The Very Grungiest of Sci-Fi

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Mara Franzen

Staff Writer

Mara (They/Them) has accidentally on purpose made their entire life about books and stories. Mara graduated with a B.A in creative writing and theatre and is halfway through an MFA in Creative writing. In addition to writing for Book Riot, Mara also has written for The Independent Book Review, Wargamer, and The Other Half, to name a few. They also work as a fiction editor with The Minison Project. Nearly all of their published articles can be found here.

There are really only two types of science fiction out there. One where everything is shiny, goes fast, and works well. The other where everything is covered in a thick layer of grime. As much fun as it is to read about a future where everything is comfortable and clean, I much prefer sci-fi with a little bit of gunk stuck in the seams.

This kind of science fiction has been around since the very beginning of the genre. In fact, the first sci-fi film ever made, Metropolis, falls into the delightful grungy or industrial sci-fi category. It could be argued that Frankenstein falls into this category, too, though that’s a conversation for another time.

Grungy and industrial science fiction has a few recognizable hallmarks. Think the Millennium Falcon rather than the Enterprise. Industrial science fiction tends to have a lot of actual grime in the book. Everything is constantly being repurposed or shoddily repaired. There’s very little organic material to be found, with everything being mechanical. Often, pollution is a pretty big problem, and the big bad is often capitalism.

So, if you, like me, are someone who loves a little bit of grime with your spaceships or sentient robots, you are in the right place. Here are the top ten grungiest sci-fi books you should be reading.

cover image of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Breq was once the Justice of Toren, a massive ship run by AI that connected soldiers throughout the galaxy. But Breq was betrayed and is now on her own, one person in the vast reaches of space. Determined to get vengeance on the one who wronged her, Breq will stop at nothing to prove her innocence.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin Book Cover

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Imagine being set in an apocalyptic world where nature casts her vengeance on anyone and everyone, and you are just trying to survive and find your kidnapped daughter. This is the story of a young woman named Essun, who searches for the remnants of her family across the waste that once was a thriving planet. Meanwhile, a great red rift has torn open the earth, spewing forth enough ash to cover the world for generations. The Fifth Season is coming.

cover image of Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

When an ice mining ship responds to a distress call for a strange ship, nothing goes as planned. Something dangerous and unknowable is lurking there. Meanwhile, a detective on a space station is assigned to find a missing girl. Her father is an incredibly wealthy man, but she fell in with a group of potentially dangerous revolutionaries. As these two stories intertwine, it becomes clear that war is brewing between Earth, Mars, and the Belt.

Cover image of Machinehood

Machinehood by S. B. Divya

Welga Ramirez is going to finally retire from her work as a bodyguard when her client is killed in front of her. Welga’s client was murdered by a terrorist organization called Machinehood, who murdered several others at the same time. All the victims were founders or creators of pill companies that create supplements to help humans stay healthy and compete with AI. Welga finds herself falling back into her old life, determined to take down Machinehood before anyone else gets hurt. But is she prepared for the truth of them to be revealed?

cover of The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae, showing the author in white futuristic dress

The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe

This short story collection is based on the world of Janelle Monáe’s album, Dirty Computer. Each story takes place in a future where the haves and the have-nots are separated. In one story, there is a small pantry where time is paused. In another, a group of outcasts live on the outskirts of a city and do what it takes to survive. Each story is unique but has amazing sci-fi flair.

Cover of Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer is a classic in the sci-fi genre. Henry Dorsett Case used to be a renowned data thief until a run-in with some of the people he stole from left his nervous system in ruin. But when a mysterious and wealthy benefactor asks him to get back in the game, he decides to give it one last shot. Now, he must find some way to steal from the most powerful AI known to man. Can he beat a seemingly all-knowing machine? Or will this mission be his last?

cover of The Sacrifice of Darkness by Roxane Gay, Tracy Lynne Oliver, Rebecca Kirby, James Fenner

The Sacrifice of Darkness by Roxane Gay and Tracy Lynne Oliver

This graphic novel tells two stories. One is of the man who darkens the sky; the other is of his son living with the consequences. When a miner is so tired of being overworked far underground, he flies his ship off into the sun, plunging the world into darkness. No one knows how or why, and years are spent in total darkness. His family is hated and blamed. But even in the darkest times, there is always a sliver of hope.

Starstruck cover

Starstruck by Elaine Lee, Michael William Kaluta, and Lee Moyer

This is a graphic novel space opera about an unlikely crew traveling through space together, complete with Galactic Girl Guides, pleasure robots, cowboys, and some truly wild stories. This edition contains all 13 comics in the series, with mind-blowing art on every page. You will find yourself traveling all throughout the galaxy in this hilarious and wonderful graphic novel.

Cover of The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Emiko was created to serve at the whims of the wealthy elite. Now, however, she finds herself abandoned in the streets of Bangkok. Those like Emiko are called New People, built to be soldiers or workers or whatever the powerful want them to be. Now alone in an unforgiving city, Emiko must find her place in the world and perhaps even take back power for herself. This is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful book about beauty under a layer of grime.

Book cover of The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Yumens have invaded a planet, taking its trees to be shipped back to Earth for lumber. The native population is an incredibly peaceful people, but as the Yumens mistreat them and take away the forest, they may have to change their ways. Revolution is never easy, nor is it neat. But sometimes, it’s necessary to protect your world from those who seek to colonize you.

These are just a few of the great grungy sci-fi books out there. If you’re looking for more books with a similar feel, be sure to check out some amazing cyberpunk books.