Scifi: is it worth a cat's pockets?
March 4, 2008 5:57 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend's mother and I have a real intellectual rapport, in some ways. Recently we've been talking about literature. She's extraordinarily widely read, but only really within the canon. I've been fronting, claiming that genre fiction like sci-fi has plenty of stuff of genuine literary merit in it. She's called my bluff and asked for a recommendation. What would you suggest? I was thinking something strange and ornate like Cordwainer Smith, but am open to advice.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Media & Arts (74 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

"Dune", by Frank Herbert. Just don't tell her about any of the other books in the series. ;)
posted by DWRoelands at 6:05 AM on March 4, 2008

The problem is that a lot of really good sci-fi does indeed get canonized as non-genre lit. Have the two of you talked about stuff like The Road or Infinite Jest or The Handmaid's Tale?

Bester doesn't get a lot of play, though, and I think he's pretty phenomenal if you're down with some pulp. I like The Stars My Destination more than The Demolished Man, but then, I like revenge dramas more than police procedurals.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:06 AM on March 4, 2008

On the literary front, the natural callout is for Philip K Dick. He may not be the best choice however, because some of his writing is distinctly average. Good ideas, bad text. The more literary of his canon would be "The Man in the High Castle" and "A Scanner Darkly".

Steering away from the techno-fetishism and cowboys-in-space that compose so much of modern SF, another choice would be Christopher Priest, with "The Prestige" and "The Glamour". James Morrow is also worthy, with "Towing Jehovah", "Bible Stories for Adults" and "Only Begotten Daughter".
posted by outlier at 6:12 AM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I absolutely adored The Stars My Destination, but was afraid it was a bit too much of a wacky space adventure. It's short, if nothing else.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:15 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not exactly widely read so I can't really speak to its literary merit but I found Eon by Greg Bear to be a fantastic book.
posted by missmagenta at 6:18 AM on March 4, 2008

What about Perdito Street Station by China Mieville?
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:24 AM on March 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding "The Stars My Destination", "The Man in the High Castle", and "A Scanner Darkly", and I would add "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?". If I had to pick one, I'd pick "Do Androids Dream...".
posted by equalpants at 6:26 AM on March 4, 2008

I could be your gf's mother.

I've always been snobbish towards sci-fi until my husband recommended me Stanislaw Lem's Solaris some months ago which became one of my favorite books. Then again, that didn't really trigger a wish to read more sci-fi, just more Lem. Or else, it's not a whole genre that suddenly became fascinating - I still don't find the themes and general aestehtics personally interesting - but the language, imagination and ideas of one writer. So, if you're looking into proving literary merit rather than getting her addicted to the genre, I'd personally recommend that particular book. Now, when I bash sci-fi, I always add "except for Lem, that is".
posted by lucia__is__dada at 6:30 AM on March 4, 2008

Perdido is nicely written but it's basically just an entertaining adventure / location novel, I think. I did like the bugwoman scenes!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:31 AM on March 4, 2008

Yeah, go with Solaris. I enjoyed Dune as a kid, but in retrospect it's a bit of a silly power fantasy. *cough*Like Ender's Game.*cough*
posted by 1 at 6:35 AM on March 4, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness.
posted by drezdn at 6:36 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

For pure prose beauty, you could do far worse than Neuromancer by William Gibson.

If she likes historical fiction at all, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a great read. It's sci-fi in the loose spaceships, but plenty of science.
posted by griffey at 6:37 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it would be a blind alley to try recommending more 'literary' SF - just recommend the best.

