Science fiction is my favorite genre because of the endless possibility of stories that often come out of it. The franchises classified under the science fiction umbrella (including the space epic or space opera) are some of the most inventive works that readers and viewers can imagine. They spark fandoms and followings that have launched careers and dreams across the world (I’m looking at you Star Trek).
And lately? The sci-fi genre has generated some incredible books written by a wide array of fantastic authors. I wanted to feature some of my favorites get their thoughts on the genre as a whole, as we come up on the release of Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker, one of the most anticipated movies, the end to a trilogy that promises to be as epic as all other installments.
Read on for answers about ‘What makes a good science fiction book?” from authors Zoraida Cordova (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge A Crash of Fate), M.K. England (The Disasters, Spellhacker), Sangu Mandanna (A Spark of White Fire, A House of Rage and Sorrow), Alexa Donne (The Stars We Steal, Brightly Burning), and Kass Morgan (Supernova, The 100).
What was your entry into SF/space-set fiction? What inspired you to write a science fiction book or one set in space?
Zoraida Cordova: My first entry was watching Star Wars as a kid, so it is perfect that my first SF book would be in the Star Wars universe!
M.K. England: Star Wars has been part of my family since my parents went to see A New Hope in the theater for their first date in 1977. No one else in the family is quite on my level re: nerdiness, but Star Wars was a pretty constant presence. I read all the novels growing up and into adulthood, and they were a huge influence on me. Michael A. Stackpole’s X-Wing series basically taught me how to write space piloting!
Sangu Mandanna: I think it would have been The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, back when I was twelve or thirteen! I’m not sure I’d ever read a space-set book before that! But it wasn’t that that inspired me to write a book set in space. It was actually my son many, many years later, who was three at the time and obsessed with the planets, who made me feel like I needed to write a story set among the stars.
Alexa Donne: For me it was Contact, the film with Jodie Foster. Though she only travels through space in the third act, the entire film had a massive impact on me. It was the first time I’d encountered a sci-fi story with a strong, smart woman in the lead–one who played against type, but could still be soft and thoughtful. Ellie Arroway was and is goals. Then in my twenties I discovered Battlestar Galactica and the new Doctor Who (Russell T. Davies seasons) and got a taste of character-driven space epics. In books, I was heavily inspired to write sci-fi by Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear duology, and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe.
Kass Morgan: My first series, The 100, was set on Earth and in space, and while I took a lot of artistic liberties, the books were still very much set in our world. For my next series, Light Years, I was excited to imagine a different world—one with more of a space opera/Star Wars vibe where the characters could go on adventures and not have to spend quite so much time worrying about radiation poisoning. I’ve always loved the idea of a book set in a space school. Ender’s Game was incredibly formative for me. I first read it in sixth grade and it’s definitely what got me hooked on science fiction. The author, unfortunately, turned out to have some pretty abhorrent views on homosexuality and gay marriage, which is why it was so important to me that Light Years feature queer characters thriving, falling in love . . . while battling aliens.
Can you tell us a little about your science-fiction/space-set book?
Zoraida Cordova: When I was brought on for this project I had to give a pitch for the story. I knew it had to be romance and it had to be set on the planet of Batuu. It’s about two friends who are reunited after 13 years, back home on Batuu, and they have 24 hours to deliver a parcel despite all the challenges in their way. Including the feelings they still have for each other. Izzy and Jules took shape right away. Izzy is an aspiring smuggler and Jules is a starry-eyed farmboy. My inspiration was Before Sunrise, where a couple falls in love in a day. Adding the usual Star Wars shenanigans and a series of unfortunate mishaps, plus the backdrop of the First Order and Resistance on the planet, and you’ve got the BEST AND WORST time to realize you’re crushing on your best friend.
For Izzy and Jules, I took some loose inspiration from Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. I hope that parts of their spirit lives on in these characters: Han’s reluctant golden heart and Luke’s kindness. Even though they haven’t seen each over in over a standard decade, and even though they’ve changed a lot, Izzy and Jules want the same thing: a place to belong. The galaxy is always in turmoil. There are always going to be good guys and bad guys. So their journey is not just delivering a parcel (no questions asked), but making the decision to choose each other in a time when there is no guarantee that there is going to be a bright tomorrow.
M.K. England: My space book is called The Disasters (HarperTeen, 2018), and it’s about a screw up named Nax who managed to fail out of his dream space piloting academy on his first day. Right as he and his fellow flunk-outs are about to get shipped home for good, the academy is attacked, everyone on the station is killed. Nax and company escape—barely—and as the only witnesses to the greatest crime in interstellar history, they’re obviously the perfect people to blame the whole thing on. My sci-fi/fantasy genre mashup novel is called Spellhacker (HarperTeen, January 2020), and it’s a futuristic world of high tech, magic, and tech used to manipulate magic. Diz’s found family of fellow spellplague orphans is about to break up and go their separate ways after high school (and two years of running a very lucrative and very illegal magic siphoning business). One last heist is the perfect way to show her friends what they’ll be missing out on when they leave her behind, Diz thinks, but when the job of course goes explosively wrong, they find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy regarding the spellplague that ripped their city apart to begin with.
