My Favorite Cinematic Space Battles

Crop of the cover of The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes.

Crop of the cover of The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes.
Image: Tor Books

From For All Mankind to Space Sweepers, every day more great sci-fi adventures grace our screens both big and small. All signs point to a sci-fi renaissance filled with reluctant heroes, scrappy misfits, and snarky sentient robots. Of course, I can’t forget one of the most quintessential staples of the genre: the epic space battle. Massive energy weapons firing from colossal battleships, sleek starfighters zipping past exploding support ships, and our heroes accomplishing feats of (often erroneous) physics our earth-bound minds can hardly fathom.

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But are cool ships, big explosions, and striking visuals all that’s needed to make a space battle great? As both a filmmaker and author, I love picking apart sequences and peeling back the layers to reveal the gooey thematic insides. Keep reading for some cinematic insight into three very different but equally impactful sci-fi battle sequences! (Light spoilers ahead.)


Rogue One

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) takes aim in Rogue One.

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) takes aim in Rogue One.
Image: Lucasfilm

What the Movie Consistently Gets Right

Though by no means a perfect film, for me Rogue One gets a ton of points simply for being one of the most Star Wars feeling of Star Wars films. From the ships and weapons to costumes and makeup, everything feels dirty and genuine and incredibly lived. (Sounds basic, but weathering is a crucial immersion detail too often overlooked in SFF.) In the same vein of gritty realness, Rogue One’s reliance on practical effects bolstered by perfectly blended CGI makes the VFX easily some of the best of any Star Wars film. Practical effects are often used even for distant background action, all executed with great precision and attention to detail that creates a layered sense of realism that roots the audience to the story and characters in a way not easily achieved in just two hours of runtime.


The Battle of Scarif

After learning about the Death Star and the “fatal flaw,” Jyn Erso proposes a mission to the Rebel Alliance to retrieve the design plans from an Imperial base. Unable to gain the support of Alliance leadership, Jyn and Cassian take it upon themselves to carry out the mission, assembling a small unit of rebel allies to join them on the planet Scarif.

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Though there are plenty of great space battles in the Star Wars repertoire to choose from, this near-perfect example of an intercut ground and space battle made Rogue One an easy choice. This sequence carries a lot of weight on its shoulders, more so than similar climax sequences due to the fact that (most of) the audience already knows how the movie will end. And yet Rogue One’s Battle of Scarif stands on its own as a cinematic tour de force even outside the context of A New Hope, managing to build nail-biting tension through the sheer piling-on of conflict points. So very much happens in this almost 30-minute sequence, and nary a second is wasted, only rarely cutting away to Uncanny Valley Tarkin or the Rebel base. The whole thing feels messy and slapdash and desperate—all themes consistent throughout the film, and in line with what we expect to see from a scrappy rebel army. Yet despite that chaos, the filmmakers have made it incredibly easy for the viewer to follow what’s going on.

One thing this sequence accomplishes masterfully is in how it utilizes shot design and editing to link the three facets of the battle—ground, air, and space. Most of these mini-action sequences play out via shots designed to place us in the rebels’ shoes—from their cockpits, over their shoulders as they scramble to new positions, low angles matching their eye line as they look up to the air battle overhead, etc. In one great example, we see a cockpit POV of a fighter about to go down, then cut to an exterior shot as that ship crashes, only to have that same shot move down to create a new establishing shot for the ground battle with rebels running frantically in the foreground. These dual-purpose shots not only make for smooth visual pacing, but tie the sequence together to create a sense of many small pieces working together to achieve a whole: this engagement isn’t about big ships vs. big ships or big strategies vs. big strategies, but rather one frantic, desperate move after the other—all contributing to an ongoing metaphor for the rebellion.

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Another of my favorite details happens early in the ground firefight when a random rebel gets shot and his equally random buddy nearby screams “NO!” and runs to him. It’s a small thing you might not even notice on first viewing, but similar instances occur a handful of times—unnamed, faceless people get lines and emotions and take critical actions to advance the rebels’ progress in a way not often seen in other films, where they’d traditionally be nothing more than additions to the body count. A similar situation happens again when a soldier is raised on comms and told to find the “master switch,” and we get a conversation between two (technically named but essentially random) characters. The short exchange almost feels like a behind-the-scenes look—the true, nitty-gritty rebel soldier experience, versus the broader view of explosions and destruction we so often see in sci-fi battles.

