It’s been 20 cycles since John Crichton fell through a wormhole and into an escape attempt by the sentient spaceship Moya, her complement of ex-prisoners, and one very cross Peacekeeper named Aeryn Sun. (Anyone else feel frellin’ old?) Over four seasons and a cliff-hanger resolving miniseries, Farscape followed John, Aeryn, and a range of deeply alien companions as they flee from an “insane military commander” and other agents of an oppressive government pursuing the knowledge of wormholes locked up in Crichton’s head.
Though technically an Australian-American co-production, the show was filmed in New South Wales and features an overwhelmingly Australian cast and crew—as a result, its sensibilities are slightly askew to those of an American audience less accustomed to having a vein of dark comedy shot through their sci-fi. Aussies are also accustomed to doing more with less in their TV, hence Farscape’s genuinely impressive look and feel, even given a “hefty for ’90s cable but relatively modest for TV” budget.
Also: Muppets. Well, OK, not technically Muppets—but the Jim Henson Company, under Brian Henson, served as a co-producer, and was charged with creating all the impressive lien makeup and prosthetics, including fully puppeteer-operated main characters Pilot and Rygel. If you’ve seen The Dark Crystal (and, if you haven’t, what are you doing?) you know exactly how much the Henson team can do when given free reign over a world of sci-fi and fantasy. In a way, Farscape is even more impressive: The Dark Crystal is set in a world managed entirely by puppeteers, while the creatures of Farscape need to interact believabl—and dramatically—with human characters. The easy joke about the Star Trek series is that every human in the galaxy seemed to be interchangeable save for their T-zones; especially at the time, it was incredibly rare to meet aliens who weren’t roughly human-actor shaped. The show still impresses in this regard too—the puppets have a solidity and presence that’s sometimes lost with modern CGI.
The series is also one-stop shopping for some of our favorite sci-fi tropes: sentient spaceships, space pirates, wormholes, time travel, etc.—but it ultimately works because of the weird, fully realized, and often morally ambiguous characters who populate the show’s cast. With that in mind, here are eight books that will speak to fans of Farscape.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
One of Farscape‘s most impressive aspects is the affection it engenders for Moya, the sentient bio-mechanical “Leviathan” ship who is able to communicate only indirectly with her crew, but who still comes to feel like a fully fleshed-out character in her own right. In Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, the ship itself isn’t sentient, precisely, but the AI that runs just about everything onboard it is. Lovelace, or Lovey as the crew affectionately calls her, was based on a standard, out-of-the-box AI program, but develops a distinct personality and eventually falls in love with the engineer who installed her (not a euphemism). The series features an appropriately rag-tag crew of distinct and diverse individuals, and is at least as sex-positive as Farscape while doing the show one better in terms of diversity and queer representation. Plus: wormholes!
(Though we chose the series for this list independently, Becky Chambers spoke to us shortly after the first book came out about Farscape as an inspiration. You can read her thoughts on the show here.)
Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell
There’s a slightly ineffable element to Farscape’s success, and that’s to do with it’s wildly shifting tones. It can be dark, and weird, and funny—sometimes all at once—without ever losing the thread of deep humanity at its heart (defining “humanity” very broadly, since most of the crew is not strictly human). Gareth L. Powell manages a similar trick with his much-lauded, ongoing space opera series that began with Embers of War. In the aftermath of a brutal war and the horrific genocide that ended it, the sentient ship Trouble Dog and her captain, Sal Konstanz, are desperate to put the past behind them and make amends (to the extent that amends can be made). It all sounds very heavy, and it is, but Powell finds the heart in each member of Trouble Dog’s crew of loners and outcasts, not to mention the ship herself. He also manages to adeptly inject moments of humor into the proceedings—not surprising, given that this a book from the same writer who made a hero out of a fowl-mouthed, cigar-chomping monkey in the brilliant Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy.
Dark Run, by Mike Brooks
Captain Ichabod Drift swore off his pirate past in favor of life as a freelance cargo hauler on his ship, the Keiko. Given just that much background, you can probably guess how well it goes. Soon enough, he’s blackmailed by a former government minister into running a mysterious package to Earth as part of a complicated revenge scheme, during which Drift and his crew plot to turn the tables and get their own brand of payback. Like Farscape‘s, the universe in which Drift’s crew plys their trade is a complicated, dirty place, with a thriving criminal underworld. Similarly, the crew is diverse both in makeup and motives, as each member has their own varying agendas and, in many cases, adventures to pursue. Granted, it’s a different sort of diversity: in this all-human universe, the Keiko’s crew includes a Chinese brother/sister team and a Māori fighter among its criminals, hackers, and con-artists. There are three books in this series so far, and considering they only get better as they go, we sincerely hope there will be more.
Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds
By interfacing with the skulls of a long-dead species, Adrana and Fura Ness are useful to the legendary Captain Rackamore as Bone Readers. Joining his crew, they employ their telepathic gifts to hunt for treasure—until Adrana is captured by the most feared pirate in the system. What results (in this book and particularly in its sequel, Shadow Captain) are the exploits of a crew of underdogs thrown together on an outlaw ship under the command of the Ness sisters, hunted by just about everyone through no real fault of anyone on board. As on Farscape, each member of the crew has their own motivations, and trust is hard-won and easily lost. Like Moya’s crew, they too are outlaws by necessity rather than choice—living pirate lives only because they’ve got no real shot at living any other way.
Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks
This is the kick-off to Banks’ long-running series of generally standalone works set in the Culture, a sort of techno-utopia whose members run into conflict when engaging with less technologically and morally developed civilizations. In Consider Phlebas, an agent of the Idiran Empire, at war with the Culture, is tasked with recovering a stray Mind—one of the Culture’s hyperintelligent sentient machines that run their massive ships. Along the way, he’s cast adrift and picked up by a pirate vessel. Making a place for himself among the crew, he goes on a few raids before ultimately rising to become master of the ship in a very pirate-like fashion. The morally ambiguous tone and population of intelligent starships makes the book a good fit for fans of the space opera elements of Farscape, but fair warning: while the show dabbles in darkness and scenes of torture, Banks goes considerably further over-the-top—which you’ll realize upon reading the first chapter, in which the protagonist is threatening with drowning in, er, let’s just say “sewage.”
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
In tone they’re rather different, but Nnedi Okorafor’s trilogy shares aspect in particular with Farscape: Third Fish, the living ship that transports the title character to the prestigious Oozma University. The series begins when Binti chooses to leave her home on Earth, against the will of her family, to go to school—the first human to do so. En route, the ship is attacked by the jellyfish-like Meduse, who are in a longstanding conflict with the Khoush, an ethnic group whose home neighbors that of Binti’s own Himba. As the young woman is able to communicate with the Meduse, she also makes contact with the ship. As with Moya in Farscape, Third Fish eventually has a child… one which growns up a bit better than Moya’s own Talyn.
The Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone
Out this summer, the first standalone novel from Hugo-nominated author Max Gladstone (The Craft Sequence) is a sprawling space opera that seems to have Farscape baked right into its DNA (alongside a gab bag of anime series, comic books, and Japanese role playing games). The plot is a great parallel—American tech guru Vivian Liao is mysteriously thrown across space and time and into a distant galaxy, where she must immediately begin fleeing in earnest from powerful forces pursuing her for the galaxies-shattering knowledge buried deep within her head. Along the way, she assembles a strange crew of rarely human allies, anti-heroes, and frenemies—an enraged, nigh-unkillable warlord; a cloud of sentient, shape-shifting grey goo; a disillusioned monk forced to leave behind the others of his order and the stained glass starships they pilot through space—to either aide her mission or use her to further their own ends. The book is an awe-inspiring mashup of complex, big-idea SF plotting (a galactic travelogue that skips from planet to planet to space station, each location bursting with enough worldbuilding to power an entire book) and careful character work (each member of Viv’s crew—not to mention Viv herself—feels real enough to touch). Reading it is not unlike mainlining all four seasons of Farscape in one go. Highly recommended, even if the experience leaves you a little woozy.
Farscape Omnibus Volume 1, by Rockne S. O’Bannon, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Tommy Patterson, Will Sliney, and Caleb Cleveland
In looking for novels and stories in the style of Farscape, you could do far worse than to read something with Farscape on the cover. So last, but not least, is the Farscape comic series, co-written by series creator Rockne S. O’Bannon. The books pick up mere moments after the conclusion of The Peacekeeper Wars miniseries, with John and Aeryn trying to adjust to parenthood even as Rygel discovers that he’s the target of dangerous bounty hunters. The first arc sends Moya and the gang to Hyneria and into the middle of a civil war which they hope will see Rygel finally restored to the throne. The comics builds on the show’s mythology by digging into the backgrounds of D’Argo and Scorpius, in particular, ultimately concluding with an extended war for the uncharted territories. It’s an official continuation, all of it’s canon, and it just recently came back into print with a giant, 688-page omnibus collection that covers about half of the run.
What Farscape readalikes do you recommend?