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Trying Out Science Fiction: A Guide for Fantasy Purists

Sci-Fi Fantasy by Phil WhitehouseAre you a reader who sticks purely to fantasy and looks suspiciously at the science fiction side of the shelf in the bookstore? Perhaps you’ve thought about trying out some sci-fi, but the prospect of spaceships and alien races just doesn’t seem appealing. Or you have tried some and been turned off. You might still have this niggling feeling you’re missing out on something good and you should give this whole science fiction thing a try – but where do you start?

About three years ago, I found myself in this exact situation. I loved science fiction films, but I’d almost never touched a science fiction novel. I think this stemmed from a combination of things: being so focussed on fantasy that I had little room or time for anything else, being turned off by the covers of science fiction books, and most importantly, having a bad experience with the genre.

The End of Eternity by BigboyDenisI picked up a trashy sci-fi novel in my teens and immediately encountered a confusing story full of alien languages and weird words, with unappealing characters and an empty, lacklustre world. I couldn’t make any sense of it and it made me vaguely depressed, so I put it down. I decided science fiction wasn’t for me.

Over a decade later, I finally gave it another go. I had often heard science fiction works mentioned by fellow fantasy fans and seen the genres placed side-by-side at conventions, in bookstores, and online. I thought: I really ought to explore this “other side of the coin” and see what all the fuss is about.

So, I started reading sci-fi. And found books I loved – even books I adored. I added several science fiction works to my all-time favourites list. In the process, I learned a few things that might be helpful to any fantasy lovers wanting to embark on a similar exploration of this sister genre:

Don’t Start With The Classics

Dune by Frank HerbertThere are many online forums where people ask, “I’ve never read any science fiction but I want to try it out, what should I read first?” and get a stream of comments recommending classic works like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land and Foundation. These are indeed important works that have been enjoyed by many, but they’re probably not the best ones to start with. It’s like telling someone who’s never read fantasy to begin with Lord of the Rings or Elric of Melniboné. Yes, these are important stories and forerunners of the genre but they’re not exactly accessible or easy reads for a newcomer. (The exception here would be Ender’s Game, as it’s very accessible and easy to read despite its “classic” status).

You’re better off tackling the classics later, after you’ve cut your teeth on a modern, accessible read and worked up a taste for more.

Begin With Something Suspenseful and Appealing

Ready Player One (cover)Find a popular science fiction novel with a premise that intrigues you, or that you’ve heard is one of those can’t-put-it-down-must-keep-reading books. If you’re already suspicious heading into the experience, the last thing you want is a slow read where you trudge through 50 pages before things get interesting, or one where the themes and characters don’t interest you.

Mix In Other Genres You Like

Do you like young adult fantasy, or are you partial to romance in your fantasy? Why not carry this over into science fiction? Read a YA science fiction novel or a sci-fi romance.

Regardless of whether you like your fantasy grim or light, prefer to read fantasies with a male or female protagonist (or both, or something in-between), or have a preference as to how much battling and action you like, there’s going to be a science fiction novel to match these tastes. After all, it’s a genre as broad as fantasy, with multiple sub-genres to choose from.

Get Trusted Recommendations

Ender's Game (cover)If you know someone with a similar taste in books to you who reads science fiction, ask them for some recommendations. What sci-fi novels do they think you’ll enjoy?

Personally, some I would recommend are: Ender’s Game, Ready Player One, The Martian, Ancillary Justice and The Knife of Never Letting Go. However, those books suit my particular tastes so they won’t necessarily suit yours.

Try a Science Fantasy

If you’re hesitant about plunging straight into science fiction, try a blend of science fiction and fantasy first. Science fantasy novels often combine both fantasy and science fiction tropes, weave magic and science together, or have a fantasy feel while being in essence science fiction. Some good science fantasy books that come to mind are The Knife of Never Letting Go, Blightborn, and Cinder.

Remember, It’s Not All Spaceships and Aliens

Inception (poster)If you’ve ever had someone dismiss fantasy as “those books about dragons and magicians” and felt a pang of frustration, then ask yourself if you’re doing the same thing with science fiction. Yes, the genre often includes space travel and aliens, but it doesn’t always. Just think about the great sci-fi films out there that don’t involve either – Minority Report, The Edge of Tomorrow, The Matrix, Inception, War Games, I-Robot, Jurassic Park. Many of those were based on books.

