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December 16, 2005

Outreach in Action: Gateway Science Fiction

Having bloviated yesterday that current science fiction offers few "open doors" for non-Science Fiction readers to check out the genre, I want to offer interested parties an opportunity to prove me wrong, or at the very least, prove that I've wildly overstated the issue. So, consider this your opportunity to suggest Gateway Science Fiction -- Good, recent science fiction for people who don't read science fiction.

Here are the conditions I'm setting upon recommendations:

1. Assume your audience is a reasonably literate human adult (25+) who is unstupid and technologically competent (i.e., can use a computer, cell phone and iPod), but whose literary SF experience is limited to whatever SF they may have been assigned in high school and college.

2. While I love Young Adult books, focus on SF marketed to adults.

3. No books before 1995.

4. Book has to be primarily SF. A few fantasy elements are fine, but if you're an SF/F geek, you probably have a good idea where the line is. If not, see here for a decent arbitrary dividing line between SF and fantasy.

5. Recommend a book that you would actually recommend to someone; which is to say, don't recommend a book just because its geek form factor is low enough that a mundane reader can follow the tech. A book that has a low technological barrier of entry but which has a lousy story is not going to be a good book to recommend to anyone.

6. Refrain from buttering up the host by recommending one of his books. I mean, thanks and all, but no. Also, refrain from recommending your books, even if they're perfect gateway SF. Let's share the love here, not bogart the gateway goodness.

There are the ground rules. Now: What have you got?

Posted by john at December 16, 2005 06:13 AM

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Kevin Q | December 16, 2005 07:42 AM

See, now, number 6 makes it tough, because my general plan is:

Step 1: "Hey, you should read this Scalzi guy's website. He's pretty funny."

Step 2: "If you liked that, you might like this novel he wrote. I know you don't usually read sci-fi, but it might be worth a shot. I laughed till I cried."

Step 3: Profit.

That being said, I have absolutely no idea about most of the science fiction written in the last 10 years, so I'm looking forward to what other people put up here. Finals are almost over, and I'm looking for some good books to read.


David Klecha | December 16, 2005 07:52 AM

Bujold diehards on the Lois Bujold mailing list have, for years and years, posted their stories of converting non-SF readers (notably romance-reading friends) into SF with her books. Entry points on the Miles Vorkosigan series vary, but with the exception of maybe the very last one, any of them after Memory (published in 1996) would work.

Alien Taste by Wen Spencer, and the follow-on series from that.

Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen, and the follow-on books.

Code of Conduct by Kristine Smith, and this book's successors.

Strange how they're series. Also strange how I have, at some point, seen some of these at the local Big Box Everything Store.

Abigail | December 16, 2005 08:09 AM

Here's a few to start with:

The early novels of John Crowley - The Deep, Beasts, and Engine Summer - currently collected in the omnibus Otherwise
Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang and the collection Mothers and Other Monsters
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman
Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (for the purposes of being a good gateway, Doomsday Book would also work, but personally I think the book is a disaster)
Signs of Life by M. John Harrison (currently available in the omnibus Anima, which also contains the fantasy-ish The Course of the Heart)
Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang (borderline, I confess, but Chiang is such a smart writer and his science is so lucid and organic to his stories that I believe any halfway willing reader would be sucked in by them)
Under the Skin by Michel Faber (this is one of those books that are obviously SF - aliens, spaceships - but that haven't been classified as such because the author is a mainstream writer. As such, I suspect it would make an excellent gateway drug.)
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (on the same shelf as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle - feels like SF but isn't quite)
An Exaltation of Larks by Robert Reed
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
He, She and It by Marge Piercy
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

[Editor's note -- Abigail runs afoul of my "no pre-1995" stricture with many of these. The stricture is there for a reason, which is that I did want to keep people from reaching back for things that while great are decades old and should not be considered "current" science fiction any realistic sense. I want to know what is gateway and current.

Abigail, if you could resumbit this list with only the books after 1995, that would be helpful. -- JS]

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | December 16, 2005 08:20 AM

Regarding Abigail's suggestion of Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, above, Chip Delany once told me that he'd had a lot of success getting his college students who were unfamiliar with SF to read and enjoy that particular book. I believe it.

However, like at least half of the books Abigail recommends, it's from before 1995, thus violating John's rule number three.

My own immediate suggestions: Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain and, particularly, its sequel Fifty Degrees Below.

Daniel H. Alvarez | December 16, 2005 08:32 AM


See, the whole "published since 1995" thing ruins one of the best intro to SF books that I can think of: Ender's Game. Though I wouldn't recommend the sequels, the first book has all of the classic SF tropes (interstellar war, aliens, inexplicable high-tech stuff (ansible), etc.).

Since 95? Probably Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy. Fast paced, great story. Elements of "scary math" but doesn't dwell on it constantly (which would tend to eliminate anything by Stephenson as "intro" SF).


Alana | December 16, 2005 08:41 AM

While I agree with Bujold as being a great SF for those who don't read SF I'm surprised that noone has mentioned or thought of two really great examples in the genre. Robert J. Sawyer has put out a number of phenomenal entry books into SF...his latest series (Humans, Hominids, Hybrids) is a great gateway series. I am also a little partial to Neal Stephenson....once I read 'Zodiac' I could hardly wait to read everything else he had out....and did until his newest series, which isn't really SF at all (more historical and heavy than easy to get into SF). Well, that's my two cents worth, for whatever it's worth!

Steve Thorn | December 16, 2005 08:42 AM

Gateway SciFi.. for the action adventure people, give them Matthew Reilly's Contest. It's an alien, gladiator-type contest that a man and his daughter are involuntarily recruited into within the New York Library.

I'd also throw Fear Nothing by Dean Koontz at some people, where this is an underlying sci-fi slant to a man with XP that can only come out at night. (If you hadn't limited it to 95, I would have said Watchers, but I'm pretty sure it's older than that)

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 08:55 AM

Daniel H. Alvarez:

"See, the whole 'published since 1995' thing ruins one of the best intro to SF books that I can think of: Ender's Game."

Well, yes, and precisely so, since my original thesis was that current SF is inaccessible. I too love Ender's Game (although I like Speaker for the Dead better, which puts me in the minority), but it's two decades old. It's not "current" SF any more than Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction is current rock and roll.

Abigail | December 16, 2005 09:02 AM

Wait, that was 1995? I saw 1955. I guess skimming is not my friend. Still, quite a few of my suggestions remain even with the additional criteria (why 1995, John?).

Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman
Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Signs of Life by M. John Harrison
Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Under the Skin by Michel Faber
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
An Exaltation of Larks by Robert Reed

kat | December 16, 2005 09:10 AM

For someone who likes action-laden books, Timothy Zahn's Icarus Hunt, wherein Zahn puts his skills at writing Star Wars better than Lucas to good use and turns out actual sf with them. I am continually surprised that Zahn isn't more popular or known for his non-Star Wars books, because they're damned good.

For romance readers, there's a really nifty crossover anthology called Irresistable Forces with science fiction romance stories from Bujold, Asaro, Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Jennifer Roberson, and Deb Stover. Excellent gateway drug. I might also recommend Gabriel's Ghost by Linnea Sinclair, which is good fun.

For those who think sf isn't "literary", I would give them LeGuin's exploration of slavery, Four Ways to Forgiveness, or China, The Telling. Or, y'know, anything by LeGuin, but those are recent titles.

I'm sure there's more, but I'm not thinking of anything at the moment.

Qwerty ZXCV | December 16, 2005 09:23 AM

"Assume your audience is a reasonably literate human adult (25+) who is unstupid and technologically competent (i.e., can use a computer, cell phone and iPod), but whose literary SF experience is limited to whatever SF they may have been assigned in high school and college."

I don't believe that such an animal exists. Unstupid yet has to be assigned a reading in order to read from a genre like SF? Tech savy but no interest in SF aquired before age 25?

I don't believe in them. They don't exist...urban legend or some such. You show me photographic evidence or atleast some trace scat to show one has been in the area and then maybe I'll go looking. I don't do snipe hunts or wild goose chases.

Pat Rock | December 16, 2005 09:25 AM

My best luck has been with Neal Stephenson for some reason.

Even Snowcrash. Which my 64 year old father picked up and read, and enjoyed. And he *hates* science fiction.

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 09:34 AM

Qwerty ZXCV:

"I don't believe that such an animal exists. Unstupid yet has to be assigned a reading in order to read from a genre like SF? Tech savy but no interest in SF aquired before age 25?"

So, you're calling my wife imaginary, then? She didn't read much of anything in SF until I handed her Agent to the Stars to read.


"Why 1995, John?"

Because it was 10 years ago, and my arbitrary line for what is "current" in SF is what is a decade old or less. I gave some thought to making it only since 2000, but that really did seem too limiting.

Pat Rock:

"My best luck has been with Neal Stephenson for some reason."

His Diamond Age squeaks in, just barely (its official publication date is 1/1/95), although I personally wouldn't consider that gateway (but note that I didn't ask people to pick stuff they thought I would consider gateway, so my vote doesn't count). Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Age, as noted elsewhere, are SF-like but not SF.

Mark Siegal | December 16, 2005 09:45 AM

Ender's Shadow (and its 3 sequels) by Orson Scott Card. Not as good as Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, but worth recommending as gateway science fiction.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Assuming they don't mind long books.

Mark Siegal | December 16, 2005 09:49 AM

Heh, I commented just in time for you to repeat that you don't consider Cryptonomicon to be science fiction. I think that the modern parts are sf, at least. Those parts rely on some near-future technology.

Q | December 16, 2005 09:50 AM

Well, I'm taking some of thses suggestions to heart... My wife likes romances, and while so far we only have one author/series we both enjoy reading (fantasyish... romanceish... I'm keeping my guilty pleasure secret) I'm hoping to get her into some SF, so I just ordered a couple of the romance crossover suggestions from Amazon... also happened to find the second in a series that I didn't know was out... and finally decided to go ahead and grab Old Man's War to boot... Now I can remain entertained during my time off for the holidays... Er... Christmas... no wait, Holidays.... I mean... AIEEEEEEE!

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 09:51 AM

I've read _Irresistible Forces_; allow me to emphatically dis-recommend it, as much as it pains me to do so for an anthology with a Bujold story in it. The Bujold story is okay, though I don't really think it would work as well for people who don't know her stuff. But the Asaro story is terrible, the Beverley starts out interesting but falls apart, and I couldn't even remember what the rest were about before looking it up on Amazon.

I don't read much science fiction these days, and somehow I can't really see myself recommending _A Deepness in the Sky_ to a newbie.

What about _New Skies_, which admittedly is *marketed* to teenagers but is reprints of stuff that was written for adults that happens to be accessible for teenagers? I suppose a lot of those stories were pre-1995, though.

MoXmas | December 16, 2005 09:56 AM

I was thinking about the criteria. Is Gateway just supposed to cross over into hard science SF? Because I know a fair amount of military folks who (when they're not actually in places like Iraq) dig work by writers like Drake and Ringo and Weber.

And while I personally consider all the alternate history works more fantasy than SF, I am always surprised they do as well as they do. Because for all the people who talk about how they hate science and math, fully as many talk about how they hate history.

That said, let me throw out these choices:

INTERFACE // Stephen Bury
IDORU // Gibson
ZEITGEIST // Sterling

And frankly, any decent book with cover art that doesn't make you feel like a 13-yo boy when you're on the El.

Glen Hunter | December 16, 2005 09:57 AM

My wife would also have been classified as that mythical example. Her main experience with SF had been Day of the Triffids in High School.

Regarding Diamond Age: that was the gateway book for my wife. The trick/problem with Diamond Age is encouraging the neophyte SF reader to just get through the first chapter or so to where the action starts.

She also quite enjoyed Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

I know pandering is verbotten but I bought her Agent to the Stars after reading it online and she read the dust jacket copy, laughed and said, "That looks good!" It's next on her 'to read' shelf.

Don Demsak | December 16, 2005 09:58 AM

I 2nd Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Series! The are very light on the SF aspect, which I think is good for the folks just getting exposed to SF.

Robert Buettner’s Orphanage and to a lesse extent, the sequel, Orphan's Destiny, but these may by a little too SciFi and closer to Young Adult.

Allen Steele’s, Coyote, and Coyote Rising. More SciFi then Sawyer’s stuff, but not too far out there for a non SciFi person to enjoy.

Andrew Zimmerman Jones | December 16, 2005 10:04 AM

My first suggestion, as someone pointed out, would be Robert J. Sawyer's books. For those of a philosophical mind, Calculating God is the perfect book. If you've got a courtroom drama fan that you want to convert, I recommend Illegal Alien. The Terminal Experiment fits, I think, into the 1995 limit -- I believe it won the 1996 Nebula, but I might be off by a year -- and it's also a murder mystery, so fans of that genre would find it very accessible. Frameshift is a novel of genetic research, and is set entirely in the present.

Robert Charles Wilson's most recent novel, Spin, is also something that I think would appeal to non-SF readers.

Connie Willis' Passage would appeal to literary readers, though it's only tenuously SF. It would prove to them that SF writers can write stuff they like, but it wouldn't necessarily convert them to SF in general.

I also think that the Ender's Shadow series by Orson Scott Card has done a fairly good job at creating a setting which non-SF readers would appreciate, especially as it deals with the consequences of a lot of contemporary political issues. However, to really appreciate this series, it's best that one has already read Ender's Game (though not necessarily the rest), which surpasses them all, so it may not qualify.

There is the fuzzy area of people who read Michael Crichton and Robin Cook, who are already inclined toward SF but may not admit it yet.

While I love Neal Stephenson, I actually don't believe that he's terribly accessible to non-SF readers.

Martin Wagner | December 16, 2005 10:08 AM

I'd say, for the SF noob some entertaining and accessible work would be the space operas of Bujold, Mike Resnick, and David Weber. Of course, the best entry level books by these writers go a little bit past your arbitrary 10-year cutoff date (Bujold's Shards of Honor, Weber's On Basilisk Station). But as all these books are still in print, they're easily obtained and could attract a reader to the same writers' more recent work. Where new SF is concerned, I might suggest something like Stross's Iron Sunrise, a terrific book that melds old-school space opera with some contemporary sensibilities. Also, I think the military/courtroom dramas of John Hemry have some crossover appeal. Hemry's A Just Determination and Burden of Proof do an expert job of getting the water warm, placing the kind of story mundane audiences already understand from watching Law & Order, The Practice, etc., and reframing them in a near-future military SF setting.

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 10:13 AM

Oh! Someone who's read those lawyers-in-space books? I've been meaning to ask, how are they?

Donna | December 16, 2005 10:22 AM

I'm one of those mythical people who read virtually no SF before the age of 25--in fact, I read little of it before the age of 35.

My introduction to SF was Bujold's Vorkosigan books and Connie Willis.

About Irresistable Forces: NEL's point in putting out that anthology was to appeal to a primarily female, romance-reading audience looking for something different, but I think it probably violates John's guidelines because 4 of the 6 novellas in it are pure fantasy with no SF elements at all. With the exception of the Bujold and Asaro stories, the others are all written by well-known romance writers. That said, the Asaro story is paint-by-numbers SF.

I appreciate all of these recommendations--I have a huge list now of things to look for. Thanks!

JimW | December 16, 2005 10:36 AM


If you're trying to prove that post-95 SciFi is not accessible for rookies, I'd have to agree. All of my gateway books would be well before that - Asimov, Heinlein, Verne, Wells, Clark, etc.

As for modern SF - Sterling, Gibson, Stephenson are among my favorites, but I wouldn't inflict them on a newbie (exception - Snow Crash). Some of Gibson's best aren't post-95 anyway.

Maybe McCaffrey's "Ship" and "Rowan" series would qualify - although they do ride close to the fantasy line.


Anonymous | December 16, 2005 10:38 AM

River of Gods by Ian McDonald. Heavy SF but may catch the reader interested in a possible non-Western view of the future.

Sea Stewart (his YA novels as well as SF).

Jon Courtnry Grimwood's Arabesque books -- sf/thrillers/alt. history.

Andrew Wheeler | December 16, 2005 10:38 AM

Stephen Gould's Jumper is too old, but the sequel Reflex came out just about a year ago, and is not only a good SF-entry book, it doesn't require the first book. They're not officially YA books, but I think Jumper has made it onto some librarians's lists as "good books for teens." Not sure if that disqualifies them.

Robert Buettner's Orphanage is a good slam-bang military SF adventure novel about nasty aliens pelting Earth with giant rocks and the juvenile delinquent who has to go stop them.

I think Richard Morgan's first novel Altered Carbon would work fine for non-SF readers, especially fans of hardboiled mysteries.

Kage Baker's entire "Company" series (starting with The Garden of Iden) should be clear to any readers who can understand two simple concepts: time-travel and cyborgs. They'd probably appeal to female readers, too, since there's a major (and very convoluted) on-going love story.

Sawyer's been mentioned a few times, and his Mindscan would be fine for new readers; he explains all of the Weird SF Stuff and the book is about how that society deals with said Stuff (as opposed to having it in the unexplained background, which trips up new SF readers.)

I love James Alan Gardner's first novel, Expendable, and would recommend it to anyone at all. Some of the later books in that loose sequence are just as good, and all of his novels to date are new-reader-friendly.

Jack McDevitt also does old-fashioned space adventure that should be completely accessible for newbies; of the ones I've read (and are from post-1995), I'd recommend Infinity Beach and Chindi.

Ed | December 16, 2005 10:58 AM

Archangel Protocol by Lyda Morehouse. It should appeal to the mystery and romance fans. In fact, it won a Shamus Award for best paperback original Private Eye novel when it came out. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the whole series as a gateway, but this book works. (It does have an angel as a lead character, but it's essentially science fiction).

And I believe you mentioned it in yesterday's post, but I haven't seen it in the comments: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Excellent literary SF.

Devin L. Ganger | December 16, 2005 10:59 AM

Kate: the Hemry books rock on toast. They use the same trick that the modern Battlestar Galactica does -- assume technology that the reader is familiar with unless more advanced tech is required for the story -- and like BSG

I thought I'd written up a detailed review of those books on my blog, but alas, I seem not to have. I must fix that. I'm planning on giving them to my dad for Christmas, since he likes good military fiction and enjoys the TV show JAG. (The only sf my dad has read is _Starship Troopers_ and _Ender's Game_; I'm trying to get him into the Honor Harrington books, but he's having trouble with them. I think I'll pitch OMW at him too.)

Gwenda | December 16, 2005 11:16 AM

I second pretty much everything on Abigail's list and add the Kage Baker Company series, which are accessible, fun and SF.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | December 16, 2005 11:20 AM

Andrew Zimmerman Jones, above, recommends Robert Charles Wilson's recent Spin. Good point. I know several people who don't much read SF who really liked it.

It occurs to me, in fact, that several works by Wilson would be excellent "starter SF" for people accustomed to mainstream fiction for grownups. Wilson does character, sensibility, and point of view as well as any number of fine mainstream writers, but he never slights the fullblooded sense-of-wonder stuff, either.

David | December 16, 2005 11:25 AM

The reason I think Sawyer's "Calculating God" is so perfect for this list is simply the "wow" factor, that feeling of having your mind expanded just from reading, and coming away from it knowing more than you did, while thinking carefully about things you thought you already knew. This is mosly why I started reading SF. That it also manages to be quite funny in part is just bonus.

Trouble is, I think that's just exactly what you don't get from Bujold, not that I don't think her stuff is great on its own merits. Not much "wow".

And yes, I suppose we can say it's SFnal, but it's awfully close to space opera. The definition at hand doesn't really serve to distinguish that, but it's a whole other argument which this isn't the place for.

Still, there is a whole lot of this "softer" SF out there. I figure, then that I can sneak in Steve Miller and Sharon Lee's "Plan B". It does fit under the deadline, yes it does, it was published in 1999. (So there.)

Of course, having read it, you will immediately demand to read the prequels, which wouldn't meet it. Tough. Besides, you'll absolutely love them. And even if you don't agree with the categorization, you should still read them.

I figure 98% of the battle is really getting the bookstore browser to stroll over to the section marked SF at all. (THEN they can jump into the argument about whether this is soft, or hard, or space opera, or whatever.)

Miller and Lee will do that.

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 11:25 AM

Devin, your comment lost something. What comes after "like BSG"?

I've only read the first two Company books, but I think they might be a good choice.

Jesse C | December 16, 2005 11:36 AM

The books i use to get people into science fiction. The first group is for people who like to read, but are a bit put off by sf. The second group is for people with a scientific/technical bent who've never really embraced sf.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow
Zodiac, Neil Stephenson (does this count? I kinda feel that it isn't really science fiction, but it is definitely a gateway sf book.)
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

40 Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson
Darwin's Radio, Greg Bear

Things which miss the date cut off

The Real Story, Stephen Donaldson
The Three Californias, Kim Stanley Robinson

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 11:39 AM

Off topic: Congrats to Kate Nepveu, who just posted the 16,000th comment on Whatever. Large round numbers are fun.

Moleman | December 16, 2005 11:48 AM

Hmm- Well, we've got to consider where our reasonably literate human is coming from- there's a lot of different preferences that could be folded into SF from different angles. Because I'm a total pain, I'm going to play fast and loose with the 1995 date.

Cricton/Cook Techno-Thiller enthusiasts- Start with a diet of early Stephenson, maybe working up to Richard Morgan's recent stuff.

More Self-Consciously Literary Types- Early Vonnegut, working back from "Cat's Cradle," actually, is usually the best idea here, even if it's not anywhere near the suggested time frame- a lot of his earlier SFish stuff bled into mainstream fiction as accepted storytelling tropes. For some reason, I think you could also move a certain sort of person backwards into the genre by way of some Gaiman->Mieville->Gene Wolfe progression, moving from borderline Magical Realism fantasy to far future SF with some fantasy inflections. This is, however, totally insane.

I like Scott Westerfeld for this actually- the Succession books were a pretty good standard space opera that might appeal to someone who likes militaryish fiction, but they might be too far in the genre for most. We may need a sort of intermediate category, for those who you've given a few intro books but not fully immersed in the genre yet.

Martin Wagner | December 16, 2005 11:56 AM

Reply to Kate Nepveu: The Hemrys are terrific. Detailed reviews here.

Jay Tomio E. | December 16, 2005 11:57 AM

What About Adam Robert's 'Salt', Justina Robson's 'Silver Sceen', 'Mappa Mundi', and 'Natural History', Liz Williams' 'Ghost Sister' and 'Empire of Bones', Scott Westefield's 'Succesxion' duology, or Brian Aldiss's 'Heliconia' sequence (well the last one came out in '85), and Karen Traviss' 'City of Pearl'?

