David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Introductory Science Fiction Books for Literary Readers

In my post a while back about bad Infoquake reviews, I mentioned how I’ve given William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Frank Herbert’s Dune to a few friends as a way to introduce them to quality science fiction, only to hear later that these friends didn’t care for them. Some of the commenters in the aforementioned blog article didn’t care much for Neuromancer or Dune either.

So my question today is: what are some quality SF books you can hand off to literate non-SF readers as an introduction to the genre?

Let’s say your readers in question are already discerning connoisseurs of quality literature. They’re not typically readers of so-called pulp novels or airport thrillers. They would think nothing of bundling down with a Philip Roth or a Don DeLillo or a Barbara Kingsolver or something that The New York Times Book Review would approve of. They know who Michiko Kakutani is, and they were reading Cormac McCarthy years before Oprah ever heard of him. But as soon as you mention the words “science fiction,” they picture Klingons with light sabers jumping off spaceships with big-breasted ninja assassins in tow and bug-eyed monsters in hot pursuit while a supernova goes off in the background.

What do you hand to these people to convince them that there’s a lot of intelligent literary science fiction that’s worth reading? (I’m just going to stick to science fiction here — however loosely defined that term is — and maybe we can talk about fantasy another time.) I should emphasize that inclusion on either my do/do not lists are not indicators of the quality of the books themselves.

My main criteria for inclusion is that the book has to generally be filed in the “Science Fiction” section of your local bookstore. Which means no George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, or Italo Calvino, however much we believe their works should be filed in our camp. We’ve got to tempt these people into the rows with the Dragonlance books and the life-size cutout of Darth Vader, folks.

(Yes, people have posted a zillion “great works in science fiction” on the web… but I haven’t seen many that specifically focus on the quote-unquote literary. Perhaps it’s pointless and elitist to call these people quote-unquote literary readers. But you all know who I’m talking about. Come up with a better name if you want.)

Some of my nominees:

  • Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. This book’s strong right-wing bent might turn some people totally off science fiction. But it’s hard to argue that this is a tremendously thoughtful book. It might also open some people’s eyes to the fact that the science fiction you see in the movies has very little resemblance to the science fiction you see on the bookshelves.
  • Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Some SF types were turned off by this Hugo Award winner because it was too hoity-toity and thinky-thinky. But for literary types, the languid pace and abundance of Big Ideas makes for a good read.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Hey, science fiction can do feminism too! And not just feminism, but pangenderism and transgenderism and everything else genderismic. In fact, Le Guin and many others like her tackle these issues with much more daring than many of their non-SF contemporaries.
  • Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. So immersed is this novel in Indian culture and so masterful is Mr. McDonald’s prose that it’s hard to imagine anyone putting down this book as one of little substance.
  • John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Yes, there are space cadets and bug-eyed aliens in this one, and the covers wouldn’t necessarily inspire much confidence for the non-SF reader. But there’s also plenty of humor, sex, politics, and social commentary crammed in there, enough to convince many an SF skeptic.
  • Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Hoity-toity artsy types are likely to give this book a fair shot because of the Stanley Kubrick film. Which, in case you were wondering, is one of the greatest films ever made (though a little difficult to follow unless you’ve read the book).
  • William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Hardly science fictional at all, but Gibson is such a master stylist and such a keen thinker on matters of business and technology that reading this book just might suck you into his more futuristic stuff.
  • Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. The intellectual heft of this book isn’t quite so apparent at first blush, and the spider people might roll some eyeballs. But the man can write, and his discussions of individuality-versus-groupthink are both powerful and subtle.

Some great books that, on careful reflection, are probably not great books to give to a non-SF reader right out of the gate:

