Escapist Reads for Quarantine, Social Distancing, & Beyond | Science Fiction & Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy can often tell us a lot about our present as well as where we’re going. For some readers they can be perfect for a bit of escapism, while others can find it helpful to look to the future and see a way forward for humanity. The following titles are chosen for a variety of quarantine mind-sets; all selections are available as ebooks or electronic download.

Science fiction and fantasy can tell us a lot about our present as well as where we’re going. For some readers they can be perfect for a bit of escapism, while others can find it helpful to look to the future and see a way forward for humanity. The following titles are chosen for a variety of quarantine mind-sets; all selections are available as ebooks or electronic download.

Anders, Charlie Jane. All the Birds in the Sky. Tor. 2016. ISBN 9780765379948.
Anders takes sf writer Arthur C. Clarke third law of science ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") and says, "Yeah? So what?" The book centers on science and magic factions fighting. Sure, apocalyptic fiction might not feel like ideal reading right now, but this is an apocalypse fueled by our greed and the inevitability of climate change! The e book follows a witch, Patricia, and engineer and Elon Musk stand-in Laurence, from childhood friendship to adults as they try to save each other and the world from opposite sides of a war. It might make you feel better about the end of the world, or at least look at birds a little more closely.

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central. 2019. ISBN 9781538732182.
Originally published in 1993 but set in the “early 2020s” (Pacifc Rim is also set this year), this story probably won't relieve any anxiety you're having about the present, but what it does do, with incredible precision, is describe a way forward. The story of 15-year-old Lauren striking out to save her family turns into the building of a new society. It's a grim setting but an overall hopeful story that sees a better future for humanity if we're willing to work for it.

Chambers, Becky. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Harper Voyager. 2015. ISBN 9780062444134.
You may be stuck indoors and desperate to go out. Does it help to imagine you’re actually in a spaceship flying through the stars? The science is out, but this cozy science fiction story, first in a completed trilogy, is worth a try. The crew is found family and may give you the off-world escape you need.

Connolly, Tina. Ironskin. Tor. 2012. ISBN 9780765330598.
Jane Eyre lovers will enjoy this “but-with-fairies” retelling. There are two more books in the series, and the world Connolly has created is intriguing, with its history of war between humans and fey, and the "curses" of fey-touched humans.

El-Mohtar, Amal & Max Gladstone. This Is How You Lose the Time War. Saga. 2019. ISBN 9781534431003.
An epistolary novella of time-traveling secret agents fighting a war and changing the time lines with every action, this book is tangled and knotty and gorgeous. El-Mohtar and Gladstone have done interviews discussing how they wrote it, each of them writing one character's perspective and working on interstitial parts together; what came from their friendship is fascinating and practically poetry. Will you pick Red or Blue?

Grant, Mira. Feed. Orbit. 2011. ISBN 9780356500560.
It's a pandemic but with zombies. Grant has had several virologists and epidemiologists tell her that the science in the book is scarily accurate, and it's turning out now that she got a lot of the social stuff dead on, too. Though it's exactly right for the times, hoo boy, is it a depressing read. Still, it's a completed series, and for readers seeking an eerily prescient fictional depiction of what we're going through right now, this one is dead-on.

Jemisin, N.K. The City We Became. Orbit. 2020. ISBN 9780316509848.
Jemisin is one of the best writers working today in any genre, and this book is a love letter to New York City, constantly in the news as one of the major epicenters of the pandemic in the United States. Jemisin won't give you a sanitized, Manhattan-only look at the city, nor will she give you a fully gentrified Brooklyn. Instead this novel gets into the weird and the wonderful while exploring the heartbeats and souls of the different boroughs.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl's Moving Castle. Greenwillow Books. 2008. ISBN 9780061478789.
Yes, there's a book of the Miyazaki film. Originally published in 1986, this tale may offer some comfort, with Howl, a moody wizard from our world who decided it was a stupid place and left it for a more magical plane of existence. As annoying as Howl can be, protagonists Sophie and the fire-demon Calcifer are deeply relatable and the castle is a reassuring setting.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. Shades of Milk and Honey. Tor. 2010. ISBN 9780765325563.
Many readers find comfort in rereading Jane Austen during quarantine. Is it because everyone stands six feet apart lest their passions overwhelm them? For those who want Austen blended with fantasy, try the "Glamourist Histories." It's fun, with compelling characters, and though it feels like Pride and Prejudice, if Lizzy could do magic, it isn't a simple pastiche; it veers off into its own territory quickly.

Muir, Tamsyn. Gideon the Ninth. 2019. ISBN 9781250313195.
This is a book that can be deeply divisive for readers. Love it or hate it, the series opener features necromantic teenagers and foul-mouthed cavaliers trying to solve mysteries on an abandoned planet. Things get chaotic quickly, and there is some suspension of disbelief necessary for the modern our-world slang, which can be jarring but works. Word of warning: This is the first book in a trilogy, and while the first act of the second book is available to read for free, the book itself doesn't publish until August.

Monahan, Hillary. Gunsmoke & Glamour. Fireside. 2018. ISBN 9780998778372.
Clay is a jerk, and it's caught up with him. The cowboy has been cursed by an ex-lover, and now he's racing against time to find a cure with his ex's sister Adelaide and his best friend, Doc Irene. This is a fantasy Western with a super fun cast and even a tiger, because why not?

Older, Malka. Infomocracy. 2016. ISBN 9780765385154.
Having studied and worked in the disaster relief field, Older has channeled her knowledge about international borders in times of crisis into a cyberpolitical thriller centered on "microdemocracy," with politics being as local as your neighborhood or big enough to affect the whole world. The first book is fast, fascinating, and perfect for fans of political thrillers that are slightly removed from the present but never entirely lose their grip on reality. The entire trilogy is finished and available.

Sriduangkaew, Benjanun. Machine's Last Testament. Prime Bks. 2020. ISBN 9781607015390.
Sometimes you want to escape the present entirely and skip ahead to the future with some AI cyberpunk. In a future utopia run by a beneficent AI called Samsara, candidates for citizenship are brought to the Selection Bureau, where they are judged. One candidate seems perfect, but little does her selector know she could bring everything Samsara stands for down. The story also features lesbian romance.

Valente, Catherynne M. The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden. Spectra. 2006. ISBN 9780553384031.
Do you want someone to read you a story for a little while? Maybe something your kids can listen to with you? “The Orphan's Tales” duology is a winding, twisting set of nested fairy tales. The stories can get a little dark but never tip over into horror. For additional fun, look for S.J. Tucker's companion albums of songs inspired by the books. Valente is doing nightly readings of the stories on her Instagram, with all previous nights archived. Those who aren't into fairy tales should try Valente's more recent Space Opera, which has been described as "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Eurovision." It's short, screamingly funny, and profound. Who knew we needed glam-rock aliens?

Emily Wagner is a former YA Librarian and currently a furloughed glorified receptionist. She also works on science fiction conventions, gardens, and writes. Her sourdough starter is named Aunt Yeast.

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