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Women-only science fiction anthologies

Men-only sf anthologies are hardly rare, and anthologies where the male writers hugely outnumber the female writers on the table of contents are sadly commonplace. But there have been attempts in the past to redress this. As far as I can discover, there have been thirteen women-only sf anthologies published since the 1970s, and one that describes itself as a feminist anthology and has mostly female contributors. Late this year, of course, we get Alex Dally MacFarlane’s The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what stories she has chosen. But for the time-being, there are…

venusThe Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood, eds. (1972) This is the earliest women-only sf anthology of which I’m aware. It appears to have been sold on the fact it contains “Agatha Christie’s only science fiction story”, ‘The Last Séance’. The remaining stories are by Cynthia Asquith, Gertrude Atherton, Miriam Allen deFord, and the more familiar Zenna Henderson, Anne McCaffrey, Judith Merril and CL Moore. It covers most of the decades from sf’s beginnings to the book’s publication, with Christie’s story from the 1920s, three from the 1930s, one from the 1950s and three from the 1960s.

wowWomen of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1975) Perhaps the most celebrated of the women-only sf anthologies – or rather, the trilogy which this book begins is perhaps the most celebrated. Sargent lays out her agenda in an excellent introduction (in fact, all three Women of Wonder anthologies are worth getting for Sargent’s introductions) – this is more than just science fiction “by women about women”, it’s about women’s place in the genre, and in the history of the genre, as both protagonists and writers. There are no obscure names in the table of contents, and one story even won a Nebula Award. The stories are by Sonya Dorman, Judith Merril, Katherine McLean, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Kit Reed, Kate Wilhelm, Carol Emshwiller, Ursula K Le Guin, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Joanna Russ and Vonda N McIntyre, and date from 1948 to 1973. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

mwowMore Women Of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1976) Although the Women of Wonder anthologies were plainly intended to demonstrate that, “Look! Women write science fiction too!”, Sargent does seem to draw her contributions from a relatively small pool. Admittedly, she explains that the anthologies are as much about sf stories about women as they are sf stories by women. Appearing in this volume are CL Moore, Leigh Brackett, Joanna Russ, Josephine Saxton, Kate Wilhelm, Joan D Vinge and Ursula K Le Guin, three of whom appeared in the earlier volume. I reviewed the anthology on SF Mistressworks here.

auroroaAurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson, eds. (1976) This billed itself as a “feminist science fiction anthology” because its contents were not contributed wholly by women – three of the stories in the anthology were by men, David J Skal, PJ Plauger and Craig Strete. The remaining stories were provided by James Tiptree Jr (twice), Mildred Downey Broxon, Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy. The stories are all original to the anthology.

crystalThe Crystal Ship, Robert Silverberg, ed. (1976) Although a male sf writer’s name appears prominently on the cover of this book, it actually contains three original novellas by women: ”The Crystal Ship’ by Joan D Vinge, ‘Megan’s World’ by Marta Randall and ‘Screwtop’ by Vonda N McIntyre. The last also appeared in The New Women of Wonder (see SF Mistressworks review here), and was published in 1989 as one half of a Tor double with James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’.

millennialMillennial Women, Virginia Kidd, ed. (1978) Kidd was a member of the Futurians and an influential editor. While this anthology is perhaps not as strong as any of the Women of Wonder anthologies, it does present a wide variety of sf stories – provided by Cynthia Felice, Marilyn Hacker, Diana L Paxson, Elizabeth A Lynn, Cherry Wilder, Joan D Vinge and Ursula K Le Guin. Some editions of the book were sold as Le Guin’s short novel, “Eye of the Heron and other stories”, with Le Guin’s name most prominent on the cover. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

nwowThe New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1978) The third and final Women of Wonder anthologies until their 1995 reboot. Sargent once again turns mainly to women writers she has previously published – only Eleanor Arnason, Pamela Zoline and James Triptree Jr are new in this volume. Mind you, their three stories are pretty much stone-cold classics of the genre. Also inside are stories by Sonya Dorman, Vonda N McIntyre, Josephine Saxton, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Joanna Russ, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Joan D Vinge. This volume is the strongest of the three. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

cassandraCassandra Rising, Alice Laurance, ed. (1978) Not an easy book to find, this anthology contains nineteen original stories by Ursula K Le Guin, Kay Rogers, Joan Bernott, Zenna Henderson, Katherine MacLean, Kathleen Sky, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Josephine Saxton, Grania Davis, Raylyn Moore, Alice Laurance, Anne McCaffrey, Steve Barnes, Barbara Paul, Sydney J Van Scyoc, Beverly Goldberg, Miriam Allen deFord & Juanita Coulson, Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Steve Barnes, incidentally, is not male writer Steven Barnes but the pen-name of Margaret L Barnes (an introductory note explains she uses it “as a way of preserving her family name, Stephenson, lost in marriage”). Judging by some of the introductory comments to the stories made by Laurance, this was an open submission anthology, which may explain the presence of the more unfamiliar names. There is also a foreword by Andre Norton.

spaceAsimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawna McCarthy, ed. (1983) As the title indicates, this anthology contains women-authored stories originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Asimov’s regularly published themed anthologies of contents drawn from the magazine – McCarthy herself edited four of thirty such anthologies. The contents date entirely from 1981 to 1983, and are provided by Connie Willis, Mary Gentle, Leigh Kennedy, Sydney J Van Scyoc, Ursula K Le Guin, Pamela Sargent, Joan D Vinge, Julie Stevens, Mildred Downey Broxon, Cyn Mason, PA Kagan, Sharon Webb, Pat Cadigan, Lee Killough, PJ MacQuarrie, Tanith Lee, Stephanie A Smith, Cherie Wilkerson, Janet Asimov, Beverly Grant and Hope Athearn. None of the stories are especially well-known.

despatchesDespatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, Sarah LeFanu & Jen Green, eds. (1985) During the 1980s, The Women’s Press published a number of science fiction paperbacks by women writers, all in similar grey livery. This was the only anthology. It contains original stories by Josephine Saxton, Margaret Elphinstone, Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones, Beverley Ireland, Tanith Lee, Lannah Battley, Pamela Zoline, Mary Gentle, Frances Gapper, Lisa Tuttle, Pearlie McNeill, Naomi Mitchison, Zoe Fairbairns, Penny Casdagli, Raccoona Shedlon (AKA James Tiptree Jr) and Sue Thomason. Many of the authors also had novels published by The Women’s Press, reprints and original. The Zoline is a coup – she has only ever written five stories… and one of them was original to her collection, Busy About the Tree of Life. Jack Deighton reviewed Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind on SF Mistressworks here.