We see this yet again when the rebel fleet finally arrives, and in a brilliant editing choice, we don’t get the classic “cavalry has arrived” epic sweeping shot of the fleet warping into frame. Instead, we see their arrival to Scarif through the direct POV of a fighter pilot—once again putting us in the shoes of the everyday person and creating a sense of intimacy with the rebel forces. Small details like this all work toward engaging the audience emotionally, furthering the intrinsic sense of community and frenzied nature of the engagement. It’s not only up to our heroes to save the day—every person is critical to the success of the mission. Closer to the end, when the rebel fleet admiral—another essentially random character—makes a major decision that changes the course of the battle by sacrificing a rebel ship in order to send a disabled star destroyer careening into its neighbor. Questionable physics aside, this quintessentially desperate move results in the second most beautiful battle shot in all of Star Wars (the Holdo maneuver inarguably in first place) as the two star destroyers totally annihilate each other. Beautifully reckless tactics are what really set this entire engagement apart from a typical space battle, and to great effect.

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That moment is as much a turning point for the viewer as it is for the rebels, as the audience is allowed to (briefly) breathe for the first time in over twenty minutes. However, soon the Death Star rises like a murder moon over the horizon, the sound design goes muted, and ships just start dying quietly under a bittersweet orchestral score. Then, to cap off half an hour of straight tension, we’re rewarded with easily one of the best pay-off sequences in cinematic history as Vadar absolutely destroys that corridor. Say what you want about the film as a whole, but hot damn.


Battlestar Galactica, “Resurrection Ship, Part 2”

Spot the Cylons!

Spot the Cylons!
Image: Syfy

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What the Series Consistently Gets Right

Invariably the first well-done element that comes to my mind when thinking about space combat in Battlestar Galactica is the almost “handheld” motion of the camera—one that continually adapts (and at times almost hunts) in both scale and focus while zeroing in on the action. It’s a style established early on and returned to almost without exception as a device to instantly evoke tension—when we’re outside the ships, it’s immediately obvious from the motion of the camera whether we’re in trouble or not.

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A major element BSG consistently gets right is that it keeps it simple, both with the components of the battle and the choreography. There are generally only two units of any consequence on either side: battleships and fighters. We’re primed early on in the series about the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of each ship, and because we know the rules, aren’t overwhelmed by sheer possibilities, paving the way for us to follow engagements clearly while still allowing for surprises when creative tactics are employed. Similarly, the physical blocking of the battle is typically kept very simple: Battlestars and basestars are almost never maneuvered, ensuring a static lay of the battlefield that greatly diminishes potential disorientation. Both elements contribute to a subtle simplicity that allows the audience’s focus to stay where it should: the story and characters.

Which leads to yet another thing BSG is great at: personification. A massive fight with a thousand ships can make for great eye candy, but we can’t possibly care about a thousand individual ships. Creating a strong link between the characters and their ships is critical to establishing stakes in an otherwise faceless battle. BSG is consistently generous with CIC and cockpit shots, so we always know who is where, and thus who’s in trouble as things get chaotic.

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The Battle of the Resurrection Ship

After discovering a Cylon resurrection ship, the Galactica and Pegasus work together to generate a plan to destroy the vessel. Meanwhile, both Adama and Cain scheme to seize command by executing the other after the engagement concludes.

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Though I originally intended this as an example of a more “classic” space battle, there’s actually a lot going on in this sequence that doesn’t follow typical convention—for the show itself, or cinematic sci-fi as a whole. This is a situation where the battle itself is almost beside the point—the well-planned, perfectly executed attack ultimately serving as one giant counterpoint to the human drama unfolding on the ship. This is reflected from the very first shot of the battle, when instead of the aforementioned frenzied handheld camera style we’ve come to expect, we instead get one long shot—which still hunts and changes focus, but does so in a surprisingly slow, steady manner. This subversion is almost unnerving at first but quickly lures us in with the promise of spectacle as we’re allowed to watch the battle unfold in a much clearer, cleaner way than most other action sequences in the show. We begin to see these contrasting elements even more clearly when Lee’s fighter takes a hit and he’s ejected into open space. A typical space battle establishing shot lacks any kind of true point of view, often seen from an omniscient standpoint somewhere far off to one side of the field of battle. But here we get to see our wide, dramatic establishing shot directly from over a character’s shoulder as he floats helplessly in space, rooting us not only positionally but thematically as Lee’s disillusionment with the state of human affairs escalates.

