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Dune by Frank HerbertYesterday, I hooked into the twitter hivemind and posed a question:

Let’s pretend I’ve never read a Science Fiction novel. What novels would you suggest?

Now, of course, that’s not entirely true. I have read Science Fiction, but my experience in the genre is, well… lacking. Rather, I was curious to see what people would consider the staples and foundations of the genre. Would we see a lot of recommendations for contemporary Science Fiction? Or aging classics? Space Opera or Dystopian Fiction? It’s an incredibly varied genre, and, predictably, the responses were just as broad, with a few authors/series popping up with some regularity.

The results:

@JasonBakiForge of God by Greg Bear is a favourite of mine

@ALRutter — When I asked my housemate the same question a few years back, he said Pandora’s Star [by Peter F. Hamilton]. Never looked back since.

@EwaSRI, Robot [by Issac Asimov] and any [John] Wyndham. And I’d want to recommend the Forbidden Planet film as well.

@BookwormBlues — The first scifi book I read was The Reality Dysfunction [by Peter F. Hamilton], but I have a feeling most people wouldn’t start w/scifi there.

@AlexCarnegie — Short stories by Philip K Dick and Neuromancer [by William Gibson].

@AndrewLiptakDune [by Frank Herbert], Foundation [by Issac Asimov] and Ringworld [by Larry Niven].

@FredKiescheCity (Simak). Doorways in the Sand (Zelazny). 2001 (Clarke). The Naked Sun (Asimov). Gateway (Pohl). Nova (Delany).

@EithinHabitation of the Blessed [by Catherynne M. Valente]; Left Hand of Darkness [by Ursula K. LeGuin]; Beggars in Spain [by Nancy Kress]; China Mountain Zhang [by Maureen F. McHugh]; Frankenstein [by Mary Shelley].

@PabbaThe Gods Themselves by [Issac] Asimov. Crazy alien relationships!

@pmisirHyperion by Dan Simmons or Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin…

@NetrunnrHyperion by Dan Simmons, anything by Peter F. Hamilton or Neal Asher

@eruditeogreLeft Hand of Darkness [by Ursula K. LeGuin]; Ethan of Athos [by Lois McMaster Bujold]; Triton [by Samuel R. Delany]; The Wild Shore [by Kim Stanley Robinson]; Neuromancer [by William Gibson]; Cat’s Cradle [by Kurt Vonnegut]; Flowers for Algernon [by Daniel Keyes].

[…]

Doomsday Book [by Connie Willis]; A Scanner Darkly [by Phillip K. Dick]; The Year of the Flood [by Margaret Atwood]; Postsingular [by Rudy Rucker]; Life During Wartime [by Lucius Shepard]; Wild Seed [by Octavia E. Butler]; Light [by M. John Harrison]; 40K in Gehenna [by C.J. Cherryh]

@kingratThe Taqwacores [by Michael Muhammad Knight].

@RobertHogeEnder’s Game [by Orson Scott Card], The Sparrow [by Mary Doria Russell], [The] Passage [by Justin Cronin] & a book of Kelly Link shorts.

And, oddly, a recommendation for The Hobbit!

@BabelClash — Great ? I got my start w/ The Hobbit [by J.R.R. Tolkien]

Quite a list, huh? I was both thrilled (yay, variety!) and chagrined (but, where do I start?) to see such a broad range of authors and novels represented in the responses. Card, Hamilton, LeGuin and Asimov show up a few times, but with several books from each author being recommended, indicating that even within the libraries of the genre’s best, there’s no obvious place to begin. Lots of classics, several newer novels (published post-1990, say) and a well-rounded representation of male:female authors, a rather encouraging endorsement of the genre. I am proud to say I own copies of most of the mentioned novels, even if I haven’t read them. Does the list give me one or two novels that are definitively the starting point for Science Fiction? Nope, but it does populate a list that would keep voracious readers busy for a while.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (ebook)

As for my own choice? Easily Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s accessible enough for newcomers, but so steeped in the tennets of what makes Science Fiction so successful that it’s an instant classic that works equally successfully for both fans and non-fans of the genre. I’ve never read any of the sequels, and never really felt compelled to — Ender’s Game works so well as a standalone novel that I’ve always felt that any sequels would only cheapen the original story.

So, then, what novel(s) would you recommend to someone just dipping their toe into Science Fiction? Did we miss any? Should some of the novels listed above been left off?

Discussion
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aidan Moher, Jason Baki and Michael, Mad Hatter, Ole A. Imsen. Ole A. Imsen said: RT @adribbleofink: New Blog Post — New to Science Fiction? Start Here: http://bit.ly/i7OVZf (The results of yesterday's twitter poll re: … […]

  • kev mcveigh November 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Oddly I wouldn’t pick many of those for a reader totally new to SF even though I love them myself. Many rely heavily on prior SF tropes and linguistic conventions, making them obtuse to the inexperienced reader.
    Hard to totally avoid that of course, even Frankenstein uses Gothic precursors.

