A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine devoted to fiction and art about bugs. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
If any of you out there follow my blog, you may remember I did a couple of posts a while back inspired by Kari Sperring’s Women to Read initiative. I decided to take it a step further and recommend a place to start with the women whose work I was urging people to read. Now, the good folks at SF Signal have been kind enough to invite me to do the same thing here. So, picking up where I left off, I’ll give you a small sampling of women I think you should read and where you should start with their work. Allons-y!
There are probably very few people out there who haven’t read at least one story or book by Ursula K. Le Guin in their lives. But for those folks who may be new to reading speculative fiction and want a starting point for one of the masters of the genre, I suggest The Word for World is Forest. The original novella appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, was nominated for a Locus Award, and won the Hugo for best novella in 1973. Le Guin expanded the story into a novel, which was published in 1976. The original novella was my first encounter with Le Guin’s writing, before The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea novels, which is where most people typically start with her work. At the time I first read the novella, I wasn’t aware of it being Le Guin’s response to the Vietnam War; I only knew the story haunted me long after I put it down – the inhumanity of the humans and their brutality toward the “creechies”, the idea of dreaming the invention of war, all of it. I’d never read anything quite like it before and it opened my eyes to what speculative fiction could be and what it could do.
Jackson is another author who probably needs no introduction; she has an award named for her, after all! But for those unfamiliar her work, I recommend starting with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a novel published in 1962. I’m recommending this as a starting place not only because it’s a brilliant work, but because so many of the novel’s themes remain relevant to discussions going on in the speculative fiction world today. It is a novel dealing with outsiders, with characters who are driven into isolation by other people’s perception of them, and excluded from the “normal” life of the community. None of the people in the town know the truth about Merricat or Constance, but based on rumors, based on received wisdom and shared misconceptions they shun them, taunt them, and commit violence against them. To the people of the town, it doesn’t matter who the real villain is, or what they’ve done. What matters is the rumors they’ve heard about the family, which they take for truth because no one has ever thought to suggest otherwise. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is also a prime example of quiet, literary horror, where the monsters are domestic, and the fear insidious and creeping, which makes it all the more effective.
While Kelley Eskridge is a well-established author, she’s not as well-known Le Guin and Jackson, because who could be? So, in the hopes of introducing you to a new and fabulous world of writing, I recommend starting with “The Eye of the Storm”. This short story originally appeared in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers, and was reprinted in Kelley’s collection Dangerous Space as well as in Brit Mandelo’s excellent 2012 anthology, Beyond Binary. “The Eye of the Storm” was my first exposure to Eskridge’s work. It is another one of those stories that lodged in my brain, which I come back to again and again at unexpected moments. It is a story with an expansive understanding of sexuality, embracing fluid notions of gender and desire. It’s the kind of story that shows how wide the world really is, how many multitudes is contains, and how many possibilities there are for defining family, love, friendship, and conflict. It presents a world where there’s no need to separate things by narrow categories and definitions; there are multiple ways to move through the world, and even battle can be a form of harmony.
Nalo Hopkinson is not only a prolific author and an editor, but on an entirely personal note – she’s a fellow Canadian and a fellow Capricorn, which makes me happy. I recommend “Fisherman” as a starting place for those unfamiliar with her work. The story first appeared in Hopkinson’s collection Skin Folk, and was also reprinted in Brit Mandelo’s Beyond Binary last year. “Fisherman” is another story that plays with the fluidity of gender, and rejects the notion of narrow labels and definitions. Central to the story is the fundamental truth that there’s more than one way to be a woman, or a man. The only thing that really matters in the end is being yourself. The world doesn’t get a say in who you are, what you can or cannot be, or how you act. Identity, gender or otherwise, comes from within.
So there you have it, four women whose work I admire – two classic, two contemporary, all well-worth reading. I hope I’ve helped you discover something new, and that you’ll share the work of these and other women far and wide. Please leave your own suggestions for women to read and where to start in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think!