That said, I second 'Left Hand of Darkness"
posted by Phanx at 6:39 AM on March 4, 2008

Thirding LeGuin, and Darkness in particular.
posted by rokusan at 6:44 AM on March 4, 2008

The best of any genre get absorbed into the canon. My favorite books growing up were L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time series, which are definitely a type of science fiction. My local library categorized Bradbury and Heinlein and HG Wells in the 'classics' section. Novels set in a dystopia are usually a type of science fiction, but I don't think that anyone would argue that Orwell's 1984 isn't great literature. Frankenstein is science fiction.
posted by desuetude at 6:50 AM on March 4, 2008

That list martinrebas linked to.... I'd remove the following items:

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Case of Conscience by James Blish
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
Incarnations of Immortality (series) by Piers Anthony
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Good books they may be, but great literature they ain't. Maybe a few other people can go through and strip out some of the things they've read that don't quite match up with your question. I suspect you may end up settling on The Time Traveler's Wife, but I haven't read it myself.
posted by Leon at 6:53 AM on March 4, 2008

Gene Wolfe, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany. Tim Powers, James Morrow. Octavia Butler.

For lighter stuff, the wonderful and criminally underappreciated Connie Willis.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:53 AM on March 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

The problem is that a lot of really good sci-fi does indeed get canonized as non-genre lit. Have the two of you talked about stuff like The Road or Infinite Jest or The Handmaid's Tale?

How about Slaughterhouse-Five? Fahrenheit 451? Brave New World? Hell, how about Frankenstein or Gulliver's Travels?

Part of the issue here is that sci-fi books that 'work' as literature tend to get reclassified out of the genre. That reclassification is rigging the debate against you. Challenge it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:58 AM on March 4, 2008 [6 favorites]

Nthing that there are problems in defining science fiction and that many sci fi books are regarded as literary classics. Your gf's mother may have read more sci fi than she realizes. Adding to desuetude's suggestion of 1984 and Frankenstein, there's also Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five.
posted by kitkatcathy at 7:02 AM on March 4, 2008

If I had to pick three, I'd say Stranger in a Strange Land by Huxley, Frankenstein by Shelley and Neuromancer by Gibson. Especially if we're evaluating literature by the impact it has had on society, there probably isn't a piece of fiction in the last century that has changed the world as much as Neuromancer.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:06 AM on March 4, 2008

Vonnegut? I like lit, and generally don't like sci-fi, but boy, do I like Vonnegut.
posted by Rykey at 7:06 AM on March 4, 2008

Haha, yes, fuck Terry Pratchett. I suppose if nothing else this question can sort of whittle down the last one into the shining necessary gems. Gene Wolfe is probably my favourite author ever but it's a tall ask for someone to just plunge into The Book of the New Sun. LeGuin is my front runner for now, I think, though her prose IS sometimes a little tedious...
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 7:09 AM on March 4, 2008

Most of the things I would consider to be on the literary side have already been listed here or in the linked threads. But for a modern writer who uses futuristic technology and fantastic settings as a sort of foil to examine human nature I would give a thumbs up to Chasm City or Century Rain by Alistair Reynolds.
posted by XMLicious at 7:13 AM on March 4, 2008

Engine Summer by John Crowley. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe.

And there's even a bit of doggerel about the reclassification problem:
"SF's no good!" they bellow till we're deaf.
"But this looks good." -- "Well, then, it's not SF."

(apparently by Robert Conquest)
posted by crocomancer at 7:14 AM on March 4, 2008

Fifth Head is a good choice, she's totally into postcolonial stuff.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 7:19 AM on March 4, 2008

H. G. Wells. I'm thinking in particular of The Invisible Man. And Jules Verne.
posted by bricoleur at 7:28 AM on March 4, 2008

I think this question, which pops up every few months here, merits a bit more thought than the common response, "X [often Dune or some Heinlein or Niven title] is a classic of the genre, make her read that."

Author and critic Samuel Delany has written a lot on what the difference -- in style and construction, not just the "rockets and spaceships" technophilia content angle -- between mainstream and science fiction, even when the latter is well-written. A lot of sf is written assuming that the reader is going to do a bit of mental work to figure out the technological or futuristic or otherwise fantastic setting -- and regardless of how well the prose is fashioned, or how finely the characters are drawn, some people are not going to be able to follow Dune, The Book of the New Sun, The Left Hand of Darkness, or Nova. They are not used to that kind of work, and not interested in it.

