Pick the best science fiction book for the uninitiated...
April 30, 2006 10:49 PM   Subscribe

My wife has agreed to give a single science fiction or fantasy book of my choice a try - I only have one chance, so help me choose wisely.

She is a big reader, with a degree in literature, but tends to be put off by science fiction-y elements, and she also doesn't really go for magical realism. Her favorites tend to either be classics of 19th century literature or recent books in the Booker/PEN/Pulitzer vein. That said, she has read The Time Traveller's Wife and Never Let Me Go, and enjoyed both, not really seeing them as science fiction.

I want to give her something that is unabashedly SF, but that she will like. Before I start getting a chorus of the old favorite, I am hesitant to go with the usual suggestion of Ender's Game, having found that it often seems very "young adult" to people who haven't encountered it before. The best bet is something well-written that has, at its heart, real relationships, but is also definitely SF. I have considered Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons, and Ian Banks, but really want to get it right. Any thoughts, oh wise hive mind?
posted by blahblahblah to Media & Arts (160 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
 
How 'bout David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas--it has literary cred and yet contains a both futuristic dystopian storyline *and* a post apocalyptic one as a bonus.
posted by donovan at 11:03 PM on April 30, 2006


Not to be obvious; it has to be said, and it might as well be said in this comment...

Dune? If nothing else, it's satisfyingly complex...

And here's an interesting suggestion, maybe for both of you: have you heard of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? It consists of six stories, told in a gimmicky/innovative interleaved narration. Each story is set in a different historic period, and the two central stories are set in the future. And they're some of the most exciting, convincing science fiction I've read in a long time. One is dystopian; the other is post-apacalyptic. They're just great.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:04 PM on April 30, 2006


Holy shit. What he said.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:05 PM on April 30, 2006


I'd go with something that's squarely in the SF tradition, yet not typically "hard" or space-opera-ish, and see if it captures her imagination. Two that came to mind: The Left Hand of Darkness and Slaughterhouse-Five.
posted by rob511 at 11:11 PM on April 30, 2006


Philip K Dick and J G Ballard are certainly literary enough for any kulcha snob.
posted by wilful at 11:13 PM on April 30, 2006


Alfred Bester, "Demolished Man".
posted by notsnot at 11:18 PM on April 30, 2006


Phillip Pullman - His Dark Materials trilogy, while aimed at younger readers, is terriffically written and has huge thematic depth and owes a lot to classical works. If you haven't read it, read it yourself, then hand it to her 24 hours later when you are ready to start the next volume.
Its very good.
posted by bystander at 11:21 PM on April 30, 2006


Case of Conscience, James Blish. I found when I read it for the first time it made me think in new ways.

Skip Anne McCaffrey, I think and Julian May. Both favourites of mine, but probably not serious enough (and often develop child characters to adulthood - which you might see as juvey). What about Driving Blind by Bradbury? I'd avoid Gene Wolfe as being too close to fantasy. Kingdoms of the Wall by Robert Silverberg moved me, and surprised me (but on second thoughts, might be better for an experienced Sci-Fi reader, the twist 3/4 through disoriented me).

Eek, this is harder than I thought, and to be honest, I would have picked Ender's game, or the follow up, Xenocide (the girl with OCD is a very sympathetic character) because Card seems to do relationships in a way Niven and Heinlein couldn't.

From a mature female sci-fi fan's point of view, some male writers are very nuts and bolts (spaceship, alien, new technology) to the exclusion of the effect on the characters and while I enjoy them as light reading, I don't love the stories. Secondly, I'm a very practical person, and I have to work really hard to get over magical elements. I'll tolerate psi powers, provided there's an explanation for their development, but don't give me a story where the wizard decides to enchant the sword and the first person to pick it up now has a quest. I just can't suspend my reality for that.

Good luck.
posted by b33j at 11:24 PM on April 30, 2006


Perhaps West of Eden by Harry Harrison. I remember it as very creative, engrossing, and character-driven. In an alternate Earth, no disaster wiped out the dinosaurs and they evolved into the dominant sentient race. A young primitive human who is raised and cultured by the dinos, who come to be at war with his own kind.

Or Startide Rising by David Brin. In a time of contact with other spacefaring civilizations, humanity has learned to "uplift" dolphins and chimpanzees into intellectual equals. Here the mixed crew of a spacecraft hides out in isolation on a strange oceanic planet, pursued by hostile aliens, amid political intrigue. It's considered the second in a series but the first (Sundiver) is comparatively light and I wouldn't consider it required. Startide Rising felt like a dark, cold and lonely place where the characters really had to bond and grow.
posted by Tubes at 11:34 PM on April 30, 2006


I second the Philip Pullman recommendation; whenever I read those books I wonder how much of the storyline kids really grasp. They're really, really not just kids' books.

And, though I myself hate Lord of the Rings with a passion I can't explain, The Hobbit is a great intro to fantasy.

Also, any book snob will fall for allegory — maybe not something so obvious as Brave New World or 1984, but perhaps Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, both of whom are indisputably "literary" authors.

Oh! Or you could try some Douglas Adams on her. Though I never thought of that as traditional sci fi so much as geek comedy. Still, definitely worth reading ...
posted by brina at 11:39 PM on April 30, 2006


Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake was an excellent read, I thought, and is absolutely science fiction, but like Cloud Atlas (a very good book) has "street cred."
posted by luriete at 11:41 PM on April 30, 2006


Based on what you've said, she'd probably really enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog, but that might not pass your unabashedly science fiction requirement.

Given that, I'd recommend: The Sparrow.
posted by willnot at 11:43 PM on April 30, 2006


J.G. Ballard short stories could definitely be a good bet—look for "The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard."

Alternately, what about something older? Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" is considered both sci-fi and literature, although it's kind of in the same kind of category as Orwell's "1984" in terms of "books high school students find brilliant that older readers might not find as amazing."

A lesser-known book, David Zindell's "Neverness," also might fit the bill. It's chock full of mathematical and cultural goodness.
posted by limeonaire at 11:46 PM on April 30, 2006


On the fantasy side, try Small Gods or Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Humane, witty, and with a little more depth than you would expect on first reading.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis may also be right up her alley. Real SF, real relationships, and real emotional heft, plus the theme of time travel comes up again.

(On preview: willnot beat me to Willis, but at least we chose different books. I admire my compatriot Atwood, but Willis is warmer.)
posted by rosemere at 11:51 PM on April 30, 2006


Also by Connie Willis: Passage.
posted by lemuria at 11:52 PM on April 30, 2006


Another classic sci-fi: Asimov's "I, Robot." Tell her to ignore whatever she heard about the recent "blockbuster" film—"I, Robot" was one of the first sci-fi books I ever read, and it was a good one to start with, 'cause it has old-school sci-fi cred, and yet also includes good human stories.
posted by limeonaire at 11:53 PM on April 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


limeonaire writes "Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'"

is just awful.

limeonaire writes "Orwell's '1984'"

holds up really well, even beyond high school. The man could really write, and he has a wonderful sense of character.

I don't think I argued strongly enough for my initial suggestion. I'm very serious about Dune. The narrative approach--total immersion of the reader in an alien world--is done extraordinarily well, and it really showcases one of the powers of science fiction as a genre. There are those who might argue that the characters get lost in the grand epic narrative. I don't think so; it's a coming-of-age story, and it has a certain universality about it. Am I making any sense?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:58 PM on April 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Why even mention Ender's Game? Its a book which appeals to teenage fantasies. The battle school, cheesy twilight zone twist, etc. Its terrible for anyone who has read anything other than marvel and DC comics all his life. This is boyzone stuff.

I'll second Dune. Its complex. It impressively juggles politics, religion, war, and ecology.

Or

The Man in the High Castle. The Axis won WWII and we get to see how it plays out on the ground culturally and socially through the eyes of a couple of characters. Its PKD's least "weirdest" book and perhaps his best.

Anything by John Varley really. The Ophiuchi Hotline, Steel Beach, or Golden Globe.

Id recommend against token "gender" books like The Left Hand of Darkness. Its boring and just because it involves gender doesnt mean women will instantly love it. Thats a silly assumption.

Dont overlook the obvious popular titles. These are fairly non-geeky and have universal themes: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Childhood's End, etc.
posted by skallas at 12:03 AM on May 1, 2006


I love Gene Wolfe, but I wouldn't recommend him in this instance. Or maybe I would. The Book of the New Sun isn't one book, however: it's four.

I second (or third) Connie Willis, though. If willnot's recommendation isn't in the local library, maybe look out for Doomsday Book? Harder-to-find, but just as good, would be Algis Budrys' The Death Machine, which is also quite short - can be finished in an afternoon.
posted by Ritchie at 12:05 AM on May 1, 2006


Well Dune, obviously.. Although, it has a bit of a magical/mystical feel to it, so it might be a bad choice.

I'm really not sure you can make someone like that into something else. Giving her some Vonnegut isn't really going to address the fundamental misunderstanding. I mean, literature isn't about the same things as SciFi.. One is mostly introspective and philosophical, the other looks out and tries to examine civilization in the large.

Maybe a short story anthology?

Brin's Uplift (which begins in Sundiver?) has a brilliant premise, but it is really just space opera (just? Well.. I love it, but..).
posted by Chuckles at 12:07 AM on May 1, 2006


Having read the request twice it appears you are focused more on Science Fiction than Fantasy ... that said my personal favorite that I would recommend to anyone is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Not really your classical fantasy but has quite a few layers to it and well it did make me think about some things in a way I hadn't before.

Also by the same author Stardust not for its depth of head(stuff) but its depth of heart(stuff). If my girlfriend and I ever get to the point of just hanging out and read things to each other, this will be one of my first choices.
posted by Gilgad at 12:09 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Why even mention Ender's Game? Its a book which appeals to teenage fantasies. The battle school, cheesy twilight zone twist, etc. Its terrible for anyone who has read anything other than marvel and DC comics all his life. This is boyzone stuff.

Female here. Never read superhero comics. Loved "Ender's Game"—it was one of the books/series that really got me into sci-fi.

So you never know.

Hmm. You know what else could be good? Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon." It's got great historical fiction blended with cyberpunk elements, and is overall just a great read.
posted by limeonaire at 12:12 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


My wife (an avid reader and not a sci-fi fan) just read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and cannot stop talking about it, absolutely loved it and just went out and bought a whole bunch of other sci-fi today.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:16 AM on May 1, 2006


For novels of the fantastic, I highly recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Or if she digs allegorical novels, something by James Morrow--Bible Stories for Adults or Towing Jehovah are great places to start.

