MIND MELD: Great SF/F Stories By Women
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Recently, Ian Sales posted an article on his website called Toward 100 Great SF Short Stories by Women. We thought this would be a great question for our Mind Meld panelists and so we’ve leveraged the question:
Here’s what they said:
Usually, when someone refers to hard science fiction, they assume that the science in question is physics, and the author is often a physicist, adding verisimilitude to the concepts explored within the novel. And then we have Joan Slonczewki, who give the subgenre a good shake. Slonczewski is no physicist: She’s a biologist who uses her own particular expertise to write hard sf. The sequence of novels that begins with A Door Into Ocean, and continues with Daughter Of Elysium, The Children Star, and Brain Plague, intriguingly explores how potential advances in genetics and microbiology could radically alter future interstellar societies.
The series is set after Earth (aka “Lost Torr”) has become overrun by AIs and is therefore uninhabitable. Humans have moved out into the galaxy, colonizing a part of it they call the “Free Fold.” They’ve modified themselves, their planets, or both, so that they can thrive in fresh environments. Unfortunately, few planets out there are capable of sustaining human life. There is a constant tension between the urge to populate and the strain that people put on the limited amount of resources available. Is terraforming a valid way of expanding those resources, even if it destroys the lifeforms already indigenous to a newly discovered planet? How much can—or should—humans adapt themselves to live in a new place…or to explore a new physiological or intellectual potential?
Slonczewski introduces us to the nonviolent, all-female Sharers of Shora, who live on giant rafts and whose purple skin contains oxygen-conserving microbes that allow them to remain underwater for long periods of time. Two Sharers have daughters with the aid of a lifeshaper, a doctor/geneticist who fuses their ova together. Their society is peaceful and so communal that their language assumes that sharing is part of every transaction (thus their name). So, for example, they would refer to teaching as “learn-sharing,” believing that the teacher and the student both learn from each other.
Alongside the Sharers’ rafts are the floating, high-tech cities of the immortal Elysians, who must genetically engineer human embryos to increase their numbers, as they’re unable to reproduce themselves. Their elaborate system of courtesy and ritual allow them to live out the centuries in relative harmony, if not always contentment. Other races include the warlike human-gorilla hybrids of Urulan, sentient beings and structures (including houses, shuttles, android nannies, etc.) composed of nanomachines, and the microscopic people of Prokaryon, who also modify themselves and their environment…which in this case is the human brain. They colonize human brains and can either communicate through light flashes and provide assistance to their hosts, or enslave them by gaining control of the pain and pleasure centers.
Slonczewski’s world-building is gorgeous, sumptuous, philosophical, and strongly grounded in science. This series definitely deserves a slot in any list of 100 Great SF/F Stories by Women.
One of SF’s enduring myths has been that women don’t write it. Even the acclaimed nerd flagship TV show The Big Bang Theory reiterates SF as boys’ stuff. It simply isn’t true, but what is true is that women SF and Fantasy writers in general seem to get far less critical attention, less review coverage, less promotion and subsequently get noticed less and talked about less. And of course shorter works get even less attention.
Frequently when women’s SF is discussed the focus is fixed on a handful of names: LeGuin, Tiptree, Russ mainly. Personally I think by now we should be past this, accepting those writers as givens, and looking at who else we need to talk about. Which other women are great writers of SF and Fantasy?
Take Kit Reed, for instance, now into her 55th year as an active, published SF writer. Her 2013 collection The Story Until Now covers this span and is essential reading. Reed’s stories find the creepy edge in the mundane and highlight it. She has been talking about body image, social roles, generational and gender perspectives consistently since ‘The Wait’ was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1958. That story, and others such as ‘The New You,’ ‘Automatic Tiger’ and ‘Song Of The Black Dog’ use fantastic elements amidst precise social realism to reflect on our ordinary lives. Reed’s short fiction is her best work in my eyes, but she has expanded on her regular themes such as body issues in fine sometimes satirical novels like Thinner Than Thou and in @expectations (2000) she neatly predicted and skewered aspects of our online lives today.
Kit Reed is at least still in print, albeit from smaller presses such as PS and Wesleyan. One thing I have noticed is a number of authors who ‘disappear’ after maybe a couple of books or a few stories. Whether this is due to family, health or personal issues, not getting the same industry support as others, or other reasons varies of course, but it has disappointed me. Perhaps the digital publishing boom will help bring back writers such as Helen Wright, Gill Alderman, Judith Moffett and Michaela Roessner.
