Sci-Fi Reads for People Who 'Don't Like Sci-Fi'

I was going to post this in the Whatcha Readin’? thread but given the number of SF fans on BB, I didn’t want to risk this discussion taking over that thread.

I don’t read much (really any) fiction, let alone sci-fi. Still, so many people are into it that I keep wondering: am I missing out? I don’t mean the stuff that’s obsessed with the artifices of the genre like tech and interstellar travel and aliens but rather SF writing that, despite being set in the future (near or far), cuts to the bone of the present and what it means to be human.

I don’t take any pride in being almost exclusively a non-fiction reader. I’d like to expand my mind a bit and look at the world through the lens of insightful imagination. But I admit I have some constraints in my search.

The reason I love non-fiction is that any narrative is necessarily driven by the people in them. There is no plot, just the consequences of a culmination of conflicting intents, wills, motivations, and ideals.

I have read fiction (mostly short stories) written in this way and loved every page of it. I know there must be some sci-fi out there that embraces this degree of realism but I don’t know how to find it.

Shed some light, BBers.


I think Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go probably fits your goal. I’m betting Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds In The Sky dies too but I haven’t finished reading it yet. :sweat:

It might be worth your while to try some short stories too. I don’t have any suggestions off the top of my head that aren’t years and years old but short stories have a bit more flexibility in terms of audience patience for genre bending/breaking/ignoring.

Hard SF bores me to tears (well, to putting the book down permanently anyway) but I don’t mind aliens, werewolves, vampires, magic, magical realism, non-sword and sorcery fantasy so our tastes might not be broadly compatible. :laughing:


That’s a subset of SF, generally called hard SF, and it’s what most non-readers think of, but it’s not all of it, and even hard SF can be written well or badly. At the other end of the spectrum it blends into fantasy and the supernatural, and again can be good or bad.

That calls to mind Robert Heinlein’s comment about the main themes of science fiction, one of which is “If this goes on…”, i.e. an extrapolation of current trends into the future.

Do you have examples of the sort of thing you have run across that you enjoyed? Books like Brave New World and 1984 have been assimilated into the mainstream for a long time, so you may be familiar with them.

A short story that seems more relevant every day is Daniel Keyes’ classic Flowers for Algernon.


1984 is one of my all-time favorites, especially because it highlighted the dark side of a technology we rarely think of as such: language. It’s that kind of astuteness that I’m looking for, I suppose. (Loved Brave New World, too.)

I read Ender’s Game around age 13, at the encouragement of a couple SF-loving friends. I recall really enjoying it (and it seems it’d be even more relevant today given the emergence of drone-based warfare).

I saw the film adaptation of Flowers for Algernon around the same age and over two decades later I still have yet to read the book, which I’ve been told (surprise) articulates the story’s message better than the film.

As I mentioned in a thread discussing Babylon 5 (which spurred me to create this thread) I’ve also read and freakin’ loved the Hitchhiker’s series but I consider that comedy–dark, glorious, hilarious comedy–rather than sci-fi.


The Sleeper Awakens (warning: racist content, especially in the final chapter) is a fascinating look at the power of unhindered capitalism in the name of a non-profit. City of Endless Night was my pick last year for retro sci-fi.

Lighter fare like the Danny Dunn series are great. Mostly comedy with a “hard” sci-fi dressing.


Go read 1632. Fantastic series. Eric Flint has the first book up on his site as a free download - and he’s the frelling author. Series gets bogged down later because it broadens (by the time Kremlin Games rolls around, there are now sub-series following six different groups) but as a whole, rather enjoyable.


Given your interest in nonfiction, I would recommend perusing the genre of alternate history. The genre encompasses quite a range, from silly to scholarly, but something like Years of Rice and Salt (Kim Robinson) or Voyage (Stephan Baxter) might be good starting points.


Just googled this. Definitely going to see if this is available when I go to the library later today.

ETA: Okay, so our library system has five copies, all available, just not at the branch I’m at right now. Drats. Will request a branch transfer.


Two other alternate histories you may want to check out are Pavane, and The Difference Engine. And though I wasn’t completely satisfied with it, The Man in the High Castle has a lot of fans.


Ah, the perennial SF problem, best summed up by Kingsley Amis:

“SF’s no good!” they holler 'til we’re deaf
"But this is good!"
“Well then, it’s not SF!”

Here’s an amusing expansion of the theme, which mentions a number of my favourite authors:

tl;dr: Don’t try and define SF. It’s everywhere and nowhere.

If you liked 1984, other novels with dystopian themes are P.D.James’ Children of Men , John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy.

edit: And of course The Handmaid’s Tale.


I’m beginning to grok that, now that I’ve read the linked piece. So I guess this means I like sci-fi heavy on extrapolation, characterization, and humor. Space vampires (and squids) OK if it’s heavy on the latter.


If the recommendation is for people who don’t like it then probably you would want either an easy-on-the-science-fi or a so-good-I-don’t-care-about-the-science-fi but in both scenarios I’d probably still end up reccomeding Iain Banks. Or rather Iain M. Banks, his scifi pseudonym. The stories are set within fantastic scenarios that are bolstered by a futuristic thought as much as sciencey stuff and holy crap are they stories.

Ur probably gonna want something from The Culture, rather than something difficult like Feersum Endjinn.