And really, the entire rest of the battle serves to impress this disillusionment on the viewer. It’s clear the entire time that the humans have the upper hand, and yet we don’t get a single exuberant victory shot or the triumphant music one might expect. Instead, we’re presented with a series of long, sweeping, silent shots of the Cylons’ resurrection ship being destroyed, continued via more of the much steadier, smoother camerawork and long takes. In one haunting shot, we get a detailed view of hundreds of Centurions as they’re ejected into space. Though the narrative continues to assure us our heroes are “in the right,” we’re still made to feel the Cylon’s vulnerability as this closely guarded secret ship is laid bare to open space in such primal detail—all serving as subtle foreshadowing for the series’ upcoming questions of morality as the lines between human and Cylon continue to blur.

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A well-planned, well-executed space battle with hardly a single mishap should run the risk of feeling tedious or even boring, and yet this sequence is anything but due to the thematic tie-in of our heroes’ “success.” The cinematography, editing, music, and sound design all reflect that choice—even the CGI is cleaner and better looking than most of the rest of the show. Though atypical of most, this battle is beautiful and well-executed both diegetically and non-diegetically, resulting in a sequence that’s much better than the sum of its parts—something that should be the aim of any great action sequence.


Serenity

The Serenity theatrical poster.

The Serenity theatrical poster.
Image: Universal Pictures

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What the Movie Consistently Gets Right

Getting us to care enough about the characters to make what the filmmakers pull off in this incredibly brief sequence possible. Oh, and witty banter.

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The Universe Battle

After learning of the Alliance’s horrific cover-up, the crew of the Serenity races to Mr. Universe’s planet so they can expose the evidence to the public. With an Alliance fleet awaiting their arrival, they lure an enraged Reaver fleet behind them to act as cover while they make a break for the planet.

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The baiting of the Reaver fleet kicks this sequence off with a very quintessential Firefly reversal of expectation—and from this very first decision, the audience is given perfect footing. Though we’re about to experience a very not quintessential Firefly sequence in the form of a massive fleet battle the likes of which the film nor series has seen before, it feels like we are about to experience a very quintessential Firefly sequence, all because our scrappy crew used a smart, dangerous, desperate tactic to get themselves there. This same framing is maintained throughout the battle, with the combat serving as a backdrop for the Serenity’s gauntlet through a maze of destruction. Unlike the other two examples, once the battle actually begins, we never see a single omniscient point of view or even the point of view of another ship involved—friend or foe. This acts as a consummate example of the aforementioned “personification” of ships: the Serenity itself acts as the POV character through which we experience the entire battle, with literally every single shot in the sequence at least beginning with its focus on the ship, only panning (but never cutting) away a few times to briefly showcase some awesome mini-brawl happening in the chaotic Reaver/Alliance battle.

Despite our “main character” not being involved in the actual fighting, the stakes are arguably even more keenly felt than a typical battle sequence. Not only due to the frantic pace of the choreography and editing, but because the ship itself is filled with literally every single remaining character we care about. Only our ride-or-die crew matters at this point, so—ironically, as far as grandiose space battles go—we don’t even care about the engagement itself except in the cover it serves for their escape. Speaking of, this one gets full marks for geography. Excellent directionality is maintained throughout (Alliance baddies go left to right, heroes and Reavers go right to left), giving a clear understanding of the layout of the battlefield and movement of various vessels—atypical of a lot of space battles which tend toward a “from all directions!” chaos approach.

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This is bolstered by another atypical decision in that we get mostly sweeping, steady, long takes of the action. The shot duration makes these protracted sequences easy to digest, and yet they still feel dense and chaotic since they’re so rife with action. Every shot has a ton of different things going on, and you could rewatch a half dozen time and still miss plenty. Another great feature of this battle that might otherwise be easy to overlook is the sound design—simple in execution but big on impact. It’s muted and selective to start, building steadily as the scene progresses, more and more layering on until a full complement of sound effects are depicted. The viewer finds themselves slowly bombarded with sounds much like our characters are slowly bombarded by stress as they run their gauntlet. This choice is just one of the many details about this sequence that keeps tensions high even as they enter atmosphere, the main battle falls away, they crash-land on the planet, and their gambit is successful—though not without both witty dialogue and serious consequences, in proper Firefly fashion.


Illustration for article titled My Favorite Cinematic Space Battles

Image: Tor Books

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io9 thanks filmmaker and author J.S. Dewes for sharing her favorite space battles with us. It’s something you can experience more of in her debut novel, The Last Watch, available now from Tor Books.


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Firefly Is Still Great, But It’s Not Quite What I Remembered

The gang’s all here.

