This list is non-exhaustive, and every item listed is what I consider a recommendation in good faith, as a last-ditch effort to talk the reader out of completely abandoning all efforts to read sci-fi ever again, sorted according to the reader's possible reasons for ditching the genre. This list is not an introduction to the genre, by any stretch of imagination; most of these works are not books I would propose to someone who has never read any science fiction at all. This is strictly aimed at people who have attempted sci-fi in good faith, to some extent, and found it unpalatable.
If you have further objections to propose, by all means please send them to me as a message, and I will amend this writeup to account for them. So far, every objection listed is one which I have heard a real person state is their reason for disliking, avoiding, or quitting sci-fi altogether.
Objection: Science fiction is too serious, somber, technical, or cerebral.
Recommendation: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The protagonist of this narrative spends most of his time traveling the universe while dressed in his bathrobe. Adams is sci-fi's closest equivalent to what Terry Pratchett is for fantasy. If Discworld tickled you, then this is your fare.
Objection: I need sci-fi to be more fun, but Douglas Adams is actually too playful and nonsensical for me. Can we have fun without it being goofy?
Recommendation: The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken
This novel is a heist flick, in the form of a book. It's a really good heist flick. If you enjoyed Ocean's Eleven, give this a shot. It definitely has serious moments which ground the narrative in an essential humanity for the characters, but the heist itself is a rollicking good time.
Objection: Science fiction isn't cerebral enough for me. I need something more intellectually demanding. If a story isn't pushing the bleeding edge of "high concept," it's just boring to me.
Recommendation: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and Blindsight by Peter Watts
Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi is the co-founder of a nanotechnology research organisation. Peter Watts has a scientific bibliography at the end of this novel, which is longer than the novel itself, and digs down into the nitty gritty of the concepts he employs in the novel. Both works are mindbending as hell. Go with Rajaniemi if you enjoy heists; go with Watts if you enjoy your stories being ominous and slightly terrifying.
Objection: Okay, I actually need it to be "higher" concept than even that, but I'd also like it to be shorter. Anything that needs an entire novel to get the point across is in need of a better editor.
Recommendation: Fictions and The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges, short story anthologies of sheer mindfuck
The elegance of Borges' prose carries through, even in translation from its original Spanish, and he does not hold back from making the reader go "huh, wow." If there is a single characteristic reaction to reading Borges, it is certainly "huh, wow." (To those concerned that Borges might not qualify as sci-fi: cryptology and linguistics are still science. The soft sciences are still all sciences. Sci-fi is not constrained to physics and xenobiology.)
Objection: Science fiction is too fantastical and far-removed from reality as I understand it. The characters feel mythologised and archetypal.
Recommendation: The Martian by Andy Weir
Weir strives deliberately for scientific realism, and this novel in particular is set near enough in the future to our own time that the protagonist has the same overall cultural referents as any American born between 1980 and 2010. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is consummately believable and about as far as it plausibly gets from a flat mythic archetype. Importantly, all technology depicted in this book actually already exists in the real world. Weir never uses even one solitary piece of tech which does not have a real-world version currently in use, right this moment.
Objection: This genre looks way too male-dominated, or otherwise does a poor job of representing me demographically. I need stories where I can see people who remind me of myself. When stories do depict people like me, they're always shown being oppressed or subject to violence.
Recommendation: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, first of the Machineries of Empire series
Yoon Ha Lee's stories feature ethnically diverse characters, many of them LGBT, in settings which are not Earth and do not have the same prejudicial institutions as are present on Earth.
Objection: Sci-fi glorifies warfare, and when it isn't glorifying it, it's using actual depictions of warfare to show how bad war is, which means the reader is still put in a position to sympathise with a military protagonist. I think that's squicky.
Recommendation: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is the last author on the planet who would ever come within a stone's throw of glorifying war, but this novel really leans into what war means for those who are not complicit in it, in any capacity, yet who face a world scoured by its effects.
Objection: I had Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley shoved down my throat in high school, and now I can't stand anything that reeks of dystopia. The only sci-fi I've ever been able to enjoy on television is post-scarcity ethical exploration, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Recommendation: Consider Phlebas, first of the Culture series by Iain M. Banks
Banks' "Culture" is not a dystopia. It is a post-singularity, post-scarcity utopia where death is prevailingly optional, and sentient beings strive for fulfilling lives without needing to participate in a rat race for poverty wages. Most of the novels in this series are adventure stories which investigate questions of ethics, in a setting where scarcity does not dictate the practical limits of ethical investigation.
Further Recommendation from Dustyblue: Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, "if only because it's available for free."
Further Recommendation from Jet-Poop: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, and the Wayfarers trilogy by the same author. "All are distant future, science-positive space operas with diverse characters... better worlds where resources are being used smarter than they used to be."
Objection: I used to love sci-fi, but it's lost its roots. The blistering indictments of culture delivered by Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell have gone out the window. If literary sci-fi isn't making me excruciatingly uncomfortable, like Black Mirror does on screen, then it's playing too soft for my taste.
Recommendation: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and frend by Jonathan R. Miller
This one comes with two recommendations, because Atwood's work is rather well known at the time of this writeup, even to people who want nothing to do with sci-fi. Miller's novel is actually about racism, protest, and identity politics, but it's disguised as being about artificial intelligence and bodily autonomy. It is incredibly uncomfortable to read, and it is easily one of my top forty favourite books.
Objection: I used to love sci-fi, but it's lost its roots. The core humanistic and pro-science values espoused by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have gone out the window, and nobody does AI right these days.
Recommendation: The Imperial Radch series, beginning with Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
The protagonist of this series is a ship's AI which has been circumstantially compelled to inhabit a physical human body, and is now forced to navigate a human-centric world with all the limitations of that humanity, but none of the deep familiarity with what it means to be a human on the inside.
Objection: I've already read everything this genre has to offer. There's nothing original left.
Recommendation: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
This story begins with a woman turning into a tree, and the protagonist arriving in a city which is perpetually on fire. An avant-garde stage play was made based on this book, because it is just so damn peculiar. I would be at hardship to describe what Dhalgren is about, but it is nothing if not original.
Objection: Science fiction isn't emotional enough for my tastes. I need romance and depth. I would also prefer the romance not to be especially heterosexual, thank you.
Recommendation: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, and Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Time War is a series of exquisitely beautiful and heartbreaking love letters between a couple of time-traveling lesbians. Gideon the Ninth is a couple of hopelessly conflicted lesbians... at a haunted house... trying to solve a murder mystery... in space! Go with Time War if you want to cry a lot. Go with Gideon the Ninth if you want to laugh a lot in between bouts of crying furiously.
Iron Noder 2020, 14/30