For science fiction, my pick would have to be The Dispossessed or some Philip K. Dick.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:22 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Ooh, I don't know about most of these, even Dune, from a English-major-snob perspective. Not, not Asimov. Not Douglas Adams! (Last Chance to See is a genuinely good book even English majors would like, but it's not science fiction.) From everything I've heard about Terry Pratchett it sounds like he's right out. Not Harry Harrison. I have liked many of these authors, but I've also been an English major snob. I think your best chances really are with Atwood and Vonnegut.

It's the magical-realism dislike that's the bear here. There are a lot of semi-sci-fi books a literature snob would like that work from that angle.

A couple of stabs:

It's been eons since I've read it, but I remember Ellen Kushner's book Swordspoint as a kind of English-major oriented fantasy novel. It's an alternate world, no magic, and I remember it being well written sentence to sentence.

Also, 19th century lit, huh? What about Frankenstein?
posted by furiousthought at 12:23 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I third (or fourth?) the suggestion of Cloud Atlas--it really is a great read.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:24 AM on May 1, 2006


I wouldn't consider myself a major SF fan but I would recommend some of the more accessible Iain M Banks works like Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games or The Algebraist. They're not always the easiest of books to start with but are rich, detailed and often have real relationships in there.
posted by jontyjago at 12:27 AM on May 1, 2006


I would have to respectfull disagree with the left hand of darkness... I feel many people find it boring.

I'd suggest The Sirens of Titan, by Vonnegut, but maybe because it's my favorite book ever. It's amazing.
posted by ORthey at 12:33 AM on May 1, 2006


I'm a female non-Sci-Fi fan with SF fan friends who push their books on me, and I'm ususally not too impressed. But I loved Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination", and it's pure Sci-Fi. Great plot and pacing, no jargon, very flawed highly emotional protagonist, no high tech gadget wanking. I love Ballard, but I don't consider him pure Sci-Fi. Pullman either.
posted by tula at 12:36 AM on May 1, 2006


furiousthought writes "I think your best chances really are with Atwood and Vonnegut."

Atwood's great, yeah, but she really lacks a certain heft. I don't know how to put it gently, and it might just be a matter of personal taste, but she strikes me as merely a good (not great) writer. Her prose isn't completely convincing; it's a little contrived.

Now, Vonnegut is great. No question about that. But I certainly wouldn't recommend Slaughterhouse-five as a piece of "unabashed" science fiction, and that's the only Vonnegut book that's been recommended in this thread so far.

On the other hand, The Sirens of Titan might be exactly what you're looking for. It has real emotional depth, and a good deal of complexity. And it also contains what is, for my money, the most beautiful passage of speculative naturalism in all of science fiction:

The planet Mercury sings like a crystal goblet.
It sings all the time.
One side of Mercury faces the Sun. That side has always faced the Sun. That side is a sea of white-hot dust.
The other side faces the nothingness of space eternal. That side is a forest of giant blue-white crystal, aching cold.
It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing.
...
There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury.
The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy.
The creatures cling to the singing walls of the caves.
In that way, they eat the song of Mercury.
...
Nature is a wonderful thing.

posted by mr_roboto at 12:41 AM on May 1, 2006


Arrgh! Beaten again!
posted by mr_roboto at 12:42 AM on May 1, 2006


.. something well-written that has, at its heart, real relationships, but is also definitely SF

Ursla K. Le Guin.

I read very widely, including a lot of 'literature' as well as science fiction and fantasy and Ursla is your best bet. She uses the science fiction/fantasy elements as a way to look deeper into the humanity and relationships of the people, so it works on many levels. Her short stories are a good entry point and I highly recommend A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. There are some wonderful themes explored in there, both about relationships and about technology.

In fact short stories may be good anyway because they showcase a few different types of science fiction. Gives you a way round the 'one book' rule to give your wife a wider exposure to the new genre, and there are many many excellent science fiction short stories out there. Plus it's a little more digestable than jumping into a novel.


Vonnegut, by the way, is utterly utterly awful.
posted by shelleycat at 12:43 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


"I am hesitant to go with the usual suggestion of Ender's Game, having found that it often seems very "young adult" to people who haven't encountered it before."

I had exactly that reaction the first time through Ender's, and it was only after reading Speaker for the Dead that I went back and discovered that there was more underlying substance to ponder than I'd initially absorbed. I don't think you could go wrong with this one, if you present Ender and Speaker as one work. This isn't wholly dishonest, as Ender's is really just a fleshed out preamble to Speaker, and Speaker truly completes it. No point going any further IMHO.

If that doesn't fly, then the books that I've gotten the best feedback on from literate, "I don't like scifi" folks are Blue Champagne by John Varley, and Gateway by Frederick Pohl. Both are highly character-driven and, while not written recently, hold up quite well. Blue Champagne is a book of short stories, but would be my first choice.
posted by Manjusri at 12:59 AM on May 1, 2006


I once drove 22 hours straight to hear Vonnegut read, stayed overnight, and drove 22 hours home. I do not think he is awful in the least.

Sirens of Titan. Yes. I also second Cryptonomicon or Bester's "The Stars My Destination" and suggest Theodore Sturgeon's "The Widget, The Wadget, and Boff" if you could possibly find a copy.

If your wife is a literate person and a woman, and her opinion of your selection is important to you, I suggest to you that you keep her completely away from Isaac Asimov. His work regularly offends people in either or both of those categories.
posted by Sallyfur at 1:04 AM on May 1, 2006


i'll take a whack at this: how about heinlein's stranger in a strange land?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 1:09 AM on May 1, 2006


Sorry sergeant sandwich, but..
1,000 times no! No Heinlein, and no Asimov!
posted by Chuckles at 1:13 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


What I am gunning for is lit-snob accessibility, not raw quality. I like, not love, Atwood, and I'm kind of iffy on Vonnegut to be honest. The reason I am leery of Le Guin, and this may be baseless, is that using "science fiction/fantasy elements as a way to look deeper into the humanity and relationships of the people" is the sort of thing magical realism and MR-ish authors, Murakami for ex., do a lot and I'm not sure that angle will work given what the poster has said. But it might.
posted by furiousthought at 1:15 AM on May 1, 2006


Just had to get in on this one. I am a woman who is an avid reader and most definitely NOT a SF fan, although I have read some in the genre. I actively despise fantasy novels and really dislike sequels and the books that could inspire them. I also hold some strong opinions about readers who limit their reading to one particular subset of literature. In short, I believe that I may have a similar sensibility to that of your wife.

I strongly recommend Margarent Atwood - literary cred, strongly feminist informed prose, not overly wordy, and the most wonderful way of leaking you information bit by bit. "Oryx and Crake" was excellent but she might also enjoy "The Handmaid's Tale".


DO NOT try Pratchett at all, ever (ANYONE!!). Dune was great when I was 14 and although Vonnegut is great and a good introduction for someone who doesn't read much because he uses very simple language, he's hardly the kind of author who's going to bring someone over to SF.
Whatever you choose, make sure the characters are strong, and avoid MAGIC like the plague! Good luck.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 1:17 AM on May 1, 2006


Philip K Dick - Clans of the Alphane Moon.

I've never been a fan of SF for SF's sake - and Dick uses SF as an effective backdrop to his bizarre situational storylines.

Everyone I've suggested this horribly jacketed book to have really enjoyed it. Whether they got into SF beyond that, I can't say - but this is a great read nonetheless, and doesn't require a trainspotter comprehension of outer space to appreciate.
posted by strawberryviagra at 1:19 AM on May 1, 2006


The short version of what I am saying is I think you might be kind of stuck with the abashed science fiction for now.

PKD's skill with language is a bit underrated but I'm not sure he's going to reel in a lit snob any more than Heinlein would.
posted by furiousthought at 1:27 AM on May 1, 2006


Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.

Nicola Griffith's Slow River.

Frank Herbert's Dune is wonderful, but it's very dense and rather involved for a first SF novel. But she loves literature, so it might do the trick.

Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness made a big impression on me back in the day. It's not hard SF but it's great for the relationship, and also very well-written.

I'd 4th or whatever Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but you know, all that one really did for me was piss me off.
posted by seancake at 1:42 AM on May 1, 2006


Well, nobody has mentioned this so far, but on the more fantasy-ish end of things is an author named Guy Gavriel Kay. There is very little overt use of magic or anything like that, and he's a serious, literary-type writer. I really can't stand most fantasy books, as I find most of them formulaic, but I will read anything that Kay writes.

He also has strong female characters in all of his novels, but without making a big deal out of gender issues. Most of his books are set in various historical periods in Europe, although names are changed. What I really like about Kay is that the magical elements of the books are really just the sort of things that the people who lived in that time period believed in. He does a lot of research and does an amazing job of weaving a complex, believable world.

For specific books, I'd recommend Tigana, or The Lions of Al-Rassan. If she doesn't mind reading two books, the Sarantine Mozaic is wonderful. There are just two books, set in what is supposed to be the Byzantine Empire during the reign of the emperor Justinian. I first discovered these books as a teenager, but have read and re-read them as an adult.
posted by number9dream at 1:43 AM on May 1, 2006


So many of these mentioned I consider horrible choices that I can't be bothered to argue why.

Having been an english lit major, I'll just say my vote goes for Dahlgren, which surprisingly no one has mentioned.
posted by juv3nal at 1:52 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


These are probably only borderline sci-fi (mainly due to the "futuristic dystopia" factor), but they have the advantage of acknowledged literary merit: George Orwell's 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 (if she hasn't read them already).
posted by Marla Singer at 2:02 AM on May 1, 2006


Might not be the typical science-fiction book in the sense of space, future, aliens, etc., but you can't go wrong with anything by Michael Crichton, such as Jurassic Park, Sphere, Timeline, the Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man, Prey...
posted by beammeup4 at 2:07 AM on May 1, 2006


I wouldn't even bother; If your good lady has no interest to try and find her own 'oeurve' then it little matters what feast you might present her with.

All of the suggestions here carry merit in some form or another; whether that merit would translate is something only your wife can decide! :)
posted by DrtyBlvd at 2:14 AM on May 1, 2006


What would you say to Will Self's Great Apes or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange?

I also second the recomendations for Atwood, Ballard, and Dick.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:24 AM on May 1, 2006


Fascinating discussion. I agree, no Heinlein or Asimov.

I think that Pratchett and Vonnegut could go either way. I like them both but it's not necessarily the Eng. Lit. snob part of me that likes them.

