Favorite standalone SFF novels
October 10, 2017 6:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting a SFF book club, and we'd prefer to read and discuss standalone novels (if only to avoid hearing 'well maybe they wrap it up in Book 2!'). What are your favorite standalone SFF novels?

- <400 pages
- Can be a Book 1 provided the story is wrapped up sufficiently by the end; Books 2 and later are right out
- Novels preferred; short story collections are okay, but might be too difficult to discuss as a group
- SFF is defined very broadly to encompass sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction, and supernatural/Old Ones horror
- Classic or modern are both fine BUT
- If it's homophobic, transphobic, sexist, racist, etc, my group will likely not bother finishing it and the discussion will be trash

Bonus points for books by authors who are women and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ, but all authors will be considered
posted by palindromic to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
A Fire Upon the Deep
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
The Dispossessed
posted by grobstein at 6:44 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not here with an actual recommendation, but checking out the Sword and Laser book club's reading list might be helpful.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 6:46 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sheri Tepper, The Family Tree, not a perfect book, but allows for a good book club discussion, and definitely stands alone.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:48 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky - standalone, powerful and I loved it. Longer but the Algebraist by Iain Banks is also stellar. I'd recommend anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, especially The Lions of Al Rassan - almost all of his books are standalone though.
posted by slide at 6:52 PM on October 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette (writing under the pen name Katherine Addison) is really fun. It's set in a quasi-steampunk fantasy setting with elves and goblins, and is a story about an unwanted youngest child who unexpectedly becomes emperor and has to deal with court politics all while trying to figure out who killed his father and brothers. Re: homophobia/sexism/racism, these prejudices all exist in-universe but it's first and foremost a story about characters overcoming/fighting back against prejudice and oppression.

If your group are voracious readers, I would highly recommend Dune - the first novel is a standalone story. If (like me before I read it) you haven't managed to osmose the plot yet, it's about two feuding noble families and the nomadic desert people trapped in the crossfire of their conflict. The worldbuilding is really inventive and draws a lot from India and the Middle East IRL. Also tons of politics, intrigue, action, and badass psychic nuns.
posted by capricorn at 6:53 PM on October 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Some recent favorites (and I realized that many of my older favorites were either doorstoppers or parts of series, too):

1. Sofia Samatar's "The Winged Histories". Fantasy with a historiographical bent -- not literally, ish, but there's a taste of that in how it approaches its narrative, I think. Revolution through the eyes of four very different women and their entanglements. (Technically, it is companion to "A Stranger in Olondria", but it's not a serial relationship; they're each standalone.)

2. Ursula K. LeGuin's "Lavinia". Sometimes gets shelved with as "general fiction" (which is etymologically hilarious), probably because setting your story against a backdrop of Latin epic poetry gets you some Lit Fic Leeway (TM), but I read it as speculative. It is my favorite novel of hers, even though she is not so well known for it as she is for her earlier works. In it is groundedness and ritual and interrogation of heroism.

3. Frances Hardinge's "Cuckoo Song". A dark adventure that doesn't go to the grimdark -- a deeply unsettling, but ultimately satisfying, tale of personhood and becoming-self.
posted by inconstant at 6:57 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. Basically a fairy tale, but with some real depth and great characters, including a strong female lead.
posted by crookedgrin at 7:06 PM on October 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

And if your group is also open to novellas:

>Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" is 1) classic, 2) excellent, and 3) a huge favorite of mine (though may only be available as part of his collection "Stories of Your Life"). The film adaptation didn't bring dishonor upon the story, but it's different enough that I think even those who enjoyed the film greatly might find something new in the source material.

>I would also recommend Kij Johnson's "The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe" from this year's Hugo finalists (this one is published as a standalone) -- particularly if your group is interested in Cthulhu-mythos and critique thereof, though I never bothered with Lovecraft myself and still found it a thoughtful, lyrical story.
posted by inconstant at 7:07 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I recently enjoyed Matt Haig's The Humans, about an alien who has come to earth and taken over the body of a brilliant math professor and now must pretend to be the professor at home and at work successfully enough so as not to arouse suspicion.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:17 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is an oldie but a goodie.
posted by h00py at 7:22 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Nthing The Dispossessed, The Goblin Emperor.

