Page turning sci-fi for non-sci-fi buffs
July 11, 2011 1:57 AM   Subscribe

I am seeking recommendations for classic science fiction that will be entertaining and enjoyable for my book club .

I am part of a book group and it's my turn to choose the book - our usual remit is to choose "something that we wouldn't normally read".

Although I have read a few science fiction books (Iain M Banks, Neil Stephenson, and Arthur C Clarkes's Rama series) I feel my knowledge is pretty slim and I'm pretty sure the other members are even less well versed than I am.

I would love to choose a really good piece of sci-fi that is going to be enjoyable and entertaining for our group - as opposed to a piece of really good sci-fi that might only appeal to serious sci-fi fans - i.e. I want something something fairly accessible.

Quite a few of our book group choices recently have been verging on the "interesting" rather than necessarily entertaining.

Any suggestions gratefully received.
posted by mairuzu to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card?
posted by martinrebas at 2:20 AM on July 11, 2011

As someone who's not really a serious sci-fi fan, I can recommend

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

They're very different books but have in common a general sort of accessibility. They're all really good stories as well. If you choose Kirsten Bakis, don't forget to bring a tissue.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:34 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin. Towering, seminal classic of the genre, multiple award winner, as relevant now as the day it was written. Whilst having many of the trappings of conventional SF, this book will really widen your group's eyes as to what the genre can mean, and what it can accomplish. Literature by any other name. Political, exciting, human; it's got it all.
posted by smoke at 2:49 AM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

This is my go-to sci-fi book recommendation for non-sci-fi readers. Accessible, entertaining, and well written.

FWIW I consider the SF Masterworks list by Gollancz a decent reference on must read sci-fi classics.
posted by xqwzts at 2:54 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I kinda collect the SF Masterworks, and I'd say The Demolished Man is accessible. It's a police procedural in a world with ESP, and a very 1930s vibe.

The Sirens of Titan is accessible but also has a message worth discussing.
posted by Leon at 3:16 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't classify myself as someone who is in to sci-fi, and I've never even heard of any of the authors mentioned above. However, I liked the following works of classic British alien invasion sci-fi:

* H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
* John Wyndam, The Kraken Wakes (published as Out of the Deeps in the US)

Jules Verne is also a classic author worth reading -- Five Weeks in a Balloon is my favourite.
posted by mattn at 3:20 AM on July 11, 2011

The Dispossessed is a good choice. I came in to recommend The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (seems to be one of my standards). It's well written, strong characters, and it's accessible while also being a really good piece of first contact goes wrong SF.
posted by crocomancer at 3:40 AM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Sparrow is your book.
"A reviewer at the Library Journal felt that this book was mistakenly categorized as science fiction, and that it is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm"." (via. attn: spoilers)
posted by cocoagirl at 3:42 AM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm going to recommend Jules Verne.

He was totally ahead of the curve in a bijillion ways. Also, apparently there is a homosexual subtext to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea that I totally missed as a kid. And a lot of other subtext in terms of psychology and politics. So yeah, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

And I hate to champion another classic, but I've said it here before...

Dune. Dune taught me about politics, government, and religion. Dune fucked me up and rocked my world in ways I could not have predicted.

Way back when, I worked in television news, where an understanding of politics, religion, and government were key. Dune has never been proven wrong.

Also. It taught me, "Fear is the mind-killer."

posted by jbenben at 3:49 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Very Russian in style, but it's the grandfather of the entire utopian/dystopian branch of science-fiction while being a love story at heart.

Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World should be accessible and entertaining (so long as you enjoy postmodernism) and while it has a loosely cyberpunk atmosphere, it's sci-fi-ness is debatable.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut should win out on both ends, it's definitely sci-fi, very accessible and often hilariously entertaining.
posted by Senza Volto at 4:07 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sci -fi is a great choice for a bookclub book.

I think its important to choose a bookclub book though thats not just enjoyable but will generate discussion. We always have our best discussion when some people hate the book and some love it. When everyone has loved the book - it tends to lead to a short meeting.

