Science Fiction Books for Beginners (For Real This Time)
Science fiction is dense with history. You can trace back its origins as far as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein which was published over two hundred years ago. And as we think of it today, a genre that’s as likely to include space aliens as time travel, it’s remarkable how many types of stories you can find within it. Romance, comedy, adventure – they’re all represented under the umbrella of sci-fi. This makes it an incredibly rich category of storytelling to delve into, but also a little intimidating for those who want to try it out for the first time.
Previously, I created another video on sci-fi books for beginners. In it, the books weren’t necessarily selected for their pedigree within the annals of science fiction. Instead, I chose novels that could challenge an experienced reader who might simply be new to this specific genre. That way, I managed to dodge putting accepted classics like Flowers for Algernon on the list, which was always a bit saccharine for my taste. And instead, shoehorn in admittedly weirder selections, such as Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, on the grounds that while it’s extremely complicated in a literary manner, the science fiction concepts within it are nothing if not approachable.
The video actually went down quite well. Most people enjoyed hearing about some books that gave them a backdoor entry to the club. That said, I was left with a niggling feeling that I’d performed some kind of bait and switch. People who are looking for sci-fi books for beginners might actually prefer to go the traditional route and learn about the giants that shaped the genre. So, while I’m still not going to include Flowers for Algernon on this list, there are some bonafide classics that I think make for compelling introductions to the realm of science fiction. And if you’re an old hat at this stuff, maybe you’ll be reminded of a crowd-pleaser that you might not have gotten around to before now.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Every genre has its golden age. An era when an unusual amount of favourites were produced. For science fiction, its golden age took place in the 1940s, a time when science seemed to have the potential to solve all of the world’s problems. Stories that were written by the likes of Robert Heinlein and Frederick Pohl generally portrayed a mechanistic view of reality; worlds in which all problems had logical solutions. In the years since, humanity has consistently failed to reach the status of scientific utopia that those writers dreamed of, though to be fair, that might be just because most people don’t follow the tenets of science – they just enjoy the products of it. As such, it can be pretty inspirational to go back to the writers of the golden age. And for my money, the most accessible, thought-provoking, and entertaining among them was Isaac Asimov.
You might be familiar with Asimov from his Foundation series. Apple+ has been hyping up their TV show adaptation of it for about a year now. I recently completed an analysis series on those books, which I’ll link to at the end of this video, so obviously I’m a fan. But when it comes to choosing one of Asimov’s books that can serve as an easy-to-read introduction to science fiction, I think that iRobot is probably a better choice.
Essentially, I, Robot is a collection of short stories that each feature a logical problem that revolves around Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – a set of rules that ensure robots will never harm their human masters, but which throughout the book are only about as foolproof as the human’s who issue their instruction. Over a span of centuries, you see the robots go mad, develop mind-reading powers, and take on a more paternalistic relationship with humanity, all of which is a consequence of the initial safeguards programmed into them. Today, some aspects of the book might seem a little old fashioned. AI as we’ve come to know it is typified by its ability to identify patterns that are incomprehensible to the average person. You just can’t draw a map of branching logic to predict their thought processes in a way that programmers of the past would have liked. Still, it’s a rewarding read for anybody interested in logic problems, which isn’t to say that it isn’t equal parts humorous and absorbing. To put it simply, I’d say it’s a great book for a beginner because it can act as a representative for an entire era of the genre. Asimov actually coined the term robotics as it happens. It’s written in a simple and engaging manner. And it provides plenty of food for thought, which all the best examples of science fiction do.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The idea of separating art from the artist is a difficult one. I myself enjoy some books and movies that were written and directed by people who’ve said and done horrible things. Generally speaking, I’m happy to enjoy the media they produced as long as I don’t put any money in their pockets, but even then I tend to decide these things on a case by case basis. Isaac Asimov’s work for example has sometimes been overshadowed by his behaviour toward women, which back in his time might have been awkwardly referred to as flirtatious but which you could only describe as outright harassment today. I did, however, take pause when I wondered if I should also put Ender’s Game on this list, whose author, Orson Scott Card, revealed himself to not only be staunchly homophobic but also an outright activist against gay rights. So why did I decide to include his work after all?
