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Science fiction mistressworks


Since 2011 is becoming the Year of Women in SF (and so it should)… and my reading challenge for the twelve months involves reading a dozen sf novels by women writers… and various other websites and blogs have been posting on the topic since the beginning of the year… and today people were throwing around on twitter some suggested titles by female authors for Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series using the hashtag #SFMistressworks… I thought it was time for another leap onto the bandwagon. SF Mistressworks is an excellent term, I feel, to describe classics of the genre by female writers. And here are some of my suggestions. Most I’ve read, but some I’m going by others’ comments. Some are obscure but, I think, deserve to be better known. I have not included any of the titles by female writers already in the SF Masterworks series, although, of course, they deserve to be on a list such as this.

In no particular order…

Canopus in Argos: Archives, Doris Lessing
If they can include the Helliconia trilogy as one humungous paperback in the SF Masterworks series, why not this quintet?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
This is pretty much the definitive theocratic US dystopia novel.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
Why is this even out of print?

Kairos or Life, Gwyneth Jones
Or perhaps even White Queen or Bold As Love (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award). Certainly she deserves to be on the list. The only difficulty is picking which book (or books, of course).

The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney
Blakeney was a pen-name of Deborah Chester, who chiefly wrote YA sf novels under the name Sean Dalton. These two are actually pretty good space operas.

Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman
I remember this as one of those rare sf novels, like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which uses the genre to comment intelligently and interestingly on gender.

Jerusalem Fire or Sovereign, RM Meluch
A pair of accomplished space operas. I’ll have to reread them, but one or the other, I suspect, would find an audience if reprinted.

Daughters of the Sunstone, Sydney J van Scyoc
Van Scyoc has long been one of my favourite authors, and the trilogy collected in this SFBC omnibus edition is perhaps her best work.

Cyteen or Downbelow Station or Angel With the Sword, CJ Cherryh
Cyteen is probably her most adult novel, and Downbelow Station her most popular. Angel With the Sword just happens to be a personal favourite.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
It won lots of awards.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh
I know only that this book is highly-regarded. It is on the list for this year’s reading challenge.

Kindred, Octavia Butler
Likewise for this one.

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein
I just really liked this, thought it was charming. See here.

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott
Another one from my reading challenge, chosen because I’ve heard many good things about it.

Maul, Tricia Sullivan
Also from the reading challenge, but an Arthur C Clarke Award nominee too.

Any of the Jurisdiction series, Susan R Matthews
Why are these out of print? Why were they never published in the UK?

The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp
These five books are important.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin
I’ve been wanting to read this for years.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison
I picked this for my British SF Masterworks – see here.

The Silent City, Élisabeth Vonarburg
I’ve only read Vonarburg’s Dreams of the Sea – which I thought very good – but this is probably her most successful English-language novel.

Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas
Another one I’ve always wanted to read.

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt
Another favourite author who, I think, deserves to be on a list like this. Angel at Apogee was her debut novel and I still have a soft spot for it. Some of her later books were a bit too derivative to count as possible classics, but her last few were original and interesting.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr
Because she certainly belongs on this list, but her strength lay in her short fiction. As long as the collection contains ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, I’ll be happy.

I have no doubt missed off lots and lots and lots of suitable books. Suggest me some in the comments, then.


Edit: now with new added meme-type stuff! See The sf mistressworks meme list of 91 titles by women sf writers.


43 thoughts on “Science fiction mistressworks

  1. Second a few of those (Atwood, natch, James Tiptree Jr. is ace, ditto Gwyneth Jones and Tricia Sullivan).

    Also, handy list of things that I think I’d like to look at in future…

    Currently reading Memoirs of a Spacewoman. It’s excellent, I’m enjoying it a great deal. I think, though, that I’d like to give a wee shout to Lisa Goldstein’s The Dream Years. It’s a time travel novel involving the surrealists, Paris ’68 and a future revolution. Recommended by Kev McVeigh, before, I can confirm that is is quite wonderful and, as noted, distinctive book. Perhaps not the most SF-y on this list, but I think it should get a wider SF audience.