Perhaps your gf's mother would benefit by being exposed to some slipstream lit first? I am thinking stuff like Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, Geoff Ryman's Was, various wonderful Christopher Priest novels (The Separation and The Presige for example), the David Mitchell mentioned by others (I like Ghostwritten, too), Steve Erickson's (not Stephen Erikson, who is a standard fantasy author) Arc d'X, even some Corahessan Boyle, Don Delillo, and Peter Carey is simultaneously literary with a sf/fantasy feel. On preview, I see mentions of John Crowley and Tim Powers, which are both good ideas. Possibly Paul Park's new Princess of Roumania series too, though that has a Young Adult vibe to it sometimes (despite decidedly adult themes) that might put some off.

Bear in mind of course that some people just do not "get" or like sf, no matter how smart, interested in the future of the real world, or otherwise hip and cool they might be. So don't take it personally if that's the case with your gf's mother.
posted by aught at 7:32 AM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

If she is the type of snob i am picking her as, then surely she would enjoy Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale'
posted by TheOtherGuy at 7:33 AM on March 4, 2008

I've always been snobbish towards sci-fi until my husband recommended me Stanislaw Lem's Solaris some months ago which became one of my favorite books.

Lucia's recommendation is really interesting to me, because I didn't like Solaris. It struck me as falling into the trap that plagues a lot of sci-fi: amazingly cool ideas coupled with flat, uninteresting characters who seem more like puppets to a plot than fully-realized personalities. But since she's another person who's not really that into sci-fi, maybe you should listen to her over me here?

One of the recommendations in that big long list is Cloud Atlas, which I loved -- it's five stories, each written in a different style, ranging from 19th-century letters from a seafarer to an interview in post-apocalytpic Korea to an oral history in post-post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Of course, because it's really good, most bookstores will have it under "Fiction," opting to save their "Science Fiction" sections for three shelves full of The Legend of Laser Dragon, Book IV: A Laser Dragon Too Far.

Part of the issue here is that sci-fi books that 'work' as literature tend to get reclassified out of the genre. That reclassification is rigging the debate against you. Challenge it.

Yeah yeah yeah. Challenge that.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:37 AM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Dammit, Vonnegut was a great suggestion that I should have thought of. :)
posted by rokusan at 7:40 AM on March 4, 2008

Here's a recent article on 20 important SF books that might be useful.

Also, my wife is writing her dissertation on postcolonial speculative fiction by women of color in the Americas. She would recommend Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Octavia Butler for someone into poco stuff. Feel free to email me for more suggestions.
posted by billtron at 7:40 AM on March 4, 2008

But for a modern writer who uses futuristic technology and fantastic settings as a sort of foil to examine human nature I would give a thumbs up to Chasm City or Century Rain by Alistair Reynolds.

Cardboard characters eternally recycled.

Post-colonial? Ian McDonald's Hearts Hands and Voices. Very good writing, Northern Ireland translated into a distant, post-biotech-revolution future. Centred around a young, mute, powerless, female refugee, rather than the traditional Superhero With A Big Gun.

I think this question, which pops up every few months here, merits a bit more thought than the common response, "X [often Dune or some Heinlein or Niven title] is a classic of the genre, make her read that."

That's why I think we'd be better off giving reasons to throw some of these suggestions away - the OP must already have more recommendations than he knows what to do with. "Alistair Reynolds' ability to write characters is only one step above Asimov's" is a bit more useful, IMO. Plus it's more fun.
posted by Leon at 7:53 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bradbury's Dandelion Wine might be a gentle push in the right direction or Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Although not a novel, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination could be an interesting way to encourage her to read some of Le Guin's novels.

I see someone has suggested The Handmaid's Tale: A Novel already. Atwoods's Oryx and Crake may be a little harsh for her introduction to SciFi, but I would recommend it if you think she can take it.
posted by treeshap at 8:06 AM on March 4, 2008

An excellent, "literary" but enjoyable place to start would be Nobel Prize winner Italo Calvino's brief short story collection Cosmicomics. It's a marvelously written, very funny and touching group of tales about strange characters at various points in the evolution of the universe. Each story starts with a brief quote about gravity, evolution, dinosaurs, etc, which becomes a jump-off for the story, as in "All at One Point," a tale about how crowded things were before a generous neighborhood woman wished for a little room to make noodles:

Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies' velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe's matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.