Although i have no precise recommendation for you (though its hard to go wrong with Ursula LeGuin and perhaps don't go Jules Verne and its just not as exciting (personal opinion)) a great option might be a short story collection of sci-fi. There are some great penguin collections out there and you can get some great discussion.
posted by katelizabeth at 4:09 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a beautiful, dreamlike book. It doesn't rely too much on sci-fi conventions and has enough complexity and ambiguity to drive hours of discussion if that's what your book group is about. I think it qualifies as a classic as well (it's on the list xqwzts linked to, anyway).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:14 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came in here to recommend LeGuin, but I see that she's already been mentioned, so let me just add my name to the chorus.

A book that I see in a surprisingly large number of bookcases belonging to people who rarely if ever read SF is John Brunner's Standing on Zanzibar. It's very good and entertaining.

Another such book is Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, which is wonderful (in a bleak sort of way). It was the basis for Tarkovsky's film Stalker.

If you want to go with a bigger name, a science fiction author people who don't read SF would've heard of, Arthur C. Clarke's masterpiece is Childhood's End.

All of these can be found in the already mentioned SF Masterworks series.
posted by Kattullus at 4:17 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthinhg The Sparrow. It is the book I loan to friends when they are wanting a "gateway" read into SF.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:19 AM on July 11, 2011

The Foundation Series.

Oh my wow.

Isaac Asimov.

posted by Murray M at 4:27 AM on July 11, 2011

I, Robot by Asimov is a great read and a great basis for conversation at a book club.
posted by maxim0512 at 4:51 AM on July 11, 2011

A second for The Sparrow. I'd also consider The Time-Traveller's Wife.
posted by jeather at 4:58 AM on July 11, 2011

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake
Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz
Joe Haldeman's The Forever War
posted by foursentences at 5:04 AM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

I came in to recommend Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke) also. Accessible and a good read. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven is fascinating also.
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:07 AM on July 11, 2011

Some good suggestions so far - The Sparrow is worth a look, and I really like The Time Traveller's Wife. Also consider Stanislaw Lem's Solaris; it's really beautiful, a slender book all about love and loss and memory. That just happens to involve a spaceship.

If you want to go really light on the sci-fi, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is beautiful, sad and manages to be both delicate and menacing in its treatment of the old vs young theme.
posted by Sifter at 5:10 AM on July 11, 2011

On the lighter side, I bet To Say Nothing of the Dog would appeal to a large audience. Sci-fi time travel, and Connie Willis' character interactions are hilarious. I thought Charles Stross' Accelerando was very approachable, but there are some descriptions of sex and gender-bending that might get in the way.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:20 AM on July 11, 2011

The Sparrow is an amazing book. Super-amazing.

Also, I like Margaret Atwood Handmaid's Tale for introducing people to SF. It's a very short, spare, exciting read that also includes many, many ideas to chew on.
posted by lillygog at 5:28 AM on July 11, 2011

(That Wikipedia link contains spoilers if you read the whole thing.)
posted by lillygog at 5:32 AM on July 11, 2011

I came in to recommend The Handmaid's Tale as well, but note that it's "science fiction" in the same sense that 1984 or Brave New World are "science fiction". Atwood's speculative fiction is good, but it does tend to be very bleak.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:51 AM on July 11, 2011

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:08 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

Less accessible, but still an excellent book: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursala K. LeGuinn.
posted by Buffaload at 7:23 AM on July 11, 2011

I would not disagree with anything cited here so far. Gene Wolfe is IMO the most challenging writer in SF…ever. So if you're up for a challenge, choose him.

A couple of other possibilities: at this point, I think we can elevate William Gibson's Neuromancer to the level of SF classic. Anything by Phillip K Dick. Ubik is a fast, hard mindfuck of a read. I think a volume of his short stories might be better though—each one will tend to focus on one particular brain-bender, so as a whole, the volume would be like a Whitman's Sampler of mindfuckerry.
posted by adamrice at 7:25 AM on July 11, 2011

I'm mildly well-read in sci-fi, but had somehow missed Alfred Bester. I'm seconding The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, both already mentioned. They are interesting as they mix in elements of adventure and detective novels, aren't too long (The Foundation is made for long winter nights, in my opinion.), and have enough strange elements that you naturally want to compare notes with someone else who's read them.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:47 AM on July 11, 2011

I recommended "The Fresco" by Sherri S. Tepper for my own bookclub, and it was a great success.
posted by grizzled at 7:48 AM on July 11, 2011

I wonder if one of Ian McDonald's recent books set in future non-US/European countries might also be good choices to consider. In particular I very much enjoyed River of Gods (set in future India) and The Dervish House (set in future Turkey). (While Brazyl (set in future -- and past -- Brasil is also a very good novel, I think it has some alternate worlds / quantum pseudo sci-fi stuff that might be problematic for those not regular sf readers.)

