Five SFF Novels About Unrest and Rebellion

As I type this, the government of Ontario—a government elected by a majestic 18% of the voters—is discovering to its astonishment that wildcat strikes are still a thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, stories of organized rebellions and uprisings have featured in quite a few gripping SF novels. Consider these five from the last few decades…


Venus of Shadows by Pamela Sargent (1988)

Civilization on the hostile surface of semi-terraformed Venus is a delicate balancing act. Completing the grand project will require centuries more effort on the part of Earth’s Nomarchies, the space-based Habbers, and of course the Venusian colonists. The tensions between the factions are ripe ground for the Ishtar Cult, whose glowing promises to the settlers are little inhibited by mere fact.

An epidemic-driven crisis gives Ishtar the pretext it needs to seize power on Venus. Not every Venusian is happy with this, but no doubt sufficiently ruthless measures will bring the surviving unbelievers into compliance. Or perhaps such measures will provoke a civil war for which the fragile cities are unsuited. The choice may be between fanatical oppression and the end of the Venus Project.

A number of SF novels from this era featured a thriving space civilization, cut off for one reason or another from Earth. The Venus series was something of a subversion: the Habbers turned their back on Earth during its great crisis, which the Earth under the largely Muslim Nomarchies then very rudely proceeded to survive. To say that relations between Habbers and Nomarchies are tense is an understatement.


The Drowning City by Amanda Downum (2009)

The rulers of Selafai have a simple dream. They will dispatch spy/necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur to distant Symir, where Isyllt will exacerbate tensions between Symir and their Assari Empire overlords and provoke an uprising that will distract the empire from its predatory intentions for Selafai. The consequences for Symir will no doubt be horrific, but that is a price Selafai is willing that Symir should pay.

Alas for poor Isyllt, while Symir is known as the Drowning City, it could also be called the city of a thousand contending factions. Compared to veteran Symir schemers, Selafai is a land of naïve children. Symir has no time for foreign plots, because it has far too many of its own. Isyllt will do well to survive the learning experience currently bearing down on the visiting necromancer.

The abject failure of the Selafai plot to launch is pretty hilarious, although the violent events that transpire in place of the failed plot are not at all funny. I guess the lesson here is that if you are setting out to manipulate a distant community, pick victims who are not far more politically sophisticated than you are.

[Is this a good time to tell the story about the KGB agent at Imperial College? Probably not.]


Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson (2014, English trans. 2020)

The Kalmar Commonwealth (huldufólk) has conquered the island nation of Hrímland. What follows: a brutal colonial government, widespread oppression, and midnight arrests whose victims may never be seen again. Hrímlanders are not happy with Commonwealth rule.

Kalmar’s representative, Count Trampe, keeps pushing and may soon find out precisely how much oppression will be needed to drive the otherwise apolitical middle-classes into open dissent.

The opposition: Garún. She works tirelessly to protect the civil liberties of the Hrímlanders even though she is half huldufólk herself. She persists even though her mixed heritage makes her a non-person to many Hrímlanders. She is also opposed by her ex-boyfriend, Sæmundur, who thinks he has a faster path to liberation: esoteric dark arts. Relying on forbidden magic may seem ill-advised, but that is why those who know him call him Sæmundur the Mad.

(You have no idea how much willpower it took not to insert “ha ha ha” between “the” and “mad.”)

This novel is remarkably bleak but it is also spectacularly violent as well. Do not get overly attached to any of the people of Hrímland or their pets.


The Unbroken by C. L. Clark (2021)

Touraine might have led a happy uncivilized life in her native Qazāl. But she is taken by imperial Balladairans—“kidnapped” is such a harsh word—and transported far from Qazāl, where she will be educated in proper Balladairan ways. Touraine will spend her life paying for her education as a conscript (some might say slave) for the Balladairan cause.

Touraine’s Balladairan masters are supremely confident in their soldiers’ conditioning. Why not assign Touraine to El-Wast in her home country of Qazāl? What could possibly go wrong with returning a highly skilled soldier to the land of her birth? Quite a lot, as it turns out.


Strike the Zither by Joan He (2022)

The indivisible Xin Empire is at present divided into several contending regions, each with its own ambitious warlord. Senior functionary Miasma appears to have a leading position, imprisoning protecting as she does the current Xin Empress Xin Bao (whose health and safety are assured until the moment Miasma no longer needs her). Miasma also commands a large army and a retinue of brilliant strategists. Being one of Miasma’s retainers is all the job security a strategist like Rising Zephyr could hope for in this life. Too bad that Rising Zephyr actually works for the weakest warlord, Xin Ren.

Rising Zephyr sees but a single path to survival. Her cunning plan seems to be working out well, until…well, that would be a spoiler.

This is a homage to, but not a carbon copy of, Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It takes place in a fantasy world which is like real-world China in some ways…and utterly dissimilar in others. You’re probably familiar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While reading this novel you may encounter some familiar events. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that you know where this first volume in a series is headed.



Human dissatisfaction being eternal, rebellions, uprisings, and civil wars are a frequent feature in science fiction and fantasy. Who knows, perhaps someday someone will write such a novel set on our own moon (although our lifeless satellite seems too much a harsh mistress). Perhaps the Red Planet would be a better setting; perhaps we could imagine a war between planets. No doubt my readers have their own favourites. Comments are, as ever, below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.



Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Comments must first be approved and published by the moderators before they appear on the site. If your comment does not eventually appear please review our Moderation Policy carefully before posting again.

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.