newevesNew Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow, Forrest J Ackerman, Janrae Frank & Jean Marie Stine, eds. (1994) An excellent introduction to science fiction by women from the genre’s beginnings through to the year of publication of the anthology – indeed, the anthology is organised by decade. The editors’ introduction is mostly good, but sabotages itself with a final section which undermines the quite sensible argument presented in the preceding pages – no doubt the lone male editor insisted on this. The stories are organised into sections by decade: ‘The 20s & 30s’, ‘The 40s’, ‘The 50s’, ‘The 60s & 70s’ and ‘The 80s – and Beyond’. Not all of the older stories work for modern readers, but it’s good that they’re documented – works by Francis Stevens (AKA Gertrude Barrows Bennett), Leslie F Stone and Hazel Heald, for example. Later authors may be better known but there are still many who have been unfairly forgotten. I reviewed the anthology on SF Mistressworks here and here.

wowcalssicsWomen of Wonder: the Classic Years, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1995) The first of a pair of reboots of the Women of Wonder series, it actually contains more stories than the the original three volumes – and, in fact, contains many of the stories from those anthologies. Zenna Henderson, Margaret St Clair and Lisa Tuttle are new to the volume, and CL Moore, Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Joan D Vinge are all represented by different stories than those in the Women of Wonder trilogy. As for the rest… The stories by Judith Merril, Katherine McLean, Anne McCaffrey, Sonya Dorman, Kit Reed, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Joanna Russ and Vonda N McIntyre all originally appeared in Women of Wonder; those by Josephine Saxton, Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K Le Guin were in More Women Of Wonder; and the stories by Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr and Eleanor Arnason were in The New Women of Wonder. There is enough of a difference to consider buying this book if you own the original trilogy, perhaps less of a reason to track down the three Women of Wonder anthologies if you have this one.

wowconWomen of Wonder: the Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1995) While the “classic” volume covered the years 1948 to 1977, the years covered by Sargent’s original trilogy, this one covers the following two decades – with stories from 1978 to 1993. Contributions are provided by CJ Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Suzy McKee Charnas, Carol Emshwiller, Sydney J Van Scyoc, Angela Carter, Mary Gentle, Octavia E Butler, Jayge Carr, Rosaleen Love, Sheila Finch, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy, Karen Joy Fowler, Judith Moffett, Connie Willis, Lisa Goldstein, Nancy Kress, Storm Constantine and Rebecca Ore. Although there are names in common with New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow, there is very little overlap – only the Van Scyoc story, in fact. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here and here.

doeDaughters of Earth, Justine Larbalestier, ed. (2006) Unlike the other anthologies in this post, Daughters of Earth is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, as each of the stories is followed by an essay discussing that story and/or its author. Daughters of Earth also covers the widest spread of time of all the anthologies named above - the earliest story is from 1927 and the latest from 2002. The fiction is provided by Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia E Butler, Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler. Some of these stories have appeared in other anthologies mentioned in this post; one or two of them I consider personal favourite sf stories. The non-fiction is provided by Jane L Donawerth, Brian Attebery, Lisa Yaszek, Josh Lukin, Mary E Papke, Wendy Pearson, Cathy Hawkins, Joan Haran, Andrea Hairston, Veronica Hollinger and L Timmel Duchamp. If this anthology has a fault, it’s that it could do with being much larger – it contains eleven pieces of fiction, but I can think of at least another dozen I think deserve the same treatment.

I’ve mentioned throughout this post where reviews of the anthologies on SF Mistressworks exist, and I’ve linked to those reviews. The ones that have yet to be reviewed… will be some time during this year – as I own copies of them all. For those interested in reading more on the subject, there is Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction and, if you can find a copy, Future Females: A Critical Anthology by Marleen S Barr. There are probably many other books on feminist science fiction, as well as books on, or by, individual feminist writers – for example, Joanna Russ: On Joanna Russ by Farah Mendlesohn or The Country You Have Never Seen by Russ herself. And, of course, everyone should own a copy of Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing

ETA: Despite owning copies of them, I managed to miss out both Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind and Cassandra Rising, as noted in the comments below. I have now added them. Other people have pointed me in the direction of themed all-women anthologies from major publishers and small presses, many of which include both science fiction and fantasy. Those, I think, are a post for another day. The above are explicitly science fiction anthologies, covering the historical spread of the genre and demonstrating that women have been writing sf since its beginnings.


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8-question meme from SF Signal

John DeNardo posts these regularly on SF Signal and I usually have a go at them. This week it’s the following eight questions:

1. The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
Technically, it would be Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, a novelisation of the TV series, which my parents gave me as a Christmas present in, I think, 1974. But the first category sf novel I read was Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, which was lent to me by a classmate in my first year at prep school – so that would be either late 1976 or early 1977.

Doctor_Who_and_the_Zarbi

2. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
I guard my Top 20 jealously and, sadly, it’s mostly not sf, fantasy or horror. No genre book has made it into the list during the last couple of years. However, if I were to run a category genre-only Top 20, then the last book I read which might make the grade would probably be… Extra(Ordinary) People, a 1984 collection by Joanna Russ, if only because it contains a story, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a new favourite. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here. If I were to restrict myself to novels, the last three genre reads with the most stars from me on GoodReads were, in no particular order: Europe in Autumn, The Violent Century, Rapture and Ancillary Justice.

3. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
That would be Palimpsest by Cathrynne M Valente. I’d heard a lot of positive things about it, and was quite chuffed to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. But the reading didn’t go very well at all. I baled around page 100, unable to put up any longer with the over-writing. I think it was something about a character being able to taste a snail’s foot in his mouth or something.

4. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
I have my favourites – who doesn’t? Paul Park has a new novel and a collection coming out this year, which has made me very happy – doubly so, in fact. Sadly, Gwyneth Jones doesn’t seem to have anything due out in the foreseeable future. A couple of years ago, I’d heard a US publisher had contracted for a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (as by Ann Halam), but I’ve yet to see it mentioned anywhere online. I’m also eagerly awaiting David Herter’s new sf novels/novellas from PS Publishing.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co

5. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
But I’ve read everyone! Ahem. Of course, I haven’t really, just rather a lot of them – but many of those I’ve not read have been a matter of choice. I don’t think there’s anyone I’m ashamed I’ve not read – because if I was, I’d have read them; or at the very least I’d have one of their books on my humungous TBR pile. PC Hodgell, for example; or Michael Cisco… I own books by both but have yet to read them. Which reminds me, I really must get around to purchasing a copy of Laurie J Marks’ Fire Logic, as I really want to read it. Um, in fact, now I think about it, there’s a whole bunch of authors I want to read but have yet to buy anything by…

6. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
Easy. The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here, and have been singing its praises ever since. Sadly, it’s currently out of print; but it really needs to be introduced to a new audience.

7. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
Where do I start? Many of my favourite genre novels were highly regarded when they were published, but they’ve never been reprinted since. One or two are now in the SF Masterworks series… so I can hardly claim they’re still under-rated. Instead, I will chose something completely out of my comfort zone – a fantasy novel: The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (1991). It was never published in the UK, had two reviews on publication (in Locus and amazing Stories), has zero reviews on GoodReads and two on Amazon (including a 5-star one by Katherine Kerr!), Kirkus called it a “formless hodgepodge of a book”, and the first five pages of Google are links to places to buy the book rather than online reviews… I think it qualifies as under-rated.

grailfohearts

8. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:
There’s a lot of recent sf I think is horribly over-rated – just look at the Hugo Award and Nebula Award shortlists for the past few years. But many of those books I’ve not actually read myself, so my opinion is chiefly the result of other stuff written by those authors. However, I have read Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, and it was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for 2012, and made it into the top 5 on the Locus Poll for that year. I thought it was terrible, and I refused to read its sequels. I now hear it’s been optioned for television. Sigh.


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The SF Mistresswork list, revised

Who remembers the SF Mistressworks meme, a list of science fiction by women writers from the twentieth century (and earlier)? I originally posted it in March 2011 (see here), and it then inspired me to create the SF Mistressworks website. Which is still going strong.

But that original list had a few problems. A couple of the titles I’d proposed turned out to be fantasy and not science fiction; and one writer even proved to be male – well, I never can remember which is male and which is female from Lesley and Leslie… The list also contained only 91 books, as I’d not managed to think of 100 suitable titles.

But three years later, I’ve read a lot more sf by women writers, and I’ve done more research on the topic. So I felt it was time for a new version of the list. Also, many more of the books are now available once again – either published by small presses, or made available on Kindle by the SF Gateway or the authors themselves self-publishing their back-catalogue.

The list below mostly unchanged from the original – I’ve simply expanded it to 100, removed the fantasy novels, made a few alternative selections for a couple of writers, and added some more writers I’d unfairly missed off first time around. It now looks like this:

  1. Frankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818)
  2. Herland†, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
  3. Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
  4. Lest Ye Die, Cicely Hamilton (1928)
  5. Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin (1937)
  6. Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)
  7. Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
  8. The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
  9. Agent of the Unknown, Margaret St Clair (1956)
  10. Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, Zenna Henderson (1961)
  11. Catseye, Andre Norton (1961)
  12. Memoirs of a Spacewoman†, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
  13. Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
  14. Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter (1969)
  15. Armed Camps, Kit Reed (1969)
  16. Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)
  17. Ten Thousand Light-years from Home, James Tiptree Jr (1973)
  18. The Dispossessed*, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
  19. Walk to the End of the World†, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)
  20. Star Rider†, Doris Piserchia (1974)
  21. The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975
  22. Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975)
  23. Arslan*, MJ Engh (1976)
  24. Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)
  25. Floating Worlds*, Cecelia Holland (1976)
  26. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang*, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
  27. Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
  28. Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
  29. False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
  30. Shikasta, Doris Lessing (1979)
  31. Kindred†, Octavia Butler (1979)
  32. Benefits, Zoe Fairbairns (1979)
  33. Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
  34. A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979)
  35. The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
  36. The Silent City†, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1981)
  37. The Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981)
  38. Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1982)
  39. The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffery (1982)
  40. Native Tongue†, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
  41. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
  42. Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
  43. The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
  44. The Dream Years, Lisa Goldstein (1985)
  45. Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
  46. Queen of the States†, Josephine Saxton (1986)
  47. The Wave and the Flame, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (1986)
  48. The Journal of Nicholas the American, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
  49. A Door into Ocean†, Joan Slonczewski (1986)
  50. Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
  51. In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1987)
  52. Pennterra, Judith Moffett (1987)
  53. Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
  54. Cyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988)
  55. Unquenchable Fire*, Rachel Pollack (1988)
  56. The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy (1988)
  57. Carmen Dog†, Carol Emshwiller (1988)
  58. The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989)
  59. The Third Eagle, RA MacAvoy (1989)
  60. Grass*, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
  61. Heritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989)
  62. Falcon, Emma Bull (1989)
  63. The Archivist, Gill Alderman (1989)
  64. Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990)
  65. A Gift Upon the Shore, MK Wren (1990)
  66. Red Spider, White Web, Misha (1990)
  67. Polar City Blues, Katherine Kerr (1990)
  68. He, She and It (AKA Body of Glass), Marge Piercy (1991)
  69. Sarah Canary*, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
  70. Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1991)
  71. A Woman of the Iron People, Eleanor Arnason (1991)
  72. Hermetech, Storm Constantine (1991)
  73. Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
  74. China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
  75. Correspondence†, Sue Thomas (1992)
  76. Lost Futuress, Lisa Tuttle (1992)
  77. Doomsday Book*, Connie Willis (1992)
  78. Ammonite*, Nicola Griffith (1993)
  79. The Holder of the World†, Bharati Mukherjee (1993)
  80. Dancing on the Volcano, Anne Gay (1993)
  81. Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994)
  82. Happy Policeman, Patricia Anthony (1994)
  83. Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
  84. Legacies, Alison Sinclair (1995)
  85. Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro (1995)
  86. Alien Influences, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (1995)
  87. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
  88. Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
  89. Remnant Population, Elizabeth Moon (1996)
  90. Looking For The Mahdi, N Lee Wood (1996)
  91. An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
  92. Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel (1997)
  93. Black Wine, Candace Jane Dorsey (1997)
  94. A Thousand Words for Stranger, Julie E Czernada (1997)
  95. Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998)
  96. Vast, Linda Nagata (1998)
  97. Hand of Prophecy, Severna Park (1998)
  98. Brown Girl In The Ring, Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
  99. Dreaming In Smoke, Tricia Sullivan (1999)
  100. Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)

 

 

Although there were around sixty women actively writing science fiction or fantasy in the 1940s, I can’t find a sf novel written by any of them which was published in that decade. Several of the writers on the list are better known as writers of fantasy, but they have written science fiction and that’s what I’ve listed. Books in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series I’ve marked with an asterisk (*) – many of these were added to the series after I posted the original list three years ago. Books that were published by The Women’s Press back in the 1980s/1990s I’ve marked with a dagger (†).