  • aidan November 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I had a similar thought re: some of the choices and that’s why my nod goes to Ender’s Game, a novel that, I feel, is easy enough to approach for even the greenest reader. That said, a lot of newer SF novels are much more approachable than Asimov or Niven, which seems like a more important attribute under the given criteria, which is to ease people into SF, rather than give them a chronological introduction to the genre.

    Out of curiousity, what would you recommend, Kevin?

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues) November 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Fantastic. Now I have more books to read.

  • Jonathan November 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I tried reading Speaker for the Dead but lost interest. Maybe it was just too different (slow?) compared to Ender’s Game, too philosophical. Thanks for compiling the tweets.

  • Bryce (Seak) November 24, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I think Ender’s Game is a good call as well. It’s science fictiony, but mostly based on the characters and hardly any science.

    I also think Kurt Vonnegut is a good choice. Sirens of Titan is amazing and he’s mostly considered fiction – so it’s easy to trick people into reading scifi (which I have to do to my wife – after she finishes I can tease her that she’s a big dork who reads scifi). :D

  • Anthony L. November 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    I’ve started recommending OLD MAN’S WAR by John Scalzi more often than ENDER’S GAME. Made me fall in love with sci-fi all over again.

  • T.N. Tobias November 24, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I’m shocked that no one mentioned Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land is a perfect entry into SF. I guess that once you reach a certain age, your classics are replaced by that of the new generation. I still would put Clarke, Heinlein and any of the old masters ahead of Card, though. I always found the Ender series predictable and pretty one dimensional.

  • aidan November 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    @ Anthony L. — Great choice! Scalzi’s a nicely accessible novel and an easy lead-in to The Forever War and Starship Troopers.

  • Memory November 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I second Anthony’s suggestion. OLD MAN’S WAR is a great place to start. Ditto ZOE’S TALE, which stands alone even though it’s technically the fourth book in the series.

  • area53 November 25, 2010 at 12:21 am

    I’d recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus by living national treasure, Gene Wolfe, and The Anubis Gates, my most beloved SF/F/H novel, by Tim Powers.

  • JDsg November 25, 2010 at 2:08 am

    It would depend upon the age and personality of the person. For kids, Ender’s Game would be my selection. For most adults, Dune would be my first recommendation; in fact, I’ve made this particular recommendation in the past. Stranger in a Strange Land would be another possible recommendation for a first book, but I’d be careful to whom I made the recommendation. The sexual and religious themes, even in this day and age, aren’t necessarily for everyone.

  • Eeleen Lee November 25, 2010 at 2:18 am

    As much as I love Dune it tends to put readers off because of the terminology and names, “Gom Jabbar”, “Bene Gessirit” etc…

    I recommend short story collections such as the annual ones edited by Gardner Dozois. Its good to be presented with manageable chunks of variety.

  • Derek November 25, 2010 at 5:42 am

    I agree with the above posts that ENDER’S GAME and OLD MAN’S WAR are great starting points! If I were to recommend some of my personal favourites from the genre, I would lean towards THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, DUNE or SOLARIS by Stanislaw Lem.

  • David K. November 25, 2010 at 6:43 am

    I’d suggest more recent and easily accessible novels like “The Automatic Detective by Lee Martinez; “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi; “Daemon” by Daniel Suarez; “Infected” by Scot Sigler; “Mindscan” by Robert J. Sawyer; “Polaris” by Jack McDevitt.

    I’d suggest steering clear of Hard Sci-Fi for a beginner. Peter Hamilton is probably to epic to start with. Orson Scot Card is mentioned a lot in replies; I wouldn’t start with him, but then I’m not fond of Mormon (homophobic) authors.

    But Pohl’s “Gateway” is a great classic that should appeal to noobs. Kurt Vonnegut’s a great idea as well.

  • Mark November 25, 2010 at 7:27 am

    There are so many books you could recommend to a newbie to sci-fi, but I guess it all depends on what sort of book they want to read. Many of the examples are great for what they are, but some are very heavy on the harder science side. Ender’s Game is good because of the relative lack of that, but the story is really well written and can easily be enjoyed by someone new to the genre.

    My personal recommendation would be to try a novel by Eric Brown – he’s a sci-fi author that writes at the softer end of the genre, choosing to focus on characters rather than the technology and worldbuilding. Not that it isn’t there, but it makes the stories much more easily accessible. I think his Kethani stories are a must – completely character focused and follow a group of friends and their lives dealing with the arrival of aliens on Earth. For something more sci-fi based I would go with his Bengal Station stories (Necropath, Xenopath, Cosmopath), or his Starship stories (Starship Summer, Starship Fall, two more due soon).

