15 Sci-Fi Books That Don't Take Place In A Bleak Dystopian Reality

by Charlotte Ahlin

Dystopia novels seem to be more popular than ever these days. Between The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games and the disturbing resurgence of 1984, the dystopia is dominating science fiction on both page and screen (and IRL, kinda.) Dystopian YA novels are widely read enough to inspire parody Twitter accounts. And let me be clear: I get it. Dystopias help us sort out our values and our fears. They allow us to express anxieties about where the world is headed right now, and inspire each other to keep on fighting back against forces of oppression. Dystopias are important. That's why we all need a break from them.

I mean, look, if you want to read devastating literature about fascist futures 24/7, I'm not going to stop you. But sometimes, it's OK to read just for fun. It's OK to read science fiction that doesn't depict the future as a horrific wasteland full of human rights violations. You might even find that quite a lot of non-dystopian sci-fi can still be politically relevant. Sci-fi can run the gamut from dark and brooding to actually positive and funny. So if you're looking for aliens and space adventures and science fictional worlds that are not set on Earth in the dismal future, here are a few books to get you started:

'The Stars Are Legion' by Kameron Hurley

Far out, on the rim of the universe itself, lies a fleet of decaying world-ships called the Legion. And the Legion is on the move. Enter Zan, the would-be savior of the stars. She just might have the ability to enter one of the Legion's dangerous world-ships and save whole galaxies from genocide—the only trouble is that Zan can't recall who is exactly she is, or which side of this war she's supposed to be on.

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'Binti' by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti has been offered a place at Oomza University, the greatest learning institution in the galaxy. But she is also the first of her people ever to attend, and accepting this once in a lifetime offer will mean traveling far from home, away from her family, to live among strangers who may not understand her culture. That tension, along with the constant threat of alien invasion, is sure to make this an interesting school year.

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'The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet' by Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper generally likes to keep to herself. But when she joins the crew of the patched-up ship Wayfarer, she soon finds herself thrown in with a chaotic bunch of misfits, including a lizard pilot, two chatty engineers, and one very noble captain. Together, this ragtag band will explore the galaxy and bumble into danger in this funny, feel-good space adventure.

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'The Ship Who Sang' by Anne McCaffrey

OK, so maybe there's a touch of the dystopia to this one: as a baby, young Helva is deemed "abnormal," and destined to live as an effective brain in a jar. That's... not not dystopian. But The Ship Who Sang is less about the horrors of this future, and more about one plucky little brain in a jar who's going to make the best of her lot in life by exploring space, having grand adventures, and falling madly in love, body or no.

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'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' by Charles Yu

Fans of meta-fiction, time travel, and computers with low self-esteem will love How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. This oddball novel takes place in Minor Universe 31, where paradoxes abound and failed sci-fi protagonists slum it with lonely sexbots. Through all of this, Charles Yu, a time travel technician, is determined to find his missing father somewhere in the vast continuum of time and space.

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'The Stars Change' by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Here it is: the erotically charged sci-fi novel about a South Asian space university that you've been waiting for. Humans, aliens, and all manner of other beings have traveled to the University of All Worlds to learn (and make out with each other), but this mecca of peaceful, multi-species education is in danger as forces begin to threaten what could become an interstellar war.

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'Crosstalk' by Connie Willis

Imagine a procedure that could increase empathy between romantic partners. Sounds pretty great, right? Better communication! No more petty squabbles! Now imagine going to get that procedure with your boyfriend, only to discover that something has gone horribly wrong, and you now share an emotional bond with someone else entirely. Crosstalk is a delightful sci-fi rom-com all about love, communication, and some very crossed wires.

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'The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams

Of course, if you really just want to kick back with goofy space adventures that'll make you laugh, think, and have a lot of feelings about the number "42," you still can't beat the classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's the most feel-good book about the total destruction of the planet Earth that you are ever likely to read.

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'Everfair' by Nisi Shawl

Who says that sci-fi has to take place in the future at all? Why bother with space adventures when you can have Neo-Victorian steampunk adventures set during Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo? Everfair takes us to an alternate world, where the denizens of the Congo must find a way to use their advanced technology and save their way of life, or see themselves conquered by the monstrous King Leopold II.

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'Midnight Robber' by Nalo Hopkinson

It's Carnival season on the planet of Toussaint, and young Tan-Tan is excited to join the festivities in her Robber Queen costume. But when she and her father are suddenly exiled to the cruel new world of New Half-Way Tree, she's going to need more than a silly costume in order to survive. Tan-Tan is going to need to become the real Robber Queen, here in this world where all the monsters of folklore have come to life.

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'The Mad Scientist's Daughter' by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Robot romance, you guys. Robot romance. Young Cat is the daughter of two accomplished scientists, and Finn is her tutor. Only Finn is also a robot, carefully programmed to help his owners with whatever tasks they require. As Finn and Cat grow closer, though, they both begin to question this set up. Is Finn really as inhuman as he seems? And can Cat go one hiding her feelings forever?

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'Empress of a Thousand Skies' by Rhoda Belleza

Rhee is the only heir to the ancient Kalusian dynasty, poised to retake her ancestral throne. Alyosha is a war refugee who has clawed his way to fame as star of a DroneVision show. Their unlikely worlds collide when Princess Rhee is nearly assassinated... and Alyosha is framed for her apparent murder. The two are forced into hiding as they try to clear their names and put the galaxy back together.

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'Planetfall' by Emma Newman

Twenty-two years ago, Renata and her brave companions established a human colony on another planet, following the vision of the great Lee Suh-Mi. But now Ren finds herself lying to the rest of the colonists about how and why their colony was founded. Tensions rise when an impossible stranger arrives in their midst... a man who looks an awful lot like Suh-Mi himself.

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'Ancillary Justice' by Ann Leckie

On a far off, icy planet, a soldier called Breq is struggling to finish her mission. She was once the artificial intelligence of an enormous starship, linking together thousands of soldiers in service of her empire. But now she finds herself lost, confused, angry, and very nearly human. As Breq sets out on a quest for vengeance, though, she's going to learn that being human can be almost as complicated as being a giant spaceship.

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'Ninefox Gambit' by Yoon Ha Lee

Disgraced Captain Kel Cheris has one last chance to redeem herself: she must retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Everything is riding on this battle. So Kel decides to ally herself with the undead (and undefeated) tactician Shuos Jedao. Unfortunately for Kel, though, joining forces with a deceased madman might just pose a few dangers to the army, the galaxy, and Kel's own mind.

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