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Gibson has the habit of throwing out technical terms that are integral to the plot, and then not explaining them for another 10 to 20 pages. Add to that the moody, noirish atmosphere, and the unexperienced reader might suspect they’re reading some cheap knock-off of Blade Runner.
  • Most later Heinlein. All that kinky sex and incest stuff might creep them out, and many of the later books are so full of inside jokes that they’re difficult to penetrate. I don’t think I’d recommend Time Enough for Love to anyone, except my wife, who stubbornly insists this is his best novel.
  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. As excellent as this novel is — it’s one of my all-time faves, and served as inspiration for a couple of chapters in my Infoquake — stylistically the book’s a little sensationalistic. I’d say you’d be better off starting (and ending) with Speaker for the Dead.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Literary readers are suckers for style. And say what you will about Asimov’s ideas — most of us agree they were pretty frickin’ fantastic — but his prose is pretty clunky and juvenile.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Ditto.
  • Anything by Philip K. Dick. In my own personal experience, you don’t begin to understand what PKD is doing until you’ve read four or five of his books. They just read like bad pulp SF novels. Which they are. Which is why they’re so totally fucking brilliant.
  • Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. This happens to be one of my favorite books ever ever, but on first reading the opening 50 pages come across like some sort of pretentious Twilight Zone episode. It’s so much more than that, but readers might not have the patience.
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune. Again, one of my favorite novels. But the opening quarter of the book is a little too pulpish and full of funny names and mythologies for the uninitiated. It takes some patience for this one to open up to you.
  • Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. A great, great book, but too fanboyish and flippant for the uninitiated.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Astute readers will point out to you that this is not really a SFnal novel about a man who’s come unstuck in time, but a poignant novel about a man who’s been driven insane by the horrors of war. (Besides which, few venues file this one with the science fiction.)
  • Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. One whiff of the talking wheeled plant people, and your average Anne Tyler reader is outta there. A Deepness in the Sky is a better bet.

So what am I missing? I know these lists skew heavily towards the obvious, but then again I’m not as well-read in SF as some of you out there. Clue me in on what I’m missing.

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  1. semanticdrifter on June 26, 2007 at 11:29 am  Chain link

    How about some Octavia Butler? Maybe Kindred? While it wasn’t totally my cup of tea, I think it was sufficiently dense and well-crafted to be seen as literary. It also tackled some serious subject matter, and did so with passion and intensity.

  2. Paul Raven on June 26, 2007 at 1:30 pm  Chain link

    Recommend Geoff Ryman’s Air, perhaps. A brilliant book, and literary as all hell.

  3. Greg on June 26, 2007 at 2:20 pm  Chain link

    I would say that Stephen Baxter’s Evolution is thought provoking enough to interest most astute readers.

  4. King Rat on June 26, 2007 at 3:07 pm  Chain link

    Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
    Russell’s The Sparrow
    Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon
    Haldeman’s Forever War

    I would also throw in Lethem’s Gun With Occasional Music, but B&N files his stuff under general fiction.

  5. David Louis Edelman on June 26, 2007 at 3:14 pm  Chain link

    I think Flowers for Algernon is generally filed in the general fiction section too.

  6. Lou Anders on June 26, 2007 at 5:15 pm  Chain link

    Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human. I defy anyone to read the first three pages (right to the first section break) and not come away with the impressin that this prose is as elegant as any piece of “literary” fiction.

    I second the nomination of The Sparrow too. And we could probably add Silverberg’s Dying Inside, though Tom O’Bedlam is a personal favorite of mine.

    RE: Asimov – I feel it would be a service to the genre if he went out of print. I meet so many people who tell me they “read some science fiction once” and didn’t like it. They go to the bookstore, they start at the A’s, they recognize the name, and they read something that is 50 years old and wonder why it doesn’t speak to them. Asimov should be the province of the historian, the critic and the beginning writer – like latin for linguists. But he shouldn’t be out there tripping up the beginning reader. A friend of mine’s daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451. I told her, “You poor girl. That book will bore you silly.” And then recommended Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy to her. And I was right – saw them last week and learned she hated the Bradbury but is now a Westerfeld fan.

    It’s like that scene in Crocodile Dundee when he sees the tv, says “I saw one of them once,” then turns on I LOVE LUCY and says, “Yeah, that’s what I saw” and turns it back off.

    Schools that teach Fahrenheit 451 are doing us no favors. They should teach Un Lun Dun and Mortal Engines instead.

    Also, every book is NOT for every person. I generally ask someone – not what they read because nobody ever really answers this with more than “everything” – but what movies they particularly liked recently. I get five or ten films they liked, then zero in on a book that will speak to them for some of the same reasons.

    Oh, and the “average reader” is as afraid of literature as they are of SF. I tried to turn a lawyer-friend of mine onto Pattern Recognition. He read the first page, and backed away like I’d handed him a viper, hollering “that’s literature!” So I led him over to the stack of Da Vinci Codes instead and said, “Here, I think this is what you are really looking for.”

