Women and Science Fiction – Are you a misogynist?

Published On June 27, 2011 | By Joe Gordon | Books

There has been quite an amount of traffic on the subject of women and science fiction writing in the last four weeks. Inspired by the British Library Exhibition (see report here on the blog), BBC 4 Woman’s Hour had a segment on the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated genre which aired at the end of May. It can still be heard here. Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss, and Farah Mendlesohn chatted with Dame Jenni Murray, and it’s quite interesting to hear their opinions.

Meanwhile The Guardian had a poll about people’s favourite Science Fiction writers, and from the question arose this, thanks to Nicola Griffith . She did some number crunching that out of 500 books only some 18 women authors featured, and asked why this was. In turn, like a snowball, the Guardian did an article, ‘The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers’. Of course, talk is talk and buying good books is a pleasure, so I thought I would deftly avoid the misogynistic minefield of opinion or laying blame for this travesty and let you know the best books I have read, this century by women, science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise.

Without doubt, I have found Karen Traviss to be an incredibly strong writer. Hard Contact, Order 66 and 501st are just kick ass Star Wars books the way they should be. She has an incredible ability to portray the comradeship found amongst those in battle and I have to admit I find her no-nonsense approach to writing refreshing. Her Gears of War novel, Aspho Fields is also stonking, and she is a writer on the forthcoming Gears 3 game.

Farthing by Jo Walton is a wonderful piece of alternate history. Germany and Britain are at peace, but the cost would be unpalatable to any Britisher except appeasers, America never entered into the war, and so in this setting we encounter a very tricky and delightful murder mystery which is intrinsically linked to this change in history. Lucy Kahn is a stunning character caught up in the murder, and the story alternates between her and the Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael who is tracking down the murderer of the man who helped bring this ‘peace’ about.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik is now quite the series. It started off pretty brilliantly, and although I haven’t enjoyed every book as much as the first, they have been rewarding and fun to read. Essentially this is Dragons in the Napoleonic era, and we follow a particular Dragon, Temeraire who flies for the British, and her aviator, Captain William Laurence. It’s quite an inspired idea, and Novik is very good at reimagining the historical aspects with these newly added creatures.

The story of Henry DeTamble and his wife, Clare Anne Abshire, is beautiful in its heartbreaking way. In The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger tells the story of a man with a disorder that causes him to jump through time unexpectedly, and how his wife copes with this. Of course the science fictional element is a massive metaphor for the strangeness that can be relationships, frustrations, absences, unexpected turns, the lack of control that the world may impose upon one’s partner, all the time so lovingly told.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest has zombies, is set in an alternate history and leans heavily on the genre of Steampunk, and probably if not for City and the City by China Mieville would have been my favourite book of 2009. There is nothing as dreadful as a man-made catastrophe, and one that releases a killing gas that then turns the dead into ‘rotters’ is an inspired idea. Set around the time of the American Civil War in an alternate Seattle, it is a brilliant adventure as we follow a mother trying to reunite with her son, who is himself determined to vindicate his father, the man whom most accuse of this catastrophe.

Keeping it Real by Justina Robson is only one of her nine novels, written in the last twelve years, but for me, is the one I’d be starting from. Only a girl from Leeds could come up with as stunning a character as Agent Lila Black. (James be careful there – ed) Set in an earth where a ‘quantum Bomb’ has cracked what we know as reality, the creatures of the fantastical magical realm, once of the mind, are now real and able to cross into our reality, and we find a new narrative. Things move on, as they do and Black, a cyborg agent for Earth security, is a body guard for an Elvish rock star, and has quite a lot to deal with, between those who dislike his fraternizing with humans and a deeper concern about the status quo between worlds. It’s quite jammed with intelligence and action.

Elizabeth Moon was once a Marine, and her portrayal of Kylara Vatta, a cadet in the Space Force Academy, who through forced resignation ends up a captain of a trading ship in her family’s business, must draw on some of that military knowledge. The first book in the series, Trading in Danger, is just a taster of what the whole series expands into, with threats and dangers in many guises, corporate, piratic and of course truly science fictional. I cannot mention Moon and not the book, Speed of Dark. The quandary that faces Lou Arrendale, a high functioning autistic who is an analyst in bioinformatics and a keen fencer is explored in great detail and skill by Moon, should he be bullied by his boss into being ‘cured’….

Lois McMaster Bujold is a Queen amongst princesses (James Achtung Minen!– ed). Her Vorkosigan saga, now in its twenty-fifth year, vies continually as my favourite space opera. I could talk about Cryoburn published last year and a Hugo nominated Novel, but I would prefer to recommend you going back some twenty two fictional years, to a time when the character of Miles Vorkosigan was just seventeen. Failing to even start his military career due to physical limitations, the most terrific of adventures begins, as we follow a true leader who finds ways and means to inveigle himself into a terrific position of power at the head of a mercenary force. Full of intrigue and political mischievousness, with enough military action to sate the most gung ho, it’s beautifully done and balances many of the best elements of science fiction. The Warrior’s Apprentice is not only brilliant but also available for free.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (rhymes with LUCAS) captured an African city, in a Cape Town that I could feel and sense was absolutely right, having been there, yet it was her science fictional near future exposition which was the real joy, the way we followed a number of characters and her skill at making the now-impossible seem quite mundane and normal to those living. It was superb. Her second novel Zoo City stormed the Clarke award but for me her short comic story in Vertigo’s recent Strange Adventures, All The Pretty Ponies, was just brilliant. It’s like how I imagine Phil K. Dick would have done a comic. It uses the medium to its best, panels switching as we follow the rich, who want to live in the body of the poor for a moment of adventure, drawing on exploitation of the poor, to the hedonism of the elite rich, while using a science fiction ‘mind ride’ and of course the real horror of any such device, where nothing is what it seems. Brutally exquisite stuff. I yearn for her next book, and wonder if DC would not give her something like Hellblazer. One can wish.

If you want more opinions on books, Ian Sales has a SF Mistressworks review site, which is building, while Cheryl Morgan has more eloquently spoken about this ongoing discussion for the Science Fiction Writers of America (who let in foreigners). These things do cycle around, and last autumn, Tricia Sullivan triggered an excellent series of posts and discussions on Torque Control, then edited by Niall Harrison. Current Editor Shana Worthing continues to look at women in SF but an overview can be found on the site, while Harrison is now Editor at Strange Horizons,  where he is always quick to point out great books by people of all genders.

And of course we’d be delighted to hear some of your own thoughts and choices – what female writers and their books (or short works from the mags) from the realms of science fiction, fantasy or horror from the 21st century have you been enjoying? Let us know in the comments (and if you want to namecheck some authors and their books from previous centuries as well, well, we don’t mind that!). Which ones have you enjoyed and would recommend to other readers?

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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