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 12:33 PM

Go me!

I am surprised but pleased to hear that the Hemrys are good; their packaging gives a, well, "lawyers in spaaaaace" vibe that made me roll my eyes.

I still might not like them, mind (I'm usually reading fiction to *not* think about my day job), but I might give them a shot after all.

Bob Smietana | December 16, 2005 12:49 PM

I'd say Weber's Honor Harrington books, but the past few have seemed like overstufffed, underedited, meandering first drafts rushed into publications. SF seems to have suffered from the same bestseller syndrome that have made Tom Clancy's latest books unreadable.

Old Man's War (and Agent to the Stars) were a breath of fresh air--because they were accessible--of a reasonable size (around 300 pages, if I recall) and had a straighforward storyline. No massive space opera, or epic, 14 part series. Everyone seems to want to write the Lord of the Rings these days.

michael sinclair | December 16, 2005 01:03 PM

I'm taking gateway book to mean anything published in book form, and recommending any of The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. All the stories are shorter than a novel, they cover a lot of contemporary subjects, so our hypothetical reader can sample and and maybe discover that they like that Sci-Fi thing. Let's let Mr. Dozois do the recommending for us!

If it's to be a novel I'd recommend works by Mr. Sawyer, or Ms. Bear, but I see they're getting good play here already. Also, I'm from Toronto, I've been to Bakka Books, and that must automatically disqualify one from recommending them.

The gateway novel I suggest is Blue Thunder by John Varley. Improbable science, but he doesn't make it technical (it's magic with batteries). He takes the new technology in his story, and makes an engaging story out of it. He pushes his point of view and the plot along at a brisk clip. It's not literature, but it's entertaining, and what other novel has an almost autistic, Cajun inventor/genius in it?

I'd like to make an honourable mention of The Guns of the South by Harry Turttledove. It is older than you want. There is very little science in it, except for time travel. The story's pace is good, the history is well researched, and his conclusion will make our friend think. Isn't getting our reader thinking about other possibilities the point?

David Moles | December 16, 2005 01:13 PM

Second the recent Sterling and recent Gibson recommendations, though it depends on what our reader's tastes in mainstream are. If character-driven lit-fic and memoirs are more their thing, anything by Maureen McHugh -- "Nekropolis" would be great for anyone who's into, say, Michael Ondaatje or Vikram Seth. If they've been reading Wired Magazine since before Conde Nast bought it out, then they'd probably groove on Doctorow or Stephenson.

Night Dog | December 16, 2005 01:16 PM

I will join in the recommendations of Kage Baker, Robert Charles Wilson, and Kim Stanley Robinson. All are terrific authors.

I'll add "Coyote", by Allen Steele, as a very enjoyable "gateway" book.

Randy | December 16, 2005 01:21 PM

I fit the mold of a reader that hasn't read much in the SF genre. I think the only book that I've read that would even qualify as a SF book would be Ender's Game.

That said, I've taken a few names and titles off this list and hope to check them out in the near future.

Anne C. | December 16, 2005 01:22 PM

I agree with Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. It could easily be picked up and enjoyed by a "literary" person. The only thing that might prevent it from being a great gateway is that the SF is so background to the story it almost has to be pointed out as SF. But Elizabeth Moon is a great gateway author. If someone liked her work in Speed of Dark, they might read her other works as well, which are more obviously SF.
I'd like to disagree with The Real Story by Stephen Donaldson. I didn't find that well written at all and from what I understand, his quality can be very hit or miss.

Eric Berlin | December 16, 2005 01:22 PM

I am ignoring the 1995 rule, because otherwise I would not be able to participate at all. I am a total non-reader* of science fiction, and yet absolutely loved Larry Niven's Dream Park.

*For some reason, people insist on putting Terry Pratchett in the sci-fi section, and he is one of my favorite authors. But I don't consider him science fiction. So there.

Chad Orzel | December 16, 2005 01:27 PM

I did a booklog post about this a while back, for fantasy novels, and I'll say again something that I said there: This sort of thing is highly dependent on who you're recommending books to. Someone who normally reads romance novels won't be hooked by the same sort of book that would grab a Da Vinci Code fan. You really would need to choose your recommendations based on the individual.

I tend to be a little leery of the "gosh, wow, neat ideas!" sort of books, because many books whose main strength is in the inventiveness of the gadgets that appear in the story are seriously lacking in other literary virtues.There are some exceptions-- a couple of people mentioned Robert Charles Wilson, who's a good example. Books like Spin and Blind Lake and The Chronoliths take gigantic cosmic ideas and filter them through the day-to-day actions of ordinary people. The world may or may not be ending in some alien cataclysm, but the characters are still concerned with putting food on the table, and keeping the family together. He also has the good sense to avoid technobabble.

I am inordinately fond of John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless, which is a little confusing (like all his books) but is a terrific family story in a Heinlein-esque independent Lunar colony.

I think either of those would work fairly well for someone who's a reader of mainstream literary fiction.

For people who aren't big readers of Literary fiction, but who read thrillers and spy novels, Greg Bear has taken to writing thriller-ish novels (Dead Lines, Vital Signs, things like that). They're sort of Michael Crichton books, only not so stupidly Luddite. I've only read one, which really wasn't my sort of thing, but he's got several, and a big back catalogue of much more SF-y books,that could draw people in.

I mentioned Jack McDevitt in the other thread, and I think he could work for that sort of reader as well. He's got a series of books about Archeologists in Spaaace (starting with The Engines of God that are solid, competent adventure SF. There are noble, hard-working archeologists who are thwarted by penny-pinching bureacrats, but uncover an ancient alien mystery shortly before some manner of disaster strikes, and some derring-do is required to save the day and solve the mystery. They're not great literature, but they're inventive, and could appeal to the Da Vinci Code set.

Steven Gould has a bunch of books (Jumper, Wildside, Helm, Reflex) that are basically Heinlein juveniles: young protagonist ends up in SF situation, and proceeds to take charge of events with almost supernatural calm, competence, and logic. I think they mostly miss your arbitrary cut-off date, but they're good entry-level books.

shana | December 16, 2005 01:51 PM

Matt Cheney's Mumpsimus has a great list of SF books he recommends to non-SF readers - from list, I'd highlight Jonathan Carroll.

I'd add Scott Westerfeld's PEEPS too.

Hannibal Tabu | December 16, 2005 01:58 PM

I humbly sumbit my small-press novel "The Crown: Ascension" ...


... which I've been told by many non-sci-fi fans got their attention, and had a "hard sci fi" fan ("Accelerando" hard) praise as well.

Your mileage, as always, may vary.

[Editor's Note -- remember, one of the rules for this exercise is no self-pimping -- JS]

Karl | December 16, 2005 01:59 PM

I don't understand what the big deal is about trying to get people to read science fiction. I can understand why it is of concern to Scalzi and other SF authors because of their careers, but I don't see why the SF culture is so concerned about converting people.

I'm saying this as someone that is not interested in SF. The calculus isn't a barrier. I have a BEng and a MASc in mechanical engineering and I'm working on a PhD in electrical engineering. I hang around Whatever for the insight John gives into the creative process and the writing business because I'm a creative person myself. After reading his blog for so long and endlessly hearing about OMW, I eventually read it. I found it lively and entertaining. It was a great read -- I loved it -- but I wouldn't bother reading it if I wasn't addicted to the blog first. I also wouldn't bother to recommend it to people that don't have SF interests.

While my career is highly technical, my interests are more artistic and philosophical. I mostly read non-fiction. When it comes to fiction, I find myself most attracted to literary-type reading that sometimes gets panned in the comments around here. It's not that science fiction isn't real literature. I'm looking for something meaty in terms of insight into human nature or to find a new idea that I hadn't thought of before. I would think that that SF would have a lot to offer in this regard. (I'm planning to read Accelerando some day because it John has said a few times that it is full if mind-blowing ideas.) However, when I see the SF racks at the bookstore, I see tons of spaceships and people in space suits and it's overwhelming. How can I know whether it's just a geeky story about the coolness of spaceships or whether it has some new and profound ideas in it.

Perhaps the problem is that I want a profoundly good story first. The setting for me is not important. When I see books in the SF section, I get the impression that the SF is more important than the quality of the story. I'm sure that there are excellent SF books out there but there is no way for me to tell which books are any good. The most obvious indication for me of a good SF book would be for me to find it outside the SF part of the bookstore. (Now that some people have mentioned that Atwood's book could be classified as SF (was it the Blind Assassin?), I might pick that one up.)

The SF culture is talking about converting people to SF but I don't see the point. The key, I think, to successfully promoting SF is to blur the distinction between SF and other forms of literature rather than forging a strong identity. When I hear people talking about converting other people to SF it just reinforces the geekiness. Do you want a strong SF identity (a geeky culture) or do you want mainstream appeal? I don't think that you can have both.

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 02:02 PM

Dear me, I missed the recommendation for the first book in Donaldson's "Gap" series.

For some reason, I have a fondness for these books, but I haven't dared re-read to see how they hold up. I would *not* recommend them as a gateway--_The Real Story_ is about how one of our three protagonists captures, rapes, and breaks one of the other two.

jess | December 16, 2005 02:07 PM

To speak of my own experiences, as someone who loved reading Heinlein, Clarke, and Orson Scott Card as a teenager, the book that sucked me into adult sci-fci was "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow.

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 02:12 PM

Karl writes,

The most obvious indication for me of a good SF book would be for me to find it outside the SF part of the bookstore. (Now that some people have mentioned that Atwood's book could be classified as SF (was it the Blind Assassin?), I might pick that one up.)

Ah, this is sad to me. As far as I'm concerned, generally when a science fiction book is shelved in mainstream, it's by an author who's "respectable" and (usually) hasn't bothered to do any homework, and ends up re-inventing the wheel with clumsy exposition, blatant moralizing, etc.

If you like the stuff you find in the mainstream section, that's great; but I have a very different perspective on what gets a science fiction book out of the genre section of the bookstore.

(This is less true for fantasy. See _Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell_, for instance.)

The key, I think, to successfully promoting SF is to blur the distinction between SF and other forms of literature rather than forging a strong identity.

I'm not sure that this can be *done*, because of reading protocols. To crib an example from Debra Doyle, if there's a detailed description of a room in a novel, mystery readers will look for clues, mainstream readers for theme or symbols, and science fiction readers for worldbuilding. This is a hard thing to get around.

To you, by the way, I recommend _A Deepness in the Sky_ by Vernor Vinge, which has fascinating aliens, great characters (including some of those aliens), and a gripping story. It's long and is more complex than I'd recommend for a real newbie, but it's excellent.

Karl | December 16, 2005 02:25 PM

Kate wrote:
If you like the stuff you find in the mainstream section, that's great; but I have a very different perspective on what gets a science fiction book out of the genre section of the bookstore.

I haven't read even the stuff I might see in the mainstream section. All I've read (that I can remember) is Scalzi's book, a friend's unfinished novel, Space Odessy 200? (in high-school for class) and miscellanious stuff as a pre-teen.

Mary | December 16, 2005 02:26 PM

As a romance readers (who's come over to science fiction bit by bit) I have a deep need for some kind of relationship in the books I read. (hero/heroine, whether any consumation is achieved or not, or it's just a thinnly veiled connection between the opposite sexes) These are the books I've picked up to fulfill that criteria.