Myself, I’ve read 49 of the books, and have a further eight on the TBR. Forty-eight of the books have also been reviewed on SF Mistressworks, some of them several times.

Finally, are there any writers I’ve missed who really belong on the list? Don’t forget it’s books published up until 2000. Perhaps some of the books on the list are not the author’s best work, perhaps another title would better. One or two were, I admit, judgement calls – for example, Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (as Body of Glass) won the Clarke Award in 1992 but is no longer in print; her Woman on the Edge of Time, however, is (but it was also first published in 1976, and I felt I had more than enough books from that year). There are, as far as I’m aware, only two cheats on the list – Tiptree is represented by a collection rather than a novel; and Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology  - and, to be honest, there are a good number of women-only sf anthologies which might be better choices.

ETA: removed Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind as it’s an anthology, and added Joachim Boaz’s suggestion of Kit Reed’s Armed Camps. I’ll be posting a list of women-only sf anthologies shortly.


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10 books that stayed with me

Whenever a book-related meme pops up, I love to jump on board. And apparently there’s one currently doing the rounds: “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ works, just ones that have touched you”. I saw this on Liz Bourke’s blog here, and decided to have a go.

I’ve done something similar before, I think, but not for quite so many titles… Which made this one a bit harder than expected. But here they are, in the order in which the books occurred to me:

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007), a novel I hugely admire and which has inspired me in my own writing.
2 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957 – 1960), because on reading it I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and began collecting everything he had ever written.
3 The Undercover Aliens (AKA The House That Stood Still), AE van Vogt (1950), bonkers California noir meets pulp sf, and the only van Vogt novel I’d ever recommend to anyone.
4 Dune, Frank Herbert (1965), still the premier example of world-building in science fiction.
5 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1974), the sf novel I’ve probably reread more times than any other.
6 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), one of my top five favourite novels of all time.
7 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951 – 1952), the scene where Hank and Pierre first see through the clouds hiding the surface of the Red Moon haunted me for years as a kid.
8 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953), the first of hers I read, and her novels are still my chief comfort reading.
9 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980), I fell in love with Varley’s Eight Worlds, and the title novelette still remains a favourite.
10 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992), I’ve always preferred crime fiction written by women, and Paretsky is why – this was the first of hers I ever read.

Not such a great showing gender-wise – only two women out of ten. While there are certainly a great number of women writers I admire and whose novels and short stories I love, I spent my formative years reading mostly science fiction, and sadly it was chiefly science fiction by male writers. There were exceptions – in amongst all those books by Heinlein, van Vogt, Simak, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Harrison, Herbert, Tubb, Vance, etc, I read and became a fan of Cherryh, Le Guin, Van Scyoc, Julian May… Later, I discovered Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle, Joanna Russ, Leigh Brackett… and now, of course, I think most of the twentieth-century science fiction I read is by women writers.


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To gateway or not to gateway

All too often when people suggest science fiction titles to introduce non-sf readers to the genre, they pick something that will show them what the genre is capable of. But everybody knows that all ready – they can see it on telly, in the cinema. They know all about space battles, planets exploding, alien vistas, robots, cyberspace, weird ideas. Whether they recognise some of those ideas as science fiction is an entirely different matter – is The Adjustment Bureau, with its “magic fucking hats”, a sf movie, for example? The reason these people don’t read science fiction is because they think it’s badly-written, or mired in outdated sensibilities and so irrelevant to them. And we’re no help because we thrust shit books written ninety years ago by some dead old white bloke at them. So what if the men all wears hats and the women do the dishes, it’s about galactic empires! It’s a classic of the genre!

But, honestly, why should we expect them to plough through three hundred pages of tin-eared dialogue, cardboard cut-out characters and leaden prose just for an “idea”? The whole point of written sf is that it can do what media sf does, but it can do it better. The plots will be logically and internally consistent, it won’t insult your intelligence, it may challenge your preconceptions and prejudices, it will have themes and motifs, and it tries to say something beside “money, please, now park your bum here for 100 minutes”. Plus all those space battles and exploding planets, too. Nothing in a science fiction novel is likely to make you *headdesk* like the “cold fusion” in Star Trek Into Darkness.

So when we try to think of titles for a non-sf reader to read… we should pretty much bin all the classics of the genre. We should choose books that demonstrate sf can be well-written, even beautifully written, that it can handle ideas considered too outrageous for cinema audiences, that it can tell stories that are well-plotted, internally consistent, without dumb plot-holes, stupid bromances, or daddy-issues that obliterate the actual story… We should suggest books that are recent, relevant, and have something interesting, or perhaps even important, to say.

And such science fiction novels do exist. It took me a while, but I think I came up with five. They’re all twenty-first-century novels. I have also read them. One or two might have won or been nominated for prestigious genre awards. They are, in no particular order…

Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012) Because it’s a near-future thriller written with genre sensibilities, works brilliantly and recognisably as a cautionary tale on the world we live in, and yet it also does something a writer of near-future thrillers would never consider doing, or might even actually be afraid of doing.

Dark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012) Not only because it won the Arthur C Clarke Award a month or two ago, but because it’s a story everyone will recognise but set on a world which will be completely new to them; and it’s beautifully written too.

Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2004) Because written science fiction can do the fast-paced action/adventure but it can also, in the same story, ask big questions about identity, memory, the future of humanity… and try to answer them.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002) Because if science fiction is not about the people, then what’s the point in it – and how much are those people products of the world in which they live?

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004) Because sometimes science fiction is actually about science and scientists, and how their calling affects themselves, their lives, those around them, and the world.

