Our Queer Future: 10 Diverse Space Operas

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

As a genre, science fiction succeeds, in part, because it can be so many things to so many different people.

For the liberal-minded, sci-fi, and space opera in particular, offer both hope, in the form of of far-future technological utopias, and dire warnings about the dangers of backward-thinking. Yet in the realm of gender and sexual roles and norms, sci-fi hasn’t always been the most forward-looking. For decades, book and magazine editors tended to treat it as a boys-only club, with the overriding presumption (if it ever crossed anyone’s mind) that those boys would be straight and cisgender. Though women have always written science fiction, it was a time when writers like Alice Sheldon and Alice Norton took on distinctively male pen names (James Tiptree, Jr.; Andre Norton) in order to get published, and female readers were similarly reluctant to reveal themselves.

It was one thing, it seems, to imagine a future of weird creatures and alien world, and quite another to dream of one in which ladies didn’t long to be home feeding babies and doing dishes, and the men were more interested in how the other guy filled out his space suit than in ogling the ensign in the miniskirt. In many “Golden Age” stories, even the wildest alien species often had exactly two genders, and those two genders were meant to come together and make space babies. The high-adventure, warfare, and romance of space opera could be particularly limiting: viewed with modern eyes, it isn’t hard to imagine what might have been going on in secret among the sweaty, shirtless star pilots on the covers of the pulps, but the subtext always remained just that.

Things began to change in the ’50s (Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 story “The World Well Lost” is, maybe, the first SFF work from a “name” author to suggest it might be OK for two boys to love one another), while the ’60s saw a rise in sci-fi that explored sexuality and gender, with writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, and Samuel R. Delaney writing characters and worlds that existed outside the socially accepted norm. Even still, a new openness to discussions of sexuality wasn’t always a good thing for queer readers: for every story with a thoughtful discussion of gender roles, there was another indulging in a bit of gay panic.

It’s only more recently that new generations of queer (and straight) writers have found a wider acceptance with stories that speak to their lived experiences—stories that consider issues of  sexuality and gender head-on, featuring characters who are explicitly gay, lesbian, bi-, ace, aro, pan, poly, trans, and/or non-binary. And somehow, the genre hasn’t fallen apart, nor has the world exploded. (Well, OK, sometimes the world explodes, but only as a plot point.)

It helps that somebody noticed that there’s a market out there for these books, made up of both queer readers who have long wanted to see themselves in the stars, and among less queer fans just as happy to imagine a diverse future. Here are 10 space operas (and then some) that explore and celebrate the panoply of queer experience.

The Classics: Le Guin, Delany, Sturgeon
As space opera began to explore notions of gender, it did so with awkwardness, but occasionally also with impressive foresight. Perhaps most influential is Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1969 space opera The Left Hand of Darkness, in which an Earth human travels to the world of Gethen, a planet on which individuals are androgynous much of the time, but develop gendered attributes once a month. Le Guin is still very much writing from a binary point-of-view, but for the time, the book pushed boundaries, and won awards doing it. Samuel R. Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand takes aim at gendered language by introducing a distant future in which the system of pronouns has altered dramatically: essentially, everyone is a “she” until it’s time for sex. Theodore Sturgeon’s pulpy, but smart, Venus Plus X compares ’50s-era sexual norms unfavorably with those of a gender-fluid future. Space operas continue to look at what gender norms might look like in the future, as well as what our society might look like to alien cultures with wildly different biology and mores.