Ender’s Game is a young adult novel from the 1980s. It’s about a prodigious boy named Ender who has a particular gift for strategic thinking. Humanity, in this story, is at war with an onslaught of insectoid creatures and the military has enlisted gifted children to help in their fight. Ender is the best among them. A boy who was always an outcast in civilian life and who even among his military peers, finds himself the victim of exclusion and bullying. The book is a great example of utilising a minimalistic approach to world-building, which makes it the perfect introduction for a non-sci-fi reader. I think the most impressive thing about it though is its legacy as a companion for kids who got stuck on the outside. The book is renowned for having been enjoyed by countless gifted children who fell back on it at times when they felt alone. And for anybody who’s experienced bullying, it’s an incredible lesson in maintaining your empathy, even when thinking of those who might want to hurt you.
That is to say, the plot of the book is at pretty extreme odds with the author’s actual beliefs. For me, that doesn’t make it a case where you’re required to separate the art from the artist, but one where the process of resigning the art with the artist is a fascinating and challenging exercise in and of itself. I don’t think the book should be forgotten if only because of the number of children’s lives it touched. But you have to acknowledge how sad it is that the author failed to live up to the lessons of his own morality tale. My advice is; find a second-hand copy, borrow a friend’s, or get it out of a library. Just don’t send any royalty checks Orson’s way. And if you’re still not on board with that and want a good young adult science fiction book for beginners, then check out Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. I included it on my other list, so it’s certainly worth mentioning again.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
I have to admit, when I was creating this list, I felt an obligation to include a space opera. That’s because for me when I think of science fiction, the first thing that comes to mind is spaceships, aliens, and the various political and moral situations that can be explored through their utilisation as plot tropes. That said, I’ve just finished up releasing a gargantuan video series on Foundation, so I didn’t want to include more on that here. Dune seemed like a natural replacement in that I couldn’t see anybody arguing against its placement, except that I don’t actually think it’s a great book for beginners. I considered the work of Iain M. Banks but figured his name didn’t have enough marquis value. Hyperion, I ruled out because it was in the previous video. Larry Niven’s novels aren’t my personal favourites so I couldn’t honestly recommend them. And I haven’t read The Martian Chronicles at all which meant they were never a real contender. So, if you’re looking for a real space opera, feel free to check out any of those and look forward to videos I’ll make about them in the future. But for now, the official placement in this slot is going to be a book that might only tenuously be considered science fiction.
Kindred is about an African American woman named Dana who is inexplicably thrown backwards in time to the era of slavery in the United States. Once there, she’s connected with one of her descendants, a white man, as it turns out, who is actually a slave owner. It’s apparent from the getgo that this man is going to father a child with her great great great grandmother, and it’s Dana’s burden to make sure that this happens lest she herself be erased from existence. On the face of it, this is a cool twist on that old question of whether you’d kill Hitler if you could go back in time. But the novel actually goes into territory that’s far more interesting in that the protagonist’s complicated relationship with the slave owner acts as an allegory for all of the confusion, complacency and relentless agitation within the race relations of America.
Now, as I said already, some people might be reluctant to say that Kindred is science fiction at all. This is because the method by which the characters travel through time is never explained in any scientific way. It only happens because that’s what’s needed in order for the story to be told. Today, people would probably call it magic realism rather than sci-fi, except that where Octavia Butler shies away from overly technical explanations in this book, she apparently goes a lot deeper into that world in her others. As it happens, she’s written plenty of stories that approach the scope and themes of space opera, which I look forward to getting to, having just finished Kindred recently, so any question as to her sci-fi credentials can be put to rest. Even so, when it comes to the so-called canon of science fiction, you might not always see her listed among the classics. But I’m of the mind that canon’s aren’t static things. If the topic that any given canon encompasses has even a degree of life left then it should constantly be revised. Kindred left me utterly shaken, which so far as I’m concerned, has earned it a place on my list of all-time greats.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
As much as I love literature, to some extent I have to admit that the easiest way to get people into science fiction is through the art of film. You know, if you’re intimidated by the idea of having to figure out a futuristic world it’s a lot easier to just plonk yourself down in front of a screen and let it wash over you. All told though, it’s not a bad method of getting people involved with the origins of the genre because science fiction films have often been based on science fiction books. Case in point with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which over the years has acted as a gateway drug to the work of Philip K. Dick.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the iconic title of the book on which Scott’s movie was based. And while the plot is relatively similar to the film, it’s different enough to be a compelling read even if you think you know the story already. In point of fact, there is indeed a bounty hunter on the lookout for androids in Dick’s story. This bounty hunter though has a dream, not of a mythical unicorn, as featured in the director’s cut of Blade Runner, but of owning a pet someday. A real pet. More authentic than the artificial ones owned by everybody else in his world.