S.L. Viehl's STARDOC series
Wen Spencer's UKAIH OREGON and TINKER series
Elizabeth Moon's VATTA'S WAR (although the romance is minimal to non-existent at best)
Lois McMaster Bujold's VORKOSIGAN series (I cannot believe LMB is not a legend in the genre. This series is awesome and should be on recommended reading lists. Yes, it was started before '95, but it runs past that. For a romance reader, this is a very smooth [and completely painless] transition into science fiction. Recommended reading, I tell you!)
Catherine Asaro's SKOLIAN EMPIRE
I also second Linnea Sinclair's books for recommendation.

Jesse C | December 16, 2005 02:38 PM

I was the one who mentioned the Donaldson. I love the gap series, reading it the first time still ranks as one of the best sf experiences I've had (had a similar one with Ilium lately. NOT a starter sf, but so good). The ending, just wow. Since then I've re-read it a couple times and it's still good, but not as magic.

It has to be the right person, I wouldn't recomend it to someone who was skittish. But the outward expansion of the story, from the very short opening to the 'real story' is a pretty cool story-telling mechanism and I've had people who have loved it.

Chris S. | December 16, 2005 02:46 PM


The Atwood could have been THE HANDMAID'S TALE or ORYX & CRAKE, both of which have SF themes.

But you should definitely take a look at David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS (also recommended upthread), and possibly THE CARPET MAKERS, by Andreas Eschbach.

Jesse C | December 16, 2005 02:48 PM

Cloud Atlas is just an amazing book, period. Not a whole lot of sf in it, but enough so that it qualifies I'd say. One of the best novels I've read in a long, long time.

Jesse C | December 16, 2005 02:50 PM

Bah, lost the rest.

The best thing about using Cloud Atlas to get someone into sf is that it creeps up on them in the book. So they get all lured in and then, bam, sf.

Tosy and Cosh | December 16, 2005 03:16 PM

I'm not a bad target for this exercise, actually. I am reasonably literate, unstupid, and technologically competent. My experience with literary SF is not quite limited to SF I was assigned (not sure I was ever assigend any in high school or college), but I haven't read much SF in years. As a teen I read a bunch of Asimov, and in college and after indulged in more than a few of the Star Wars novels, read several years ago (and absolutely loved) Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS trilogy, and read Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, but that's about it. Some of the current books that I've been enjoyed the most in the past 10 years are Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT, Edward P. Jones' THE KNOWN WORLD, Stephen King's THE GREEN MILE, BAG OF BONES, and DARK TOWER, Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND KLAY, Barbara Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, and JK Rowling's HARRY POTTER books. I'll have to see if any of the recommendations above speak to me.

Denis M | December 16, 2005 03:20 PM

My 60something mother-in-sin isn't particularly a sci-fi fan, but she loves Pat Murphy's books (such as "There and Back Again", a Hobbit retelling) and Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series. How sci-fi-ish those are is a separate question...

Jetse | December 16, 2005 03:23 PM

Call me contrary, but I think that the best "Gateway SF" is, quite simply, giving people the very best SF, not something that's in between marketing category X (mainstream, literature, horror, crime, and what-have-you) and marketing category Y (in this case science fiction).

Proudly supply them with -- what you think -- is the best example of the genre that you love.

A short, and very incomplete list:

--Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling (much better than Zeitgeist and Distraction that were mentioned above;

--River of Gods by Ian McDonald (actually, almost anything by him. My favourite -- Terminal Café [or Necroville in the UK] is from before 1995, but Chaga\Evolution's Shore and Kirinya are also brilliant);

--Light by M. John Harrison: his most 'pure' SF work;

--Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang;

--Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds;

--Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick;

--The Separation by Chris Priest (possibly the best Alternate History ever written);

--Futureland by Walter Mosley (OK: he's mainly a crime fiction writer. But this just blew me away);

--Accelerando by Charlie Stross (why bother with Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise? Nothing wrong with those, but I think that if you recommend a 'Gateway SF' novel to somebody you should give them the absolute best, simply because you, most probably, will get only one chance. So that one single chance should hit home like a meteor, at least. Therefore: Accelerando: futureshock them into submission! No half measures! And when the halfway tech-savvie modern person is too overwhelmed, at least she/he will know where the bleeding edge is);

--Diaspora by Greg Egan (or Teranesia, or Distress. Schild's Ladder is the best hard SF novel ever written, but here even I will admit that it's a step too far for the uninitiated. Or to paraphrase Al Reynolds: "Jetse, I'm a scientist myself, and I fervently tried to understand this novel on a scientific level, but failed." Nevertheless, Greg Egan is essential SF reading).

A lot of you will probably think that most of the books in this (hastily compiled) list are too off-putting for possible 'new' SF readers. I say: hit them with your best shot, because it may be the only one you've got.

Phillip J. Birmingham | December 16, 2005 03:38 PM

Therefore: Accelerando: futureshock them into submission! No half measures!

You know, I took a similar approach to getting my acrophobic sister used to roller coasters. "Let's take the Shockwave! That's the worst one, and when you see how much fun it is, you won't be scared of any of the others."

It wasn't until about a third of the way in, when I heard the horrified wail from the seat behind me, that I realized how bad an idea that was.

Abigail | December 16, 2005 03:46 PM


I think your use of the term 'convert' is problematic and misleading. No one here is trying to get non-SF readers to read nothing but SF. I've been reading science fiction for as long as I've been reading adult fiction and I wouldn't want to read it exclusively. I mentioned in the parent thread to this discussion that I had read 13 SF novels and 19 fantasy novels this year. What I didn't say was that I've read over one hundred books this year. I enjoy my eclecticism, and I think I would be terribly diminished if I could only read one kind of book.

The purpose of this discussion, therefore, is not to kidnap unwary readers of literary fiction, but to find a way to introduce avid readers to a genre that they may end up liking if only they give it a chance. You don't care for SF, which is perfectly fine, but there's a difference between knowing that you don't care for something because you've tried it and thinking that you don't care for something because you don't really know what it is. It is for the latter type of person that we're compiling these lists.

Jetse, I would argue that there is a need for gateway SF, just as there is for almost any kind of genre. For the last three years I've been trying to get into comics, with only limited success. Some of the seminal works of the genre have left me cold, and I've discovered that I'm not entirely certain how to read comics - do I look at the pictures first or read the text first, or am I supposed to combine the two. Every genre has its rules and conventions, and there is a need, when introducing a new reader, for a gentle sort of onramp. For this reason, I wouldn't give a newbie SF reader Ian McDonald's River of Gods, excellent as it is, because it is a little bit too technical (as Chad points out, this also has to do with the specific reader).

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 03:48 PM

Yeah. I love me the Charlie Stross, but he fails the mother-in-law test spectacularly. She'd get about three pages into Accelerando before she'd set the book down to get something out of the oven, and then never ever pick it up again.

Jeff Porten | December 16, 2005 03:59 PM

I'm amazed to be 60-odd posts in and not see any graphic novels mentioned. Superhero fiction is going to be either/or on the fantasy/SF spectrum -- I'd call Superman fantasy, and Batman SF. There are any number of self-contained stories that could work here: Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns both come to mind immediately.

And my author I'd use for intros would probably be David Brin. I wouldn't foist the Uplift Saga on a non-reader, but I think both Kiln People and Earth work as a great starter course; the former is post-1995.

Devin L. Ganger | December 16, 2005 04:10 PM

Kate, sorry about the missing bit of the comment -- PEBCAK.

As I was saying, like BSG, the Hemry books do a very good job of presenting a world that non-fans can very easily relate to. They can focus on what's going on with the characters and the story, and more importantly relate to them, because the setting feels somewhat familiar despite being on spaceships in the future. The average consumer has gotten enough exposure to what "life on Navy ships" is like to be able to apply that experience to the books.

dave | December 16, 2005 04:10 PM

Accelerando would seem to be about the worst possible counter-example to being a "gateway" book. To even get through the first of the nine stories you pretty much need to have read everything Gibson or Sterling ever wrote, to understand the near-future commerce. After that, gets progressively wierder. At the one-third point, you also need to have read a fair amount of MacCleod, in order to understand post-Singularity political maneuverings. After that, it get's progressively weirder. By around about two-thirds of the way through the book you need to have read everything Egan ever wrote, as he's doing the same sort of "all of the main characters should have their physics and geometry reformatted every three paragraphs" thing, but more so. After that, it gets progressively weirder.

Plus, there's the sodomy. And the lobsters. Although, to be fair, I'm not sure anymore if there was any actual sodomy with lobsters.

A towering acheivement, but it's not exactly "Farmer in the Sky".

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 04:23 PM


"I'm not sure anymore if there was any actual sodomy with lobsters."

You don't remember the scene with the hot tub of clarified garlic butter?

Allow me again to reaffirm my luuuurve for Accelerando, and to encourage all members of the Tribe in good standing to consider its purchase (or at least read the free online version, which is also available at the link). But yeah. "Anti-gateway" is pretty much correct.

Luke | December 16, 2005 04:28 PM

Abigail, I'm curious which works you looked at in the comic area and considered seminal and found unimpressive (asks someone who has read very little in the area, but has found a few things worthwhile)

Kate Nepveu | December 16, 2005 04:29 PM

Jeff Porten, when this came up regarding fantasy, I objected to graphic novels on the grounds that I didn't want my newbie readers to have to assimilate *two* new reading protocols at the same time.

dichroic | December 16, 2005 04:29 PM

I concur with To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I'd also recommend Connie Willis's Bellwether, which is particularly funny if you've ever worked for a large corporation or done much work with statistics.

Scott | December 16, 2005 04:38 PM

I know it's practically heretical... but I think the best way to broach SF to a non SF fan is in shorter format works.

Short stories (no I can't think of any off-hand) movies or comic-books.

Hard-SF movies have mostly stunk (Okay, so I didn't really like 2001, commence firing), but if you can get people interested in, or at least used to playing the "How does this world work" game, they'll probably fall into SF books with ease. The problem with Movie SF is that because they're so expensive to make, jackholes decide that the movie MUST pander to the imaginary idiots that buy tickets... not the real idiots, because they can and do make intuitive world-recognition leapsbut the imaginary ones... who can't interpret "it's a stealth fighter" and need a followup comment like, "You mean we won't be able to track it on radar?" much less "Yes, they have special designs which make radar useless!" (forgetting the SF novelists who will then explain how radar works, and then how stealth technology works... that stuff can be reaaaaaally interesting if you're interested (see also: How I read Neal Stephenson books and enjoy them) or reaaaaaaaly boring if you're not (see also: how I can't read a lot of low-end hard SF))

For anybody who is resistant to foul language... I'd say something like Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan is a great gateway to a certain arm of SF. (just because it's an easy format doesn't mean it's conceptually empty).

chris heimpel | December 16, 2005 05:28 PM

Ellis's Orbiter would be great too. It's just so damn optimistic. And the Planetes series too. Space garbagemen. You can't go wrong there

Qwerty ZXCV | December 16, 2005 05:34 PM

Imaginary wife you say? No I wouldn't dream of calling your wife imaginary. Mislead perhaps...but not imaginary.

One caveat I think should be brought up. It's possibly one you, Mr. Scalzi, left untouched with the hope someone would breach the subject and allow you a segue.

