So there’s someone in your life who doesn’t like science fiction. Nobody’s perfect. But the good news is, genre is expansive, and there’s almost always a little corner of it where even the most science fiction-averse person can curl up and enjoy themselves. Here are 10 science fiction books for people who don’t like science fiction.
9. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
This is a story that wears its science fiction on its sleeve, or perhaps more accurately on its jacket. There’s a mission to a new planet on a space ship. There are aliens. There are vaguely futuristic jobs that are described in futuristic slang terms. But at the same time, Mary Doria Russell is not a science fiction author, per se — she’s a genre hopper who writes fictionalized biographies of historical figures like Doc Holliday, and historical fiction. She just happened, in this case, to write a book about characters in a science fiction setting. And it shows.
Russell deliberately avoids explaining the tech and the science in her novels unless it’s something the character would think about, explaining in an interview, “Would Henry James stop and explain to his readers how a telephone worked? No! In The Sparrow, Sofia Mendes simply checks her messages. When I wrote that line in 1991 she’d have checked the telephone answering machine. . . . Now, she’d check her iPhone. The important thing is that she’s never really checking her technology—she’s checking her messages!” This is a book for people who like authors what write good. This author what writes good wrote good about a group of people on a new planet.
8. The City and the City, by China Miéville
There are benefits and drawbacks to recommending this particular book. The main benefit is the fact that the person you’ve given it to absolutely will not put it down until they finally figure out what the hell is going on. (And because it’s China Mieville, figuring things out will take them long enough that they’ll be hooked on the story by the time they understand what’s happening)
The drawback is you can’t tell them tell them what the book is about. I don’t mean you shouldn’t tell them, I mean you can’t tell them. Seriously, people who have read this book, what would you even say?
Just say, “It’s not really science fiction,” and give them the book.
7. Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall
Quick, brutal, and introspective, this is a good book to give people who have gotten wise to the fact that the The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction. But it’s also not as bleak a chronicle of oppression as The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead of starting in the oppressive society, we start out by leaving the oppressive society behind. Alas, escaping oppression is not that simple.
Daughters of the North takes a look at what happens when an all-female commune goes to war. If that sounds to you like feel-good sisterhood, think again. Squeezed between a post-apocalyptic world and an oppressive regime, these women go to increasing extremes for an increasingly hopeless cause. It’s about asking people how much they’re willing to resist, and whether they know what they’re resisting.
6. Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold gained some much-deserved fame for her Miles Vorkosigan Saga, a series that developed an entire universe known as the “Vorkosiverse.” Great as it is, it’s not going to convince anyone who doesn’t like science fiction to flip open the cover. Shards of Honor, the story of Miles Vorkosigan’s mother, is a sort of prequel, by dint of publication order. Bujold wrote the book, and two sequels to it, before she got Shards published.
The story is set in a science fiction universe, but it has the soul of a pulp action romance. If that sounds like a lot of words to describe one slim book, don’t underestimate Lois McMaster Bujold. Cordelia Naismith is surveying a planet with her team when disaster strikes and she finds herself the captive of Captain Lord Arral Vorkosigan, a notorious war criminal. But neither the “Butcher of Komarr,” nor the war itself is what it seems, and Cordelia finds herself questioning her loyalties. That’s a summary of both an action adventure pulp and a shameless romance, and there are elements of both in the story. (Just because we’re steering away from science fiction doesn’t mean we can’t have any fun.) But in between the adventure and romance, the book takes a good look at how public opinion shapes war, and how the relationships within a war determine loyalty.
5. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Here’s one that will break your heart. It’s definitely science fiction, but it subverts most of the tropes that go not only with science fiction, but with storytelling in general. It’s not about people witnessing the birth of a new era, and it’s definitely not about them changing their world. It’s about them quietly thinking about a situation that, to us, is unimaginable horror and to them is just the way the world works.
I can’t tell you more, and you probably shouldn’t tell the person you’re recommending it to more. Just tell them to brace themselves.
4. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Yeah, this is the book we all saw at airports in the mid-2000s, but there’s a reason why it had a wider reach than most science fiction novels. It’s about the lives and the eventual marriage of a woman and a man, when the man spontaneously and uncontrollably time-travels, showing up naked in all different places at a moment’s notice. The movie adaptation that came out in 2009 was short-changed by a trailer that made it look like a Nicholas Sparks romance. And the movie itself short-changed the book, chiseling away its most disturbing scenes. It’s tough to say whether any movie could really capture the nature of the book, in which we see a couple who love each other but are often out-of-sync because at any given moment, one of them can be furious about a fight that, for the other one, happened ten years ago. It throws in a few winks at the absurdity of time travel as well, asking people if you’re really married to someone who, from their perspective, won’t marry you for another twenty years.
3. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Is this an autobiography? A satirical tale? Is it a war story? It’s all of those things, and then of course there’s time travel and aliens in there. The fact is people don’t quite know how to classify this Vonnegut novel, and they are not to blame for that. Although the science fiction conceit is woven inextricably into the fabric of the story, the aliens, their views, and the time travel work so well because they help the reader understand the chaos of war. Vonnegut can only make sense of the helplessness and bewilderment soldiers feel by presenting us with aliens who don’t have a concept of causality. Things just happen. This concept works so well, and the vividness of the war story, make the science fiction aspects of this book fade away in most people’s memory. But it is still science fiction.
2. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
There are many specific types of science fiction, but the genre can be very roughly divided into two very general categories — books that focus on the spaceships, the technology, and the time travel, and books that only use those elements to heighten the drama, or the stakes, in familiar situations. While you may never be able to get people who simply don’t like science fiction into the first category of books, there’s a library full of books out there to get them into the second.
The Shining Girls represents a science fiction spin on that most popular of book genres — the crime thriller. It shows us how gut wrenching it can be when exactly the wrong person stumbles onto something that gives them the ability to travel through time. It gives us the twisting horror of watching a killer stalk victims retroactively. It presents the protagonist with the impossible task of pursuing a killer into a place that doesn’t even exist on her spacio-temporal plane. Give this book to someone who reads those thick paperbacks with the author’s name embossed in gold letters on the front. When they’re done, mention that Lauren Beukes has written another book like it and watch their face light up.
1. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams
Any of the Douglas Adams’ novels could be on this list. (And that would be a time-saver for me, let me tell you.) Adams’ writing is the kind of funny that makes you bend over at the waist from laughing so hard, and his books, while they do incorporate science fiction names, like squornshellous zeta and the ravenous bugblatter beast of traal, are less science fiction and more collections of philosophical vignettes about bureaucracy, politics, poetry, and for some reason, the music of Dire Straits.
Of all of his novels, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency makes this list because it slips under the radar while still being solidly a science fiction story. For the first third of the story, Adams delivers the thing he’s absolutely best at; extravagantly eccentric Englishmen and the nutball situations they get themselves into. If anything, the book leans towards poetry and fantasy rather than science fiction. It’s only when they get near the end of the story that a reader will find themselves dumped into a world of time travelers and robots. By then it’s too late, particularly if you offer them the rest of Adams’ work.
And that is how an addiction is born.