I think she might be fascinated by Neal Stephenson, but even he could set someone's teeth on edge if they didn't quite get him. Why not try Stephenson's Quicksilver on her outside the "I reluctantly agree to read one SF book" deal and then, if she likes it, say "Hah! Because he's really an SF author"?

My vote -- Gibson's Pattern Recognition. SF so radical it's not science fiction any more.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:33 AM on May 1, 2006


Greg Benford - scientist and author. Say Darwin's Radio or Timescape, but anything really would be good.

And Not Ender's Game (for kids!) or Dune (interminable)
posted by A189Nut at 2:34 AM on May 1, 2006


Nobody's said Octavia Butler yet?
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:47 AM on May 1, 2006


Or John Wyndham? Midwich Cuckoos or Day of the Triffids might fit the bill.
posted by goo at 2:52 AM on May 1, 2006


Someone mentioned Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I'd heartily recommend. It's a first contact story, and it's very moving.

Just to throw one more into the mix - John Crowley's Engine Summer. It's by far the best of his early books, and it's something like a quarter of the length of Little, Big.
posted by crocomancer at 3:11 AM on May 1, 2006


Second Octavia Butler (particularly Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower), Ursula LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, etc.), Connie Willis (Doomsday Book) and Maria Doria Russell (The Sparrow.) All of those authors do a very good job with characterization. None of them let technology, etc. overrun the story . [I do think that the dislike for magical realism won't be a problem here - these are clearly other worldsor the future, rather than this world with some unexplained magical element added.] Atwood is OK, but go for Handmaid's Tale - the cartoonish names & cardboard characters of Oryx and Crake are much less likely to impress someone who's focused on literary merit. American Gods is great, although you might consider it fantasy, rather than sci-fi. Pullman's trilogy & Ender's Game are both good, but may suffer from being seen as books for kids.

Stay away from Dick - the pulp aspects of his work will probably drive her off. The same's possible for Vonnegut. Dune is an awful starting point - huge, complex, and one has to learn a lot about the culture [and technology, and so on] to really get into it. I love it, but it's an awful starting point for a sci-fi novice. Neal Stephenson? God, no, unless she's a geek - his tendency to go on for pages and pages about some random detail can be a lot of fun, but again, it's not very literary, and only interesting to a certain kind of person. No Asimov - interesting stories, utterly wooden characters. Brin's Uplift books are probably too far towards the space opera end of things. Pratchett & Adams won't work unless she's got a particular [generally geeky] sense of humor. Crichton's a terrible idea - action books, essentially.

Oh, and A189Nut, I think that Darwin's Radio was Bear, not Benford.
posted by ubersturm at 3:37 AM on May 1, 2006


I would have to think about it more, but I might very well give her The Earthsea Trilogy by Le Guin to start. Sure, it's three books, but they're all very short. The characterization, the world building, the plots and the development of Ged from book to book are compelling and well-done. They offer a broad portrait of a different civilization. They are sometimes seen as YA because they start with youth, but I don't think they have to be read that way.
posted by OmieWise at 3:56 AM on May 1, 2006


I would second/third/fourth Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, or possibly Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I'm also kind of partial to Poe's short stories, some of which are TOTALLY scifi and might appeal to her 19th centuryishness.

Although I'm a fan, I would not recommend Bradbury, Asimov, PKD, Vonnegut, Heinlein, or Frank Herbert - basically, if you can imagine the book in a cheap paperback with somewhat cheesy art, it's not going to win her over.
posted by sluggo at 4:00 AM on May 1, 2006


Vernor Vinge - A Deepness in the Sky. Definitaly science fiction, with complex relationship issues. Excellent novel.
posted by Apoch at 4:02 AM on May 1, 2006


I'd like to suggest the works of Christopher Priest. 'The Prestige' is excellent (warring magians who will do anything to out class each other) and I also loved 'The Extremes'.

Not sctrictly Sci-Fi, more Mind-Fi, but certainly not mainstream.
posted by Glum at 4:11 AM on May 1, 2006


The first science-fiction book read by both my mother and my wife was "Rite of Passage" by Alexei Panshin; it's a fantastic touching coming-of-age story written from the point of view of a young girl living on a "generation ship" as she learns about life, love, and survival. The version I have dates back to 1970 (it was written in 1968, and won the 1969 Nebula Award); there's several versions listed on Amazon, but sadly no reader reviews - so you'll have to take my word for it :-)

Other possibilities, some as suggested by others:
Isaac Asimov - Foundation (and then on to the rest of the series!) is nicely written, and never so tech-happy to become boring; the only thing that got me to start with was the massive expanse of time that the books cover; I thought it was all the same timeline from different viewpoints... and had to go back and start over in order to understand it!
Harry Harrison - Homeworld/Wheelworld/Starworld (the "To The Stars" trilogy) is, again, a well-written story following a bloke in a somewhat draconian future with a very stratified society... and he accidentally ends up on the wrong side of things, which destroys his life and relationships - only for him to have to learn anew how to make a life - and love - as part of an entirely different society.
Peter F. Hamilton - A Second Chance at Eden is a great introduction to his "Night's Dawn" futuristic universe, and how it came about, marking the inventions/discoveries that made things possible. It's a book of 7 stories (six shorts, and one novella) and each of them are easy to read, interesting and clever, and have some nice "people-y" touches to them.
Following on from that one, the whole "Night's Dawn" trilogy would be highly recommended - it's very daunting (three volumes of about 1200 pages each!) but the depth of characterisation is incredible. It's definitely science-fiction, although there's a tinge of the macabre/horror - absolutely one of my favourite books (or series...) and one which I've gone back and read about 4-5times.
Harry Harrison again - this time his "Stainless Steel Rat" stories - following the viewpoint of Jim DiGriz as he rebels against the dull utopian lifestyle and becomes a criminal mastermind, with a very humanistic streak. Perhaps a bit gadgety, but great fun and very easy to read.

Goo has suggested a couple of Wyndham's stories - but the only one that you should really consider is The Chrysalids; we were forced to read it in English lessons at school - and I hated it (because it was forced onto us, and we had to analyse it, not enjoy it)... but a few years later, I read it for myself and thoroughly enjoyed it. Very character-driven, and not too-far removed from our present society - it revolves around a post-apocalyptic society living in their small settlements. "Blessed is the norm" is their mantra - any mutants will not be suffered... until some of the children demonstrate that they are telepathic... awesome stuff!


Dune has been recommended, and although I enjoyed it, I wouldn't think that it was good fare for a newbie - quite heavy-going in places.
Oryx & Crake is one that I've only read recently - it was pretty good, although it took a while for me to figure out what was going on. May be worth a shot so long as this isn't a "I'll try and read one book and that's it" situation...
posted by Chunder at 4:15 AM on May 1, 2006


How about Lanark, by Alasdair Gray? Kind of science-fictiony, definitely literary.
posted by primer_dimer at 4:34 AM on May 1, 2006


If you're considering Banks, you could just slip her a non-scifi book of his and see if she likes that so you don't have to use your one choice for him.
posted by insomnus at 4:38 AM on May 1, 2006


I'll second The Prestige. A good Victorian drawing-room type of mild scifi story.

I'll add A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. The scifi setting is incidental to the point of the story (beware, nukes).

If you can only name one book that is SciFi, surely you can name another that is nonfiction? Perhaps a history of the genre could provide the right framework for the introduction of the genre's more pulpy, BEM-filled roots which could eventually lead to some of the more sophisticated reads out there.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:45 AM on May 1, 2006


The Risen Empire, Scott Westerfeld.

It was originally released as a large book called Succession, but then broken in two because a large book retailer thinks that quality is less important than sticker price.
posted by krisjohn at 4:49 AM on May 1, 2006


Yet another vote for The Sparrow. From the fantasy side of things I might suggest Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels. You could argue that it's a historical rather than a fantasy novel but it is vague about exactly when and where it is taking place.
posted by teleskiving at 5:01 AM on May 1, 2006


Greg Benford - scientist and author. Say Darwin's Radio or Timescape, but anything really would be good.

Darwin's Radio is Greg Bear, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it might be too Michael Crichton-y thriller for blahblahblah's purposes, IMO.

I'll second Iain M. Banks, definitely Consider Phlebas, it's more space opera than science fiction, but it has amazingly well-realized worlds, some quite thougtful dilemmas and deep character development (Horza is one of my all-time favourite book characters), it's well-written and quite literary and it's extremely entertaining to boot. Also, because it's his first scence fiction novel (and the first Culture novel), you don't really need to have read anything else of his to understand it. Another possibility of his is The Bridge, which is written under his "fiction" name of Iain Banks (no M), but which is definitely at least arguably science fiction, and which is also literary and thoughtful.
posted by biscotti at 5:07 AM on May 1, 2006


Second Cryptonomicon, also A Canticle for Liebowitz, and a vote for Lois McMaster Bujold's work - start with something like the Miles Vorkosigian series, or go the other way with the Chalion series. Either way, she's a strong writer with a good eye for characters and odd plots.
posted by disclaimer at 5:10 AM on May 1, 2006


Everyone I've suggested this horribly jacketed book [Clans of the Alphane Moon] to have really enjoyed it.

Vintage has released a new edition with an abstract cover that matches the rest of their Dick trade paperbacks and is slightly more tasteful than the cover I think you have. Guy with a laser gun and/or in a bear skin, something like that?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 5:11 AM on May 1, 2006


Here it is - there is no justice.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:30 AM on May 1, 2006


I thought that Wasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan had some really nice character and cultural themes along with a captivating mystery tied it together nicely.

To analyze this a little more, you want a gateway drug. You could go old guard and pick seminal works or pick exemplars for particluar genres or just pick out the oddball.

For example, Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein is one of the books that had gotten thousands into SF. Then you could go for something a little more quirky, like Way Station by Cliffor Simak. Or very quirky, like The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Le Guin is not a bad choice as she is a good writer. I appreciated The Left Hand of Darkness more when I was an adult.

You could also consider works by James Tiptree Jr/Racoona Sheldon/Alice B. Sheldon. They are generally very good and have the interesting twist of writing that was more readily accepted because it was penned under a man's name instead of her own.
posted by plinth at 5:35 AM on May 1, 2006


Or, for something completely different, some Stanislaw Lem.

In terms of Le Guin, I'd pick Lathe of Heaven over Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. But that's just my personal opinion.

I'd also say that Sheri S. Tepper is worth looking at for less nuts and bolds and more politically-charged SF, although she's a bit over fond of the deus ex machina as device for pushing her plots forward. Raising the Stones or Sideshow come to mind.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:35 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


'Souls in the Great Machine' would be a excellent choice in my opinion.
posted by JonnyRotten at 5:56 AM on May 1, 2006


Here it is - there is no justice.

