Recently, we published a list of standalone novels for fantasy lovers. But you know what else comes in series? Science fiction. For some reason, it’s slightly easier to find standalone science fiction than it is to find a standalone epic fantasy, but sci-fi is published in trilogies and series almost as often as fantasy is.
And that’s fine, but sometimes you might not want to spend three books on the same spaceship or reading about the same intergalactic family drama. Sometimes you just want to read one book (or novella) and have done with it.
For this list, I stuck to some of the same rules as I did for the fantasy list. All the novels on the list are fairly recent and there are no extended universes — each book should stand by itself like a lonely planet, floating without a sun, in the deep, cold, void of space.
Okay. I might have let that simile get away from me there.
Anyway, here are seven books for you. (Like short books? Bonus: two of these are novellas.) And full disclosure, guys. This is my own reading list, so I haven’t read everything on it yet.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti is a brilliant young Himba, a girl from the deserts of Africa, and the first of her people to be accepted into a prestigious offworld university. Leaving home is a huge turning point for her; she’s giving up everything to go to school and learn, but then her ship is attacked. This novella is at the top of my list because I am fascinated by the idea of a student torn between her home and her desire to learn as much as I am intrigued by the idea of a university on another planet.
Dancing With the Dead by Charles Freedom Long
Earth has recently made contact with other species, but the aliens don’t trust us (do you blame them?). Because the peace is fragile, an organization is planning to break it with a terrorist attack. The coolest thing about this book is that dead characters don’t disappear. This is a fascinating look at the concept of ghosts. They’re neither confused wanderers, nor are they too enlightened to be bothered with the living. They are just as conniving as living creatures. They just happen to also be dead.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
You could pick almost any Stephenson book for this list, because almost all of his books are standalones. In fact I’ve seen a number of lists say that Snow Crash is his best novel. But I’m choosing Anathem, not just because it won a ton of awards in 2008 and 2009, but because it made me wish I was good at math and because the idea of math as a religion — and the concept of cloisters of math monks who only get to roam free once every 10, 100, or 1,000 years — has haunted me since I read it.
Orleans by Sherri Smith
Orleans has been on my list for a year now, mostly because the idea of New Orleans sinking and being abandoned is a horror of an idea, but also one that seems frighteningly likely. Smith’s story centers on a girl named Fen, a member of the O-Positive Blood Tribe, a native in the quarantined Gulf region. She’s trying to get her tribe leader’s baby out of the Gulf and to a better life before the baby’s blood is contaminated.
The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj
I’m going to just come out and admit it: I am the world’s biggest prude when it comes to reading sex scenes, especially when I’d just rather the main characters get back to fighting evil and saving the planet. That said, Mohanraj’s erotic sci-fi, The Stars Change — which focuses on another interstellar university as the universe hovers on the brink of a terrifying war — looks so awesome that I’ve got to give it a try.
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal
I am including this novella in this list with a caveat: right now it’s a standalone novella. But there are so many mysteries in this book, and only 88 pages in which to solve them, and it may well be the first in a series. Since its release date is March 8, we may not know if there’s a sequel for a while. That said, if you like fast reads and not-too-distant science fiction, this is a neat little book. It’s a typewritten account of a young woman’s abduction, but it’s really about what happens when people start to rely too much on technology and begin to distrust their own senses and memories. If you’re alarmed by your own impulse to Google everything, this may be the book for you. If you hate deliberate typos, skip it.
Arkwright by Allen Steele
Space travel! Hard sci-fi! A plot that follows a family through generations! A plot that’s a love letter to the great sci-fi writers of the twentieth century! In case you can’t tell, I’m dorkily excited about this book, about a science fiction writer who creates a foundation dedicated to creating an off-world colony. The descriptions of Arkwright, which was released this month, remind me of the classic science fiction I grew up reading. Also, at 336 pages, this is a book that tells a multi-generational story without asking its readers to strap in for a 1,000-page epic, and for that, I’m grateful.