Photograph of a person reading a book in a dark room. The book is emitting light.
Photograph of a person reading a book in a dark room. The book is emitting light.

If reading fiction is an exercise in empathy, a way for you to see the world through someone else’s eyes, then reading science fiction and fantasy ups the ante. You still see through someone else’s eyes, but the world you’re seeing could be a distant planet, an alternate timeline, a land of magic and mystery, or maybe, our own familiar world, just … tweaked a bit. Also, that someone else might have four eyes, or eight, or none at all. I’m Glen Weldon, one of the hosts of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, and we’re teaming up with Life Kit for a beginner’s guide to science fiction and fantasy, so I’m joined by NPR Books editor Petra Mayer, who’s just a little bit of a sci-fi and fantasy fan.

People have a lot of preconceived ideas about sci-fi and fantasy — that it’s for nerds, that it’s just about spaceships or elves, that the writing isn’t great, or that everything is a door-stopping 18-book series. But we’re here to say that’s not true. There’s been incredible change in the genre over the past 10 years, and that’s why we decided to focus this year’s NPR Summer Reader Poll on favorite sci-fi and fantasy of the past decade.

“We’re in the middle of it. We are the happening,” says writer Tochi Onyebuchi, one of the judges on this year’s poll. “I mean, there are more writers of color. There are more writers from queer backgrounds. There’s a lot more demographic diversity … You’re seeing a lot more stuff that just looks different, and not just in terms of the skin color of the characters on the page, but in terms of the very architecture of these books.”

So whether you’re a longtime fan or a stranger in these strange lands, we’ve got you covered with the basics of what defines this genre and some solid recommendations to get you reading.

What is this stuff, anyhow?

Science fiction and fantasy go back centuries in published form, and farther back still in oral tradition — and they’re almost always lumped together, to the consternation of some fans. But it makes some sense: First, they’re easier to find in the bookstore that way, and second, both genres are asking the same basic question: What if? What if there were other worlds? What if magic were real?

If you waved a phaser threateningly in our general direction, we might say that science fiction tends to answer those questions in terms of technology, whether it’s what exists around us now or what can be imagined. And fantasy tends to see that question through the lens of the supernatural. But there’s so much cross-pollination between the two genres that it’s hard to slot every book into one category or the other.

Also, pretty much all fiction is really fantasy, says Amal El-Mohtar. She’s a Hugo Award-winning writer and another one of the judges on our summer poll. “As soon as it’s fiction, it’s asking you ‘what if!’ It’s just asking you ‘what if’ within certain parameters, and genres are about our expectations, ultimately, and those change a lot.”

(As far as the term “speculative fiction” goes … it’s complicated. But for me, it’s a nice umbrella that covers any story asking “what if.”)

So, why read science fiction or fantasy?

… because they’re awesome? No, seriously: The best sci-fi and fantasy truly does engender awe at the scope of these imagined universes, the richness of human imagination that can create such alien worlds and make you believe in them wholly, the visions of deep strangeness hidden within everyday life on Earth and how humanity might behave in places we’ve only ever dreamed of. These stories consider what all that says about us, the dreamers.

OK, you’ve convinced me. Where should I start?

Well, there is the summer book poll, which has 50 great science fiction and fantasy books from the past decade. (Have we mentioned the summer book poll?) But if wading through 50 books is just too intimidating, we also have recommendations from Amal, Tochi and Petra.

A composite image of the books The Goblin Emperor, On Fragile Waves and This Is How You Lose The Time War all set against a black and white cosmic background.

Tor Fantasy; Erewhon; Gallery/Saga Press

A composite image of the books The Goblin Emperor, On Fragile Waves and This Is How You Lose The Time War all set against a black and white cosmic background.

Tor Fantasy; Erewhon; Gallery/Saga Press

Amal El-Mohtar’s pick: On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

It’s a story of a family fleeing Afghanistan, a mother, father, sister and brother, and they are trying to make their way to Australia. It is very grounded in the real world, but the daughter in this family becomes haunted by a girl who drowned during the voyage. And that presence that haunts her becomes woven into her experience of being in the offshore immigrant processing facility — which is a lot of horrible distorting words to actually mean just horrific human rights abuses. It is so much about being dislocated over and over, and uses magic, haunting, sadness and poetry as a way to explore those things. It ultimately is just so much about the ways in which stories can help us through difficult times, but also about how they can be insufficient to the task, and you need something else. I desperately want people to read it because I feel sort of like if everyone read it, then the world might be a slightly kinder place.

Tochi Onyebuchi’s pick: This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

It’s got magic. It’s got space. It’s got love letters. It’s got everything. I think, in terms of sheer inventiveness, this book is almost peerless because I didn’t know you could do the things that Max and Amal did in this book. I just didn’t know those were the realm of prose possibility. If you want to read a book that in many ways flies against so many of the dogmas of how to write that come from more draconian corners of — whether it’s literary spaces or non-literary spaces — read This Is How You Lose The Time War.

Petra Mayer’s pick: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

This is one of my favorite comfort reads of all time. It’s set in a world with a seamless mix of magic and technology (there are airships, but you can also talk to the dead) in an empire ruled by elves. And off in the provinces is a poor exiled half-elf, half-goblin named Maia who’s the last and least likely heir of the Emperor, being raised by a spiteful elven tutor who hates being stuck out there. So of course, there’s skulduggery and Maia ends up on the throne and has to find his way in the treacherous imperial court. Which he does, with refreshing grace and strength. It’s wonderful to watch him learn not only how to rule well, but how to relate to people fairly as a ruler. This is a beautifully built world and ultimately a warm and hopeful story.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Mike Katzif and Brian Jarboe.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at [email protected].

For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.