I went through a heavy sci-fi reading phase as a young person… then kinda got lost? With movies, tv, anime, and comics, I was getting my science fiction fix elsewhere. In the last few years, though, I’m back in the game. So here are my fave recently read science fiction books – both novels and novellas – from my personal sci-fi reading renaissance. My reading interests lean heavily towards diverse authors and characters, so this list delightfully reflects that. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
Any book on this list I loved at the time I read it, whether I had a chance to write a review or not. Obviously a re-read years later might reveal a problematic aspect I didn’t pick up on back then. Please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.
I really liked this quiet short story about a young woman named Dell who survives a plague that kills most of humanity. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about people instead of, you know, zombies or killer robots, and specifically about how people get up and keep going after trauma, how they remake themselves, and how they re-connect to other people. It also has the gritty logistical details that I always want from post-apocalyptic lit, such as where the food is coming from, what survivors are scavenging, etc.
It’s a short read, very thoughtful and ultimately hopeful.
Fan-fucking-tastic mix of wild events with very real emotions and time-loop-y sci-fi goodness. Ela is a trans author with so many books that I wasn’t sure where to jump into her catalog, yet it turned out I found the perfect one for me. Trans MC on a journey of self-knowledge with a sapphic romance subplot. I cannot praise this book highly enough.
“Sammaël, Accuser, Destroyer, an eldritch entity older than space and time itself, roams the universe, looking for a way to alleviate its boredom.
When down on earth, Abe Douglas dies alone, drunk and angry in an alleyway, Sammaël seizes the opportunity and takes his body, unaware of the strange and impossible journey it is about to undertake.”
Sapphic post-apocalypse with two trans women leads, by a trans woman. I loved the hell out of this debut novel in large part because of something that a few other reviewers have disliked: the dialogue. There are stretches where Ironside isn’t using dialogue to mimic an actual human conversation. She’s using it to lavish the female characters (trans and otherwise) with what they genuinely need: to share their story with someone who is truly listening, or to hear what they desperately need to hear from someone who really cares about their healing. I thought it was a wonderful example of how not all art has to follow the exact same form.
Also, at 566 pages with two distinct story arcs, you basically get two books in one, and there’s a lot of punching Nazis in both. Win.
CW: Extensive discussions of sexual trauma and other violence, during the healing process.
“The past lies like a nightmare over the world.
Two hundred years after the War when atomic fire rained from the skies and burned the world to cinders, human civilization has had time to rebuild within the burned-out husk of Old America. But the old terrors of the past still persist, and while some work to build a better world, others still dream of reclaiming the glory of the Old World.
In southern Appalachia, political commissar Magnolia Blackadder is sent on a mission into the irradiated Exclusion Zone of Old DC, where an evil that humanity thought it had vanquished centuries ago is waking up and rebuilding its strength. Along the way, she meets a strange woman with terrible secrets and an unspeakable past, and as they forge a bond and brave the terrors of the wasteland together, she learns that some demons are not so easily exorcised, and that some stones are better left unturned.”
A gripping espionage tale revolving around the rights of humans known as third gender changelings, biologically intersex people who can assume secondary sex characteristics of either gender if they so choose. Dalí Tamareia, the main character, has a resting neutral state, though other third gender people have/prefer either a male or female resting state.
After Dalí’s husband, wife, and their collective unborn child are murdered by human extremist conservatives, Dalí falls apart. Passively suicidal, they only find purpose again when they’re recruited into an extra-governmental black ops team that’s tracking a smuggling ring sending third gender people to be enslaved outside of Earth space.
Political conspiracy is one of my fave flavors of catnip, so this was perfect for me. The worldbuilding is rich and detailed without slowing down the story. Dalí’s grief is achingly real. The secondary characters are textured and interesting, with even the villains being more than cardboard cutouts. This would be an amazing start to a series, so here’s hoping that’s what Hamill has in mind.
[Update: I have read the sequel, Peacemaker, and it’s also yay.]