Naturally, we were all there, --old Qfwfq said,--where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

...In fact, we didn't even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn't exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr. Pbert Pberd underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.

Calvino's work is full of things like that. It qualifies as "magic realism," the fancypants name for fantasy/scifi that literary snobs want to distinguish from dreary genre lit, and is a great place for a smart non-scifi fan to start. Gabriel Garcia Marquez' short stories would work as an entry into more fantastic fiction as well.
posted by mediareport at 8:15 AM on March 4, 2008

Give The Curse of Chalion a try; if she appreciates Austen or Hugo, I don't see how that can miss.
posted by jamjam at 8:23 AM on March 4, 2008

Leon's mention of Ian McDonald reminds me that McDonald's two recent novels, River of Gods and Brasyl, might also fit the bill. With the same caveat I gave before that some people might not like sf no matter how well it's written, etc.
posted by aught at 8:26 AM on March 4, 2008

Also, in general I'd avoid advice for old classics like Dune and instead start searching for more modern scifi/fantasy books that have been favorably reviewed in places like the Washington Post and NYTimes - like, off the top of my head, Sean Stewart's Mockingbird. You'll have a much higher success rate, I think.
posted by mediareport at 8:26 AM on March 4, 2008

Cardboard characters eternally recycled.

I don't like much of his other work but I'd be impressed if you could identify two characters between those books that are the same. The protagonist in each is certainly not a "Superhero With A Big Gun".

But Ian McDonald is definitely super-duper multicultural and stuff, if that's what you're pointing out.
posted by XMLicious at 8:27 AM on March 4, 2008

James Tiptree, Jr.

And seriously, I'm the first one to mention her? You lose, Metafilter, you lose badly. And for fuck's sake, not Terry Pratchett. Come on.
posted by enn at 8:31 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Almost anything by Stanlslaw Lem -- not just Solaris as mentioned above, but His Master's Voice and The Cyberiad. The styles vary impressively and he can be really funny when he wants to be.

For thrillers, you could do far far worse that Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, a terrifying and really well-written book. Silence of the Lambs works well, too. But not Hanninbal, for godsake.

Dashiel Hammet, maybe, for noir mysteries?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:32 AM on March 4, 2008

Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban.
posted by bokane at 8:35 AM on March 4, 2008

Apologies to people who are recommending it, but if your girlfriend's mom is a prose fanatic, then LeGuin is a terrible idea, because her writing can be cringe-worthy (and I'm thinking in particular of Left Hand of Darkness). How about something by Octavia Butler? I loved Kindred particularly, although the Lilith's Brood trilogy is also interesting.

Lem is a fascinating writer; and Margaret Atwood as well, although I'd recommend The Blind Assassin over Handmaid's Tale in terms of literary merit (as opposed to cultural impact -- and there's a potentially interesting but separate discussion to be had about that distinction).
posted by obliquicity at 8:36 AM on March 4, 2008

The problem is that a lot of really good sci-fi does indeed get canonized as non-genre lit.

That's a really good point. Take Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. It's a SF novel, and a very good one, but I remember reading an interview with Russell where her publisher specifically decided to release the book under their Lit label, not their SF one, and as a result the book probably got much wider readership and more respect than it would've if stuck in the genre pigeonhole.

So that book is my recommendation. But I bet your girlfriend's mother will see it as Real Lit, not SF. Because if it is SF than it cannot have genuine literary merit.
posted by 6550 at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may want to establish and agree on your terms. What constitutes the SciFi genre? What constitutes the Western Canon? Because if the former is a "genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology," then there's a few big chunks of the Canon that fit the bill.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2008

