Science fiction and fantasy stories have so much to teach us about how to live in our own world. They speak to problems that we face every day. They are about families and lovers and friendships—small, intimate, human things. They are also often about about war and disaster and injustice—big, terrifying, human things. But the rules of our universe no longer apply. Suddenly there is spell-casting and time travel and space flight across light-years, inhabited alien planets and telepathic dragons and a million other dreamed-up magics and miracles. These stories throw the laws of physics out the window, but the rules of being a human still apply. There are moral and ethical dilemmas to be faced. There are challenges to overcome. There is journeying and questing and coming-of-age. There is personal heartbreak and catastrophic change and through it all—through all the bizarre and fantastical worlds—the characters doing all these familiar things are very, very human.
Of course, we don’t need to read about fantastical universes in order to confront the problems of our own. There are thousands of big and incredible stories that illuminate and teach us so much about our world, without the help of spaceships and spells. But science fiction and fantasy books sometimes get labeled as merely fun, merely escapist. I love reading an action-packed page-turner as much as the next person. Some books are merely fun. Every book does not have to be everything that is good about reading. Writers use sci-fi and fantasy to tell stories that are equally powerful, and equally important, as any stories that stay true to the laws of physics.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to see our own world through the guise of another. Sometimes it’s easier to look at hard truths with a slightly crooked lens. Sometimes it takes a jump to hyperspace or through a wormhole to get us to wake up and open our eyes. Sometimes finding the humanity in imagined aliens makes it that much easier to find the humanity in each other.
Tomorrow our nation will inaugurate a leader who does not value what I value: openness, creativity, the irrefutable worth of every human life. I plan to resist his hateful, repressive rhetoric. I plan to work on imagining new solutions and inventing new ways of caring for each other. I plan to stand in human solidarity with those who are different from me.
I am going to keep envisioning and imagining and inventing and creating a world in which it is possible—like the characters in so many sci-fi and fantasy novels—to embody the best and most beautiful parts of our humanity. I speak the language of books. These are just a few of the books I’ve looked to, and I’ll continue to look to, along the way.
Some of the books on this list are childhood favorites. Some are absurd, escapist fairy tales. Some of them take place in strange imagined universes, and some take place in magical versions of our own world. Some of them are plain old fun, and some of them are very serious. Sometimes the people in these books are humans just like us. Sometimes they are made-up people—aliens of all kinds, mages and wizards, magical creatures, talking animals. But whether they’re dragons or nursery rhyme characters or mercenary space pilots, there is something familiar—something recognizably human—in all of them.
From these bizarre and varied human stories, I draw my hope.
Read Against Trump, Day 4: For When You’ve Had Enough of this Planet (and/or the Laws of Physics)
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To this day, One Hundred Years of Solitude remains one of the most beautiful books I have ever read (and the opening sentence is, so far, my favorite in all of literature). The epic story of the village of Macondo, told through many generations of the Buendia family, is one of the most perfectly blended tales of human relationships across sweeping change that I have ever read. (Homegoing is up there.) The experience of reading it felt to me like getting lost. It was like going on a journey with a masterful yet untranslatable guide at your side, who led you deep into a maze and then slowly back out, with most of your questions still unanswered but a new kernel of truth exposed.
The Color Master, Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender is a contemporary master of magical realism. The stories in this collection are absolutley gorgeous, blurring the lines between real and imagined, ordinary and extraordinary. In some, the world is immediately recognizable as our own. In others, it is only the emotions of the characters that are at all familiar. My favorite story in this collection, “The Devourings” is a gorgeous meditation on parenthood, told from the perspective of a woman who married an ogre.
The Sharing Knife series, Lois McMaster Bujold
Anyone who knows me knows that Bujold is going to be all over this list. The Sharing Knife books are the best sort of fantasy adventure romance around. Strong, fierce and determined, Fawn is a heroine for the ages. Most of all, I love this world, with its intricately drawn cultures and magics and beautifully imagined landscape. There’s a lot of cultural misunderstanding and all-too familiar prejudice, and even though everyone should be fighting the same enemy, it never quite works out that way. Bujold is a master of nuance, whether in her seamless world-building or her gorgeously realized characters, who are plagued by doubts and mistakes and prejudices.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
Cimorene was the princess I wanted to be when I was a kid. Forget marrying a prince—she runs away to the Enchanted Forest to live with dragons and fight wizards. It’s much more interesting, and anyway, Cimorene dosen’t believe in being proper. Whether she’s working for dragons or solving mysteries or marrying a prince because, you know, she decides she wants to–she’s feminist to the core, and it is awesome. These books are delightful and funny and full of characters I still love and remember years after I met them for the first time.
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
This astounding novel is set in a world plagued by fifth seasons–devastating climatic events that occur seemingly at random, causing death and destruction. It was one of the best books I read in 2016, but it’s almost impossible to write anything about it without spoilers. So: the structure of the book blew me away. The writing was gorgeous. There is so much–so much–packed into this book about freedom and family and oppression in many guises. The world is not our own, but The Fifth Season is the exact opposite of escapist reading.
Doomsday Book, Connie Willis
Time traveling + the black plague. I love time travel books. There is always something magical and true that happens when you start blending past and future. What’s changed and what hasn’t? What is familiar and what is foreign? It’s such an obvious and perfect way to tell big stories. This is possibly my all-time favorite: a woman from the 21st century, studying history, gets stuck on a routine visit to the fourteenth century and finds herself in the middle of the plague.
The Temeraire series, Naomi Novick
It’s a pretty simple premise: the Napoleonic wars, except everyone has dragons. I absolutely loved the first few books in this series, although I did get somewhat bored eventually, and I haven’t read them all. Novick’s dragons have a lot to tell us, however, and the way she blends them into an otherwise unaltered history is fascinating.
Fforde’s Nursery Crimes books fall squarely on the absurd, funny, and lighthearted side of things, and they are truly wonderful. In The Big Over Easy, Inspector Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crimes Division has his hands full when he’s tasked with solving the murder of Humpty Dumpty. In The Fourth Bear, locating missing journalist Goldy Hatchett is no easy task. Whimsical and hysterical, these nursery-rhyme-turned-mystery-novels are some of my favorite pleasure reading.
The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
These books are very, very dear to me. As far as comfort books go, these are my pinnacle. They’re what I read when I’m sick, upset, exhausted. The characters are, in my opinion, peerless. The writing sizzles. Beneath the action-packed surface, there is a seemingly endless amount of insightful social commentary. There is so much I love about these books it is hard to know where to begin, so instead I’ll just mention this one thing: If I could pick one character, in all of sci-fi and fantasy, to bring to life for guidance and strength in the age of Trump, it would be Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. No contest.
The sheer volume of work that Mercedes Lackey has produced is astounding. While its quality (at least in the small sample that I’ve read) varies, I couldn’t in good conscience make a sci-fi/fantasy booklist that didn’t include something of hers. I read the Heralds of Valdemar and the Last Herald Mage trilogies when I was a teenager, and Valdemar quickly became my home-away-from-home. I can’t speak to how these books stand up to a first reading as an adult. They are full of predictable drama and mediocre writing. I loved them before I cared about anything other than a good story that made me feel like I belonged.
My reading has evolved over the years, and I don’t turn to this series anymore, the way I still constantly reread Miles books (see above). But I think it is important to honor where we come from and what has shaped us. There is a whole lot that is worthwhile in these books, beyond the adventure and the magic and the romance. The Heralds are (mostly) the sort of fiercely loyal and misfit-welcoming community that every lonely weirdo kid dreams of. There is cliche and sappiness in these books, and there is also unconditional belonging—something we could all do with a lot more of.