  7. christopher on June 26, 2007 at 5:46 pm  Chain link

    well im no literature snob, but damn pattern-recognition just put me to sleep. i really tried, but i only got a little over half-way through it. and it’s certainly NOT sci-fi. don’t ever give that book to someone in order to get them into sci-fi.

    Give them the Ender’s Game short story. I thought the novel was good too, but that short story is amazing. I’ve never had a miss with that one.

  8. Nancy Jane Moore on June 26, 2007 at 6:02 pm  Chain link

    How about something by Carol Emshwiller — The Mount or Carmen Dog. Beautiful writing, definitely literary, wonderfully strange, and full of complex ideas.
    Or Stan Robinson’s 40 Signs of Rain. Not as literary, but very accessible to the non-SF reader.
    Something by Karen Joy Fowler, perhaps the collection Black Glass (her novels are closer to fantasy). “The View From Venus” is a wonderful story and would probably appeal to a lot of non-SF readers. Also “the Faithful Companion at Forty.” You could even cheat and let the person read The Jane Austen Book Club first — which isn’t SF, but which will charm any Janeites among your acquaintance — and then try them on her SF.
    I’ve heard that a lot of readers are put off by the fact that lots of SF books start out by throwing out terms and situations that don’t make sense until you’ve read a few chapters. I happen to like that, but it probably means books that use this format aren’t good choices for newbies.
    On those grounds, I wouldn’t try Starship Troopers — besides, it’s full of clunky writing and carries a bad rep from the movie. (I liked it, but I allowed for certain things in reading it.) I’m not sure I’d do The Left Hand of Darkness, either — or at least, I’d let them read some Earthsea first.
    Pattern Recognition strikes me as a good choice for introduction to Gibson — I’d think any thriller reader would like it, though maybe (given Lou’s post above) it’s only for those thriller readers who like LeCarre.

  9. Cindy Blank-Edelman on June 26, 2007 at 7:03 pm  Chain link

    Wow, great to get all these recommendations for my own reading list! How about….

    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    The Gap series by Steven Donaldson (recommended to me by you, Dave, I think)

    I also really liked The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger.

    And I must disagree with the anti-recommendations of Asimov. I think the Foundation series is brilliant and fabulous and a great intro to SF in general. Although I would suggest starting, perhaps, with the books in the series he wrote later, which I thought were better written than the first three.

    I’m currently reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Not done with it yet, but am enjoying it so far and thinking it’s very well written.

  10. David Louis Edelman on June 26, 2007 at 7:59 pm  Chain link

    Wow, lots and lots of things to add to my reading list too. Remember, folks, I’m specifically looking for books to appeal to someone with quote-unquote literary tastes.

    I think you’re right in one sense, Lou, that Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, et al don’t represent what’s going on in SF now. But I also think many people will recognize they’re reading a “classic” and not a contemporary, if only by the copyright date. Just as if I traipse into the Mystery section and pick up Agatha Christie, I’ll expect something much different than Michael Connelly.

    Yes, Cindy, I think I did recommend Donaldson’s Gap series to you. Probably the one thing I’ve recommended to you that you liked. :-)

  11. King Rat on June 26, 2007 at 8:02 pm  Chain link

    Handmaid’s Tale is almost never filed under S.F., except by S.F. bookstores.

    I second The Mount, though that’s really only for a “literature” person who could use some S.F., not for a light reading person who could use some accessible S.F.

  12. MattD on June 26, 2007 at 9:58 pm  Chain link

    Zivkovic’s [i]The Fourth Circle[/i]
    Chapman’s [i]The Troika[/i]
    Marusek’s [i]Getting to Know You[/i]
    Harrison’s [i]Nova Swing[/i]

  13. MattD on June 26, 2007 at 10:11 pm  Chain link

    Drat — why must every system use different tags? (Looks embarrassed.)

    Also some classics: Gene Wolfe; Douglas Adams; Bester; possibly Zelazny.

  14. Jack William Bell on June 26, 2007 at 11:58 pm  Chain link

    I agree with most of your list. But, for pure literary merit, I have a few favorites. (I have other favorites that are less literary, but eminently readable.)

    I would suggest almost anything by Ian M. Banks (who writes mainstream literature as Ian — no ‘M.’ — Banks.)

    Now, if you want to bend it a little from straight Science Fiction I would recommend John Crowley, who’s books end up on the literature shelves of some bookstores and in the SF ghetto on others. I particularly recommend his post-apocalyptic-sort-of-SF novel ‘Engine Summer’.