Adding -

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The Demolished Man
2001 A Space Odyssey
Ancillary Justice is very Standaloneish to me.
Parable of the Sower

Shades of Milk and Honey (standalone, perfectly self contained)
posted by smoke at 7:26 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

_All the Birds in the Sky_ is fantastic here.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:31 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

sherri tepper's 'grass' has long been a favorite... i didn't even realize there were a couple followup books but it's technically a 'book one'.
posted by noloveforned at 7:32 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Either of Becky Chambers' books -- shared universe, one happens after the other, but not in a series in the sense you were referring to. I can see arguments for either book.
I really liked the new Kat Howard, An Unkindness of Magicians.
All Systems Red, Martha Wells.
Summer in Orcus, T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon)
The Rook, Daniel O'Malley (has a sequel, but is self-contained)
City of Stairs (has two sequels, is self-contained)
Three Parts Dead (has a bunch of books in the same world, is self-contained)
Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia
Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord
Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho
posted by jeather at 7:36 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

A Canticle for Leibowitz - a post-nuclear future re-learning the sciences
Altered Carbon - best I've read in years, will easily handle a second or third reading, brimful of ideas (also - violence, imaginative sex and drugs etc.). May have a sequel but this was at least first and it stands alone well.
posted by unearthed at 7:40 PM on October 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

The City & The City by China Mieville - I am not sure why I first read this book but I did, and then I re-read it a couple of times, and then read everything else of China Mieville's that I could. I still like this book the best although This Census Taker is really growing on me.

The Peripheral by William Gibson - the world created in this book has infected my mind. It is how I now see the future going. It isn't a good future but it is a future, as opposed to us just wiping everything out, and one that I hope can be bettered if enough of us know it is coming.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie - you won't find it in the SFF section of a book store but that's what it is.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:47 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith- the author is a woman, married to a woman, and also all of the characters are women. It is in fact about a planet of women. It's great and fascinating and neither a utopia nor a dystopia.
posted by Adridne at 7:51 PM on October 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Day of the Triffids, and The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham (same author but two very different worlds)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:56 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld by Patricia A. Mckillip
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:10 PM on October 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

These are all novels by women, people of colour, or LGBTQ folks—I've highlighted those aspects of them in my descriptions. Some have been recommended above, and I'm putting in a second vote for them because I think they're fantastic!

Slow River, Nicola Griffith — Nicola Griffith is a queer woman who writes some of the best female characters I've ever read. They're steely & fiercely intelligent.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik — A beautifully-written fantasy novel based on Polish fairytales. Novik wrote the much-loved Temeraire books, but I think this is her at the height of her craft.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson — A lush, meditative, and feminist take on HP Lovecraft.

A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson — Queer and full of colour and texture and lots of genre-mixing. The writing style is sensuous and moving and very original.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu — Funny, melancholic, and quite metafictional sci-fi novel by an Asian-American author. He has lots of wrenching things to say about family and race.

My Real Children, Jo Walton — A science fiction novel about (queer) families, relationships, love, and life choices.

Wheel of the Infinite, Martha Wells — I love the role reversals in this novel. The protagonist is a strong, powerful black woman and her sidekick/bodyguard is a white man. Epic fantasy, but the worldbuilding is a far cry from the usual Eurocentric middle ages stuff.

Orlando, Virginia Woolf — Of course! Queer, fantastical, and full of energy.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 8:11 PM on October 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I will recommend The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It's technically part 1 of a series, but you don't have to read the second one to get a lot out of this first one. It's... a singular experience and story that is still on my mind sometimes even after 20 years in my head.
posted by gemmy at 8:21 PM on October 10, 2017 [13 favorites]

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Lock In by John Scalzi
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
posted by mogget at 8:50 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The player of games by Ian Banks - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Player_of_Games
posted by askmehow at 9:04 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones - her masterpiece in my opinion.