"Assume your audience is a reasonably literate human adult (25+) who is unstupid and technologically competent (i.e., can use a computer, cell phone and iPod), but whose literary SF experience is limited to whatever SF they may have been assigned in high school and college...and male"

There I said it. I regret it already and can feel those evil eyes upon me.

That's not to say SF is entirely for men or that women have no business reading it. I am simply asserting the acknowledgement that of that audience you are looking to find a recommendation for, a great deal of the looking involves finding an SF book that a woman over 25 would find interesting.

A much more attainable goal would be to find an introductory book written for an audience who is reasonably literate, human adult (25+), unstupid, and technologically competent (i.e., can use a computer, cell phone and iPod), but whose literary SF experience is limited to whatever SF they may have been assigned in high school and college...and male.

Use me as a piñata if you have to or ignore me as uncouth and "ig-nint". I think it is an important point worth mentioning.

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 05:40 PM


Huh? I'm not entirely sure I'm following at all what you're trying to say here.

However, you can be assured I wrote exactly what I intended to write, and had I wanted to append "... and male" in there anywhere, I would have done it. Saying what I actually intend to say has never been a difficulty of mine.

claire | December 16, 2005 05:44 PM

"jennifer government" by max barry

Jesse C | December 16, 2005 06:13 PM

I've given both Pattern Recognition, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and The Real Story to different girls and all three have loved their books. Maybe I just have cooler friends . . . Not really sure where the 'and male' part comes from.

Cassie | December 16, 2005 06:19 PM

Just under the wire: Firestar by Michael Flynn, published 1996, according to Amazon.

I really enjoyed the entire series.

Sheri Tepper is also a favorite read, but Grass and The Gate to Women's Country are both pre-95. I find her more recent writings less enjoyable and less accessible. I think that either of these titles might be a good introduction, however.

Whoever said it above, I agree: short stories are really the best way to introduce SF to a novice. Somewhere in the basement is a collection of short stories published by Omni Magazine. They were the best SF I read in the 90's.

Card's Ender/Bean series was good until the last book - what happened there?

Jim | December 16, 2005 06:39 PM

I think David Gerrod might be a good introduction (not his War with the Chtorr series, they've aged beyond ten years and I am really distressed that that many years have gone by without the long-awaited next book in the series...) with his recent Jumping off the Planet (and its two sequels)... or do you consider them to be YA? My 23 yr old daughter read my copies and enjoyed them.

Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series -- either Altered Carbon or Broken Angels -- I enjoyed both and this thread on the Whatever has just reminded me to pop over to Amazon and order the latest one.

I like a lot of S.M. Stirling's books, although they are only obliquely S.F. (i.e., okay, so something tossed Nantucket Island back into ancient history, but after that...)

How about Elizabeth Bear's stuff? I bought Hammered based on your mention of it, am currently reading Scardown and already have a copy of Worldwired sitting on my nightstand.

John Birmingham 's Axis of Time series -- I devoured Weapons of Choice (and I believe Santa Claus saw Designated Targets on my Amazon Wishlist) and think your hypothetical average non-SF reader could get into it.

Charles Stross' Accelerando is awesome but perhaps Singularity Sky might be easier for a novice SF reader...

And, you know, that Scalzi guy's Old Man's War really would be a good book to start someone into SF...

Emily | December 16, 2005 06:55 PM

I agree with Anne C.; I read and loved "The Speed of Dark" to the point of giving *three* copies of it for Christmas last year, but I don't consider it sci-fi. Yes, it's the future and there's new technology, but it didn't strike me as any more sci-fi than Nora Roberts's J.D. Robb "... In Death" series, which has a lot of nifty technology, but is fundamentally a mystery series. Am I wrong there as well? Can anyone give me a definition of sci-fi? I'm going to check out many of these gateway books, but I'm having a hard time understanding how the same genre can encompass both "The Speed of Dark" and "Ender's Game". (Not to mention "Dune"? Is "Dune" sci-fi? Being quiet now...)

elizabeth bear | December 16, 2005 07:05 PM

I am in agreement with a lot of the names mentioned here, and want to fork over one more: Liz Williams, Nine Layers of Sky.

sceptre1067 | December 16, 2005 07:06 PM

This sneaks in, published in 1997. Good wrist slitting fun...
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A good exploration of interacting with an alien culture and the nature of faith.

Besides it has Jesuits in space!

elizabeth bear | December 16, 2005 07:07 PM


The Speed of Dark and Dune are both science fiction. And often named as among the best of the genre.

It's a really big marketing category we have here.

Joseph | December 16, 2005 07:51 PM

If you can find it, _Headcrash_ is a lot of fun (and I'm not just saying that because I grew up within five miles of where the main character went to high school), although, being published in 1995, it is starting to show its age (we're in the future of its future, now).

While it might fail the 'mother-in-law' test, I'd say that Tad Williams's _Otherland_ series is pretty good...at least the first three books. They're pretty hefty, though.

If she's published anything new in the last 10 years, I'd say C.J. Cherryh would be a good choice, as her older stuff is very good.

I'm a little frustrated by this, as I moved away from reading quite so much science fiction and fantasy in the last few years, and tried to look backwards in my science fiction there, too (Gibson, Cherryh, Heinlein, et. al).

Tansy Rayner Roberts | December 16, 2005 08:14 PM

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - based on a very hard SF concept, but it's all about the people: a romance, a story of marriage and family, comedy, drama... best book I read this year.

And anything by Connie Willis.

Greg | December 16, 2005 09:21 PM

Someone mentioned Varley's Blue Thunder. I'd also recommend Mammoth, which would make a nice gateway book since it has a bit of a thriller feel to it.

Bryan | December 16, 2005 11:05 PM

I read the no sucking up rule. However, I will say that Old Man's War passed the mother-in-law test in my household. When my mother-in-law visited she was looking for something to read. She typically reads romances. Despite the large number of books that I have, I had no romances to loan her. I gave her OMW. She stayed up all night to finish it. The next day she asked me if there was a sequel. OMW is clearly a gateway book if I have ever seen one.

I would also second the numerous mentions of Roberty Saywer and Greg Bear.

WaywardSailorGirl | December 16, 2005 11:30 PM

Prior to reading other's comments I became excited about being able to recommend "The Speed of Dark" by Elizabeth Moon...alas, I'm about the tenth person to do so. I'm not as unique and cutting edge as I thought...

But I do think of "The Speed of Dark" as a great crossover novel between SciFi and Contemporary Literature. I've recommended it myself to an online Literary Fiction Discussion group. Without including any spoilers, here's an excerpt of what I wrote for that group.

"...I believe this book has slipped under the radar of most who follow literary fiction. Elizabeth Moon is primarily a scifi/fantasy writer, but "The Speed of Dark" is distinctly different from anything else she has written. Yes, the book takes place a decade or two into the future, but it deals with the subject matter in a more contemporary way."

So there's my two cents...

Laura | December 16, 2005 11:33 PM

Colour me wierd, but I have rarely met ladies of my age or older reading SF. Younger, it happens more often.

Same with PC gaming. In circa 1994, I was one of two females in Tribes1. Now there are countless, and many are quite good.

Back to SF. I don't think the process is as simple as finding a gateway SF book. The person in question has to want to read in order to get new ideas in the "what it" situation. Many educated readers are lining their brains with pleasant scenes from life, a la bestsellers list and so on. Personally, I am incapable of reading these books. I would much rather bang my head against some non-fiction books. You can torture me all you want, but I will break under repetition.

However, these are some SF suggestions for the SF beginner: Anything by Robert Asprin & collaborator, such as currently "E.Godz" by Robert Asprin & Esther Friesner. Good light reading that immerses you in a separate world without straining any part of the person's brain. More SF-ish would be "Time Scout" & "Wagers of Sin" by Robert Asprin & Linda Evans.

From a different agle, I would suggest Margaret Atwood's "Oryx & Crake"

As you can see, I am beind in current SF, mostly because I can't afford to buy new books, I read libray stuff, and they usually don't buy the complete series.

Anne C. | December 17, 2005 12:11 AM

Laura, you are not in the least wierd. I do not know how old you are, but my Mum is a voracious scifi and fantasy reader and has been for at least 40 of her 56 years. Her collection of books is a true wonder. I never needed a "gateway" myself, she was my guide.

Soni | December 17, 2005 12:19 AM

I have a few suggestions, although I am invoking the arbitrator's judgement on the first one, since it's really hard to place, genre-wise.

Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I've never been sure if this is more of a philosophical literary thought-experiment that takes place in an alternate universe or an alternate universe sci-fi novel with deeply philosophical overtones and an extremely literary presentation, but I think it would be a great gateway book for the character-driven literary novel reader.

For the mystery and/or romance fan, I suggest any of Nora Roberts' In Death series (although I would suggest starting from the beginning). Solidly entertaining cop mysteries with a hot, hot, hot romance backstory and a fun cast of characters all running around in a cool futuristic sci-fi setting.

On a nay-saying note, I have to say that while I OMG-LURVED!!! Gibson's Idoru, I can't see it being a first-stab read for a budding sci-fi toe-dipper - unless your reader happens to have an existing preference for shaky-cam liquid-plotted oil-slick-color-shifting stream-of-consciousness writing from the get-go. A great mental coaster ride for the experienced sci-fi buff, but I'd rate it as more than somewhat challenging for the virginal "normal book" reader.

Matt McIrvin | December 17, 2005 01:25 AM

A data point on China Mountain Zhang (which I think is post-95): That was the second SF book we recommended to my mother-in-law, after she'd read and loved Ender's Game. And she liked China Mountain Zhang as well and started reading some other Maureen McHugh. So I can testify that it's a good one, though I can't say she's gone on to be a huge SF reader in general.

Kevin Marks | December 17, 2005 02:22 AM

I definitely go along with the Connie Willis suggestions, and Interface, both of which have worked for me.
Approaching it from another angle, is to find a science fiction book that talks about the field they are interested in.
I have recommended Willis's Remake to film folks (and Agent, obviously).
I have also recommended Baxter's Manifold Time to physicist who have no time for fiction, but it might well be an anit-gateway for others.

Abigail | December 17, 2005 04:46 AM

Luke, a few examples of comics classics that left me cold or at least not fully satisfied:

A lot of the early Sandman volumes were a struggle for me. I adored the story and the characters, but the art was so ugly. It's not until A Game of You that you start seeing vaguely acceptable work. I took some aesthetic pleasure from Brief Lives, and the only volume whose artwork I unreservedly loved was The Kindly Ones. It really cut into my enjoyment of an otherwise spectacular story. Endless Nights and the Death books were just pointless.

I've had nothing but failures with the noir classics of the genre. I was rolling my eyes at The Dark Knight Returns and Transmetropolitan, and I had serious problems with (sit down, comics people, take a deep breath) Watchmen. I understand how reading these books in the mid and late 80s would have felt like having the top of your head screwed off, but as someone who was never into superheroes in the first place and who had already had her fill of their deconstruction (I read Watchmen several months after watching a Disney film with a roughly analogous premise), I was left to concentrate on Moore's heavy-handed paranoia and distrust of authority. Plus, again, the artwork wasn't great.

Craig Thompson's Blankets is beautifully drawn, but the story is dull. A prose writer would have gotten this personal tale of first love and religious disillusionment out of their system in their first creative writing class in college, and it's suggestive of a potential problem with the comics medium that Thompson's version of the story took up a sizable chunk of his career thus far.