So: five science fiction novels, published this century by genre imprints. All are currently available. One is the first book in a trilogy, the third part of which has just been published. One is by a small press. I count eleven appearances in genre award shortlists by the five books, and two wins. So it’s not just me who thinks they’re good books. All five books are, I believe, accessible to someone who has not read science fiction before but is familiar with many of its tropes from television or cinema. And all five books, I feel, will show why written sf can do so much more than sf on television or in the cinema…


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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200 Significant Science Fiction Books by Women

Yesterday someone tweeted the following list from the New York Review of Science Fiction – 200 Significant Science Fiction Books by Women, 1984–2001, by David G. Hartwell. The list was published on 15 February this year and was apparently put together for a panel at a convention or something. And what a peculiar list it is too. A selection of the best-known women sf writers leavened with a handful of obscure names. Every book published by CJ Cherryh during the period, for instance, is apparently significant. There are some YA titles, and some which are not science fiction by any definition of the term – Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, which is a straight secondary world fantasy, for example; or The Silver Kiss, a YA vampire novel. Hartwell’s decision to exclude books “published out of genre” means no Clarke Award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, but he still includes The Journal of Nicholas the American, which wasn’t published by a genre imprint. Neither was Sarah Canary, but that’s also on the list.

There are indeed many good books on the list, but it’s a baffling piece of work nonetheless. It doesn’t give a true indication of the contribution made by women writers to science fiction as it focuses only on those who won awards or appeared on “best of the year” lists during the seventeen years in question. Exceptionalism is not representational. Vast swathes of genre fiction have been overlooked and ignored because it was written by women, and Hartwell’s list does nothing to address this.

It doesn’t help that the choices appear so random – no The Sparrow or Children of God, nothing from Tepper between 1990 and 2000, the first two books of Jones’ Aleutian trilogy but not the third, no Mary Gentle or Tricia Sullivan or Josephine Saxton, and all but a couple of the titles which appeared under The Women’s Press sf imprint completely ignored… Hartwell’s decision to include collections also skews the list, since many likely include stories written before 1984. James Tiptree Jr is a case in point: she’s represented by one novel and three collections, and yet only two of the books listed were actually published during her lifetime.

I’ve re-sorted the list alphabetically, which better shows how some writers dominate it. (And I’ve corrected the mispelling of Susan M Shwartz’s name.) I’ve also asterisked those books which have  been reviewed by SF Mistressworks (some more than once). Still, at the very least, any self-respecting sf fan should be aware of, or have read, most of the books on this list. In that respect it should make quite a good meme. I’ve had a go and done the usual – bold for read, italics for TBR…

Brother Termite, Patricia Anthony (1993)
A Woman Of The Iron People, Eleanor Arnason (1991)
Ring of Swords, Eleanor Arnason (1993)
Primary Inversion*, Catherine Asaro (1995)
The Last Hawk, Catherine Asaro (1997)
The Quantum Rose, Catherine Asaro (2000)
Unwillingly to Earth, Pauline Ashwell (1992)

Crash Course, Wihelmina Baird (1993)
In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker (1998)
Sky Coyote, Kage Baker (1999)
The Best of . . ., Marion Zimmer Bradley (1985)
The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold (1990)
Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Cetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Dreamweaver’s Dilemma, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold (1999)
Falcon, Emma Bull (1989)
Bone Dance, Emma Bull (1991)
Dawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Adulthood Rites, Octavia Butler (1988)
Imago, Octavia Butler (1989)
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1994)
Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia Butler (1995)
Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler (1998)

Mindplayers, Pat Cadigan (1987)
Patterns, Pat Cadigan (1989)
Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
Home by the Sea, Pat Cadigan (1992)
Dirty Work, Pat Cadigan (1993)
Promised Land, Pat Cadigan (1999)
Dervish Is Digital, Pat Cadigan (2001)
The Furies, Suzy McKee Charnas (1994)
The Conqueror’s Child, Suzy McKee Charnas (1999)
Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Voyager in Night*, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Cuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh (1985)
The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Visible Light, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Cyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988)
Rimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989)
Heavy Time, CJ Cherryh (1991)
Hellburner, CJ Cherryh (1992)
Foreigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Invader, CJ Cherryh (1995)
Rider at the Gate, CJ Cherryh (1995)
Inheritor, CJ Cherryh (1996)
Precursor, CJ Cherryh (1999)
Defender, CJ Cherryh (2001)
Mainline, Deborah Christian (1996)
Mutagenesis, Helen Collins (1993)
Beholder’s Eye, Julie Czerneda (1998)
In the Company of Others, Julie Czerneda (2001)

A Paradigm of Earth, Candas Jane Dorsey (2001)

Native Tongue*, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Jaran, Kate Elliott (1992)
City of Diamond, Jane Emerson
The Start of the End of It All and Other Stories, Carol Emshwiller (1990)
Rainbow Man, MJ Engh (1993)

Infinity’s Web, Sheila Finch (1985)
Artificial Things, Karen Joy Fowler (1986)
Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Black Glass, Karen Joy Fowler (1998)
In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1987)

Halfway Human*, Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998)
The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss (1997)
A Mask for the General, Lisa Goldstein (1987)
Queen City Jazz*, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994)
The Bones of Time, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1996)
Mississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1997)
Crescent City Rhapsody, Kathleen Ann Goonan (2000)
Flesh and Gold, Phyllis Gotlieb (1998)
Ammonite*, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Slow River*, Nicola Griffith (1995)

Winterlong*, Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Æstival Tide*, Elizabeth Hand (1992)
Icarus Descending*, Elizabeth Hand (1993)
Glimmering*, Elizabeth Hand (1997)
Last Summer At Mars Hill, Elizabeth Hand (1998)
Midnight Robber*, Nalo Hopkinson (2000)

Divine Endurance, Gwyneth Jones (1984)
Escape Plans*, Gwyneth Jones (1986)
Kairos*, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
White Queen*, Gwyneth Jones (1991)
North Wind, Gwyneth Jones (1994)
Bold as Love*, Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Hellspark, Janet Kagan (1988)
Mirabile, Janet Kagan (1991)
The Journal of Nicholas the American*, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
Polar City Blues, Katherine Kerr (1990)
The Silver Kiss, Annette Curtis Klause (1990)
Trinity and Other Stories, Nancy Kress (1985)
An Alien Light, Nancy Kress (1988)
Brain Rose, Nancy Kress (1990)
The Aliens of Earth, Nancy Kress (1993)
Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1993)
Beggars & Choosers, Nancy Kress (1994)
Beggars Ride, Nancy Kress (1996)
Beaker’s Dozen, Nancy Kress (1998)
Probability Moon, Nancy Kress (2000)
Probability Sun, Nancy Kress (2001)

