From The Time Machine to Kirk and Uhura‘s unprecedented kiss, speculative fiction has long concerned itself with breaking barriers and exploring issues of race, inequality, and injustice. The fantastical elements of genre, from alien beings to magical ones, allow writers to confront controversial issues in metaphor, granting them a subversive power that often goes unheralded.
On this, the day we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us consider novels that incorporate themes of social justice into stories that still deliver the goods—compelling plots, characters you’ll fall in love with, ideas that will expand your mind.
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The Patternist series, by Octavia Butler (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, The Patternmaster)
Most of Octavia Butler’s books could probably find a place on this list. Arguably the most prominent, most widely-read African-American sci-fi writer, themes of race and power recur throughout her novels, including her breakout work, 1979’s Kindred, which saw a young black girl travel back in time to the darkest days of American slavery, a witness to how much had changed, and how much hadn’t. We’d also highlight the four-book Patternist series, published between 1977 and 1984, which sketches out an alternate history stretching back to ancient Egypt, exploring efforts by an immortal alien being to create a new race of humanity through selective breeding. Wild Seed in particular uses abduction as a metaphor for slavery, as the telepathic, undying mutant coerces a West-African woman (herself an immortal gifted with seemingly supernatural abilities) and brings her to the U.S. in the 1700s.
Iron Council, by China Miéville
Miéville is a member of the International Socialist Organization and wrote his doctoral thesis on Marxism, so it’s no surprise that his sci-fi and fantasy novels, in addition to being deeply weird and incredibly imaginative, tackle questions of economic and social inequality and speaking truth to power. This is most evident is his celebrated Bas Lag trilogy, particularly Iron Council, about a group of revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the corrupt powers that control and oppress the citizens of the twisted city of New Crobuzon. Though his work has been lambasted by some for being too overtly political, its narrative drive and potent imagery make it as unforgettable as literature as it is provoking as argument.
Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
This coming-of-age novel by Jamaican-Canadian writer Hopkinson was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Written entirely in Caribbean patois, it tells the story of a Tan-Tan, a young girl living on a colony planet where there is a great economic divide, the lower class is under constant surveillance, and crimes are met with banishment to an alien world called New Half Way Tree. After her father commits an unforgivable offense, he flees with Tan-Tan to New Half Way Tree, where she must eventually learn to forge her own identity among the indigenous alien population while struggling to come to terms with sexual abuse. The core of the novel considers the ways marginalized individuals must act out to escape from cultural oppression.
The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy)
A common way science fiction addresses contemporary social issues is, of course, to shift the lens to focus on a speculative subject that has both nothing and everything to do with today. Ann Leckie’s celebrated space opera/military SF trilogy, beginning with the Hugo Award-winning Ancillary Justice, picks a few good ones. Most obviously, the rights of artificially intelligent spaceships to self-determination, but also, the efforts, both deliberate and accidental, of dominant societies to erase the cultural values of those people it has dominated, whether economically or with military might, and the rights of those people to choose to exist with autonomy within those colonizing societies, or to be forced to conform and serve it (quite literally, in this case, in the form of zombified, mind-wiped soldier bodies). Yes, yes, there are lots of awesome chase sequences and space battles as well (and tea…so much tea), but, well, sometimes a sentient starship is more than just a sentient starship.
The Bartimeaus Sequence (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon), by Jonathan Stroud
Though ostensibly a middle grade series for readers looking for their next magical fix after finishing Harry Potter, Stroud’s Bartimeaus books (a trilogy and a prequel) hide powerful, deeply progressive messages about colonialism, civil rights, and inequality within a thrilling, cheekily humorous adventure story. As the first book opens, the title character, a 5,000-year-old immortal djinni, is bound by magic to serve the whims of 12-year-old Nathaniel, the generally good-hearted apprentice to a middling magician. With the unwilling help of the supernatural being, who will suffer terrible pain if he refuses the boy’s commands, Nathaniel uncovers a plot to overthrow London’s ruling sorcerer class. But by the second book, Nathaniel has become a part of the machine himself, and the focus shifts to a group of young people fighting against the entrenched powers that be. As a whole, the series is as much about prejudice, injustice, and the fight for equality—sorcerers aren’t inherently powerful; they just have the money required to purchase magical equipment, artifacts, and an education—as it inventive battle sequences between supernatural beings.
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
This slender novelette crams in an enormous amount of real and alternate history worldbuilding to tell the story of downtrodden creatures—laborwomen, a circus elephant—fighting back against the capitalist systems that view them as less valuable than the fruits of their labor. Marrying the real injustices heaped upon both the historical “Radium Girls” who developed horrific cancers after being knowingly exposed to dangerous radiation in their jobs painting glowing watch dials, and the “troublesome” elephant Topsy, publicly executed as a spectacle in the early 1900s, the story explores an unlikely cross-species sisterhood that arises to violently combat an unjust system.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
The remarkable debut novel by Rivers Solomon, extrapolates our history of prejudice and division into a future context, as the last remnants of humanity flee a ruined Earth onboard the generation ship Matilda. Three hundred years out, society on the ship has come to resemble a pre-Civil Rights era America (and, more than a little, the America of 2017) as a white supremecist ruling class controls the ship on the back of slave labor by its darker-skinned passengers. Aster is a motherless child aboard the ship Matilda, on which lowdeckers like her work on vast rotating plantations under the weak light of Baby, their engineered nuclear sun, living lives of trauma and subject to the cruel vagaries of upper deck guards. We meet Aster as she fights to save a child’s life. omeone—probably the Sovereign, their god-benighted ruler—has cut the heat to the lower decks, and the child has something like trench foot, the limb frozen and rotting. Aster is apprentice to the Surgeon General Theo Smith, despite her low status, and is learned in the skills of medicine. When she is called by the Surgeon Theo for help to save the poisoned Sovereign, Aster is righteously defiant.She hates the Sovereign, as all the lowdeckers do—he is the exultant face of their oppression. As one ruler falls and the next is enshrined, the equilibrium of Aster and Theo’s lives, and the lives of all Matilda’s lower decks, are are violently upset, as the spectre of civil war appears on the artificial horizon.