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone 
The Hugo-nominated author of the (also super queer) Craft Sequence fantasy series makes a stunning shift to sci-fi with this splashy, wildly imaginative, utterly strange, truly intergalactic, and fantastically queer standalone novel. It’s the anti-hero’s journey of Vivian Lao, a brilliant, morally conflicted young tech billionaire on the verge of world domination—or total destruction at the hands of her many enemies. When she fakes her death and flees to a server farm at the center of the worldwide digital cloud, intending to hack in and make her checkmate move, she unwittingly trips an alarm, endangers a dear friend, and encounters a powerful glowing figure who transports her into an unknown realm that might be a distant galaxy, the far future of her own, or something else entirely. Viv finds herself in a time and place she doesn’t recognized, a universe ruled by the terrifying, emerald-skinned Empress, whose access to a far more advanced Cloud allows her monitor everything and destroy any civilization that advances to a point that might attract the attention of the Bleed, an alien entity that devours reality itself. Viv wasn’t built for terror and passivity, though; quickly assembles a rag-tag group of heretics, criminals, ex-warlords, and nanobot outcasts and dedicates herself to breaking the Empress’ hold on the universe. There is spectacle to spare, but the story’s heart is in its character relationships, including the passionate romance that develops between Viv and a young woman named Xiara, who comes from a society bred to serve as the pilots of neurologically controlled space vessels. Viv shows Xiara new worlds, but Xiara reminds Viv that people matter as much as missions.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
Love is love, they say, and even more so in Chambers’ future aboard the space hauler Wayfarer. Women can love other women, even if they’re aliens, and boys can get down with onboard computer systems. Chambers’ debut checks all the boxes of classic space opera, which is not to suggest stodginess: it’s about a varied crew of wormhole drillers making their way to a world that’s only recently signed a treaty with the Galactic Commons, a multi-species governmental body. It and its sequels (A Closed and Common Orbit; the forthcoming Record of a Spaceborn Few) are driven by well-drawn, likable, and diverse characters in a complex future world.

The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt
Also on the lighter side of space opera, Pratt’s latest novel involves a shady salvage crew, operating at the edges of our solar system, who discover a derelict ship lost centuries earlier. The sleeping sole survivor is anxious to share word of humanity’s first contact with alien life—by now old news to the White Raven crew, who interact with extraterrestrials on the regular. It turns out, though, that the aliens the newly thawed passenger met are still unknown to mankind, and they left her with gifts that could destroy us, or lead us into a new future. The book is breezy, fun, and full of action—and it also casually introduces characters that identify as demisexual, asexual, and nonbinary. The central romance is between the freighter captain, Carrie, and survivor Elena, both of whom identify as bisexual. That element of the book serves not as an exploration of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, but as a representationof a future in which people aren’t nearly so hung up on these things.

Barbary Station, by R.E. Stearns
Down-on-their-luck engineers Adda and Iridian have everything going for them (love, freshly inked diplomas) but few employment prospects in a system recovering from an economy-destroying intergalactic war. The lovers decide that piracy is in their future, and plan to join a legendary crew of deep space brigands who have taken over the famed Barbary Station and made it their pillaging HQ. Once there, though, Adda and Iridian discover that the pirates’ rep is mostly hot air seeping from a decompressed airlock—seems the station’s AI has gone rogue, and is killing anyone it can. Their one shot at pirate glory runs right through a bloodthirsty computer. The two female leads are geniuses in their fields, a couple, and women of color, three facts that are incidental to the space pirates of the future, but still quietly revolutionary in our world.

Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
Here again is proof that being an engineer of the future isn’t always a ticket to fame and glory, or even employment. Alana Quick is working in a repair shop with her aunt, where they’re barely making ends meet, and Alana is getting nowhere close to her dream of going to space. She gets her chance when she stows away on the Tangled Axon, a ship come to collect her sister for some delicate negotiations with the other-dimensional corporation taking over the galaxy. Things go south from there, though the book’s tone is one of adventure, with a strong vein of fantasy. There’s a negotiated polyamorous relationship at the heart of the story, and there’s also disabled rep—Alana also suffers from a chronic, degenerative illness requiring medication that she struggles to pay for.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Ann Leckie’s recent (multi-award winning) trilogy takes place many thousands of years in the future, in a galaxy in which an expansionist regime uses “ancillaries,” human bodies controlled by AI, as soldiers. It’s a wildly entertaining and imaginative space opera, but it also succeeds in matter-of-factly introducing a variety of cultures with a variety of gender norms. Main character Breq, an ancillary, comes from Radch, center of an empire in which no one is distinguished by gender. In coming into contact with worlds in which gender is treated as binary, she struggles with making identifications that seem instinctive to locals, often guessing incorrectly, and so refers to everyone as “she.” That creates gender expectations of its own, particularly for the non-gendered Radchaai, but it points to the present-day limits of the English language when confronted with a broader array of genders than are typically presented. Leckie’s mostly planet-bound followup novel, 2018 Hugo Award nominee Provenance goes one step further—it’s set on a world where gender is chosen by the individual only when they feel like choosing (some never do), and Leckie uses agender pronouns for many of the characters.

