The third (and final) Fifty Shades movie—Fifty Shades Freed—opens this weekend, just in time for Valentine’s Day. While we’re glad those crazy kids are finally settling down, there’s no denying that the film and book series depict an unrealistic, unhealthy BDSM relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be this way—after all, sci-fi and fantasy authors have written believable power exchanges and sexual agency into their books and comics for decades. So instead of headdesking over Christian and Ana’s sexcapades, pick up these books by Jacqueline Carey, Octavia Butler, Matt Fraction, and more!
Magic University Series — Cecilia Tan
Tan has long been one of the foremost voices in writing and publishing erotic sci-fi and fantasy. Her work mixes BDSM culture with magic and aliens, as in her short fiction collection Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords.
With her New Adult paranormal romance Magic University series, Tan combines her favorite elements from the Harry Potter books with LGBT characters and eroticism. Her protagonist Kyle Wadsworth, studying at the secret magical university Veritas, learns to harness sex magic to combat sirens and prophecies alike. With Kyle starting out knowing less than Jon Snow, he experiences the kind of in-depth sexual apprenticeship that Anastasia Steele should have learned at the hands of Christian Grey.
Nevèrÿon Series — Samuel R. Delany
A fantasy that takes place a generation after a slave liberation, Tales of Nevèrÿon follows several characters who were once slaves as they work to build a new society, with Delany fearlessly exploring the links between subjugation, freedom, and power. Some of the former slaves now fetishize the collars and chains that were used on them during their captivity, and many young people, who have no memory of enslavement, now act out rituals of domination and submission without fully realizing what they’re ritualizing.
Naturally, this being Delany, there’s one powerful man who is willing to narrate long, sociologically-informative flashbacks to orient the rest of us. But again, it’s Delany, so these flashback are so artfully written and captivating that you never notice how long they are. It’s socially-conscious smut.
Kushiel’s Dart — Jacqueline Carey
One of the most frustrating aspects of Ana’s character is that she is absolutely not in touch with her own sexuality. Instead of reading about her fretting over not knowing which way to wear her hair would be sexier for Christian, come of age with courtesan/spy Phèdre nó Delaunay: Born into the service of Naamah (a prostitute and goddess revered in her culture), she grows up learning how to have healthy, communicative sex, even watching a “showing” by her fellow adepts when she comes of age.
Of course, Phèdre’s situation isn’t all hearts and roses: Until she makes her marque (that is, completes the terms of her indentured servitude), she is not allowed to choose any of her patrons. But as she works toward earning her freedom, she’s able to mostly do so on her terms, being assigned to patrons who can be the dominants to her submissive and feed her desire for pain. This is no shrinking flower, and she definitely knows her way around her own body.
Saturn’s Children — Charles Stross
One of the more baffling aspects of Fifty Shades is Christian’s obsession with changing Ana’s body: He wants her to stay nice and slim, yet he’s always shoving food at her. His gifts of lingerie and dresses also shape her into a more feminized figure, when before she was more content to wear jeans and Converse.
In Saturn’s Children, sexbot Freya has her own body and identity struggles when she finds herself in an impossible new context: Designed to lust after and serve humans, she awakens 300 years after all humans have died out. With no one on whom to pin her desires, and derided by her fellow robots, Freya must forge a new path for herself that doesn’t revolve around a master’s pleasure.
Lost Girls — Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
On the eve of World War I, Wendy Darling, Alice (now Lady Fairchild), and Dorothy Gale meet at a hotel in Austria and discuss the erotic adventures of their youth. Some of these are quite positive, but others are… less so. All three women find ways to cope with the trauma they’ve been through—better ways than Christian did. What’s more, their emotional arcs are woven into some truly gorgeous porn as Moore and Gebbie celebrate the human urges of creativity and sexuality over the destructive forces sweeping across Europe.
Lilith’s Brood — Octavia E. Butler
Butler’s seminal series pointedly mirrors the experience of slavery and Native American “relocation,” with an alien species, the Oankali playing the role of the “civilizing” forces to the tattered remains of humanity. Human Lilith makes a choice to breed with the Oankali to create a new, hybrid form of life. Sex between human and alien, while entirely for procreative purposes, is also super-hot, as the Oankali tap into humans’ minds, giving them a multi-sensory experience. Oankali come in male, female, and a third sex, ooloi, that can take different forms depending on who they want to seduce.
Sex Criminals — Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Suzie’s a librarian and Jon’s an actor. They hook up, and discover that they both share the same weird gift: Their orgasms stop time. They’re shocked, naturally, since they each thought they were the only one on Earth with this talent. But now that they’ve found each other, they need to cook up a way to use the time they’re being given. Obviously they should knock over a bank to fund Suzie’s library.
Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have taken a great sci-fi premise and spun it into something with real moral depth, as the two characters have to come to terms with their sexual histories, their feelings for each other, and their passion for larceny.
The Sleeping Beauty Quartet — A.N. Roquelaure
Let’s face it: Some of the appeal of Fifty Shades is how WTF it all gets, from the infamous tampon scene to Christian disarmng a gun-toting an ex-lover by domming her. If you like your erotica to have the highest stakes and to go beyond the limits of your own imagination, check out Anne Rice’s erotic reimagining of Sleeping Beauty.
Beauty is woken from her magical sleep by much more than a kiss, and from there her adventures escalate: She is forced to become the perfect servant, then rebels and is sold into brutal slavery, only to get kidnapped. She’s also not the only sexual object: The series’ male characters are also slaves, and explore the world of pony play. After reading this, you won’t care who’s trying to separate Christian and Ana, because your mind will be stretched to its limits.
Originally published in February 2015.