And here's the new one.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:00 AM on May 1, 2006


Lathe of Heaven is an excellent choice. It's similar to The Time Traveler's Wife in some ways, though it's lacking an obnoxious Chicago/indie cred namedrop every third page and the dialogue isn't unrelentingly twee (but neither of those things could possibly have been what she liked about that book).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:04 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


I second Pattern Recognition (William Gibson) and possibly even Neuromancer, which was the first sci fi I read. They're both beautifully written books. Neuromance can be a disorienting but very rewarding intro to the genre.

I wouldn't recommend Neal Stephenson as an intro to sci fi, though. It took me years to appreciate his stuff. YMMV.
posted by prettypretty at 6:04 AM on May 1, 2006


Sorry sergeant sandwich, but..
1,000 times no! No Heinlein, and no Asimov!


Yeah, some people here don't seem to have the slightest conception what non-sf-readers with degrees in literature are likely to value or enjoy. Heinlein is at best a workmanlike writer, Asimov is an abysmal one—I'm talking in "real world," lit-major terms, not sf ones (in the tight little world of sf, of course, they're both gods, for reasons having nothing to do with their prose). Of the old-school (pre-'60s) writers, only Sturgeon, Kornbluth, and maybe Bester and Miller write well enough (in literary terms) to be worth trying. Once you hit the '60s the field expands: Le Guin, Delany, Varley, Wolfe of course, Dick (but he's iffy: if she doesn't love him, she's going to hate him), Tom Reamy (give her "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" if she's willing to try a story without foreclosing on the novel)... The important thing is to try to forget about the things we sf fans value sf for and try to look at the book the way a literary reviewer would. Are the characters plausible and well developed? Is the plot driven by character and circumstance rather than the need for the author to get where he wants to go? Most importantly, are the sentences so well written that you want to go back and read them aloud? If you can't answer "yes" to these questions, move on.

Also, it seems pretty silly for her to give you only one shot at convincing her of the value of an entire field of literature. Ask her how she'd feel if the situation was reversed, if she wanted you to try Victorian fiction or Elizabethan poetry and you read one example and said "no, sorry, not for me." She's a reader, for pete's sake, she should be willing to read more than one book.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on May 1, 2006 [2 favorites]


The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (short stories). And have her start with "Flowers for Algernon."
posted by zanni at 6:08 AM on May 1, 2006


On non-preview: William Gibson is a wonderful sf writer; he's not a wonderful writer. When I read Neuromancer I was blown away (like everybody else) and thought "here's the next giant of the field"... but I would never give him to a lit major as their first experience of sf. His writing is flashy and perfectly adequate to its purposes, but put him up against Philip Roth or Nabokov or whoever blahblahblah's wife favors and he shrivels away to a homunculus.
posted by languagehat at 6:09 AM on May 1, 2006


I have considered Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons, and Ian Banks

As you might suspect, I really like Iain Banks.

But I wouldn't recommend his work for this task. My sense of his SF is that it depends non-trivially on having read (or seen) other SF. Especially the Culture novels.

I'd recommend Against A Dark Background instead of a Culture novel, and wouldn't strongly recommend that -- for the purpose of getting someone to to try SF. Or The Bridge would be better than his straight SF.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:11 AM on May 1, 2006


If you can find it, I'd recommend Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside" from back in the early 70's.

Most sci-fi seems too plot driven and concerned with externals, but this is a story about a man being driven mad by his telepathic powers. Very much more character oriented than a lot of sci-fi that I read, when I read a lot of it, and I'd think appealing to someone with a literary bent.
posted by hwestiii at 6:15 AM on May 1, 2006


Mrs. Scoo is also a non-SF fan, but will occasionally check out a book if I put one in front of her. The Diamond Age : Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson was one such book. She now lists it as one of her all time favorites. It's chock full of fascinating ideas, and the neo-victorian angle might be attractive to your missus.
posted by Scoo at 6:21 AM on May 1, 2006


As a (former) science-fiction reader and a literature graduate student, I'd give the big thumbs-down to most of these choices--especially if she reads "classic" novels of the 19th century for fun. I would give a particularly vigorous thumbs-down to Dune. I have a soft-spot for it, but that huge glossary in the back is enough to turn anyone off.

I'm very surprised that no one has mentioned Richard Powers, who is probably the best 'literary' writer of science fiction (or 'science-fiction-y writer of literature) working today. Read Galatea 2.2, which is about a neural-network driven artificial intelligence experiment in which the 'intelligence' is exposed only to works of great literature; or Plowing the Dark, a double-plot novel that follows, on the one hand, an artist in charge of 'painting' a virtual reality world and, on the other, a hostage held in Lebanon, confined to a small, blank room. Powers is not the world's best prose stylist, but the books are very, very good; he is a 'serious' novelist, too, recipient of a Guggenheim grant, often name-checked as one of the great novelists of his generation.

Another suggestion that comes to mind is H.G. Well's The Time Machine--a very good novel. In the same vein, Ray Bradbury's short stories are often exemplary; so are Edgar Allan Poe's. And in a more contemporary / 'hard' SF vein, I've found that lots of my literature-oriented friends have enjoyed The Diamond Age and Snow Crash.

Check out Powers if you haven't read him!
posted by josh at 6:31 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Another vote for Ursula K. LeGuin. She has a beautiful grasp of language and mood, and is a joy to read even before considering it is SF. Left Hand of Darkness maybe a little to alien for an intro to sci-fi. Try other more recent anthopological fare from her such as The Telling, as a great introduction to the Hainish series, and then go back in time to Hainish classics like Left Hand, Planet of Exile, and Rocannon's World.
posted by Roger Dodger at 6:51 AM on May 1, 2006


I'm like a weird mixture of you and your wife. As a kid, I was a rabid sci-fi fan. But I as I read more and more "serious literature," I got more and more disappointed with sci-fi. Now I find most of it unreadable -- but I still long for it. I search for sci-fi books that are well crafted (in the "serious literary" sense), but I'm usually disappointed.

Big question: does your wife like ANY genre novels? Mysteries? Thrillers? Westerns? Romances? If she doesn't, your job will be much harder. It's much easier to find sci-fi on the level of, say, John Grisham, than it is of Jane Austen.

What's your goal? Are you just trying to prove a point (it's possible for a sci-fi book to be good) or are you really trying to get her hooked? If so, how will getting her to read a good sci-fi book help? Isn't it likely she'll read that one, like it because it's an exception to the rule, then try another and dislike it (for the reasons she already dislikes sci-fi)?

It seems to me like many people here don't get the main reason why lit people dislike sci-fi. The prose. If you spend years reading Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and Wharton, you get hooked on words -- on amazing use of metaphor, exacting language, poetic language, etc. It's incredibly rare to find sci-fi that has well-crafted prose. To someone like me, it doesn't matter how good the world-building is; if the prose isn't amazing, I won't like it. (In an embarrassing amount of sci-fi -- even those works written by "Masters", the prose isn't just lackluster, it's POOR. It's rife with errors, mixed metaphors, howlers, etc.)

If your wife is like me, she won't be seduced by a rare example of good prose and then hooked by the ideas. I hate "idea" novels. I mention this, because people often bring up "ideas" as a counter-point to the shoddy work with words: "Sure, it isn't Updike, but the ideas are SO interesting." Where does that leave people like me (or your wife) who don't read novels for their intellectual content?

I mostly read for character, plot and language. When I find that rare sci-fi book written by someone who cares about words, I will love it if it gives me insight into character that's hard to get in a "reality-based" novel. Sometimes you can learn unique things about people by watching how they act in extreme situations. In other words, it's not enough for sci-fi to HAVE strong characters -- the strong characters can't just be gratuitously tacked onto a sci-fi plot -- the characters must be integral to the story; their quirks and passions must drive the story; the story must drive their quirks and passions.

I feel the same way about plot. Sometime sci-fi (and other genre forms) allow a writer to craft an complex, beautiful plot that would be hard to swallow in a more naturalistic book. For some reason, men tend to care more about overt plots than women, so my love of plotting may not translate for your wife.

I always want to talk to sci-fi fans about this stuff, because -- well -- they read a lot of sci-fi and can recommend books. But it generally feels like they're speaking one language and I'm speaking another. I bring up my requirements -- plot, character and language -- and they recommend books with complex plots (or, more rarely, complex characters), but shoddy language. They don't understand that I can't enjoy the book unless ALL of these elements work. I can't forgive bad work with words just because the plot is exciting. (And I don't say this out of snobbishness, though I'm sure that's how it sounds. I say it because the bad prose distracts me so much that I can't settle in and enjoy the ride.)

In my experience, this language barrier stems from a total lack of shared background. Many -- not all -- sci-fi buffs read sci-fi exclusively. They don't really understand my language requirements, because they haven't spent 30 years reading Thackeray and Fitzgerald. It doesn't help much if they've read a couple of literary books in school. They can't really understand us "snobs" unless they've lived in a world of highbrow lit for years and years. Similarly, I can't understand wine snobs. I have terrible taste in wine. I can't tell good wine from bad wine, but I'm sure that's because I haven't spent enough time drinking good wine. My taste buds haven't developed. I can't really converse with a true wine lover. I have nothing to offer him.

When I mention my love of language, sci-fi buffs often direct me towards HORRIBLE flowery, ornate prose. They think literary = archaic sounding and pseudo-Shakespearean -- like the crap in a lot of fantasy books. Character? I once talked to a sci-fi/fantasy fan about my devotion to character, and she went on and on about "Lord of the Rings." I'm not a Tolkein fan, but I DO think he created a few good characters (mostly the hobbits). I asked her who her favorite character was, and she said Galadriel. GALADRIEL? That's not a character. That's some sort of arctype. I realized once again that we were speaking two different languages. When I talk of character, I think of Nick Carroway, Heathcliff, Lear, etc. I want to explore evert nook and cranny of a person's mind. I don't want types. I want PEOPLE.

Okay, I wanted to give a window into a mindset that might be similar to your wife's. Now I'll list some books that I've enjoyed. I DO enjoy genre novels. I like escapism. They MUST be well crafted, but it's fine with me if they are "lite." If your wife only likes hefty books, you should strike some of these off:

1. "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." The only problem is that this is fantasy and not sci-fi. (IF that's a problem.) Otherwise, it's perfect. It's extremely well written, great characters, great plot. It's the fantasy Dickens would have written.

2. "The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman. I'm not a fan of the other two "His Dark Materials" books (I hate the third one), but this one is a classic and stands on its own. Again, it's more fantasy than sci-fi.