Sangu Mandanna: A Spark of White Fire and its sequels are a trilogy of space opera novels inspired by the Mahabharata, one of the great Indian epics, and is the story of a kingdom and family torn in half by civil war. The main character is Esmae, a young princess who grew up a servant and sets out to restore her brother’s rightful throne to him, only to discover that things aren’t quite as simple as she thought they were.
Alexa Donne: Brightly Burning is a YA retelling of Jane Eyre set in a post apocalyptic future where a fleet of spaceships circle a frozen Earth. After two hundred years, resources are dwindling and the have-nots of the fleet may not survive much longer. Stella Ainsley takes a governess position on the private ship Rochester, where she meets a dashing but troubled captain with a dark secret. The Stars We Steal is a companion novel set forty years before the events of Brightly Burning, and is a Persuasion retelling, mixed with The Bachelorette. Leonie Kohlburg is desperate to save her faded family from financial ruin, but will do anything to avoid having to marry rich to do it. Then her ex, whose heart she broke years ago, shows up and starts courting… her sister.
Kass Morgan: Light Years takes place at the Quatra Fleet Academy, the most elite military school in the Quatra System. It follows four cadets training to become officers as they seek to prove themselves in a cutthroat yet glamorous environment. I went to grad school at Oxford and I loved the formality of college life—the black tie parties, the ornate dining halls, the endless number of customs and rituals—and I liked the idea of setting my story at a sort of “space Oxford.” So while my characters work incredibly hard, it was fun to show them letting off steam at fancy parties staffed by robot servants.
Do you have any favorite space-set/SF stories?
Zoraida Cordova: Other than Star Wars, I love space ships and visiting new worlds. Some of my favorites are Firefly, Starship Troopers (the book and TV show), the recent Guardians of the Galaxy comics, Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre, and Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray. She’s one of my absolute favorite writers. I’m reading Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff and it’s so much fun.
M.K. England: SO MANY. I list a lot of great YA novels in this Goodreads interview, but I also have to shout out The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is brilliant, quiet, character-driven sci-fi in space. The new video game Outer Worlds deserves a huge shout out for spectacular storytelling and worldbuilding. I’m also a deep lover of the Mass Effect video game series. I truly think some of the best storytelling in the world is in video games right now! I’m also that weird kid in the corner who won’t stop shouting at random passersby about Babylon 5. LOOK, I know it’s got horrible 90s CGI and it’s cringey and all that but SERIOUSLY, the characters. The charactersssssss. Just give it a try, people. It deserves your love. Ivanova is my queen.
Sangu Mandanna: I love Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, the Red Rising books by Pierce Brown, and Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza.
Alexa Donne: Across the Universe by Beth Revis is a standout for me in YA–it was one of the first YA sci-fis I read and it ignited the spark for my writing my own. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, of course, is another notable one for me. I loved the blending of sci-fi tropes with a fairy tale retelling. Recently, I devoured both Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (featuring a timeloop) and The Thousandth Floor (futuristic tech/mega city) by Katherine McGee; I love it when YA blends sci-fi tropes with juicy, soapy relationship drama. In movies and TV, I gravitate toward future tech & twisted science, the interplay of politics, class & tech, artificial intelligence, clones, time travel, faith vs science, & stories that explore human connection and understanding contrasted against sci-fi concepts. So favorites of mine include Battlestar Galatica, Contact, Gattaca, Oblivion, Interstellar, & Wall-E.
Kass Morgan: So many! On the film/TV side, I love Starship Troopers, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica. Some of my favorite sci-fi books include Proxy by Alex London, These Broken Stars by Meagan Spooner and Amie Kauffman, and the upcoming Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor.
What are some of your favorite space-set/SF tropes and how did this factor into your own writing?
Zoraida Cordova: Growing up I gravitated more towards fantasy, and I do prefer space operas. Like with all fiction, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for most things. Fast ships, lightspeed, alien races–I want all of that spectacle. I want to love the protagonists so much that I follow them throughout their adventure and beyond.
M.K. England: Found family is by far the biggest. There’s something about being on a tin can floating in space, the vast emptiness between stars, that makes you need other people. It’s so critical to me that I wrote it into both my novels. They both have ensemble casts of characters who fight, flirt, shout, love, and annoy each other to pieces. I also write futuristic non-lethal weapons into my books, twists on the “stun gun” technology trope, because I just can’t bear to take killing lightly in my writing. It’s not a simple thing a character can shrug off. But also, space pilots. Fighter jockeys. I’ll never not love a good dogfight in space.
Sangu Mandanna: I’ve always loved the fantasy trope of the secret princess or long-lost princess, so it was great fun that that fit so perfectly into this series thanks to the source material, though it’s not admittedly a trope specific to space-set stories. I also love, love, love the popular space story trope of the beloved spaceship that’s more than just a ship to the main characters. From Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon to Mal and Serenity, spaceships have so often been a home and a friend to characters in space-set stories, so I couldn’t resist creating my own much loved spaceship in the Celestial Trilogy too!
