7 Books That Imagine Other Worlds You Can Escape To
Less expensive than private space travel, here are books for when you need to get off this increasingly insane planet
I n a slight revision of the old trash and treasure aphorism, it is also true that one man’s utopia is another man’s hell — and almost always a woman’s hell. The thing is, the worlds we each dream of all look very different, and there are many great authors—beyond the go-to guys like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke—who tell stories of imagined worlds. Below is a list of stories that envision planets and places that are better, or at least an alternative, to the Earth you’re currently reading this from.
The Green Book, Jill Paton Walsh
Pattie and her family are among the last refugees to flee a dying Earth in an old spaceship. And when the group finally lands on the distant planet which is to be their new home, it seems that the four-year journey has been a success. But as they begin to settle this shiny new world, they discover that the colony is in serious jeopardy. Nothing on this planet is edible, and they may not be able to grow food. With supplies dwindling, Pattie and her sister decide to take the one chance that might make life possible on Shine.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides it’s time to bridge the distance and overcome that hatred that have separated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this will mean giving up his family and life on Anarres, and traveling to the utopian mother planet Urras, where he challenge the structures of life, society, and government. This is a book about the illusions of a utopia, and the pitfalls of both communism and capitalism.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
Solomon has been called an heir to Octavia Butler, and her debut novel does bring Butler’s seminal work Kindred to mind. The story follows a sharecropper, Aster, who lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land — and ship leaders have imposed deep indignities on workers like Aster. As the story moves towards civil war, the novel becomes both a reflection of history, and a warning for the future.
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Russell is a trained paleoanthropologist, and she brings that expertise to her first novel, The Sparrow, about a Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, and his expedition to the planet Rakat. The story follows two narratives, one that begins in 2059 after the voyage, and one that begins in 2019 when an astronomer first intercepts the transmissions of songs from Rakat’s people, the Alpha Centauri. Sandoz arranges to bring a mission to the singing planet even though 17 years will pass on Earth. He is the sole survivor. An unusual juxtaposition of religion and alien culture, the book won the Arthur C. Clarke and the James Tiptree, Jr. awards, the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis, and the British Science Fiction Association Award.
The Wanderers, Meg Howrey
The Wanderers follows three astronauts—Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka—who have been selected by the private aerospace company Prime Space to pilot a trip to Mars. They’ve all been to space before, but for this mission’s training, they must endure 17 months of the simulated world of Eidolon, created in the Utah desert. While it’s a novel about a vision of another world, it’s as much a story about relationships, interpersonal dynamics, and what survival reveals about humanity.
A Modern Utopia, H. G. Wells
Wells, who—fun fact—was once serialized by Cosmo, is most often celebrated for his scientific romances such as War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, which paved the way for the modern sci-fi genre. But I’m putting him on here so we can mention A Modern Utopia, written in 1905. It’s full of beautifully written hard truths (see: “a Universe ceases when you shiver the mirror of the least of individual minds”), and it presents a truly fascinating new world: there is gender equality, no capital punishment, and every individual shares the plan for “comprehensive onward development.” In the words of Tina Fey, I want to go to there.
The Skolian Saga books, Catherine Asaro
While Asaro, a doctor of chemical physics, writes many books about other worlds, she spends a lot of time looking out for this one: she’s a member of SIGMA, a think tank of speculative writers that advises the government as to future trends affecting national security. So she knows some stuff about…worlds. In the Skolian saga books, the titular Empire rules a third of the civilized galaxy through its mastery of faster-than-light communication. There is war and power struggle with the rival Eubian Concord, several generations of characters, political intrigue, and of course, romance.