The gang’s all here.
Photo: Fox

io9 ReviewsReviews and critical analyses of fan-favorite movies, TV shows, comics, books, and more.

About 15 years had passed since I last spent time aboard the Serenity with Mal, Zoe, Wash, and the gang. But with plenty of free evenings during a global pandemic, I decided it was time to take another journey into the Verse and bring my adoring wife along for the ride. Oddly enough, she had never seen the show—even though her name is Jayne.

Like many of us, I didn’t watch Firefly when it was first on TV in 2002. Instead, I caught up with it on DVD a few months before creator Joss Whedon released the movie version, Serenity, in 2005. Instantly, I fell in love with the show and the film; the characters, the world, the language, all of it was so exciting. Somehow it was fun and fresh, but also familiar. In the years since, my memories of the show got diluted into a few tiny pieces, many of which were driven by the movie and the franchise’s very outgoing fans at Comic-Con.

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Watching it back, several things immediately struck me. I forgot Jayne doesn’t get his now-iconic hat until 12 episodes in. I forgot that River’s past, such a huge part of the movie, is merely teased throughout the show. I forgot about the now-famous guest stars (Zac Efron! Christina Hendricks!) and that Whedon loved to let Mal call Inara a whore at any chance he could. Which, fast forward to 2021 and a world where Whedon has been accused of verbal abuse toward women and more, feels both less shocking than it should be, and more shocking than you remember.

The show takes a good four episodes to really get rolling but everything comes together in “Shindig,” the one where Mal goes to a dance and ends up in a duel with Inara’s client. From that episode on, world-building and action fall into the background and the people, as well as their relationships, become the drive. The high point is “Out of Gas,” the eighth episode of the series, which pushes everyone to their limits in an intense life or death situation, juxtaposed with flashbacks showing how everyone came together. It’s a dynamite piece of television and truly, Firefly at its best.

Is this the best episode of Firefly?

Is this the best episode of Firefly?
Photo: Fox

Though “Out of Gas” is the high point, basically every episode from four on is at least as good, if not better, than the one before it. Unfortunately though, it just…ends. What ended up being the series finale, “Objects in Space,” is a fine episode just like the ones before it but it’s very obvious Whedon and his team had planned things out with the hope there’d be many more episodes. The executives at Fox had other ideas though and the show ends without any sense of closure. It’s a huge gut punch, especially when the show was just hitting its stride.

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Of course, thanks to the fans, Whedon did get to finish his story, albeit it in a more rushed way than he probably would’ve liked. And let me tell you, after binging Firefly, Serenity plays like the ultimate series finale in the history of television. From the first moments, it’s very clear Firefly/Serenity was meant for the canvas of a big screen. It just feels right, and the movie itself is wildly propulsive, exciting and revealing, tying up most of the big loose ends you were curious about during the run of the show. A few of the secondary characters get short-changed, or (RIP) killed, in the film, but considering Whedon basically had two hours to tell a good story, and wrap up an entire franchise, it’s an incredible piece of work.

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What I realized after watching the movie though was most of my memories of the show itself had been replaced by ones from the movie. On the show, River is a mystery and a bit of an annoyance, save for one or two moments. In the movie, she’s not just the star, she’s an unstoppable force—he badass she was surely planned to be all along, which is how I remembered her. The Reavers, the main villains of the film, are only mentioned in the show a few times and seen once, which clashes with my strong memory of them. And that hat Jayne wears, the one you are guaranteed to see at any comic book convention, is only in the TV show for a few scenes, and even less in the movie. If it never became a “thing” in fandom, you probably wouldn’t even remember it.

River. Tam.

River. Tam.
Photo: Universal

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So what does it all mean? My rewatch of Firefly and Serenity made me consider that the show struck such a chord not because of the show itself. The show and its stories are interesting but, because of the cancelation and resurrection, not quite as fully formed or explored as one would expect. No, the show’s legacy is all due to the characters. From top to bottom, the characters are so charismatic and dynamic that you simply want to spend time with them. Since they only exist in 14 episodes of television and one movie, you’ll gladly watch them do and say the same things over and over just to hang out with these amazing people. They almost become your friends. Their problems are your problems. Their pain, your pain. And, ultimately, their successes and joy are yours as well.

Because there’s only so much of this world in existence though (I didn’t read the comics for this piece), I was left wondering if the Serenity movie only works because it ostensibly has a 14 episode prequel series, and if Firefly only works because it has a 2 hour movie for a finale. Would either work as well without the other? Would the characters have shined as brightly? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I almost wish I’d shown my wife the movie first to get her reaction before we watched the show. But she’s a huge Alan Tudyk fan and, well, I didn’t want her to know what happened to Wash before she got to know him.