  2. What a coincidence you putting this blog on today, because my short story has been released today under its own cover. C.A.T. at TWBPress. I don’t pretend to be anywhere near as good as the writers of the novels you mention, but I have dreams of one day, just maybe…

    I know of at least three other female budding authors working hard away at their novels. It’s almost as if there is a growing swell of female SF writers waiting in the wings – and they all have such wonderful SF ideas. I look forward to 3, 5, 10 years time when their novels have matured and are published.

  3. what a bloody great list!

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  5. Came across Sovereign today, actually.

  6. This is just the sort of list I’ve been looking for – which ticks the boxes of reading more more sci-fi and reading more women.

    I concur with Rosie Oliver that there are plenty of up and coming female sci-fi writers. Who I sincerely hope publish under their very female names to proclaim themselves as writers and women in the genre.

  7. With the exception of some Star Trek Novels, the Serrano, Rowen and Sassinak series i haven’t read too many female authors. I did read Maul last year and it was pretty good.

  8. Some good entries here: I certainly second Butler, Tiptree, Charnas, and Atwood.

    Is there no Le Guin on here because she already has a Masterworks title?

    Others to add:

    Joanna Russ, THE FEMALE MAN
    Lois McMaster Bujold, THE CURSE OF CHALION
    R. S. Hussein, THE SULTANA’s DREAM
    Nicola Griffith, either SLOW RIVER or AMMONITE
    Anne Radcliffe, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO (for its influence)

    Chris Moriarty’s SPIN STATE is recent (2003) but I think will soon be worthy of the label “Mistresswork.”

    I can probably think up more, but that’s a quick response.

    • Yes, to Le Guin. Likewise for Russ.

      I’ve not read enough Bujold – or been much of a fan – to pick a title, so I hoped others would. I should have included Griffith – Ammonite, I think, of the two. The Hussein sounds like a fantasy.

      Spin State is on my list for this year’s reading challenge.

      Thanks for the suggestions.

  9. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

    Queen City Jazz, by Kathleen Ann Goonan

  10. Joan Vinge — Eyes of Amber
    Marge Piercy — He, She and It
    Joan Slonczewski — A Door into Ocean
    C. S. Friedman — In Conquest Born
    Melissa Scott — Dreaming Metal, Dreamships
    Vonda McIntyre — Superluminal
    Tanith Lee — The Silver Metal Lover
    Sheri Tepper — The Gate to Women’s Country
    Eleanor Arnason — A Woman of the Iron People
    Johanna Sinisalo — Troll, A Love Story
    Kristin Landon — The Hidden Worlds trilogy
    Pat Murphy — Points of Departure
    Margaret Atwood — Oryx and Crake
    Elizabeth Bear — Undertow
    MJ Locke — Up Against It

    • Thanks Athena. Some obvious ones I should have picked myself there. Is the Sinisalo sf? From the title, it sounds like fantasy.

      • Ian — the Sinisalo novel is at the border of SF and fantasy (as the best are). It’s the equivalent of Ice Man and so well written that it was marketed as non-genre work.

        • I checked it out on Amazon – looks really interesting. Doesn’t appear to have been published in the UK, though.

        • And a few more:

          Kate Wilhelm — Juniper Time
          Chelsea Quinn Yarbro — False Dawn
          Bharati Mukherjee — The Holder of the World
          Emma Bull — Falcon
          Aliette de Bodard — the Xuyan/Mexica stories

          I’m happy you listed van Scyoc, that trilogy is unfairly neglected (just like Friedman’s work).

          • Good call on Yarbro. Not heard of Mukherjee – shall look that one up.

            I’m currently putting together a list of 100 sf novels (and a few collections) by women writers – 1 book per author, published 2000 and earlier. At the moment, I have 82 titles.

