Dissecting a Dirty Word in Libraries: Science Fiction

Let’s do a little Reader’s Advisory, shall we?

When Emily St. John Mandel’s book Station Eleven came out, it quickly became my hot pick when a patron came in and asked if I had a recommendation for a “good book.”  I had them hooked from the get go, “it’s really a book about memory: family, relationships, love and how we move forward and connect in times of tragedy.  It’s a beautifully written story, and I love how just when you think Mandel is going to follow a predictable plot line, she flips the script, and it includes a travelling band of Shakespearian actors!”  Then, I’d start to lose them when I said, “it takes place after a plague… “ (patron’s eyes begin to widen and glaze over) “and it’s about how we regroup and reflect on our lives..” (me, beginning to talk really fast to keep their attention) “wait, it’s a gorgeous book and it’s not sad!”  Patron says, “is this sci-fi?!”  Me: “yes, but it’s sci-fi light! I promise! It’s really not that much sci-fi!” Annnnnd, I’ve lost you.

Science fiction gets such a bad rap in libraries to a general audience.  It has a reputation for going right to the “hard stuff” that we may collectively imagine, such as machines and far-out technology, space and interplanetary travel, cyborgs and the like.  Yes, while that is a portion of the genre, it encompasses so much more that deserves your attention and yes, maybe even your love. 

A more exacting definition of science fiction is that it takes place in a world/space/time different than ours now.  It can indeed be on other planets or places, or it can be earth, and is typically a little further into the future, or maybe even in the past.  There usually has been a mass societal change and could have been brought about by some shift in the environment or technology.  Literaryterms.net uses a phrasing that I like, that it’s imaginative and based on science, but whoa doggie, science is huge!  It encompasses so much!  (Side note: You may have also heard of other similar genres such as speculative fiction, which can include magic or the supernatural, think of it as a subset of sci-fi.)

Science fiction runs the gamut of hardcore to the most softest of core, and I’d like to recommend some of the latter so that you may just turn into that person who attends that post-shelter-at-home party and can wow your friends with how awesome and smart you are because “oh yeah, I’ve read some sci-fi in my day, no big deal” as you cooly sip your cocktail or mocktail. 

Here are some great, softer-core science fiction titles to get you going: 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 
American War by Omar El Akkad
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
You Have Never Been Here: New and Selected Stories by Mary Rickert
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

*Please note that many of these titles can fall into the subgenres of the sci-fi umbrella, which can include fantasy, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction to name a few.