All too often when people suggest science fiction titles to introduce non-sf readers to the genre, they pick something that will show them what the genre is capable of. But everybody knows that all ready – they can see it on telly, in the cinema. They know all about space battles, planets exploding, alien vistas, robots, cyberspace, weird ideas. Whether they recognise some of those ideas as science fiction is an entirely different matter – is The Adjustment Bureau, with its “magic fucking hats”, a sf movie, for example? The reason these people don’t read science fiction is because they think it’s badly-written, or mired in outdated sensibilities and so irrelevant to them. And we’re no help because we thrust shit books written ninety years ago by some dead old white bloke at them. So what if the men all wears hats and the women do the dishes, it’s about galactic empires! It’s a classic of the genre!
But, honestly, why should we expect them to plough through three hundred pages of tin-eared dialogue, cardboard cut-out characters and leaden prose just for an “idea”? The whole point of written sf is that it can do what media sf does, but it can do it better. The plots will be logically and internally consistent, it won’t insult your intelligence, it may challenge your preconceptions and prejudices, it will have themes and motifs, and it tries to say something beside “money, please, now park your bum here for 100 minutes”. Plus all those space battles and exploding planets, too. Nothing in a science fiction novel is likely to make you *headdesk* like the “cold fusion” in Star Trek Into Darkness.
So when we try to think of titles for a non-sf reader to read… we should pretty much bin all the classics of the genre. We should choose books that demonstrate sf can be well-written, even beautifully written, that it can handle ideas considered too outrageous for cinema audiences, that it can tell stories that are well-plotted, internally consistent, without dumb plot-holes, stupid bromances, or daddy-issues that obliterate the actual story… We should suggest books that are recent, relevant, and have something interesting, or perhaps even important, to say.
And such science fiction novels do exist. It took me a while, but I think I came up with five. They’re all twenty-first-century novels. I have also read them. One or two might have won or been nominated for prestigious genre awards. They are, in no particular order…
Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012) Because it’s a near-future thriller written with genre sensibilities, works brilliantly and recognisably as a cautionary tale on the world we live in, and yet it also does something a writer of near-future thrillers would never consider doing, or might even actually be afraid of doing.
Dark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012) Not only because it won the Arthur C Clarke Award a month or two ago, but because it’s a story everyone will recognise but set on a world which will be completely new to them; and it’s beautifully written too.
Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2004) Because written science fiction can do the fast-paced action/adventure but it can also, in the same story, ask big questions about identity, memory, the future of humanity… and try to answer them.
Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002) Because if science fiction is not about the people, then what’s the point in it – and how much are those people products of the world in which they live?
Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004) Because sometimes science fiction is actually about science and scientists, and how their calling affects themselves, their lives, those around them, and the world.
So: five science fiction novels, published this century by genre imprints. All are currently available. One is the first book in a trilogy, the third part of which has just been published. One is by a small press. I count eleven appearances in genre award shortlists by the five books, and two wins. So it’s not just me who thinks they’re good books. All five books are, I believe, accessible to someone who has not read science fiction before but is familiar with many of its tropes from television or cinema. And all five books, I feel, will show why written sf can do so much more than sf on television or in the cinema…