Alexa Donne: I love both a benevolent and an out of control AI–and even the good ones could turn on a dime. Ditto the robot who feels. Complicated politics, viral warfare, going stir-crazy in space, epic class struggles, scarcity of resources… how to survive in a post apocalyptic scenario. Most of these are tropes that I incorporated into my debut, Brightly Burning, and my second novel, The Stars We Steal. Others I’m holding onto for future stories.
Kass Morgan: I love the archetype of the daring pilot and I’ve channeled that in Vesper Haze, my fearless fighter pilot who won’t let anyone stand in her way. I’ve also always gotten a kick out of snarky, slightly condescending robots—my inspiration for Baz, the Hazes’ robot butler who hates Vesper’s cocky boyfriend, Ward. There are also quite a few Starship Trooper references in Light Years, especially with the military recruitment videos.
What do you think makes a good space-set or SF story?
Zoraida Cordova: The character and the relationship to their world. Honestly, I’m not going to read your book for a ten-page exposition on how the ship’s jump drive works, or a heavy-handed political history of why Earth is now conquered by aliens. I want to know about the hero and their desires. I want them to be integrated into their world and galaxy so it feels like I’m getting to know every detail with them.
M.K. England: Everyone’s taste is different, but for me, the technology and setting have to feel effortless. I want to be transported to a new universe and swept up in the story, and for that to happen, the technology needs to just… happen. I know some people really like harder sci-fi, really like the tech to be believable and grounded in reality, but for me I just need it to be internally consistent. I want characters who wholly inhabit their world and don’t stop to explain it to me.
Sangu Mandanna: I think they need to feel grounded. Even when you’re talking about making jumps, or light years, or any other kind of fantastical technology, your audience needs to be able to feel like the characters matter and the world feels real to them. The best space-set and science fiction stories are ones that feel emotionally real, even if their setting and technology is light years away (pun intended!)
Alexa Donne: A mix of politics, tech, ethical quandaries, and character driven story. I don’t need my space-set stories to be epic adventures; I’m much more interested in contained stories that show a slice of life in space. I have a soft spot for dilapidated ships, or the high tech wonder hurtling through space (but characters with nowhere to go but the ship). I’m fascinated by the vastness of space, the isolation of it, and potential danger. What are the tech hoops we have to jump through to live in such an inhabitable space, and what are the very human questions we must face there?
Kass Morgan: I think the key to any good story is high emotional stakes. It doesn’t matter whether the action takes place in space, at the bottom of the ocean, or in a Starbucks—if you have a compelling character with an urgent need, readers are going to care about the outcome.
Star Wars or Star Trek? Or both? Or an entirely different option!
Zoraida Cordova: Star Wars, of course. But because I didn’t grow up on the older Star Trek shows, I did love the recent movies, and I’m loving the new TV show.
M.K. England: Given my history, I have to say Star Wars! I have tons of respect for Star Trek, too, and have definitely watched my fair share, though. No beef.
Sangu Mandanna: Both!
Alexa Donne: Battlestar Galactica! I just never got into Star Wars or Star Trek when I was younger, so as an adult I don’t have strong feelings. But BSG is one of my all-time great TV loves. I go back to rewatch it regularly, especially while drafting.
Kass Morgan: Star Wars!
About the Authors
Zoraida Córdova is the author of many young adult fantasy novels including Incendiary, Star Wars: A Crash of Fate, the Brooklyn Brujas series, and The Vicious Deep trilogy. Her novel Labyrinth Lost won the International Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft, and Come on In. She is the co-editor of the anthology Vampires Never Get Old. Her debut middle grade fantasy, The Way to Rio Luna, will be published summer 2020 from Scholastic. She writes romance novels under a pen name. Zoraida was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. When she isn’t working on her next novel, she’s planning a new adventure.
M.K. England is an author and YA librarian who grew up on the Space Coast of Florida and now calls rural Virginia home. When they’re not writing or librarianing, MK can be found drowning in fandom, rolling dice at the gaming table, digging in the garden, or feeding their video game addiction. They love Star Wars with a desperate, heedless passion. It’s best if you never speak of Sherlock Holmes in their presence. You’ll regret it. M.K. is the author of THE DISASTERS (2018) and SPELLHACKER (2020), both from Harper Teen. Follow them at www.mkengland.com.
Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids.
Alexa Donne is a Ravenclaw who wears many hats, including teen mentoring, college admissions essay consulting, fan convention organizing, YouTube-ing and podcasting. Her debut novel, Brightly Burning, is a YA retelling of Jane Eyre set in space. Her next book, The Stars We Steal, is Jane Austen meets the Bachelor, and is set in the same universe as her debut. When she’s not writing science fiction and fantasy for teens, Alexa works in international television marketing. A proud Boston University Terrier, she lives in Los Angeles with two fluffy ginger cats named after YA literature characters. Visit her at www.alexadonne.com or on most social media spaces @alexadonne.
Kass Morgan is the author of The 100 book series, including The 100, Day 21, Homecoming, and Rebellion. She received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree from Oxford University. She currently works as an editor and lives in Brooklyn, New York.