This virtual library contains our favorite works that future-shift: speculative fiction that explores themes of social good and helps us envision the sort of world that we, as change-makers, want to create.
This list is ever-growing but not comprehensive. Rather, these are our favorite examples, the sorts of works that inspire us to to imagine better, bolder futures every day. Some are classics, and some are new. Some have already had significant social impact. In evaluating books for this list, we look for themes like social, economic, and racial justice, environmental issues, societal change, and visions of what humanity is capable of achieving, not technologically, but as a society. Diversity of authors and characters is essential, and we want this list to reflect the beautiful diversity of speculative fiction, but that’s not our primary goal here, and others are doing more thorough work in that area.
Everything on this list we recommend, both because it’s great reading/watching and because it will stretch your brain in positive ways. If you’re looking to delve into social good-oriented speculative fiction, or want to expand your horizons, this is a great place to start.
Have we missed a work that you consider essential reading/watching? Drop us a note and tell us about it.
Why it’s great: Atwood is a master world crafter, whether it’s the misogynist, caste-based Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale or the post-apocalyptic fallout of corporate domination in Oryx and Crake. Even in these strange settings, her character’s’ longing for friendship and love is deeply human and relatable.
How it makes change: Atwood touches on diverse themes including bioethics, government surveillance, and religion, but her exploration of women — particularly women’s sexuality as a commodity — presents a frightening outcome of gender inequality.
Why it’s great: Bacigalupi writes near-future dystopias that are inventive and exquisitely researched, equal parts fascinating and chilling. The Windup Girl brings us a post-ice-melt Bangkok where energy, whether food or electricity or fuel, is expensive beyond belief, and even people can be engineered. The Water Knife is closer: an American southwest where our water has run out. In both, the technologies and social adaptations that help civilization survive are vividly explored.
How it makes change: What happens to society when a corporation owns the genetic code of our food? If we genetically engineer a human being, when are they no longer human, and what happens to their rights then? If there’s not enough water to go around, who gets left behind, and what happens to them? Bacigalupi wrestles with hard questions of social good — ones that we’re all too likely to face in our actual near future.
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Why it’s great: The Mists of Avalon is a masterful retelling of classic Arthurian legends from Morgane leFey’s viewpoint, which centers on the female characters. The women and female relationships are richly developed and the new protagonist offers a fascinating alternative lens for those familiar with tales of Camelot.
How it makes change: Bradley proves that who tells a story matters. The female narrator flips what the reader thinks about Arthur and his contemporaries on its head and offers fertile ground to explore gender dynamics.
Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha (editors)
Octavia’s Brood (anthology)
Why it’s great: It’s science fiction for activists, by activists (but anyone who cares about social change will find it powerful). Editors adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha put together this collection to showcase what they call “visionary fiction”: speculative fiction that “pulls from real life experience, inequalities and movement building to create innovative ways of understanding the world around us, paint visions of new worlds that could be, and teach us new ways of interacting with one another.”
How it makes change: The stories, written by activists who are deeply involved in social movements, show us the good and the ugly possibilities for our future, and they tackle issues of gender, race, sexuality, equality and more in stories that are fresh, evocative, and alternately disturbing and beautiful.
Why she’s great: Butler was the first well-known African American woman writing speculative fiction, and remains one of the greatest SF writers, period. Start with Kindred for a time-travel exploration of how America’s history of slavery defines us, or Parable of the Sower for a dystopia with a vision for humanity can rise out of our worst moments and overcome our biggest challenges — a vision that has become a beacon for many progressive activists.
How she makes change: Every one of Butler’s books is a deep, radical exploration into what it means to be human. She’ll make you reflect on where we’re going as a species and what it means for humanity to succeed and thrive.
Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game (Ender Quartet)
Why it’s great: Ender’s Game is a fan favorite for its awesome zero-gravity space battles and its child mastermind hero. But the later books in the series are deeper, more philosophical, taking us to other planets and meeting strange new intelligent species.
How it makes change: The entire series is about understanding The Other, the ability to think like and empathize with aliens who we can’t even communicate with — and to do so even while they’re trying to kill humanity. Even if you object to Orson Scott Card’s notoriously anti-LBGTQ personal politics, his stories make a powerful statement about tolerance and understanding. If Ender can come to know such alien minds, why can’t we find empathy for our fellow humans and create a better world together?
Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel’s Legacy series)
Why it’s great: Terre D’Ange is in many ways a cultural sexual utopia — homophobia is non-existent, rape is a capital offense, and the sexual act is sacred. Juxtaposed to that utopia is the indentured servitude in which the protagonist Phèdre — an “anguissette” or sexual masochist — is trapped.
How it makes change: Despite the main character’s position as an enslaved prostitute, Carey presents a remarkable vision of women standing powerfully in their sexuality and actively shaping their world. The story is empowering, but carries a trigger warning for some graphic scenes that include sex and violence.
The Hunger Games (Hunger Games trilogy)
Why it’s great: The Hunger Games pits a truly despicable villain (a government that forces kids to fight each other to the death) against a memorable hero (a poor, plucky girl desperate to save her sister). It’s a breezy page-turner full of drama, young love, and surprisingly complex politics for a young adult novel.
How it makes change: Is our reality TV-obsessed culture so far away from embracing serious violence? Isn’t our government already spying on citizens like the Capitol? The Hunger Games is a window into a world where voting rights, privacy, and capitalism have all failed.
Samuel R. Delany
Why it’s great: A good entry point into Delany’s extensive work, Babel-17 explore the powers and limitations of language, and how it shapes our reality.
How it makes change: Delany isn’t well known today, but he ought to be. He’s an African American, gay science fiction writer who got his start in the 1960s, at a time when hardly any African American or queer writers were publishing science fiction. Brilliant and politically radical, his fiction weaves in themes of sexuality, race, history, memory, language, and more.
Why it’s great: Huxley’s classic dystopian novel has successfully predicted alot — genetic manipulation and assisted reproduction, social approval of promiscuity, and hallucinatory drugs. While most dystopian literature envisions some form of totalitarianism, citizens of Huxley’s World State are as much enslaved by pleasure as government control.
How it makes change: Huxley imagines the evolution of a society based on the values of assembly line mass production — homogenous, controlled, and disposable. It delves into economics, nativism v. civilization, and the role of pleasure and leisure in society.
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth series)
Why it’s great: A gorgeously written, literary science fiction novel with intricate world-building, The Fifth Season is the story of a woman of color named Essun with the power to move mountains with her mind, who must find the power to control her own life and fix a broken world. Read our full review.
How it makes change: The plight of orogenes, people with mental powers over seismic activity, raises disturbing questions over the limits of governmental power. When a child’s tantrum can level a city, what freedoms should that child have? Do they even count as human? Jemisin doesn’t shy away from these or harder questions.
Why it’s great: Ursula LeGuin is the queen of social and cultural worldbuilding, creating rich and detailed cultural and social structures for her characters. The books of the Hainish Cycle are loosely connected explorations of the same world and ideas.
How it makes change: LeGuin plays with how the physical changes social constructs — what gender and relationships look like when biological sex isn’t fixed and genetic manipulation allows humans control over their fertility.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Why it’s great: The story structure, densely woven imagery, and text create a truly groundbreaking, layered experience, that gets deeper and more profound with multiple reads. Yet the book remains quite accessible, even to those unfamiliar with comics or graphic novels.
How it makes change: Who watches the watchmen; who is holding those in power accountable? The story deconstructs the concepts of transparency and accountability, the dangers of a paternalistic society, and the neoconservative values of the late 1980s.
Why it’s great: A sci-fi thriller for policy wonks (and everyone who loves democracy). In a future where nations no longer exist and governments are voted in through hyper-local “micro-democracy,” a new election threatens to upend this peaceful new system, unless those running the election can save it. Read our full review.
How it makes change: Reflecting democracy at its best and worst, Infomocracy does what more great sci-fi should do: it envisions a better society, and tells a story that tests and reveals its weaknesses.
Why it’s great: Big Brother is as terrifying today as he was 70 years ago thanks to Orwell’s memorable characters and well-crafted narrative. The language and detail of Oceania makes for a three-dimensional universe with high, dramatic stakes for protagonist Winston Smith.
How it makes change: 1984 is probably the most famous dystopian novel in the world, and a clear-cut argument against totalitarianism, government surveillance, and censorship. Without including spoilers, the end is heartbreaking and memorable.
Why it’s great: Harry Potter is a household name for a reason. The wizarding world Rowling created is at times hilarious and poignant, charming and frightening, and thoroughly engrossing.
