Birmingham’s gripping near-future novel, The Cruel Stars, launches readers into a genocidal interstellar war amid sudden violence and dark humor. A long-exiled radical human group bent on killing any “impure” humans with genetic or mechanical modifications has executed a massive strike against the rest of human culture’s defenses and elites. Standing in its way are one military ship with a new captain, a band of pirates, a bodiless criminal, a 12-year-old princess, and a legend. Birmingham picks 10 authors pushing space opera forward.
The nine-time winner of China’s most important science fiction award and author of The Three Body Problem has also carried off a cupboard full of Hugos, Locus, and Nebula Awards for his very Chinese but also very cosmopolitan novels of the 500-year struggle with the Trisolarins, a bunch of space nazis who are incapable of internal monologue. Cixin Liu has named both Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell as deep influencers, but his synthesis of Chinese literary forms, cultural memes, and western genre tropes has created something very new and very special.
Kameron Hurley doesn’t have readers. She has addicts. Seriously messed up addicts, all jonesing for their next hit of tragic love, embittered vengeance, and never-ending war within the seams between the stars. You can trust nothing in Hurley’s grim and often grotesque future. Certainly not love, and probably not your sanity when she really decides to crank on the infinitely weird engine of exotic matter and dark forces that barely contains her imagination. Fervently held genre tropes get melted down to plasma slag and Hurley has even fewer fucks to give for your feelings about that than does her all-female cast of dark-toned, body-modded warrior she-devils, forever contending with each other for control of a legion of decaying world-ships.
Leckie did not invent or discover gender blindness for the world with Ancillary Justice, but her far future debut novel landed with enough explosive force that the blast wave seemed to clear a vast open space in which other authors could then be free to play with nations of identity and culture. Complex, challenging, even difficult at times, Justice and its sequels made no compromises on the journey to explore the sort of political and personal ambiguities normally the preserve of purely literary fiction.
Moren can’t help himself. He’s just gotta crack wise, and funny, and keep on going until you give up the lulz for him. There are two Golden Ages packed into one convenient story world in this series; a golden age of sci-fi with all the big honking spaceships and gigantic star spanning empires you could want, and tucked away within that a golden age of spy fiction, recalling the glory days of Ludlum, Deighton and Fleming. Swap out the old Soviet Union for the Illyrican Empire, the Bayern Corporation for Spectre, and Simon Kovalic’s KO gun for Bond’s trusty Walther PPK and you’ve got yourself one of the most entertaining genre mashups within an astronomical unit.
5. The Binti novella series by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedimma Nkemdili "Nnedi" Okorafor will none of your guff about the lack of literary merit in science fiction. The multi-award-winning Nigerian-American novelist is crafting beautifully realized literary gems deep within the same genre that, er, gifted us with a thousand derivative space marine sagas. Her novellas of Binti, first of the Himba accepted into the illustrious pan galactic Oomza university, explore intimate questions of belonging and identity, but via wars against jellyfish aliens, rogue human factions and vast, galaxy spanning searches for meaning.
There’s a peculiar derangement that comes over many SF writers, where they suddenly start trying to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of fantasy tropes into their narrative starships. (Seriously, Peter F. Hamilton, just build another Dyson sphere and fill it it full of hostile aliens. Enough already!) But Ruocchio could mash up genres at the Olympics and have the dais to himself. He wins gold silver and bronze for the brilliant Sun Eater series, a head spinning stew of speculative future history, retrofuturist fantasy, and utterly entrancing recursive loops back through all some of the oldest memes in the history of story telling, all made new by Hadrian Marlowe, his creator-destroyer of imaginary worlds. You will lose yourself in these books and stay happily lost again and again.
Running away to find ourselves is as much as venerated myth of space opera as wayward starships and young heroes’ misadventure on the highest, most lawless frontier. Yoon Ha Lee retouches all your favorite archetypes with a Korean brush. A lovely introduction to space faring for the younger reader, his shape-shifting magical fox named Min, who presents as human to our unmagical eyes, strikes out from home to clear her brother’s name of a vile slander. Along the way she teams up with more supernatural allies, one of them a non binary goblin in the Space Cadets.
8. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A stand out example of the good things that can happen when you fundamentally disrupt long established publishing models, Becky Chambers did not walk the conventional path to her well deserved success. Long Way began life as a modest Kickstarter, looking for a lousy two and a half grand to fund a couple of months part-time writing. A year later, Hodder and Stoughton had acquired Chambers character-driven road trip through the galactic sublayer, and fans of quirky, humane SF had a new favorite in Rosemary Harper, a human of Mars, who leaves her leaves her home world as clerk of the tunnelling ship Wayfarer.
Okay, yes, it starts with a magic car race. But it's very colorful magic, and a very exciting car race, and White is a supercool stylist who soon drags you into the search for A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. A misfit crew, a ship of legend, a universe in peril, all of the big boxes are ticked with big colorful technomagical pens. Boots Ellsworth, White’s washed up and not entirely trustworthy treasure hunter, and Nilah Brio, a brilliant racer framed for murder, make an engaging team as they heist, scheme, and copulate their way across the cosmos.
In Lostetter’s audacious debut novel, teams of multi-cloned humans venture across cold space for eons to explore the far reaches of the outer galaxy. Recalling the dilemmas and paradoxes of FTL campaigning in The Former War, one team tentatively creeps on a mysterious and possibly threatening alien star, seeking clarification of any threat it might use to a human civilization that has most likely changed beyond all recognition at the other end of the time dilation effect.