    Finally, Bruce Sterling gets a nod from me on the basis of just being so good.

  15. Jack William Bell on June 27, 2007 at 12:06 am  Chain link

    Oh, and I am seconding recommendations for Geoff Ryman and Ian McDonald. (I am currently reading McDonald’s ‘Ares Express’.)

  16. Ed Minchau on June 27, 2007 at 12:31 am  Chain link

    I’d recommend The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, The Difference Engine by Gibson, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, or maybe Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (yes, it is science fiction, really. Take away one piece of technology – Galt’s engine – and the whole story falls apart).

  17. Derek on June 27, 2007 at 1:03 am  Chain link

    I’ll ‘third’ Mary Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’. I’ve given it to a number of non-SF readers who have enjoyed it very much. I then move them on to ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Speaker for the Dead’. After that it’s some early Anne McCaffrey (‘Restoree’) and Banks and then try them out on ‘Dune’.

  18. General X on June 27, 2007 at 2:38 am  Chain link

    I would say a lot of the new age movement might be suited for your friends with its wealth of images and weight of ideas.
    William S. Burroughs’s Terminal Beach is one recommendation.

  19. bloginhood on June 27, 2007 at 2:57 am  Chain link

    Anything by Dan Simmons would be an excellent addition: the Hyperion books, Ilium & Olympos, or more recently, The Terror.

    And Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town would be a nice way to get them to accept deeply strange elements in a recognizable reality.

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s already been mentioned, I think, but let’s add his book The Years of Rice and Salt.

    And just to push the boundaries a bit, what about Minister Faust’s From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain? Sure there are enough superheros to satisfy any issue of the X-Men or episode of The Tick, but it’s a smart look at the modern self-help industry and it takes a big bite out of politics.

  20. owen on June 27, 2007 at 3:19 am  Chain link

    So I guess i am a literary SF type, i read the odd trash space opera as a guilty pleasure but i like the more discursive stuff, which sadly still makes up a small fraction of the SF market.

    I disagree with a bunch of these. I mean, most literary folk won’t get past the gung-ho of starship troopers (incidentally the first sf book i read!).

    From some other comments, Stephen Donaldson, really? I read the gap series and thought they were fairly trashy to be honest, and not very well written either.

    2001, again, basically a poor book for me, Clarke has ideas in spades but his writing is terrible (rama series anyone?).

    Left hand of Darkness on the other hand is a much better idea as it is so obviously thoughtful from page one you might hold some interest.

    Hyperion and Olympos by Dan Simmons might work if you sell the former as a frame story and the latter as a reworking of Homer. Just don’t let them read the Endymion books!

    I’d always try The Stars My Destination as well, tell them its a Jacobean revenge drama. I am biassed though as i think this is the best single SF book ever written. Also, let them get a way in before you tell them what year it was written!

    PS – i now boycott Orson Scott Card on the basis of some of his well-publicized views. Liked his novels as a youngster but couldn’t recommend them any more.

    PS- just came across this blog, may give Infoquake a go, seems interesting.

  21. Chris Johnston on June 27, 2007 at 5:55 am  Chain link

    I second Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human: First SF title that put me in tears.

    Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land was the next one to do that.

    My first William Gibson was Virtual Light, and that got me pumped for Neuromancer. Funny thing, I just recently realized that I’d never finished Count Zero, when I tried to start on Mona Lisa Overdrive. I’d read Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties, and enjoyed them immensely, but Pattern Recognition irritated me to no end, so that prompted me to go back and finish the original Sprawl Trilogy.

    Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven/Pournelle was my intro to Larry Niven, which led me to Ringworld, but The Mote in God’s Eye or Footfall might be a better choice.

    I’d also recommend Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids & Mindscan.

    I’d start somebody on PKD with The Philip K. Dick Reader.

  22. David Louis Edelman on June 27, 2007 at 7:14 am  Chain link

    Wow. a ton of great suggestions here, including many I’ve never heard of or haven’t picked up yet.

    MattD: Sorry for the confusion. You’ve inspired me to go in and add the line above the Comments box stating which HTML tags are allowed.