I recommend starting at the start and read the short story from the collection “The State of the Art”. Also, “Against a Dark Background” is proooobably my favourite M. Banks book… hmmm that’s really difficult to say, I may change my mind by the end of this sentence. Yep.

If you want to dive right in to some decent mind-bending hard SF, I recommend Stephen Baxter.

Maybe one of his collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke. Light of Other Days is good. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point you at his Xeelee Sequence.

Read “Ring” and if you don’t personally feel as if your internal universe has deepened and expanded by the end of the book then I will… well, I dunno. Endeavour to deepen it with further suggestions?

I should have mentioned Baxter’s official sequel to The Time Machine: The Time Ships.


Some of Stanislaw Lem’s work might be right up your alley. If you like the dark side of technology and 1984, you might like Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

The Cyberiad might be a better place to start because the short stories are funny, playful, and really look at what it means to be human with regards to consciousness. If you’ve read and enjoyed Hofstadter and Dennet’s The Mind’s I, I would very strongly recommend it.

Great topic! I’ll have to noodle on it a bit more. My spouse has reading tastes very similar to yours - rarely if ever reads non-fiction, the few excruciatingly curated science fiction titles I thought she might like were flops. But the short stories I’ve passed her way that explore consciousness-related themes were hits.


The Vorkosigan stories by Lois McMaster Bujold. Start the victim unwitting future addict reader with the first book she wrote in the series (but not the first in its chronology), The Warrior’s Apprentice, a rollicking Bildungsroman that gets very real by the end (as good Bildungsromane are wont to do). By the time the poor fish reader is hooked on the series, they will find themselves immersed in a story with tragedy, romance, moral quandaries, great quantities of humour, and a great deal of humanity.


I meant to comment on this, as several weeks I’d read Vulture’s recent interview with Alfonso Cuarón, the director of the film adaptation. Regarding the book, he had this to say:

When I read the [story] summary, immediately, I don’t know why, it’s one of those things where you start and you see everything. I start reading the thing and it’s like everything started unfolding. But I was not interested in the book or the [existing] story and I didn’t want to read the screenplay, because it was just a literal adaptation [of the novel], and what I like is some elements in the summary.

From the interview, it sounds like he still put a lot of thought into plot and characterization. It’s just that he saw a few things differently:

Interviewer: In P.D. James’s original novel, the infertility happens because men are sterile, but in the movie, it’s women who can’t have babies. Why change that?

Cuarón: It was something that someone told us was more likely [scientifically]. The male one was very unlikely. But it was more about a spiritual infertility.

So yeah, I plan on reading the novel. Really liked the film but I sense that the novel has much more to say. And that’s not knocking Cuarón or the film. A two-hour window simply doesn’t allow for the kind of robust characterization you see in novels and TV series.


Just SF, or is Fantasy on the table as well? If so, if you like HGG, may I suggest Terry Pratchett’s Discworld?*

Most people don’t recommend starting with “The Colour of Magic / The Light Fantastic” as they suffer from early instalment weirdness.

There are a lot of books that can be divided into sub-series:

The Rincewind/Wizard books skewer academia: Wizards are a lot like physicists. And any other “publish or perish / I have tenure” group.

The Witches delve into literature and myth. Fairytales, Shakespeare and even Phantom of the Opera get a good shake.

The Watch books are police procedurals but also take a deep look at morality (what it means to be a ‘good person’† is a theme that runs through all the series but definitely here) and even the dangers of populism.

The Death series encompasses motifs from the other series (which makes sense because Death shows up everywhere) but are a look at what it means to be human.

Tiffany Aching is a Y/A subset of the Witches: still looking at mythology and folklore, but also growing up.

■■■■■ vonLipwig is a rulebreaker’s travel through bureaucracy.

There are also various standalones that contribute to the history, but don’t have recurring main characters.

*Always read the footnotes.
† Good is not necessarily nice. Good is a hell of a lot more complicated and many people who think of themselves as good people are not.


I have a mild aversion to fantasy, though if any author were to break through that, it’d probably be Pratchett. I’ve just heard too many good things about his writing here on BB to ignore him anymore.

The Death series sounds like an appropriate place to start.


Think of him like Adams (there are one or two nods to him throughout the series). As the description says: Discworld is a world and a mirror of worlds. Fantasy is the setting but not the focus except in “The Colour of Magic / The Light Fantastic” pair where he specifically decided to skewer fantasy tropes before realising he had something bigger on his hands. Thats why most people DON’T recommend starting with those: there are a lot of “Inside Fantasy” jokes. It’s only starting after that that the mirroring of our world comes into focus.


You might like Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future. It’s novella-length, and covers the themes that her journalism covers, if you like that.

I’m wondering about some of William Gibson’s near-future stuff. Perhaps the Bridge Trilogy (which is now set in the near-past, but whatever…).


Since you said you go for humour, go and read Terry Pratchett right now. What Douglas Adams is/was to SF, Sir Terry is/was to fantasy. (Oops, @MalevolentPixy beat me to it.)

It’s a long time since I read The Colour of Magic/The Light Fantastic. They were my intro to Discworld, and were useful for setting the stage as well as being very funny, so I really have nothing against them. Later Pratchett gets much deeper and more pointed. As Neil Gaiman has said, Pratchett was a very angry writer - angry in the best way at injustice and intolerance.