The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
A woman named Zan wakes up with no memory of her past on a dying, bio-organic world-ship called within a fleet of them, called the Legion. In the control of a group of women claiming to be her people, she is told that she had no choice but to take control of another of the traveling planet-vessels. Journeying through the levels of her world, trying to recover her own memory as well as determine the course of her future, Zan encounters a variety of people, all damaged in various ways, perhaps none more so than herself. What’s remarkable about this book—and which you might not notice if you aren’t paying attention—is that the worlds are populated entirely by cisgender women. In a way, that’s not really a big deal within the text, except that the exclusively female characters are able to fill all of the traditional sci-fi roles, and then some, and the plot tackles explicitly the body-horror of pregnancy. Naturally, all the relationships are female/female pairings. (It’s not as if we haven’t read plenty of sci-fi with exclusively male characters.)

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Over 300 years ago, the survivors of some disaster on Earth escaped to an enormous generation ship, the HSS Matilda. Now, human society has resettled itself along depressingly familiar lines: each deck has its own unique culture, with the residents of the lowest existing as a virtual slave class—subject to forced labor and sexual violence. The lead character, Aster, is one of these “lowdeckers,” dark-skinned, intersex, smart, and compassionate, with autistic tendencies that manifest most often as literal-mindedness. Projecting a truly queer future (even if it’s hardly a paradise), Solomon’s book includes not one central character who isn’t queer (and neuro-atypical) in some way or another. Perhaps most interestingly, the character of Aint Melusine, who raised Aster following the death of the protagonist’s mother, specifically identifies as “urgeless” with regard to sexual pairing, though she’s not without love or feeling more generally (an important distinction). It’s a dark book, without question, but one with a great deal to say.

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, by Alex White
Alex White kicks off a new trilogy just in time for pride month. Space is full of treasure-filled, ancient, derelict vessels that are perfect pickings for adventurous salvagers—but the biggest and most valuable of all is the legendary warship Harrow that sits at…well, the edge of the universe. Boots Elsworth is a has-been treasure hunter who stumbles upon the story of the mythical ship, while Nilah Brio is a Fast and the Furious-style racer who’s framed for a murder that’s tied up with Boots. Together, the two wind up on a quest for fame and fortune in a space opera with magic and a couple of action-oriented gay leads.

Annex, by Rich Larson
Finally: we’re only beginning to see more trans representation in space opera, though there are some brilliant trans-identified writers working in other sci-fi subgenres, and well-crafted trans characters showing up all over, so the floodgates are due to open. Case-in-point: short story author Rich Larson’s debut novel, Annex (coming next month), stars Violet, a young transgender girl who becomes the last hope to save her city from the alien invaders who’ve left her alone to be who she wants to be—but at a terrible cost. You know you’re reading something special when the opening scene involves Violet’s raid on a bombed-out pharmacy, seeking hormones.

What are your favorite queer-positive space operas?

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10 Science Fiction Books Featuring Interplanetary Religious Missions

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The word “mission” has something of a triple meaning. A mission can be a group of people tasked with political, cultural, or scientific service; famously, the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise is to seek out new life and new civilizations. A mission can be military in mature: a covert excursion behind enemy lines. And a mission can be religious or spiritual: the marshaling of missionaries to the unknown and the alien in order to convert or instruct. This layering of possible meanings is a rich vein of inquiry for the science fiction writer, and can become even more fraught when the mission (military, religious, scientific, or all three) also includes a first contact scenario.

Science fiction allows us to walk around historical events and people, play them out with different parameters and in extremis. The religious mission—with or without contact—transposed into the stars provides ample room in which to shape a story. Depending on the religion in question, the mission can be naïve or pious, compassionate or conquering, or a mixture of all of these attributes. The generation ship, the definitive long-haul interstellar vessel in universes without faster than light travel, is another place writers can play out the inevitable conclusions of a theology, for better or for worse—or both at once.

