Recent Entry-Level Science Fiction
October 22, 2013 7:30 AM   Subscribe

In search of accessible contemporary SF—help!

I used to read a good mix of science fiction and fantasy, but somewhere along the way, I started gravitating more toward fantasy. Eventually, I started to miss SF, so I picked up anthologies and magazines only to feel in over my head. Others have brought this up too. (Granted, the links are a little old, so I don’t know to what extent SF has become significantly more accessible in the interim.)

Thus, I’m looking for recent (say, 1995 or later) science fiction that doesn’t require a lifetime of familiarity with the genre to appreciate. I already saw the follow-up on Scalzi’s blog, but I’m hoping you can recommend work that fits some of the following specific criteria.

I much prefer social SF, no interest in hard or military.
Ideally passes the Bechdel test and is inclusive/respectful of others beyond straight white males.
Strong characterizations, not just big ideas.
Prose that is better than serviceable.
Adult preferred, YA welcome.
Not Ready Player One.

I’d very much appreciate more than just a title; I'd love to hear why a recommendation would be good for a "new" SF reader.

Some examples of SF I’ve liked (though I admit they don’t all meet the above criteria): Fahrenheit 451, Life as We Knew It, 1984, The Martian Chronicles, Stories of Your Life and Others, the short fiction of Michael Swanwick, Silently and Very Fast, Never Let Me Go, anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, Boneshaker, I Am Legend, Uglies, Slaughter-house Five, The Road, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Harlan Ellison's work, The Sparrow, The Handmaid’s Tale, most H.G. Wells.

posted by xenization to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I really liked Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which just came out. It's fairly social, and the main character speaks a language that doesn't have gender distinctions -- it uses primarily the female forms, but not exclusively (I think she/her/sister but also Sir) -- and it's not particularly about war, though it does talk a lot about expansion and colonialism which involves war to some extent. But I'd say it's more social than anything else.
posted by jeather at 7:42 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

She's been writing for a bit longer than that, but post-'95 includes most of my favorites, and there's a lot of overlap with people who like Le Guin and Handmaid's Tale: Sheri S. Tepper. Explicitly feminist. Sometimes there are bits that are a bit problematic, like there's a lot of hand-waving of homosexuality in The Gate to Women's Country, but looots of strong female characters and social issues and interesting concepts. The science is generally secondary to the utility of using the future to tell stories. The Family Tree and Grass (the latter published 1989) are my favorites, but I like most of her post-2000 writing, too.
posted by Sequence at 7:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

In what way are you "in over your head" when reading contemporary SF? Is it because you'r reading hard science? Is it because you're reading metatextual SF?

I always recommend Nicola Griffeth's novel Ammonite, which I see was published, actually, in 1992 but which I read in 1998, er, so that counts, right? To the casual reader, it's just a great adventure story with women protagonists - your basic "mysterious planet with a secret, corrupt corporation in the background" story. It's also a reworking of a lot of standard SF tropes about planets, colonization, etc. I read it while recovering from minor surgery and it was perfect for that purpose.

If you like dystopian and depressing futures, The Red Rose Rages, Bleeding is a really gripping novel.

I also like the work of Aliette De Bodard - there are a bunch of short stories available on her website.

To my mind, Strange Horizons is a great source of reviews and ideas.

If I may suggest something a bit older, I suspect that you might enjoy Marge Piercy's novel He She And It.
posted by Frowner at 7:47 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kage Baker's Company series is an amazing, huge, sprawling set of stories that is largely "narrated" by characters who don't understand the science either.
posted by Etrigan at 8:02 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, if I could make a suggestion about maximizing your SFnal enjoyment: google around a bit for "New Wave science fiction" - most of the people you've enjoyed are basically post-New Wave writers and you would probably find a LOT of stuff you'd enjoy. A good starting point (even though it is by no means only New Wave SF) is the Norton Book of Science Fiction, which was edited by Ursula Le Guin. It starts out with stories from the fifties and moves forward into the nineties, basically hitting the Le Guin-approved high points. It was a hugely controversial anthology precisely because it prizes form, characterization and experimentation over hard science. Reading it was a giant turning point in my reading of SF - I found a lot of authors I'd never heard of and totally got a bunch of SF periodization stuff I hadn't understood before. It's not perfect (for instance, honestly Ursula, Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently" is just a fucking racist, Orientalist story that should only appear in the Anthology Of Terrible Stories About The Middle East) but it's very useful.

