Gateway drugs: what books are good for introducing non-SF readers to SF?

As a follow-up to my recent post on SF reading protocols, I thought it would be interesting to ask what books people have used to successfully turn other people on to SF?

(Here as before “SF” means the broad genre of “science fiction and fantasy”.)

My aunt is an interesting case. When I was a teenager she bounced off book after book and author after author that I was loving. She couldn’t read The Door Into Summer! (It had a cat in it. She loves cats!) She couldn’t read The Lord of the Rings! When she couldn’t read The Left Hand of Darkness I gave up. When I started again, twenty years later when we’d both grown up more and she’d read some of my books (out of literal nepotism), I succeeded in getting her to read Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Sharon Shinn’s Summers at Castle Auburn, and Susan Palwick’s The Necessary Beggar.

The key to getting someone into reading genre is to find out what they already like reading and find something in genre that’s like that. It works much better than the cat thing, or than giving them the books you love best. If they like military adventure, try them with The Warrior’s Apprentice. If they like mysteries, try Komarr, and if they like romance, try Shards of Honor. And while it’s not always possible to do this all within one author—and one series—that just shows how versatile Bujold is. She’s easy to read too, without ever being simplistic. That’s important.

With kids and young adults I don’t think there’s a problem. They’re either used to things going over their heads and don’t care, or as Crotchety Old Fan puts it, “because at the age of 12, we believed that anything was possible. It wasn’t ignorance of the world that spawned our interest, it was the positive knowledge that the world had no limits, and neither did we.” It doesn’t make any difference which of these is the case, it’s still the case for kids.

The problem comes with adults who are used to stories or used to books where all the technology is real and explained in detail. (You wouldn’t believe how boring men’s adventure books can be about guns. And cars!) This was tachyon drive guy’s problem. Or, on the literary end, adults who are used to reading stories with ghosts, but used to the ghosts being symbolic. I wasn’t trying to say that nothing has a metaphorical level, just that in SF we treat the unreal realistically within the story. If we’re talking about a drug that lets people live to be two hundred, we may well be talking about death and the finitude of life, but we also treat the reality and the limitations of that life extension realistically. The rules won’t change in the middle because they’re SF rules, not emotional rules. In a literary story with a ghost, the ghost is only there for a metaphorical reason, and will leave when it’s fulfilled its emotional and metaphorical purpose. This feels like breaking the rules to us, and the way we do it feels like breaking the rules to a literary reader, because they’re different rules.

For someone like tachyon drive guy, I’d give him Cryptonomicon. For the literary type you can often get them with dystopias, which they sort of know how to read, and then you can ease them on to Geoff Ryman, who can usually be read both ways successfully. And I’ve had a remarkable amount of luck with Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons.

So, have you had any success? And with what?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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