Science fiction is a man’s game. At least that’s what some readers seem to think. A BOYZ CLUB–GURLZ KEEP OUT. The nadir of this type of thinking was the so-called Puppygate controversy at the 2015 Hugo Awards. If you don’t know what that shameful episode of trolling and thuggery was all about, here is a very detailed rundown.
But as most serious readers of SF know, women write excellent SF and always have. Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley, and others wrote SF before SF was a thing. Here is an excellent article if you are interested.
These days, SF is not at the top of my speculative fiction list. It was certainly my gateway drug into speculative fiction: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and so on. But now I’m more likely to read fantasy or dystopian literature. Recently I set out to educate myself a little better about SF in general and SF by women in particular.
Among those enthralling books I read as a kid, none were so exciting to me as SF by Andre Norton. Norton, as most SF fans know, was the pseudonym for Mary Alice Norton (1912-2005), who wrote voluminously–not only great SF but also historical novels and fiction with a contemporary setting. She was a librarian, a pioneer, and a weaver of magic, and she won many SF awards during her long writing career. She published under the name “Andre Norton” because most readers of SF were male, and because male writers were more likely to be successful. In that regard, she stands in a long line of female authors who have felt it prudent to disguise their gender. (Charlotte Brontë and her sisters come immediately to mind.) It has been decades–too many to count!–since I’ve read any of Norton’s books, so I set out to re-read the first one that ever grabbed me, Star Man’s Son. I suppose that book and Heinlein’s Red Planet were the two that set me on my speculative fiction journey,
Browsing around trying to find a copy, I noted that the reviews on Amazon.com are almost all glowing with nostalgia. I remember spotting Huon of the Horn, also by Norton, on the shelves of my public library–Norton’s first fantasy novel, in an historical setting. Thinking of my reading habits now, I realize that’s the book of hers I should have loved. Now, why didn’t I read it? I didn’t. I wanted spacemen and planets and the whole SF thing. If you read Starman’s Son, you’ll see it has none of those, not really–it’s more of a post-apocalyptic story–but it enthralled me. Re-reading it now, I see all of its flaws and love it still. Norton was in the vanguard of the Golden Age of SF. At the time I first encountered her–a young girl reader with stars in her eyes–I didn’t know she was a fellow female. Can’t remember when I found that out.
For classic SF, no matter what gender you are or whose books you are reading, you have to acknowledge Ursula LeGuin (1929-2018) as the absolute master of the form. As a writer, she transcends genre. She’s simply an excellent writer, one of the best. And she wrote magnificent speculative fiction of several stripes. The first woman author to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, she was the daughter of two anthropologists, and her speculative fiction reflects that. She wrote fantasy, she wrote SF, and the two sub-genres probably blend into each other in her works. Readers often think of her SF as the “soft” variety (as opposed to the hard-edged technological kind, although these distinctions are admittedly vague). Her focus is on the cultures of the worlds she builds, and the people inhabiting those cultures, as seen through the lens of social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, received a Hugo and a Nebula award; many consider it her best novel. It is far ahead of its time, set in a world of beings with fluid gender. The novel is interesting too in that, again before its time, the characters are mostly dark-skinned. Of course there are quibbles–we have the hindsight to see some issues she couldn’t have anticipated, but isn’t that always the way? All of us being human?
It’s an amazing novel. The main character is Genly Ai, an anthropologist visiting an outlier planet on behalf of a galactic consortium that has been observing the planet for decades. The anthropologist’s mission is to convince the warring factions on the planet to overcome their differences and embrace membership in the consortium, which they regard as alien and untrustworthy. During his visit of observation, Genly discovers as much about himself and his own gender identity as he does about the inhabitants’ sexuality–their gender is fluid, so that any individual might be female and a mother at one point in their life, and male and father at another.
Some readers find it a difficult book, because its narrative consists of many snippets from the journal of the narrator and other sources, but readers with a certain amount of patience will discover this is the perfect way to tell the story. (Margaret Atwood used a similar method in The Handmaid’s Tale.) Personally, I am always intrigued by Le Guin’s style. It’s removed and cool, to some extent. The most extreme example might be her amazing short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelos.” There is no single character, no single perspective for the reader to latch onto, except this coolly observant eye. Yet it is one of the most affecting stories I’ve ever read–a parable, some have called it, but in the best sense of the word, nothing oversimplified–a very powerful and complex vision. The Left Hand of Darkness, narratively, works on me in a similar way. There are moments in the relationship between the narrator Genly and his friend Estraven that move me so deeply and emotionally that I have to close the book for a while. Yet this is anything but a sentimental book. It’s a masterpiece. I just re-read it and fell in love with it all over again–felt immense gratitude for the genius of a writer like LeGuin who is able to share her insight with her readers in such a powerful way.
Another superb SF novel by a woman writer:
Holland’s writing is magnificent–evocative, stripped to its compelling basics. Holland has written mostly historical novels. I think I’m right that Floating Worlds is her only SF novel. It reminds me powerfully of her historical novel about the heirs of Genghis Khan and their invasion of Europe, Until the Sun Falls. As in that novel, Floating Worlds is about a violent people on a mission of conquest.