Comics I have loved include Jeff Smith's Bone (shut up), which combines Calvin and Hobbes-level artwork with a winning sweetness and a fresh twist on The Lord of the Rings, David B.'s Epileptic, Maus, of course, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and few others that I enjoyed but didn't love (1602, Fray).

David Goldfarb | December 17, 2005 05:27 AM

Abigail: I can't help wondering what you think we're going to say about Bone that you want us to shut up about. I really liked it myself. (There was a while when my first printing Bone #2 was the most valuable comic I owned...lost it in a fire some years back, alas.)

You mentioned earlier being unsure whether to look at the picture first or read the text first. For myself, at the risk of seeming to brag, I'd say that my reading speed is quick enough that I sort of perceive each panel as a gestalt. Doing a bit of reading just now while introspecting, I'd say that I start at the upper left corner of each panel and sweep across and down till I hit the lower right. If the panel is put together by someone who knows what he's doing, that should get you the various elements in about the right order.

Based on what you say about your tastes, here are a couple of comics I think you'd enjoy:
Zot! by Scott McCloud. The adventures of a teenage super-hero from a utopian SF world...and a teenage girl from a world a lot more like our own. By turns funny, charming, and touching.
True Story Swear to God by Tom Beland. An autobiographical romance comic, funny and sweet.

Sorry for the complete off-topicness...

MattArnold | December 17, 2005 09:56 AM

To answer the question of what would make good gateway science fiction, we'd have to know why it is that the newcomer doesn't enjoy Accelerando, and then fix that. Why does a person choose science fiction at all, instead of something else? Why go to the bookshelf at all, instead of watching TV?

Science fiction has one main advantage over other kinds of fiction: thought experiments about the future you and I will live to see. I don't mean it should be a thinly disguised philosophical and political tract; it should stand on literary merit of course. But thought experiments about my nonfantasy real-world would not be served by the suspension of disbelief required by fantasy. When I read a work which satisfies me, it persuasively compels my belief and involves an act of the will to suspend belief, not to suspend disbelief. I have to make an effort to use my critical thinking skills to see the problems with it or detect if the author is, in my opinion, wrong. This is a second stage to the reading process which I also enjoy.

So how do we instill this in a newcomer? Before our newcomer embarks on science fiction, there is a non-fiction book this new person needs to read: Unbounding the Future by Eric K. Drexler. It is available in print and for free on the web. This is the work that first presented to me a realistic possibility that within our lifetimes we could see technological revolutions which could overturn all the assumptions of the present world. I love the world-view-changing, paradigm-shifting, "real-life-type-of-scary" experience called future shock. That's what I read science fiction for.

Then they're ready to read Accelerando. The shock of strangeness and unfamiliarity will be the whole point, not an obstacle. If you can't get them interested in the feeling of future shock about what's going to happen to them within our lifetimes, then you have to ask yourself why you feel such a need for them to read science fiction at all.

newscaper | December 17, 2005 10:12 AM

My first post here so a little SF bio:
I'm 40, cut my teeth on 2001: A Space Odyssey and real-life Apollo. I first got into written SF in elementary school -- an older sister and brother introduced me to Andre Norton then Robert Heinlein. Between them and Star Trek TOS and afternoon 50s scifi flicks on TV I was already indoctrinated before Star Wars hit me around 6th grade.

These last several years I have not read a lot of SF, with a first child, a career change -- plus actually having some decent SF on TV (something I didn't know was possible to my adult sensibilities).

But here's a few comments on topic:

I just read Weber's On Basilisk Station for the first time. Admittedly outside of the 1995 window, it really would be a good into for someone into Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey. But Weber's characterization is a bit shallow. In a similar vein but with a much more fleshed out, darker, protagonist is David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope. I think it was right about 1995.

For the mystery or police procedural types -- and within the time window-- there's Blue Limbo by Terence M. Green. Near future that is mostly familiar, the one real SF hook is a new technology that makes it possible to revive the brains of the recently deceased, but only for 24 hours or so. You can imagine why the police might be interested but theres some real pathos as people get one last chance to say goodbye. FWIW this was written long before Spielberg's AI.

For the romance novel types... a lot of SF women enjoy Catherine Asaro's novels. Having really enjoyed the relationship elements of Babylon 5, Farscape and Firely, I thought I'd give Asaro a whirl for written SF with a love story. Personally I couldn't get past the "romance" style of writing, but, still, they come highly recomended.

I think John is basically right, that SF is at least partly in a self-made ghetto.

PS, John, I'm with you on Speaker for the Dead actually topping Ender's Game. Spaceships are just background, there are no battles but the depth of the characters and the emotion they evoke...Wow.
or perhaps I should say that there are some battles, but more on an emotional level. But it definitely only works if one has read Ender's Game.

newscaper | December 17, 2005 10:14 AM

I went and read Benford's blog, and I think he's at least partly correct too.

John H. Costello | December 17, 2005 11:26 AM

My entry into reading SF came from the old Flash Gordon daily comic in a newspaper I found in 1960. I knew what SF was -- I watched "Science Fiction Theater" -- and then I found "Strange Adventures," the DC SF comic, and other (much more badly illustrated by people other than Murphy Anderson and Infantino)comics. This led to the Winston Juveniles at my library, Dig Allen, Tom Corbett, and almost immediately to Amazing, Ace Doubles (Ray Cummings' Wandl the Invader and Brigands of the Moon [which Clark, in his autobiography, describes as HIS first SF read!] I most earnestly recommend.) Murray Leinster became accessible after I figured out what a Landing Grid was, and he hooked me for life. Poul Anderson's Orbit Unlimited put me off for about two years after I bought it, then, after The High Crusade -- wow! and I was hooked on Anderson for life, and went back to the earlier book ad found that I could understand it. Then I discovered Analog and bought lots of old Astoundings. Piper. Heinlein actually came later, around the time of Podkayne of Mars.
I never got into Tolkien. I could not figure out where Middle Earth was in relation to the world I knew. In general, I don't read much fantasy.
What I remember about my then growing sophistication was first an understanding that there was more than one future, and more than one possible present. That it was speculation. It was not TRUTH!
I would recomend a reading list high on Leiber and Sheckley short stories. Novels simply contain too much that is new and as-yet-unassimilated. You have to limit what new ideas you introduce in short stories and even novellas. Developing a taste for SF takes time.

John Scalzi | December 17, 2005 11:39 AM

Be that as it may, the hope here is to find SF *in the last decade* that would be acceptable and useful for first-time readers. Leiber and Sheckley (and most of what else you mention) don't fit that bill.

I'm not confining the list to just novels, however -- SF short stories that would make a good introduction are also fair game.

Rob | December 17, 2005 11:47 AM

Alastair Reynolds - Chasm City.

I know, it's the middle book of a three book series, but it hooked me into reading the rest. I still think it's the best of the bunch.

Mark Poling | December 17, 2005 12:14 PM

I'm kind of surprised no one mentioned Sharon Shin's Archangel. I believe that came out in 1997, so I think it passes the test. (And yes, it does come across as fantasy, but one of Clarke's Law type of fatasies).

Mark Poling | December 17, 2005 12:23 PM

Follow-up: I pretty much stopped reading SF in the mid-90s, and I don't think that's a coincidence. It seems to me that around that time it became unfashionable for SF to be optimistic. (I blame William Gibson and Greg Bear. Fine writers, and I wouldn't want them to write any other way, but damn, spend a month reading their ouevre back-to-back and then spend a week contemplating the best way to commit suicide.)

Maybe the nihilism is passing from SF now. I hope so. We get enough of that crap from everyplace else.

RonInAz | December 17, 2005 12:53 PM

Walter Jon William's Praxis series (Dread Empire's Fall; The Sundering, The Praxis and Conventions of War), would be a good start on science fiction. Its more a tale of characters than hard science.

Certainly any of Ian M. Banks' work would be a great entry point.

His Player of Games and Use of Weapons falls outside the window of ten years though...I recall a 1992 paperback prior to the 1997 copy.

Shelby | December 17, 2005 01:04 PM

For someone who's comfortable with Homer and/or Greek mythology, I'd reccomend Dan Simmons' Ilium (I bought but haven't yet read the second book, Olympos). Not for other entry-level readers, though. (I'd suggest more of his, but much of the best is pre-'95.)

I'll second suggestions of John Ringo for fans of military-oriented fiction, and he often includes significant degrees of romance. I don't think Weber is quite the thing here; the books usually deal extensively with space battles and characters evaluating vectors, velocities and accelaration. Too "hard SF" for most new readers. (Crown of Slaves may be an exception of Weber's.)

As always, I'm startled at how many of the favorites people list I haven't read, or planned to read. Thanks for the suggestions!

Kevin Murphy | December 17, 2005 01:06 PM

For those suggesting Varley's Blue Thunder, I think you mean Red Thunder -- Blue Thunder is the forthcoming sequel. Good choice given that, especially as a juvenile. The John Varley Reader is also good, even though only the collection is recent, the stories go back a bit.

For moving from mainstream to SF, Connie Willis's Doomsday Book is a a great start, if a 1993 book. Someone called it a disaster, but it did win the Hugo...


Sean McMullen The Centurion's Empire -- very low-tech SF.

John Barnes Mother of Storms --global warming!

Ken MacLeod The Star Fraction -- for the politically-aware reader.

Peter | December 17, 2005 01:15 PM

I guess the problem I see with this is that, even 20 years ago, most sf geeks started by reading the classics and then worked their way up to the present. I'm 24, and I got hooked on sf with Asimov at age 8 by The Caves of Steel. I proceeded from there to Card, Clarke, etc... and eventually PKD and Harlan Ellison and the new wavers. I occassionally pick up new sf, and when I do, I get it just fine, but I guess what I wonder is - other than the Golden Age and its immedietely following decades, was sf ever really producing a significant number of new works designed to evangelize? I've never really seen anyone get hooked on the genre except by starting with older classics; why should now be different?

John Scalzi | December 17, 2005 01:26 PM


"I've never really seen anyone get hooked on the genre except by starting with older classics; why should now be different?"

Among many reasons, because introducing people to a genre that looks into the future by giving them works that are a half-century old seems, at best, counter-intuitive. Also, because it would be nice if modern-day SF writers made as much from their work a dead ones who don't need the cash anymore.

Quilly Mammoth | December 17, 2005 01:58 PM

Ringo, Weber, Drake and Flint.

SF is being lapped by fantasy because of the absolute demand by a select few that SF be lit-er-ar-choor and if one simply must involve science that it be very heady science indeed.

Books which meet this criteria are the ones voted for by Worldcon Elect, influenced by RASFW and enabled by the agenda driven editors of the magazines and publishers. What is touted most by the cognoscenti simply isn't marketable to the vast unwashed masses. Nor is most of it light, fun reading.

What is accessible? Try much of the stuff that Baen or small presses like Yard Dog Press (Selina Rosen publishes some fun crap :))produce. If you want a new Heinlein I'd suggest John Ringo. I just finished "Into the Looking Glass" and Ringo mixes his usual mil-SF action with Higgs bosons and the often thin line between Quantum Mechanics and Theology. But just a bit. Most of it is just good escapism.

The difference between producing for a small audience and getting the average Jane to buy SF is most clearly shown by the readers of Baen's Bar. Every year the "Barflies" (members of Baen's online forum) select a few conventions to attend. The difference between the Barflies and the rest of fen is striking. The Barflies are, well, normal. And the rest simply aren't.

