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14 of the queerest SFF novels of the last decade
Best-of lists can be overwhelming. Who’s to say what is really the best when what we love to read is so subjective?
But queerest? Queerest is a different kind of superlative — because the term queer is by its nature about expansion, about genders, sexualities, and lives that lie outside the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. So, rather than being exclusionary, this list of queerest novels explores exemplars of how science fiction and fantasy can be uniquely leveraged to explore not just people, but societies, theories, powers, technologies, monsters, and more that are and/or are coded as queer. The very lenses of these novels are queer — and that’s something worth reading.
These are definitely not the only queer SFF novels of the decade, but they’re 14 that will make you say, "Hot damn! That’s queer!"
On each entry, I’ve included a note about what queer elements to look forward to in each book or series. While I tried to include everything that stood out to me, it’s by no means exhaustive.
Note: I’m keeping these mostly spoiler-free because there’s nothing better than being surprised by an excellent book, and these are truly remarkable works of fiction that you deserve to experience with eyes wide open for the first time.
The Outside by Ada Hoffmann
The Outside, Ada Hoffman’s debut novel, brings together religious techno-cults, rogue scientists, and edge-of-your-mind horror. In this exciting and gripping space opera, artificial intelligence has reached god-status and the AI Gods now control how technology is accessed by and distributed to humans, keeping the more “dangerous” technologies to themselves. The Gods still need human souls to feed on, so their focus on humanity isn’t exactly altruistic. And, to push against those Gods and their many, many regulations is to engage in heresy, which has extreme punishments.
When one scientist, Yasira Shien, finds herself in the middle of a heretical investigation of her scientific achievements — er, mishaps? — the only path out is to work with the Gods and their mortal (and less mortal) companions to hunt down her mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr. But what could the Gods want with one measly, possibly unhinged scientist?
Queer characters abound in this sci-fi horror novel and their complicated, taut relationships make for compelling subplots throughout the narrative. Shien gets separated from her girlfriend early in the novel and then spends much of her time reflecting on their relationship, what worked, and what she may be losing. It’s tender and evocative. Additionally, Shien is autistic and that reality is rendered matter-of-fact throughout the novel, with powerful results.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters; queered horror; queered science
The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Trilogy) by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Earth Trilogy kicks so much ass that it won three consecutive Hugo Awards, with N.K. Jemisin claiming multiple historic firsts for her incredible novels. The Fifth Season introduces readers to the Stillness, the land that does not live up to its name. The apocalypse isn’t just a thing that happens once, but rather a weather phenomenon society learns to prepare for. Orogenes, powered people who can manipulate earth, rock, stone, and tectonics, are conscripted to service of the government, or well the shadow magic-science arm of the government.
Essun, a powered person and schoolteacher, finds herself faced with a horrific loss that sets her off on a journey of survival, friendship, and global upheaval. As she struggles to find people she’s safe with and looks for her daughter, Essun learns more about her powers and the body controlling powered-people than she’d ever wanted to know.
Queer relationships and characters pop up in no-nonsense, unexpected ways, making the very fabric of the world represented in this novel queer AF. Come for the romantic and adorable throuple, stay for the crotchety trans scientist who knows exactly who she is.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters, including people of color; queer coded powers and societal dynamics; geographical and planetary symbols of queerness
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a devastatingly powerful novel about a generation ship searching for an inhabitable planet to colonize. The ship Matilda’s society is built on the enslavement of Black people, replicating real-life slavery in the Antebellum South in a technological post-Earth.
The brilliant healer Aster is an outsider in many ways. She’s autistic, nonbinary, queer, and hellbent on changing the status quo. While surviving the brutalities of life aboard Matilda, Aster discovers her dead mother’s journal and learns secrets about her ship and their journey through space that will change humanity forever.
Many of the characters are queer, and while their lives are often cruel and unimaginably constricted, the characters themselves are empowered and powerful representations of nonbinary, transgender, bisexual, asexual, and other queer people who are Black, Brown, biracial, autistic, fat, survivors, and so much more. Solomon creates compelling characters who when faced with the impossible make impossible decisions—some for the better, some to the detriment of themselves and everyone else.
Solomon renders a deeply violent story with an awareness of how representations of violence might impact readers, creating some of the most compelling, delicately balanced, and self-aware writing about sexual assault and violence I’ve ever read.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters, including people of color; anti-queer violence survivors; non-colonial conceptions of sex and gender; queered science; queer societal dynamics
Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, and Revenant Gun (Machineries of Empire) by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire is the kind of trilogy you love to discover — one filled with space battles, political intrigue, and technology so advanced it feels magical. This alternate-science universe relies not upon molecular manipulation, but upon patterns, numerical manipulation, and adherence to an agreed-upon calendrical system. There’s also something up with the omnipresent AI machines/helpers, though no one seems to notice.