I agree with those saying that you need to fight to have the genre defined, and point out that there are works of The Canon which are SF ... but I would recommend Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's pomo sci-fi!
posted by bettafish at 8:50 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

i was looking through that list of sci-fi books for the uninitiated and spotted these:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

which are all books i *really* enjoyed reading recently, and all of which very much inhabit the space between science fiction and literature. and fwiw, all of which have been seconded and thirded as exceptionally excellent books on another (non-literary) forum i subscribe to, by people who's opinions i respect.

btw that list looks great, but you cant really give your gf's mom a list of 800 books to read.

some all-time classics of the genre might also be in order if it turns out she likes the above: dune, stranger in a strange land by heinlein, the martian chronicles by ray bradbury etc etc
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:51 AM on March 4, 2008

I think both you and your gf's mom should read "The Albertine Notes," by Rick Moody. It's a novella, originally published in one of McSweeney's genre anthologies (Thrilling Tales, which is also worth checking out just for Michael Chabon's rousing defense of genre fiction in the intro). The story has also just been re-released in Moody's newest book, Right Livelihoods. It's scifi, literary (Proustian, even), and incredibly beautiful. It's one of my favorite short stories of all time.
posted by ourobouros at 9:10 AM on March 4, 2008

I have to nth Cloud Atlas. It's one of the best novels I've read in years.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:11 AM on March 4, 2008

Yeah, Solaris is astonishingly brilliant although a little cold. The poster above was right when he suggested Do Androids Dream as a good introduction to the philosophical side of Philip Dick--there are classic literary in there about the inhumanity of man to man, and how much more English major can you get? For real literary value, what about James Blish's Spock Must Die? (I'm joking of course.)
posted by johngoren at 9:12 AM on March 4, 2008

I came in to recommend Lem. I see people are recommending Solaris; I would also recommend The Cyberiad which is one of my favorite books of any genre, and I think warmer and more accessible than Solaris.
posted by jacobm at 9:19 AM on March 4, 2008

Specifically thinking about language rather than ideas...

Nthing Vonnegut, SlaughterHouse 5, Sirens of Titan, and Breakfast of Champions, although he always has an out in that he uses SF as metaphor.

Lem does both wild, adventurous journeys into wierdness and linguistic novelty like Futurological Congress or Memoirs found in a Bathtub, where you truly feel for his translator, or musings on a theme where not much really happens, like Fiasco or Solaris (but it happens very deeply). He also reviews imaginary books for fun.

A canticle for Leibowitz, By Walter Miller

Deathbird Stories, by Ellison (or even Dangerous Vision edited by him - it's all very sixties though).

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Martian Chronicles (very approachable and affecting style)

Mary Russell’s The Sparrow (on preview, seconded)

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon

Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (avoid the sequel!!!)

Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human and Venus plus X

A personal favourite; David Zindell — Neverness and the following trilogy A Requiem for Homo Sapiens (though his stylistic conceits may annoy, I ate these up).

Iain Banks - Use of Weapons

Zelazny - Lord of Light - Doors of his Face, Lamps of his Mouth (SF as myth)

Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr - practically anything (doubleplus feminist, too)

M. John Harrison's Light (for the first 50 pages it's purely a realist literary novel)

Little, Big by John Crowley (more fantasy, but achingly literate)

Octavia Butler's Mind of My Mind

Jorge Luis Borges sneaks in under the radar, too.
posted by Sparx at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2008

The Sparrow is not good. It is terrible. It gets off to a promising start but alas, turns out to be made almost entirely of puerile Mary-Sueism alternating with a torturously slow build up to an utter anticlimax. Weak tea. Do not recommend.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:43 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick.

I think he has a lot of great writing and characterization and used pulp as a vehicle. Some people don't like that.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:18 AM on March 4, 2008

Anything by:
Kurt Vonnegut
Octavia Butler
Samuel Delany
Gene Wolf
Ursula K. Leguin

Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
posted by anansi at 11:22 AM on March 4, 2008

The Carpetmakers by Eschbach
posted by Rubbstone at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Iain M. Banks. Note he writes non-SF as "Iain Banks", so he may be a better crossover author if she likes the style of the non-SF novels.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 3:03 PM on March 4, 2008

