5 books for the first-time SF reader

I am frequently asked what books to recommend to readers who are approaching science fiction for the first time.

(Yes, it’s official –  I am a nerd. Even strangers recognise this.)

My list changes constantly – I could probably list over a dozen novels that I think would be a worthy introduction to such a diverse genre.

I’ve listed five such novels in this post. My reason for choosing these books is that I think they represent some of the broader themes and styles that are running through the field of SF. Many brilliant SF novels assume that the reader already has a rather complex understanding and appreciation of the genre. Yet I believe that an introductory novel shouldn’t be too daunting; it should ease the reader in with a comfortable transition.

Without further ado…

1. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (1985)

Say what you will about Orson Scott Card himself, Ender’s Game is still a masterpiece. It is a tale of innocence and morality, and it tackles some intriguing philosophical questions in a very simple way.

Ender Wiggin is a child soldier in Battle School. He and his schoolmates are being trained to defend humanity against the alien Formics. While Ender’s military genius may be the main focus on the narrative, it is his know-your-enemy philosophy that brings depth to his character, and is ultimately his salvation.

Card’s style of writing is incredibly engaging, and the characters are very likeable. Poor Ender is always being threatened and manipulated – the fact that he retains his humanity throughout the novel is one of his most endearing features. The treatment of the alien “Other” is a recurring theme in SF, and Card seeks to deconstruct what that entails.

The ending sparks a philosophical question that Card explores heavily in the sequels – are we morally responsible for crimes committed in ignorance?

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

This is the first SF book that I ever read, so it is a necessary inclusion to this list. And I can’t think of a better introduction to the genre than this classic.

From the barren plains of primeval Africa to the god-like Star-child at the novel’s end, Clarke weaves a history where humankind is irrevocably linked to our use of technology. Technology may allow us to reach the stars, but it also condemns us, as we strive to destroy each other with nuclear weapons.

This one novel covers many of the important themes in SF – human evolution, alien intervention, the perils of spaceflight, artificial intelligence. Clarke’s prose style is simple and inviting, making this book difficult to put down. The opening scenes paint a harrowing picture of survival in primeval Africa. The struggle with HAL reads almost like something from a horror story. And the idea of an alien device buried on the Moon is probably one of the coolest concepts in SF.

The sequels speak to the law of diminishing returns, but 2010: Odyssey Two is pretty good, and even 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey have their moments.

This book demonstrates that SF is capable of exploring the grand themes that haunt our existence.

2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

3. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

Wyndham’s cozy catastrophe novel is one of the most claustrophobic novels I have ever encountered. The triffids evolve from being a vague and manageable threat to being one of the most horrifying creations in all of SF.

The novel begins with a plague of blindness that sweeps across the world. Bill Masen survives with his eyesight intact, only to watch civilisation crumble around him. Just when things can’t get any worse, enter the triffids. Seemingly sentient plants that can move and communicate, the triffids slowly but inexorably kill off the blinded humans. The scene when Bill’s house is surrounded by a thicket of triffids is truly claustrophobic. There is a ponderous sense of inevitability throughout the whole novel. Perhaps the most frustrating experience is watching the survivors squabble amongst themselves, rather than uniting to face the triffids. It is hard to say which is the greater enemy – the triffids, or our own humanity.

To be honest, anything that John Wyndham has written is a candidate for this list. The Midwich Cuckoos, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, Chocky – all of them are brilliant. Go read them! NOW!

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

Many fans of the genre may turn away from mainstream novels that infringe on the borders of SF, but David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas deserves to be praised as a novel that transcends traditional genre boundaries.

How do I even begin to capture his brilliance? The novel features six interlocking stories that span from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future. History is shown to be a cycle of repetitions, with all characters and places connected to each other. Cloud Atlas isn’t something that you read – it is something that you experience.

It provides a perfect transition for mainstream readers who want to move into SF. Mitchell’s prose is extraordinary, and the tone and style of each of his worlds-within-worlds feels completely organic. It is an ambitious novel. The “Sloosha’s Crossin'” section of the text experiments with vernacular in a way that most other authors would not dare to attempt. And Mitchell does it well.

The film Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski siblings, is also one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever watched. The juxtaposition of scenes and characters actually accentuates the inner workings of Mitchell’s novel, highlighting the idea that people are destined to meet again and again in different lives and different forms. I’d normally shy away from such gooey sentimentality, but Mitchell packages it so well.

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

5. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (1985)

Similarly to Cloud Atlas, many readers of The Handmaid’s Tale won’t realize they’re reading SF unless someone points it out to them. Margaret Atwood has always been adamant that her novels are not SF, yet her essays and articles demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of their role within the genre.

Offred is a handmaiden in the Republic of Gilead. Her sole purpose is to breed. If she deviates from this purpose, she will be killed. The novel follows Offred as she begins to challenge the system and reject her role.

I must make a confession here – I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale recently. Heresy, I know. But it’s still fresh in my mind, and I am in awe of Atwood’s deft handling of a complex subject. Not only has she constructed a world that is utterly dystopian, but it is clearly a mirror of our own reality, with just a few minor tweaks. Out of all the great dystopian novels, this is one that feels perilously close to reality.

The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly one of the best works of feminist SF. It is a treatment of gender and the roles that people are expected to play in society that is just too accurate for comfort. As an introduction to SF, it demonstrates that the genre is so much more than the hackneyed male-dominated pulps of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Feel free to suggest other novels that might make a good introduction to SF. I’d be interested to hear some more opinions.


  1. The only one I’ve read of these is Ender’s Game, so I guess there’s a lot more I still need to read. Think I”ll check out Cloud Atlas in the near future, since from what you’ve said here I’ll almost certainly enjoy it.

    As for recommendations, I would have to go with The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein. Everyone I know who’s read this book has loved it, and none of them are big SF readers to my knowledge.

  2. Wyndham and Mitchell for me – what I believe is called ‘hard’ sf isn’t generally a favourite. I did want to make an observation regarding you comment in the Mitchell about those who consider themselves sf readers feeling ambivalent – at the least – about mainstream fiction impinging on ‘their’ genre (I paraphrase, of course). I find this odd, as to me it seems that we live in an sf world, so why shouldn’t mainstream fiction reflect this? Ok, so we don’t all have jetpacks, that standby of people my age when they grumble about sf not having happened, but you only have to look around to see how much sf fiction I was reading as a kid is now everyday life!

    1. I would agree with that! I think the boundaries between mainstream and SF are definitely coming down, as more and more mainstream novels are winning awards traditionally associated with SF. I know hardcore fans get a little upset, though, when a mainstream author mishandles an established generic trope. But, yes, look at how much of the world seems like SF!

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