Also, Greg Egan's Zendegi - near future, set in Iran. Excellent book. I also wonder if one of William Gibson's recent trilogy of novels (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History) might be interesting to smart but not-usually-sf readers.
posted by aught at 8:01 AM on July 11, 2011

I recently read for the first time H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy and then John Scalzi's recent reworking of the same story, Fuzzy Nation. The "science" that's fictional here is mostly economic, political, and legal, and it was interesting to see how 50 years changed both the readers' and writer's expectations.
posted by nicwolff at 8:05 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress -- Robert Heinlein
The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells
To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip Jose Farmer
A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
Pavane - Keith Roberts
Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock
The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
Norstrilia - Cordwainer Smith
The Dispossessed - Ursula Leguin
Dragonriders of Pern - Anne McCaffrey
Fury - Henry Kuttner
Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
The Female Man - Joanna Russ
Brave New World -Aldous Huxley
Nova - Samuel R. Delany (or Dhalgren, but that's a much more demanding book)
The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester (this should probably be Number 1 on the list)
The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut

I could go on at great length. You may or may not consider all of these classics, per se, and some may be a bit dated, but they've all been influential in their way. (My tastes tend toward older stuff, as you can see.)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:10 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bester and LeGuin, yes indeed.
And maybe Ray Bradbury.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:35 AM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks folks - query well resolved!

that's a huge list of great sounding recommendations that I will be coming back to, but the one I chose for my book group was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlein (I loved the title!)

posted by mairuzu at 8:39 AM on July 11, 2011

Consider Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, or Fiasco
posted by lathrop at 8:43 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress -- Robert Heinlein

His Have Spacesuit - Will Travel is often suggested as an SF gateway. Myself, I'd suggest Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. And HG Wells, not Jules Verne (the latter less SF, more adventure stories). Plus the Alfred Bester mentioned above. But not The Sparrow, I found that annoying and eventually unreadable.
posted by Rash at 9:03 AM on July 11, 2011

Note The Sparrow may be much more interesting if you're Catholic.
posted by Rash at 9:09 AM on July 11, 2011

I would second the suggestion for a collection of short stories--in my opinion that's where sci-fi really shines. You could go with a collection of award-winners (Hugo or Nebula) or else a famous author (Asimov, Clark, Pohl, LeGuin, or somebody more recent that I'm not familiar with).

Also, it isn't exactly an archetype of sci-fi, but it's hard to go wrong with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

If you're looking for the "wow technology" factor, William Gibson is a good choice too.
posted by ropeladder at 9:12 AM on July 11, 2011

The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge are really neat novels, and fairly short. They're collected with a short story (read it online, but beware potential spoilers) into Across Realtime, which Amazon lists has 560 pages long.

The books largely use the futuristic technology as devices for the political and interpersonal dramas, but the tech is pretty intriguing.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:34 AM on July 11, 2011

Gateway by Frederik Pohl or The High Crusade by Poul Anderson. Gateway is more thoughtful and winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, High Crusade is shorter and more of a ripping adventure.
posted by codswallop at 10:22 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it will affect your choice, but The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is very libertarian, to the point that some world-building elements are hard to believe if you're not of that ideological stripe. That said, Heinlein was a better writer than Ayn Rand (at that stage in his career, he went off the deep end in the late 70s and everything after that is so bad that retroactively makes his earlier stuff worse) and so TMIHM is not by any means a painful read. But it is very ideological. That is not necessarily a criticism. Think of it as an equivalent of a sex-scenes warning: Caution! Contains Gratuitous Ideology.
posted by Kattullus at 10:26 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hate to say this, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a terrible book even by the exceedingly low standards invoked by uttering the dark mantram 'late Heinlein.'
posted by jamjam at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, by the standards of late Heinlein The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a masterpiece, but then so is the back of a shampoo bottle. It's no To Sail Beyond the Sunset, that's for sure. Though in TMIHM you'll find some of the awful, awful tropes that will come to obsess Heinlein in his later years, but unless you've read these later works you probably won't notice (i.e. what I said above about late Heinlein ruining earlier Heinlein).
posted by Kattullus at 11:27 AM on July 11, 2011