Dreams of Dark and Light, Tanith Lee (1986)
Night’s Sorceries, Tanith Lee (1987)
Always Coming Home, Ursula K LeGuin (1985)
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, Ursula K LeGuin (1987)
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea*, Ursula K LeGuin (1994)
Four Ways to Forgiveness*, Ursula K LeGuin (1995)
Unlocking the Air and Other Stories, Ursula K LeGuin (1996)
The Telling, Ursula K LeGuin (2000)

Arachne, Lisa Mason (1990)
Summer of Love, Lisa Mason (1994)
An Exchange of Hostages*, Susan R Matthews (1997)
The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, Anne McCaffrey (1993)
The Girl Who Heard Dragons, Anne McCaffrey (1994)
China Mountain Zhang*, Maureen McHugh (1992)
Mission Child*, Maureen McHugh (1998)
Nekropolis, Maureen McHugh (2001)
Murphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000)
The Ragged World, Judith Moffett (1991)
Remnant Population, Elizabeth Moon (1996)
Once a Hero, Elizabeth Moon (1997)
The City, Not Long After*, Pat Murphy (1989)
Points of Departure, Pat Murphy (1990)
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Elizabeth Moon (1988)
Lunar Activity, Elizabeth Moon (1990)

Deception Well, Linda Nagata (1997)
Vast, Linda Nagata (1998)
Limit of Vision, Linda Nagata (2001)

Becoming Alien, Rebecca Ore (1987)
Being Alien, Rebecca Ore (1989)
Alien Bootlegger and Other Stories, Rebecca Ore (1993)
Gaia’s Toys, Rebecca Ore (1995)

The Annunciate, Severna Park (1999)

Little Sisters of the Apocalypse, Kit Reed (1995)
Silver Screen*, Justina Robson (1999)
Synthesis and Other Virtual Realities, Mary Rosenblum (1996)
Chimera, Mary Rosenblum (1993)
The Drylands, Mary Rosenblum (1993)
Alien Influences, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (1994)
Extra(Ordinary) People*, Joanna Russ (1984)
The Hidden Side Of The Moon, Joanna Russ (1988)

Venus of Dreams, Pamela Sargent (1986)
The Best of . . ., Pamela Sargent (1987)
The Healer’s War, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (1988)
The Game Beyond, Melissa Scott (1984)
Trouble and Her Friends*, Melissa Scott (1994)
Shadow Man*, Melissa Scott (1995)
Night Sky Mine, Melissa Scott (1996)
The Shapes of Their Hearts, Melissa Scott (1998)
Reef Song, Carol Severance (1991)
Heritage of Flight, Susan M Shwartz (1989)
Legacies, Alison Sinclair (1995)
A Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski (1986)
The Children Star, Joan Slonczewski (1998)
Code Of Conduct, Kristine Smith (1999)
Other Nature, Stephanie Smith (1995)
The Arbitrary Placement of Walls, Martha Soukup (1997)
Alien Taste, Wen Spencer (2001)
Chance and Other Gestures of the Hand of Fate, Nancy Springer (1987)
Larque on the Wing, Nancy Springer (1994)

After Long Silence, Sheri S Tepper (1987)
Grass*, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990)
The Fresco, Sherri S Tepper (2000)
Virtual Girl*, Amy Thomson (1993)
The Color of Distance*, Amy Thomson (1995)
Through Alien Eyes, Amy Thomson (1999)
Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr (1985)
Tales of the Quintana Roo, James Tiptree Jr (1986)
Crown of Stars, James Tiptree Jr (1988)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Lost Futures, Lisa Tuttle (1992)

World’s End, Joan D Vinge (1984)
Phoenix in the Ashes, Joan D Vinge (1985)
Catspaw, Joan D Vinge (1988)
Opalite Moon, Denise Vitola (1997)
The Silent City*, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1988)
In the Mother’s Land, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1992)
Reluctant Voyagers, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1995)

Whiteout, Sage Walker (1996)
Mother Grimm, Catherine Wells (1997)
Children of the Wind, Kate Wilhelm (1989)
And the Angels Sing, Kate Wilhelm (1992)
The Ghost Sister, Liz Williams (2001)
Sea as Mirror, Tess Williams (2000)
Fire Watch, Connie Willis (1985)
Doomsday Book*, Connie Willis (1992)
Impossible Things, Connie Willis (1993)
To Say Nothing of The Dog*, Connie Willis (1998)
Passage, Connie Willis (2001)
Looking for the Mahdi*, N Lee Wood (1996)

Sister Emily’s Lightship and Other Stories, Jane Yolen (2000)

Reclamation*, Sarah Zettel (1996)
Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel (1997)
Playing God, Sarah Zettel (1998)
Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988)

I make that 48 read and 5 on the TBR. Not a good showing out of 200. But there are several authors with multiple entries that I don’t normally read – like Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan, Connie Willis or Lois McMaster Bujold. A lot of the books were also never published in the UK. A large number of the titles, however, are on my wishlist, and I will eventually find copies and read them. And review them on SF Mistressworks, of course.


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essential sf novels – the analysis

So there we go: 50 essential science fiction novels, as chosen by Jared Shurin (here and here), James Smythe (here and here) and myself (here and here). And, of course, there’s the original abebooks.com list.

Only three books appeared on all three lists: Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. None, you’ll note, were published as sf novels. Two are by women. Only the one by a man appeared on the abebooks.com list.

There were several books which appeared on two of the three lists: Flatland (Jared and James), The Time Machine (Jared and Ian), The Sword of Rhiannon (Jared and Ian), The Stars My Destination (James and Ian), Solaris (James and Ian), The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Jared and James), Neuromancer (Jared and James), Watchmen (Jared and James), Mindplayers (Jared and James), Red Mars (James and Ian), The Road (James and Ian) and Zoo City (Jared and James). I myself have read 23 of James’ 50, and 26 of Jared’s 50. There were several titles on both lists I’d not heard of, and I plan to pick up copies.

Across all three lists, there were 34 books out of 150 by women writers (including duplicate choices). We could – should – have done that better. There were nine books by non-Anglophone writers. So, a fail there too. Theme- and subgenre-wise, however, the choices were widespread, with everything from a Choose To Your Own Adventure to a bande dessinée.

