Member JoetheJet asked this question in the discussion thread of one of my Geek Trivia columns:

“I think my 14 year old son would like these (science fiction) types of books, but I don’t think he’s ever read one. Do you have a recommendation of the ‘best’ one to start with?”

Since we were talking about Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein in the article, I suggested Foundation, Rendezvous with Rama, and Stranger in a Strange Land, respectively. I was politely chided for suggesting Stranger to a 14-year-old, because there is a certain amount of “free love” content in it (though nothing I would consider gratuitous, especially by current standards). Then again, I’m not the parent of a 14-year-old boy, so I’m by no means qualified to judge.

This got me thinking about a similar issue that my Jedi Master, science fiction author John Scalzi, brought up almost a year ago: There’s plenty of “starter” fantasy out there with mass-market appeal and all-ages reach, but there’s precious little starter sci-fi. You’re almost obligated to go all the way back to the Heinlein juveniles–Rocket Ship Galileo being seminal–to get a kid started on science fiction, and you almost always end up pointing an adult initiate at one of the Big Three authors I mentioned above–who haven’t written major original work in decades (what with two of them being off the mortal coil). And no, Variable Star doesn’t count. To quote Master Scalzi:

“The best SF book of 2005, in my opinion, is Charlie Stross’ Accelerando — more mind-busting ideas there per square inch than any other book this year, and on the off chance Old Man’s War gets nominated for any awards this year, I shall be pleased to have my book lose to Charlie’s. That being said, and as I’ve said before, Accelerando is for the faithful, not the uninitiated — and if you look at the significant SF books of the last several years, there aren’t very many you could give to the uninitiated reader; they all pretty much implicitly or explicitly assume you’ve been keeping up with the genre, because the writers themselves have. … This means SF is always inventing new vocabularies of expression, which is good, but it also means the latest, hottest vocabularies are not ones that, say, my voraciously-reading but resolutely middle-of-the-road mother-in-law has any hope of understanding. It’s math to her. Which is bad.”

So, back to the top of this issue, how would you answer JoetheJet‘s question? Is there any way to get a bright, interested 14-year-old boy started with science fiction without going all the way back to the post-World War II Golden Age juveniles? Is there a way to get an adult started on sci-fi lit without tossing a 30-year-old Asimov, Niven, or Heinlein his or her way? Scalzi’s readership says there is, with Neal Stephenson’s name coming up in the adult initiate category quite often. I’d love to hear what the Geekenders think. I’ll save my responses for last.