Sci-fi books with a social justice flair
December 8, 2019 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for sci-fi books (stand-alone or series books are fine) that have some good social justice/racial equity/feminist/queer-friendly/trans-friendly etc messages or themes. Bonus points for books by authors of color and/or people who aren’t men!

My 13 year old nephew, who is quite bright and a prodigious reader, has asked for “a sci-fi book” (no additional details) for Christmas. He’s probably a sufficiently advanced reader that young adult or adult books (avoiding graphic sex or violence or terror) would be fine. One of my preferred strategies with my step kids and other folks is to use books to nudge them in a social-justice-y direction, so I’m likely to use this for gifts for a variety of kids in the future too, so don’t limit yourself to books”boys might like” or whatever!
posted by Kpele to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The Becky Chambers Wayfarer series is good for this. Good for good readers, there is swearing and some drug use but no explicit sex. Very social justice oriented, people learning to deal with a lot of kinds of people who are different from themselves, no "normative" character type. Some violence but no terror (there are some graphic scenes in the later two books iirc, mostly just some difficult "bad orphanage" types of things as well as a bad space accident) and well-reviewed.
posted by jessamyn at 3:22 PM on December 8, 2019 [13 favorites]

You might want to have a look at Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves.

Here are two reviews from Quill and Quire and Kirkus Reviews.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:33 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and its sequels
posted by kyrademon at 3:39 PM on December 8, 2019 [13 favorites]

The Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor might be good.
posted by Frowner at 3:47 PM on December 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisen (if you agree with / can overlook her recent twitter stuff)

Probably a little more overt than other recommendations you’ll get here.
posted by supercres at 4:10 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wait, sorry, that’s a little more uh mature than you asked for. Some sex, some swearing (though mostly invented). Maybe in a few years.
posted by supercres at 4:11 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Ancillary Justice is outstanding, but a very heavy lift for even a bright, genre-aware 13 year old.
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:28 PM on December 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

Terry Pratchett sneaks in bits of politics especially about diversity. He's also very funny. I think Guards! Guards!, the first book in the City Watch subseries set on Disc World might be a good place to start.
posted by Botanizer at 4:46 PM on December 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm currently reading The Calculating Stars / The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. Calculating Stars won the 2019 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards. These books are set against the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 60s, but as an alternate history where progress toward equality is both helped and hindered by a catastrophic event and an accelerated space program.
posted by rlk at 5:08 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor might be good.

I loved the Binti series but there is a very early traumatic event that the narrator witnesses and develops PTSD-like symptoms from that might be a little heavy. It's otherwise very YA-appropriate so might be worth powering through.
posted by jessamyn at 5:14 PM on December 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think The Calculating Stars series would be fine for a teen reader in high school, but just wanted to note that the main character is married and enjoys happy marital relations with her husband. Nothing explicit IIRC, but maybe give it a read in advance to check if it would be appropriate for your nephew.

And not sure if it might have too much violence for your nephew, but maybe the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells?
posted by yasaman at 5:23 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Look for Lambda and Otherwise (nee Tiptree) award winners.

Recent books I've read that might work include Desdemona and the Deep, Retrograde Orbit (graphic novel), and Patrick Weekes's YA "Feeder" (Patrick uses they/them pronouns).

Madeleine L'Engle books are quite good; not particularly queer but excellent for building a sense of empathy and rejecting the capitalist state.

I just finished reading A Blade So Black and the protagonist is a black teen woman with a whole lot of sassitude and there are some clearly homosexual and bisexual overtones (nothing overt though).

For a more advanced reader I cannot recommend Laurie J Marks' Elemental Logic series highly enough. It will take a little investment of time to get into but it is 100% queer/poly friendly without jamming it in your face and the whole point of the series is rejecting patriarchal and capitalist tropes in favour of social justice. With magic and some really intricate plotting and storytelling.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:41 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also I'm presently reading Ammonite and it may be a little too post-patriarchy (given that the society is populated entirely by women) for an introduction to the genre but it's otherwise a fabulous book and is only very slightly racy.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:45 PM on December 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Earthsea if he hasn’t read them yet, and Tales of the Western Shore.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 5:59 PM on December 8, 2019

A lot of the suggestions in the thread are good books but seem (imho) a bit adult for a 13 year old. Maybe start him out with something YA like Binti (Nnedi Okorafor) or Uglies (Scott Westerfield)?
posted by aught at 6:04 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Akata Witch series by Nnedi Okorafor is sometimes called the African Harry Potter. It's about a 12 year old girl who discovers she is a witch and her training in witchcraft with her friends.