One such woman is Misha Nogha who was shortlisted for the 1991 Arthur C Clarke Award for Red Spider, White Web but has apparently published just poetry and a few stories since then. Red Spider, White Web is full-on, immersive, brutally realist noir, arguably the great lost cyberpunk novel. It is a short novel that takes her readers into uncomfortable, highly vivid yet dark settings and declines any easy, action-adventure escapes.
I loved Patricia Geary’s second novel Strange Toys from 1987 but thought that was the last from her until I recently acquired a third Guru Cigarettes from 2004. Strange Toys is one of those brilliant hybrid dark fantasies that blurs the edges of realistic and maybe-fantastic throughout. Before the term was co-opted to mean ‘hot vampires in leather’ Strange Toys almost epitomised a strand of Urban fantasy for me for its use of urban landscape to focus its horror. Geary’s catalogue of out-of-season smalltown attractions has the same creepy undercurrent as Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or some of Fritz Leiber’s novels combined with a sharp depiction of familial tensions, denial and coming of age.
Geary’s 17 year gap between books was surpassed by Leigh Kennedy though. Her excellent collection Wind Angels finally appeared from PS Publishing in late 2011, a mere 21 years after the revised US edition of Saint Hiroshima. (The original UK edition was in 1987.) Kennedy’s stories are rarely scary in themselves but are frequently about fear and anxieties in the modern world. Amongst her more explicitly SFnal stories ‘Helen, Whose Face Launched Twenty-Eight Conestoga Hovercraft’ is a particular favourite of mine for its pulp SF setting with contemporary social and political issues and unrequited romance at its heart. More famous is her viciously barbed story of a man’s over attachment to an intelligent ape. ‘Her Furry Face’ is sugar-coated poison as Kennedy lures the reader in, making the villain sympathetic, human, just like us, until … well, spoilers, but it is shocking because it could be us.
Leigh Kennedy is one of those authors I will buy immediately on publication. Lisa Goldstein is another. Each of Goldstein’s novels is different. Elizabethan Faerie in Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon, literary liminal fantasy in a weird foreign city in Tourists, time-travelling Parisian surrealists in The Dream Years, John Dee meets Rabbi Loew in The Alchemists’ Door and retold fairy tales in The Uncertain Places. It seems that Goldstein can turn her hand to almost anything, but perhaps it has been that variety that has held her back commercially? It certainly isn’t here talents, because for my money, Lisa Goldstein is as good as, if not better than, any other contemporary fantasist. Gaiman, Powers, Crowley, whoever, Goldstein is their true peer. She really ought to be read and discussed the way those guys are. Her short fiction is equally good. Much of it was collected in the excellent Travellers In Magic. As with her novels she covers diverse ground, and provokes thought at every turn. Is the poignant ‘Alfred’ just a girl’s encounter with an old man in the park, or a modern ghost story? Are ‘Cassandra’s Photographs’ oblique prophecy or elaborate vengeful joke? Try ‘Ever After’ for a clever, perceptive debunking of fairytale romances.
Great short story collections ought to be as widely read as great novels, and many of my favourite women writers have produced strong contenders. I’ve mentioned Reed, Kennedy and Goldstein already. When thinking of stories for Ian Sales’ original call for ‘SF Stories by Women’ certain individual writers had one obvious strong contender, but others could have multiple entries. Pat Cadigan’s collection Patterns contains at least four bona fide great stories, the cyberpunk classics ‘Pretty Boy Crossover’ and ‘Rock On’, the disturbing alien encounter of ‘Roadside Rescue’ and one of my favourite vampire hunter stories, ‘The Power and The Passion.’ Pat Murphy is renowned for ‘Rachel In Love’ of course, but I admire the nastier ‘His Vegetable Wife’ from the same Points Of Departure collection. More recently Ekaterina Sedia brings a unique viewpoint to her short stories in Moscow But Dreaming. One of the things Sedia does is take dogmatic Western ideas of the Soviet Union and Russia which are then countered and shown to be simplistic if not simply wrong, but at her best Sedia does this in charming, amusing, thoughtful and wittily fantastic stories. ‘Citizen Komarova Finds Love’ shows one side, a poignant, romantic, haunted but honest view; ‘By The Liter’ is seedier, but both reveal both historic and contemporary reality and their relationship. Anthropomorphic transformations often taken from Russian folklore recur in Sedia’s work at all lengths, perhaps fitting for a country that has undergone significant transformations throughout the twentieth century?