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a very idiosynchratic choice and something unlikely to appeal to non-SF fans. Heinlein, particularly this Heinlein, is not the thing one would usually give to people who are not used to reading SF.
posted by Justinian at 12:36 PM on July 11, 2011

Any chance you can narrow the question down a little from "name some good SF?" I don't know where to even begin.
posted by Justinian at 12:39 PM on July 11, 2011

Well, by the standards of late Heinlein The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a masterpiece, but then so is the back of a shampoo bottle.

Though it may also make you want a shower, at least reading a shampoo bottle doesn't leave you feeling like you've been crawling through a sewer.
posted by jamjam at 3:42 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few comments:

1) TMisHM is very ideological, but so are Handmaid's Tale and most of LeGuin's stuff.* In my own very subjective experience, people who don't worry a lot about the pending theocratic takeover of the Moral Majority don't find Handmaid very compelling.

2) I think for a bookclub, you'd probably want a story that works on two levels; it's a ripping good story, but also has deeper themes, symbolism, parallels, etc. Something like Huckleberry Finn.

3) The first suggestion, Ender's Game, is like this.

4) But I would think instead about going with Haldeman's The Forever War. Like Ender's Game, it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is a relatively modern classic. Haldeman was a combat engineer in Vietnam, and his novel is, in some ways, an attempt to capture the absurdities inherent in war.** But he doesn't beat you over the head with it, as does Atwood. And besides, it's just a great, fun story.

* Don't get me wrong; I love LeGuin. But one thing that's always made me laugh: A while back, the Sci-Fi Channel (I think) did a two-part mini-series about her EarthSea series. They utterly butchered it in just about every way possible. Seriously, it was awful. But afterwards, LeGuin's response focused almost entirely on the fact that the producers had cast a white-skinned actor in the lead role, a character whose "brown skin" Leguin had referred to I think maybe once in the whole series. In the scope of the story, this matters nothing -- if there's some racial parable embedded in the EarthSea trilogy, you really need to squint to find it. But to LeGuin, such things matter A LOT.

** In Haldeman's novel, the combatants don't have access to "warp drive" or "wormholes," and are thus subject to the relativistic effects of space travel. Thus, on each return from battle, they find that centuries or even thousands of years have passed back home. Society and the soldiers they sent out are increasingly unable to relate to or understand each other.
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:44 PM on July 11, 2011

Haldeman's book is very good and thought provoking.

Me? I'd choose Ted Chiang's short story collection, "The Story of Your Life and others". 9 years of sci fi book club and it's unanimously considered by my group as our best pick ever. Every story is a gem, accessible, and great for discussion.
posted by purenitrous at 9:08 PM on July 11, 2011

Try Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy. I haven't read alot of Sci Fi, but I really enjoyed this series and it is pretty accesible, but also thought provoking with cool new concepts which is what sci fi should be, right?

A couple people above mentioned Gene Wolfe. I think The Book of the New Sun was devastatingly good, but challenging reading. I really can't rave enough about this series (there are 4.)

I'd also like to go on record, (and please everyone forgive me,) by saying that I thought The Sparrow was awful.
posted by hollyanderbody at 9:42 PM on July 11, 2011

Ideally, sf is challenging and thought-provoking. This tends to mean that few "good" sf books are universally admired, because there are often polarizing concepts in them. Such is the case with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I think it can be enjoyed as an exploration of a possible libertarian culture taking root on the Moon. I don't go with his politics, but for my money, it's a cogent and exciting treatment of some types of political ideas, which most sf is not. As such, it clearly provokes some dissent. I think this is a Good Thing insofar as sf is concerned. It's possible to come away from the book with any one of a number of reactions. *shrug* My dos centavos.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:57 PM on July 13, 2011

I'm very late to the party but I really second Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and recommend you also consider Ian Watson's The Embedding.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:40 PM on July 13, 2011

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