I would actually also recommend Nisi Shawl's short stories in Filter House. I'm not totally sure what difficulties you are encountering with reading contemporary SF - Shawl is an interesting writer who is thinking about a bunch of SF tropes, so in a sense she's not as basic a writer as...I dunno, as someone who is not really interested in SF ideas except structurally, like Cormac I guess in a way she's a less approachable writer, but I think her stories are pretty easy to get into, especially "Good Boy", "Maggies" and "The Water Museum".
posted by Frowner at 8:02 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie might meet your criteria. It's new space opera told from the point of view of someone who can't distinguish gender, so everyone is 'she.' Ethnicities don't clearly map to Earth's, but certainly not everyone is white. The writing is excellent, and personally, I thought the characterizations were strong but understated (again, the POV character has a limiting issue, so you have to infer some things about others). I doubt someone absolutely new to SF would get it, but for someone with the list of likes you gave, I'd recommend it as strong contemporary standalone implicitly-hard SF that gives you a lot of non-science things to think about--unusual matters of perspective, at a minimum. For people who do know contemporary SF, I'd just say it's otherwise pretty similar to a Culture novel (hooray!).

On preview, I guess I'm just seconding jeather!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:05 AM on October 22, 2013

Proceed with haste to Bridesicle (PDF), a short story by Will McIntosh.

The full-length novel version, Love Minus Eighty, is only so-so, but the short story will blow your socks off.

I thought Ready Player One was dreadful too, high five
posted by trunk muffins at 8:24 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, in my corner of the world, the SF novel that has been causing the most excitement this year is Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie, which ticks all your boxes.

From last year, I'd recommend Dark Eden by Chris Beckett and Vn by Madeline Ashby. Both are coming of age narratives without being YA and deal with core tropes (colonisation and androids, respectively) in accessible but interesting ways.
posted by ninebelow at 8:35 AM on October 22, 2013

Some examples of SF I’ve liked (though I admit they don’t all meet the above criteria): Fahrenheit 451, Life as We Knew It, 1984, The Martian Chronicles, Stories of Your Life and Others, the short fiction of Michael Swanwick, Silently and Very Fast, Never Let Me Go, anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, Boneshaker, I Am Legend, Uglies, Slaughter-house Five, The Road, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Harlan Ellison's work, The Sparrow, The Handmaid’s Tale, most H.G. Wells.

The most obvious thing missing from that list is Gene Wolfe.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:36 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I see Nicola Griffith has already been recommended above, but I'd like to put in a word for her book Slow River. It's a sci-fi noir with queer female protagonists and really interesting ecological themes in a near-future world.

Have you read Margaret Atwood's latest trilogy? The books are Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. The books are about an apocalypse-in-progress, and as you'd expect from Margaret Atwood, they feature well-written male and female characters and feminist themes.

If you haven't seen it already, Ursula K. LeGuin recently published a two-volume collection of short stories. The first volume, The Unreal and the Real: Where on Earth, is more realistic and less sci-fi-ey. The second volume, The Unreal and the Real: Outer Space, Inner Lands, is more sci-fi and speculative. Both are excellent, and it's really interesting to see the connections between the two sets of stories. There are also many great stories in there that I've never seen anywhere else.

Speaking of short stories ... I really enjoyed Jagannath, by Karin Tidbeck. It's a collection of fascinating, strange little stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and sci-fi, and feature an interesting variety of characters.

Have you checked out China Mieville yet? His stories have some sci-fi and some fantasy in them as well. His New Crobuzon novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) are great adventure stories set in a totally engaging world. The prose can be a bit purple at times and they tilt a bit more towards fantasy, but boy are they fun. The City and The City and Embassytown are stand-alone novels, slightly more tilted towards sci-fi, and with a rather more restrained prose style. All of his work is politically engaged and includes many characters who aren't straight white men (you know, like cactus people and insect women and weird steam-boiler-powered criminals).
posted by ourobouros at 8:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a quick heads up, Perdido Street Station whilst having a diverse set of characters is still quite upsetting if you're not fond of the female characters getting treated horribly trope.
posted by Ness at 9:09 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Gardner Dozois has edited "The Year's Best Science Fiction," an anthology of short stories, for the past 30 years. You can probably find them in any large book store that sells used books. Powell's for example. This anthology spans the genre, no Horror, and features the whole stable of writers. You can't beat this series for a fascinating look at the evolution of the genre over the decades.