Please, no Heinlein. Especially since his female characters are randy barbie dolls or uptight prudes, entirely interchangeable and devoid of any actual character. I like Iain M. Banks: Look to Windward is a fairly gentle book of his (relatively speaking), and he's quite a good writer, although sometimes his endings are a bit rushed. Lem is good, depending on the translator, I agree with the suggestion of The Cyberiad. I also like Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis. I was raised completely irreligiously, so any correlation to Chrisitan mythos was completely lost on me. Characters are somewhat stereotypical but his descriptions of the otherworldly flora and fauna are enchanting, and the story is gripping in an old fashioned sort of way. It's good scifi to read outside in gardens, if that makes any freaking sense at all.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:07 PM on March 4, 2008

I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time
travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling
exactly like that one has upon a switchback--of a helpless headlong
motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent
smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed
the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air.
I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too
fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that
ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of
darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the
intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her
quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling
stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the
palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness;
the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous
color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak
of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating
band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a
brighter circle flickering in the blue.

-- "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells (see also "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and "The War of the Worlds")

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk - that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

-- "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster

Winston had finished his bread and cheese. He turned a little sideways in his chair to drink his mug of coffee. At the table on his left the man with the strident voice was still talking remorselessly away. A young woman who was perhaps his secretary, and who was sitting with her back to Winston, was listening to him and seemed to be eagerly agreeing with everything that he said. From time to time Winston caught some such remark as 'I think you're so right, I do so agree with you', uttered in a youthful and rather silly feminine voice. But the other voice never stopped for an instant, even when the girl was speaking. Winston knew the man by sight, though he knew no more about him than that he held some important post in the Fiction Department. He was a man of about thirty, with a muscular throat and a large, mobile mouth. His head was thrown back a little, and because of the angle at which he was sitting, his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. What was slightly horrible, was that from the stream of sound that poured out of his mouth it was almost impossible to distinguish a single word. Just once Winston caught a phrase -'complete and final elimination of Goldsteinism'- jerked out very rapidly and, as it seemed, all in one piece, like a line of type cast solid. For the rest it was just a noise, a quack-quack-quacking. And yet, though you could not actually hear what the man was saying, you could not be in any doubt about its general nature. He might be denouncing Goldstein and demanding sterner measures against thought-criminals and saboteurs, he might be fulminating against the atrocities of the Eurasian army, he might be praising Big Brother or the heroes on the Malabar front -- it made no difference. Whatever it was, you could be certain that every word of it was pure orthodoxy, pure Ingsoc. As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man's brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

-- "1984" by George Orwell

More sci-fi/fantasy for the non sci-fi lover (though I'd put these more on the level of good middle-brow fiction than canonized classics):

"Watership Down" by Richard Adams
"A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter Miller, Jr.
"This Perfect Day" by Ira Levin
"The Handmaid's Tale" and "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood
"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke
"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro
"Children of Men" by P.D. James

I do think your gf's mother has a point. There are a few notable exceptions, but in general, there's not much great literary sci-fi. The average middlebrow reader, who enjoys books by people like Stephen King, P.D. James and Anne Tyler, will be able to find plenty of well-written sci-fi. Books by people who know how to use language and craft interesting characters.

But sci-fi has yet to produce many of its own Jane Austins or F. Scott Fitzgeralds. It hasn't even produced all that many P.G. Wodehouses or Dashell Hammets.
posted by grumblebee at 3:11 PM on March 4, 2008

I do think your gf's mother has a point. There are a few notable exceptions, but in general, there's not much great literary sci-fi...But sci-fi has yet to produce many of its own Jane Austins or F. Scott Fitzgeralds.

While SF is largely composed of escapist easy to read fluff and work people read for reasons unrelated to literary merit, the same is true any genre and, really, most works that have ever been popular. But I think the problematic attitude is that some who hold Literature in great esteem believe genre fiction is incapable of producing work with literary merit. Any work that does have literary merit by their definition is Lit, not genre.

So I suspect these questions, while interesting, are likely futile endeavors, even if an author like Gene Wolfe can hold his own with any of the Austens or Fitzgeralds or Dickens or Nabokovs.