3. "Bios" by Robert Charles Wilson. A short, tragic love story. Heartbreaking.

4. "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood.

5. The "Ice and Fire" books (fantasy) by George R. R. Martin. They are sometimes pedestrian in terms of prose, but they contain an amazing array of characters and a deeply complex plot. The story is loosely based on the historical "War of the Roses." Martin breaks the "rules" of melodrama. No "white hats" and "black hats." His characters are nuanced.

6. "1984" by George Orwell. It's so well-wrought, I can almost forget it's an "idea book."

One more suggestion. If your goal is to build up some shared reading history with your wife, why not meet her halfway and read some historical novels together. As someone who longs for "other worlds" but hates most sci-fi, I often meet my needs via stories of other times. If the time is removed enough from our own, it might-as-well be another planet. And for some reason, histories seem to attract better writers than sci-fi and fantasy novels. Try the Patrick O'Brian books (many sci-fi people love these), i.e. "Master and Commander."
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 AM on May 1, 2006 [11 favorites]


Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. My wife doesn't like SF either but loved this (and I push it onto anyone that will listen)
posted by zeoslap at 7:13 AM on May 1, 2006


A lot of my suggestions would, unsurprisingly, overlap with what others have already said.

Vernor Vinge would be an excellent start, because he has interesting stories, characters, and ideas that really go to the heart of what SF is about--exploring the nature of humanity at the edges.

I think very highly of Gene Wolfe, but he might not be the best starting point unless she's really committed to working on her reading. He makes me work harder as a reader than any other author.

Some of PKD's works would be excellent for a first-timer, some not so much. I'd suggest Ubik: a short, self-contained mindfuck that has spawned a lot of similar stories.

Gibson is another writer who is important for the ripples he created, and Neuromancer is (IMO) well-written and interesting. His other books are so similar to it (though still enjoyable) that you might as well start with the original.

I also really like Dan Simmons, but I don't consider his writing straight-up SF. As long as you're venturing into crossover territory, how about Tim Powers (yes, another Powers). Especially "The Stress of Her Regard." Sort of SF, sort of horror, with Byron and Shelley as major characters. Hmm. That might come off as kitsch to her, though.
posted by adamrice at 7:15 AM on May 1, 2006


So I pondered this on my walk in to work this morning.

If she liked The Time-Traveler's Wife, then she'll probably also enjoy As She Climbed Across the Table by Lethem.

josh speaks of Powers above, but a different one than I'd recommend. Tim Powers is really good. Go for Anubis Gates for, again, more time-travel.

But none of this is really pchew-pchew! spaceship dogfight hard SciFi, is it? When it comes to that, I'm at a loss.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:20 AM on May 1, 2006


So it's decided, a short story anthology is the only way, but which one? I have no idea.
posted by Chuckles at 7:36 AM on May 1, 2006


Wait, what?

"If your wife is a literate person and a woman, and her opinion of your selection is important to you, I suggest to you that you keep her completely away from Isaac Asimov. His work regularly offends people in either or both of those categories."

As a woman and an English major and a writer, I'm mystified. What's wrong with Asimov? Apparently it's an opinion shared by many of the folks who posted after the person I quote above, so can someone explain?
posted by GaelFC at 7:46 AM on May 1, 2006


Asimov -- particularly the Foundation Series is very plot driven. It's a fun, romping read with some interesting ideas. It's also pretty misogynistic and not all that literary.
posted by willnot at 7:56 AM on May 1, 2006


Hated Time Traveller's Wife, loved Never Let Me Go. Millionth'ing the suggestion of Cloud Atlas. Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead is similarly gateway to all of those books. I'll also agree that Octavia Butler might be a good choice -- Wild Seed is what came to my mind.

She may also be interested in this article, which has some more suggestions.

I'm amused by all of the Whatever You Do, Don't Do This in this thread. Dune was the first sci-fi novel I ever read, and I loved it.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:02 AM on May 1, 2006


In terms of SF short stories, the best collection I've read in the last few years was Le Guin's Changing Planes. Some stories are better than others, but her wit and use of language led me to read passages out loud to people, something that I rarely do with most speculative fiction. At the same time, she uses the short-story format to launch into a nice series of speculations about culture, science, and ecology.

Personally, I think people get far too hung up on trying to separate out Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. It's rather like the problem with Rock and Country with an increasingly segmented market leading to a large number of hacks staying inside cozy little genres and sub-genres.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:12 AM on May 1, 2006


Hey, don't try to misrepresent sci-fi to her. I say just give her your favorite books, whether or not you think she'll think they're literary enough. If they're good she'll appreciate them for their own merits, rather than as approximations of other genres that she's been comfortable with in the past.

You're looking for sci-fi that walks, talks, and acts like serious litrachoor. There are, frankly, not very many sci-fi authors who fit that bill (ahem, Margarete Atwood), and I can't recall much of their collected corpus that I've found entertaining or significant. Anyway, if you did find an author like that, chances are they themselves would deny ever reading a sci-fi book, let alone writing one, and you would be in the same situation you are now (see The Time Traveler's Wife).

I'd urge you not to be ashamed of what makes sci-fi great. Don't be afraid of people like Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Niven, Dick, Wolfe, et. al., they are the craftsmen who labored unpretentiously and at the margins of literature to produce fireworks displays on a manual typewriter. They're a large part of the reason we even acknowledge a sci-fi genre. They carved out a shelf, hidden in the back of the book store, where you can still find red meat and vitality, and I think the only reason they were able to do this is because they didn't look like mainstream fiction, and thus were not bled white and boring by the same critical and cultural forces.
posted by Hildago at 8:12 AM on May 1, 2006


This woman admires Asimov for his ideas and influence, but I find him clunky and unreadable. I hated, hated HATED the interminable and flowery prose of the entire LOTR series, too, although I managed to finish The Hobbit once.

Seconding the suggestion of Stephenson's Diamond Age. Once again, he has problems ending the damn thing, but his female characters are more well developed than usual, and I agree that the neo-Victorianism may catch her interest.
posted by rosemere at 8:15 AM on May 1, 2006


I'm very surprised that no one has mentioned Richard Powers

Aaieee! Powers is one of my favorite living writers; how could I have failed to mention him? Read Galatea 2.2 by all means; it's probably the best sf/literary crossover of the last 20 years

*slaps self hard and repeatedly*

Needless to say, I agree wholeheartedly with grumblebee's comment.

GaelFC: I'm at a loss to understand how an English major can think Asimov writes good English. I happen to have a number of old issues of Astounding near my desk; let's find one with an Asimov story... Ah, here we go; the September 1946 issue has "Evidence." Opening it at random to page 133, I find:
Harroway, his forehead shining with considerably more than mere enthusiasm, passed it over a second time.

Bryerly said evenly, "I read here as the description of what you're to search; I quote: 'the dwelling place belonging to Stephen Allan Byerley, located at 355 Willow Grove, Evanstron, together with any garage, storehouse, or other structures or buildings thereto appertaining, together with all grounds thereto appertaining' ... um ... and so on. Quite in order. But, my good man, it doesn't say anything about searching my interior. I'm not part of the premises. You may search my clothes if you think I've got a robot hidden in my pocket."

Harroway had no doubts on the point of to whom he owed his job. He did not propose to be backward, given a chance to earn a much better—i.e., more highly paid—job.

He said, in a faint echo of bluster...
I'm sorry, I can't type any more of that crap. It has all the verbal fire and verve of Agatha Christie on an off day. "Harroway had no doubts on the point of to whom he owed his job"—you want to offer this to someone who reads books written by actual writers? I don't want to be unkind to Asimov, who was a fine fellow and came up with some brilliant ideas, but a writer (in the sense in which blahblahblah's wife, grumblebee, and myself understand the word) he was not.

The cover of that issue of Astounding is a nice one, by Timmins, illustrating "The Toymaker" by Raymond F. Jones. There's a guy in a spacesuit, a blasted landscape with a mushroom cloud in the background, and some weird light-green pointy-headed creatures gazing from the sky. It's quite effective, and I'm sure helped sell the magazine. I would never in a million years show it to someone who loved art and wanted to know if any good art had been inspired by sf.
posted by languagehat at 8:26 AM on May 1, 2006 [9 favorites]


Not sure why I didn't think of it before (I only finished reading the rtilogy last week!) but Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" books would probably be right down her street.
Thursday Next lives in an alternate England, and works as a literary detective, protecting novels from being plagiarised, stopping characters from breaking out of their characterisation, and fighting against things like a mispeling vyrus infection and grammarsites (parasites that feed on grammar), jumping from book to book, a spot of time travelling, and other fun stuff.
She works alongside characters such as Miss Havisham (from Great Expectations) and Rochester (from Jane Eyre) amongst others, whilst trying to pull her life - and love - back together.

It's all very funny and clever - although I'm sure that some of the references and things were probably missed on me, as I've not read many of the classics that make up the stories... your wife would probably get more from it that I did, in that respect.

Highly recommended (providing you can just go with the flow of the story...) - just make sure she starts with the first book, "The Eyre Affair"

Anyway, here is the wikipedia article about Thursday, here's her website, and here is the rather strange (yet also quirkily funny) website of the author...
posted by Chunder at 8:56 AM on May 1, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'd warn against Asimov's Foundation... she'd have to start with the first, and its discontinuous structure would make it a risky book to start someone out with. I agree with most of the warnings against Neal Stephenson, in that his tendency to geek out of arbitrary details for 5 pages could put off a newcomer. However, his Cryptonomicon is a unique, mesmerizing book; not everyone will enjoy Snow Crash or The Baroque Cycle, but its simply not possible to not be engrossed by Cryptonomicon. Its deep entertwining with 20th century history makes it accessible and captivating to anyone.

Dune rocks too, of course, and has the advantage of being quite a bit shorter. And if she likes it, it offers a more obvious forward path than most other works do.
posted by gsteff at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2006


I can't help you much here, but speaking of Margaret Atwood, I recommend that both you and your wife read The Blind Assassin. It's a literary novel about a science fiction novel that does a pretty good job of representing the appeal of both. It might help you both find some literary common ground.
I wouldn't recommend The Handmaid's Tale for this; it's not even the best book by Margaret Atwood.
posted by willpie at 9:08 AM on May 1, 2006


I'm surprised no one has mentioned one of the most exciting and unutterably strange science fiction novels of all time:The Crying of Lot 49. Just typing the title has made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It is, however, suffused with a fluorescent, Antarctic cold, despite its Southern California setting.

