SFF novels with smaller stakes

Here’s a post about novels where the world doesn’t get saved:

Books that celebrate smaller, more intimate stakes (and shout-out to Eric Smith for introducing me to the phrasing!) and eschew focusing on the larger stakes, though, can feel like they’re far and few between or like they never existed in the first place, which is a shame because people have always written these types of stories too, even won acclaim with them. ... my definition for inclusion on the list is two-fold:

  • No galaxy/world/kingdom-changing plot unless it’s the B-plot (and ideally a C-plot).
  • The book must have been memorable to me for its small stakes.

Before you click through, I will say: the use of “small” or “intimate” stakes in this post is not a synonym for “low tension.” At all. The problems are often on the level of one person’s success or one person’s life, but they’re often pretty dire problems. I’m speaking here of the ones I’ve read myself, obviously. At least one is probably rather society-changing and I question it’s inclusion.

Still, click through and peruse the list if you have a moment. Here are some of the books you’ll find: Greenwich (Susan Cooper), Tombs of Atuan (LeGuin), Beauty (McKinley). Also The Changeling Sea and Winter Rose (McKillip).

With the exception of Greenwich, which was hardly my favorite in that series, these are all books I just loved. And I certainly agree about their intimate focus. The list also includes a whooooole bunch of more recent titles, of which I’ve read only a couple — Scorpio Races (Stiefvater) and Archivist Wasp (Kornher-Stace). I don’t agree that latter one belongs on this list, though I understand why the author of the list declared it did.

There are sooooo many titles that could easily be added. Let me try to add ten more that fit particularly well and that I particularly love. These are not in any order, just as they occurred to me right this minute as I wrote this post.

1.Bone Gap (Ruby)

2. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (Valentine)

3. The Sharing Knife quadrilogy (LMB)

4. A Closed and Common Orbit (Chambers)

5. The Echoes trilogy (Sharon Shinn)

6. “Blood” (Sharon Shinn), which is from her collection Quatrain.

7. Come to think of it, also Fortune and Fate (Shinn again) I realize it’s kind of cheating to include so many different stories by the same author, but still. You know, actually, The Shapechange’s Wife also fits.

8. Chanur’s Legacy by CJC. This is Hilfy’s story, as you may recall, so the stakes are very high for Hilfy, but the fate of her world and species doesn’t hang on the outcome.

I included one novella above, so here’s another”

9. “Buttercups” (Robin McKinley). That’s in her collection A Knot in the Grain. I think it’s the standout novella in that collection.


I’m sure I could come up with a tenth, but why should I do all the work when all of you are probably saying, “How could she possibly have forgotten ________? Please drop whatever obvious title I’ve forgotten in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “SFF novels with smaller stakes”

  1. Dorothy Heydt (writing as Katharine Blake), “The Interior Life” – the high fantasy plot is the B-story to the 20th century character getting a handle on her everyday life.

    Kim Stanley Robinson, “Pacific Edge” – the major conflict is over whether a small local area will be developed or not.

    Robert Heinlein, “The Menace From Earth” – will the heroine’s sort of boyfriend take up with a the glamorous terrestrial tourist? What will that mean for their designing spaceships together?

  2. I think this overlaps with “domestic fantasy”- a book can focus on the home life of the protags with world-changing things going on in the background, but often domestic fantasies are about things that matter to a small group of people but not the whole world. Of the books in Marissa Lingen’s recent post on tor.com, https://www.tor.com/2019/05/02/beyond-cinderella-exploring-agency-through-domestic-fantasy/ I think Lifelode is one that I’d say is the most memorable and has purely intimate stakes- unless I’m misremembering because the domestic part is the bit I cared about! (The Interior Life is intimate stakes for the “our world” heroine but much higher stakes for the “other world”).

  3. Not enough SF on his list, so:
    THE MARTIAN is life or death for Watney, but the outcome doesn’t make a huge difference to anyone else… even if he does get pretty much the whole world on his side.
    Miles Vorkosigan oscillates between planetary and personal scale; examples of the latter being “The Mountains of Mourning” and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN. One is basically a murder mystery; the other a romance; I incline to think those forms are good places to look for the more intimate scale.

  4. Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which I keep re-reading over and over again as soon as enough time has passed to forget the small details

  5. Very good suggestions!

    Here’s another that’s SF: Quarter Share and sequels by Nathan Lowell. Very slice-of-life stories, on spaceships.

  6. 1) Mike & Craig: many of Heinlein’s SF juveniles have a smaller stake. So do James White’s Hospital ship/station stories – those just focus on the doctor saving this sick alien.

    2) I generally like the smaller stakes and domestic focus stories, so I tried to get several of the ones I don’t have yet on Kobo, but except for Pamela Dean, Ntozake Shange and some of Sharon Shinn, they weren’t available. There were other books by Jo Walton, but not the ones mentioned.
    I occasionaly run into an older book you’re praising that I need to buy secondhand in print, but 4-5 in a row is unusual. Don’t the publishers realise there’s a market for these kinds of (e)books as well as the big epics and YA dystopias?

    3) I guess I’m going to have to give Sharon Shinn another try. After your recent (earlier) posts about her books I wrote a reaction, but that got disappeared instead of posting. I’ve only read the three Safe-keepers Secret books, and though I liked them well enough to finish the trilogy, I really bounced hard off the basic premise, enough to put me off reading more by her. Being worthy of trust, and keeping secrets, are important. How anybody can consider keeping a secret more important than the lives of innocents is something I can get as mad about as the idea of “honor killings”, weighing an abstract idea of honor or trustworthyness or job responsibility more heavily than innocent human lives.
    If a child (or anybody, really) tells you in secret that they are being abused, you don’t just keep the secret and do nothing. You take steps to (help) get them safely out of that situation. Not letting further (maybe permanent) harm happen to them and maybe others, maybe even letting them get killed without interfering. The idea that in a situation like that, keeping the secret would be considered the primary consideration, no matter how much harm is caused by keeping it, seems very inhumane to me. That really put me off reading more by Sharon Shinn.
    I do have Troubled Waters and Castle Auburn on my ebook TBR pile; maybe I should give one of those a try dometime soon.

  7. How about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory, and Pamela Freeman’s Castings trilogy. Also Laurie Marks Fire Logic and Earth Logic series are just beautifully written. I guess she has a new one coming out?

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