I highly recommend this very interesting non-white-European perspective on fantasy, and it doesn't have the extreme violence of Okorafor's Binti series.
posted by monotreme at 6:08 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

A lot of the books being recommended here are also fantasy, not science fiction. If the kid's asking for science fiction, fantasy is not interchangeable with that.

Another scifi book rec: The True Meaning of Smekday, and its sequel Smek for President, by Adam Rex. I thought these were delightful and hilarious, while still tackling some heavy subjects. They're YA/middle grade, so age appropriate, but they shouldn't bore an advanced reader.
posted by yasaman at 6:25 PM on December 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Oh! I found Ancillary Justice way more digestible as an audiobook after I bounced off of it even as an adult. Though I guess it partially defeats the point.
posted by supercres at 7:17 PM on December 8, 2019

I only read the first book of Earthsea, but there was a ton of child abuse of various kinds, including especially creepy child sexual abuse. I’m not sure I would give this to a 13-year-old.
posted by jeoc at 3:46 AM on December 9, 2019

Counterpoint: Earthsea was written for 13 year olds in the first place. I was quite happy to let my kids read it.
posted by pharm at 4:13 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Melissa Scott has written scifi, ranging from cyberpunk to space opera to a mix of the two, and the heroes are largely (if not entirely) non-cis-white-men; there's a touch of non-heterosexual sex and adult themes in some of them, I don't recall which ones do (the 'cyberpunk' one above does have a lesbian love scene IIRC so may not be a good example). I really liked the "space opera" link one, I think it's pretty close to YA fiction in style, a swashbuckling adventure with a woman space-pilot who saves the universe, and it does touch on feminist themes (one planet won't let a woman have a ship, so she hires-for-marriage a guy as a loophole, and there's a 'princess' who is a good fighter and athlete and is resisting her princessy lifestyle).
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:28 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Although I haven't read it, by the strength of his adult books I recommend Yoon Ha Lee's Dragon Pearl, which is YA sci fi influenced by Korean mythology. His other books are very queer and trans friendly, and I believe this one has a nonbinary character and a world full of queer people. Here's a transcript of a short interview with the author.

(I would leave the nephew to look into the author's adult sci fi on his own, though - I think at 13 I would have found Ninefox Gambit to be too upsetting.)
posted by esker at 6:42 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is no child sexual abuse in the first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, which recounts the story of a young and ambitious wizard learning humilty and coming into his power. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, features a young girl taken from her family and raised as a celibate priestess, and I could see how the circumstances of her taking and subsequent life could be read as abusive, but there is nothing sexual there. The third book, The Farthest Shore, has some general discussion of drug use and a young man's crush (platonic, as written, although you could certainly read it as romantic) on an older man, with no sexual result.

The second set of Earthsea books, written much later, does discuss child abuse, sexual and otherwise, and I don't recommend reading them first anyway (although they are excellent.) The first set were some of the best books I read as a 10 year old and have held up into my adulthood and I strongly recommend them for anyone.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:48 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

2 older books that might work, both feminist, that I read this year that might work - Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre and A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. As both are older they do have their issues but I think there is enough good in both to warrant reading them. They both have some sexual content but not explicit. Dreamsnake has the main character deal with child sexual abuse in a sensitive and mature way. It also portrays more complex relationships implying some polyamory (I could be wrong but that's how I took it). A Door into Ocean has references to sex (straight and lesbian) and there is a sexual assault of a character from a soldier but both are dealt with in a sensitive way and I should think a 13 year old should be able to understand what the author is trying to say. Both books resolve crises (small and large) in ways I think are still innovative (the characters aren't 80's action hero stereotypes - there's no gun's blazing in these books).
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:44 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Maybe some Octavia Butler?
posted by the_blizz at 7:59 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee and the subsequent series. Superhero genre, it has POC, queer and trans protagonists, all with nobody acting as if it's unusual.
posted by Hactar at 8:29 AM on December 9, 2019

Anything by Catherine Valente will fit the bill, too. Her prose is incredible and her protagonists don't take any shit. Give him Space Opera and it will blow his mind.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:22 AM on December 9, 2019

If you are open to graphic novels, I cannot recommend Tillie Walden's On a Sunbeam highly enough. You can read the whole thing for free but it is also available as a book.

I don't think I can explain how awesome it is as well as these articles do so I'll just link to them: New Yorker and The Atlantic. And if you consider that girls who liked science fiction (I was one) were able to read and enjoy book after book that featured no female characters, or token damsels, and still enjoy the genre - well, I think your nephew can cope with the opposite.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:55 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is me realizing a full 14 hours later that I had confused the names of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth books with Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. The aforementioned child abuse is in the Broken Earth books, not the Earthsea books. My bad.
posted by jeoc at 5:53 PM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

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