The Water Knife
Political corruption, cover-ups, sinister killings, and people who’ve seen too much: Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 novel has the stuff of great noir in its DNA, and readers who’ve enjoyed the crime fiction of (say) James Ellroy will find a lot to embrace here. The near-future setting of Bacigalupi’s novel is essential to its plot, however. Massive droughts, innovative architecture, water rights, and restrictions on interstate travel all contribute to a harrowing sense of place, making this novel’s tension even greater.
The Book of Strange New Things
The Book of Strange New Things brings together two nearly-archetypal science fictional plotlines—that of contact between humans and aliens, and of how religion evolves in a futuristic world. Protagonist Peter Leigh is a missionary, but the congregation he addresses is composed of aliens located on a distant world. Intrigue abounds among the humans living there, and Faber juxtaposes that and the philosophical questions connected to Leigh’s ministry with a series of ecological catastrophes befalling Earth, where his wife remains. It’s a novel that asks big questions but never shakes the human connection.
Bloodchild and Other Stories
Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler’s fiction often encompasses complex questions of humanity and the unlikely bonds that can arise between various groups and factions. This collection of her short fiction provides a good overview of the thematic territory her work occupies—which is sometimes conceptually bold and occasionally incredibly visceral. (The title story, in particular, features imagery that may unsettle some readers.) It’s a great introduction to one of the standout writers of the 20th century.
China Miéville’s fiction is often built around high concepts, whether it’s two cities that occupy the same territory (The City & The City) or a series of railroad tracks that become a landscape unto themselves (Railsea). In this novel, he offers up a naturalistic portrait of interaction between humans and aliens, deftly minimizing their alienness without ever discounting it. Throughout, he makes intriguing points about the use of language and the flaws of communication.
Oryx and Crake
Anyone who’s read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale knows she is more than capable of writing a chilling version of the future, in which some of the most gripping problems of today have become the horrors of tomorrow. Oryx and Crake, the first book in a near-future trilogy, tells a terrifying story of genetic engineering, corporate domination, and secret conspiracies. It’s a novel whose future seems closer and closer every day, which is a chilling thought.
William Gibson first established himself as a science fiction writer with the award-winning Neuromancer, which had a seismic impact on the genre. Some of his fiction since then has used contemporary settings: Pattern Recognition plays like a high-tech Graham Greene novel, for instance. Virtual Light, set in a (then) near-future San Francisco and involving a search for a mysterious piece of technology, is a good place to start in terms of Gibson’s work. It’s thrilling and abounds with big ideas, but the setting is just close enough to home that it isn’t too alienating.
The Strugatsky brothers wrote a host of singular science fiction novels over the course of several decades in the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Some have been adapted for film; others have been reissued in the U.S. in new editions. Definitely Maybe blends elements of science fiction, paranoid thrillers, and absurdism in the story of a scientist and the ways in which seemingly disparate elements conspire to keep him from his work.
Science fiction can be an acquired taste. Some readers grew up on it; others never quite saw the appeal of stories involving time travel, alien contact, space exploration, or the ways in which these concepts can be used to explore moral and intellectual debates. But if you’re a reader who’d like to ease their way into the genre, there are a few great places to begin. Some provide a well-written introduction to key science fictional tropes and concepts, while others juxtapose intensely human stories with headier conceptual elements. Here’s a look at seven science fiction books that introduce big ideas in accessible ways and present readers with a host of directions they can go from there.
Featured Image: Hakaba/Shutterstock; Author Photo: Jason Rice