Gateway Science Fiction

Gateway Science Fiction

Last week, The Little Red Reviewer posted her list of Top 10 Gateway SF titles. I wanted to respond, thought about what to say, thought some more about it, then finally gave up and started writing my own list. The final punishment of pedantry is an increased workload.

This is less an iron-clad list of stuff I would always recommend, and more of a list of books that I think might be accepted by a suspicious friend or relative. Of course, not everyone likes the same things, so I have tried to put some variety into the list, with the target demographic occasionally called out in my comments. It’s also possible that my idea of My First Sony Science Fiction strikes someone else as hopelessly incomprehensible. These are the bold risks we take here at Two Dudes. Finally, astute readers may notice that I am leaving off most of the classics from yesteryear. Dune, Foundation, Starship Troopers, etc. are fine books and may indeed be a good introduction, but I am assuming that people will feel more comfortable with contemporary voices and world views.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Let’s just get this one out of the way now, shall we? I haven’t read it since junior high school, but people still say it’s good. It is also, shall we say, in the public consciousness at the moment.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Scalzi is my go to author for Gateway SF. His books are easy to read, funny, well-written, and generally have enough meat on the bones to satisfy newbie and veteran alike. Bonus points for having some of the best non-fiction out as well, as he wages a campaign to rid fandom of its more pernicious elements.

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I’m pretty sure this won’t actually turn many people into SF fans, but it’s definitely a book everyone should read. If I could lay out an inevitable path from Arthur Dent to Greg Egan, my publishing fortune would be assured.

Neuromancer – William Gibson
I’m not sure this is a gateway book, but Gibson’s worlds are not far from our own. The Blue Ant books are actually the recent past now, and I imagine that Neuromancer packs a certain amount of Max Headroom-style 80s nostalgia. These might be enough to usher folks past the lobby. Oddly enough, this book in particular is one of the most important to come out in the last thirty or so years, in terms of genre impact.

Heir to the Empire – Timothy Zahn
I don’t normally recommend tie-ins, but this book starts a trilogy that is widely acknowledged to be the best addition to the Star Wars universe ever put to paper. Much of what later became Canon started from the series.

Hyperion – Dan Simmons
I recommend Hyperion to my more literate friends. Who can say no to The Canterbury Tales in space? And with each story attaching itself to a different subgenre? What about the Keats references? I wouldn’t give this to just anyone as an introduction, but there is definitely a type of reader that would warm to Simmons over most of the other authors on my list.

1632 – Eric Flint
Nor would I recommend this alternate history tale of a West Virginia coal mining town transported to the Hundred Years War to just anyone. Flint is the socialist outlier at reliably militaristic Baen Books and he has a distinctive writing style that probably isn’t for everyone. The rah-rah nature of the book might also put off a number of people, but the community that has grown up around the series is very serious about their extrapolation. With the right audience, this could light a spark.

Japan Sinks – Komatsu Sakyo
This is more for the Japan crowd, but it is available in English. (An English version of the movie also exists, though it was much bigger in Japan.) Not science fiction in the traditional sense, this tale of Japan sinking into the ocean as tectonic plate movements swallow it up is an accessible introduction to one of Japan’s grand masters.

Leviathan’s Wake – James S.A. Corey
I suggest this more out of curiosity than confidence. The book is fairly serious SF, but in the kind of universe easily recognized by those already exposed to Star Wars or Firefly. It also contains vomit zombies, sure to entertain.

There are several others that didn’t make the cut. Among them are series like David Brin’s Uplift and Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, listed as much because I’m not sure where to recommend starting as for any other reason. Snowcrash might stand in for Neuromancer, but is longer. (Funnier, though.) Authors like Jack McDevitt, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and possibly even Iain M. Banks might also qualify. Beyond this, there is a whole host of Military SF that I am ignorant of, but a lot of that seems to be written for a rather isolated community anyway.

Thoughts, anyone? I’ll probably keep turning this over my in head for some time.


17 thoughts on “Gateway Science Fiction

  1. As I contemplated Andrea’s list, Leviathan Wakes came to mind for me as well. It is a big commitment and is certainly full of a lot of the weird ideas that the uninitiated might have about SF, but as you said I think it would appeal to people because of the shows that are part of the public consciousness.

    Ender’s Game is always a good choice. I read it for the first time about 5 or 6 years ago and it had held up really well.

    I also agree with your thoughts about Scalzi. Old Man’s War or Fuzzy Nation are my go-to books when recommending to people who have read little or no SF. I also think Hugh Howey’s Wool is a great gateway book.

    • I need to read Wool. I hear nothing but good about it.

      I’m slightly torn on the Corey series. (Not my own feelings about it of course, just in terms of introductions.) The latter books are much deeper into science fictional-ness, but something about the first seems like it might go over well with the masses. I’m not sure exactly why I think that though.