Also, many of us first were introduced to SF by picking up Analog or another such magazine at the local drug store. That doesn't happen anymore...and much of what is inside today's magazines isn't accessible to the mainstream. Baen and Flint have a solution to that which I'm sure more will be spoken of shortly...

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for works by Charlie Stross;there most certainly is. But unless publishers and editors make a commitment to produce works that have broad appeal SF readership will soon be like the Shakers.


Joel Rosenberg | December 17, 2005 02:33 PM

I'll also second the recent Varley, and add in anything by Joe Haldeman that fits your time scheme. (In both cases, I think one can get more out of the books if you're familiar with the literature, but that's not an argument against them being good entry points.)

Mike Ford, sure, although you've got to assume either a higher IQ, greater familiarity with non-SF literature, or both, in a lot of cases.

More generally, I think with the Thunder book(s) (I'm assuming what's true about the first will hold for the second), Varley's onto something both good and obvious -- in effect reinventing the Heinlein juvenile as an entry point.

That said, I still think that the way to hook somebody on SF is to ignore your time criterion -- if the old Groff Conklin anthologies were good enough for me . . .

Kevin Murphy | December 17, 2005 03:06 PM

On avoiding older books: Sure Heinlein's Future History is dated, and much older stuff is more sense-of-wonder than, say, literature (BUrroughs, Doc Smith, etc), but lots of earlier SF is quite readable so long as it projects long enough forward.

Any of these would be good first books for adults:

Bester's "The Stars My Destination"

Heinlein's "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress"

Effinger's "When Gravity Fails"

Doc Rampage | December 17, 2005 03:11 PM

I hate to be so rude as to contradict somone on their own blog (blame my parents) but I'd like to suggest that the reason science fiction has not gown in readership like fantasy is not because it became complex but because it became boring. Too many authors followed the lead of "Stranger in a Strange Land", "Childhood's End", "Technomancer" and other boring books intended to impress the reader rather than entertain him. I propose that the large majority of people who read fiction do so to be entertained rather than impressed.

Fantasy, for the most part, stayed fun. Go to the bookstore and pick up a fantasy book and you have a high probability of going home with a rousing adventure story. Pick up science fiction and you takes your chances.

That said, to someone who likes adventure fiction, I'd recommend almost anything by Timothy Zhan (except "Angel Mass"), Jerry Pournel, or David Drake. There is also a terrific sci fi web comic called Schlock Mercenary.

Dennis | December 17, 2005 03:18 PM

Besides, while SF has pure literary merit in various distinctive ways, it can also be a serious attempt to think about our future...and the future ain't what it used to be.

rebekah | December 17, 2005 03:26 PM

Soni mentioned Nora Roberts & I have to back her up on that, as a great gateway author. I used to work in a book store, and lured several romance readers into the world of SF by starting them on her stuff written under the pen-name of J. D. Robb. Most of the others who've tried to mix genres to take advantage of the market flounder in dark fantasy, but Roberts manages to tie futuristic settings with rapid-fire dialog and great romance.

The best stuff is ultimately about humanity, in the same way classic westerns are about morality and romances are about hope. It's not hard to sell it to the newcomers, in that light.

BTW -- I'm the (aging) product of one of those rare birds: the adult female SF fan. My mother, in her 30s back when Heinlein was at his peak, introduced me to SF herself. She bought me my first Bradbury book when I was in 5th grade, stacked our shelves with the 3 "Dangerous Visons" anthologies (mixed reviews, there), and gave me Vonnegut for my 13th birthday.

And we like Connie Willis. Lots.

Raj | December 17, 2005 03:37 PM

I always go for Iain M Banks.
This works as most people here ( in the UK) have heard of him as a non SF author so you can get them interested via that.

John Scalzi | December 17, 2005 03:56 PM

Kevin Murphy:

The point is not to avoid or ignore older books, but to call attention to newer books (and newer authors).

Abigail | December 17, 2005 04:02 PM

As I think I mentioned in the parent thread, I'm reading my first Banks right now (The Algebraist) and although it's quite lovely and certainly more lucid than other space opera novels I've read, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't give it to a newbie. Or any other space opera or cyberpunk novel. These are the subgenres that, as John points out, don't want to attract new readers - they're written for The Tribe, and I can just imagine our hypothetical non-SF reader getting 20 pages into The Algebraist, or Light, or Neuromancer, or Snow Crash, and throwing the book across the room in disgust. When introducing a non-SF reader to the harder end of the spectrum, I'd choose books like Pattern Recognition and Cryptonomicon, which an intelligent reader can follow without an introductory class.


I can't help wondering what you think we're going to say about Bone that you want us to shut up about. I really liked it myself.

Well, it is a little young for me, I suppose. At 24, I found quite a few of the jokes and plot twists more than a little immature, and as someone who adores Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, I guess that says a lot about Bone's tone. There isn't a trace of irony in the series, which can be a good thing but is often a little exasperating.

Stewart | December 17, 2005 06:20 PM

Analog is still being published, and consistantly has pretty good new stories, and new authors as well as familiar ones. It won't be everyone's cuppa, but it offers a blend of new SF on a regular basis.

Martin L Shoemaker | December 18, 2005 12:45 AM

I'm sorry, I know this is heresy in many SF circles, but I can't believe no one has said it already: the gateway SF author exists already, and his name is Michael Crichton.

I can hear it now: "He's anti-science! Science is the problem in his stories!" I used to say the same thing, until I read his essays, and realized that his defense there is essentially correct: the scientists are also the heroes in most of his stories. Heck, in Jurassic Park and Swarm and Timeline, it's corporate greed that pushes the science too far, and scientists who win the day. In Sphere, the problem is an overzealous military, with scientists again saving the day.

So Crichton writes cautionary tales. Asimov did that now and then. Niven certainly did. Ellison loved to. I wish Crichton's tone was more varied, too. But look at his subjects: genetic engineering, time travel, nanotechnology, alien contact... If these aren't SF subjects, I don't know what they are! And though his Midas touch has faded of late, he clearly knows how to reach a larger buying public than do most SF authors out there. Most people -- even some here -- don't even acknowledge him as SF, stuffing him into the obscure genre of techno-thriller. Well, to me, techno-thrillers involve minor advances in bleeding edge technology, ala Hunt for Red October. Reformulating dinosaurs and traveling through time are just a little farther out than that. They're SF!

So how does he grab that large audience? Well, if there were a simple formula and I knew it, I'd be cranking out my bestseller right now. But I can identify at least parts of it:

1. A lucky break. Write one good dinosaur book that gets translated into one blockbuster movie, and you've got name recognition that will sell a lot of books (and even a TV series) all by itself.

2. Persistence. His FIRST big break was when Andromeda Strain was made into a movie. That was, what, twenty years before Jurassic Park? A lot of what he did in between only got popular AFTER he became a big name.

3. A modern setting. I think this is important: his stories are always set NOW. As much of a fan as I am of star-spanning stories of tomorrow, it appears that the market likes very recognizable settings, with characters they more or less recognize from the world around them. (In a sense, I think this is true of the most popular fantasy works as well: Harry Potter and Unfortunate Events are both recognizably set in the modern world, at least to those characters who don't see the forces behind the scenes.)

4. And THEN you throw in the one fantastic element. In a way, it's Campbell's rule in action: allow ONE deviation from known science, and see where it leads you. The story is "the real world, with dinosaurs," or "the real world, with time travel," or...

5. Make sure that one fantastic element leads to lots of ACTION. Cerebral stories are fine, but they're not gateway stories.

Now I don't know anyone writing today who fits that approach, other than Crichton. Aside from Jack McDevitt and Allan Steele, I haven't read much in the genre in years. Just got too busy for fiction. But if there's someone out there writing like that, that would be a good gateway choice.

John Scalzi | December 18, 2005 08:35 AM

Martin, leaving aside the whole issue of Crichton as SF (I personally don'r have a problem with the characterization, although I don't think people often make the jump from Crichton to more standard SF), I think you understate his success previous to Jurassic Park. Aside from Andromeda Strain, we wrote and/or directed several successful fillms prior to Jurassic Park, including Westworld and Coma, and the majority of his novels prior to Jurassic Park were also bestsellers. He's been more successful since JP, to be sure; but most writers would kill for his success before then, as well.

Bonnie | December 18, 2005 09:02 PM

How come nobody's mentioned Julie E. Czerneda? Her "Web Shifters" series tells the story from the first-person viewpoint of the alien protagonist, a difficult proposition at the best of times. Yet Esen is an entirely believable non-human character, in thought and action. The "Trade Pact Universe" has elements of science fiction and romance, ala Catherine Asaro. Her latest series, "Species Imperative," has a few touches of horror, to me at least--it deals with a sympathetic, well-thought-out alien character driven to do unspeakable things because of his biology. Julie Czerneda is one of the few authors on my buy-on-sight list.

dale morris | December 19, 2005 08:04 AM

(generic disclaimer - not sure about publication dates.)

"Look to Windward" and 'Inversions' - Iain Banks.

"The Bridge" - Iain M. Banks.

(can never remember which version of his name applies to which genre.)

BTW, I defy anyone to say the Bridge is not sci-fi *and* genre busting. Not sure if it's post-1995, though.

Definitely not sci-fi (more like fantasy or 'imaginative fiction'), and pre-1995, is John Crowley's 'Little, Big'. Recommend it anyway. It opens doors.

'Snow-Crash' and 'The Diamond Age'- Neal Stephenson (post-1995? Snow Crash probably not).

'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' and 'Wild Sheep Chase' - Haruki Murakami (defiant, me, again).

'Pattern Recognition' and 'Idoru' - William Gibson


Jeff R. | December 19, 2005 12:38 PM

Most of John Barnes' qualifying works, especially 'Gaudeamus', but also 'Candle' and 'The Sky So Big and Black'. Even though 'Kalideoscope Century' makes the cutoff, still, no.

Stephen Baxter as well; the entire 'Manifold' series works fine, as does 'Evolution' and 'The Light of Other Days' (with Clarke)

Speaking of Clarke co-authored books, 'Trigger' with Michael Kube-Macdowell is another good one.

I was under the impression that the sequel to 'Red Thunder' was going to be 'Red Lightning', not 'Blue Thunder'. Anyhow, I'd recommend that, as well as both other qualifying Varley's ('Mammoth' and 'The Golden Globe')

Martin L Shoemaker | December 19, 2005 12:44 PM


Agreed: most writers (myself included, though I haven't broken into fiction yet) would have gladly accepted Crichton's pre-Jurassic success. But if my memory serves me well, it was Jurassic Park that made him a recognized name to the general public. After that, his books moved a lot more, even his pre-Jurassic books. I think the difference I'm trying to describe is that pre-Jurassic, readers and a few others knew his name; post-Jurassic, a lot of movie-goers knew his name, and that's a much larger pool of potential book buyers.

And I agree that his works aren't actually succeeding as gateways, perhaps in part because he has evaded the SF label (though one Borders I know shelves his stuff there); but I'm wondering whether emulating his approach could lead to successful gateways. "The real world, with..." seems very accessible to a lot of people.

(And I swear, last night I had the perfect answer to "with", and thought I ought to write it down and start making that stab at fiction. Then I got on my plane home, and now I can't remember it. Grrr...)