But in her SF novel, the people are the Styths, a mutant hybrid-human species (kind of Mongols in space) inhabiting the moons of Saturn and Neptune. Instead of Europe, the Styths are out to conquer the inner planets and their regular-humans. Holland’s world-building is wonderful. The Styths are a fully-realized culture, and the inner planet cultures are not all-of-a-piece. Earth has become the haven for anarchy. Mars is full of buttoned-down, buttoned-up, racist folk who have built an entire artificial society. The moon is a militaristic state. Uninhabitable Venus is orbited by an artificial planet with its own culture. The novel’s plot involves a human anarchist, Paula Mendoza, and her unlikely alliance with a Styth overlord.
As with every Holland book I’ve read, the plot is pretty subtle. (I’m not sure Until the Sun Falls even has a plot, or not a conventional one.) Reading this book, though, is like being transported to the 40th century and living in it. (Reading Until the Sun Falls is like living with the Mongol horde.) Read this book for the world-building, the characters, the great writing–and for the plot, too, even though it’s not a conventional plot, the kind taught by writing instructors. I was so enthralled with it the first time through that I had to re-read it to make sure I hadn’t missed a thing.
QUICK CONTENT WARNING about the repeated use of a particularly egregious racial slur. It’s not what you think. In Holland’s imagined 40th century, it has come to mean almost the opposite of what it means now. That said, I’m guessing that if the novel were being published today, the publisher and editor would strongly counsel against using this word.
In alphabetical order, here are some others
Note–I’m no expert, or even a super-fan, so these are just some interesting SF novels by women that I’ve run across.
Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night (2019)
I have to admit, it took me two tries to get through this book. The vibe is very YA (not a bad thing in itself–I’ve written a few too), with that first-person point of view I’ve come to associate with YA. The characters are intriguing and quirky, but I found the vulcan-mind-meld thing with the crab people a little less than satisfying. I do like the character Mouth a lot, though, and the transformation theme is intriguing. Others love this novel. Anders is a very popular writer, and this is a popular book.
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2016)
This book is wildly entertaining–just plain fun, although not comedic or frivolous. Amazingly, Chambers first indie-published this novel through a Kickstarter campaign before it was picked up by a traditional publisher. The book is the first in a four-book series, and I certainly plan to go on with it. It’s one of those great reads with a whole “band of brothers (and sisters, and indeterminate others),” crewmates-together feel, like Firefly. Only weirder, with weird species aboard.
Nicola Griffith, Ammonite (1993)
Griffith is a brilliant writer whose two SF books have won many of the major SF awards as well as the Lambda Award for LGBTQ+ fiction. Ammonite is the earlier of the two; I plan to read the other as soon as I have the time. (And no, this has nothing to do with the 2020 movie.) Ammonite is set on a planet where a virus has wiped out all of the male colonists. The main character, an anthropologist, has been sent to study its effects while maintaining her scientific objectivity. She finds herself changed instead. One of my favorite books ever is Griffith’s amazing historical novel Hild (see my post about that book), so I was eager to read Ammonite. I was not disappointed.
Kameron Hurley, The Stars Are Legion (2017)
One of the many SF books using the “living ship” trope. What if Hieronymus Bosch, Dante, and your favorite leveling-up video game had a baby? With those as parents, it really might take three. That would be this book. Sorry, I know others love it, but it made me tired. Climbing up and up and up the circles of hell. . . with a nice little ding at each level achieved. I don’t want to be snarky about it. The world-building is pretty interesting.
Let me just add to this part of the post, because I don’t want to do Hurley’s book a disservice. If you have ever read Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. . .well, not many have, but if they have, they were probably made to read through Book II. . .there’s an entire canto in Book II that is the allegory of the human body. In effect, the reader finds herself INSIDE the human body, moving around in the parts. This book may be doing something similar. I’ll admit I find that fascinating.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (2015)
This novel uses a trope, “sapient ship,” related to Hurley’s “living ship” (and not as stomach-churning). It took me a while to get into this novel, but once I did, I found myself really intrigued with the character relationships, the gender fluidity, the world-building, and the suspense of the plot. An interesting premise, interestingly explored. I’m on the fence about whether I want to continue the series.
Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017)
(Solomon is non-binary, so it’s not accurate to label them as a “woman” writer of SF. Apologies.) This is an interesting novel with a gender-fluid, neuro-diverse protagonist. It draws on a revenge plot and African folklore to create an SF metaphor of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade using the “generation ship trope.” Unlike a lot of generation-ship fiction, though, the ship is not some all-equipped luxury liner like the Axion (sorry to bring in Wall-E here, because An Unkindness of Ghosts is a serious book using the closed-off environment of the ship to make a serious political and sociological statement–and historical). The science is kind of silly–fans of hard SF beware. I thought the world-building was ingenious and the three main characters well-drawn–and also many of the secondary characters, so it’s a very character-rich, character-driven book. My only quarrel is with the tone of the writing. It works well when the voice we hear is the main character’s, because it seems to fit her. But hers is not the only voice we hear. The writing overall seems stilted to me. For that reason, I found the novel an interesting read, but not completely satisfying.