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Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The movie does have the show, the show does have the movie and, together, they form an unlikely, rushed, slightly dated, but still more than worthwhile whole. Personally, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever revisit the Firefly class ship, Serenity, again, but I’m glad I did this time. It helped me get my head around a piece of fandom that had faded for me. That fandom is back now, and while it may not be as strong as it was 15 years ago, it’s still a nice Verse to visit.

Firefly is currently streaming on Hulu. Serenity is on Peacock.

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10 Great Sci-Fi Tropes (and 5 That Should Be Shot Into Space)

From left: Westworld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Avatar.

From left: Westworld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Avatar.
Image: HBO, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Science fiction is a genre that’s full of storylines, plot devices, and techno-jargon that would be considered ridiculous in the real world. But these tropes are effective, so we keep using them. Over and over again. That might sound like a bad thing—relying on tried-and-true sci-fi tropes instead of creating something new in a genre that’s all about innovation—but that’s not always the case.

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Here are the sci-fi tropes that have stuck around because they work, whether it’s making first contact with an alien species, using a food replicator, or hearing a spaceship go “kaboom!” We’ve also included a few tired, often bigoted tropes that should be jettisoned into the farthest reaches of space.

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Good Tropes

First Contact

It’s that moment when humans meet and join the intergalactic community, becoming part of something greater than ourselves. A great example was the entire opening of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which gave us a montage of varying first contact moments. What’s great about First Contact is not only the way it gives characters a space to feel like the “fish out of water,” but it also inspires us to believe that a greater, intergalactic destiny is possible. One that won’t immediately try to destroy us.

Time Travel

There’s a reason Doctor Who has lasted decades: Audiences love a good time travel story. It helps us see and understand the events of the past, as well as hypothesize about what we could experience in the future. Another great thing about these narratives is that we get an opportunity to contextualize our own collective past. History is often defined by the “victors,” leaving millions of voices lost to time. But hindsight is 20/20…and so is time travel.

Parallel Worlds

Much like time travel, the multiverse provides a near-limitless opportunity to explore our own reality from another’s perspective. In this case, it’s about seeing what our world would be like if things had gone a different way. They can be minor tweaks, like a world where apples taste like bananas, or significant changes that alter the fabric of reality itself. No matter what the alteration, a Parallel World is almost always a place worth exploring.

Interspecies Romance

Everybody’s thought about banging an alien at least once in their lives. I don’t make the rules.

Sound in Space

This one might end up being the most controversial one on the list, because it’s the only one that goes against science itself. There is no sound in space (mostly)! All the pew-pews and explosions are Hollywood shenanigans, ones that some films and shows (like Firefly or The Expanse) have tried to distance themselves from in an effort to be more accurate. But just because it’s total garbage doesn’t mean it’s not a great trope.

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Adding sound to space battles not only makes things more exciting to watch, it also makes them more relatable to our own experience. Plus, it makes those rare moments when sound is taken away—like Holdo’s sacrificial attack from Star Wars: The Last Jedi—all the more powerful.

Sci-Fi Western

There’s a reason space is called the “final frontier.” Science fiction may be filled with futuristic ships, weapons, and outfits, but in the end it’s about people—folks who are venturing into the great unknown to stake their claim. That can sometimes come at great cost to native inhabitants or the planets themselves (a perspective that should never be ignored). It’s no surprise the genre has become intertwined with the classic Western, as they’re two sides of the same exploratory coin.

Food Replicators

This is mostly because I really, really want one of these in my house.

Technobabble

We laugh at the hilarious jargon and nonsensical explanations in Star Trek and other sci-fi programs, but the truth is we need technobabble in order for these shows to make sense. We’re dealing in worlds and stories that would otherwise be beyond our comprehension. Including technobabble based in our “technospeech” not only makes them relatable to our own experiences, but also provides an excuse for the things that would otherwise be downright confusing.

Countdown to Destruction

It’s a tried-and-true trope in science fiction and so many other genres, but goddamn do I love a ship or bomb that’s on the verge of exploding. Bonus points for every time a bomb is beamed to a whole other ship or planet, as we saw in Galaxy Quest and Stargate.