I collected the whole series until a couple of years ago, when I had to make room--stupidly sold them back to Powell's. I shudda converted a garage wall into a bookshelf instead.
posted by mule98J at 9:20 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anthologies are my answer too.

The Dozois "Year's Best" are a great way to dip your feet in and to see a wide variety of the field. He typically includes the award winners. He also writes an essay as an introdution which summarizes the activity in the field, notable events, winning novels, etc...

The James Triptree Award Anthologies (2005, 2006, 2007) may suit you well, given your interests in social and progressive issues. They're experimental and well-chosen selections of older and newer stories, as well as some non-ficiton.

The annual Writers of the Future series is a great look at up and coming writers. These can be uneven---you never know what you're going to get. There are always a few stories however that make the whole volume worth while. They're currently up to volume 29.
posted by bonehead at 9:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've tried to give you a mix of stuff that I've read in the last 20 or so years that I think fits the bill...

Beggars in Spain (1991) by Nancy Kress ~ Genetic modfications allow a group of people to become "sleepless"; Nancy's writing is always very accessible; Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novel Finalist

Steel Beach (1992) by John Varley ~ Opening Line: "In five years, the penis will be obsolete"; Hugo Award for Best Novel Finalist

The Diamond Age (1995) by Neal Stephenson ~ From Wikipedia: "coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence."; Hugo Award for Best Novel Winner and Nebula Award for Best Novel Finalist

Bellwether (1996) by Connie Willis ~ Main character works in a technology company where is she is trying to figure out what predicts fads; Somewhat slight book for Connie Willis compared to her Award-winning time travel books but a really good jumping off point for her; Nebula Award for Best Novel Finalist

Calculating God (2000) by Robert J. Sawyer ~ Aliens are people, too. From Wikipedia: "It takes place in the present day and describes the arrival on Earth of sentient aliens. The bulk of the novel covers the many discussions and arguments on this topic, as well as about the nature of belief, religion, and science."; This book affected me on a lot of levels; Hugo Award for Best Novel Finalist

Hominids (2002) by Robert J. Sawyer ~ Neandethals are people, too. Makes a strong argument for the seemingly inescapable things that we see as "human nature" don't have to be; If you really like it there are two more books in the series. Hugo Award for Best Novel Winner

The Speed of Dark (2003) by Elizabeth Moon ~ Near future, main character is a HFA (high functioning autistic) who works as an analyst at a company where he is encouraged to undergo a "helpful" process for his Autism; Told in 1st person; Moon's son is autistic so I really felt like I was getting a true insight into how the Autistic mind would/could work; Nebula Award for Best Novel Winner

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003) by Matt Ruff ~ Main character has multiple personality disorder. He romances a fellow Multiple and tries to make his way in the world. Awesome insights into the condition.

Horizons (2006) by Mary Rosenblum ~ Blurb: "Ahni is a class 9 empath with advanced biogenetic augmentations, she has complete mental and physical control of her body, and can read other people's intentions before they can even think them." She gets caught up in a struggle between an orbital platform wanting to be self-governing and separate from Earth. Rosenblum was one of my pleasant discoveries of the last 10 years.

Shelter (2007) by Susan Palwick ~ Near future, cool subtle SF premises, great writing. Awesome characterization. Self-contained story. If you've never read any SF you'd still find this interesting. All about the sociology, the ecology, the psychology of small SF-type changes on the characters.

Bad Monkeys (2007) by Matt Ruff ~ Even though this book is an homage to a famous SF writer if you haven't read anything by the writer that's OK. I had only read one of his books and still enjoyed the heck out of this book. Blurb: "Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder. She tells police that she is a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil; her division is called the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—"Bad Monkeys" for short." Matt Ruff is one of my favorite authors.

Marsbound (2009) by by Joe Haldeman ~ Teen goes to Mars with her family. Discovers real, and quite alien, Martians and no one believes her. Joe H is a great writer and this book is no exception.

Metatropolis (2009) by John Scalzi, Editor - Stories by Elizabeth Bear, Tobias S. Buckell, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder ~ Great writing and fascinating ideas. No major assumptions about scientific knowledge and lots of plausible stuff about near future cities. Scalzi's piece is sort of played for laughs (not necessarily a bad thing) but the other entries are really strong.

