SF for the Imagination-Impaired

Yesterday on Twitter Alison Flood was asking for suggestions of SF&F books for a “you think you don’t like SF but have you tried X” article (I think for the Sunday Times). This is not as easy as it sounds. The temptation, of course, is to recommend great writers and favorite books, but just because we like something it doesn’t mean that other people will.

My article in the latest issue of Salon Futura is all about different ways in which people can be thrown out of a book, have their suspension of disbelief unsuspended. People can say “I don’t read science fiction” for all sorts of reasons. They may do so because they think that reading SF is “childish”, but in that case it doesn’t matter how good the book is, they still won’t like it. On the other hand, they may be one of those people who will happily read a book that is an intense character study, no matter when or where it is set (and will tell you that it is “not science fiction” having read it, even if the characters are all sentient slugs from another galaxy). But for the purposes of Alison’s article I think the safest thing to do is to assume that our target reader is someone who is imagination-impaired, and is therefore likely to lose suspension of disbelief if the story is too fantastical.

Given that, there’s no point in recommending Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, or M. John Harrison’s Light, fabulous books though they might be. If you want to recommend China Miéville, suggest The City and the City, not Kraken.

In addition to that Miéville, other books I thought might work are Air by Geoff Ryman, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. But it is hard coming up with suitable books, and even harder coming up with such books by women. So I decided to pass the question on here. Any suggestions? With any luck, Alison might read this.

26 thoughts on “SF for the Imagination-Impaired

  1. While it’s not exactly high brow, I did recently get a friend into reading science fiction. He was making fun of me when I asked him how much he liked Predator, which, being a boy of the 80s, he of course loved and it slowly dawned on him that yes, he did like that science fiction, but not all that with ‘space ships and stuff’.

    I’ve since had him on a steady diet of Aliens and Predator tie in novels and think he’s about ready for the real stuff. I’m thinking Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series.

    1. Another point for this one– since it’s a short story collection, there are several chances for someone to find something they like.

      And another Le Guin that might work: The Lathe of Heaven.

  2. If we’re allowed to suggest books which might already have been read by people who “don’t like science fiction”, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would be good. Any protests that it isn’t sf are easy to counter, too– just point at that Hugo Award…

  3. Lois McMaster Bujold!

    But which book I give a person depends on their interests. A friend of mine likes romances, so I gave her the Cordelia’s Honor omnibus. Another friend of mine likes realistic medieval fiction, so I gave her the first of the Chalion books. Falling Free is an excellent choice for both biologists and engineers.

    I call this campaign “Give a Bujold for a Birthday”. Feel free to join in 😀

  4. I often try to tailor suggestions to particular interests eg Lisa Goldstein’s The Dream Years to someone interested in the surrealist movement, but for a general request it is difficult as you say.

    Gwyneth Jones – Bold As Love is the only recent one that comes to me.

  5. Just took a look at my bookshelves to try and jog my memory. Here’s another female author: Kage Baker, for the whole Company series (starts with In the Garden of Iden).

    And if we’re talking the broad definition of “sf”, to include straight fantasy…

    The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip.

    The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, and The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan – these are really murder mysteries, with little enough fantasy content (mainly tarot reading and the like) that they probably would have gotten shelved in the mystery section if Duncan hadn’t already been known as a fantasy author.

  6. Oh, just remembered one I read just recently – Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s basically a Jane Austen pastiche with a smidgen of magic thrown in, which means I didn’t care much for it, but I bet Austen fans would.

  7. For anyone who likes historical novels, then many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s later novels would work – but probably not the earlier Fionnavar trilogy and its sequel.

    For a woman writer, Alma Alexander’s Jin Shei. Some of Sherri Tepper would work, especially for feminists! Also some of Bujold, as mentioned above.

  8. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
    The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
    War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
    Tithe by Holly Black (maybe)

    1. Yeah, there are lots of people who should avoid John Ringo’s oeuvre, starting with me. But I specifically asked the SO for a suggestion in the right-leaning military sf vein on the premise that there should be suggestions for people coming from all directions.

  9. My mother loved Dune, which I persuaded her into reading in my teens, and she recommended it to all her friends. Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court novels are another good entry point, if the person you’re talking to likes historicals and mysteries. Woman on the Edge of Time is another good one.

  10. Thanks for all the great feedback, folks. A few quick points.

    I find it is often not a good idea to recommend books by Americans set in the UK to UK readers. All too often the book turns out to be set in Theme Park Britain rather than a real country. That’s a specific issue for Alison as she’s writing for a UK newspaper.

    More generally I was looking for books that are not set in the future on other planets.

    1. In that case, possibly strike Shades of Milk and Honey. But I’d still recommend In the Garden of Iden; Kage Baker had years of research backing it up (in fact, she used to teach classes on how to do Elizabethan English properly).

      1. Um, no. I read it. I loathed it. Now I may well be untypical, but my reaction was strong enough to prevent me from ever reading another Company novel.

        1. The first book is one of the weakest of the series; she was better at historical time travel the closer she got to the present day. I found large parts of the first one annoying, too, perhaps for different reasons than you did, but enjoyed several of the later ones a lot more.

          Still, I don’t think I’d recommend any of them to some one who says they “don’t like science fiction”.

  11. A couple of years ago David Edelman raised the same issue.

    Back then I made a few recommendations, removing the ones set on other planets and avoiding any distant future stories (which actually only removes Helliconia from my list):

    Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard
    John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth and Death of the Peoples Republic of Antarctica
    John Brunner’s The Dystopian Quartet (Stand on Zanzibar; The Jagged Orbit; The Sheep Look Up; The Shockwave Rider)
    Thomas M Disch’s 334 or The Genocides or Camp Concentration
    Keith Roberts’ Pavane
    Clifford Simak’s The Way Station
    George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (aka The Drowning Towers)
    Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book
    Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master

  12. It really helps to tailor the recommendation to the person, but I’ve had success with Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog”.

  13. “More generally I was looking for books that are not set in the future on other planets.”

    I had my wife reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I argue (quite fruequently) is sci fi, and very good for entry into th genre.

  14. I’ve found Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes to have been very positively received by non-sf-readers on a few occasions.

  15. Imagination takes many forms. I find it narrow-minded to imply that readers of literary fiction are imagination-impaired. One of the most imaginative leaps of all is to try to enter the mind – and soul – of another person.

    1. And indeed it would be narrow minded to think so. This post, however, was not about all readers of mainstream fiction, only about those who claim that they cannot read books about things that are “not real”.

      As to narrow-minded, the idea that writers and readers of non-mainstream books do not attempt to get into the minds and souls of other people is one of the things that drives me to distraction about mainstream critics of SF&F. That’s a necessary starting point. You can’t write books with characters in them if you don’t do that. Every good book has to do it.

  16. That’s fine, but ‘imagination-impaired’ is hardly neutral, and if you’re interested in encouraging people who are normally mainstream readers to give SF a try, it’s wise not to put them down.

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