily for us all, I don't need to describe his stories: a large number are available online, allowing anyone to pop in at a moment's notice and nibble at his fiction.
Our own fiction editor Jed Hartman has compiled an online list of his stories, which accompanies our Author Focus issue on Waldrop.
Short fiction, novels, comics, anime: there are many entrances into the entrancing world of speculative fiction, and I hope these suggestions allow someone new to see its wonders.
Copyright © 2003 Fred Bush
Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.
You must log in to post a comment.