Expanding the SF/Fantasy Universe | Readers’ Advisory

ljx170501webRAslugScience fiction (sf) and fantasy are two genres often described as unrealistic fiction. They both depend heavily on worldbuilding and the exploration of “what if?” narratives, deriving their plausibility from consistency, logic, and emotional realism. Sf generally features imagined new scientific discoveries to drive the changes in its setting, while fantasy uses magic. Sf is generally set in the future, though genres such as “steampunk” feature an alternate past based on alternate science, while fantasy’s imagined settings are often inspired by the past or the present.

Among librarians, both genres can create feelings of fear and uncertainty about our ability to serve our readers’ needs. But that needn’t be the case: here are some ways to become more comfortable with sf and fantasy and better at connecting patrons with the genre.

First, don’t feel shy about approaching sf/fantasy readers with recommendations, even if you feel you know less about the genre than they do. Don’t assume you have little to offer even if you are a genre outsider. We’re saturated with information about books through review journals and publishers and have access to excellent resources such as NoveList.

In addition, you may know more than you think. Many librarians think they don’t read sf/fantasy, yet they are often familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, George Orwell’s 1984, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Andy Weir’s The Martian, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and many other titles with fantastic or science fictional elements. Classics and some literary fiction titles may not have dragons or spaceships on their spine labels, but they certainly belong to the speculative fiction genre and remain relevant to readers. Precisely because they’re not marketed as part of the genre, they may be the very books readers need a librarian’s help to identify, along with mainstream fiction that might be of interest because it depicts fandom culture, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

What’s the Appeal?

Consider approaching the conversation from the perspective of appeal factors rather than genres and subgenres. Use what Nancy Pearl calls the “doorways” of story, character, setting, and language, and add Joyce Saricks’s (Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library, 3d ed.) idea of tone.

Genre blending has become a recent trend in sf/fantasy. The emphasis on appeal factors can help you reach across the spectrum of speculative fiction tropes, focus on reader preferences, and avoid RA jargon. Even the most committed fantasy fan may not know the difference between epic and historical fantasy. Try recommending books like Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Fran Wilde’s Updraft, or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

Similarly, sf patrons may not be interested in discussing the variances between cyberpunk and hard sf, but if they describe their preference for gritty, spare writing, we can guess that they read for language. These patrons may enjoy ­William Gibson’s Neuromancer or China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, or, on the fantasy side, Catherynne M. ­Valente’s Palimpsest.

Don’t forget to include media. All genres cross over into media, but movies, TV, and video games, not to mention comics and graphic novels, are especially intertwined with sf and fantasy and can be an excellent tool for immersing yourself in sf/fantasy fandoms.

We can’t read everything, and we can’t force our reading taste, but by familiarizing ourselves with some of the core sf/fantasy titles and current favorites, we can become better reader advisors.

Start by creating a genre reader’s profile. Write down what you have read already. Don’t forget classics, dystopian stories, time travel, strange fiction, or fairy-tale retellings. Some sf classics and core titles you may find on your list include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Classic fantasy include J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter.”


When it comes to your own favorite genre, do you read for story, character, setting, language, or tone? Understanding a reader’s key appeal factors can help you match them with the right book.

For those entranced by setting and intricate worldbuilding, try sf titles such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Fantasy fans should check out Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” books, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Sf readers who want to connect with strong characters will enjoy Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Vorkosigan Saga,” whereas their fantasy-loving counterparts should give Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Max Gladstone’s “Craft Sequence,” and Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” a chance.

When it comes to a story with an unbeatable hook, recommend David Weber’s On Basilisk Station and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl to sf fans and Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking to fantasy lovers.

Those in the market for novels featuring beautifully crafted language will appreciate sf titles such as Jo Walton’s Farthing and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and fantastical novels like Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads, and Patricia A. McKillip’s The Riddle-Master of Hed.

Be sure to stay abreast of recent award winners, especially the latest Hugo and Nebula titles, and keep your ear to the ground about upcoming book-to-screen adaptations, many of which drive readers to seek out the original text.

Finally, consider joining a genre study, such as the one the Adult Reading Round Table is currently running in the Chicago area. You can become a member and enter into the discussions, or check out online assignments and study notes for free.

In the conversation

Sf/fantasy has a very active and expressive community, and there are many resources for staying informed. Start with a few core works; you can always get sucked into the wormholes of passionate fandom discussions later. An excellent first choice is Locus Magazine. It has a great mix of collection development tools and opinion pieces with news, book and movie reviews, author profiles, lists of forthcoming titles, award winners, and information on publishers, conferences, and more. If you’re ready for an sf/fantasy magazine with more original content, try Clarkesworld, or the free, online Strange Horizons.

For blogs, don’t miss Tor.com. Tor is one of the largest sf/fantasy publishers, with an attractive website featuring rich content, smart contributors, and entertaining analyses of sf/fantasy books. It also offers lists of new releases and titles publishing soon. Another blog to visit is i09.com, which is irreverent in tone but strong at reflecting what’s happening within sf/fantasy pop culture.

If you want to listen to reviews, author talks, and conversations on geek culture, check out one of the many sf/fantasy podcasts, such as the Sword and Laser, Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, and Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.

On Twitter, follow popular sf/fantasy authors (my favorites include John Scalzi @scalzi and Cho @zenaldehyde) or search for genre hashtags such as #DarkFantasy, #SteamPunk, or #UrbanFantasy to see what fans are talking about.

Megan Rosol is a Readers’ Advisory librarian at Morton Grove Public Library, IL, and a recent sf/fantasy genre convert

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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