Dancing with Fantasy and Sci-Fi: getting started with SF

Banner: Dancing with Fantasy and SciFi - 2019 Reading Challenge (text on a background image of books viewed end on)

I signed up to Annemieke’s fantasy and sci-fi reading challenge, because I couldn’t resist a spot of book bingo to help me pick my next read. If you’ve been tempted to dig deeper into genre reads but didn’t know where to start, this might be the challenge for you!

How big’s the challenge?

There are three challenges: SF, Fantasy and General (a free choice of either SF or fantasy for any prompt), so you can sign up to read 20, 30 or 50 books across the year. The prompts keep things interesting and help you pick books to read – inspiration whether you’re new to the genre or an old hack like me – but I know it can be a bit overwhelming! So this is the first in a series of posts of suggestions to help you find a read for each prompt.

I’m going to start with the first half of the scifi prompts, because I’ve been reading fantasy recently and I do like being contrary…

What does that prompt mean?

Cultural shorthand is a weird and wonderful thing, and one of my favourites is that some things are Ronseal. Huh? It means they do exactly what it says on the tin. That’s (British) English for you – some of it’s French, some of it’s Shakespeare, a lot of it’s naval and then there’s advertising. Ronseal’s catchy campaign added a saying to (British) English, became cultural shorthand, and ended the creative aspirations of some marketing people whose job had been to come up with clever names. For the past 25 years, the labels on those tins have been very, very obvious.

Challenge prompts? Not always Ronseal. Don’t worry, I’ve included some notes!

On another planet / spaceship / time travel / alien: pretty Ronseal, right? Right. If these are (major) elements in the plot, you’re on the right track.

Utopia: a perfect, fair and just society – it can be as tricky to find books about one as it seems for us to live in one. Remember, a book (…and I guess a society) can have utopian elements even if its not perfect overall.

Steampunk: stories set in a world where tech followed a different path. Think modern tech in a historical context, or a future featuring tech which we consider obsolete (steam power, airships and flintlocks are favourites).

AI (POV): the tech is the star – a sentient computer, robot or other form of artificial intelligence narrates (at least part of) the story (it can’t just be about them and narrated by a human / organic creature)

Proto SF: Mary Shelley is often said to have ‘created’ science fiction, but Annemieke is accepting anything that pre-dates H G Wells.

Hive: the prompt is mostly looking for books about hive minds / shared consciousness, although there are SF books about bees if you’re feeling literal!

Virtual reality: the future is virtual – but games and gaming fall under this umbrella; it doesn’t have to be the whole world that’s virtual.

What to read?

Annemieke has also made lots of suggestions – and I’ve tried not to repeat any of hers. This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list! I’ve gone for quality over quantity, and included books I might read for the challenge plus books I’ve read and recommend that fit the bill (marked with an asterisk*).

I’ve split each prompt into 3 categories: well-loved books, covering classics and bestsellers; new in 2019 for new releases I’m excited about; and top tips for personal favourites and/or books I’m really intrigued to read.

You can only use each read against one challenge prompt.  Don’t worry – you can switch categories on a read later – so if you list your latest read against ‘space ship’, you can move it to ‘AI’ later on if you’re finding that one tricky.

Prompt Well-loved New in 2019 Top tips
On another planet Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space

Dan Simmons:

Mary Gentle: Golden Witchbreed*

Charlie Jane Anders: The City In The Middle Of The Night

Caitlin Starling: The Luminous Dead

Adam Rakunas: 

Katharine Kerr: Polar City Blues*

Alex Wells: Hunger Makes the Wolf

Utopia Aldous Huxley: Brave New World*

Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

Neal Stephenson:
Ada Palmer: Too Like the Lightning

Mikaeyla Kopievsky: Resistance*

Spaceship Arthur C Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama*

James S A Corey: Leviathan Wakes*

Samuel Delany: Nova

Temi Oh: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?*

Bennett R Cole: Winds of Marque

Nicky Drayden:
Escaping Exodus

Gareth L Powell: Embers of War*

Anne Corlett: The Space Between The Stars*

Lauren James: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

Steampunk William Gibson & Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine

China Mieville:
Perdido Street Station

P Djèlí Clark: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 David D Levine: Arabella of Mars

N A Sulway:

Elizabeth Bear: Karen Memory

Time travel Connie Willis:
Doomsday Book

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

Lauren Beukes: The Shining Girls*

Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose The Time War

Annalee Newitz: The Future of Another Timeline

James Smythe: The Echo*

Lavie Tidhar: Unholy Land

Tom Sweterlitsch:
The Gone World

AI (POV) Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

Iain M Banks: Excession*


M G Wheaton: Emily Eternal

Martin L Shoemaker:
Today, I am Carey

Naomi Kritzer: Catfishing on CatNet

Aliette de Bodard: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls*

Martha Wells: All Systems Red*

Proto SF

(why yes I’ve focused on women†)

Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

n/a – “proto SF” is 19thC or earlier! Jane C Loudon: The Mummy!
Hive (mind) John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos*

Arthur C Clarke:
Childhood’s End

(if you know of any, yell!) Corey J White: Void Black Shadow*

Peter Watts: Firefall*

Alien Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

Octavia Butler: Lilith’s Brood

Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow*

Arkady Martine: A Memory Called Empire

Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin

James Tiptree, Jr: Up the Walls of the World*

Sue Burke: Semiosis

Tade Thompson:

Virtual Reality Pat Cadigan: Tea From An Empty Cup

Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash*

John Scalzi: Lock In*

Sarah Pinsker: A Song For A New Day

Emma Newman: Atlas Alone

Karl Schroeder:
Stealing Worlds

Melissa Scott: Burning Bright*

William Gibson: The Peripheral

Jeff Noon: Vurt*

Laura Lam: False Hearts*

Although I nearly included Edward Bulwer-Lytton out of sheer curiosity. Yes, the same bloke who started a novel with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ (unironically) and inspired an entertaining award for Worst Fictional Opening Line also wrote a proto SF novel. It’s going to be terrible, isn’t it? (so did Casanova. Apparently, that one’s even worse)

†† An orphaned teenage girl wrote a book about a resurrected Pharaoh in the 22nd century. WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE? One reviewer loved it so much he wooed her. And reader, she married him.

Got some suggestions? Add them in the comments!