8 Great Space Operas with Queer Women and Non-Binary Characters

Sometimes I have a lesbrarian request that sits in the queue for a while, just waiting for the right time. This month’s Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbrarian request came in from Tessa in 2018. She wrote:

Could I please humbly request a list of space opera with queer women protagonists? Sometimes replaying Mass Effect just isn’t enough… Tessa

Now is a great time to escape to outer space, don’t you think? In case the term is new for you, space opera is a subgenre of science fiction set in space (duh) with the melodramatic and romantic elements of soap operas and the adventures and battles you would expect from space travel. Here are eight great examples of space opera — including a few comics — with queer women and non-binary main characters!

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine


If you like political intrigue in your space operas, read A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare is an emissary who has been sent from her home Lsel Station to the center space station of the immense Teixcalaanli Empire in the wake of the previous ambassador’s passing. She soon discovers that her predecessor’s death wasn’t an accident — but no one is willing to admit it or acknowledge that she might be next. In addition to now investigating a murder, Mahit has to protect herself and her home station from the ever expanding Teixcalaan empire. Not to mention she is hiding a technological secret and is engaging in her own political scheming, doing this all while navigating a foreign culture. In addition to all this adventure, there is also a sultry slow burn lesbian romance.

Babel-17 by Samuel Delany


This sci-fi classic by legendary Black gay author Samuel R Delany was first published in 1966. It’s still astonishingly relevant. Babel-17’s protagonist is poet, cryptographer, space captain, and linguist Rydra Wong. Rydra is also bisexual, poly, and on the autism spectrum. In her world, humanity now lives spread across the universe and is caught in a war with the Invaders. The Invaders have been attacking covertly, through carefully executed assassinations and subtle spaceship sabotage. Rydra is no longer in the military, but when the army begins to receive alien transmissions related to the war — dubbed Babel-17 — she is the expert the general turns to for help understanding. This is a novel about power, language, and the intersections between the two. Does language influence thought? If so, how much? Check out Bogi Takács’s great review of Babel-17 on Tor.com.

Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta

This queer feminist YA retelling of the Arthur myth is an epic space opera fantasy. Ari is the latest reincarnation of King Arthur, a fact which she finds out after crash landing on Old Earth and pulling a magic sword out of a rock. She has a wizard for a sidekick: Merlin, who has aged backwards into teenagehood (and is also gay). Their quest is big and multi-faceted: first, they need to break the curse that keeps Arthur coming back. Second, they must fight the evil Mercer corporation which controls the universe’s water supply, thus bringing about peace and equality to the galaxy and uniting humankind. No pressure! Look forward to queer relationships between women as well as men, a non-binary character, and an asexual character. FYI, this is the first book in the series and number 2, Sword in the Stars comes out April 7th.

Kim & Kim, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, et al

In the first collected volume of this zany comic, readers meet Kim (Quatro) and Kim (Dantzler). Kim and Kim are BFFs who work together in the “wild world of interdimensional cowboy law enforcement.” In other words, they travel the galaxy as bounty hunters while being their badass, snarky bisexual and trans selves. Get ready for “mostly platonic” loving friendship, kicking ass, and hilarious hijinks. The memorable, colorful art brings to life the galactic punk rock world Kim and Kim inhabit and the never-ending, fast-paced action. This is the ultimate book for Cowboy Bebop fans who want queer and trans women front and center. If you like the first volume, note that volume 2, Love is a Battlefield and volume 3, Oh S#!t It’s Kim & Kim are also available now!

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Alana Quick is a Black, chronically ill lesbian sky surgeon — aka, spaceship mechanic — who needs work, desperately. She’s so desperate, in fact, that she stows away on a cargo vessel, hoping that once she’s discovered she’ll be taken on. On the spaceship, The Tangled Axon, Alana falls in love: with both the ship and its captain. (My favorite part of this book is how Koyanagi describes Alana’s love for ships as if they are beautiful women). The ship and its diverse crew — which includes a pilot who fades in and out of existence and a man who is part dog — are searching the galaxy for Alana’s spiritually advanced sister Nova. As it becomes more and more clear that Nova is in serious danger, things are heating up on The Tangled Axon as Alana is introduced to polyamory.