Here are 10 novels that detail religious missions to the stars—plus one bonus fantasy excursion. (Note: I’m not including novels about missions that feature religious members, but aren’t otherwise organized around religious principles.)

The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell
Russell makes the case that a religious mission will be the first to make contact with alien societies in the very prologue: “It was predictable, in hindsight,” read the opening lines. While the temporal governments of the world were debating could and should, the spiritual government in the Vatican had already decided to send priests off to a newly discovered, inhabited planet. The only questions were who and how. The story of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat that unfolds from this decision is as much a spiritual story as a science fictional one. The aliens’ biology and society are carefully constructed—the one arising from the other—and come into deep and abiding conflict with human biology and society. The motives of the people who mission to visit Rakhat aren’t necessarily pure, and things only get messier on the ground.

Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey
When the principle characters of the opening volume of The Expanse first see the Mormon generation ship Nauvoo in the shipyards of Tycho station, they are awed by its sheer size. While the Nauvoo is not central to the plot—its utility has more to do with its enormously powerful engines—it is clear, through cross-chatter between characters, that the Nauvoo is the first (and possibly only) generation ship under construction in the solar system, an effort undertaken by the LDS Church that is “headed for the stars and freedom from procreation restrictions.” Like The Sparrow, the religious of this fractured solar system are the first to strike for the stars, because they have the organization and the drive to do so.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
The religious mandate of the Matilda, the generation ship which serves as canvass for An Unkindness of Ghosts, is fairly diffuse, though inextricably bound up in its power structures. A cataclysm sent what might be humanity’s last remnants into space centuries ago, launching the Matilda towards the Promised Land. Whatever the motivations of the people who launched it, the vessel is now an autocracy ruled by systematic racism and a pliable religious fundamentalism. For every religious figure who argued against slavery, that many and more argued for its righteousness in the antebellum South; so too on the Matilda. Religion is just one aspect of systematic oppression, a promised land that recedes, out in the void, unreachable.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
Pastor Peter Leigh leaves behind a dying earth and his wife Beatrice to minister to the aliens of a planet called Oasis. Oasis is administered (“we do not use the word ‘colony’”) by a sketchy corporation called USIC (the exact basis for the acronym is unknown). A part of the novel is epistolary: the conversation across the void between husband and wife, as they try to maintain a connection in their disconnected places. The Oasans are extremely receptive to Peter’s ministry—they were the ones who requested a missionary; nonetheless, Oasis begins to wear on Peter, both its wonder and its strangeness. The Oasans never quite respond to his theology as expected; meanwhile, Beatrice is being tested in her own way in the once familiar strangeness of earth seen from space. The novel’s title is what the aliens call the bible, and provides is a way toward understanding the events that unfold.

Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler
Neither Parable of the Talents nor its predecessor, Parable of the Sower, details a religious mission to the stars. Instead, they tell the origin story of a woman named Lauren Olamina and share the cultural, personal, and historical underpinnings of Earthseed, the religion she founds. One of Earthseed’s central tenants is that people must leave Earth and settle on other planets in order for humanity to mature.  In Parable of the Talents, Acorn, the small religious community Lauren leads, is imprisoned by “Crusaders” for the US government, now run by Christian fundamentalists. The adults are forced into slavery due to their religion; their children, including Lauren’s daughter, are sent to be fostered by proper Christians. Lauren’s commitment to her religion sees her through these dark times, though she never recovers her daughter. In the end, Lauren is present to witness the launch of the Christopher Columbus, a ship bound for Alpha Centauri filled with adherents of Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the second in what was planned to be a trilogy, but Butler died before she could complete it. The third novel was to detail the colonists’ lives on the new planet. Alas.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Like Parable of the Talents, the faithful travelers in Planetfall are members of a faith invented for the novel, one which holds the colonization of or pilgrimage to other worlds as a central tenant. At the opening, we are introduced to a colony of people who have been living at the base of an enormous, seemingly engineered alien structure they call “God’s City” for about 20 years. They are all pilgrims who followed the charismatic Lee Suh-Mi to this alien planet, at which point she promptly vanished into God’s City. They have been waiting for her return ever since. When Suh-Mi’s grandson, whom no one knew existed, one day walks out of the wilderness, the quasi-utopian community begins to unravel as the secrets of its origins and Suh-Mi’s disappearance come to light. The faith they afforded their leaders was something between misplaced and actively buried.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
The structure of Hyperion is based on the The Canterbury Tales, that middle school medieval classic: people on pilgrimage tell each other tales (the kind which define their place in the world) on their way to a religious shine. In Hyperion, however, those pilgrims were all chosen by the godless artificial intelligences of the TechnoCore to journey to the planet Hyperion, holy land of the Church of Final Atonement, which worships an inscrutable and often antagonistic being known as the Shrike. The backdrop of these stories is the kind of galaxy-spanning space operatics that are not easily summed in a sentence or two (though one of them, a priest, shares a story of fractured faith that will chill you to your bones). Indeed, like The Canterbury Tales (or the lesser known but more fun Decameron), the individual stories build a whole world—whole worlds—in tight, personal narratives. What’s interesting here is that the pilgrimage isn’t so much spiritual as martial.

