What to Give People Who Hate Sci-Fi

Last-minute holiday shoppers gravitate to quickie gift suggestions like “Sci-Fi Books for People Who Hate Sci-Fi” Alex Knapp’s book-buying guide at Forbes.

With one quick click online, we can send a book to our mom’s iPad without a hitch. But what to send? Obviously, as a science fiction fan, I like to try to get other people as excited about science fiction as I am.

It’s not an easy task. A lot of people are simply averse to the science fiction genre, whether it’s because of the association with nerd-dom or an aversion to space and lasers.

As a fellow fan I am perfectly satisfied with Knapp’s mix of classic authors – Heinlein, Bester – and contemporary legends – Scalzi, Sawyer, Resnick. Unfortunately, his premise breaks down immediately in the face of reality. The thing about people who are adamant in their dislike of sci-fi is that as soon as they detect a sniff of it they indignantly spout something that translates to, “I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.” To suppose that quality sci-fi, however carefully chosen, will fly under their radar is absurd. Especially a bright orange paperback with a BEM on the cover. (What were you thinking, Alex?)

If you’re a fan who’s desperate for a gift idea, why get sidetracked into unwelcome evangelism? Profit from your knowledge of the best sf novels by making them your guide to non-genre works people will love to receive. Here’s what I mean.

Impressed with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers? Then don’t lose a minute gift-wrapping a copy of Eugene V. Sledge’s autobiographical account  of his WWII service, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Truly, when I read it this summer I was utterly impressed by its narrative flow and dynamic style, beyond anything I’ve ever found in a historian (even David McCullough). I also suspected I’d discovered the literary roots of Heinlein’s most famous combat novel – until I saw that Sledge’s was first published in 1981. If there’s an influence at work, it must be Heinlein influencing Sledge. And there’s no question the old master would have been proud to acknowledge Sledge as a student, if such is the case, given the brilliant result.

The Guns of the South came out just a couple of years after I’d read Shelby Foote’s account of the Civil War. Reading Harry Turtledove’s novel I remembered Foote’s coverage of The Wilderness well enough to be impressed by Harry’s detailed historicity of his fictionalized battle. He faithfully replayed the battle until the point where his Confederates turn the tide using AK-47s. For armchair strategists Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative is just what the doctor ordered. (A Ph.D, that is.)   

So that’s the plan – backtrack from your favorite sf novels to the great books that equipped you to enjoy them and the people on your gift list will think you’re a genius.

12 thoughts on “What to Give People Who Hate Sci-Fi

  1. There’s always 1984, The Midwich Cuckoos, War of the Worlds and many other classics that are published in editions that look thoroughly respectible. If you suspect the victim has already read many of these, then why not The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Wicked by Patrick Maguire, or Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold? There’s no reason to give into the temptation of gifting someone with a book with a lurid cover.

  2. @Taral: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is quite a good suggestion for anyone trying to take Knapp’s advice.

    I was thinking about extending my article with an example that would lead to Michael Connelly’s police detective novels, but I can’t think of any sf writer doing comparable work.

    Chabon’s novel is good in its own right, of course, while the alternate history framework shouldn’t demand too much from a mystery reader who shuns sf. I could see recommending it to somebody who likes, say, John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport series.

  3. Years ago, I gave my (formula) mystery-reading grandmother The Caves of Steel. It’s a formula-following murder mystery …

  4. “With the Old Breed…” is indeed a wonderful, powerful book, as is “Helmet for My Pillow”, both used as the basis for the HBO series, “The Pacific.”

    Do we have the same taste in WW2 books, Mike?

  5. Let’s find out. Here’s my next recommendation — Ordeal at Sea by Thomas Helm, about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the discovery and rescue of the survivors. (It’s the real-life event the character Quint (Robert Shaw) in Jaws says he survived.)

  6. One of Glen Cook’s murder mysteries is set in the neighborhood in which he lives, the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, on streets which I, my late mother, and various fans did and (some) do live today.

  7. I’ve read Ordeal at Sea and wish I hadn’t. It gave me nightmares, so is a perfect history book for a horror fan.

    May the prissy Lieutenant Commander who ordered a three-ship rescue task force to return to base because they responded to the distress calls of the Indianapolis while he was at dinner and didn’t ask him permission first burn the way the ship’s dentist did, in fires hot enough to melt armor plating.

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