Many of the writers mentioned so far sit on the margins of genre (uneasily in some cases, very happily so in others.) Looking beyond genre publishing there are writers whose work sometimes partially occupies genre territories effectively and strikingly. Olga Tokarczuk’s braided novel Primeval & Other Stories is fantastical in the way that Jan Morriss’ Hav or Italo Calvino’s work is. Kola Boof’s The Sexy Part Of The Bible dips into SF ideas but prefers to examine racial and sexual politics rather than extrapolate or explain. Sarah Hall on the other hand is happy to embrace the folk roots of fantastika in her work. In her magnificent collection The Beautiful Indifference is at least one fantasy story, possibly two. The ambiguity of both ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ and ‘Vuotjärvi’ as dark, haunted takes on what may or may not be ghostly psychopomps becomes part of their strength when set in brilliantly detailed landscapes.
Other interesting and notable contemporary SFF women authors at shorter lengths who deserve attention include Elizabeth Bear, Nina Allan and the wonderful Aliette de Bodard whose ‘Immersion’ you should all have read by now. And finally, not a shorter work but the best novel in or out of genre that I have read in several years is a beautiful, richly detailed, romantic twentieth century historical fantasy novel, albeit a history rarely told in white male western versions. Andrea Hairston’s Redwood & Wildfire is, simply, superb and magnificent in all sorts of ways. Hairston tells a gripping story, suffused with racial, sexual and general politics subtly but profoundly considered, peril and love and a genuinely convincing use of magic. What more do you want?
I’m assuming one story per author, which may be unreasonable of me, but if I didn’t my list might be 50% Tiptree. I don’t think the problem is finding stories that would fit on the list so much as it is narrowing down the choices. I’ve deliberately excluded novels from my list, because otherwise there’s so many possibilities.
It’s hard to pick a particular James Tiptree Jr. story. “Your Faces, Oh My Sister, Your Faces Filled of Light,” for example, is one that I use in class when talking about unreliable narrators. But in the end, I think I’d pick “The Women Men Don’t See” in order to pair it with Karen Joy Fowler’s reply to it, “What I Didn’t See.”
“Travels with the Snow Queen” is one of my favorite Kelly Link stories for how it talks about fairytales as well as default suppositions regarding the reader.
You’d have to have at least one LeGuin story, and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” is another favorite of mine.
Carol Emshwiller kicks ass and takes names in almost every story she writes. Perhaps I’d pick “Mrs. Jones,” for one of the best sibling rivalry stories ever.
Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”
Connie Willis has plenty of possibilities, but I love “Even the Queen” because its voice is so very Connie.
Kij Johson is another author who presents plenty of possibilities, but there I think I might opt for “Spar”.
- L. Timmel DuChamp’s “The Gift”
- Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love”
- Susan Palwick, “The Dreams of Mice”
- Anything from Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space
- One of C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories
Other authors who (IMO) would have to be represented: Octavia Butler, Pat Cadigan, Nancy Fulda, Molly Gloss, Zenna Henderson, Nancy Kress, Margo Lanagan, Tanith Lee, Yoon Ha Lee, Vonda N. McIntyre, Susan C. Petry, Mary Rosenblum, Pamela Sargent, Rachel Swirsky, Genevieve Valentine, Kate Wilhelm
I’d list Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists Of Avalon (1983) as a significant milestone in fantasy writing. The novel is set against the background of the Matter of Britain – the quasi-historical version of the King Arthur story – but is centered around the female characters of that story. Bradley makes a powerful statement about male and female power in an age when earth-based spirituality led by priestesses such as Morgaine (the evil Morgan Le Fay in many versions of the Arthur story) was under threat from the new patriarchal faith, and women’s power was dwindling. The Mists of Avalon was followed by a series of Avalon books written by Bradley in collaboration with Diana Paxson. It also spawned a huge number of fantasy novels by other writers, based on the Arthurian story or a pagan/Christian conflict.
The list should also include the Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May. This four book sequence (which May later followed with the related Galactic Milieu series) was written in the early 1980s, and is notable for its astonishing world building and bold ideas. The story includes space travel, time travel, and the discovery of races based on Irish mythology living in the Pliocene era – you’d think the result would be a ridiculous mish-mash. But the research is immaculate, the world comes startlingly alive on the page and the characters are so real that we share their triumphs and losses deeply. A wonderful series, a true classic.
Because good things come in threes, I’m going to throw in a more recent novel, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (published in 2000; the first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy.) Elegance of writing, brilliant world-building in an elaborate alternative Europe, and a bold approach to sexuality that colours the entire story and challenges existing attitudes – this is a novel that absorbs, entertains and makes us think.
When I put together my list of 100 Great SF Stories by Women, I deliberately kept the focus narrow: science fiction only, short fiction only, and one entry per author. As a result, I was happy to rely on recommendations for works by authors I’d not read, or not read enough to choose a good, representative story. Of course, several of my favourites made it onto the list – that’s one of the perks of making the list in the first place.