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

I mean, what is not to love about a comic whose tagline is “For this ragtag band of space gays, liberation means beating the patriarchy at its own game”? In this neo-medieval galactic world, Pan lives in a bustling spaceport with her mechanic dad. Her best friend, Tara, is a princess. This fact is mostly irrelevant, until Tara’s status means she is going to be forced to marry whoever wins a gladiator tournament. Pan helps her escape in a cargo ship—without knowing if she’ll ever see her again. Fast forward five years: two charismatic women gladiators show up on Pan’s doorstep. Their feminist mission is to free the princesses—and smash the patriarchal system that makes them need freeing. Soon Pan is travelling all over space, fighting for freedom and learning how complex the galaxy is.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

For a dystopian space opera story told from the point of view of a Black, queer, nonbinary, intersex, neurodiverse main character, look no further than An Unkindness of Ghosts. Aster lives on the spaceship the HSS Matilda, which is essentially a space travelling interstellar slave plantation. The ship is supposedly on its way to some kind of promised land with the last of humanity. No such promised land is in sight. Enslaved in the low deck slums, Aster is shocked to discover there may be a link between her mother’s suicide 25 years ago and the recent death and autopsy of the spaceship’s sovereign. This connection involves coded messages from her mother that may lead to a way off the ship. An Unkindness of Ghosts is very much a character-focused novel, as beautiful as it is brutal.

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot

How do you feel about a queer gender-swapped Alexander the Great space opera? Probably very excited, just like me. Princess Sun has come of age at last. But political schemers including noble house members and ambassadors have plans that require Sun to be eliminated as heir — even if that means her death. In order to survive and keep the republic of Chaonia as esteemed and feared as it is now thanks to her mother’s hard work, Sun will have to use her own smarts. Also going to come in handy: her longstanding rival, a prisoner of war, and her secret lover. Yes, you read that right. Look forward to a romance with (a lady) Hephaestion! Add queer romance to relentless pacing, inventive human body modification, interstellar conspiracies, and fun pop culture references, and you get one hell of a space opera.


One bonus recommendation that doesn’t quite fit the bill for this list but I think will be of interest: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. The author is trans, and while it doesn’t have explicit trans characters, its space operatic universe is very much informed by transness. (Check out this cool essay by Lee for more details).

Please share any recommendations for space operas with queer women in the comments! And keep the requests for queer books coming! Write me an email at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com, comment below, or send in an A+ message.

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Casey

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 125 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. Great list!

    FYI the follow-ups to Ninefox Gambit do feature explicitly trans characters, and I think literally everyone in the series is some kind of queer! It’s definitely classic space opera stuff and I really loved it. Probably Anne Leckie’s radch books should be included on the list too, because it is mandatory?

    I recently read and really enjoyed Escaping Exodus by Nicky Draden, which is set on spaceships made out of giant space-faring beasts, and pretty much everyone is queer, and the milieu is really interesting.

    Also, Kameron Hurley’s Stars are Legion starts out pretty space opera-y then gets a bit weird, but I would deffo recommend it too! It’s queer for sure, and I think maybe there are no men at all in it?

    I will add Unconquerable Sun to my list when it comes out, but I have to say I hope as a gender-flipped myth reboot it’s better than Once and Future, which was kind of all over the place imho.

    • Seconded on Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, and Revenant Gun! Also on the Anne Leckie Radch books. All so good!!

    • That is awesome to know about Ninefox Gambit. Thanks so much for sharing.

      Oh yeah, Stars are Legion gets soooo weird. It was one of those books I admired more than I actually enjoyed. Very unique. And yes, there are no men at all and it seems everyone is a lesbian by default?

      I am 3/4 of the way through Unconquerable Sun and it is amazing. Great world-building, fascinating flawed characters, fast paced action. I love it! It reminds me a bit of Battlestar Galactica. So far most of the characters are bisexual and the world has no homo/biphobia.

      • I was bummed about how much I did not like Stars Are Legion.

        It makes me wonder if the characters are not human, if their species have only “women”/no “men” are the characters really lesbians?

        Just so much about being queer is being different than the majority. But I didn’t like the book and didn’t like any characters by the end so I didn’t identify with any of them so I’m biased against.

  2. Thanks Casey!

    Other recs:
    Slipstream Con by Reesa Herberth – queer, poly Thomas Crowne Affair type heist in space, with nano-bots. M/M/F poly triad – all three protags are bi

    Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau – F/F enemies to lovers

    The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

    • Love the whole Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers!! The second book imho is even better than the first.

      • I liked the third the best and it had incidental long term lesbian couple and incidental bisexual. Queerness is fully accepted so it only comes up in passing because no one gives a damn.

  3. I loved A Memory Called Empire and Arkady Martine is coming out with the next in the series next spring. And I too would recommend An Unkindness of Ghosts as well as Rivers Solomon’s other novel (novella?) The Deep based on the song by clipping.

    • Ooh, exciting to know about Arkady Martine’s sequel! I’ve heard The Deep is amazing as well.

  4. Only tangentially Space opera, but brilliant all the same – This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Opposing agents in a war for the whole of history play spy vs. spy, leaving each other letters and challenges, and fall in love as they go.