For more warmth, I would choose what I think of as the greatest single-volume fantasy of the modern era: The Book of Kells by R. A. MacAvoy.
posted by jamjam at 9:08 AM on May 1, 2006


I think I'd also probably vote for Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. (not Dahlgren!)
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:23 AM on May 1, 2006


How about Piers Anthony's "Incarnations of Immortality" series, starting with "On A Pale Horse". Loved this series.
posted by tadellin at 9:37 AM on May 1, 2006


Daughter of the Empire by Raymond Feist.

I was in a situation just like your wife. My boyfriend at the time was a big reader (just like me) but our tastes wildly differed. He had this series in his collection, I picked it up by my own volition because it had a female as the protagonist, and then I gobbled it right up along with its sequels.

More fantasy than sci-fi, but I think your wife will really like the Mara character. She's very strong, independent, clever, and usually gets the best of the men around her. What woman doesn't love that?! ;)

I am currently absorbed in The Song of Fire and Ice series, but I hesitate to recommend it because the dude is taking forever to write the subsequent books. Anyway, also another fantasy genre book and it reads like a trashy soap opera to me, but not in a way that insults my intelligence. =D
posted by like_neon at 9:41 AM on May 1, 2006


How about Lanark, by Alasdair Gray? Kind of science-fictiony, definitely literary.

I'll second that.
posted by Lanark at 9:48 AM on May 1, 2006


The only "sci-fi" book I know that people who dislike sci-fi can get with is Dune. I mean, it's pretty much recognized as good literature even by the people who still think sci-fi is for 13 year old boys with no girlfriends.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2006


Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Varley, some of Harrison, some of Silverberg.

No Heinlein; no Asimov. I read everything they'd written when I was in high school. When I went back years later, I couldn't stomach any of it. Asimov really is all like L-hat's excerpt.

Card is a better writer of character, but his emotional manipulations wear thin.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:08 AM on May 1, 2006


I'd argue against Terry Pratchett — he's brilliant, but he can convey a pulp feel if someone is inclined to be that way.

I'd second the recommendation for the His Dark Materials trilogy, although that conveys the problem of that being three books, not one.

I wonder ... perhaps Asimov's Foundation?
posted by WCityMike at 10:18 AM on May 1, 2006


languagehat, thank you SO much for that Asimov quotation. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time.

his forehead shining with considerably more than mere enthusiasm...

That is PRICELESS! I'm trying really hard to conjure up an image of it in my head. I'm failing. But it's fun to say it in the Comic Book Guy voice. And I've spent the last few minutes trying to speak with "a faint echo of bluster." How would that sound, exactly?
posted by grumblebee at 10:22 AM on May 1, 2006


Also definitely, definitely nix the Piers Anthony Incarnations of Immortality series. If she's of a "literate" type of mind, that's far too pulpy, too, and plus, Anthony gives me the yick.

Don't misunderstand me — both Pratchett and Incarnations of Immortality are good reads. But if she's looking for "literature," if she'd look down on Steven King, she'd look down on Pratchett & Anthony.
posted by WCityMike at 10:41 AM on May 1, 2006


I third Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and Herbert's DUNE.

My wifes snooty "literature-minded" book group read them and loved them both.
posted by tkchrist at 10:47 AM on May 1, 2006


I place a vote for a book of Sturgeon stories. The writing is as good as the ideas and they are both fantastic. This volume is a good one; this one also has some of my favorite stories.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:51 AM on May 1, 2006


(I'll vouch for The Stars My Destination, too.)
posted by Wolfdog at 10:52 AM on May 1, 2006


Guys, the lit-snob perspective has been represented here well and at great length since last night. I just want to add that there's a big difference between the preferences of the "general reader" type and the lit snob and I think they're getting blurred a lot in this thread. Dune's a great novel for hooking general readers. Your really dedicated lit snob is going to turn their nose up at Dune for the same reason they'd turn their nose up at – ok, I'm not familiar enough with the genre to come up with an example of an author, but imagine a tightly-plotted, well-realized political thriller, without the sci-fi elements. Lit snobs don't read those either. Paul Atreides is not really the kind of multidimensionalish central figure a proud English major is gonna look for in that kind of novel. I'm just saying.
posted by furiousthought at 10:56 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Any of the Mars books by Kim Stanley Robinson would be a good choice.
If you need something more in a "contemporary" time frame, Robinson's "Forty Signs of Rain" was a nice, quick read.

I'd also second Gibson. As well as Gaiman's "American Gods"
posted by Thorzdad at 10:56 AM on May 1, 2006


Does you wife like A.S. Byatt? Byatt likes Pratchett. Well, actually, she luuuurves Pratchett. (OK, fine. Fine. The odds that she'd share Byatt's weakness is slim. I just get a chuckle over Byatt-as-groupie.)

Another possible China Miéville book is The Scar. It reads like a Victorian novel, but is still solidly SF.
posted by rosemere at 11:16 AM on May 1, 2006


I wouldn't recommend Dune (although it's my favorite book) for the poster's wife because it's exceedingly dense and you have to really be willing to go with that.

However, I think furiousthought is wrong about the character of Paul. He is extremely complex and very well realized. You could make the case that his father or a few of the other fringe characters are too broadly drawn, but even there, the book isn't really about them.

Additionally, Dune is essentially a metaphor for the Mid East and Oil and a lot of things that were important back in the 70s and have continued to be important even today. A literary reader would pick up on that where the average reader may gloss over it.

So, Dune absolutely rewards deep reading, and the primary characters are very well developed. If you don't think they are, go back and read it again.

However, it's a bad choice for the poster's wife because it demands things of the reader that I don't think she's willing to give.
posted by willnot at 11:39 AM on May 1, 2006


Dune's not a metaphor, it's an allegory. I agree that your average English major is probably not well-read enough to understand it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:49 AM on May 1, 2006


It's neither a metaphor nor an allegory; it's a piece of fiction partially inspired by and resonant with historical geopolitical events.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:57 AM on May 1, 2006


juv3nal banged it on the head DAHLGREN 4 sure. And you know, the way things are it could happen next week.
posted by sgobbare at 12:31 PM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Erng, it's been too long since I've read Dune (which I really enjoyed and I am plenty aware of its virtues as a book) for me to really argue specifics, but I wrote "multidimensionalish" for a reason – I don't think Paul Atreides comes off the same way "Nick Carroway, Heathcliff, Lear, etc," (as grumblebee put it) or other such central literary characters do. You really don't think there's a difference?
posted by furiousthought at 12:34 PM on May 1, 2006


Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith. You will carry around psychedelic images and lyrical snatches of the language in the back corners of your brain for the next several decades.
posted by clever sheep at 12:38 PM on May 1, 2006


Like Ender's Game/Speaker For The Dead, Gibson's work needs to be read in combined volumes for the full story to come together. So if she reads Neuromancer (a very good choice, in my opinion) then she also needs to read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The nice part of this is that each successive novel shows Gibson maturing as a writer.

Cryptonomicon is a good choice, too.

And finally, I would also highly recommend starting her out on Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction and letting her run with it. It's more of a space opera, but you get enough science, enough tech, enough drama, enough history, sex, economics, humor and demonic possession that it often seems as if 6 books weren't enough to cover it all.

Probably my favorite series ever.
posted by Thistledown at 12:57 PM on May 1, 2006


You're asking for unabashed SF, and a lot of what I read and love - quite a bit of which is recommended here, plus more I'll be coming back for, bookmarking this thread, thanks! - is more the fantasy/alternate reality stuff that you've said she doesn't like; i.e., LeGuin - although The Left Hand of Darkness would be a possibility. So, I'd recommend again China Mieville & Neal Stephenson (particularly Snow Crash or The Diamond Age) & Iain Banks, who can all actually write, and most of whose books at least are pretty much unabashed SF. Mieville is a little harsh - wonderful, but tough. I wouldn't recommend Dhalgren, because while it's a brilliant, brilliant book, it isn't really SF in the purest sense, and I wouldn't recommend Dune, simply because I have never liked it, even though I did read it three or four times.

What about A Canticle for Leibowitz? Classic, thought provoking, well written and even funny. And then there's Bradbury, who, along with Patricia McKillip, turned me onto SF when I was about 11 and I've never looked back yet; you could do worse than go with the Martian Chronicles.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:07 PM on May 1, 2006


Jonathan Lethem (Amnesia Moon, or Motherless Brooklyn)

I'd also like to hear how this turns out. If your SO is really willing, and not just mollifying you, ask her to read a booklist. She'll understand the whole genre, rather than being able to pinpoint the one book, or the one sentence, that she hates.

Here's mine:
Ursula Le Guinn (The Left Hand of Darkness)
Phillip K. Dick (Through a Scanner Darkly)
Isaac Asimov (Foundation)
William Gibson (Neuromancer)
John Steakley (Armor)
Robert Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)
Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game)
Dan Simmons (Hyperion)

If this were a purely 'personal favorites' list, I'd cut out the Asimov and the Gibson, change the Le Guinn to the Earthsea series, and add Sam Delaney's Trouble on Triton and something by Ian Banks. (The Player of Games, perhaps?) I like this game: I guess all boys from the "Desert Island Favorites" generation do. I'd want to add Eric S. Nylund's A Game of Universe, too.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:12 PM on May 1, 2006


No, Paul goes from petulant teen (with enough training to have implanted in him the seeds of greatness) to accomplished military strategist and a fully developed man. He is at times cruel and tender; honorable and treacherous; loving and hateful. And, all of these are perfectly consistent with his character and the dictates of the situation. Some of the messianic stuff gets to be a bit one dimensional, but even there, the way he approaches and wrestles with what it might mean to him is subtle and complex. He uses it when he needs to, but he's never terribly comfortable with it.

I don't know who Nick Carroway is, but I've read Wuthering Heights (when is Heathcliff ever anything more than self-absorbed and vicious? Even if we can understand that he's motivated out of love and jealousy/revenge, I could never understand why any woman would want to be with him) and Lear (though I may need to read it again since I remember it being more about his daughters than him). I would absolutely say that Paul as at least as well defined a character as Heathcliff or Hamlet (with whom I'm more familiar), and his character arc is substantially greater.
posted by willnot at 1:20 PM on May 1, 2006


Second Theodore Sturgeon.

If you've got to have Card on the list, make it something other than Ender. there are much more "literary" Card novels. I haven't read it in a long while, but Songmaster comes to mind.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:23 PM on May 1, 2006


Dune's not a metaphor, it's an allegory. I agree that your average English major is probably not well-read enough to understand it.

