SFF Perspectives

Occasionally, people approach me and ask for book recommendations, particularly for science-fiction or fantasy (SFF) books. I try to give tailored responses, depending on preferences, experience, and my recent discoveries. When I ask people what they've read and liked, the same names tend to appear. The sci-fi folks will name some of Stross, Scalzi, Stephenson, Cline, Gibson, maybe Weir, Scott Card, (and Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert for the fans of the classics). Fantasy readers tend to come up with Tolkien, Sanderson, Martin, Stroud, Rothfuss, and Jordan. Those authors write wildly different books, but they have one thing in common: they are white men from Western countries. Yes, all of them.

Recently, a friend asked for recommendations excluding white men, and I found that I had so many of them that even on Mastodon I had to make them into a thread – so I collected them in the proper form. This is, of course, just the list of what I've read and liked. It's still grounded in Western society, since I tend to skip translations, and I'm sure the list has other shortcomings – so if you think I've missed something, let me know! You can reach me via email, in the Fediverse, or on Twitter.


I'll start out with my absolute favourite in this list: Lois McMaster Bujold. The sheer talent of her is unbelievable. Her main science-fiction series of 16 books, the Vorkosigan Saga is brilliant fun in many different ways, and while I haven't read them yet, I'm told that her two fantasy series Chalion (5 books) and The Sharing Knife (3 books) are at least equally good. She's won three Nebula and seven Hugo Awards to date, and while she started publishing in 1986, it doesn't look like she's stopping any time soon.

Octavia Butler was probably the most well-known black female sci-fi author for decades, and her works are not always easy to read: Her works tend to show a bleak future, filled with people that seem all too familiar. Her writing is always informed by race and class conflicts, and makes for very good sci-fi. She has published both series and stand-alone works – among the serialised fiction, the Xenogenesis series, and the Parable series stand out, although her earlier (and a bit more fantastic) Patternist series is also worth a read.

When Ursula K. le Guin died a year ago, both the sci-fi and the fantasy world lost an awesome writer. I'm not quite sure where to start – her Earthsea series is wonderful fantasy from start till finish. It was written over the course of her writing career, and her development shows, and yet the first book is already impressive and highly recommended. In terms of fantasy, her loosely-connected (think Culture) Hainish cycle is impressive in the different themes she discusses in them – particularly The Dispossessed (about anarchy, among other things) and The Left Hand of Darkness (discussing gender, in 1969) are a good start.

Samuel Delany writes science-fiction about language and perception, branching off in mythology, and sexuality. He's a gay black polyam man, and has been writing sci-fi since the 60s. Babel-17 is a wonderful short novel to get started, and to figure out if you like Delany at all – his style is very much his own and may not be for you. If you liked Babel-17, the next steps are his most well-known novels Dhalgren and Nova. But in any case, try Babel-17.

Margaret Atwood may be known to you due to the recently televised Handmaid's Tale. Reading it was a very anxious and depressing experience, yet important and well-written. Truth to be told, she's the only author in this list where I have read (and can recommend) only one book, but both Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam are sci-fi works coming highly recommended from my friends, and I hope I'll manage to read them this year.

If you liked Harry Potter, you should read Diane Duane. Her take on the genre, an 11 volume series called Young Wizards predates Harry Potter (and is still being published), features wonderful children, a tough but real world, an actual magic system, character growth, lyrical descriptions, a large vocabulary, and not the same plot line in every book. Sorry. Particularly the second and third parts are insightful and plain cool.

The Next Generation

Let me start this section with another favourite of mine, Ada Palmer. She's written only one series to date, of four books, the last of which will be published this year. But oh boy those books. This sci-fi series takes place in the not-too-far future, on an Earth with a wildly different, global, societal system, curious customs and ways of working, and characters that feel both familiar and alien. At least the first book is partly written in the style of an 18th century novel – which makes sense in context, I promise! I realise that experiments like that are not for everybody, but if this might work for you at all – please try these books. The amount of worldbuilding, consistency, and clever thought is not something you see every year, even in sci-fi. Get started with Too Like the Lightning!

N.K.Jemisin came to my attention when she wrote a science-fantasy trilogy that won the Hugo Award for each book, in consecutive years. I made time for those books, and the awards were not off - the Broken Earth series is stunning, clever, features great characters and even better plot handling, and mixes sci-fi and fantasy in a brilliant way. I haven't read her fantasy Inheritance trilogy yet, but I'm sure it works equally well. I can't recommend the Broken Earth enough.

I'm not sure how I came across Ann Leckie, but I somehow got started on her Ancillary trilogy, and at that point it had been some time since I had read this much original plot and concept in a sci-fi novel. Ann Leckie is brilliant at playing with perspectives, alien thought processes, and cultural differences. Her world feels real, because all the details are right, and support the characters and the plot. (Plus, I've got a thing for sentient ships, so that probably helped.)

If you're looking for something light-hearted, Martha Wells and her Murderbot Diaries novella series fits the bill. It's funny sci-fi without being annoying or repetitive – nice, short, and self-contained, at that. She's also written plenty of other sci-fi and fantasy, but sadly I can't speak for that, yet.

Sarah Pinsker is my go-to author of short fiction – she's been published in all the major genre magazines, and with good reason. For a slower pace, you can get started with Wind Will Rove, which takes place on a generational starship. Or you can go with the story with the wittiest title, And Then There Were (N-One), a brilliant and funny take on parallel universes. Many of her works are online, look her up here.

I don't read that much fantasy these days, but Seanan McGuire made me re-think that choice. Her Wayward Children series contains a couple of novellas, looking at the good old "children stumble through a doorway into another world" from a different perspective – what happens to the children who return? Her stories are pretty dark, but have sunny corners, and are presented in a lyrical fashion that's never over the top.

Nnedi Okorafor writes sci-fi and fantasy, and it's her urban fantasy that I like best. Akata Witch is the story of a couple of young, magically gifted teenagers in Nigeria. I didn't like her sci-fi novella Binti as much, but it's been critically acclaimed, so you may want to read it, too. I'm planning to read her well-received science fantasy novel Who Fears Death this year.

And finally, for my German readers, I'd recommend Ursula Poznanski. She writes fantasy and sci-fi for young adults, most notably a trilogy that puts Hunger Games to shame. If you're looking for stand-alone works, check out Erebos (about AI and ethics and computer games), or Saeculum. She also writes mysteries (I don't like mysteries in general, but I found hers okay, which probably isn't saying much).

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