For those who might have missed my launch post, this month I am on a very exciting voyage into space with my fellow SciFiMonth travelers. Whilst onboard we will be reading, playing and discussing all things Sci-Fi for the entire month of November! In honor of this journey, I will be sharing some lists throughout the month of some of my favorite SF-themed things.
Today’s edition is: Favourite Themes and Features in SF. In case you didn’t already know, SF is my favorite genre so it should come as no surprise that there are lots of recurring themes and features within the genre that make me love it so much. Here I’ll be sharing some of my favorite themes and features with you. In addition to telling you a bit about each theme or feature, I’ve listed some recommendations of books, films and/or video games which deal with them. These are a mixture of books, films and video games which I’ve read/watched/played with some that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Those that I haven’t engaged with will be marked with a *. (Also fair warning there are a lot of repeats because my knowledge is still limited!) Make sure you drop a comment letting me know what yours are too!
1. Space Exploration
Science Fiction is not always about space and it does not have to be set in space. Having said that, I do really enjoy SF that is set in space especially when it includes space exploration! There’s something that is exciting about joining a crew as they venture off into/around space, discovering new things and surviving (or not) the many perils of space. I am not a scientifically minded person so I also enjoy reading and learning about the science of space – how rockets and spaceships work, terraforming, the make-up of planets, and what life might look like in space.
Recommendations for books that feature space exploration: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (*) and The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku
Recommendations for video games that feature space exploration: Mass Effect: Andromeda, The Outer Worlds, Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Space Pilgrim series
Although I’ve touched upon it in the space exploration section, SF worlds truly deserve to be a feature of their own on this list. SF worlds are often so beautiful and captivating, although there are of course also some that are hostile and dangerous that we should fly away very fast from! I love seeing what types of worlds become worlded in SF – what they look like, how they function, what kind of life they hold. Bonus points for worlds that contain a lot of water and/or flora and fauna-full environments.
However, in enjoying SF worlds (as well as exploration themes in SF more generally) it’s also important to recognize how these themes and features can be problematic as things which are entrenched deep within colonialism such as in the “discovery” and terraforming of “new” worlds.
Recommendations for books featuring SF worlds: Osiris by E.J Swift (*), Planetfall by Emma Newman, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah (*), Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (*), The Underwater Ballroom Society anthology (*) and Oceans: the anthology
Recommendations for tv/films featuring SF worlds: Avatar, Star Wars 1-3, Stargate: Atlantis
Recommendations for video games featuring SF worlds: the Fallout franchise, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the Bioshock series, Destiny (*), Crysis, No Man’s Sky (*)
3. Alien Races and Cultures
As an anthropologist, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that alien races and cultures feature highly on my list of favorite themes in SF. SF as a genre is full of possibilities and allows us to imagine things quite unlike ourselves and our ways of life. I love SF which prominently features non-humans and being able to immerse myself in a story where we are learning about those races and cultures – what do they look like, how do they communicate and live, what are xeno-human relations like? Just to be clear though, I’m not including stories where aliens are evil monsters who exist as manifestations of human fears and are only there to eat people! I’m talking specifically about stories where we get to meet, spend time with and learn about alien races and cultures.
Recommendations for books that feature alien races and cultures: Failure to Communicate (#1) and Tone of Voice (#2) by Kaia Sønderby, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
Recommendations for films that feature alien races and cultures: Arrival (2016)
Recommendations for video games that feature alien races and cultures: The Mass Effect series, and Heaven’s Vault (*)
4. Inclusive Marginalized Futures
One of the reasons that I adore Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series so much is that it was the first piece of SF that I came across which not only allowed me to imagine myself in future worlds but also showed me myself in these futures. SF has so much potential for crafting future worlds and systems which include marginalized folks but these opportunities often aren’t taken up (one of the reasons it took me so long to get into SF literature). Thankfully, this is beginning to change and we are seeing an influx of SF which not only includes marginalized characters but creates worlds for them that are inclusive and hopeful. Give me all of that good, good SF fluff, please.