Time-wise… both James and Jared liked the 1950s (both with 10 books), and the 1980s (9 for James, 12 for Jared). I preferred the 1970s (12 books) and the 1990s (also 12 books). Which is odd, as I think I’m oldest.  The 1980s was the most popular decade overall, with 28 books chosen by the three of us. Jared like the most 19th century novels (4), and James liked the most 21st century novels (11).

Finally, for the record, here’s the list which sparked off the ones put together by Jared, James and myself. I’ve done the meme thing to it – you know, bold if you’ve read it, italicise if it’s on the TBR. Also, * if it’s on my list, † if it’s on James’, and ‡ if it’s on Jared’s.

1 A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
2 The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
3 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
4 When Worlds Collide, Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933)
5 Odd John, Olaf Stapledon (1935)
6 Nineteen Eighty-Four†‡*, George Orwell (1949)
7 Earth Abides, George R Stewart (1949)
8 Foundation†, Isaac Asimov (1951)
9 The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury (1951)
10 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (1953)
11 Ring Around the Sun, Clifford D Simak (1953)
12 Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (1954)
13 The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
14 The Chrysalids†, John Wyndham (1955)
15 The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
16 Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein (1959)
17 The Sirens of Titan†, Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
18 Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank (1959)
19 A Canticle for Leibowitz†, Walter M Miller (1960)
20 Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
21 Solaris†*, Stanislaw Lem (1961)
22 The Drowned World†, JG Ballard (1962)
23 Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (1962)
24 A Wrinkle in Time‡, Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
25 Dune*, Frank Herbert (1965)
26 Make Room! Make Room!, Harry Harrison (1966)
27 Logan’s Run, William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967)
28 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick (1968)
29 The Left Hand of Darkness‡, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
30 Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
31 Ringworld, Larry Niven (1970)
32 Rendezvous with Rama*, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
33 Roadside Picnic, Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972)
34 The Female Man*, Joanna Russ (1975)
35 Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (1976)
36 The Stand, Stephen King (1978)
37 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy†‡, Douglas Adams (1979)
38 Nor Crystal Tears, Alan Dean Foster (1982)
39 Ender’s Game‡, Orson Scott Card (1985)
40 Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)
41 Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
42 Hyperion†, Dan Simmons (1989)
43 Red Mars†*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
44 Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo (1996)
45 Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (1999)
46 Uglies, Scott Westerfeld (2005)
47 Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
48 Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (2007)
49 Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (2008)
50 Embassytown†, China Miéville (2011)

I make that 32 read and 3 on the TBR. There are, I must admit, some bizarre choices – Alan Dean Foster? But no more so than the lists James, Jared and myself put together, I suppose. There are a number of traditional choices, books I avoid because I don’t think they’re very good, even though most people claim them as “classics”. Such as, of course, the Asimov. It’s also a very testosterone-heavy list – I make it 5 female authors. I was embarrassed I only managed to list 16 on mine, but that’s three times more than this list. Finally, of those books I’ve not read or are not on the TBR… I’m not bothered about actually reading them. Which I guess means this list fails in one respect.

Overall, it’s been a fun exercise. I’m not sure I’d generate the same list if I were to do this a year from now. I suspect James and Jared would say the same…


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 2

Day two and here are my essential sf novels, from 26 through to 50. See here for Jared’s on Pornokitsch and here for James Smythe’s.

To me, what constitutes science fiction has always been quite clear, and my numerous attempts at defining the genre have merely been a way of communicating that certainty. But what does “essential” mean? I found that much harder to define. Yes, I relied a lot on my favourite novels when compiling this list – I thought they were brilliant, therefore they must be essential. Except several of them I could not quite squeeze in. My favourite DG Compton novel, for example, is Synthajoy, but in yesterday’s list I instead included The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – because I think it covers a theme more essential to a true exploration of the science fiction genre. Likewise, I wanted to include Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel that has been a touchstone work for my own writing for several years. But it only hints at being alternate history in its final pages, and it barely qualifies as space fiction. Oh well.

We readily agreed that graphic novels, or bandes dessinées, were allowed. I picked the most obvious choice – see number 26 below. I’d like to have chosen Dan Dare or the Trigan Empire, but I don’t think either really characterises a tradition in British sf comics – certainly not one that continues to this day. So, much as I love them, I found their inclusion hard to justify.

Certainly, there were movements during the last few decades in sf which I needed to represent in my list: cyberpunk, steampunk, New Space Opera… As long as I picked one work from each, and could justify its presence, then job done. The works I chose for those subgenres are not the most obvious ones, but I think they’re the most important – or  I certainly believe they deserve to be. Others may disagree.

Anyway, the list…

26 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
In France, there is a strong sf tradition associated with comics, or bandes dessinée. Not all of these have been translated into English – sadly. The Incal is one of the most popular bandes dessinée, and rightly so. It is completely bonkers, beautifully drawn, and an excellent example of what the medium can do.

27 Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Cherryh has been churning out muscular hard sf since 1976, and she’s still going. Somehow she has managed to stitch all these novels in to a single future history. It’s an astonishing achievement. This book is perhaps her best-known, and is very much characteristic of her oeuvre.

28 Native Tongue, Suzette Elgin Haden (1984)
Women-only utopias do not happen overnight – though from some of the novels which feature them you might think so. Native Tongue charts one route, starting from a near-future in which women are reduced once again to the status of chattel. The development of a women-only language, Láadan, is instrumental in overturning this situation. This novel is both linguistic sf and feminist sf.

29 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

30 Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Hav is not a real place, though you might be fooled into thinking so as you read this novel. Very early proto-sf often couched its tall tales in the form of travel journals, but once Gernsback bootstrapped the genre into existence, as a form of sf it seemed to go into decline. A pity, if Last Letters from Hav is any indication of what it can do.

31 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
Say “cyberpunk” and everyone immediately thinks of Neuromancer. But I’m not convinced that’s an especially essential book – cyberpunk has become a lifestyle, and does it really matter which novel – arguably – booted it up into existence? What is essential, however, is the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. This one. It marked the end of cyberpunk as a sf literary movement. All the cyberpunk novels and stories that followed were just twitchings of the subgenre’s rotting corpse.

32 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
This is one of my two slightly sneaky inclusions. We did agree to allow novellas, and many novellas are indeed published as independent books. But this one never was – it first appeared in the collection Novelty. It is possibly the best time paradox story ever written, with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

33 Take Back Plenty†, Colin Greenland (1990)
New Space Opera has been good for science fiction. But if this book had been its model rather than Banks’ Culture novels, it could all have turned out very differently. Take Back Plenty celebrates the pulp side of sf, and does so with intelligence, wit and verve. It is one of the genre’s best books.

