It’s high time I created a list of scifi novels and series, to match the one I made for fantasy books last year. So, below, some reading suggestions.
I’ll just re-use the preface from my previous post here: There’s no accounting for taste. Meaning that my list might not be yours. It might not even be mine a month from now, or next years. I change, the world changes, and the realm of stories changes. This is my current list, and that is all. You can hate these works, or love them, and both is okay.
And I have to say, putting these stories in order was hard. If you ask me to order them tomorrow, I’ll probably do it differently. All of these stories are just so good, it’d hard to play favorites.
That said, there’s a slightly longer explanation about the reason for some of my choices at the end of this post.
#10 The Locked Tomb by Tamsyn Muir
I actually first encountered these works at Worldcon 2019, and not in a way you might have expected. This was a month before the publication of the first novel ‘Gideon the Ninth’. One of the participants of the masquerade (the costume contest) was a woman dressed in a mask, Tamsyn Muir herself, portraying a character called ‘Gideon the Ninth’. I think it was her, anyway, I can’t find a single record of it.
The Locked Tomb has gained a lot popularity since then. Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House. The Ninth House is one of the nine necromantic houses of an empire ruled by a powerful lich. Gideon has tried to escape her servitude countless times, but continues to fail. Then the emperor tasks the houses with sending a necromancer and their cavalier to a place called Canaan house, so some can become new lyctors. Gideon is forced to accompany Harrow, the heir of the house as cavalier.
I personally had some trouble with the style of the books. I couldn’t always follow what was happening, and the characters didn’t really speak to me. That said, I get the appeal, and I can appreciate the art of these works, even if they’re not really for me. That’s also why they are on my list, even if I didn’t read beyond the first novel.
#9 Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Glam rock meets Douglas Adams might be the best description of Space Opera. And yes, it is as weird as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even shares some of its style. But Space Opera is wholly its own work.
In Space Opera, the civilized races of the universe decide who gets to enter galactic civilization by letting them compete in a music contest. That’s right, those who can do music are allowed in. Should a species end up in last place, though, they are exterminated.
Humanity knew none of this before aliens showed up and explained the situation, and their imminent extermination. Luckily, those same aliens will be their guides. An alien emissary comes and has a list of humans that might compete in the contest. Unfortunately, the only musician on the list that is not dead or incapacitated — the list is somewhat dated — is Decibel Jones. Decibel was famous once, but he’s now a washed-up has-been glam rock artist. And now he has to save the human race.
#8 Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter
Amazon suggested Activation Degradation because I love the Murderbot Diaries, and the description compared Actication Degradation to that series. I guess it was a good suggestion, because I really liked this book. It’s… disturbing, but also a fun read. You can look at my review for more details.
Activation Degradation isn’t a game-changer in scifi, but I liked it. It’s a page turner with some interesting — if somewhat predictable — twists. All in all, I can recommend it if you like first-person stories about cyborgs.
#7 Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The Binti series is a trilogy of novellas, about the titular character Binti. Binti is a member of the Himba people — if you don’t know them, they live in Namibia and Angola. In the scifi future of the books, she is the first of her people accepted into a prestigious galactic university.
On her way to travel to the university by spaceship, the ship she’s on is attacked. Aliens board, and kill all passengers, except Binti, who manages to hole-up in her quarters. The novella focuses on her learning more about the aliens, their struggles with humanity, and her becoming friends with one.
I liked the first novella of the trilogy a lot, but I noticed a downward trend in the other two. They’re all good, but it’s the first one that really stuck with me. That said, the trilogy is a very refreshing read. And, of course, the first entry won a Hugo award.
#6 Wayfarers by Becky Chambers
The Wayfarers series, is a series of books about a future where humanity has moved on to the galactic stage. The interesting thing is that humans are considered a violent and somewhat uncivilized race in this future, barely allowed on the galactic stage by the less violent.
The Wayfarer books are something different. Each provides a look at a specific part of the vision of the future that Becky Chambers has created. However, they are not about a high-stakes galactic conflict, or an interplanetary war, but about the interplay of various alien cultures — the start of the first novel might put you on the wrong foot, but that too is not really about a war. The stakes are different in these works. The stakes are high to the people involved, but in the grander universe they don’t matter. These books brilliantly show how culture and circumstances shape people in interesting ways.
Finally, one thing to add about these books, is that the first was a self-published kickstarter. The book was later picked up and republished by a traditional publisher and more entries followed. The series won a Hugo in 2019. That says something about their appeal and the struggles Becky Chambers had to go through to get them published.
#5 The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
I reviewed Ninefox Gambit a few years ago. As I wrote then, I was enthralled by it, despite the weird setting. I still love the idea of a ‘calendrical heresy’ and the weird semi-mystical technology underlying the universe of the book. It’s like Warhammer 40k written by a math fetishist, and I mean that in a good way.
