What SF is best for non-SF readers?

This is from my "not posted yet" backlog of journal articles. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to remove pieces from the log once they are posted, so if this is a repeat of an earlier post, I hope you don’t mind seeing it again.

What SF would you recommend to a non-SF reader?

This is a question I can answer from experience. Back during the Oil Embargo days of the Carter Administration, my mother, hardly a science fiction reader, asked her geeky son (me) for books to read while she waited for hours in the long gas lines. I deliberately chose books I thought a non-SF reader could appreciate.

And what is it that a non-SF reader appreciates? They appreciate the same things we like, but the Muggles have no taste for flat out weirdness, and no fondness for hard SF techno-talk.

Science Fiction is basically the genre that delivers those two things: a sense that the world is seriously weird beneath its commonplace exterior, or that the future will be, and a sense that the things once thought impossible, like space rockets, are technically feasible. The first kind of science fiction is like that penned by A.E. van Vogt; the second is like that penned by Arthur C. Clark. Neither are good for the first time reader.

So what did I lend to my mother that she liked? While my mother’s tastes cannot necessarily stand for all Muggles, I can tell you what about each book I recommended made it open to thereader not familiar with the standard tropes and gimmicks and assumptions of the SF world:

1. DUNE by Frank Herbert. First, this is a great book, one of the best, and an award-winner. There is remarkably little in here that will strain or pain a Muggle’s imagination. We all know what a desert is, and so picture a desert world is no biggie. The characters are well-drawn (by science fiction standards, anyway) and the action and intrigue are engaging. It is the fall of Byzantium to the Turk IN SPAAACE!

2. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein. The ‘Man from Mars’ gimmick is easy enough to understand, Heinlein’s satire is equally amusing to Muggles and Slans, and who (aside from me, that is) does not like a book mocking monotheism and monogamy?

3. CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein. Again, the spaceships are part of the background: the story is really about the heroism of Baslim and the drama of Thorby trying to discover his origins, something anyone can understand. The plot is clear and the characterization sharply drawn.

4. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell. Has the huge advantage that most Muggles don’t even think of this as Science Fiction. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley has the same advantage.

5. Any ‘Retief’ stories by Keith Laumer. Humor overlaps genre boundaries.5(a). Anything by Terry Pratchett for the same reason.

6. Just about anything by Kieth Laumer. He writes in a direct, masculine, clean prose style any non-SF-reader can appreciate. My favorites are not his humor pieces (Retief yarns or THE GREAT TIME MACHINE HOAX) but his more melancholy pieces such as “End a Hero” “Thunderhead” or THE LONG TWILIGHT. My suggestion for lending to a muggle to start off would be THE GLORY GAME. There is not too much SF to scare away the mundane: it is basically a Jack Aubrey tale IN SPAAAACE!

7. The ‘Demon Princes’ books by Jack Vance (THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE, THE BOOK OF DREAMS). The opulence of the language will beguile anyone, sf-fan or mundane, and nothing in the books is too startling for a muggle to absorb. Vance plays fair with the detective story framework. It is basically The Count of Montechristo IN SPAAACE!

8. MOTE IN GOD’S EYE by Niven and Pournelle. Very crisp characterization, nice and clear plot.

9. FIRESTAR by Mike Flynn. Some of the best character development in any SF book, a clear plot, taking place on an Earth any muggle could recognize as our own. Likewise, WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS. The science elements will not overwhelm a new reader, but the characterization is particularly well thought-out.

10. CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr. More thoughtful than most of our fare, and the backdrop of a post-Apocalypse post-Nuclear War new Dark Age is a common enough trope that even the mainstream has heard of it. Perhaps in the 1940’s it would have stretched the imagination of a muggle overmuch: Now? Anyone who has seen a MAD MAX movie gets it.

Let me also answer the opposite question, and list some books I would never introduce to a Muggle for the same reason I would never throw a kid into the deep end of the pool for his first swimming lesson:

1. SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. No one is going to recognize what the towers of the citadel are, or how the analeptic extract of the Alzabo works, if he has not read other SF. The standardized swords-and-spaceships trope of the old-red-sun-at-the-end-of-the-world when magic-is-technology, is too odd to take in at one gulp. Muggles will read it and be puzzled why Severian always describes sunrise as the Eastern horizon dropping away from the sun. Muggles who have not read so many books about Black Holes most likely will not  recognize one if all the reader is given is a pseudo-futuristic Byzantine icon-esque description of the Worm Abaia.

2. VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS By David Lindsay. This is a seriously, severely, impressively weird book, and does not have any of the things normal books have in them: plot, character, action, resolution. Maybe if your muggle friend is a Gnostic he might like it, but for your average mind-in-a-rut materialist votes-Democrat scoffer, it is too strong a drink too soon.

3. Anything by Phillip K. Dick. Heck, Dick is too weird even for me.

4. Anything by R.A Lafferty. Heck, Lafferty is too weird even for me.

5. FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov. There is no plot here, merely a background of immense scope: it is Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire IN SPAAACE! The sense of wonder of the hugeness of events will not appeal to your average non-SF-ian. The book has pure SF appeal and no appeal aside from that. No one reads it to ponder the detailed characterization of that tormented soul, The Mule.

6. PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS by Donald Kingsbury. This is an example of a ‘second generation’ book, that is, a book that only makes sense if you’ve read the previous book and you know what the author is riffing.

7. CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C. Clarke. Like Foundation, this book is more about a science fictional idea than about plot or characterization. For the same reason, AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT.

8. GATHER, DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber. Like SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, any book where the old standby tropes of the science fiction universe (rayguns, force-shields) are described by the way they would look to someone who did not understand them, will merely puzzle someone unfamiliar with the field.

9. DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer. The plot is too complex for someone who has no taste for SF ideas like time paradox stories. I would put ‘By His Bootstraps’ by Heinlein and ‘All You Zombies’ on the ‘not for first time readers’ list for the same reason.

10. WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt. The plot is too complex for someone who has no taste for SF tropes like cloning, memory alteration, identity switches, psionics, teleportation, intelligent electronic brains, conspiracy theories, galactic invasions, non-gravitic parachutes, neurolinguistic programming, rational anarchy, and …. on the same note THE WEAPON MAKERS has tropes like immortality, miniaturization machines, world Imperiums, mind-reading pistols, timespace nullification, invisibility, callidetic probability control, time-paradoxes, artificially magnified giants, super psionic spider beings, infinity drive … THE SILKIE, SUPERMIND, THE MOONBEAST are likewise an embarrassment of lush and feverish imagination…. well, let us just say Van Vogt’s forte is his ability to spin out wild concepts with dreamlike logic, with nary a pause to explain anything. This is too rich a fare for someone whose tongue is used to the tofu and weak tea of mainstream.