Even the sci-fi novels that do include the expected clichés can do so in interesting ways, and be far more complex, deep and entertaining than a dismissive two-word summary suggests. So when it comes to science fiction, think broad, and don’t narrow your focus or your definition to one kind of book.

And If It All Fails, At Least You Tried

Cinder (cover)If you try out a variety of science fiction novels – ones with themes or genre elements that appeal to you, ones that other people have raved about or trusted friends have recommended, and you still just don’t like the genre… well, at least you gave it a shot. Now if you tell someone you don’t like science fiction, it won’t be based on a vague mistrust, or that one terrible book you read once.

However, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll discover a passion for a new and hitherto unexplored genre of great stories, worlds and characters. And while fantasy will probably remain your first and foremost love, you’ll occasionally find yourself straying to the other side of the book shelf… this time with a new appreciation for what you might find there.

Title image by Phil Whitehouse.

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4 Comments

  1. Alphonse says:

    I do agree that when it comes to recommendations, you will usually get a lost of “what are the most famous and well-known science fiction stories?”.

    But science fiction can also be comics. I really enjoyed the Battle Angel comics (stopped reading them when they started to printing the comics from right to left).

    So far I have only read a very tiny fraction of everything that is out there, so there has to be amazing stuff still waiting just to be discovered. Of course, some of the most famous ones I didn’t like at all, just as others will like or dislike the same stories, or something in between.

    Some I did like (and therefore can recommend to those if similar taste) were actually classic stories. Five examples should be enough:

    The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. van Vogt (also his ). Have also read some of his individual Rull stories, which would later be collected in The War Against the Rull.

    H. G. Wells and classics such as The War of the Worlds (double meaning), First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man.

    Red Planet, by Robert Heinlein

    Skylark of Space, by Doc Smith.

    Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

    Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

    Cordwainer Smith and stories like Scanners live in Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon and A Planet Named Shayol, and other fascinating tales.

    Phobos, the Robot Planet (aka Lost: A Moon), by Paul Capon (very juvenile, but has an innocent and charm that is missing in more modern works)

    The Humanoids, by Jack Williamson (have not yet read the novella version or the sequel)

    Titan, by John Varley

    If someone wants a female name, there is Leigh Brackett and her Martian stories, but I have never read anything of her (has never been translated to my language).

    Yes, some of these are pretty standard suggestions, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are well worth reading if you like those kind of stories. The heaviest one on the List is Snow Crash, and the intro almost made me put it away, but as you keep reading, it is hard not to be fascinated by the future society.
    Skylark of Space is so old that there are a couple of element that could be called politically incorrect, but personally that have never bothered me since it is just a reflection of how they society actually was back then.

    • Alphonse says:

      And of course Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve (who have also written the Larklight trilogy and Railhead, but have not read these yet)

  2. Lee says:

    My recommendation, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would be NOT to start with anything more than 20 years old. I grew up reading the best SF of the 60s-80s, and these days I find that a lot of it has been visited by the Suck Fairy when I go back for a re-read. Times change, and the genre has changed with them.

    The one exception to the above would be the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. Even the oldest books of this one still hold up admirably, and the recent ones are top-notch contemporary SF. Even better, each book stands alone quite well, so the series doesn’t have to be read strictly in order (although there will be nuances you don’t catch if you haven’t read the lead-ups).

    Another good entry point would be the Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald; this is space opera with some fantasy elements included. There are 7 books, and they really should be read in publication order — the 4th book is a prequel and will seriously spoil the ending of the arc in the first three if you read it first.

    • Alphonse says:

      It depends on your taste. With the exception of Wells, I did not read any of the titles listed above as a kid. I read all of them as an adult in the last few years (including a couple more of Wells), and most of them were written before I was even born (the fact that many of them are also fast and easy reads also helps).

      That’s why I don’t recommend what not to read, and in general only gives examples on what I like myself. There a plenty of excellent work written here and now, but it’s a little harder to keep up with all of that compared to what have survived previous eras.

      As you said, time changes. And the best way to get a taste of the genre’s diversity is to try out different works from different decades, some of them timeless. If you are new to science fiction, all books wil feel like new in their own way anyway. But of course, Sturgeon’s Law have always been around, from the past to the present.

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