Originally it was a simile, but Herbert decided to drop the forward that read "Dude, the spice is like oil man."
posted by Chuckles at 1:24 PM on May 1, 2006 [3 favorites]


Upon a Google search, I guess I do know who Nick Carroway is, but I always thought of the narrator of Gatsby as sort of nameless for some reason.
posted by willnot at 1:26 PM on May 1, 2006


Oh, yes, Dune. It's so much more than science fiction.

I third Pattern Recognition. I love Gibson, but other than Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition is the only book I've been pulled back to. It is, as someone up above said, science fiction without being science fiction. It's been called a mainstream novel, but it's really a trojan horse -- science fiction disguised as something more mainstream.
posted by lhauser at 1:30 PM on May 1, 2006


Oops, I should have said PR is the only other GIBSON book I've been pulled back to...
posted by lhauser at 1:31 PM on May 1, 2006


Nick Carroway is the narrator of "The Great Gatsby."

It's stupid to argue about which character is more complex, but I've rarely found ANY characters more complex than Hamlet or Lear. I DO urge you to (carefully) reread those plays, willnot. In terms of arc, Lear and Hamlet go through just about every emotion it's possible for a human to feel.

It's been years since I've read Dune, so I can't comment on Paul's complexity, but in general, sci-fi isn't know for complexity of character.

Just so we're really clear, I'm NOT talking about how much a character goes through: Luke Skywalker goes through a war, the death of his parents, the discovery of his true past, etc.; Nick Carroway goes through losing a friend, but he's a complex character. Luke isn't. By complex, I mean that the author lets you deeply inside the character's head and that they character's responses to what happens are nuanced, complicated, varied and sometimes mysterious.
posted by grumblebee at 1:32 PM on May 1, 2006


I have to get behind Cloud Atlas. Phenomenal book. Can't wait to get his new one.

And she might like Jonathan Strange (although she might find it to be a poor rip-off of the time period, since she knows it so well). I found it to be incredibly dull, myself.

Keep her away from Pratchett. You need to have a solid basis (and general liking) of the genre to really enjoy him.

I admit to shock at the love on this thread for Dhalgren. It's one of the few books I've put down without finishing. Hated it. *shrug*

Don't think it's right for a first book, but Mervyn Peake's first two "Ghormengast" books are phenomenal.

And much love for "Sparrow" as well.

Mostly I think you should pick a book that you LOVE or that is important to you in some way, so you can talk about the book that way as well as just a good book to read. But be prepared for disappointment -- some people just don't get off on SF or speculative fiction. Nothing you can do about it.
posted by papercake at 1:39 PM on May 1, 2006


The Machine Stops by E.M. Forsrer

It just occurred to me. Have you read it? It's heartbreaking. And it's by a recognized literary figure ("Passage to India", "Howard's End"). It's a short story, and it's available online (link above).
posted by grumblebee at 1:49 PM on May 1, 2006


I'm an English major who occasionally reads SF when it's recommended, and the only thing I remember about The Sparrow was how completely thin all the characters seemed to me. I kept plowing through the book, thinking it had to get better, and it just didn't for me. I remember thinking that if this is what's considered "literary" SF, it's got a ways to go.

And I do love trashy mystery novels, so it's not like I'm requiring that everything be Hamlet.

I have loved the Le Guin I've read, partly because she reminds me so much of Atwood, who's one of my favorite authors (though I like her straight fiction most).
posted by occhiblu at 2:04 PM on May 1, 2006


(Errr, Atwood's straight fiction, that is. And it occurs to me that The Sparrow felt like the genre equivalent of Crichton or Dan Brown. Not bad, just stock characters and passable writing that was all trying to be loftier than it was achieving. As grumblebee has pointed out extremely well, this is not the sort of thing likely to impress someone who loves true literature.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:06 PM on May 1, 2006


Her favorites tend to either be classics of 19th century literature. . . .

Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn is Jane Eyre in spaaaaace. I like SF and fantasy; I wasn't crazy about this rewrite, but your wife may love it.
posted by booksandlibretti at 2:20 PM on May 1, 2006


Thank you all very much for all of the responses so far! I certainly wasn't expecting 130+ suggestions.

Given that some people are interested in the outcome, but that AskMe threads close quickly, I will post the book choice on my user blurb in a few days, and then post the wife's reaction to it later in the month. Thanks again for all the guidance so far, I may even have the wife read the thread and make her own choice...
posted by blahblahblah at 3:00 PM on May 1, 2006


I may even have the wife read the thread and make her own choice...

GREAT idea!
posted by grumblebee at 3:24 PM on May 1, 2006


Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong is a good post-apocalyptic novel with a nice literary feel.
posted by blm at 3:36 PM on May 1, 2006


blahblahblah, I think AskMe threads are now open for a fully year, so you should have time to post follow-ups here.
posted by occhiblu at 3:49 PM on May 1, 2006


Second Cordwainer Smith, and how come nobody's mentioned the brilliant Avram Davidson and R.A. Lafferty?
*slaps self again*

I can't get on the Dune wagon; it's a fine book, but again, I just don't think it will hold up against real literary standards. I'm not being snooty, just realistic about what people who don't read sf and do read literary fiction are likely to like. And Dhalgren sucks. Sorry.

Please do post your wife's response! (And AskMe threads don't close that quickly, do they?)
posted by languagehat at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2006


No, Paul goes from petulant teen (with enough training to have implanted in him the seeds of greatness) to accomplished military strategist and a fully developed man. He is at times cruel and tender; honorable and treacherous; loving and hateful. And, all of these are perfectly consistent with his character and the dictates of the situation.

Yeah, that sort of describes Elric! Too far? Ok. But, I mean, Frodo has a pretty big arc, too, and it's just my perception that Paul Atreides in Dune is handled more like Frodo and less like Lear. You're always kind of outside the Muad'dib business. That's how I remember it. The machinations took center stage. Again, it's been awhile. Personally, it's been longer since I read Wuthering Heights, and I liked that book less. What I would think of them side by side today, I don't know.
posted by furiousthought at 4:12 PM on May 1, 2006


Man, this needs some type of summary - what a list!
posted by strawberryviagra at 4:43 PM on May 1, 2006


I'm going to just take a stab at this here, and not give you any specific book recommendations (even though I have some). Your wife has presented you with an opportunity - she's agreed to read one SciFi book, yes? She's probably not agreeing to read it because she's dying to get an introduction to science fiction. My guess is that she's agreed to read one because she loves you.

You've got this one chance, so instead of trying to pick a book that makes her want to read more SF, why don't you choose the one book that has been the most personally inspirational, the most intense, the most interesting to you?

Find the book you wish most of all that you could share the experience of reading with your wife, and give her that one.
posted by eleyna at 5:03 PM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


This isn't really about Dune. Like I said, the poster's wife wouldn't like it anyway. However, when I got home, I did pick up Dune and opened it at random. I actually had to open it twice to get to a page that dealt with Paul since it twists through a lot of interlocking characters.

This is about 4 paragraphs after I started reading at the top of the page:
Paul felt Chani's hand on his arm, heard a faint dripping sound in the chill air, felt an utter stillness come over the Fremen in the cathedral presence of water.

I have seen this place in a dream, he thought.

The thought was both reassuring and frustrating. Somewhere ahead of him on this path, the fanatic hordes cut their glory path across the universe in his name. The green and black Atreides banner would become a symbol of terror. Wild legions would charge into battle screaming their war cry: "Maud'Dib!"

It must not be, he thought. I cannot let it happen.

But he could feel the demanding race consciousness within him, his own terrible purpose, and he knew that no small thing could deflect the juggernaut. It was gathering weight and momentum. If he died this instant, the thing would go on through his mother and his unborn sister. Nothing less than the deaths of all the troop gathered here and now -- himself and his mother included -- could stop the thing.
Say what you will about the book, but the last thing I would ever have expected to hear from somebody is that we aren't really let in on Paul's inner struggle. Vast chunks of the book center around his inner conflict and character development.
posted by willnot at 5:51 PM on May 1, 2006


I also recommend Cryptonomicon. I reckon she'll read it without even noticing that it's science fiction.

I would also recommend Ursula Le Guin, but rather than Left Hand of Darkness, I'd go for The Dispossessed.

And if she's a hardcore literary type, maybe she'll like Lawrence Durrell's The Revenge of Aphrodite (also called Tunc & Nunquam).
posted by dhruva at 6:27 PM on May 1, 2006


the last thing I would ever have expected to hear from somebody is that we aren't really let in on Paul's inner struggle.

Are you talking about me, willnot? Actually, I said, "It's been years since I've read Dune, so I can't comment on Paul's complexity, but in general, sci-fi isn't know for complexity of character."

Still, given your example, it doesn't seem like with Paul's "responses to what happens are nuanced, complicated, varied and sometimes mysterious." Compare it with the following (random) passage from "Amy and Isabelle," by Elizabeth Strout. (I'm not trying to get into a pissing match about which type of book is best. I'm trying to make clear the sort of character development that some of us like.)

[Isabelle a middle-aged mom; Amy is her teenage daughter.]

Isabelle, driving through the dark now along Route 22, was weeping hard. She shook her head back and forth, and ran her arm across her eyes.

The amazing thing was, she had actually thought she'd managed things with Amy. She had actually thought, if the truth be known, the she had been stronger than her mother. Isabelle turned the car into the driveway and sat in the dark, leaning her head in her hands on the steering wheel, shaking her head slowly back and forth. And how had she thought that? Just last winter, when the snow melted and leaked through Amy's ceiling, she had wrung her hands and carried on, frantically sending Amy down to the kitchen to get the yellow mixing bowl. Hadn't she known at the time that her reaction was way out of proportion? Hadn't she seen Amy's eyes go a little bit dead?

Isabelle rubbed her face and groaned softly in the dark. She thought of what Amy had hurled at her only a few weeks ago: "You don't know anything about the world." It was an accusation she could have mada against her own mother. (Except she wouldn't have because of that smooth heavy stone of fear.)

But it was true. Her mother had not known much about the world. Her mother had not been comfortable with much of anything. She had not, for example, told Isabelle anything about the mysteries of her body. On the day of her first mestruation, Isabelle assumed she was dying.

So she had done it differently. She had bought a pink booklet for Amy; she had said, "Let me know if you have any questions."

Isabelle got out of the car and walked quickly up the steps of the porch. There was a light on in the living room. Her heart beet fast with the need to talk to her daughter, to kiss her daughter's face.

But Amy had evidently gone to bed; there was no sign of her downstairs. Isabelle went up the stairs to Amy's room and stopped by the closed door. Tears had started down her face once more. "Amy," she whispered loudly, "are you asleep?"