In many ways, the book is more a story that predicts the depths of suburban angst than it is the film noir thriller you might expect from watching the movie. It was published in the late 1960s and features a population of people who rely on machines to literally control their moods each day. At the moment, the opioid crisis is a similar symptom of this kind of malaise, but even as far back as the 1970s, the American first lady spoke openly about her reliance on valium, a drug which I’m going to guess Philip K. Dick was familiar with. Overall, the book is both a satire, a psychedelic trip, a futuristic crime mystery, and a blend of Philip K. Dick’s imagination and paranoia. If you are indeed a beginner to sci-fi reading then you might not be familiar with the kind of suspicion and fear that’s common to his stories, so I’ll just say that despite the hefty science fiction concepts and outright weird ideas, I’d be reluctant to pin him down to just this one genre. Unlike the other writer on this list who either consciously engage with the tropes of science fiction or make an effort to avoid them, Dick was just out there doing his thing, which I think makes him more of an auteur than your typical author. In actuality, his robot story probably bears as much comparison to Franz Kafka as it does to Isaac Asimov.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s book has had to suffer a bit of an indignity over the years in that it’s mostly just cited as a story that acts as a warning about the dangers of censorship. This is a slight misunderstanding. The book is actually an indictment against nanny states in which the population are reduced to nothing more than tranquilised zombies who are insulated from any ideas that could challenge their beliefs. The thing of it being that people in these societies are so pacified by technology and mindless entertainment that they become less capable of confronting all of the potential beauty and pain that life could provide. I see why this gets overlooked though, in large part because the basic premise of the book is so distinct.
Fahrenheit 451 is about a fireman in the future. His job isn’t to put out fires. It’s to burn books. Of course, this isn’t just because the books contain political or religious ideas that the government doesn’t favour. It’s because they might contain anything that would provoke an emotional reaction. To put it bluntly, the population of Fahrenheit 451 have become so reliant on the steady stream of positive reinforcement, that they’re actually walking on a knife-edge between happiness and outright depression. Any little thing that hasn’t been preapproved for their enjoyment could send them on a suicidal spiral. Really, they live in a giant suburban dystopia where no negative feelings are allowed to enter their heads at all.
And in a particularly powerful metaphor, all of the objects in their world are actually inflammable. Only books, their one sure chance for growth and liberation, can be burned, making fire both a symbol of destruction and of hope.
As with Philip K. Dick’s book on the list, Fahrenheit 451 is somewhat prescient in its portrayal of suburban angst. With the introduction of television to American houses in the 1950s, Bradbury seemed to grasp the effect such forms of media could have on the human condition. If you’ve ever found yourself struck with horror by a crowd of people all staring at their smartphones then you can get an idea of what scared him so. Still, as with most science fiction, you can’t praise it too much for the things it got right when there’s just as much it got wrong. I think it’s fair to say that most political parties today would prefer to have a button they can push to incense their supporters whenever it suits their needs, rather than have them remain completely placid, and traditional media as well as the online world have each served obligingly in this regard. What really makes Fahrenheit 451 a great book for beginners is the chops of its author. Bradbury famously wrote the thing in just nine days and I think the fact that it turned out so well is down to his familiarity with the genre. By that I mean, while the story does follow the typical beats of dystopian fiction you already know, he pulls it off with such earnest bombasticity you can’t help but enjoy it like a good pop-punk song.
If pop-punk isn’t your thing then let me know what I missed. Leave your suggestions below, and if you’re looking for more sci-fi videos, you can watch my previous sci-fi books for beginners episode, or check out my series on Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Until then…