A lot of formative mid 20th century science fiction and fantasy stories are full of straight shooters. Heinleinian men’s men, kill-you-if-you-look-at-him-funny Conan and his literary progeny, and even Aragorn only goes by the mysterious “Strider” persona for, what, a chapter? I love a lot of the stories featuring those kinds of heroes, but have always been drawn more toward liars, spies, charlatans, and intriguers.
What better way for a reader to learn about a fictional world than through characters who try to manipulate and change that world’s rules? And what better source of suspense and tension than a protagonist constantly forced to lie?
So then, here are five books featuring lies and espionage on a national (or intergalactic) scale.
Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
Moore’s novella begins with a sort of meet cute: Juille, the princess of a galactic empire, is incognito on a pleasure planet, where she meets Egide, the similarly incognito leader of the space barbarians (yes, space barbarians) at her father’s proverbial gates. Their dance of will-they-or-won’t-they-topple-each-other’s-domains twists through double crosses, divine audiences, and the use of ancient superweapons, but the book ends by asking why a galactic empire should even continue to exist.
On the way to that conclusion, we get lots of the wonderfully sumptuous “golden age” prose that, for my money, Moore was the best at (“the ship came to a velvety stop”); worldbuilding that’s all bound up in deep time and impossible scale; and a female lead who’s tough, complex, and sympathetic, while not being a good person by most metrics.
Hard to Be a God by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
At first, the Strugatsky brothers wanted to write a fun adventure, which they described as “our spy on an alien planet,” as part of their Noon Universe: a post-scarcity future where communism has won. Then the Soviet Union had an unexpected backlash against the “wrong” kinds of art, which felt, at the time, like a return to Stalinism after the Thaw. The shock of it changed the Strugatsky brothers’ outlook considerably.
Boris described the feeling in the afterword to the 2014 edition: “We shouldn’t have illusions. We shouldn’t have hopes for a brighter future. We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture.” So, Hard to Be a God became the darkest “prime directive” Trek episode ever.
Our hero(?) Anton is doing the old “observe but don’t interfere” thing on a planet whose humanlike inhabitants live in what is, essentially, medieval Europe. According to the Noon Universe’s idea of progress, this planet should’ve had its enlightenment and begun to improve, but it just… didn’t. So Anton is stuck watching fascism bloom in a filthy and violent place; he has the knowledge and power to topple local despots, but his position as an undercover agent forbids it. His mission is to let their history develop “naturally,” but he begins to wonder whether it would really be so terrible to meddle.
The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
It was tough to pick the best Vorkosigan book for this list—the whole series is wonderful, and each entry has its own unique composition of political intrigue, spycraft, and good old confidence tricks. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, for example, Miles Vorkosigan cons his way into commanding an entire fleet of mercenary spaceships.
But The Vor Game probably sports the most balanced mix of outer space merc shenanigans and political intrigue. In doing so, it also further explores Miles’ home planet of Barrayar, (one of my absolute favorite sci-fi settings) a regressive monarchy that was suddenly thrust into interplanetary prominence just a few generations earlier.
The Vor Game is where Miles—fast-talking, physically fragile, both a privileged noble and a denigrated outsider—actually joins the arm of Barrayar’s military that handles covert operations. He’s then sent offworld, with a false identity, on a spy mission that soon comes to involve his mercenary fleet. The mercenaries, of course, know him by yet another false identity.
Dragon by Steven Brust
This, on the other hand, was an easy choice. Over the years, Brust’s antihero Vlad Taltos has been involved in a lot of espionage and trickery, but in the eighth book we get that epic fantasy classic: a war.
The beauty of Dragon is how petty, small, muddy, and unimportant that war is. Vlad, the supremely competent assassin and sometimes mafia boss, has to pretend to be a normal foot soldier in order to get close to an enemy. He’s utterly out of his element: uncomfortable, bored, and terrified. As the story wraps up, it expertly combines the satisfaction of a plot well-executed with dark satire and just a touch of sadness at such a useless loss of life.
All this is told in Brust’s spare and almost Hammett-like first person prose, which describes epic fantasy figures and eldritch magic weapons as though they’re everyday nuisances.
The Unbroken by C. L. Clark
Much like the other C. L. on this list, Clark’s debut concerns the work of maintaining an empire. The book begins as military fantasy, showing the lives of soldiers who were plucked from conquered states as children and raised in the Balladairan imperial center, and who, as adults, now themselves occupy one of the empire’s colonial territories.
But then even the known discomforts of colonial military life are stripped from Touraine, who’s pulled into intrigue (and dance parties) on behalf of a royal who’s trying to work with local rebels to improve the empire. The question being, of course, whether such an institution deserves to be improved, and therefore kept around, at all.
We don’t have an answer yet, but I’m looking forward to the next book very much.
Elijah Kinch Spector lives in Brooklyn. Kalyna the Soothsayer is his first novel.