Top Ten Tuesday: SF to get you started

Text only: top ten TUESDAY

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl so we can keep sharing our love of books and lists with our bookish friends. Don’t really read SF or have only just begun exploring it? This one’s for you.

I was feeling thankful yesterday for the SF authors who unleash our imaginations on unknown universes, so today I’d like to spread the love. What’s that? You don’t actually like SF? Well, we can’t all love everything. But give me a chance: I’m going to focus on some atypical favourites and see if my enthusiasm can tempt you to (re)consider them.

I’m going to avoid big-name SF authors you’ll already have heard of and hard SF that is all about how the science works (if that’s something that puts you off). Besides, I mostly enjoy human stories, where SF provides a speculative environment to explore familiar challenges in unusual ways. The sort of thing you can read without having to understand – or care – how warp drives work (I really don’t care).

Keeping it real

Let’s kick off with two favourites that don’t necessarily get shelved under SF at all.

Prime Meridian – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book cover: Prime Meridian - Silvia Moreno Garcia (a young Mexican woman in a space suit)We may have made it to Mars, but that hasn’t changed the daily grind of trying to make ends meet for a 20-something in Mexico City. Prime Meridian is about persistence in the face of a system designed to keep you on the ground. I loved protagonist Amelia’s blend of bitterness, optimism and resilience. Expect a painfully close to the bone vision of tomorrow.


The Rift – Nina Allan

Book cover: The Rift - Nina AllanJulie Rouane went to a party and never came home. 20 years later, she calls her little sister Selena out of the blue and says she’s been on another planet. Can the sisters repair their relationship if Selena can’t believe a word Julie says? This beautiful current-day novel is a compelling study of relationships that examines how our responses are shaped by our expectations of how we ought to feel. Fascinatingly ambiguous.


I don’t like where this is going

There’s a heap of good books that send our familiar world to hell in a hand basket, and see what happens. A bit like 2018, but with more optimism (allegedly).

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

Book cover: Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel (monochromatic illustration of a white deer against a dark city skyline)Awkward: Station Eleven won the Arthur C Clarke award, but Mandel didn’t think she’d written an SF novel (arguably she’s right, barring the mass extinction that frames it). 20 years after the flupocalypse, a Shakespearean troupe travel the Great Lakes, performing for isolated survivors. Cleverly interweaving time periods and characters, this provides a beautiful, stark reflection on modern life and what meaning we can find in it.

Sound too optimistic? Try Meg Elison’s Road to Nowhere for something bleaker…


The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

Book cover: The Unit - Ninni Holmqvist (a woman walks around the corner of a sterile corridor)

If nothing else, the last 2 years have told us that politics is unpredictable and that we should consider all possible consequences. Recycling ‘dispensable’ older citizens in medical research labs seems unlikely in a modern democracy (given policy tends to be shaped by older voters), but bear with it for a chilling glance at an unforgiving future. Tough reading, but thought-provoking

See also: P D James’s Children of Men, a remorseless take on dealing with aging populations.


Enjoy a good thriller?

One of the things I love about SF is that it overlaps with so many other genres: if you enjoy a police procedural, courtroom drama, spy thriller or action adventure, SF just adds a futuristic setting or some speculative elements for extra flavour.

Polar City Blues – Katharine Kerr

Book cover: Polar City Blues - Katharine Kerr (a space port in shades of misty blue)

Humanity made it to the stars, but are wedged between bigger, more powerful alien civilisations. Polar City is the capital of down and dirty planet Hagar, where the death of a diplomat could spark a war. A low-tech whodunnit and a political thriller in one, this just happens to involve aliens and psychics.

Sound good? You’ll probably enjoy Melissa Scott’s Burning Bright too.


False Hearts – Laura Lam

Book cover: False Hearts - Laura Lam (a heart image comprised of two overlapping fingerprints on a silver background)Taema goes undercover as her twin sister to clear Tila’s name after she’s charged with murder. Can she infiltrate a violent crime syndicate interested in disrupting a near-future SF’s peace? This is an fast-paced tech thriller that is almost impossible to put down – yet still cares more about the twin’s relationship than their circumstances. Intimate and nerve-shredding.

Love the vibe? Check out companion novel Shattered Minds.


Actually, I prefer fantasy

Golden Witchbreed – Mary Gentle

Book cover: Orthe - Chronicles of Carrick V by Mary Gentle (Golden Witchbreed / Ancient Light)

Humanity has reached the stars, and is all about establishing lucrative trade deals. To win access to ancient treasures, Envoy Lynne Christie must travel the planet Orthe and convince the isolationist locals that humanity is not the Golden Witchbreed who nearly destroyed them. Cue a novel that feels a lot more fantasy than SF: fabulous world-building, with mythic past and Byzantine present-day local politics. Fair warning: the sequel, Ancient Light, is devastating.


The Citadel of Weeping Pearls – Aliette de Bodard

Book cover: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls - Aliette de Bodard (an Asian woman in flowing red dress sits on a dragon throne against a backdrop of stars and towers. Seriously gorgeous, this one)

Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories are unapologetically space opera – but the ornate political and intimately human drama of her richly-imagined Viet empire in space makes for a good cross-over. In The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, the Empress needs to recall the daughter she banished for exploring technology indistinguishable from magic (even for this advanced civilisation). The good news? There are lots more short stories and novellas to explore in this universe.


Well I liked that movie…

Screen adaptations are great gateways into SF. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, then try the books – they are excellent in their own right (and subtly different, although you won’t get any big surprises). But there’s plenty of original works that have interesting mirrors in fiction. This could be a top ten in its own right, but I’ll stick to the 2 slots I have left…

Star Wars

Book Cover: The Lost King - Star of the Guardians 1 - Margaret Weis (a blonde woman with a lightsaber glaring at a dark-haired man on a hangar deck)Comfortable with swords and space dogfights, galactic rebels and snarky droids? Try Margaret Weis’s Star of the Guardians. The monarchy was betrayed by its greatest general, who now hunts down those whose blood grants them unusual powers. But is Sagan really loyal to the Republic? What are his plans for a long-hidden prince and his former lover Lady Maigrey? Can she outwit him and return Dion to the galactic throne? These are not the Jedi you’re looking for. Honestly.

Arrival / Contact

Book Cover: The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell (a bird in flight against an evening sky)My favourite first contact novel remains Mary Doria Russell’s heart-breaking trial of faith, The Sparrow. When SETI pick up singing from another planet, the Jesuits get a spacecraft underway while the rest of the world is still arguing about what to do. But nothing is quite what it appears or goes entirely to plan. We know from the start that it ends in disaster – the question is why and how. Looking for something cheerier? Try S G Redling’s Damocles instead – where humanity find themselves the advanced alien species making contact.


There are lots of obvious titles missing from this list, as I’ve deliberately avoided classics that typically get mentioned and novels which you’ll likely already have found if you’re dipping your toe. Heck, I didn’t even mention The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet or All Systems Red, two of the most entertaining and accessible SF novels of recent years (ahem, guess I’ve mentioned them now!)

…and yes, I’ll acknowledge the elephant in the room. There’s no men on this list. That’s not because I don’t read or love SF written by male authors – I do, because there’s lots of really good ones! – but because they’ve dominated the genre for so long there’s a tendency for lists like this to end up being – as Pat Cadigan puts it – “a bit of a sausagefest”. So I decided it would be a sausage-free list from me today.

Which just goes to show I’m not even scratching the surface with this week’s top ten. SF: it’s a big old universe to explore.

Still not intrigued? That’s cool. We can still be bookstore buddies – after all, we won’t be racing to get to the same single copy of that new release we’re dying to read…