“Soylent Green Is People”

This is a catch-all term for all the times reality is turned upside down, exposing a terrible truth to the masses—whether it’s (spoilers) taking the red pill in The Matrix, Dolores sharing Rehoboam’s data in season three of Westworld, or learning that Logan’s Run kills all adults once they reach a certain age. I will admit I’m a little tired of the “everything is a simulation” storylines—largely because there are way too many people who actually believe that’s true—but in general, these types of twists make for excellent sci-fi stories.

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Tired Tropes

Oppressed Robots

Fantasy has elves, and sci-fi has robots. Speculative sci-fi has had a habit of using varied automatons as a metaphor for systemic oppression—mostly so they can justify having white actors play the role of the people being oppressed. Given how systemic racism is still a huge problem in the United States, we don’t need a clumsy metaphor to help us understand that it’s a bad thing.

Aliens Built Earth

In a similar vein, it’s time to retire the myth that aliens are responsible for the pyramids, Mayan ruins, or any other pinnacle of human ingenuity that launched us forward as a species—something that’s bled over into real life with shows like Ancient Aliens. It’s a racist trope that washes over thousands of years of human history, much of which involves a great deal of pain and sacrifice. Aliens are cool, but they’ve got their own planets. Let’s keep them away from ours.

Teenager Saves the Universe

The young adult dystopian sub-genre will never die. I’ve learned to accept that. But it doesn’t mean I’m not tired of the trope where all it takes are the actions of one teenager—usually someone with few skills and resentment toward actually leading people—to dismantle a mighty empire. Young people deserve to believe they can achieve anything because they can, but can we scale it back just a bit?

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Alien Pregnancy

I don’t care if it comes from aliens. That’s assault and it’s wrong.

Dances With Aliens

James Cameron might be working on a quadrillion sequels to Avatar for some reason, but his whole story is based on a premise that was just as awful then as it is now. It’s the trope where humans come to a planet and establish themselves as the savior of a species that’s modeled after more “primitive” cultures from our world. It’s great to see characters trying to help other planets—like we often see from the Federation in Star Trek—but we don’t need to use tired and often racist tropes in order to do so. It’s just called being a good person.

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November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020’s Home Stretch

Rebel Girls

Rebel Girls
Image: Razorbill

Seems like just yesterday we were all adjusting to the concept of “lockdown,” but it’s now become a full-on lifestyle. Fortunately, the output of new sci-fi and fantasy books is one thing that hasn’t slowed down—and November is full of adventures in deep space, chaotic kingdoms, other dimensions, and beyond.

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: 47North

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Spellbreaker by Charlie Holmberg

A young wizard uses her gifts for an unsanctioned purpose: breaking spells as a way to keep wealthy magic users from gaining too much power. Her life begins to change when she meets a wealthy magician who needs her help, at the same time a killer starts targeting wizards and stealing their spellbooks. (November 1)

Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: DAW

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The Alpha Enigma by W. Michael Gear

In this sci-fi mystery, an inscrutable psychiatric patient is first targeted by assassins, then escapes from the doctor who’s trying to help her. Meanwhile, an archaeologist makes a strange discovery in an apparently time-displaced Egyptian tomb that may tie into her case. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: Best American Paper

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The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 edited by Diana Gabaldon and John Joseph Adams

This collection features recent sci-fi and fantasy stories by Ken Liu, Victor LaValle, Elizabeth Bear, Rebecca Roanhorse, io9 co-founder Charlie Jane Anders, and others. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: Titan Books

Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon

The adventures continue for the crew of Serenity in this latest tie-in novel, which sees Captain Mal winning a strange map in a card game that River Tam thinks will lead them to an abandoned generation ship. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Lost Roads by Jonathan Maberry

The sequel to Broken Lands sees Gabriella “Gusty” Gomez gearing up to fight more zombie-like creatures, including their fearsome leader and his ever-growing Night Army. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: Atria/Emily Bestler Books

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The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter

In this near-future tale, a plague allows robots to ascend to power, though surviving humans are allowed to live in “preserves” without robot overlords. But not everyone agrees with this system, as a human detective and his robot partner discover when they’re called to investigate the first murder on one of the preserves. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: HMH Books for Young Readers

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The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

Within the walls of an exclusive sorority that’s actually a haven for witches, the typical college-campus problems and rivalries become ever more complicated when an evil foe discovers the sisters’ magical secret. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: Baen

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Serpent Daughter by D.J. Butler

The Witchy War fantasy series, set in an alt-history version of the United States, continues as goddess Sarah Calhoun struggles to hold off her foes and maintain her alliances while she sits on her throne in Unfallen Eden. (November 3)

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Illustration for article titled November Is Full of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books to Help You Make It Through 2020s Home Stretch