Michael Rawdon | December 19, 2005 04:25 PM

Well gee, let's see what I can come up with:

Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City (Victor Gollancz, 2001)
Stephen Leigh, Dark Water's Embrace (Avon/EOS, 1998)
Sean McMullen, Souls in the Great Machine (Tor, 1999)
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (Villiard, 1996)

I'd give a less-enthuisastic recommendation to Charles Stross' Singularity Sky (Ace, 2004), only because I think his skills as a writer were not sufficiently mature for the book to entirely work for a non-SF reader. But since in many ways the point of the book is that science is becoming so advanced that we can't really imagine what to expect around the next corner, it's not a bad introduction to this sub-section of the genre.

Christopher Billett | December 20, 2005 07:56 PM

Glad you ruled out Ender, it was on the tip of my tongue but I wasn't sure when it got transformed form short story to the novel.

Moving on - 1. Matt Stover's Heroes Die is a sci-fi world, but they have a machine to jump into a fantasy parallel world for some of the story, so maybe that's out. 2. Jay already said it, but Karen Traviss' City of Pearl is superb, easy to sink into (I don't read a lot of sci-fi these days, certainly not 'hard' sci-fi) and touches on subjects that make it instantly relevant in today's world. 3. Has Ballard churned out anything decent since 1995? I should read more relevantly before jumping in on the conversation, I guess...

Michael Rawdon | December 20, 2005 08:56 PM

I only read Ender's Game a couple of years ago, and since the punch line had been spoiled for me years ago, it lost for me much of (what I imagine was) its power. Overall I found it a rather pedestrian story, not very well told, and didn't understand what all the hoopla was about.

I did go on to read Speaker For The Dead, which I would sum up as "The best H. Beam Piper story written since the death of H. Beam Piper."

Both novels, I thought, felt like science fiction stories written as if the 1960s and 1970s in the genre had never happened; aside from being slightly more brutal, they'd not have been out-of-place had they been published in the 1950s.

Greg Lescoe | December 21, 2005 10:32 PM

Is there any compelling reason nobody's mentioned Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

Greg Lescoe | December 21, 2005 10:33 PM

Oh, whoops, missed the "nothing more than a decade old" bit. My apologies.

TomB | December 22, 2005 01:02 PM

Blind Waves by Steve Gould. It's near-future SF (global warming scenario) so it's accessible without being dumbed down in any way. Good plot, fast-paced, and fun to read.

James Nicoll | December 23, 2005 01:09 PM

Do you mind if I start a derivative thread on this subject, one that refers to your original entry?

John Scalzi | December 23, 2005 04:58 PM

Not at all, James! Be my guest.

vajrabelle | December 26, 2005 11:10 PM

"I think Richard Morgan's first novel Altered Carbon would work fine for non-SF readers, especially fans of hardboiled mysteries...."
Yes *that one* got me back into the genre, and books in general. I wasn't reading anything lately until I read that. Too bed the follow-ups weren't nearly as engaging.

I'll give a dollar to someone to make a useable list of this running list. It's too big now to take to the bookstore! Great idea though.

Orange Mike Lowrey | December 28, 2005 07:56 PM

What some posters don't seem to realize is that one reason for trying to introduce people who don't read SF to good SF, is to try to de-stigmatize it. For those of us who find it the most stimulating literature on the planet, we'd like folks to see that it's not all the kind of mindless crap for which I reserve the term "sci-fi" as a pejorative.

Mike G. | December 30, 2005 03:55 PM

I'll second (well, by now it's probably about 5th) the Gould recommendations. I've had great luck handing Jumper or Wildside to folks and having them love it.

A lot of the Miller/Lee (or Lee/Miller, take your pick, but I bought the first ones in Del Rey order) books would be good choices. The Liaden stories are very accessible, and suck in a reader pretty quickly.

I know you said "no YA", but maybe you shouldn't rule it out too quickly. Kenneth Oppel's _Skyborn_ completely blew me away; very good adventure and lotsa "sensawunda". Now, having the whole thing depend on a gas lighter than hydrogen is a bit of an SF stretch, but what the heck :) It still reminded me of what I loved about the Heinlein juveniles many years ago.

It'd be interesting to see how an equivalent "fantasy-allowed" thread would develop. I wouldn't drop Jordan book 1 on anyone without making sure he lives to finish the series first.

A YA-allowed thread would also be interesting. I'm sure Westerfeld or Larbalestier would come up.

EricE | January 3, 2006 08:36 AM

I know I'm late to this discussion, but a couple good very recent graphic novels that have been quite addictive to non-SF readers I've encountered: Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. Both are accessible due to their proximity to current events, yet have awesome SF twists that show the real strength of SF tropes in exploring the worlds we live in.

Thaddeus | November 18, 2006 05:28 PM

I am delurking after reading your commentary and surprised that no one has read any of the stuff I considered entry level sci-fi.

The White Mountains
The City of Gold and Lead
The Pool of Fire

These books were written by John Christopher and are in their 35th anniversary of publishing. Maybe they go back a bit far and I know that was part of the issue but I think that for a young person of 14 or 15 they are ideal. The protagonists are young boys who are survivors of an alien invasion that has conquered the world. Humanity survives as tiny enclaves of free people and as slaves of the invaders. At the time (14 or so) I found them compelling reading and even as an adult twenty years later, I still enjoyed their clear prose and easy to follow storyline.

If we are looking for something more recent, I would suggest Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. A near-future apocalyptic Earth in the early 2020's. Parable of the Sower.

In 1994, Parable of the Sower was nominated for a Nebula for best novel, an award she finally took home in 2000 for a sequel, Parable of the Talents. The two novels provide the origin of the fictional religion Earthseed.

Butler had originally planned to write a third Parable novel, tentatively titled Parable of the Trickster, mentioning her work on it in a number of interviews, but at some point encountered a form of writer's block, going seven years without publishing a new novel

Octavia Butler also penned another sci-fi series called Xenogenesis. Butler began her Xenogenesis trilogy in 1987. The three works which comprise the trilogy, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, tell the story of Lilith (modeled after the myth of Lilith, the first wife of Adam) who is abducted by extraterrestrials (the Oankali) after a nuclear war on earth, and the children she consequently has (the Oankali are notable for having a plausible third gender, known as ooloi). The entire series was released in 2000 as the single volume, Lilith's Brood.

In my mind, one of her finest works. Surprising depth despite its easy-to-read and fast moving storyline.

Returning to Lurking now....

Vetnita | February 4, 2007 05:15 PM

I am an ex-SF reader gone fantasy in the last 15 years. Simply because as some people have said, the big box store mixes the sf and fantasy section together and I got tired of retread space ship stories. However, having said that, I love John and now I just discovered John Ringo--from a friend in the dust bowl. I would say that if you guys want more virgin readers, fix the displays in the store and those covers. Also, as a mid thirties mom and business owner I am proud to still read star trek books in public. Also, please encourage everyone to support little independent sf and fantasy bookstores. Uncle Hugo's in Minneapolis has introduced me to hundreds of authors never seen in a mall.

rbp | February 22, 2007 11:45 AM

You specified no YA books, why? The current popularity of the Rowling books has created a mass of YA books of both Science Fiction and
Fantasy. Some of them are so good that they have even won major awards. So, why?

Ralph | March 24, 2007 11:21 AM

A few people have mentioned Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy, and I agree, these are great stories with engaging characters. However they really are hard SF and in my opinion not what the poll is asking for.

A better choice for this purpose would be Stephen Baxter's "alternate history NASA" novels, e.g. "Voyage" and "Titan".

"Voyage" explores how things might have played out if NASA had managed to salvage a Mars mission out of their manned space program when Nixon canned Apollo. The story only goes as far as the actual landing, it's mostly a story about a female geologist who wins the mission specialist seat and becomes a rookie astronaut, set against the political commercial and engineering issues that threaten the program from start to finish. Some really good things about the book are the authentic 70s/80s period feel, especially as it pertains to the very non-PC NASA "space jock" culture of the time, and the depth with which the main characters are drawn. It's hard for me to do the book justice in any kind of thumbnail review. All I can tell you is that its a very realistic story; you will almost believe it really happened and that you were there.

The premise of "Titan" is that as we approach the millennium, western societies are turning away from science in a big way and moving toward more nebulous "New Age", quasi-spiritual concepts (ironically echoing the concerns of Norman Spinrad and the other commentators who indirectly spawned this enquiry). NASA crumbles under the opposition of conservative fundamentalists and public apathy, and the Shutttle program is cancelled with no replacement. A senior professional astronaut (a woman again BTW) pulls together just enough support to assemble a mission to Titan, out of the remains of the scrapped shuttle orbiter fleet, in an attempt to re-stimulate the public interest in space exploration. The story covers the painful process of getting the mission off the ground - while civilisation is literally falling apart around them - and then the actual mission, taking half a dozen people further than anyone has ever gone before, with very little assurance of them ever seeing home again. Once again there are great characters, great dialogue, great atmosphere, and very authentic technical cultural and political detailing. And the mission is a hell of a ride.

Are these books accessible to non-SF geeks? I read both of them to my son and daughter (then 10 and 9 years of age respectively), voicing the characters as well as I could - and man, they were RIVETED. As was I.

Dammit, I just talked myself into reading them again :-)

For the more literary inclined reader try Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. There are elements of hard science in it but it's all near-term technology perfectly comprehensible to anybody who occasionally reads the dumbed down science articles in the newspaper. Mostly the book and its sequels are about the complex relationships between the colonists.

On that note I'd like to echo what John said about the Ender books. "Speaker for the Dead" is a very nice book mainly because of the very human characters and their relationships. Orson Scott Card is very good at this. Another favourite of mine that could serve as gateway SF (though it really originates from before 1995) is his "The Worthing Chronicle". A shipload of colonists suffers an accident that erases the minds of all on board except the telepathic pilot. He is forced to bring these drooling adult-sized babies out of the ship only 2 or 3 at a time and bring them up to self-sufficiency whereupon he retires into hibernation for several years until the next batch. It's really an exploration of how innocent humans in a garden of eden situation might behave, about human failings and the interplay between good and evil in human nature. The book is presented as a series of set pieces each focussing on just 2 or 3 characters against the background of the colony as a whole. Some of the stories are quite tragic and if you have any empathy they will leave you feeling rather disturbed. It's just great, great writing.

glamurs | April 14, 2007 04:53 PM

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Lindalee Stuckey | April 29, 2007 08:00 PM

How about Feed by M. T. Anderson and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. I see both of these as good books to get teens into science fiction. I also am a big Bruce Coville fan. My Teacher Was An Alien series and I Was A Sixth Grade Alien.

These have been Golden Duck Winners.

Chrontius | May 16, 2007 12:08 AM

I'm a sucker for one particular piece of fanfiction.

It's called Bubblegum Zone and it can be found here: http://www.bgcrisis.com/zone/

The first (of 11) chapters is 86kB, and the last is 1.018 MB of lightly-formatted HTML or plaintext.

The premise is a Twighlight Zone style transposition of J. Random Engineer into a fictional setting, but the setting was trying at being firm science fiction, and despite the setup, this improves on it. More importantly, it's fun to read.

Then, there's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both of which I gave to my mother who absolutely demolished them and loved both.

Also in the camp of fun sci-fi, John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons and the other books in the series, Emerald Sea, Against the Tide, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon (once known as Orcs Iiin Spaaaace) are spectacular fun, even if they're playing at fantasy -- what does a bored mankind do 5,000 years in the future? Reinvent magic and its trappings using nanotechnology.

Those are my favorites (and my guilty pleasure; fanfiction isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be.)

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