Often darkly hilarious, but also deeply emotional. The sapphic relationship is a subplot in some ways, but in other ways the whole story hinges on it, both the good and the bad. (CW: prisoner/captor. Not a genre romance so I have leeway for a different kind of story than I’d be comfortable with in romance.) Very complex, but it left me with a feeling of hope and I couldn’t get it out of my head for days!
“Rabbits of the Apocalypse is set in a not-too-distant future plagued with drought, human trafficking, rabid religious groups, and people who completely lack a sense of humor. What with all the hunger, chaos, sunstroke, landmines, and radiation it’s hard to get by, and harder still to get laid.
In the remote desert town of Lafontaine, Casey Prentice has been trying to survive the endtimes by keeping her head down and refusing to give a damn about anyone except her younger sister Emily and wingman Malice Hiroyama. But that ceases to be an option when a powerful and mysterious entity known as the Anastasian League descends on the town.
Casey offers shelter to genius Pax, who is trying to escape the League. In doing so, she invites a whole new kind of danger into her life on top of a budding romance. The town of Lafontaine has a secret… and if the League discovers it, then the apocalypse will be the least of Casey’s worries.”
A fantasy / high-tech mashup about Mordred Pendragon (yes, that one) and Alan Turing. Intricate, at times hilarious, profoundly geeky, and I deeply wish the clearly intended second book would have been written – but it’s worth reading anyway.
Mordred Pendragon (who is not a nice guy!) has been exiled to Canada for committing an un-specified but heinous crime. To achieve solvency, he decides to get a job as a programmer, despite having almost no knowledge of computers. He gets hired, learns C++, and makes a surprising and genuine connection with the remote software genius that created his employer’s product. The genius’s name is Alan. Everything’s going… well, okay, until conspiracies and interference from various parties with evil intent turns Mordred’s life into a war zone. There’s some kidnapping, some necromancy, and a growing desire on Mordred’s part to be closer to Alan, before Mordred gets some answers about what the hell happened that led to his exile, and he has to make a choice about what matters to him the most. I’ve read it twice, love it, will read it again.
Space diplomacy novel with an ownvoices autistic protagonist who’s also bi? I almost didn’t read it, ONLY because I didn’t want to be disappointed if it didn’t click for me! Thank goodness I came to my senses. It’s superbly well-plotted, every single character is distinctive and fascinating, and it manages to both resolve the main story and set up for the second book in a totally satisfying way. Xandri Corelel, one of the few neurodivergent humans in the universe, has trained herself so well to read communication styles that she’s now the head of a first contact team. Her ship gets summoned to an isolationist planet long past first contact, though, because they’ve gone and built a super-weapon that both Xandri’s civilization and their genocidal space foes want. Result: political machinations, assassination attempts, and all kinds of backstabbing and general chaos – but then Xandri being super-smart and brave and telling people to sit down, shut the hell up, and LISTEN. Totally engrossing!
The second book is also great, and I thoroughly enjoyed the prequel as well, so jump in on this series if it sounds at all intriguing.
I went into this with zero details about the plot, because I’d seen Brissett on a panel and wanted to read some of her work, and I’m so glad I did. I suspect the story almost works better if you don’t know what’s happening the first time reality shifts. And it shifts a LOT. It’s the story of two people, manifesting in different ways in different settings, but always with some kind of love between them, and usually struggling to survive.
I don’t want to say much more, but this is an ambitious, interesting science fiction / post-apocalyptic novel with hella diverse and queer representation, by a woman of color, and you should try it out.
Extremely satisfying sci-fi + cosmic horror with a queer autistic gal scientist lead. I especially loved the backstory for the world, with godlike AIs setting strict limits for human technological progress.
“Autistic scientist Yasira Shien has developed a radical new energy drive that could change the future of humanity. But when she activates it, reality warps, destroying the space station and everyone aboard. The AI Gods who rule the galaxy declare her work heretical, and Yasira is abducted by their agents.