Image: DAW

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This Virtual Night by C.S. Friedman

After an attack wrecks one of Earth’s far-flung outposts and a virtual reality game is blamed for inspiring the perpetrators, a daredevil explorer and a game designer team up to unravel a deadly mystery through deep space. (November 3)

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The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

This “post-collapse yarn” from the author of Motherless Brooklyn follows two siblings coping with life after “the Arrest,” living on a farm in rural Maine and dealing with a former friend who’s suddenly blown into town piloting his nuclear-powered tunneling machine. (November 10)

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The Book of Malachi by T.C. Farren

We really can’t top the official description of this sci-fi thriller: “A mute survivor of civil war must confront the horrors of organ farming on a deep-sea oil rig.” (November 10)

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The Camelot Betrayal by Kiersten White

The second entry in a fantasy trilogy focused on Queen Guinevere sees the legendary ruler—who’s secretly a changeling in disguise—struggling with her identity and trying to figure out where she fits in at Camelot. Trouble arises when the real Guinevere’s sister shows up in the kingdom. (November 10)

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The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The sequel to The Rage of Dragons finds that book’s young warrior teaming up with a queen who’s determined to reclaim her throne before her city falls to an invading army. (November 10)

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Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by Kermit Pattison

This nonfiction book digs into the 1994 discovery of the oldest human ancestor, and the subsequent raging feud that erupted around the top-secret findings once they were made public. (November 10)

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Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Written by an Oxford professor of archaeology, this history book studies how magic has played a role in culture and shaped behavior since nearly the beginning of humankind. (November 10)

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OtherLife by Jason Segal and Kirsten Miller

The Last Reality trilogy concludes as Simon, Kat, Busara, and Elvis try to stay one step ahead of the powerful and sinister gaming company that’s aiming to alter reality as we know it forever. (November 10)

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Refraction by Christopher Hinz

When a man learns his strange superpower is the result of being experimented on as a baby, he sets to track down others like him—as well as find the perpetrators and hold them accountable. (November 10)

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The Rush’s Edge by Ginger Smith

A past-his-prime “genetically-engineered and technology implanted” former soldier is discarded by the government that created him, so he takes a salvage gig to pass the time. Things get complicated when the ship’s computer is overtaken by an alien invader. (November 10)

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Second Chances by P.D. Cacek

This sequel to Second Lives finds more “Travelers”—long-dead souls who revive within recently-dead bodies of other people—roaming the world, though it’s still a mystery why they exist, and not everyone is accepting of their presence. (November 10)

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Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer

In this 1980s-set, holiday-themed horror-comedy, a publishing-house employee tasked with finding the next Stephen King receives a strange, probably cursed object in her office’s Secret Santa gift exchange…and chaos ensues. (November 10)

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Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Five years after The Hound of the Baskervilles, another bloodthirsty creature appears and kills Sir Henry Baskerville’s new wife on the moors. Naturally, Holmes and Watson return to investigate. (November 10)

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Star Trek: A Contest of Principles by Greg Cox

When Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise head to the planet Vok to act as observers during a historic election, they’re distracted from the increasingly tense political situation when Bones McCoy is kidnapped. (November 10)

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Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by various authors

This collection celebrates The Empire Strikes Back by gathering short stories inspired by side characters, unanswered questions, and other random tidbits from the movie, with contributions from Hank Green, Tracy Deonn, Martha Wells, S.A. Chakraborty, Gary Whitta, and many more. (November 10)

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Stormbreak by Natalie C. Parker

The Seafire fantasy trilogy concludes as Captain Caledonia Styx and her all-female crew set out to secure control of the Bullet Seas once and for all. (November 10)

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XX by Rian Hughes

This thriller—constructed using “redacted NASA reports, artwork, magazine articles, secret transcripts, and a novel within a novel”—imagines what might happen if a telescope on Earth were to receive an alien transmission. (November 10)

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Nucleation by Kimberly Unger

When a deep-space pilot discovers alien bacteria is behind a deadly accident at a wormhole gate, she also discovers a plan to sabotage the entire project. But who’s behind it—and can she figure out their endgame before it’s too late? (November 13)

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The Bright and Breaking Sea by Chloe Neill

A magically gifted young sea captain must learn to compromise when she’s ordered by the queen to team up with a nobleman on a dangerous rescue mission. (November 17)

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The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War fantasy trilogy ends as betrayed hero Fang Runin makes her way home, where she builds a new army to take on the Dragon Republic and all others who oppress those who use magic. (November 17)

