Top Ten Books for Reluctant SFF Readers

This is a tough one, I think; SFF reading is a different process to reading non-speculative fiction, so it’s not like you can just give someone your favourite fantasy novel and expect them to become addicted. Gateway books are important!

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. I mean, if it’s good enough for millions of schoolchildren, it’s good enough for a picky adult. Harry Potter is so rooted in the idea of the British boarding school that I think it gives people who aren’t used to reading SFF a sort of touchstone when things start getting properly fantastical.
  2. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. The Road is really dystopian fiction for lit-fic readers. It had almost no emotional impact on me, personally, because its wasteland is contextless: I don’t believe in it, so I can’t invest in what its characters have lost. But people who usually eschew SFF, who don’t expect worldbuilding like SFF readers do, seem to have much stronger emotional reactions to the novel, perhaps because they read everything as “real” – relating, that is, to our world as it is now. So I wonder if The Road isn’t a way into more interesting, complex dystopian fiction.
  3. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett. Humour is a very personal thing, so you’d have to be selective about which reader you gave this to. (But then, that’s true of everything on this list.) Like Rowling, Pratchett draws on a lot of highly recognisable British traditions, so his work is very accessible to Western, and particularly British, readers.
  4. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mitchell. A haunting novel set around the outbreak of an apocalyptic plague, Station Eleven is technically SF, but it’s much more about memory and art and humanity than it is about death and trauma. Also, the slogan of the travelling circus at its heart is from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.”
  5. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Another pick for lit-fic readers. Mitchell is at heart a worldbuilder, but he couches his worldbuilding in the idiom of lit fic. And there are plenty of SFF elements to Cloud Atlas – especially the stories of Sonmi-451 and Zachry.
  6. Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger. It’s been a while since I read this, but I just remember it was lovely and had a ghost in it – very low-key magical realism. Maybe one for romance or historical fiction readers?
  7. The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan. This is another novel that felt, to me, unmoored and contextless, but which might work better for a non-SF reader precisely because there’s little distracting worldbuilding. Again, it’s potentially a good way into the gentler forms of dystopian fiction.
  8. Wool – Hugh Howey. I’m not sure why I’m including this: it’s a novel whose plot is literally devoted to worldbuilding, to finding out why things are the way they are. I think, perhaps, it feels like a good entry-level SF novel precisely because it hand-holds readers through that process of finding out about a new world with new rules and a new history, and gives them the tools to do that elsewhere, in more difficult SF novels.
  9. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. These are beautiful, highly-wrought, highly symbolic short stories, each with a fantastical twist. It’s another book that sort of walks you through the process of assembling a picture of a world that’s not quite our own.
  10. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. It’s essentially a historical novel, a long, discursive Gothic novel you can get utterly lost in. Except it also has Dracula! The perfect combination.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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