    Owen: I admit I haven’t read 2001 or Starship Troopers in years; I might look differently on them now. I can understand the boycotting of Card, though personally I’m a sucker for a principled iconoclast, even if his principles are really stupid. Hope you do give Infoquake a try and keep reading the blog. :-)

  23. Nancy Lebovitz on June 27, 2007 at 7:23 am  Chain link

    The prose is absolutely crucial for a book to count as literary. No matter how big or good the ideas are, they can’t outweigh prose which is ordinary or worse.

    I don’t know if I can explain the prose thing–it doesn’t have to be fancy (Butler isn’t). Part of it is that the sound contributes to the emotional effect.

    _Spin_ might be the winner there–it was the best I’ve ever seen at integrating a literary novel (with emphasis on character) with big idea science fiction.

    Le Guin would be another good choice.

    Delany might be good, but I’m not sure which book to recommend. I’m very fond of _Nova_ (pro-cyberpunk! without the noir!), but _Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand_ is more ambitious. On the other hand, it might be too weird and ambitious and the other half will never get written. Everyone else seems to like _The Einstein Intersection_ much better than I do.

    No Simmons. No Heinlein. No Donaldson. No Card.

    After all that, I’m still tempted to recommend Egan’s _Diaspora_, but it might get points for sfnal ambition rather than literary quality.

  24. Dominic on June 27, 2007 at 8:05 am  Chain link

    You’d probably have to give some literary context when handing over the books, but I’d recommend:

    1) Handmaid’s Tale and/or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
    2) Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein (mention its influence on Manson)
    3) Anthem by Ayn Rand
    4) Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children by Greg Bear
    5) The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge
    6) Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

  25. Diane on June 27, 2007 at 8:30 am  Chain link

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Sheri Tepper, who always forces me to find the dictionary at least once per book. Specifically, I would point someone to “Gate to Women’s Country” or “Grass”. “Family Tree” would be my favorite, but some might be put off by a surprise turn in the middle of the book.

    I would also second Robinson’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” for solid prose and thought provoking connections.

  26. JP on June 27, 2007 at 9:09 am  Chain link

    What about Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun series? I’d even go so far as to add his Book Of The Long Sun and, possibly, Book Of The Short Sun (though I haven’t read these yet). Literate, challenging and interesting. Plus, the first series is SF masquerading as fantasy.

    I’d also second the Hyperion and Grass recommendations, though those books might be pushing things a bit for someone not steeped in SF.

    For something more recent, I think Mainspring by Jay Lake could work.

  27. DeWayne Williams on June 27, 2007 at 9:11 am  Chain link

    I would agree with Nancy about Delany. My choices from his work would be Dhalgren and Triton. I know that Dhalgren is controversial to some degree but I continue to find new reasons to admire it each time I reread it–and yes I really do reread the thing frequently. Also Jack Vance, you could make a case that he is almost all style. The recent Vance anthology by Jonathan Strahan is a great introduction to some of his best work. I know that his plots are pure pulp but who cares with all that great irony and wit to carry you along!

  28. owen on June 27, 2007 at 9:20 am  Chain link

    Thanks David! Nice ot get a reply, will be looking for infoquake in the English Language shops (am in Geneva, CH), and welcome to my RSS feed list.

    A few extra random and unconnected notes:

    I like some of the things here but wouldn’t call them literary SF. For instance I remember enjoying a Sherri Tepper book but classing it as medium-trashy fantasy (has been years though). Starship Troopers remains a fave for me but have rarely managed to get other to read it, though these days remember the movie will colour it for people. In fact i wouldn’t use any Heinlein at all, it just isn’t that literary to me, however it was interpreted later. I mean all the Lazarus Long stuff is thinly disguised RAH wish fulfillment and Lazarus speaks with RAH’s voice. Again, Dragonflight? I own it and enjoy it but it is hardly literary for me. The balance is something that uses the SF ideas and systems but is in its own right literary. This all depends on your definition of literary of course!

    I wrote a paper in college on SF as a genre which was a lot of fun, and LeGuin remained the best example i could find of using the tropes or freedoms of SF to explore new areas, rather than the ray guns and starships style SF. With her it’s because LHoD and the Dispossessed are almost straight sociological discussion papers.

    To Diane, for me, literary doesn’t mean using a dictionary, try the awesome Raymond Carver, simple words and stories, no plot to speak of but immensely rich prose and themes.

    Another book came to me though, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. Its is surreal/sf/pulp/private eye and well worth a read, also as is one of the best starting places for Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous modern authors. For me he did what Atwood fails to do – understand SF. I tried to get into Oryx and Crake but i found it ok ideas in a poor SF wrapper. rarely for me i ditched it a 1/3 of the way in.