      • If you enjoy a good space opera you are really missing out by not giving the James S.A. Corey books a try. I know what you mean about “appealing to the masses” books, but this is no Dan Brown or Rowling or Meyers. It is character-driven and Daniel Abraham (one of the two writers) is very good at creating interesting characters.

  2. The part of “a list of books that I think might be accepted by a suspicious friend or relative” gave me a laugh, because I don’t really have any friends that would be super suspicious of book suggestions. People I know either read everything, read just one genre, or never go near books… but that didn’t stop me from imagining that scenario in my head. ^_^

    Even if you are leaving off some of the classics, I plan to get into Dune and Starship Troopers before I get into the more contemporary books. I’ve loved the movies for both (moreso Dune, though) so I’m hoping to love the written form as well. I’m currently working my way through a pile of PKD I have available at the library and on my own bookshelf. He’s a favorite! If you *were* including some classics, I think some book of his should definitely make it onto your list.

    I can’t believe I’ve only read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out of your list, and that was so long ago I’ve forgotten most of it. I’m such a terrible sci-fi fan! I keep seeing Leviathan’s Wake, Hyperion, and Ender’s Game pop up everywhere… and have seen Neuromancer on a few occassions.

    • Like I said above to Jay Dee, I don’t intend for this to be a canonical type list. If you haven’t read some of these, I think that’s just fine. There’s a ton of stuff on the list I linked to that I haven’t read. (In fact, most of it.) This reminds me a bit of a discussion I am having with Rinn – “Please tell me you at least watch Dr. Who!” “Um, barely know it exists…”

      And I thought of listing Dune, etc. It was just an artistic choice for this article to focus on newer stuff. The serious SF fan should of course read all of that old stuff. (Says I with shifty, nervous eyes. My Golden Age consumption has dropped precipitously of late.)

    • I suspect you’ll enjoy the novel of Dune. I too enjoy the film and finally read the book a couple of summers back and was captivated by it. A great deal of relevant topic exploration and just a fun read.

  3. Hmmm. When you say ‘suspicious friend or relative’ I immediately think of my wife, who’ll flat out reject anything with even a suspicion of a rocket on the cover. It seems to me that you (and indeed Red) have picked a load of SF that handles the main tropes in accessible and skilful ways, but is still recognisably SF.

    ‘Gateway SF’ to me would seem more like good books that contain SFnal elements but not obviously or famously so, so that afterwards you can pull the big reveal when they say “I don’t like SF.” “Well, you liked XXXX, and that was SF.” Maybe this says more about the state of my marriage than anything else, I don’t know…

    So, in my own redefinition of the task, you’re looking either at ‘classics’ whose status as classics outweighs their status as SF (1984, Brave New World, even Gulliver’s Travels), or ‘literary’ works which aren’t marketed as SF, but underneath it all really are (a lot of Margaret Atwood’s stuff obviously comes under this; A Tale for the Time Being, dare I say it; Cloud Atlas; The Testament of Jessie Lamb, etc). Just so long as there’s not a rocket. Or a robot, come to that.

    • Something about your marriage sounds very familiar…. Though my wife suddenly developed a taste for Tolkien about one year ago, for no discernible reason. I also have her reading some of the Japanese SF on my shelf, (Kamigari for one) but since a lot of the “best” Japanese SF skips the rockets and robots, she doesn’t mind.

      I guess my definition should be clarified to: Books for someone who is suspicious and/or ignorant of SF, but is willing to give it a try. Your choices are much better for the bait and switch.

    • That is problematic and I completely failed to notice. (Sad, considering my other stances on this issue.) Now I have to think of what I would add. Unfortunately for me, my favorite female writers don’t feel very Gateway-y. Stay tuned for an update and mea culpa, and thank you for being my conscience.

      • Not to beat a head horse (considering how many lists include it) but Atwood’s The Handmade’s Tale (1985) — the novel transcends normal genre readers and introduces readers to some radical feminism while they’re at it…. And is a work of lit. Cherryh’s novels can be straightforward space operas… No different than Ender’s Game (scoff — haha) in that regard.

      • I haven’t read that, though it’s looking like I should. I’m a huge Cherryh fan, but her stuff has seemed too heavy for a gateway to me; I might be reading the wrong books. (I would never give Cyteen or Downbelow Station to a newbie.) There are a few authors (i.e. Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress) whom I either haven’t read, or haven’t read their most accessible works.

        I’m mulling this over while I work and will probably post an update tonight.

      • Perhaps something by Connie Willis (her work is not my cup of tea but something like Domesday Book or To Say Nothing of the dog — both Hugo winners are easy lighthearted reads)… Or Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang — Hugo-winning / somewhat literary rumination on cloning.

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