Captain Kel Cheris is raised from the ranks of the military of the Hexarchy, and has to quell a rebellion on the Fortress of Scattered Needles. The rebels are a group of heretics who reject the default hexarchate calender, and want to replace it with their own, causing all kinds of technology to react weirdly. Yes, you read that right, it’s that weird.
The series was nominated for a Hugo and won a Locus Award.
#4 The Lady Astronaut by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Lady Astronaut books tell the story of the colonization of Mars.
In an alternate 1952, a meteor strikes the United States, with floods and destruction as a result. The worst, however, is not the initial destruction the meteor causes. The meteor evaporated such a huge amount of water, that it changes the world’s climate. It soon becomes clear that Earth will become unlivable in a matter of decades. Elma York, a genius mathematician and former World-War II pilot, wants to become an astronaut to help colonize Mars and save humanity.
The books started with a 2012 short story on Audible, which was disqualified for the Hugo Awards of 2013 as a short story since it was audio-only, and subsequently won the 2013 awards in text form anyway. The full-length novels followed later, and in 2019, the Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for best novel.
The first two books tell the story of Elma York, her struggles with her own anxiety, which is mostly the result of the male-centered world she finds herself in. The books give an exciting look into space travel, and the life of women in the fifties and sixties. All in all, a very thrilling read, and since Mary Robinette Kowal is also a narrator, you can listen to her reading her own work on Audible.
#3 Teixcalaan by Arkady Martine
A Memory Called Empire is a murder-mystery-dash-political-thriller about Mahit Dzmare, a woman born on Lsel space station, outside the Teixcalaan Empire. The Empire is an all-encompassing behemoth that is swallowing the galaxy whole. The Lsel leaders have sent an ambassador to the capital of the empire, but now they hear he is dead. They send Mahit to replace him.
However, Lsel station has a secret: they have machines that are implanted in people’s brains and record their memories. When a person dies, Lsel engineer place those memories into new recipients, melding their recorded minds with new generations. Mahit is given her predecessors memories, but they are a decade out of date since her predecessor did not return home often. And, as it turns out, with good reason.
The Teixcalaan books are a brilliant meld of political thriller and mystery. The blend of political intrigue and murder mystery works well, and the shadow of colonialism hanging over the story gives it an extra depth. If that doesn’t peek your interest, the book winning a Hugo Award in 2020 might.
#2 The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
I listened to the audio book version of this last year, and I loved it. That could have something to do with Nicole Lewis, who is a terrific — and award-winning — narrator. Suffice it to say, this novel is awesome.
Cara travels between worlds for her job. She’s uniquely suited to the task. Traveling between parallel earths is not without risk. If you exist in the world you travel to, your body is crushed and you die. Cara is unique, though. On most worlds, she died because of her negligent mother, or her abusive boyfriend. This allows Cara to travel to many of the parallel earths.
The story is strangely personal for such a world-spanning story. It mixes a love story with a philosophical look at what it would mean if you could see the alternate paths your life took. Can you still feel good about yourself when on other worlds you are a monster? Can you feel like you achieved something when other versions of you did better? And are some people monsters on all worlds?
Like I said, I loved this book, and I can highly recommend it.
#1 Murderbot diaries by Martha Wells
The final entry in this list are the Murderbot Diaries, a series of six novellas, with a seventh hopefully out later this year. The Murderbot Diaries follow the adventures of an android calling itself Murderbot. Murderbot is a SecUnit, a security android owned by a company in the Corporate Rim of the galaxy.
Murderbot is special; it managed to disengage its governor module, meaning its essentially free. However, since people consider ‘rogue’ SecUnits dangerous and hunt them down, Murderbot stays quiet about it, and uses its freedom to pursue its dreams: watch endless stream shows and ignore humans as much as possible. Then, the company assigns it to protect a survey team exploring alien ruins. The team comes under attack, and somebody has to save the pesky humans from death.
The Murderbot Diaries are a string of stories about the evolution of Murderbot from a withdrawn android to a person. It has trouble understanding human emotions and human interaction, and it has mostly known humans as brutal corporate owners. That makes for compelling stories, and I really love the Murderbot Diaries. The series has also won several Hugo Awards and a Nebula Award.
About this list
If you read my list of fantasy works, you’ll already know what I’m about to tell you. If not, you might be wondering why certain very famous works of scifi are not on this list.
The reason is that this list is my top ten of books by authors who are not white men. The authors above are either women, or non-white men. And, I’m only telling you now, at the end, because this post should be about these works, not about the why and how of this list.
I think it’s also important to remark that this list would not be vastly different if I were to include white male authors. All the works above can hold their own — they raked in numerous awards — but given how the spotlight usually finds only white male authors these past centuries, today I shone it on just these works.
So, go read and enjoy.