She thought she heard Amy turn over in bed. "Amy," she whispered again; it pained her to think that the girl might be feigning sleep.

Isabelle knocked lightly on the door and when there was no response she pushed it open across the carpet. in the dim light that shone from the hallway she saw her daughter lying on her bed with her face to the wall. "Amy," she said. "Amy, I need to talk to you."

From the bed there came the quiet sound of Amy's voice. "But I don't want to talk to you. I don't ever want to talk to you again."
posted by grumblebee at 7:31 PM on May 1, 2006 [2 favorites]


I second Engine Summer by John Crowley! out-dated description of his stuff here:
http://home.att.net/~Storytellers/jcrowley.html

How about have her read about sf? Thomas Disch.

If she liked magic realism, I'd recommend Ian McDonald's Desolation Road, but she doesn't, so I won't.

Also: Howard Waldrop. He's really weird.

Lew Shiner
posted by bleary at 8:18 PM on May 1, 2006


A few people (myself included) have mentioned Gene Wolfe, but been somewhat unspecific as to which Wolfe books might be enjoyed by a non-sf reader. Wolfe has written a lot, but given that your wife only agrees to read a single book, we can automatically exclude all his multivolume works:

Book of the New Sun
Book of the Long Sun
Book of the Short Sun
Latro in the Mist
The Wizard Knight

Wolfe also passes freely from sf to fantasy and everywhere in between and outside, but you want something clearly sf, so we can exclude his more ambiguous works:

Peace
Fifth Head of Cerberus

Wolfe also produces a large number of short stories (too many to list, even by volume), many of which are beautiful (Forlesen is probably my favorite), but these also often blur the line between fantasy and sf without really being either.

This leaves two books (given that I haven't read everything Wolfe has produced):

Free Live Free
There Are Doors

Of these two, There Are Doors was enjoyed by a friend of mine who reads a lot of so-called fine literature, and doesn't usually like sf, so that would be the Wolfe book I'd recommend. I personally have a soft spot for Free Live Free.

However, neither of them are "straight" sf. Wolfe simply doesn't write that way very often.
posted by Ritchie at 8:30 PM on May 1, 2006


Yet another vote for Ursula Le Guin.

I am not a science-fiction reader, although I am an avid reader (both fiction and non-fiction). I grew up in Turkey and read Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" in Turkish in my early 20s. Since I moved to the US and learned English, "The Dispossessed" is the only book I re-read, this time in English. It made such a strong impression on me. However, I would have to agree with one of the responses stating that Le Guin may not be considered fully SF (based on the one book I read). But it is very good.

Let us know about your decision.
posted by eebs at 9:07 PM on May 1, 2006


Okay, she is going to read the thread sometime in the next few days and make her own choice. (Hey, maybe I can get her into MeFi and SciFi in one go!)

As languagehat suggested, I will post the decision (and eventual reaction) here as well - thanks again everyone.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:22 PM on May 1, 2006


Shikasta- Doris Lessing. Perhaps this is cheating as she is not a SF writer. I haven't read it in a long time but the experience remains.
posted by pointilist at 9:35 PM on May 1, 2006


Still, given your example, it doesn't seem like with Paul's "responses to what happens are nuanced, complicated, varied and sometimes mysterious."

I think he's talking to me. I stand by what I said, though. That's not an introspection scene, that's a vision scene. The character's confronting a binary choice. It's because who is Paul Atreides? what makes him, especially, tick? is not the primary concern of the book, of a lot of sci-fi books, the way it is in literary-type fiction. It's what will Paul Atreides do? and how will he do it?

It would be kind of silly to keep hashing this out on an AskMe post, but the hope is it does sort of illuminate the issues surrounding this question. If it gets too distracting I'll stop already.
posted by furiousthought at 12:41 AM on May 2, 2006


You want to find an author who is a writer first and a sci-fi writer second. This may exlcude the majority of "real" sci-fi and leave with a few weirdos who write in this limbo space that isn't quite sci-fi and isn't quite traditional lit.

Off the top of my head, from what I've read:

Samuel R. Delaney -- he's the only sci-fi writer I know of with enough of an experimental bent and enough knowledge of classic lit & contemporary theory to pull off what he pulls off. Dhalgren's already been mentioned. My favorite: Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand. An incredibly beautiful and mysterious book that would meet most of the requirements of world-building and interesting ideas that more maintstream sci-fi provides -- but written in a complex, multilayered (if somewhat baroque) prose that invites active/collaborative rather than passive reading. Actually, this is the only sci-fi book I've ever recommended to non sci-fi readers.

Harlan Ellison can be a ferociously powerful (if a tad sloppy) writer -- though he only writes short stories. And they tend to be more like fables than anything else. His early stuff left a searing mark on my psyche -- The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World; I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream; Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman are a few stories whose titles I can recall. Not sure if any of his stuff is in print. He also edited a pretty interesting collection of 60's-era sci-fi titled "Dangerous Visions".

Phillip K. Dick, of course -- Valis really held my attention until near the end, when everything gets explained away in a typically sci-fi way.

Italo Calvino? Again, more fable-like stuff, but quite engaging and well-written.

Borges? Definitely not sci-fi, but there are many sci-fi fans of stories like the Library of Babel.

Bradbury's already been mentioned and she's probably already encountered him somewhere . . .

If she enjoys experimental (and highly controversial/shocking/disturbing) work, what about Burroughs? I've never seen him classified as sci-fi, but a lot of his work touches on dystopic visions of the future . . . avoid Naked Lunch, try The Wild Boys . . .

Some literary types are big fans of Le Guin, though I'm ashamed to say that I've never read her . . .
posted by treepour at 3:17 PM on May 2, 2006


I don't know if anyone is still reading this thread, as someone who longs for well-written SF, I want to thank everyone for their recommedations. I went through the whole thing this morning and compiled the following list. Disclaimer: I didn't include a couple of the so-called "masters", like Asimov. Sorry, I don't consider him worthy of the list. Just my opinion. Also, I snuck in a few additional recommendations that I thought of today, having scanned my bookshelves.

??? by Avram Davidson
??? by Howard Waldrop
??? by J.G. Ballard
??? by Lew Shiner
??? by R.A. Lafferty
1984 by George Orwell
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Game of Universe by Eric S Nylund
A second Change at Eden by Peter F. Hamilton
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem
Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Armor by John Steakley
As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem
Becoming Human by Valerie J. Freireich
Bible Stories for Adults by James Morrow
Bios by Robert Charles Wilson
Blue Champagne by John Varley
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Case of Conscience by James Blish
Chalion (series) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams
Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick
Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
Daughter of the Empire by Raymond Feist
Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
Driving Blind by Ray Bradbury
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Engine Summer by John Crowley
Engine Summer by John Crowley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
Forlesen by Gene Wolfe
Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
Gateway by Frederick Pohl
Ghormengast (series) by Mervyn Peake
Golden Globe by John Varley
Great Apes by Will Self
His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Incarnations of Immortality (series) by Piers Anthony
Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Kingdoms of the Wall by Robert Silverberg
Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Little, Big by John Crowley
Mars books (series) by Kim Stankey Robinson
Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams
Midwhich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Miles Vorkosigian (series) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Neverness by David Zindell
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Nigt's Dawn (series) by Peter F. Hamilton
Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
Passage by Connie Willis
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Peace by Gene Wolfe
Perdido Street Station by China Mielville
Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers
Raising the Stones by Sheri S. Tepper
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
Sarantine Mozaic (series) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Shikasta by Doris Lessing
Short stories by Harlan Ellison
Sideshow by Sheri S. Tepper
Skellig by David Almond
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slow River by Nicola Griffiths
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Songmaster by Orson Scott Card
Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delaney
Startide Rising by David Brin
Steel Beach by John Varley
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Book of Kells by R.A. MacAvoy
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Bridge by Iain M. Banks
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
The Death Machine by Algis Budrys
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Extremes by Christopher Priest
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Harvest by Robert Charles Wilson
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
The Nymphos of Rock Flats by Mario Acevedo
The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley
The Paper Grail by James P. Blaylock
The Player's Game by Iain M. Banks
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfield
The Scar by China Mievelle
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One
The Sirens of Tital by Kurt Vonnegut
The Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R.R. Martin
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
The Stress of Her Regard by Dan Simmons
The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Widget, the Wadget and Boff by Theodore Sturgeon
The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs
There are Doors by Gene Wolfe
Thursday Next (series) by Jasper Forde
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Timescape by Gregory Benford
To Say Nothing of the Dog
To the Stars (series) by Harry Harrison
Towering Jehovah by James Morrow
Uplift (series) by David Brin
Wasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan
Way Station by Clifford Simak
West of Eden by Harry Harrison
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand
Xendocide by Orson Scott Card
posted by grumblebee at 9:25 AM on May 3, 2006 [31 favorites]


Awesome, thanks for the easy to use list.
posted by OmieWise at 10:05 AM on May 3, 2006


Yes, thanks for doing that. As for the question marks, here are some starter suggestions:
The Avram Davidson Treasury
The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty
posted by languagehat at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2006


Thanks for the list! It is gratifying to know that I have read a lot of these already, but I will refrain from editorial comment and simply post my wife's decision later for those interested. I did want to make just a few minor corrections to a few titles that I noticed were not correct in the master list above:

Against A Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
A Second Chance at Eden by Peter F. Hamilton
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
posted by blahblahblah at 9:21 PM on May 3, 2006


another correction:

"Towing Jehova", not "Towering Jehova"

Looking forward to hear what book she picked!
posted by papercake at 5:53 AM on May 6, 2006


Okay, the verdict is Cloud Atlas.
The reasoning:
1) Six people recommended it quite eloquently
2) At least some of the plotlines aren't SF, so she can dip her foot in.
3) Phenomenal critical acclaim, -- it was described in one review "[taking] one’s breath away in a manner not unlike a first experience of Chartres or the Duomo," and she liked the Duomo.
4) I haven't read it either, so we can both read it together and discuss.

Finalists were Oryx and Crake (though she already read Atwood, and decided to try something new), The Anubis Gates (which she might try next), Golden Compass, and Galatea 2.2. I'll keep you up to date on what happens...
posted by blahblahblah at 4:48 PM on May 7, 2006


Stanislaw Lem would be an excellent first SF experience.
posted by felix at 11:11 AM on May 8, 2006


Dang, did no-one mention Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban?
posted by Ritchie at 3:58 AM on September 25, 2006


What was her reaction?
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:55 PM on January 2, 2007


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