Some science fiction can offer hurdles a new reader isn’t willing to jump. The obstacles might take the form of a brand new lexicon, or a world totally different from ours, or completely new rules for how people work and play. I looked for books with a low barrier to entry, accessible books with familiar touchstones.
The list I came up with includes many of the frequent tropes of SF: aliens, discovery, post-holocaust, the search for intelligent life, questioning what makes us human. And the list includes books with some of the same tropes found in all of fiction: heroes and villains, the fight against bigotry, good versus evil, love and hate, life and death. These novels might be old, but new books on the shelves address similar situations because at its heart, SF is about people, and although we are making strides toward a more perfect union, people today are very similar to people thousands of years ago. The clothing and the appliances change, but we’re still motivated by love and greed and fear and envy.
- Hal Clement’s Needle is a science-fiction mystery. A good guy comes to Earth in pursuit of a quarry, and in this case hunter and pretty are both aliens who can exist symbiotically within a host. Bob is the human host to the good guy, Hunter. Hunter can see through Bob’s eyes, hear through his ears, and when he tries to make his presence known, he really freaks Bob out.
On a Pacific island, the bad guy hops from host to host to avoid detection (now a very familiar notion) as Bob and Hunter cooperate to hunt down and deal with the bad guy. Along the way, we see that human and alien share characteristics we can imagine would be shared by most intelligent life, like the desirability of protecting the general population from those who would threaten it.
- In Star Surgeon, by Alan E. Nourse, we meet a young adult alien, Dal, who meets obstacles we can all relate to. Dal wants to be a doctor, but he’s confronted with bigotry against his species as he battles to convince those in his way that he’s just as good or better than the average human doctor. Nourse is an MD, and his background plainly shows through. As you might expect, a climactic turning point has Dal required to perform surgery on his most vocal opponent, a bitter old man whose heart has seen better days, in both senses.
Dal has a companion, a pet who can help him manipulate the will of other people. Ultimately Dal much choose between his life-long companion and the career of healing others. One of the many novels in SF that works very well for the YA audience and still appeals to adults.
- We meet another alien in H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. And we meet another topic right out of the news in almost any decade–the conflict between the pure profit motive and the desire to preserve life.
Little Fuzzy of the title is a small alien creature who lives on a newly discovered planet, one being mined by a large company. An independent prospector, Jack, encounters Little Fuzzy and starts to think the creature is sentient. If true, Little Fuzzy and others of his kind, have rights. The conflict rises through the novel and results in a courtroom battle at the end. That battle has echoes of battles we’ve already fought, when we stopped denying rights to blacks, and again when we stopped denying the vote to women, and today’s battle for equal rights for LGBTQ folks.
In the wake of Piper’s suicide, other writers have taken a hand in preserving and extending a story with wide appeal and issues that feel timeless. It would be cool to be able to look back on these issues from the distant future and feel they are no longer timeless issues, but settled issues from the nearly forgotten past.
- And the nearly forgotten past figures into John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. David Strom is a kid at the beginning of the novel. We learn that he’s in a rural farming village, the son of a very strict father who’s a leader in the community. And we learn that David has a skill that almost no one else has. He can hear thoughts, strongly from a few, weakly from all others.
He befriends Sophie, a girl from miles away, and one fateful day finds out that she has six toes. And she’s terrified that anyone might find out. Especially David’s father.
By stages we learn that David and Sophie live in Labrador at a time long after a nuclear war. The effects of the war are not over, though. Mutations arise from radiation, and the community is hyper-sensitive about eliminating all mutations for the survival of all. A field of corn turns up looking odd? It must be burned and replanted with safe seed.
And if a girl is found with six toes? Well, you can guess. And if David’s ability is discovered? There you see the central conflict. The conflict intensifies when David’s young sister turns out to have this talent on a much higher level.
- Finally, returning to present day, we have Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station. Enoch is an American Civil War veteran who’s still alive, thanks to alien intervention. Enoch lives off the grid as much as possible as he maintains a remote way station, a place where passing aliens arrive and depart on their way between origin points and destinations we never see.
Following the government’s discovery that Enoch is as old as he is, and thanks the government’s confiscation of a dead alien body, Enoch is under pressure from our own government and his actions might cause the tenuous link between Earth and the galactic federation to be severed.
The novel has some loose ends, and the fact that it won the Hugo Award means it’s not as far off the beaten path as I was shooting for, but it’s a unique novel, filled with emotion.
And so it does what I love best about science fiction. Done right, it can appeal to all the senses, including the sense of humor and the sense of wonder.