How it makes change: Harry Potter hits on dozens of social themes, but particularly on racism and classism, the parallel of which in the wizarding world is blood purity. Rowling’s infamous Lord Voldemort was modeled on Adolf Hitler, and the book does a tremendous job of demonstrating the evil ends of a philosophy of racial purity.
Mary Doria Russell
Why it’s great: The premise — a group of Jesuit priests make first contact with an alien race — is intriguing on its own. The story is heartbreaking and beautiful, grappling with the nature faith (both Faith and faith), love, and humanity.
How it makes change: The Sparrow does a rare thing in presenting both utopian and dystopian visions of how beings interact with each other and examines how institutions transcend even the greatest cultural divides. In it we can compare the benefits and pitfalls of both human and alien social structures.
Why it’s great: Black Mirror is a modern day Twilight Zone — unrelated episodes but that all revolve around humanity’s relationship with technology. The writing and acting are both excellent, but what really makes it stick are the richly crafted imaginings of humanity’s past, present, and future interaction with much of the tech we take for granted.
How it makes change: Black Mirror asks big, important questions about how technology can and will shape the human experience ethically — everything from bioethics and relationships, to justice systems, to the media.
Why it’s great: Joss Whedon is an undeniable genius, and Buffy is perhaps his best work. The show weaves all the drama of high school into the drama of hunting the undead seamlessly, drawing powerful parallels between the violence of teenagers and vampires. The relationships are heart-crushing and the morals are powerful.
How it makes change: Buffy challenges a multitude of stereotypes about women and girls, young people, love and sex, and the human experience. The show carries a thread of existentialism that gets at the core of what it really means to be human.
Why it’s great: Tatiana Maslany’s acting, as she portrays a half-dozen clones who from their accents to their personalities could not be more different from each other, is more than enough reason to watch the show. The rest of the cast is great, the writing is smart and suspenseful, but really, your tv-watching life is incomplete until you’ve seen uptight housewife Alison try and fail to impersonate her clone-sister British punk Sarah. Maslany is that good.
How it makes change: From cloning to transhumanism and body modification, Orphan Black raises serious questions about our relationship with technology, our ownership of our own bodies, and what happens when corporations own not just our stuff and our data, but parts of us.
Why it’s great: Star Trek is the classic sci-fi: it’s a permanent feature of our cultural consciousness. With five series and countless movies, Trek keeps reinventing itself, and it has everything from action and aliens to philosophy, from campy adventures to deep character arcs.
How it makes change: Gene Roddenberry was deliberately idealistic when he created Star Trek. He gave us a world we could hope to be our actual future: a post-scarcity world where the stars are open to humanity in all our diverse glory. This is a universe where humanity thrives, seeking discovery and peace with our alien neighbors. Read more about the promise of Star Trek.
Blade Runner (1982)
Why it’s great: Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a true marriage of two scifi greats. The dystopic vision of 2019 Los Angeles is visionary and Harrison Ford is at the height of his career. The plot twist, if it hasn’t been spoiled for you, is a good one.
How it makes change: What does it mean to be human, and who should control that definition? Blade Runner delves into this question through a paranoia-laced world where neither corporations, nor the government, nor even one’s own memories are trustworthy.
Why it’s great: Gattaca presents a chilling vision of a future where reproductive technology has been perfected and genetic discrimination has become a science. Ethan Hawke is a genetically inferior “God child” determined to do anything to join a space mission.
How it makes change: Born from the late 90’s fascination with DNA, cloning, and reproductive technology, Gattaca explores the unintentional consequences of technology that seems to help humanity. It also explores the challenges of codified discrimination (ironically with an all-white cast).
Minority Report (2002)
Why it’s great: Equal parts science fiction, car chases, and philosophy, Minority Report is one of those rare action movies driven as much by a subtle exploration of important ethical questions (what is free will?) as cool gadgets (spiders! Self-driving cars!) and explosions.
How it makes change: There are clear parallels between the determinism of the concept of “pre-crime” and the social determinism of the school to prison pipeline. We should seriously ask ourselves if the justice presented in Minority Report is really that different from the way our justice system treats whole communities today.
Why it’s great: Like most Pixar films, WALL-E is drive by loveable, memorable characters — in this case, two robots in love — and a tightly-written script. The epic beauty of the animation is just the icing on this already rich cake.
How it makes change: Despite being ostensibly a children’s film, WALL-E is a scathing critique of consumerism, waste, and environmental destruction. It also paints a bleak future for humanity’s health based on trends of obesity.