Feed (2010) by Mira Grant ~ Even though this is a technically zombie it *is* more about the politics and sociology as the humans try to maintain society; It's great fun spending time in Georgia Mason's noggin; Hugo Award for Best Novel Finalist

vN (2012) by Madeline Ashby ~ Near Future, Von Neumann Machines, After The Revolt; The science is a little hand wavey but I'm sure very feasible. The main thrust of the book has more do with the way the vN exist with the humans and less about the Science of it all. Incredible writing with a lot of mind-blowing, practical, future-think.

Arctic Rising (2012) by Tobias S. Buckell ~ Near-Future, Global Warming Aftermath, Technothriller; "Anika Duncan is an airship pilot for the underfunded United Nations Polar Guard."; All very plausible science and nothing within which implies previous SF experience

The Rook (2012) by Daniel O'Malley ~ Even though (I guess) this could be classified as fantasy the female protagonist is so clever and engaging and the story is told in such an interesting and exciting manner that I couldn't not mention it. RIYL: Charles Stross' Laundry books
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:56 AM on October 22, 2013 [12 favorites]

The Sparrow and Children of God, by Maria Doria Russell

Fantastic writing and kick ass story
posted by BlueHorse at 1:16 PM on October 22, 2013

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Hugh Howey's remarkable Wool series. The self-publishing back story is also notable.
posted by cedar at 2:30 PM on October 22, 2013

I am also a once F/SF reader who has slid way too far to the F side, so I empathize. Somebody brought up Connie Willis above, and I will very enthusiastically second everything she has ever written but most especially Doomsday Book, which is wrenching but fantastic. However, it isn't super science fictiony. For that, try Pat Murphy, in particular There and Back Again, which is the most science fictiony science fiction that I'd read in years. And, if you haven't encountered him yet, let me leap in and be the first person to bring up Iain M. Banks Culture books, a metafilter favorite (ROU Xenophobe is clearly slipping; he of all people should not forget to mention them but that's okay because I get to be the first one to say Iain M. Banks! That never happens!) I love China Mieville myself but he is not everyone's cup of tea - a friend said recently and I do see his point: "I like some story with my dialectical Marxist indoctrination." Still, if you're surveying modern / postmodern SF you should read Perdido Street Station.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:11 PM on October 22, 2013

To continue, I will also recommend with a few more caveats Ian McDonald; I very much liked The Dervish House in particular, but the couple others of his that I have read were more problematic. Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl has gotten a lot of interest and I am glad I read it, but it is far from passing the Bechdel test. And, in gritty noir SF, I like Richard K. Morgan's books Altered Carbon and Thirteen as well but they are pretty damn violent.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:19 PM on October 22, 2013

And and and! (I will shut up now, I promise) if you liked the Handmaid's Tale than yes, you should most definitely read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. I like Year of the Flood much better myself but although they are more or less stand alones, you should probably read Oryx and Crake first.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:23 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would certainly also recommend Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswomen novels, which are SF dressed as Fantasy. Strong characterizations, lots of women, great world-building, but the sciences being fictionalized are mostly social and biological (and possibly political). There are four novels, mostly self-contained, and it has been FAR TOO LONG since the last one was published.

(I really need to get my hands on the Leckie: everyone I know who's read it is very happy about it...)
posted by suelac at 10:34 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might try Octavia Butler. Her work often consists of fantasy elements in a real-world setting. She's also done some really interesting fiction set in the future (often the near future) incorporating sci-fi elements, but focusing much more on the sociological side of things. Definitely fulfills all of your Bechdel needs, too.

Kindred falls into that first category I mentioned. Butler called it a "grim fantasy." There's a time travel framework which sets up a pretty harrowing account of slavery in the antebellum south. (Other works in this first category include Fledgling and Wild Seed.)

Parable of the Sower and its sequel, Parable of the Talents, fall into the second category. Not "post-apocalypse" so much as "post-collapse of society." Very dark, but compelling reads. (I'd put Clay's Ark in this second category as well.)
posted by duffell at 10:37 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ted Chiang (Story Of Your Life)

I would describe his stuff as sci-fi light; he's not creating new worlds or anthologies but instead taking an idea and growing it through a story. In this way he reminds me of classic sci-fi writers but without the sci-fi call backs that you're concerned about.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:41 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

More Connie Willis: this time "To Say Nothing of The Dog."

Also: Barry Longyear, "The Enemy Papers." This one is a collection that includes his "Enemy Mine," story, plus stuff that he would have put in it if he'd not wanted to put together this particular anthology. Good Science Fiction with heavy social overtones, that somehow didn't beat you over the head with the subtext.
posted by mule98J at 11:51 AM on October 23, 2013

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