For some readers, science fiction and fantasy is a hard sell. The sf/f labels come with the baggage of preconceived notions about what it means. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Science fiction is not always about spaceships and fantasy is not always about dragons. Science fiction and fantasy provide just as much literary range as classic literature. In fact, several works of sf/f key off of classic literature. So, with the aim of introducing readers to sf/f, here's a list of suggestions aimed at readers of classic literature to help introduce them to the wonderful world of science fiction and fantasy.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials is in many ways a retelling of John Milton's Paradise Lost. If you recall, Milton's epic poem is essentially the Biblical story of the Fall of Man.
Pullman's trilogy (which begins with The Golden Compass) inverts the religious aspect and recasts the story as a coming-of-age tale for its lead protagonists. The driving mystery of the novel is the celestial phenomenon called Dust which those in power believe to be a physical manifestation of sin. This leads to horrible experiments conducted on children as they are separated from the "daemons," the pet-like creatures that symbolize their souls. Pullman's trilogy holds up its end of Milton's "epic" bargain by featuring parallel worlds, grand battles, surprising plot-twists and—my favorite—armored polar bears.
Railsea by China Miéville
Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick is an epic story of the sea in which Captain Ahab, the leader of the whaleship Pequod, is driven by revenge to pursue the great white whale that caused his leg to be severed at the knee.
Meanwhile, China Miéville's self-proclaimed "affectionate parody" book Railsea transposes Melville's sea adventure to land. In place of the sea, Miéville's dystopic future transforms deserts into railway-covered landscapes. The great white whale is replaced by a giant, ivory-colored mole that bursts upward from the earth. The story is seen through the eyes of orphans on board the moletrain Medes, which is led by Captain Naphi, a woman who is seeking revenge against the ivory mole for taking her arm.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Everyone knows the story of Cinderella, right? A young girl, whose beauty goes unnoticed by her evil step-sisters and wicked stepmother, ultimately wows the handsome prince and lives happily ever after.
In the book Cinder by Marissa Meyer, that fairy tale is transposed to a world in which humans exist side-by-side with androids and the world itself is ravaged by a deadly plague. The world's only hope could very well be a cyborg mechanic named Cinder. Cinder, like all non-humans, is a second-class citizen and she has a mysterious past. Her stepmother exploits her abilities and blames Cinder for her stepsister's illness. Cinder's life is upended when a chance meeting with Prince Kai, who finds himself in need of her services, leads her into the middle of dangerous, political intrigue.
Hyde by Daniel Levine
Robert Louis Stevenson's classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde examines the themes of morality—specifically good vs. evil—through the split personalities of its protagonist, the kind Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil alter ego, Edward Hyde.
In Daniel Levine's new book Hyde, the story takes place from the opposite viewpoint. Mr. Hyde becomes the narrator who recounts the events of his short life, which was brought about by strange potions. Both personas share the same body, with only one of them in control at any given time. Hyde does not know when he will have control, or for how long. He remains dormant while Dr. Jekyll is in control of the body, but aware of what is going on. He's also aware of a mysterious stalker that threatens the both of them. Could this mysterious stalker be the real reason girls have gone missing, and is he the one framing Hyde for those crimes?
Rags & Bones edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt
If you're still not sure whether you think classic retellings are right for you, how about a plate of satisfying shorter reads? Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales is an anthology of 12 short stories, each one a retelling of a classic fairy tale. Participating authors were given the directive to choose a classic story or fairy tale and "boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences." The result is that some of the field's sharpest and brightest writers (like Neil Gaiman and Holly Black) tell their own twisted versions of stories that resonate at their core. To round out the anthology, some handsome illustrations by Charles Vess are included.