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SF For People Who've Never Read SF Before
by Robert J. Sawyer
First published in the 29 June 1994 issue of Toronto's weekly Now newspaper
Copyright © 1994
by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
I know, I know you've never read any science fiction.
But, hey, you've seen the occasional Star Trek episode, you
like Michael Crichton movies, and you've got a friend who insists
that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is an SF novel.
And so you figure, what the heck, maybe this summer you'll buy an
SF title or two for reading on the beach.
It's true that some SF is difficult for non-SF readers to get
into full of made-up terms, bizarre aliens, and enough science
to make Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time seem like
But much of the best SF is completely accessible to all readers.
Take Isaac Asimov's classic
The Caves of Steel (Bantam, Cdn$6.99), for instance.
It cuts across genre lines, being both an SF novel and
a mystery novel.
The detectives are world-weary Elijah Bailey and his partner,
Daneel Olivaw, an android whose creator has been murdered and
whose killing may trigger a political upheaval. First published
in 1953, and continuously in print since, mystery fans will find
this one thoroughly rewarding, as well as a gentle and engaging
introduction to SF.
Robots may not be your cup of motor oil, of course but
everyone has to deal with computers these days.
Vancouver's William Gibson just signed a combined
American-British deal for his next novel for an advance in excess
of US$1,000,000 making him likely the highest paid Canadian
author in history. Find out where he got his start by reading
Neuromancer, the original cyberpunk novel (Ace, Cdn$7.99
paperback, and a just-released tenth-anniversary hardcover,
It's the story of Case, a cowboy of the next century who can plug
into computer systems and transfer his mind into the cyberspace
inside the machine. Gibson's world is gritty and complex, his
style unique and evocative. He demands a lot from his readers
background is hinted at but never explicated, and futuristic
slang comes fast and thick but this book will change forever
the way you think about computers and the information
Speaking of computers, Arthur C. Clarke
is best known, of course,
for creating HAL, the murderous machine intelligence from
2001: A Space Odyssey. But Clarke's true love isn't outer
space; it's the sea he moved from England to Sri Lanka years
ago for the scuba diving.
One of his best novel is 1990's
The Ghost from the Grand Banks (Bantam, Cdn$6.99) and,
yes, those are the Grand Banks of Newfoundland he's referring to.
The ghost in question is the
H.M.S. Titanic, and the novel deals with a race between
opposing factions in the year 2012 to raise the great ship from
its resting place off Canada's east coast.
In some ways this book is distilled Clarke at this stage in
life (he's now 77), he no longer makes even token efforts at
characterization to appease his critics. As in all of Clarke's
works, Ghost is propelled by the vastness of the author's
vision, by fascinating speculations, and by a sense of wonder
that will leave the reader simultaneously elevated and humbled
after closing the cover.
That sense of wonder the feeling of transcendence, of
glimpsing a cosmic perspective also can be found in the novels
of John E. Stith. His Manhattan Transfer (Tor, 1993,
Cdn$28.95 hardcover; in paperback in August 1994) begins with aliens
using powerful beams to carve the entire island of Manhattan out
of the Earth and whisk it and all its inhabitants away not
necessarily a bad thing, when you think about it.
The book is a fast-paced adventure that pits some very ordinary
people (including Big Apple mayor Dorine Underwood, and scruffy
Stuart Lund, who is trying to cop a feel of a woman he's pressed
against on the subway when Manhattan gets uprooted) against an
extraordinary challenge. Stith's work reminds one of
Robert A. Heinlein, the late dean of American SF writers: exciting,
thought-provoking tales, plainly told.
In some ways, Toronto's Robert Charles Wilson has written a
similar book in Mysterium (Tor, 1994, oversized paperback,
Cdn$14.95). In it, the town of Two Rivers, Michigan, finds itself
suddenly isolated from the world it knew. Wilson's book is an
example of one of SF's booming sub-genres: the
alternative-history novel. In this one, Two Rivers is moved
lock, stock, and corner bar into a timeline in which the Roman
Empire never became Christian leading to an oppressive North
America in the present day. Wilson's finely drawn, completely
believable characters are fallible, likable, and all too human.
Many are turned off by the perception that SF is wild, far-out,
escapist stuff. But in some of the field's best books, the alien
appearance is only on the surface; if one reads deeper one
recognizes often unsettling parallels to our own world.
Mike Resnick is a master of such tales. His Inferno (Tor,
1993, Cdn$5.99) is an allegory about modern-day Africa, with the
alien land of Faligor standing in for Uganda, the alien leader
Gama Labu playing the part of Idi Amin, and the devastating SLIM
plague a pestilence in the mould of AIDS. Resnick writes with
compassion and a deep respect both for his characters and the
land they inhabit.
Other present-day issues intrigue Nancy Kress. Her
Beggars in Spain (AvoNova, 1993, Cdn$5.99) is a powerfully
moving human drama about our growing ability to create designer babies.
Roger Camden, a workaholic industrialist, curses the time he
wastes on sleep, and so decides to have a child who is free from
that burden. His daughter Leisha and similar children come to be
known as the "Sleepless" a group that soon arouses the envy,
fear, and hatred of those of us who spend a third of our lives
sawing wood. Kress excels at characterization; you'll never
forget the people in this book.
So, there you have it seven treks that will take you
pleasurably to a place you may never have been before: the
science-fiction section of your local bookstore. Enjoy.
Postscript, 1997: Since this is the
Robert J. Sawyer web site,
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention which of my own novels might
be good introductions to science fiction for those who have never read
it before. Of my ten books, I think the following four in
particular could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether they are SF
- The Terminal Experiment a biomedical
engineer discovers scientific proof for the existence of the human soul; set
- Frameshift a man at risk for
Huntington's disease strives to make a name for himself before the
disease robs him of his life; set in Berkeley and San Francisco
- Illegal Alien a courtroom drama with an
extraterrestrial defendant; set in Los Angeles
- Factoring Humanity an alien technology
may reveal the truth about a woman's claim that she was abused by her father
as a child; set in Toronto
More Good Reading
Sawyer's Picks recommended SF titles
Recommended Canadian SF
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