Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Books Would You Recommend to a Former Fan Getting Back into SF?

A while ago a friend came to town for a visit and asked to see the near-mythical White Dwarf I'm always on about. Once at the store, after a few minutes of poking around, she made a confession: she hasn't really read any fantasy or science fiction for the past two or three years.

I was pretty stunned. For years we'd been trading recommendations back and forth, and if that hadn't happened recently, I just hadn't noticed. Her excuse was a good one though: taking another degree over the past couple of years, along with working a couple of jobs to pay for it, has eaten up most of her spare time and disposable income. Now things have balanced out a little better and she wants to get back into the genre. Traditionally she'd been more of a fantasy fan, but in addition to picking that up again, she also wanted to start reading more science fiction. Not knowing who was worth reading these days, she asked for some recommendations.

I immediately began capering around the store, pulling out titles from authors and series that she'd liked before, as well as plenty of suggestions aimed at broadening her horizons. Looking back, I was kind of like Jack Black's character Barry in the movie version of High Fidelity, in the scene where he attempts to re-educate the Echo & The Bunneymen fan - except not quite as rude. Not quite.

She'd fallen away from Robert Jordon's The Wheel of Time books, so I started with Brandon Sanderson's additions to the series. Since you can't read epic fantasy these days without talking George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones was tossed onto the pile in the hopes that she'd read through to the newest installment, A Dance with Dragons, quickly. I continued my assault - er, recommendations - with Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, Neil Gaiman's American Gods (not a new book, I know, but worth including in the re-education project) and Peter S. Beagle's Sleight of Hand. Then, injecting a dose of steampunk, I desperately tried to find a copy of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (sadly, sold out). From there I pointed to Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon. Then it was on to Kit Reed's Enclave, Cory Doctorow's Overclocked (though deliberately avoiding the much-lauded Little Brother because the narrator's frequent, lengthy explanations of whatever fascinates him drag the plot to a screeching halt far too often and ultimately kill the story and its very important message; and not makers, which shuffled along like a short story stretched far, far too thin to make the novel it was trying to be), Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Spider Robinson's Very Bad Deaths (yes, I know, two more old ones), Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

And if I'd had more time, I would have added more. But the pile was already high and teetering by then. And that's also when my friend confessed she could only buy one book. She ended up choosing one that had ben recommended by the store's owner, Jill (and I can't remember the title for the life of me), which is fine, and added all the titles I was now reshelving to her "to buy" and "library" lists.

But it was a good exercise none-the-less, because it got me thinking about the important issue of SF books that can re-fire the imagination of a lapsed fan, which is a different challenge than choosing gateway books to create a new fan.

And so I put the question to you, fellow fans, what books would you recommend to a lapsed fan thinking about coming back to the genre?

Yes, I know, who the person is and what their past science fiction and/or fantasy preferences were (as well as current preferences for non-SF fiction) factor into the decision of what to recommend. But I think we can put the worry about subjectiveness aside because there must be some recent SF books (let's say released in the past 5 years or so - but that's not a hard and fast requirement) that are just so good that they're almost guaranteed to re-stoke the passion for the genre and really should be read by all existing fans and wayward former fans coming back to the fold. What are they?

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