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?