Starglass, by Phoebe North
Starglass takes place on the generation ship Asherah, which left Earth 500 years earlier, after an asteroid struck the planet. The Asherah’s original occupants were secular Jews, but in the intervening centuries the religious practice has become traditionalist and rigid. Terra Fineberg’s family is anomalous on a ship where social structures are tightly mandated: all people will marry and have two children, a boy and a girl. But Terra’s mother died of cancer (the first case in centuries), so it is just her grief-broken father and her. The Asherah is mere months from its destination planet when Terra witnesses the captain’s guard murder an innocent man, an event that wakes Terra up to the resentments and power struggles playing out under the rigidly regimented surface of her society. The growing rigidity of religious structures in a locked room environment is a common theme in stories about interstellar missions; Starglass shows how that can unravel once the ship gets where it is going.

The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss
The Dazzle of Day takes place largely on a generation ship after it has reached its target planet, circling above and deciding whether to set down or move onto the next possible destination. The original people of the ship were Quakers, and the ethos of that denomination pervades the culture of the ship: the reliance on consensus over majority rule, the unstructured and often silent meeting style. The events of several months are told in a chain of linked perspectives, perspectives as much trained on the large questions as the small. Dazzle of Day is a quiet, contemplative novel, as befits the practice of the people at its center.

“Paradises Lost” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“Paradises Lost,” a novella originally published in The Birthday of the World, takes place on a long-haul ship five generations removed from Earth and slowly decelerating toward its target planet. Though the original inhabitants of the ship took measures to impede such an eventuality, a religion has sprouted up in the years since the ship launched: Bliss, whose adherents are known as angels. The disciples of Bliss do not think of anything outside the ship as real; its is only the journey that matters, not the destination. As the ship nears the planet—something kept from the angels until contact was nearly unavoidable—its population is faced with a dilemma: to set down, or to continue on within their hermetically sealed world. Like many of Le Guin’s works, “Paradises Lost” deals with near-utopias and their fractures, cultural structures and their dark sides, the unreal and the real.

Special bonus: fantasy missionaries!

Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng
Under the Pendulum Sun follows a missionary’s sister, Catherine, into the Faelands of Acadia, where her brother Laon has gone to convert the fae. After a wonderful and strange passage through Acadia – —a place that can only be entered by the lost—Catherine finds the mission empty but for its fae staff. Maybe it’s because British fairy lore is already intertwined with Christianity (the Unseelie court, for example, is understood to be in league with the devil, while the Seelie is … kind of not), but I’ve never before seen a story in which Christian missionaries attempt to convert the Good Folk. The Faelands and its inhabitants in Under the Pendulum Sun try Laon and Catherine’s Victorian theology: these are not just the (already difficult) cultural differences between humans, but profound ontological ones as well. For a theology based at least partially on Natural Theology, the very structure of the Faelands—with its titular pendulum sun—puts the lie to religious arguments based on perceived divine design. There may be a Watchmaker of the Faelands, but whether that creator is divine is a whole other issue.

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