The Book of Kells, R A MacAvoy - still my candidate for the best standalone fantasy.

The Spirit Ring, L M Bujold - her first foray into fantasy.
posted by jamjam at 9:07 PM on October 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by jeffamaphone at 10:23 PM on October 10, 2017

Seconding Wheel of the Infinite.

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold - as with Wheel of the Infinite, the protagonist is a middle-aged woman. Technically a sequel to The Curse of Chalion, but it can stand on its own.
posted by henuani at 11:17 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:58 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:03 AM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Forty Thousand in Gehenna also by C.J. Cherryh.
posted by henuani at 12:59 AM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

+1 for The Sparrow, that is a fantastic book. Since that's gone, I really enjoyed Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel, and as an oldie, Engine Summer by John Crowley
posted by crocomancer at 1:02 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Stone Man is a great read and solid SFF IMO.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:08 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

or The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. It has.... topical echoes
posted by runincircles at 1:26 AM on October 11, 2017

Experimental Film by Gemma Files is a horror novel about film, memory, and identity. It has a Lovecraft feel without using the common tropes. There is a gay character who is awful because he’s a garbage person as opposed to because he’s gay. It’s also about being the mother of an autistic child and negotiating that.

It’s really stuck with me over the last few months. Also, there is a long interview with her on the podcast The Outer Dark that might give your discussion direction.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:14 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is alternative history allowed? If so then 'The Years of Rice and Salt' by Kim Stanley Robinson.
posted by PenDevil at 2:36 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - the first book in a series by Becky Chambers.
Well what can I say? LGBTQ and some interspecies too but in a normal way, operatic, kinda hard-scifi-ish, really readable and fun, really great characters.
posted by unearthed at 2:42 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love TLWTASAP but it is squishy like Trek/Star Wars/Firefly (most like Firefly) and not "hard" at all.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:53 AM on October 11, 2017

I came in to suggest TLWTASAP as well. Don’t be put off that it has sequels. I only read the first one and it’s confined as a plot and I don’t feel a need to read the next one. They kind of set it up for book 2 but it’s by no means necessary to consume and enjoy the first. It’s like the complete opposite of your last point and I think it would make for some really interesting discussions actually.
posted by like_neon at 6:37 AM on October 11, 2017

Octavia Butler's last novel, about vampires, is so fucking creepy. It's called Fledgling.

I would do Left Hand of Darkness for a standalone early Le Guin. I love the Dispossessed, but I know some people who have a strong reaction to how she wrote a sexual assault in that book, and it's inflected how I re-read it. I love The Telling, too, which is more recent.

Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden is amazing, athough the edition I have has many distracting copyediting errors. But it's unlike anything I have read in years and has a same-sex human(ish)/bear(ish) love story that blew my mind.

Hild by Nicola Griffith. Ammonite was good too.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:13 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls - Jane Linkskold; includes some dark events and sexist characters, but doesn't try to justify them. If it were fanfic, I'd give some strong trigger warnings (there's sexual assault, which is not graphic but has a strong impact), but I loved the story and it's one that stays sharp in my mind, even years later.

James Davis Nicoll has a website full of reviews including a set of "Twenty Core Books" lists, each of which has a theme (and which, unfortunately, are not tagged in a way that makes them searchable on the site itself, nor at Dreamwidth where I read his blog). His lists skew heavily toward female authors and authors of color, and while some are likely to include sexism and racism, he's definitely not adding any with modern "alt-right" values and the excuse, "but at the time, that was the norm."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:17 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lots of great suggestions hard to add but I think these would make for great discussions:

Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban
Jo Walton (my favorite so far is Farthing if you'll take alternate history)
Stanislaw Lem (actually my favorite are short stories but you could choose one story to discuss)