    But for pure epic, no holds barred space opera it has to be Peter F Hamilton – either the Night’s Dawn trilogy or Commonwealth Saga.

  • Clifton Hill November 25, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Ender’s Game is a great intro.

    Perhaps Old Man’s War too? It’s a very human struggle. The setting is very large with a variety of aliens and whatnot to confuse and confound, but I think the writing is so well done and immersed in the culture of our day taken far forward (BrainPal=iPhone to the nth degree) that it might still work.

    I’d disagree with I, Robot as a good intro, it is just a series of short stories that explore different concepts. Seems like they were the base for Asimov’s exploration for the Robot Series novels that came later. I read those novels as my very first sci-fi series starting in the fourth grade. Loved them. Was disappointed to find that I, Robot (when I finally read it much later in life) was just not very good.

  • Ole Anders November 25, 2010 at 9:58 am

    I agree with Mark above – it depends on what book they want to read.

    Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is a real quality product, if a bit difficult to pin down due to shifting themes. For those that are more interested in a book with lots of military action, Weber’s On Basilisk Station or Scalzi’s Old Mans War may be better. For those that want both, Walter Jon Williams’ The Praxis comes highly recommended by me, and I have had great success on loaning this out.

    For those that want a more futuristic future Banks or Alastair Reynolds (start with Revelation Space) may be good choices.

    As for Hamilton I would perhaps recommend his Greg Mandel books, but not the Night’s Dawn trilogy or the Commonwealth Saga, as both are not only too, but also have a certain lack of reasonable and believable. I would say something similar for Dune, which while a classic, is a very odd book.

  • Diana Moher November 25, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Glad to see someone finally mentioned Heinlein. As for Kev’s comment. We all started somewhere and picked up the lingo as we went. I would thoroughly suggest A Mote in God’s Eye for any beginner. Dune is always timeless as it was originally written about mankind’s dependence on oil, thinly disguised as “spice”. There are more, but I will have to brave the spiders to dig out boxes of what would be called “vintage” books, which this questions makes me want to do. Re-reads!

  • Andrea K Host November 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    It really depends on the reader. To some I would give “The Domesday Book” by Willis. To others I would give “The Warrior’s Apprentice” by Bujold. “Ender’s Game” is, as mentioned, also a good start for the younger reader. I have a liking for older SF, and would probably try a few people on “Catseye” by Norton.

  • Roland November 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    There is no one or even a few single places to start with SF. It’s all about what kinds of books you want to read. I would always suggest Hyperion, because it’s a superbly written LITERATURE, no matter the genre, and it has basically every subgenre of SF that matters, plus, a lot of “fantasy” feel as well. It is rich, beautifully written, and epic in scope, without the boring scientific explanations that usually come with Space Opera.

  • Diana Moher November 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Hmmm. Andre Norton forgot about her. I would suggest Moon of 3 Rings written in 1966. There is also H.G.Well’s The Food of the Gods.. Has anyone mentioned Arthur C. Clark? There’s also Barbara Hambly, although for me she’s more “recent”, writing in 1982. There’s also the series written by Niel Hancock, written in the late seventies which helped me handle my Tolkien withdrawal. (read that series in Europe while I was there Aidan!) And Don’t forget Alan Dean Foster. His Flinx line of stories were excellent beginner books. As for the “boring scientific explanations” some of us find that interesting, especially if you can go back and look at how much of it came into fruition.

  • Kathleen November 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Actually I think Stranger is really dated though I found it fun to read

  • Kathleen November 26, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I think Warrior’s Apprentice is an excellent starting point. My personal intro to SF was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I would def rec it as a “First SF” book.

  • Honey November 26, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    I would start them off with Hiroshi Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis(2010) which is an engaging novel in which an android story teller tells a human storyteller seven stories and asks the human to understand the themes and how they are connected. If the reader enjoys the experience they could then be given Asimov’s name and his collected robot stories.

  • SFBook November 29, 2010 at 7:12 am

    I recently lent my copy of “Do androids dream of electric sheep” to a non-scifi reader and he’s just about “converted” to scifi just from Philip K’s classic.

    Personally though I’d probably start with Greg Bears Eon or even The Hitchhikers guide series.

  • JFKing16 November 29, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Ender’s Game is a great Place to start. As well as the Seafort Saga by David Feintuch which is my personal favorite. I loved Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series. Perhaps the best starter series/easy read for someone new to SciFi IMHO would be the Hitchhiker’s Guide series.

  • Eric November 29, 2010 at 9:24 am

    It took me three tries before I could read Speaker for the Dead after Ender’s Game, and it turned out to be the better book. IMO, of course.

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  • […] months ago, I asked readers of this blog to put forth their suggestions of ‘first-step’ Science Fiction novels, those books that they’d recommend to readers looking to explore the genre for the first […]