The best science fiction and fantasy books on social justice

Who am I?

Most readers have a book that helped them see things from a different perspective. For me, it was an entire genre. I grew up during the 1970s in the rural South, where social justice was—and, to a considerable extent, remains—woefully absent. Science fiction and fantasy opened my mind to worlds where diversity was embraced rather than shunned or met with violence. Sadly, progress is a case of two steps forward, one step back. We seem to be in the stepping-back phase, so here are five works of science fiction and fantasy, past and present, that challenge readers to examine society critically and, hopefully, change it for the better.


I wrote...

Now, Then, and Everywhen

By Rysa Walker,

Book cover of Now, Then, and Everywhen

What is my book about?

Two time-traveling historians cross paths during one of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century and history goes helter-skelter. But which one broke the timeline?

In 2136 Madison Grace uncovers a key to the origins of CHRONOS, a time-travel agency with ties to her family’s past and soon, millions of lives are erased. In 2304 CHRONOS historian Tyson Reyes is assigned to observe the crucial events that played out in America’s civil rights movement. But a massive time shift occurs while he’s in 1965, and suddenly the history he sees isn’t the history he knows. As Madi’s and Tyson’s journeys collide, they must prevent the past from being erased forever. But are Madi and Tyson in control or merely pawns in someone else’s game?

The Books I Picked & Why

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Kindred

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Kindred

Why this book?

I struggled over which of Octavia Butler’s books to include in this list. Her Xenogenesis trilogy (currently published as Lilith’s Brood) was a strong contender, given the deft way in which she used the series to challenge social hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality. In the end, however, I had to go with Kindred. For one thing, it involves time travel, and as a former history professor that tends to be my favorite subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer. 

Kindred was also the first book of Butler’s that I read, back when I was still in my late teens and still very much a product of my white, Southern upbringing. We learned of the horrors of slavery in history textbooks, but we were also taught the myth of the happy slave. Gone With the Wind was generally acclaimed as an accurate portrayal of the antebellum South by the adults in my community.

While I had already begun to reject those views, Kindred gave me the opportunity to see slavery through the eyes of a contemporary Black woman who suddenly finds herself in the past, facing brutality and inhumanity at the hands of a slaveowner she cannot kill without unraveling her own existence. It was an eye-opening read and one that I still remember vividly.


The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why this book?

LeGuin is another author with several books that easily belong on this list. The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, is one of my favorites because of the way it subverts gender hierarchies. But I picked another book in LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, The Dispossessed, in part because it seems so timely, despite being written in 1974. The major theme of the book, which is essentially the story of two planets with polar-opposite ideas of what makes for a good life, resonates deeply in this era of increasing inequality, tribalism, and political divisions.


The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of The Handmaid's Tale

Why this book?

When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale as part of a book club several years after it was published in 1986, the general consensus in the group was that it was an excellent read, but a bit far-fetched. Nothing like that could happen in the United States. Not in the twentieth century. Women’s rights weren’t something that could be taken away so easily. 

Only…it didn’t sound all that far-fetched to me. There were plenty of people in my hometown and in the church that I’d attended growing up who held (and continue to hold) views very similar to those espoused by the leaders of Gilead. Not just men, but women as well, who believe that a rigid gender hierarchy is ordained by God and that America must be governed by biblical principles. Reproductive rights were already a rallying point for evangelical voters when Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, and if the nation faced a crisis similar to the one she depicted, in which fertile women were scarce, I could easily see women’s rights being sacrificed without a second thought.

Still, despite the bleak and (at least to me) all-too-believable premise, what stayed with me the most were the book’s themes of rebellion and solidarity, and perseverance of spirit in the face of dehumanizing brutality. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.


The Amulet of Samarkand

By Jonathan Stroud,

Book cover of The Amulet of Samarkand

Why this book?

Technically, I’ve cheated a bit with this one, since this is a series rather than a book. But it was hard to pick just one, and the themes that make these books perfect for a list such as this build throughout the series. While these are middle-grade books, Bartimaeus (a 5000-year-old djinn) is snarky and irreverent, and the books are a delight for readers of all ages. 

The thing I like best is the dose of social reality that’s mixed in with the sorcery. In the better-known world of Harry Potter, magic is something you’re born into, either through inheritance or a rare fluke in the case of the Muggle-born wizards. In Stroud’s world, however, the wealthy have a major advantage, since sorcery is a power you can acquire through money or through forcing magical creatures to do your bidding. This is an excellent series to help readers young and old better understand the pervasive problems of class inequality.


Wanderers

By Chuck Wendig,

Book cover of Wanderers

Why this book?

One area of social justice that is often overlooked is intergenerational justice. As we deplete the planet’s resources, we pass problems along to future generations. Rather than leaving the Earth a better place for those who follow, we are leaving them with an environment at the tipping point. There are a number of science fiction and fantasy books that address this, and it’s possible that Wanderers (2019) springs to mind in part because it’s fairly recent. On the other hand, most of the books I’ve listed are decades old, and this is one of the best works of speculative fiction I’ve read in the past few years. Wendig’s epic novel provides prescient commentary on the political divisions that currently plague our nation and our world, as we split into seemingly disparate tribes, as well as the mounting environmental dangers that coming generations will face if we do not take substantive steps to reverse our course.  


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