But there are also authors I’d like to have included but couldn’t – because they’ve only written novels, or because they don’t write science fiction, or because the sf they have written isn’t their best work by a long way. A good example of the latter is RA MacAvoy, who has apparently written only a single novella, and whose best novels are not science fiction. While I think her Lens of the World fantasy trilogy is excellent, I was disappointed with her sf novel, The Third Eagle.
I’d like to have included Shariann Lewitt, but I’ve never come across any of her short fiction and no one recommended any of her stories. I wanted to include one of the stories in Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, but since none had seen publication outside that book I felt it might be stretching the definition a little. Likewise, I believe an excerpt from Sue Thomas’s excellent Correspondence was published independently, but since it’s part of a novel I decided it didn’t qualify.
I think Joan Sloncsewski’s The Wall Around Eden is one of the best sf novels of the late 1980s, but she doesn’t write short fiction. Suzette Haden Elgin also deserved a place on the list, but I’m only familiar with her Native Tongue, Coyote Jones novels and poetry. I could in fact name a host of women sf writers whose novels I’ve read and admire, but whose short fiction I’ve yet to encounter.
When you open up the list to other genres, there are so many more authors who become eligible. And I’m simply not familiar enough with fantasy or steampunk to choose examples from those genres that I think people should read. But then the beauty of lists such as 100 Great SF Stories by Women is that there’s nothing stopping someone doing a 100 Great Fantasy Stories by Women or 100 Great Steampunk Stories by Women, or whatever list they should choose to compile.
But, you know, the internet really doesn’t need another list of 100 classic sf stories, or 100 best sf stories, or 100 top sf stories, all of which seem to be comprised entirely of male writers. Or lists of classic / top / best sf which seem to suggest that people stopped writing sf sometime during 1982. If your list of classic sf, for example, consists chiefly of out-of-print works by dead male authors, then you’re doing it wrong.
100 Great SF Stories by Women was my way of redressing that imbalance, and I’m happy it’s been spread so far and so wide across the internet. The more signal boost it gets, the better. After all, the conversation is far from over…
Since Ian Sales’ original list only includes short stories, novelettes, and novellas, I figure I should follow the same thought process. Otherwise, this list will never end and you’ll have to post a segment a day for the next 500 years (#exaggerationbee). With that in mind, I believe the following belong on a list of the best SF/F shorts by women:
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (vaguely genre, but still quite chilling — my students always have a lot to say about this one, and for good reason)
- “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (equally chilling, but also one of the most thought-provoking stories I’ve ever read — here’s an experiment for everyone: the city of Omelas is technically morally justified…discuss)
- “Ghostweight” and “Swanwatch” by Yoon Ha Lee (her stories are strange and beautiful at once, and her collection, Conservation of Shadows, is by far one of the best collections I’ve ever read, alongside the next item on this list)
- “Useless Things” and “Honeymoon” by Maureen McHugh (you might also choose the entire collection, After the Apocalypse, but I chose the ones I think are the best of the lot — the collection is gorgeous, though)
- “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (this story is related to her novel, The Female Man, but works well as a self-contained entity. I’ve only recently discovered her work, but every time I read something new by her, I’m stunned by the way it makes me think about gender and the society we build around it.)
- “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr. (this story creeps me out, but in a good way; it’s one of those stories where all the right questions are asked, and all the right questions are left unanswered)
- “Bloodchild” and “Speechsounds” by Octavia Butler (these stories take different approaches to communication gaps and social interaction, and both are pretty damned good stories, though “Bloodchild” is more likely to get your creeped-out genes working — humans as alien incubation chambers!)
- “Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due (the topic may sound familiar — clones! — but the approach is disturbing and beautiful at the same time. It’s one of the few short stories that rewired my brain during undergrad…I need to assign it on one of my syllabi someday…)
And that’s where I’ll leave it for now. I’m missing a lot of stuff, obviously, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind right now. Hopefully I’ll pick up some new reads when this Mind Meld monstrosity goes live!
- Catherine Asaro, “The Spacetime Pool” (MY FAVORITE AUTHOR!!)