Maybe the OP would have better luck convincing the girlfriend's mother that Ada is SF.
posted by 6550 at 4:43 PM on March 4, 2008

Iain (M) Banks, notably Use of Weapons and Against a Dark Background. The Bridge is one of his non-M (non-SF) books but I'd still call it SF of a sort and it might make a good intro.

Le Guin's The Dispossessed is excellent and got my literary lawyer-nerd non-SF girlfriend to agree that SF isn't crap.

As a bit of speculation, we came to the conclusion that what appeals to many of us male nerdy SF-reading types is the presence of big ideas and where the book relates to people, it considers whole societies and the complex emergent behaviours thereof, whereas literary types (and apparently, to completely overgeneralise, women) and non-SF people are more into the personal relationships and detailed characters. The Dispossessed is a good crossover book because it depicts interesting social interactions both at the macro and micro levels, and I think 1984 is oft cited for the same reasons.
posted by polyglot at 5:04 PM on March 4, 2008

even if an author like Gene Wolfe can hold his own with any of the Austens or Fitzgeralds or Dickens or Nabokovs.

Quoted for emphasis. If I were a speculator in rare books, I would be buying up first editions of Wolfe's work, especially The Book of the New Sun and the Soldier books. I hope the man writes many more books (and I'd love for him to write a literary memoir) and lives not a day longer than he'd wish, but he's not getting any younger. There will be an explosion in critical analysis after his death, and he'll be the PK Dick for the next generation of writers of speculative fiction.

I know this, because I have a time machine.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:57 PM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Although Delaney's been mentioned, I can't believe Dhalgren hasn't been pointed out specifically yet.
posted by juv3nal at 9:57 PM on March 4, 2008

this just occurred to me:

i mean, part of the whole SF trip is that it's not neccesarily meant to be character-based literature. it's about ideas, imagined futures, etc. that's the whole point. i think there are enough sf authors out there who use well rounded, believable characters that one or two might might hold the interest of someone who enjoys literature... but...

what if you just, instead of trying to convert this woman to a genre she'll probably only derive limited enjoyment from over the long run, no matter how well it's written (just a guess but i wouldn't be surprised)...

what if you just suggested some short, sweet, hardcore sci-fi the lets her get an idea of what it's all about, and let her decide if the genre, in all it's geeky glory, is something she's interested in? i'm thinking something along the lines of arthur c. clarke's short stories - great ideas, just a few pages of buildup to payoff, with a maximum possible ideas/pagespace ratio...

it might be interesting to her purely as an intellectual excersise, which is how this might all turn out ayway? just a thought. i mean, no one's ever gonna turn me into an avid consumer of romance novels, no matter how well they're written, but i read a couple many years back and found the experience interestng.
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2008

I second others' recomendations of James Morrow and William Gibson. For Morrow, I also have a very high opinion of the last of the Towing Jehova books, The Eternal Footman. (First sentence: "WHEN GOD'S SKULL WENT INTO geosynchronous orbit above the Western hemisphere, reflecting the sun by day and rivaling the moon each night, Nora Burkhart tried not to take it personally.")
posted by NortonDC at 9:56 AM on March 5, 2008

The Sparrow is not good. It is terrible. It gets off to a promising start but alas, turns out to be made almost entirely of puerile Mary-Sueism alternating with a torturously slow build up to an utter anticlimax. Weak tea. Do not recommend.

I know exactly what you're saying here - but I included it my list because I was focussing on interesting use of language in SF. As SF, it's nothing new, and, as someone pointed out, the typical SF reader is used to doing work, and so can see the telegraphing of the resolution a mile away. I still think, as a bridge between the 'literary novel' and SF it's a good introduction as the use of language shines frequently. And I can't think of an updike or austen novel offhand that's isn't rampant Mary-Sueism.
posted by Sparx at 4:28 PM on March 5, 2008

part of the whole SF trip is that it's not neccesarily meant to be character-based literature.

I disagree.