34 The Difference Engine†, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
Another slightly sneaky choice, as Sterling appears alone at the end of this list. The term “steampunk” was coined by KW Jeter, and his Morlock Night and Infernal Devices are emblematic of the subgenre. But they’re not actually that good. The Difference Engine is good. It is the one steampunk novel that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre (which is now, sadly, a lifestyle).

35 Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
This sf novel is the only one I can think of which mixes science fiction and Southern Gothic. It’s a mashup that shouldn’t by rights succeed. But it does. It is a rich and strange book – and sf needs to be rich and strange more often.

36 Sarah Canary†, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Not all first contact novels involve hardy explorers beaming down onto an alien planet and trying to communicate with mysterious aliens. Sometimes the mysterious aliens are here on Earth; and sometimes we will never know if they were alien or even if we have made contact. This book is proof that sf does not need to be about the future, spaceships, robots, time travel, or giant computer brains.

37 Red Mars*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
This is the definitive novel on the near-future colonisation of another planet – in this case, our neighbour, Mars. Enough said. (Don’t forget to read the sequels too.)

38 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Near-future sf is difficult to do well, if only because the author is expected to have some sort of magical crystal ball. But sf has never been predictive, and when it has got something right it’s been a happy accident. China Mountain Zhang is a near-future novel, but that’s incidental. It is beautifully written. That’s all that matters. McHugh is one of the genre’s very best writers.

39 Dark Sky Legion, William Barton (1992)
We may never find a way to circumvent the speed of light. Which means 90% of science fiction is just so much magical hogwash. But some writers have tried to envisage a distant future in which the speed of light restriction still holds true. This is the best of the bunch. It also does something interesting philosophically – and sf is traditionally not very good at that.

40 A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
Some space operas aren’t New, though they appeared while New Space Opera was doing its thing. The central premise of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Zones of Thought, is one of those ideas that shows why sf is such an important and vibrant mode of fiction. The somewhat ordinary plot attached is almost incidental.

41 Fatherland, Richard Harris (1992)
One form of alternate history is vastly more popular than any other: Hitler winning WWII. It’s impossible to write a story based on it that is neither derivative nor clichéd. This is probably the best of the lot – because it is set decades after the War, and is only peripherally concerned with the fact of the Nazi victory.

42 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
There are many themes which science fiction rarely tackles. Postcolonialism is one. It smacks too much of the real world – and too much of the real world that is not the First World – for most sf writers and readers. Coelestis treats the subject with intelligence, and then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. A masterwork.

43 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Among the many themes covered by sf over the decades has been sexuality and gender. The most famous such novel is LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, but given the one-book-per-author rule I couldn’t pick that. (And besides, its treatment of its hermaphroditic humans is somewhat problematical.) Scott complicates matters here by throwing in five genders and nine sexual preferences and, while the gender politics are still a little iffy, this is an essential exploration of the theme.

44 Voyage, Stephen Baxter (1996)
This is not only alternate history, it is also space fiction: it is an alternate history of a NASA mission to Mars. The research is impeccable, and it makes a highly plausible fist of its premise. Space fiction has been chiefly dominated by writers who are not very good, which is unfortunate. Happily, Baxter can write well, and he does so in this book.

45 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? The world of the title character does seem more fantastical than sfnal, but it’s wrapped in a near-future narrative which is resolutely sf. And the way the two narratives interact, and change each other, is definitely straight from science fiction’s toolbox.

46 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
This is perhaps the most literary science fiction novel ever written (not counting, of course, the two sequels). Or perhaps it’s the most science-fictional literary novel ever written. On balance, I suspect the former – it is too steeped in genre to be wholly accessible to readers of literary fiction. That still makes it essential for sf readers, however.

47 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
Surprisingly, working scientists are not especially popular as protagonists in science fiction. This novel is about one. And science. It is also brilliant.

48 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
First contact is a genre staple. This novel – the first of the Marq’ssan Cycle quintet – is not the first in which the visiting aliens choose to speak only to women, and which subsequently prompts a global crisis. It is, however, notable for a near-future world in which the ultra-rich rule openly and cruelly. Elizabeth Weatherall, PA to the chief villain of this book, goes on in later volumes to become one of the genre’s great villains in her own right. Go read all five books.

49 The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Post-apocalypse is such a well-established subgenre that recently most such novels have been by writers of literary fiction. And this is the best of those. It’s also much better than any genre post-apocalypse novel. Sadly, the trope has now been so over-used it’s become banal. Someone needs to do something different with it.

50 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
We look at the world today and see impending climate crash and the collapse of national economies… but no sf novel except this one has dealt with such a scenario. It’s for good reason that Sterling was one employed as”Visionary in Residence” at a Californian university. Essential reading for the near-future.

And that’s it. I think I’ve covered all the major bases. Not every book in my list of fifty is a blinding piece of literary genius – this is science fiction, after all… But I think my choices show a good spread of themes and subgenres, and every book is certainly worth reading. I couldn’t get everything in, however. Some choices were just too hard to justify. For example, one subgenre of sf I was keen to have on my list was early space travel. Unfortunately, I’ve not read Garitt P Serviss or Willy Ley, and there’s a reason why High Vacuum (1956), First on the Moon (1958) and The Pilgrim Project (1966) are forgotten. So, no early space travel. Instead, I have Voyage as my entry for realistic space fiction (as if I’d really pick Bova, or Steele, or their like).

Finally, it has been a little dismaying putting together this list to discover how many of my selections are out of print. Some have recently been made available after many years OOP, either in the SF Masterworks series, or as ebooks through the SF Gateway. Respect to both for that. But others on my list have languished in obscurity since their original publication. This, I feel, doesn’t invalidate their, er, essentialness. After all, books don’t stay in print because they are essential, they stay in print because they’re popular, because people keep on buying them.

We have no real agreed academic canon in genre fiction, no fixed list of sf novels which teachers and lecturers turn to when designing courses on the subject. Yes, there are several books that people point to when the word “classic” is mentioned, but most of those are artefacts of the genre’s history. They were not chosen because experts in the subject have over the decades deemed them the best science fiction has produced in its eighty-seven years. Perhaps it’s good that sf is democratic in that regard… but when it elevates Foundation, Starship Troopers, the Lensman series and the like to greatness, I have to wonder…


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.

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