    That’s enough rambling for now, and in case you hadn’t all noticed, I am indeed an opinionated and irritating type!

  29. David Louis Edelman on June 27, 2007 at 9:34 am  Chain link

    Dominic: I thought of suggesting the Cory Doctorow, that’s a good one. But the Atwood and the Rand would almost certainly be filed in general fiction.

    Nancy: I agree with you wholeheartedly about the importance of quality prose. There are a lot of SF writers with fabulous ideas who are constrained by their lack of linguistic chops.

    Owen: Opinionated and irritating types welcome! Stir up some trouble, I like that. (Oh, and good luck finding Infoquake in Geneva… You’d have a hard enough time finding it in Geneva, New York, alas. Probably the only way you’re going to find a copy is to special order it.)

  30. Joyce Reynolds-Ward on June 27, 2007 at 10:47 am  Chain link

    I’d add Louise Marley to the list as well, and second the choice of Grass. I think most of the later Marley would work (titles are not coming to mind, alas). A collection of Cordwainer Smith short stories would be a good choice as well.

  31. Josh English on June 27, 2007 at 12:57 pm  Chain link

    Speaking of Asimov, the Robot Series, especially Caves of Steel, can be a good link for any mystery lover.

  32. mareklamo on June 27, 2007 at 1:41 pm  Chain link

    The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner – Tell them it’s about the environment.

    I second the recommendation for Flowers for Algernon. (But stay away from the movie.)

  33. Jetse on June 27, 2007 at 2:06 pm  Chain link

    I didn’t keep count, so let me second, or third, Ursula LeGuin, Geoff Ryman, Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow, Mike John Harrison (Light, because I haven’t read Nova Swing yet), Bruce Sterling (I’d say Holy Fire), Theodore Sturgeon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and — of course — Ian McDonald (personally I discovered him with NecrovilleTerminal CafĂ© in the US, but you can’t go wrong with River of Gods either, and indeed I still need to get Brasyl).

    I’d add to that:

    Christopher PriestThe Separation
    John BrunnerThe Sheep Look Up or Stand on Zanzibar
    Walter MosleyFutureland
    David ZindellNeverness
    Michael SwanwickJack Faust

    Possibly more if I think of them.

  34. Ashley on June 27, 2007 at 2:28 pm  Chain link

    Neal Stephenson – Diamond Age
    Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide
    Iain Banks – Use of Weapons
    Alexander Jablokov – River of Dust, also many of his short stories
    Roger Zelazny – Doorways in the Sand
    Samuel Delany – Nova, also short stories
    Ursula LeGuin – Lathe of Heaven
    Robert Heinlein – I never found his novels particularly literary, but he wrote some wonderful short stories

  35. Lou Anders on June 27, 2007 at 4:00 pm  Chain link

    I’ll second The Diamond Age. That was one of my favorite books of the decade the decade it came out. And, though it may strike some as an odd choice for a “literary” recommendation, Mike Resnick’s collected Kirinyaga tales are in my Top Ten list for introductory SF. The pseudo-Kenyan setting & parable nature of the tales therein shouldn’t present problems for newbies either.

  36. mitchell on June 27, 2007 at 6:07 pm  Chain link

    i don’t know why one would want to convince “connoisseurs of quality literature” (whatever that might be — kingsolver? hmm) that there might be “intelligent literary science fiction that’s worth reading”. i mean, it’s hard enough to convince a dedicated reader of balzac that stendhal is worth reading. and there are indeed readers of “quality literature” who consider — or at least considered — both of them trash. is it really important, other than maybe commercially, that non-science fiction readers be convinced that science fiction is worth reading? yes, it would be nice if writers of science fiction and fantasy and all the other works in the continuum got the credit and recognition they deserve — but they do: from readers of science fiction, etc. who cares what michiko kakutani thinks? WE love it, WE read it, WE talk about it and support it (as much as ever, if i understand the publication and sales data correctly). isn’t it better that, for example (and i choose completely at random with made up numbers for the sake of argument), elizabeth bear’s novels sell a million copies and are read by a million people, than that william gass’s novel “the tunnel” (talk about quality literature) sells 5000 copies but is read by only 2500? [there’s more, but i’ll end here. as usual, i may have missed the point.] okay, my suggestions: how about michael moorcock’s “dancers at the end of time” books, mary gentle’s “ash” books, ursula leguin’s “changing planes”, just for starters.

