Mailvox: starting out in SF

CR asks for some advice concerning science fiction:

Hey man… so I’ve never been a fan of science fiction involving elves and dragons and all that so I’ve never given a science fiction book a try. The only scifi movies I’ve watched are the ones that could conceivably be true at some point, such as Oblivion, Europa Report, Moon, etc…

You’re probably one of the most intelligent people I know of and you certainly seem to be a fan of this genre… since I have some free time on my hands over the holidays, can you recommend a starter list of sci fi books? That whole Quantum Mortis series looks interesting… what’s the correct order to read them in?

With regards to Quantum Mortis, I recommend reading A Man Disrupted first, then Gravity Kills. As for elves, dragons, and science fiction, I should first point out that elves and dragons are typically indicative of fantasy, whereas rocket ships, scientist progagonists, space empires, and future technologies are indicative of science fiction.

The distinction is an important one, even if all the major science fiction organizations and awards refuse to recognize it. The fact is that Fifty Shades of Grey is every bit as legitimately science fiction as A Game of Thrones; it is certainly pure fantasy.

In answer to the question, this would be my SF starter list, listed in order of recommended reading.

  1. Nightfall (short story) by Isaac Asimov
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  3. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein
  4. Flowers for Algernon (short story) by Daniel Keys
  5. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  6. Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan
  7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  10. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

If you can read through the first five books on the list and find yourself to be largely indifferent, then science fiction is simply not for you. Upon re-reading three of the best-regarded SF series, however, I have to conclude that it may actually be the underrated Giants trilogy by James P. Hogan that is the height of science fiction achievement to date, combining as it does physics, evolution, creation mythology, and the great secular dream of a united Man take his first steps out into the wider universe.

It was fascinating to discover how much better I liked Dune Messiah and Children of Dune as an adult. They’re not epic like Dune was; Herbert literally turns the usual “show, don’t tell” mantra on its head by refusing to show anything at all of Muad’Dib’s jihad. But I think some of the two books’ subtleties are lost on a teenager, as well as the full scope of Herbert’s incisive commentary on failure and human tragedy.