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
Like the Bartimeaus series, Zen Cho’s debut novel (which receives a sequel, The True Queen, in a few months) uses comforting tropes of magic and romance to hide the bitter pill of her narrative, which is really all about racism, gender politics, and the fear of the other. In a version of Regency Britain ruled by a council of sorcerers, Zacharias Wythe has been named the next Sorcerer Royal—but not without controversy. Though he is the greatest magician of his generation, he is also dark-skinned and a former slave, and more than a few bigoted magicians have blamed the recent troubles on his rise to power. Facing internal opposition at every turn, Zacharias attempts to solve the mystery of why England’s stores of magic are drying up, enlisting the help of half-black girl who cleans the rooms at a magic school for young noblewomen (this being the Regency era, the school teaches women to suppress their magical talents rather than hone them), yet may be more magically gifted than any of them. In addition to being a delightful romance and an intriguing mystery, Cho’s novel explores the fight for racial and gender equality in a class-conscious society that is both at a few centuries remove, and not all that different from our current reality.
The Binti Trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s recent, Hugo-winning Binti Trilogy fits nicely here; the protagonist is a woman from a marginalized human tribe who is the first of her people to be offered a chance to study at a the galaxy’s most elite university, but doing so will require her to give up her identity—but it is ultimately that uniqueness that will help her to save her own life and form new bonds of understanding across a vast cultural divide. But if you can stomach something unremittingly darker, the World Fantasy Award-winner Who Fears Death also applies. Set in a post-apocalyptic future Sudan where a light-skinned race oppresses a darker-skinned one, a girl of both societies, born out of violence and gifted with magical abilities, sets off to murder her father. Incorporating scenes of barbaric female genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of control, it is a harrowing, angry novel about a woman who refuses to be a victim.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The fight for social justice is one that is as much about economic inequality as it is about racial inequality. LeGuin’s landmark dual Hugo and Nebula winner slots into the former category, considering the relationship between two disparate, symbiotic planets, one that embodies logical ends of extreme capitalism, and one that operates by spare, socialist ideals. The novel’s subtitle is “An Ambiguous Utopia,” and it is tough to figure out where that perfect society exists within it, or if it is possible for one to truly exist anywhere (even in fiction).
The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick
This is the refugee immigrant narrative writ large: after one of their own commits a crime of passion, a family is banished from their homeworld through a mysterious interdimensional gate and finds itself in the contemporary U.S., where they must learn to shed their cultural identities or risk ostracization, imprisonment, or even death. Haunted by the past (literally), they must learn to forge a new future without losing all of themselves. Palwick’s commentary on the U.S. immigration debate (still relevant even a decade after it was first published) is not exactly subtle, but it never overwhelms what is, in the end, a heartbreaking, human story.
Return to Nevèrÿon series, by Samuel R. Delany (Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, Return to Nevèrÿon)
Openly gay, African-American Delany has long been counted among sci-fi and fantasy’s most progressive, provocative writers. Though best known for the dense, difficult Dhalgren, this fantasy series, published between 1979 and 1987, deserves equal consideration for the way it works to undermine deeply entrenched cultural narratives. Ostensibly a series of barbarian stories in the sword-and-sorcery tradition, it flips around the narrative to place power in the hands of a dark-skinned civilization that enslaves a pale-skinned one. Within this environment, Delany explores such then-controversial issues as homosexuality and the AIDS crisis.
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The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)
Jemisin’s three-time Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a ragged scream of rage at the injustice that racism and inequality brings. In the opening chapter, a man uses magic to break the world because the world has shown him it has no cause to treat him like a human. A woman cradles the broken body of her son, murdered because of what he is, and what he represents, rather than anything he did. A government treats immensely powerful but subjugated magic users, who have the innate power to move the earth, as animals, little better than tools, breaking their will and their bones in order to keep them compliant and ensure the continuity of the society that oppresses them. That some of these people, so-abused, choose to destroy everything in their anger, perhaps we can forgive them for lashing out. That some of them still see beauty in the broken earth speaks to their humanity more than anything else. Across three novels, Jemisin makes you understand what might drive someone to shatter the world rather than continue to live within an unjust system (“No voting on who gets to be people.”), and keeps the hope alive that something better might rise of the rubble.
Octavia’s Brood, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown
This powerful collection of “visionary fiction” (a term meant to represent sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and horror) was inspired by the work of Octavia Butler, and seeks to explore the connection between fantastical writing and real-world movements for social change. In these stories, unnatural occurrences reflect social ills and injustice, as in “The River,” by the collection’s co-editor Adrienne Marie Brown, in which the Detroit River comes to embody the violence of gentrification and displacement that has been visited upon the residents of the city. Including essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a roster of exciting new writers, and a few familiar names (including LeVar Burton and Terry Bisson), this is a vital, visceral, and essential collection.
What work of science fiction or fantasy changed the way you view the world?