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11 sci-fi and fantasy books for people who don't like sci-fi and fantasy

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Sci-fi and fantasy to add to your reading list
Send your stereotypes packing for a parsec, and let these books work their magic on you.
Courtesy of publishers

Are you an adventurous reader with discerning tastes, and a general distrust of "genre" books?

It's time to choose your own adventure:

I hate sci-fi.

I hate fantasy.

Sci-fi picks for people who don't like sci-fi

So, you think you don't like sci-fi. What turned you off?

Long descriptions of space ships and their alternative fuels? Too many alien names to keep straight? Just not into "nerd" stuff? Send your stereotypes packing to Planet Zurlong for a minute, and try one of these books that may offer you a new perspective on the genre.

For the record, most of these fall into the category of "soft" science fiction. "Hard" science fiction revels in technical details, whereas soft is not as focused on the specificity of its futuristic elements. Consider this a "soft landing" on your genre dive.

(But yes, sometimes descriptions of space ships can be fascinating.)

1) "The Wool Omnibus" by Hugh Howey

When Howey's work first caught critics' eyes in 2012, it was dubbed the "sci-fi version of 'Fifty Shades of Grey.'" That comparison is purely about how the book was published, not about the quantity of whips or handcuffs in it. Like "Shades," it took off as a self-published Internet phenomenon.

Howey posted the first 60 pages of "The Wool Omnibus" online as a standalone short story in 2011, but within a year, that turned into a 500-plus page project that topped bestseller lists. The books take place in the Silo, a post-apocalyptic city built more than a hundred stories underground.

2) The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Something strange happened in Area X. No people live there, nature has only just begun to reclaim it, and every research team that is sent to explore it encounters something different: sounds, visions, a tower that stretches down — not up.

VanderMeer's hypnotic trilogy explores Area X and the Southern Reach, the agency that dispatches research teams to area. All three volumes were released in quick succession in 2014: "Annihilation," "Authority" and "Acceptance."

3) "On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-Rae Lee

There's no denying a post-apocalyptic wave has swept across modern literature, but Lee manages to offer his own thought-provoking spin on the trope with this unsettling epic.

In Lee's desolate vision of America, the cities have been abandoned due to pollution, and re-purposed as labor camps for migrants from China. Fan, a 16-year-old girl, leaves her sheltered labor settlement behind in search of her boyfriend, who has disappeared without explanation. She wanders through the strange world outside the walls, triggering dangerous encounters with both drifters and the wealthy elite.

4) "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

This novel-within-a-novel needs a little bit of unpacking: The outer shell is the story of Iris Chase, as she thinks back on life after World War II and the mysterious death of her sister, Laura.

Just as you're settling into one narrative, though, Atwood dives into another: The book includes purported excerpts from a sci-fi novel, published in Laura's name.

Atwood is a master of mixing the literary and the unimaginable. "The Blind Assassin" won the Man Booker Prize in 2000.

5) "Fledgling" by Octavia Butler

Full disclosure: There are vampires in this one, but they're vampires from space.

Butler, an underappreciated legend of the speculative fiction world, mashes together sci-fi with the vampire myth for an utterly original book that explores what it means to be "other."

The book follows Shori, who looks like a 10-year-old girl, but is actually a genetically modified vampire in her 50s. When "Fledgling" opens, she wakes up alone in a cave, injured and unable to remember who or what she is. She must piece her identity back together, staying ahead of those who want to kill her.

6) "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

It's difficult to discuss the plot of Ishiguro's melancholy novel without giving too much away: The book broaches the dark side of scientific advancement while capturing the quiet dramas of growing up.

I'll leave it at this: The book follows a group of students from a secluded boarding school who grow into an uncomfortable awareness of how the world really works.  

Fantasy books for people who don't read fantasy

  Not a fan of fantasy, huh?

Don't worry, reading this list won't cause a cape to magically sprout from your shoulders. No tiny talking half-goat will appear at your side with a scroll from the king, declaring you, forever "a loyal knight of fantasy kingdom." No owl will follow you home. (No magic owl, anyway.)

Fantasy is a wide and deep genre that is often dismissed by critics, but if you can keep your wand-bias in check for a minute, this reading list may change your mind.

1) "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

Grossman's trilogy of books about a magical college have been hailed as the grown-up version of "Harry Potter." They live up to that mantle, delivering a dark spin on the "chosen one" narrative.

Grossman has frequently spoken out about the nerdy and childish stereotypes that people level at fantasy readers. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, he wrote: "There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. Classical literature is so fantastical, you can't swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and after that it turns out that the cat is somebody's long-lost son-in-law or something in transfigured form too."

Give in to Grossman and let down your fantasy wall for a minute. You just might like it.

2) "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville

Many fantasy novels involve foreign lands and new religions, and those can come with funny, hard-to-pronounce names. Hold your skepticism for a moment, and make the effort for Mieville's novel: It takes place in the fictional world of Bas-Lag.

Bas-Lag is powered by magic and by steampunk Victorian-era technology. It's peppered with mythical creatures that seem like funhouse-mirror versions of those you're familiar with. The book follows a well-meaning scientist who gets involved with a dangerous experiment that could destroy the minds of everyone in the city.

3) "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

Here's your dose of romance: "The Night Circus" is a fantastical tale of two dueling magicians who have been raised to do battle but are helplessly drawn to each other.

Their dangerous attraction could tear apart the circus where they work: Le Cirque des Rêves, a curious carnival that opens only at night. Inside its swirling tents, Morgenstern paints dreamlike landscapes and delicious magical tricks.

4) "The Antelope Wife" by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich's classic novel is more myth and magical realism than traditional fantasy. Her book tells of family patterns that repeat over generations, tracing the lineage of Ojibwe families living in modern-day Minneapolis. 

The present-day narrative is woven together with a 100-year-old tale of murder, betrayal and a lost baby.

5) "Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link

Try some short stories if you're still not sure. After all, they're short.

Link is a modern master of the absurd and unexpected, mixing magic with everyday life. In this collection, nothing is out of reach for her fantastical touch. Stories about rabbit hauntings, a zombie convenience store and even a reality TV show all shine.