Which John Scalzi Novel Should I Read First?
I get asked a lot by people new to me (or new to my fiction, anyway) which novel of mine they should read first. I have a long-winded answer to this that says, well, I write nearly all of my books to be read as stand-alones, so no matter where you start you should be fine. This answer almost never makes anyone happy. So let’s pretend I never said that, and instead let me now grade my books on “first readability.”
To spare anyone who doesn’t want to read me blather at length on the matter, if I had to pick just one book as the “start here” John Scalzi novel, it would be Old Man’s War. I’ll explain why in a minute. But if that’s just what you wanted from this, there you go, now go out and get it. Have fun and thanks.
Now, here’s a slightly longer “first read” assessment of my novels and novellas and collections, in order of publication. Note the grades here are only for “is this a book I would recommend as a first read,” not in regard to overall quality. In terms of overall quality, I think they are all very good, otherwise I wouldn’t have put them out there to be read.
(Also, obviously: These are my opinions. Others might disagree on which are the best “first reads.”)
Old Man’s War: As noted above this is probably the one I would suggest as a “first read” to most people. The reason is pretty simple: It’s a fast and easy read, it’s my best-known book, it opens a series so if you like it you can continue with the characters, and most importantly for “first read” purposes, it’s highly indicative of my personal style. Which is to say if you read it and like it, there’s a very good chance you’ll like the rest of my novels. If you read it and don’t like it at all, you should probably find another author to read, because I’m not likely to get any better for you. First Read Grade: A+
Agent to the Stars: The is the first novel that I wrote but second published (after Old Man’s War) and takes place in “contemporary” Los Angeles, in which aliens have arrived and are looking for an agent. It’s funny and I think a good example of my tone. As time goes on a number of the references and situations in the book are beginning to age; I think it’s best to say this book represents an alternate timeline that branched off from ours around the turn of the millennium. Still, an easy one to get into. First Read Grade: B
The Ghost Brigades: The second book of the Old Man’s War series. I expressly wrote it to be read as a stand alone, on the perfectly reasonable theory that the first book in the series might not be on the shelf and I didn’t want to give people an excuse to put the book down. So it is readable as a first book. But even so I suspect it’s less suited as a “first book” than Old Man’s War. First Read Grade: B-
The Android’s Dream: This is a standalone (I did start writing a follow-up called The High Castle, but it wasn’t good, so I stopped) and I love it to bits, but it might not be the best “first read” book of mine because it’s also maybe a little… well, aggressive might be the best word. I mean, it starts with a chapter where someone farts someone else to death. It’s a great chapter from a storytelling point of view, but it might not be the best for a first time reader. Unless they want a challenge and don’t mind farts. In which case: Rock on. First Read Grade: B-
The Last Colony: Book three in the Old Man’s War series. Again, I wrote it with the idea that people picking it up might not have access to the other books in the series, so it can be read alone. But it is three books in. Probably not the best place to start. First Read Grade: C
Zoe’s Tale: Book four in the Old Man’s War series but it was originally written a) to be put into high school and middle school libraries, b) as the possible starting point to a trilogy of books following Zoë Boutin-Perry, the teenaged protagonist of the book. So it was written under the assumption that it was the first book in its own spin-off series, and that its readers would not have read the previous books in the universe. Which makes it a not at all bad “first read”, particularly for younger readers. First Read Grade: B+ for younger readers, B for everyone else
The God Engines: A very dark and grim fantasy novella that I wrote in part to make the point that while I usually wrote generally light, generally funny, generally optimistic science fiction, I had have other tools in my writing tool box. The novella is pretty great (it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula) but it’s also by design non-representative of my larger body of work. So if you really like this, there’s not much else in my oeuvre like it (yet…). I absolutely do want people to read it, but as a first read, I’m not sure I would recommend it. First Read Grade: D
Metatropolis: I edited this shared world anthology of novellas, which includes my own novella Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis. It’s amusing but very light, and while it’s a passable first read I wouldn’t recommend readers start here with me (Metatropolis as a whole is excellent, however). First Read Grade: C
Fuzzy Nation: A “reboot” of the H. Beam Piper novel Little Fuzzy, featuring some of the same characters and general story outline but otherwise vastly revamped and updated. This is actually a very accessible book for first readers and very much in line with my general style and tone. It also has a bit fewer moments of cursing than I usually put in my books, which generally recommends it to younger readers (or more accurately, parents who don’t want to give their kids books with a lot of cursing in them). First Read Grade: A