Certainly, much SF isn't character based. I agree with that. But that doesn't mean it isn't "meant" to be.

I can't really parse that statement. SF isn't "meant to be" anything. Sure, many SF fans are more interested in ideas (etc.) than character; sure, many SF writers are more interested (and better at writing) idea-based fiction. But that doesn't mean it's meant to be that way. There's no official body that decides what SF is meant to be.

I'm bored by idea fiction, yet I like the rare well-written sci-fi book I come across. I like it best when it's about character. SF can be great for exploring character, because it places humans in extreme situations. This, in general, is what genre fiction (sci-fi, thriller, etc.) can do for character exploration. It can place humans in strange environments and delve into how they react.

I love "1984," but to be honest, I'm bored by the parody of 1940s England; I'm bored by the politics. I'm interested in those subjects, but I prefer to get my ideas from non-fiction. (I'm aware that many people like the ideas in "1984," and that's fine. I'm just pointing out that one might like the novel for other reasons.)

When I read "1984," it's mostly about empathizing with Winston Smith and wondering what I'd do if I was in his shoes. And while many get into the world-building, mythos, linguistic experiments of Tolkein, I'm sure there are plenty of other people who read "Lord of the Rings" for Frodo and Sam.
posted by grumblebee at 6:28 PM on March 5, 2008

I second Little, Big by John Crowley--his writing is just beautiful.

Another book I recommend is "Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin--very lovely, rich prose.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:51 PM on March 6, 2008

I didn't see anybody mention Ted Chiang. Stories of Your Life and Others was well received by my literature Ph.d. girlfriend, so maybe that's worth a shot. She even recommended it to one of her fellow word nerds!
posted by berticus at 4:31 AM on March 7, 2008

Reflecting on the various insightful things that have been said here, I will render an opinion that might be worth conveying to your gf's mother:

I think the strongest recurrent literary theme in science fiction is the epic, which it frequently does better than any other genre. And pardon my effrontery in speaking this in the direction of high-brow literary types who value their psychoanalytic character development and Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness and free indirect speech and whatnot. But the vitality and the universality of the saga - the hero's journey - which is the marrow of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, the 書經 Shūjīng, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Eddas and the Kalevala and the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, the ვეფხისტყაოსანი The Knight in the Panther's Skin, the Popol Vuh and the Codex Chimalpopoca, and so on, and so forth…

That is far more paramount to human literature than any of these things that are discussed in the halls (or blogs) where literary PhD's parry and riposte today. But if need be for some airy intellectual coalescing of meaning my man Joseph Campbell can throw down or maybe his friend Carl Jung.

And where in modern literature has that torch been passed? Postmodernist beat poetry? The Bildungsroman? The nouveau roman? Modernismo? Political thrillers? Existentialist satire?

That's right. Science Fiction. (And okay, maybe Fantasy gets some cred.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:14 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's interesting that you think the epic is the strongest literary theme (though I'm not sure I'd call it a "theme" -- it's more of a structure). I agree that there are a lot of sci-fi epics, though there are other genres that do epic well, too. Have you read "Lonesome Dove"?

But I think the most re-current structure in sci-fi is melodrama. Perhaps that's a true but boring assertion. Melodrama is the meat-and-potatoes of all genre fiction. I'm not saying all sci-fi is melodrama. But I bet 90% of it is.
posted by grumblebee at 8:23 AM on March 11, 2008

In the above, I meant to say, "It's interesting that you think the epic is the strongest literary theme in sci-fi..."
posted by grumblebee at 8:26 AM on March 11, 2008

I've seen pieces of TV versions of Lonesome Dove. I'm not saying that the epic is exclusive to sci-fi but I think the forms of it presented in sci-fi are more faithful to the legacy of stories involving things like Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestling the Bull of Heaven or Odysseus tricking and blinding Polyphemus to rescue his crew or sailing beyond the North Wind. If making the hero's journey “larger than life” is the kind of thing you mean when you say melodrama, I definitely agree with you - that's another common element between modern science fiction and the classics of human literature.
posted by XMLicious at 10:10 AM on March 11, 2008

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