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Daughter of the Serpentine by E.E. Knight

A young dragoneer’s talents have helped her rise to the rank of apprentice, but she’s facing multiple enemies and will soon have to make tough choices about where her loyalties lie. (November 17)

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Ink by Jonathan Maberry

In this supernatural thriller, a tattoo artist and a private investigator are among the people being targeted by—and searching for—a monster that delights in stealing memories from lonely, vulnerable people. (November 17)

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Master of One by Jaida Jones and Dani Bennett

Forced by the court sorcerer to track down an ancient fae relic, a talented thief is startled to discover the “relic” is actually a prince. The unlikely duo joins forces to undo the royal plot they’re both unwittingly enmeshed in. (November 17)

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Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

In this first entry in a new trilogy, a young man sets out to avenge his destroyed planet, a perilous mission he’ll only be able to undertake with the help of a ragtag alien crew. (November 17)

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Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

The sequel to War Girls finds the Biafran War long over, though Nigeria is still recovering from the devastation. Ify is now working as a medical officer in the Space Colonies, but her dream job takes a turn when a virus begins sickening the children under her care. (November 17)

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Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

The sequel to Oathbringer finds technology turning the tide of an ongoing war in favor of Dalinar Kohlin and his Knights Radiant—but victory is nowhere near guaranteed, and the enemy has its own secrets waiting to strike. (November 17)

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The Saints of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

The Salvation Sequence concludes as humankind makes one last stand against religious-zealot aliens that’ve been targeting them (and all sentient life, in the name of their all-powerful God) for millennia. (November 17)

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Salamis by Harry Turtledove

The alt-history specialist takes on the Battle of Salamis, placing his trademark characters—cousins Menedemos and Sostratos—amid a great naval battle in 306 B.C. (November 17)

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The Silver Shooter by Erin Lindsey

Pinkerton agent Rose Gallagher is back for another supernatural mystery, heading to Dakota Territory circa 1887 to investigate rumors of a monster that’s been picking off treasure hunters in the wilderness. (November 17)

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Stillicide by Cynan Jones

In a world where water has become commodified, a city protests the displacement of citizens from a massive Ice Dock construction site. (November 17)

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These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

This debut novel offers a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai—plus monsters for added mayhem. (November 17)

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The Way Back by Gavriel Savit

This historical fantasy inspired by Jewish folklore follows two teens on a perilous quest into the Far Country, where ancient demons dwell. (November 17)

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Call of the Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

The Tide Child series continues in this sequel to The Bone Ships, which sees the people of the Hundred Isles dealing not just with the chaotic return of dragons, but the discovery of an illegal slave trade. (November 24)

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Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology edited by S.B. Divya and Mur Lafferty

This collection gathers 15 stories to celebrate the 15th anniversary of sci-fi podcast Escape Pod, from writers like Cory Doctorow, Ken Liu, Mary Robinette Kowal, T. Kingfisher, and others. (November 24)

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Forged by Benedict Jacka

London mage Alex Verus returns for another urban fantasy tale, this time evading death squads and facing up to his dark side while preventing his fellow mage Anne from taking her own destructive tendencies too far. (November 24)

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

The Folk of Air universe expands with this Rovina Cai-illustrated peek into the life of Elfhame’s mysterious king, Cardan. (November 24)

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Passages edited by Mercedes Lackey

Lackey herself contributes a new novella to this 14th anthology of short stories set in her Valdemar fantasy universe, which are otherwise written by both emerging and established authors. (November 24)

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Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is back for another OASIS adventure in this long-awaited sequel, which picks up right after the conclusion of Ready Player One. (November 24)

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War Lord by Bernard Cornwell

The author’s Saxon Tales series, inspired by England’s earliest years, concludes with an epic final battle starring series standout Uhtred of Bebbanburg. (November 24)

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Comes a Pale Rider by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This short story collection is the author’s second to focus on determined monster slayer Dancy Flammarion, who travels through the American South waging “holy war with the beings of night and shadow.” (November 30)

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Fishing for Dinosaurs and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale

An eclectic collection of adventurous short stories from the acclaimed author of Cold in July and Bubba Ho-Tep. (November 30)

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Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

The author of Gideon the Ninth takes a necromancer break to pen this fantasy story about a princess stranded atop a witch-made tower with vicious monsters waiting on every floor. (November 30)

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Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis

An outcast who dreads her family’s annual holiday get-togethers finds things taking a sci-fi turn when one of the other guests expresses an unusual interest in an elderly relative’s memories. (November 30)

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