- James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon), “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”
- Andre Norton, “Mousetrap”
- Ursula K. LeGuin, “Nine Lives” much anthologized. (In Ascent of Wonder) “Coming of Age in Karhide” or “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”
- Carol Emshwiller, “But Soft, What Light”
- Vonda N Mcintyre, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand”
- Lois McMaster Bujold, “The Mountains of Mourning”
- Pamela Zoline, “Heat Death of the Universe”
- Joanna Russ, “When it Changed”
- Mary Turzillo, “Mars is No Place for Children”
- Phyllis Eisenstein, Born to Exile
- Patricia A. McKillip, Ombria in Shadow
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
- Robin McKinley, Beauty
- Cecilia Tan, Magic University series
- Kathleen Ann Goonan, In War Times
- Julie Czerneda, In the Company of Others
- Laura Ann Gilman, Retrievers series
- Mary Anne Mohanraj, The Best of Strange Horizons
But this article is not about me and my likes. This week, I’m at Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers and I asked our twenty students for recommendations. Not a single one of them reads more short stories than novels (!). The teens raved about books at mealtimes and late into the nights, sharing and comparing lists with unparalleled enthusiasm.
- Yoon Ha Lee, “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel,” everyone wants her new collection, Conservation of Shadows
- Veronica Roth, Divergent series
- Kristin Cashore, Graceling series
- Rae Carson, The Girl of Fire and Thorns series
- Megan Turner, The Queen’s Thief series
- Elizabeth Wein, The Winter Prince
- Patricia C. Wrede, Frontier Magic series
- Diane Duane, So You Want to Be a Wizard series
- Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle series
- Josepha Sherman, the Bard’s Tale series
- J. K. Rowling, the Harry Potter books
- Cassandra Clare, The Infernal Devices and The Mortal Instruments series
- Richelle Mead, Vampire Academy series
- Cinda Williams Chima, The Heir Chronicles
- Sarah J. Maas, Throne of Glass series
- Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel, and looking forward to Conjured
- Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique
- Rachel Hawkins, Hex Hall series
- Jodi Meadows, Incarnate series
- Courtney Allison Moulton, Angelfire series
- Maria V. Snyder, Study series, Glass series
- Lucienne Diver, Vamped series
- Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
- Pearl North, Libyrinth series
- Lyn Benedict, Sylvie Shadows series (written by Lane Robins, one of the Alpha submission story judges)
Alpha began in 2002 as a unique residency workshop in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s a charitable, literary organization with an all-volunteer staff. Three of our Alpha guests for 2013 were women writers. (The fourth was the magical Scott Westerfeld.)
- Theodora Goss, The Thorn and the Blossom
- Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness series
- Tamora Pierce, Circle of Magic series, the students can’t wait to read Battle Magic
A selection of novels that Tammy recommends:
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
- Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower
- Esther Friesner, The Psalms of Herod
- Madeleine Robins, The Stone War
- Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior’s Apprentice
- Barbara Cohen, Unicorns in the Rain
- Rosemary Edgehill, The Warslayer
- Lynn Flewelling, The Bone Doll’s Twin
- Barbara Hambly, The Ladies of Mandrigyn
- Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark
- Nina Kiriki Hoffman, The Silent Strength of Stones, The Thread That Binds the Bones
- Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain
- Megan Lindholm, The Wizard of the Pigeons
- R. A. MacAvoy, Tea with the Black Dragon
- Sharon Shinn, Jovah’s Angel
- Judith Tarr, Queen of Swords
- Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer
- Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog
We invite four author or editor guests per year to Alpha. Sheila Williams was an amazing teacher; we love the stories she picks to publish in Asimov’s Magazine. Favorite works by former Alpha author guests:
- Wen Spencer, Ukiah Oregon series
- Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword
- Cat Valente, Fairyland series, “Urchins, While Swimming”
- Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees
- Holly Black, Modern Faerie Tales series
- Leslie What, Crazy Love
In the Alpha staff category:
- Karina Sumner-Smyth (Karina Sumner-Smith), “An End to All Things”. Karina just quit her day job and moved to a rural Canadian town to write novels.
- Catherine Krahe, “Totipotent”
- Rachel Sobel, “The Loyalty of Birds”
Alpha students have published fiction, including Rachel and Mike Grinti’s middle grade novel, Claws.
- Former alpha students formed a street team for Pyr Books. Editor Lou Anders sent several novels a year and asked students to blog about them. They liked:
- Alexis Glynn Latner, Hurricane Moon
- Justina Robson, Quantum Gravity series
- Kay Kenyon, Bright of the Sky
Perhaps we should try this again now that Pyr has a young adult line.
Lastly, the staffers at Alpha wholeheartedly, enthusiastically love these four writers. I’m looking forward to reading more of their fiction.
- Rachel Swirsky, “Eros, Philia, Agape”
- Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire, “Griots of the Galaxy”
- Marie Brennan, Bewere the Night
- Laini Taylor, series starting with Daughter of Smoke and Bone
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