A light and fun recent one I liked was Spoonbenders - Daryl Gregory
An (I think?) under appreciated SFF writer I'm exploring now is Terry Bisson.
posted by latkes at 7:57 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Melissa Scott:
Burning Bright
Trouble and Her Friends
Shadow Man
Dreaming Metal (a follow up to Drewmships, but I think it’ll stand alone)
The Jazz

These are all queer, I’d say Shadow Man is the queerest.
posted by expialidocious at 8:11 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the past year I've enjoyed a few that are all pretty modern:

The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Slade House by David Mitchell
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (I thought this one was ok, but my wife loved it).

Also my favorite the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie was really good and pretty queer, but I can't remember how self contained book 1 was? However she has a brand new book out called Provenance that I'm excited to pick up.
posted by DynamiteToast at 9:12 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood - it has a sequel, but it's not a part 2 - just further adventures of one of the characters. The novel stands alone.
posted by five toed sloth at 9:23 AM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I enjoyed The Algebraist, but my partner couldn't get past the cartoonist antagonist's torturing bits.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:49 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Lots of good recommendations in here, and I'd Nth the vast majority of them. Keeping things standalone is hard, but here goes:

The Devourers, by Indra Das is (one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read, period, and is about queer POC)
The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie (really different; deliberately slow moving, optimistic, almost no violence at all, and it just feels new - disclosure: Dr. Tolmie was a mentor of mine when I was an undergraduate)


Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (may be the start of a series, but no sequels yet, and works on its own)
Corvus, by Harold Johnson (may be hard to find outside of Canada; local First Nations author)
Come Closer, by Sara Gran (horror)
Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes
Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Flesh & Gold, by Phyllis Gotlieb
After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh (short stories, but lots to talk about)
China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:56 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Architecture of Desire, by Mary Gentle.
An Alphabet of Thorns, by Patricia McKillip
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:04 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah Zoo City would make for good conversation
posted by latkes at 10:29 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Roadside Picnic
posted by grobstein at 10:58 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis is written by an autistic author and features an autistic main character.
posted by Lexica at 11:13 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

This will trend more to the classic end of the spectrum but my suggestions would include:
- a Zelazny is required. Lord of Light or This Immortal would be the obvious choices
- Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia
- Michael Swanwick, Stations of the Tide or The Iron Dragon's Daughter
- Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan of Athos (the other Vorkosigan novels aren't required reading and the themes hit your preferences)
- CJ Cherryh, Cyteen. Longish but may fit your group better than some of the earlier suggestions
- Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark
- The City & The City as mentioned above
- Claire North/Kate Griffin, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Stray Souls respectively
posted by N-stoff at 2:19 PM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Madeline Ashby- Company Town
Robin McKinley- Sunshine
John Scalzi- Lock In
Ann Leckie- Ancillary Justice (Some discussion of this above- in my opinion it totally could stand alone!)
posted by Coaticass at 1:59 AM on October 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Everfair by Nisi Shawl - alternate history / steampunk reimagining of the Belgian Congo as an independent country founded by Fabian socialists. Author is a queer POC and it has multiple queer and POC point of view characters.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ. Feminist scifi by an out lesbian, written in the 1970's.

Babel-17 by Samuel Delany. A language is developed as a weapon. Gay POC author.
posted by siouxsiesmith at 11:41 AM on October 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

At 570+ pages it's well over your desired page limit, but I'll still recommend Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. A standalone book 1.

Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree Jr, Up the Walls of the World or Brightness Falls from the Air both fall under your page limit.

Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night is a book one, but since the first sequel wasn't written until many years afterward, it works as a standalone. (Not SF at all, and it's a series, but please consider her Benjamin January series. It begins with A Free Man of Color and is set in 1830s New Orleans.)
posted by a person of few words at 11:44 AM on October 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death
posted by Coaticass at 10:52 PM on October 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Such a good long list to work from now.
posted by palindromic at 5:18 PM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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