  5. I love the Ann Leckie Radch series.

    The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is similar in that it also stars a non-gender AI but it’s different in tone. It’s 4 novellas about a cranky AI/ security cyborg that just wants to be left alone so they can do their job protecting their (annoying) human charges and binge watch their favorite media. The novellas are pricey but I was able to get the ebooks through my library.

  6. I would like to suggest ‘The Wrong Stars’ by Tim Pratt. The main character, Captain Callie Machedo, is a lesbian. The Wrong Stars is book #1 in a series of 3 so far.

  7. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series! These books are so wholesome and are a balm in these dark times. Queer chosen family, navigating differences in relationship structure, computers learning to become people, aliens with fluid physical presentation.

    • Yes, wholesome is exactly what they are, but also not ignorant of tough stuff which I feel a lot of wholesome books/movies tend to be.

  8. Thank you for this! I started reading Cosmoknights RIGHT after finishing this awesome post, and it’s fantastic. Hannah Templer is so talented!

  9. Also – Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler sort of fits – it’s one of those series that is either not at all overtly queer or hella-queer depending on your definitions. I read the first book, Dawn, for a queer genre fiction book group. It’s about a straight woman who wakes up on an alien space ship and discovers that she survived a catastrophe on earth and was rescued by a species with very different genders and sexualities. It’s Octavia Butler so it’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

    • “not at all overtly queer or hella-queer depending on your definitions”– I feel like most of Octavia Butler’s books are like this? I loved Lilith’s Brood, it blew my mind.

  10. I have to point out that Catherynne M. Valente’s wonderful Douglas Adams-inspired Eurovision-in-space extravaganza is literally called Space Opera. It features a pansexual nonbinary protagonist, queer women characters, and a lot of heart. Do not sleep on this book!!

    • Ha! I contemplated including this book (haven’t read it yet) but then wondered if there was more emphasis on the opera rather than the space? It looks so good though!

      • It is very much about space too! Most of it takes place either on a spaceship or on the faraway planet where the big competition happens, and every other chapter is about various alien societies and their musical oeuvres.

    • Wow, this book was *divisive* amongst my people. I quite enjoyed it, and many of my friends despised it.

  11. Can second Ascension and An Unkindness of Ghosts as being excellent. And now I really want to read Once and Future.

    Has anyone got anything in the same vein as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet? As in warm and comforting and feels like a hug. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time recently trying to find books like it and am struggling because nothing is quite as good as it. The closest I’ve come is Alex White’s The Salvagers trilogy, which I highly recommend.

    • This sounds like a question for the lesbrarian! Are you looking specifically for science fiction that has that warm comforting feeling?

      • Well, specifically space settings but at this point I’d be happy with any scifi. So yes, warm, comforting scifi and found family is a good bonus. I’m more interested in there being good relationships between the characters than dramatic plots, which are much easier to find.

        And thank you Erin, I’ll give Uprooted a go, it looks great!

        • Tbh I would first suggest more Becky Chambers, including Provenance, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, and the rest of the Wayfarers series. If you’re down with a slight melancholy tinge, but still plenty of found family warm fuzzy feels, I would recommend On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden.

    • If you like stories based on fairy tales or anything in that vein, I would recommened either Uprooted or Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. I devoured both of them and could say that I found them both like a reading hug.

    • “A Pale Light In The Black” by K. B. Wagers could fit this! About a space ship crew in, basically, the outer space version of the coast guard. It’s big on family, both on finding it for those who didn’t get love in their birth family, and those who struggle to balance them both. One of the main characters is new to the main team, and watching them get to know their crew mates and be accepted by them is very heartwarming and the best part of the book.

      There’s also a sequel and more books on the way I think?

  12. I also would like to recommend Gideon the Ninth, which came out last year and has a queer element and has a super badass main character who is full of sarcasm and is just great.
    And they aren’t even close to space operas, but I also loved Red Sister, Grey Sister, and Holy Sister, which is a trilogy of books about a girl who goes to an assassin nun school and it’s as amazing as you can imagine.

  13. Currently reading the first book of the Black Flag series by Rachel Ford while I’m only on book 1 of 5 I think it belongs here.

  14. Oh my gosh, The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley! It’s basically an all woman, queer space opera, but its space and sci-fi, where it’s assumed queer that’s part of the world, rather than making the story about that.

    It is very cool, a lot dark, and very sci fi but I just love that there’s no men and it’s just par for the course – like the book is about the people and the Legion, NOT about having no men around. That’s assumed.

    Same with Kamerone Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series. So so cool.

  15. Can’t believe no one’s mentioned John Scalzi’s wonderful Interdependency Series yet. The first two (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) are out and the third and final book (The Last Emperox) is due out soon.

    One of the main characters, Kiva, is a delightfully foul mouthed, bad ass, brilliant, bisexual woman who keeps everyone on their toes.

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