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Reading Science Fiction for Pleasure

by Audrey Barbakoff

*This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of RA News.*

When you settle in for a relaxing morning with a great book, what do you reach for? Chances are it's not science fiction. A 2010 Harris Poll reported that only 32% of men and 20% of women had read a science fiction book in the past year. In 2001, a National Science Foundation survey found that only about 30% of adults say they read science fiction at all. That's a shame. Great science fiction can be some of the most fun and fulfilling literature on your shelves.

If you usually pick a thriller or mystery, you will find science fiction equally full of fast-paced and riveting stories. The action is often as well-crafted and beautifully written as any piece of literature. Authors like Junot Diaz, Kazuo Ishiguro, China Mieville, Mary Doria Russell, and Haruki Murakami write with stunning language and craftsmanship. Daniel H. Wilson and Hugh Howey will have you flipping pages almost faster than you can read them. And Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Connie Willis will make you laugh until you cry.

But the best science fiction goes even beyond great stories with fantastic writing. It delves into ethical dilemmas and the human condition -- perfect for lovers of literary fiction. Authors like Octavia Butler, Karen Thompson Walker, Robert Charles Wilson, and Phillip K. Dick use the extremes of other worlds and dystopian futures to bring the wonderful and terrible potential of the present world into sharp relief.  Aliens and robots ask us to struggle with what makes us human, in works by authors like Ann Leckie, Margaret Atwood, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Many, like James Tiptree Jr., craft short stories as riveting and complex as full length novels.

Add some sci-fi to your reading list, and get ready to be excited and inspired.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Alif, a hacker who helped dissidents evade state censorship, is on the run. As he flees, finds himself carrying a fabled book said to contain the knowledge of the jinn. Mixing adventure and philosophy, modern code and ancient Arab mysticism collide in converging stories that explore spirituality, technology, and class. The starred review from Booklist says it best: "As timely and thoughtful as it is edgy and exciting, this dervish of a novel wraps modern tendrils around ancient roots, spanning the gulf between ones and zeros, haves and have-nots, and seen and unseen worlds."


Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree Renée Thomas
Still not sure about jumping in? Start with a short story. This classic compilation contains wonderful and varied short stories and essays spanning from 1887 to 2000. You will recognize some beloved names, like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, alongside many that may be new to you, and even a few surprises (did you know W.E.B Du Bois wrote sci-fi?). 


The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Have you ever wished that you could literally jump into your favorite books? With the invention of the Prose Portal, the literature-obsessed population of an alternate England has found a way. But when villain Acheron Hades steals the Prose Portal and starts kidnapping beloved characters, it's up to Literary Detective Thursday Next to safeguard Jane Eyre and her kind. A cheeky, witty romp, full of in-jokes and laughs for literature lovers.  (Thursday Next novels, 1)


Feed by Mira Grant
Forget about sleeping tonight. The suspenseful storytelling and the quirky voice of news blogger Georgia Mason will keep horror and thriller fans reading until dawn. Twenty years after the zombie Rising, Georgia and her team are selected to cover the presidential election. But as horrifying disasters start to mount on the campaign trail, they realize that the hungry undead are the least of their problems. (Newsflesh trilogy, 1)


Lock In by John Scalzi
In the mood for a police procedural? FBI agent Chris Shane has only been on the job for two days when he is called to investigate a politically explosive murder. The victim is tied to controversial legislation to end subsidies for the paralyzed victims of Haden's syndrome, who rely on expensive technology to move around. Shane, a "Haden" himself, soon suspects a deeper conspiracy. Murder and mystery keep the story moving, even as it explores issues of disability, discrimination, and privilege.


On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
This lyrical, haunting novel was selected for ALA RUSA's 2015 Notable Books List. Fan lives in the repressive and poverty-stricken New Chinese fish farming community that used to be Baltimore. When her boyfriend disappears, she abandons her regimented life to look for him in the harsh, anarchic world outside. Fan, the strange people she meets, and her unnamed narrator are mesmerizing characters. If you read for the pleasure of beautiful language, Lee will transport you.


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This novel may be set in 2044, but it's immense fun for anyone born closer to 1974.  Pop culture trivia from the 1980s saturates the fast-paced story of underdog teenager Wade Watts. He goes to school inside OASIS, an immersive online environment. When Wade stumbles across a secret hidden by OASIS' 80s-obsessed billionaire creator, he is launched into a hazardous quest for fame, fortune, and the future of the digital world.


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde remembers a little of her life before the Georgia Flu wiped out most of the world's population. Her childhood memories of acting in King Lear intertwine with her adult life as an itinerant Shakespeare performer, snaking tendrils through the lives of the people connected to her. For its luminous language, rich characters, and meditations on the meaning of art and life, this quiet novel has been frequently lauded as one of the best books of the year.


Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
This is not an easy book. Its graphic violence and frank engagement with difficult issues like rape and genocide mean it will never grace a list of fun, fast beach reads. But the pleasure of deeply examining and transcending these struggles, while deftly weaving through several genres and storytelling traditions, is intense in its own way. Onyesonwu is the "half-breed" child of rape, born in a post-apocalyptic Africa mangled by genocide. She is further marked by her unusual magical abilities, which set her on a journey that encompasses her people, her culture, and her own identity.


Y: The Last Man by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra
This hugely popular graphic novel series hits the ground running and never stops. A plague suddenly kills every mammal and cell on earth with a Y chromosome – except, inexplicably, a man named Yorick and his pet monkey. Yorick's escape artist talents come in handy as various groups try to kill him, protect him, study him, or use him for purposes he cannot even imagine.


This list reveals just some of the diversity of authors, characters, and themes within science fiction. As we grapple with a distressing lack of diversity in publishing, sci-fi's innate ability to imagine a different world can create a natural space for differences and change.  The genre is still very far from full representation, and we need to do much more to lift up and celebrate all voices. But even in the face of resistance, many of the most acclaimed new sci-fi authors are women: Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, Sofia Samatar, and Monica Byrne, for example. Writers of color like N.K. Jemsin, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nisi Shawl use the lens of science fiction to explore post-colonialism and the African Diaspora. Lightspeed Magazine recently released a Queer sci-fi issue. Diversity of many kinds is finding a permanent home in science fiction, and hopefully on your bookshelves.

Like the worlds it creates, science fiction can be anything you can imagine. What could be more enjoyable than that?


Don’t just look for Science Fiction! 

Look for science fiction mysteries or humorous science fiction!  Combine genre searches. Try looking for both science fiction and horror stories or science fiction and literary fiction.

Search for Science fiction mysteries: GX "Science fiction mysteries"

Humorous science fiction: GX "Humorous science fiction"

Horror and SF: GX "Horror stories" AND GX "Science fiction"

Literary and SF: GX "literary fiction" AND GX "Science fiction"

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Audrey Barbakoff is the Adult Services Manager at Kitsap Regional Library, and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker.