[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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SF For People Who've Never Read SF Before

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in the 29 June 1994 issue of Toronto's weekly Now newspaper

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

I know, I know — you've never read any science fiction. But, hey, you've seen the occasional Star Trek episode, you like Michael Crichton movies, and you've got a friend who insists that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is an SF novel. And so you figure, what the heck, maybe this summer you'll buy an SF title or two for reading on the beach.

It's true that some SF is difficult for non-SF readers to get into — full of made-up terms, bizarre aliens, and enough science to make Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time seem like easy going.

But much of the best SF is completely accessible to all readers. Take Isaac Asimov's classic The Caves of Steel (Bantam, Cdn$6.99), for instance. It cuts across genre lines, being both an SF novel and a mystery novel.

The detectives are world-weary Elijah Bailey and his partner, Daneel Olivaw, an android whose creator has been murdered — and whose killing may trigger a political upheaval. First published in 1953, and continuously in print since, mystery fans will find this one thoroughly rewarding, as well as a gentle and engaging introduction to SF.

Robots may not be your cup of motor oil, of course — but everyone has to deal with computers these days. Vancouver's William Gibson just signed a combined American-British deal for his next novel for an advance in excess of US$1,000,000 — making him likely the highest paid Canadian author in history. Find out where he got his start by reading Neuromancer, the original cyberpunk novel (Ace, Cdn$7.99 paperback, and a just-released tenth-anniversary hardcover, Cdn$28.50).

It's the story of Case, a cowboy of the next century who can plug into computer systems and transfer his mind into the cyberspace inside the machine. Gibson's world is gritty and complex, his style unique and evocative. He demands a lot from his readers — background is hinted at but never explicated, and futuristic slang comes fast and thick — but this book will change forever the way you think about computers and the information superhighway.

Speaking of computers, Arthur C. Clarke is best known, of course, for creating HAL, the murderous machine intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Clarke's true love isn't outer space; it's the sea — he moved from England to Sri Lanka years ago for the scuba diving.

One of his best novel is 1990's The Ghost from the Grand Banks (Bantam, Cdn$6.99) — and, yes, those are the Grand Banks of Newfoundland he's referring to. The ghost in question is the H.M.S. Titanic, and the novel deals with a race between opposing factions in the year 2012 to raise the great ship from its resting place off Canada's east coast.

In some ways this book is distilled Clarke — at this stage in life (he's now 77), he no longer makes even token efforts at characterization to appease his critics. As in all of Clarke's works, Ghost is propelled by the vastness of the author's vision, by fascinating speculations, and by a sense of wonder that will leave the reader simultaneously elevated and humbled after closing the cover.

That sense of wonder — the feeling of transcendence, of glimpsing a cosmic perspective — also can be found in the novels of John E. Stith. His Manhattan Transfer (Tor, 1993, Cdn$28.95 hardcover; in paperback in August 1994) begins with aliens using powerful beams to carve the entire island of Manhattan out of the Earth and whisk it and all its inhabitants away — not necessarily a bad thing, when you think about it.

The book is a fast-paced adventure that pits some very ordinary people (including Big Apple mayor Dorine Underwood, and scruffy Stuart Lund, who is trying to cop a feel of a woman he's pressed against on the subway when Manhattan gets uprooted) against an extraordinary challenge. Stith's work reminds one of Robert A. Heinlein, the late dean of American SF writers: exciting, thought-provoking tales, plainly told.

In some ways, Toronto's Robert Charles Wilson has written a similar book in Mysterium (Tor, 1994, oversized paperback, Cdn$14.95). In it, the town of Two Rivers, Michigan, finds itself suddenly isolated from the world it knew. Wilson's book is an example of one of SF's booming sub-genres: the alternative-history novel. In this one, Two Rivers is moved lock, stock, and corner bar into a timeline in which the Roman Empire never became Christian — leading to an oppressive North America in the present day. Wilson's finely drawn, completely believable characters are fallible, likable, and all too human.

Many are turned off by the perception that SF is wild, far-out, escapist stuff. But in some of the field's best books, the alien appearance is only on the surface; if one reads deeper one recognizes often unsettling parallels to our own world.

Mike Resnick is a master of such tales. His Inferno (Tor, 1993, Cdn$5.99) is an allegory about modern-day Africa, with the alien land of Faligor standing in for Uganda, the alien leader Gama Labu playing the part of Idi Amin, and the devastating SLIM plague a pestilence in the mould of AIDS. Resnick writes with compassion and a deep respect both for his characters and the land they inhabit.

Other present-day issues intrigue Nancy Kress. Her Beggars in Spain (AvoNova, 1993, Cdn$5.99) is a powerfully moving human drama about our growing ability to create designer babies.

Roger Camden, a workaholic industrialist, curses the time he wastes on sleep, and so decides to have a child who is free from that burden. His daughter Leisha and similar children come to be known as the "Sleepless" — a group that soon arouses the envy, fear, and hatred of those of us who spend a third of our lives sawing wood. Kress excels at characterization; you'll never forget the people in this book.

So, there you have it — seven treks that will take you pleasurably to a place you may never have been before: the science-fiction section of your local bookstore. Enjoy.

Postscript, 1997: Since this is the Robert J. Sawyer web site, I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention which of my own novels might be good introductions to science fiction for those who have never read it before. Of my ten books, I think the following four in particular could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether they are SF fans:

  • The Terminal Experiment — a biomedical engineer discovers scientific proof for the existence of the human soul; set in Toronto
  • Frameshift — a man at risk for Huntington's disease strives to make a name for himself before the disease robs him of his life; set in Berkeley and San Francisco
  • Illegal Alien — a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant; set in Los Angeles
  • Factoring Humanity — an alien technology may reveal the truth about a woman's claim that she was abused by her father as a child; set in Toronto

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