  37. Jack William Bell on June 27, 2007 at 10:47 pm  Chain link

    Wow. I can’t believe I forgot Michael Swanwick. I especially like ‘Vacuum Flowers’ for his Science Fiction. For his Fantasy? ‘The Iron Dragon’s Daughter’.

    And he has a ton of short stories collected in various places and all wonderful.

  38. David Louis Edelman on June 27, 2007 at 11:15 pm  Chain link

    Mitchell: Interesting questions there. I think that literary respectability for SF would lead to much more exposure and a much richer field in the long run. It’s like that old saying about the Velvet Underground: they only had 100 fans when they were together, but every damn one of those fans went on to start an influential band of their own. By the same token, a stellar review by Michiko Kakutani might only be read by a relatively small group of people, but those people are the ones who sign the checks in our society.

    I think you’re overestimating the commercial impact of SF literature. I don’t know Elizabeth Bear’s sales figures, but I seriously doubt she’s anywhere close to a million copies sold. The most wildly successful (contemporary) novels in the field probably don’t sell more than a couple hundred thousand copies at best.

    It’s a depressing fact, but more people went to see Dude, Where’s My Car? on opening weekend than will ever read the work of most SF writers. So I say, let’s make each one of those readers count.

  39. Gregory Benford on June 27, 2007 at 11:32 pm  Chain link

    I can’t avoid noticing that you and your readers think literary content means little scientific content. So little hard sf gets mentioned, though its intellectualstandards are high. Too bad for the literary!


  40. Marleen S. Barr on June 28, 2007 at 12:38 am  Chain link

    I suggest that you include Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany.

  41. Robin on June 28, 2007 at 1:25 am  Chain link

    I would strongly suggest that you include “The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe. The prose is absolutely beautiful, and is chock full of symbol, metaphor, and all sorts of literary goodies. Check out a few fan sites and you will see that those who esteem it, while not the largest fan base in science fiction, are among the most dedicated and evangelical. Other books of literary merit that I have had some success with non-sci-fi fans are: “The Golden Age” by John C. Wright, “Starfish” by Peter Watts, “Neverness” by David Zindell, “Evolution’s Shore” bu Ian MacDonald, and anything by Jack Vance.

  42. Michael Penn on June 28, 2007 at 2:23 am  Chain link

    I’ve only briefly glanced at the list but a book I see nowhere and a writer whose name I may have missed in my examination-it’s late and I just found this site off of Locus after a 6 hour trip to Vegas and back-
    is DANGEROUS VISIONS, or even his second volume and perhaps, one day, the apocalyptic LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS and the writer is, of course, Harlan Ellison. His collection Strange Wine is a book I give to anyone wanting to taste the “strange fruit” I have loved all my life.
    Card is another writer, his Alvin Maker series grabs fantasy lovers and history students.
    Heinlien has such a smooth style and intricate plotting he grabs the reader immediately.
    Appreciate the listings though, I’ve found several “new” writers, to me, I want to grab and read now.

  43. owen on June 28, 2007 at 3:07 am  Chain link

    Gregory –

    I think the issues is that literary types are looking for something other than hard SF, they care less about scientific rigour than emotional/social discussion. Sad to say, but true I think.

    I am beginning to wonder if taking the approach we are discussing here would get anyone into SF or whether it would just get them into other SF or whether they’d just stick with the sort of half-sf i think they’d get into.

    The issue is perhaps that SF is a broad church, not say as formulaic as the western which implies not only the setting but a lot of the story. SF basically means being able to be something other than real, whether it is technological, social or even just weird. While you may get literary types into essentially literary novels told through an SF lens i doubt you’ll get them into the shops full of dragonlance cutouts someone mentioned earlier.

    Oh, by the way, I won an auction for a 1st ed of Heart of the Comet signed by David Brin that was sold to help fund the Clarion workshop, one of my more precious possessions and a hell of a book, thanks!