Recommendations for books that feature inclusive marginalized futures: the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers, Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sønderby, How Long Til Black Future Month by N.K Jemisin (*), Everfair by Nisi Shawl (*), Love Beyond Body, Time and Space anthology, Accessing the Future: A Disability Themed Anthology (*), and Beyond: the Queer SFF Comic Anthology
I feel like non-human animals are frequently forgotten about in SF so it makes me overjoyed when I come across science fiction which features animals within its worlds and stories. Any animals are, of course, very good but I especially enjoy SF which tackles themes of consciousness in non-human animals as well as SF which plays with creating new types of animals (or otherwise uses animal biology to construct new beings).
Recommendations for books that feature animals: Children of Time and Children of Ruin (*) by Adrian Tchaikovsky, An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N. Wagner (*), The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (*) and Tone of Voice by Kaia Sønderby
6. Mundane Aspects of SF
SF isn’t all about exciting voyages though! I also love fiction which deals with the more mundane aspects of life in SF (another thing that makes my little anthropologist heart joyful). I like learning about the smaller, slower parts of life as well as the big, exciting ones. I’m here for all of the stories which linger over social structures, bureaucracy, employment, and education!
Recommendations for books that feature mundane aspects of SF life: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickensen (*), The Sith of Data-Work by Ken Liu, and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Likewise, I love SF that looks at politics in action which I am 100% sure comes from my lifelong love of Star Wars. One of my favorite stories to tell as a young person (much to the amusement/horror of some of my teachers) was that a lot of the knowledge I had about politics and political systems came from Star Wars and I desperately wanted to be like Padme when I grew up. Give me missions of diplomacy and council meetings over space battles any day. Aside from politics-as-career, I unsurprisingly also love SF that explores different political systems and their consequences.
Recommendations for books that feature politics: Queen’s Shadow by E.K Johnson (*), Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, the Illuminae Files series by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, Waste Tide by Stanley Chen Qiufan (translated by Ken Liu), and Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron
Recommendations for films that feature politics: Star Wars Episode 2 and 3
Recommendations for video games that feature politics: Cyberpunk 2077 (*), Mass Effect 3, Detroit: Become Human, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Metro 2033, Bioshock, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution
8. Science & Technology
Again, SF holds so much potential for creators to invent and play with scientific and technological developments and I love SF which explores these themes. My love of SF science and technology is actually one of the reasons I am doing the PhD I am currently doing! Under this category, I am including things like biohacking, transport, and domestic technology as well as life creations like dinosaurs and artificial intelligence (all of which I LOVE)
Recommendations for books that feature science and technology: Jurassic Park and the Lost World by Michael Crichton, Neuromancer by William Gibson, Warcross by Marie Lu, Goodnight Melancholy by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu), Everfair by Nisi Shawl (*), The Windup Girl (*) and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (*)
Recommendations for films/tv that feature science and technology: Altered Carbon, the Jurassic Park series, I Robot, Ex Machina, Battlestar Galactica, Black Panther
Recommendations for video games that feature science and technology: the Deus Ex series, Fallout 4, Mass Effect 1-3, Shadowrun Returns
9. Potential Futures – Moral Messages
I feel like this is one of those things that people are often divided on (as in they either love it or hate it) but I think that one of the greatest tools of SF is that it has a lot to say and it has a lot that it can say. A lot of the SF that I tend to enjoy doesn’t shy away from difficult topics but, because of the nature of fiction, crafts them in such a way that isn’t as scary for people to confront. Some of the themes that I’ve noticed come up a lot in SF, especially over the last few years, include things like climate change, migration, wealth inequality, genocide, colonialism and neo-colonialism, human and non-human rights, the ethics of science and technology, and fascism and these stories often contain strong messages and warnings from their creators. Science fiction asks us difficult questions, questions that we need to confront now more than ever.
Recommendations for this section include all of the books, films and video games I’ve already mentioned throughout the post as moral themes are interwoven with each and every story.
This list is by no means exhaustive (even though it took me over 4 hours to put together 😅) and there are repetitions throughout not only because some recommendations fit into several of these categories but also because I still have a lot of reading, watching and playing to do so I only have a finite pool to choose from. I’m always on the lookout for more science fiction, especially any which deal with these themes and features, so make sure you drop a comment to let me know your recommendations too!