Redshirts: My Hugo Award-winner. It’s very funny and it references and plays with several decades of science fiction tropes, most notably (obviously) from Star Trek and other film/TV science fiction. I think it’s pretty accessible and the humor in it is the same in tone as you’ll find in my other books, although there is rather more of it. It’s not a bad place to start with me, especially if you like humor and are steeped in science fiction tropes. The caveat I note is that humor is personal, so if you bounce off the humor here (and some people do), you’ll wonder why anyone thought it was a big deal at all. First Read Grade: A-
The Human Division: Book five in the Old Man’s War series. But! It starts a new two-book arc in the series, with new main characters and situations, and I set everything up nicely so that if you’re new to the series you’re caught up on pertinent information so you can move forward quickly. I think it works reasonably well as a first read. First Read Grade: B
Lock In: My gloss on a Crichton-esque near-future thriller, which I like quite a lot and which in point of fact was a first read of mine for a lot of folks, and it seemed to work just fine. Particularly recommended for people who like thrillers and crime novels and are not 100% sure how they feel about science fiction. It’s also a good one to give people who are reluctant to be seen with a book that has spaceships on the cover. First Read Grade: A-
Unlocked: A companion novella to Lock In, written as an oral history and detailing the disease that plays a role in that novel. It’s best read in conjunction with Lock In, and it’s different enough from my usual style that I would probably not have it as an introduction to me. First Read Grade: C
The End of All Things: Book six of the Old Man’s War series and the direct sequel to The Human Division, completing that two-book arc. Again, I think readable on its own, but really not where I would start. It’s better in conjunction with The Human Division. First Read Grade: C
The Dispatcher: This novella is crime noir with a fantasy wash, and it’s a bit off the track from what I’m best known for, although not so much that I feel like it’s unrepresentative. If you were to read (or listen to, as it was written for audiobook) this first, it’s an easy transfer over to Lock In, and vice versa. Try it, it’s fun! First Read Grade: B
Miniatures: This is a collection of very short stories, most under 2,000 words, and almost all of them intended to be humorous. I actually think this is a really nice first read book for me — you get a sense of my humor almost immediately and everything in it moves by quickly (and also, the eBook is, like, $5, so it’s a pretty cheap first date). If you read this and really like it, Redshirts is the obvious next stop in terms of what to read next. First Read Grade: B+
The Collapsing Empire: The first installment of my new space opera series. I really like it, and as with Old Man’s War I think it’s an excellent “first read” because it gives you a very good sense of who I am as a writer — if you like it, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like most everything else of mine. The one tiny caveat is I have a particular character who is super profane, which I love but some people find excessive. But if you can handle that this is a great place to start. First Read Grade: A
Head On: The sequel to Lock In, but intentionally written so that if you hadn’t read it, you could still follow everything that was going on (and indeed, some people did just that). I wouldn’t intentionally start with it, but if you accidentally did, you’ll be just fine. First Read Grade: B
The Consuming Fire: This sequel, however, presumes that you’ve read The Collapsing Empire. So, go read that one first, and also, this is not a great place to start with me (although if you have read The Collapsing Empire, I promise you’ll have fun with this book). First Read Grade: C-
A Very Scalzi Christmas: A collection of holiday-themed short stories, similar in tone and length to Miniatures, and like that book, a cheap and fun way to dip a toe into my humorous work. First Read Grade: B+
The Last Emperox: The third book in the Interdependency series (which also features The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire). The prologue is designed to catch you up on everything, but honestly you should read the first two books first. It’s worth it, promise! First Read Grade: C-
Murder By Other Means: The follow-up to The Dispatcher. It’s short, like The Dispatcher, so it has that going for it, however as the second story of the series you’re probably best off starting with The Dispatcher and then coming to this one after. First Read Grade: C
The Kaiju Preservation Society: This is a standalone book, and it’s a quick and easy, and, dare I say, fun read about people who work on a planet with very large monsters, and I think would make a pretty good intro book. Caveat to that: It takes place in 2020 and 2021 and comments a bit about COVID and the politics of the day, so if those are sore spots, this might not be the best book to start with. Otherwise, dive in. First Read Grade: A-
Travel by Bullet: The third installment of the Dispatcher series. Is readable without having read the others in the series, but, again, best to start at the beginning. First Read Grade: C
Starter Villain: Another standalone, and you know what? A pretty solid read for a first-timer. Like KPS, it’s fun and high-concept, and it takes place in contemporary time. If you have a friend who says they don’t like science fiction, this is a pretty good entry point to show them that science fiction takes many forms, not all of them intimidating. First Read Grade: A
I’ll update this piece as new books come out. In the meantime, hope this helps with your first read needs.