Except Kel Cheris. That’s not all that is special about her, though. In Ninefox Gambit, we learn that Cheris is a brilliant mathematician, a solid military mind, and oh yeah, she’s sharing her body with someone she can’t trust. Jedao, a centuries-old general who lives in Cheris’ mind and shadow, once betrayed not just his military, but all of his subordinates, becoming a mass murderer in the process. When Cheris and Jedao are sent to a destabilized holding to address the calendrical rot taking place, Cheris realizes she can’t trust anyone else either. What’s a hero to do? Her own thing, of course.
The best way to describe the queerness of Lee’s novel is through a genuine question: Is anyone in this world cishet? Methinks no. Love letters between queer military officials appear throughout the novel. Cheris and Jedao recall both their loves (of multiple genders) through memory. And, the whole body-sharing thing? Just. So. Queer. And that’s only one book, folks.
Queer elements: LGBT characters, including people of color; queer coded powers and science; queer politics; queer body-sharing goodness
Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy (The Imperial Radch Trilogy) by Ann Leckie
The Imperial Radch Trilogy is an expansive space opera, filled with intrigue, betrayal, and body-jumping. Ann Leckie creates a terrifying and believable Imperial Radch, a colonizing force slowly taking over the human universe, in these novels. The Radch steals the bodies of the societies they annex to provide the human-power that makes their empire so powerful. Artificially intelligent ships use these drones, aka ancillaries, as troops.
In Ancillary Justice, the intelligence of a ship in the body of an ancillary, Breq, breaks from the Radch when she discovers that the empire has betrayed everyone on a mission with her. Breq barely escapes the grips of the Radch and in the process slowly becomes not just artificial intelligence in a body, but a person. When Breq finds a soldier from her original ship face down in the snow on a distant planet, it sets her on the path to destabilizing the regime — at whatever cost.
In the novels and in the Radch, the pronoun “she” is used for all characters, as Radch society doesn’t recognize gender the way other societies do. “She,” thus, becomes a gender-neutral pronoun in this context. Some folks have a hard time getting on board with this usage, but the author has been adamant that she doesn’t know what genders, if any, her characters identify with.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters; gender-occluding if not gender-neutral society
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
In Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night, Earth has become uninhabitable in recent-ish history. Luckily a bunch of humans hopped on a generation ship and flew to a mysterious planet called January, half of which is stuck in eternal, frozen night, the other half of which is ablaze. Humanity can only survive in the space between, where a thin strip of tolerable temperatures proves habitable.
Sophie lives in that thin strip in Xiosphant, a city that is basically a fascist dystopia. Sophie confesses to a crime she didn’t commit to protect a friend and is thrust into the hostile darkness to be eaten by crocodiles. When one of the dreaded crocodiles reaches out to and communicates with her, everything Sophie knows is thrown into question. If they are not wild beasts to be hunted but sentient beings, how could humans and Gelet, what the crocodiles call themselves, learn to coexist?
There are a handful of explicitly queer characters in The City in the Middle of the Night, including one of the two POV characters, which makes the whole outlook delightfully queer. The way words are used, having multiple meanings readers hold in their minds at the same time, is also wonderfully queer and the Gelet are queer in terms of gender, societal arrangement, and just all around.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters including people of color; queer and queer coded aliens; queered space colonization
The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant (Book 1 and 2, the Worldbreaker Saga) by Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga blends science fiction and fantasy elements together in exciting and innovative ways, bringing to life magic-infused epic fantasy societies battling interdimensional foes against a climate catastrophe background. On top of that, characters’ magical abilities wax and wane with the orbital paths of planets, bringing some characters into full strength as others are weakened. Yeah. It is just as intense and fascinating as it sounds.
In The Mirror Empire, Lilia is thrown from her homeworld into an entirely new one where everything she knows is wrong and no one believes her. She ends up in the center of an interdimensional invasion being chased by magicians, cannibals, and sentient trees as she tries to figure out exactly what her role is in all of this.
There are many queer characters in these books, including genderfluid and other nonbinary characters. Multiple societies interact as well, each with distinct concepts of gender, sexuality, sex, and relationships. Furthermore, the ability to self-define one’s gender is not only considered, but openly discussed, with the implication being that gender self-determination is a basic human right. Thus, being queer isn’t just one thing in one society, but a variety of things that manifests in a variety of ways in a variety of societies.
Keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-released final book in the trilogy, The Broken Heavens.
Queer elements: LGBTQ+ characters including people of color; widespread and normalized queerness and nonbinary genders; queered doppelgangers; queer coded magic