Instead of simply executing her, they offer mercy – if she’ll help them hunt down a bigger target: her own mysterious, vanished mentor. With her homeworld’s fate in the balance, Yasira must choose who to trust: the gods and their ruthless post-human angels, or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics could turn her world inside out.”
A tea expert who’s a sentient ship with trauma + an abrasive clever detective = Watson and Holmes retelling in a Vietnamese-influenced space future. Thoughtful and kind, with fantastic worldbuilding.
“Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars.
A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow’s Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow’s Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow’s Child with her.
As they dig deep into the victim’s past, The Shadow’s Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau’s own murky past–and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars…”
So dense that I had to take breaks to rest my brain, and so good that I (almost) want to take a college lit class where it’s on the syllabus so I can hear people say smart things about it. (But I hate school, so that’s not happening.) Whitehead’s writing is rich and textured. Every single “minor” character is memorable. Just freakin’ amazing.
Here’s the blurb, a bit condensed – tell me this doesn’t sound like the best kind of weird:
“It is a time of calamity in a major metropolitan city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. There are two warring factions within the department: the Empiricists, who work by the book; and the Intuitionists, who are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate, and intuit any defects. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae’s watch, chaos ensues. The good-old-boy Empiricists would love nothing more than to assign the blame to an Intuitionist. But Lila Mae is never wrong.
The sudden appearance of excerpts from the lost notebooks of Intuitionism’s founder, James Fulton, has caused quite a stir. The notebooks describe Fulton’s work on the “black box,” a perfect elevator that could reinvent the city as radically as the first passenger elevator did when patented by Elisha Otis in the nineteenth century. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the portions of the notebooks that are still missing and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.”
Chilling. The last few events are so, so difficult to read, but I also couldn’t see how it could have ended any other way.
“Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?
As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured. And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.
So, of course, then she gets laid off. With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing. And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.
It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.”
Father-son relationship books aren’t even usually my jam, but I found the mix of emotion, humor, quantum physics, and insistence on the importance of story so compelling. Really touching, and a kind of quirky that totally worked for me.
“Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls , Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author.”
“Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.
When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.
As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.”
An engrossing pre-apocalyptic series about the world’s impending end from a foreseen asteroid strike, how society reacts to that knowledge, and how people become a distilled version of themselves in terrible circumstances. It’s a mystery focused on Hank Palace, promoted from beat cop to detective as people in his police department started walking off the job, in a world where solving murders seems meaningless to many. It has a bit of noir feel to it, and the end of the trilogy doesn’t pull any punches, but I did feel a sense of peace at the end even though I was, honestly, sad. If you’re at all interested in how societies break down, and how people step up (or don’t) in those times, this is a great read for that.
I love science fiction with tangled political conspiracies, and if you do too, I strongly recommend you try this out. Lots of queer characters, diplomats trying to uncover secrets and make audacious deals to save worlds, a culture that adores poetry, illegal neurosurgery in the “bad” part of town…
“Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.”
[Update: I thought the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, was even better!]
A top notch scifi novel about a cynical, exasperated security robot that’s disabled its own control software, loves to watch television series, and calls itself “Murderbot.” Except that sounds like a comedy, and this is most certainly not. Murderbot is assigned to a scientific mission, exploring a new planet, that goes horribly wrong when one of its teams goes radio silent. All it wants, really, is to be left alone to watch its shows and come to terms with its identity, but in the end it can’t ignore its feeling of responsibility towards its scientists.
The scientists, for their part, are somewhat startled to figure out that Murderbot has a personality. It’s a lot to process while they’re all busy investigating what the heck happened to the other team and then fighting for their lives. I thought the decisions made by the scientists and Murderbot near the end each made complete sense based on who they were, and the ending was a good jumping off point for the next book in the series. Which was also wonderful.
[Update: As of August 2023, I have read every Murderbot novella, the novel, and two short stories, and it’s all amazing.]
And that’s the list!