  44. A.R.Yngve on June 28, 2007 at 7:05 am  Chain link

    SF for the literati? How about:

    1. Geoff Ryman: AIR

    2. Michael Moorcock: BEHOLD THE MAN
    (just to show that SF has its own Salman Rushdie)

    3. Stanislaw Lem: THE CYBERIAD
    (just to show that SF can be funny)

    (just to show that SF can be funny and shit-scary at the same time)

  45. tommyspoon on June 28, 2007 at 7:14 am  Chain link

    My only suggestion is one of Clarke’s smaller novels, Childhood’s End. Whether you are into SciFi or not, the possibility of meeting intelligent life from another world is a story most folks are willing to take a chance on. True, Clarke lays on the symbolism a bit thick, but it’s a short read and he uses a lighter touch here than he does in any of his other books.

  46. gary gibson on June 28, 2007 at 7:16 am  Chain link

    I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this one yet, but one book I’ve always thought I’d pass on to ‘literary’ readers in the respect being discussed here is ‘Book of Skulls’ by Robert Silverberg. Even if they’re not the type to have any interest in matters even vaguely related to technology and science – god knows there’s plenty of them – it might at least assuage the notion there isn’t anything they would like in the sf section. I’d also thorougly agree with the recommendation of Harlan Ellison.

    I hadn’t thought of ‘Spin’ – it’s a good recommendation. There’s also Christopher Priest’s The Prestige – not only a touch literary in tone, but features (when you think about it) a mad scientist who builds a steampunk matter transporter.

  47. John C. Snider on June 28, 2007 at 7:18 am  Chain link

    I’m not sure if it’s filed in the SF section at the bookstore, but “The Time Traveler’s Wife” blew my stack. I’m a sucker for the love story.

    Other possibilities, thinking off the top:

    Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion”
    China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”
    Anything by Adam Roberts (“Salt”, “Stone”, “Polystom” come to mind)
    This goes waaay back, but H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” or “Island of Dr. Moreau”

    Oops…gotta get back to work.

  48. Lou Anders on June 28, 2007 at 8:01 am  Chain link

    I think one thing that needs to be pointed out is that true “literary” fiction of the contemporary variety (as opposed to the established classics that are perennial sellers) is actually a much smaller niche than SF. What we’re really talking about is not SF for navel gazers, but SF that would appeal to readers of general fiction who think that SF is all bug eyed monsters carrying off women in metal bikinis.

    That being said, in response to Gregory Benford’s point, I think Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age satisfies both literary and hard science criteria, as does much of his output, and I’d include certain works by Greg Egan as well.

  49. Paul Cornell on June 28, 2007 at 8:23 am  Chain link

    David, you know I love you, but ‘ditto’ about *Bradbury*?! That’s not clunky and juvenile, that’s simple and highly crafted! Okay, sometimes Bradbury’s high flown prose is a little over the top, but I think you were indicating too little (as, indeed, with Asimov) rather than too much. Yes, Ryman, Priest, Le Guin (oh hugely Le Guin, any day now she will be taken from us and removed to those other racks), but absolutely Bradbury, who will surely join Stephen King as a Great American Writer And Not SF Or Oh My God Horror as soon as he’s safely dead. (Oddly, because of M.R. James, it’s a bit easier for Oh My God Horror writers to ascend this way.) I don’t think Neal Stephenson is actually writing SF now, so, hey, literary readers may think that too.

  50. C.E. Petit on June 28, 2007 at 8:26 am  Chain link

    Just a few thoughts —

    * Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow definitely belongs on any list. So do Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels (or at least the first two!), and surely something by Gene Wolfe.

    * A few more-obscure choices might include Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which is in many ways a fascinating counterpoint (albeit probably not intentionally so) to Updikish-Rabbitish stuff; Kristine Smith’s “technothrillerish” Code of Conduct and its successors, which ask fairly deep questions about what it means to be “human” without getting preachy about it (or providing very clear answers); and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which shows real understanding of matching “style” to “content” in a way foreign to many of the more-celebrated current literati.

    * And now, to throw a dragon egg in with the chicken eggs: I find it somewhat surprising that (unless I’ve missed something above) nobody has mentioned collections of short fiction. After all, much of the very best work in the field is less than book length! I means “collections,” too, with a single author’s works, and almost never a “best of…”. I would point a literary-taste reader toward two collections in particular: Harlan Ellison’s The Deathbird Stories, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Compass Rose (which includes a work also included in a Norton Anthology!). There are certainly others out there, but it seems to me that the sheer range of inventiveness in those collections would best accomplish the goal of getting a literary-taste reader to ignore the rocket ship (or dragon) on the cover.

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