            Later I’ll do a list of 21st century women sf writers.

  11. Please add Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Nancy Kress. Nancy for Beggars in Spain, although she has other great work out, too, and writes excellent short fiction.
    Kristine Kathryn Rusch – her “diving” series of books is excellent, and like Nancy she is phenomenal at shorter lengths, too.
    Connie Willis is also missing from this list.

  12. What happened to Sue Thomas whose SF debut Correspondence was Clarke shortlisted?

  13. Excellent list, Ian!

    I would add Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy.
    Also, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man;
    Anything by C.L.Moore (though I wonder if her collaborations with her husband Henry Kuttner, like Vintage Season, would fit into the list)

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  16. Another Brits I enjoyed was Helen Wright’s A Matter Of Oaths but I understand she disappeared without producing a second novel.

  17. Haven’t read Maul but really liked Dreaming In Smoke by Tricia Sullivan. One of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read.

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  19. As the SF Masterworks list is largely my creation, I’ve been reading this and other similar postings with interest, but also with some puzzlement.

    Without going into too much detail, the intention of the list was to adumbrate a canon of classic modern sf (while avoiding the dread word ‘classic’!), within the limits of the rights available. As I never expected the list to be anywhere near as successful as it has proved to be, the intention was also to get as many as possible of my favourite books back into print before the profit-and-loss figures made it impossible to continue. Happily this hasn’t happened. I will admit that there are a possibly a disproportionate number of Philip K. Dick titles…

    Your lists here and elsewhere seem to have become simply listings of sf titles written by women, with the underlying assumption being that we could publish any of them if we so chose. For example, you ask in slightly outraged tones why we haven’t included Doris Lessing’s CANOPUS IN ARGOS quintet, while your link connects to the Amazon page listing all the in-print editions published by HarperCollins in the UK. There is your answer. We don’t have the rights, and can’t get them. For years, the Women’s Press held rights to a number of titles (and remember, just because a title isn’t on Amazon doesn’t mean that some publisher doesn’t hold the rights) so, for example, we have only recently been able to add The Female Man.

    Taste, I’m afraid, also comes into this, and one of the reasons many perfectly good books aren’t on the list is that I don’t feel they are quite important enough. This applies equally to books by both men and women.

    • The sf mistressworks posts came out of a desire to celebrate women in sf, not to disparage the SF Masterworks series. I own all of the Masterworks titles, so I’m certainly glad they exist.

      I’m not expressing outrage regarding Canopus in Argos: Archives, merely pointing out that a paperback omnibus edition of it is as technically feasible as one of Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy.

      I recognise that rights have dictated what is and isn’t in the Masterworks series (both sf and fantasy); and, yes, there are certainly books not in the SF Masterworks series which I would like to see in it but are probably prevented by rights. I’m sure this is true of almost every reader of sf.

      This post, and the ones following on the same topic, are intended only to draw attention to women sf writers. My taste has partly driven what titles appear on the lists – it’s one of the mechanisms I used to choose titles. I see nothing wrong with that.

    • “I don’t feel they are quite important enough. This applies equally to books by both men and women.”

      Equally? Really? And yet the Masterworks list down to spring 2012 contains a grand total of 8 books by women, and 92 by men.

      This is a deeply disappointing response, but (alas) not a surprising one.

      • Yes, really. I’m sorry you’re disappointed.

        Tell you what. Why don’t you list a few titles (up to a dozen, say) published before 1996 which you believe — on the basis of having read them, not what other people might have said — should be in the list? Just to make it a bit more testing, you might also list an equal number of books which should be dropped to make room for them (this being to some degree a zero-sum game).

        I have three or four in mind, most of which we have made offers for (in one case more than a year ago; things move very slowly sometimes). It’ll be interesting to see what overlaps there are.

        • Sure. A quick trawl through the archives of my blog nets:

          We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ

          Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr

          Slow River by Nicola Griffith

          The Silent City by Elisabeth Vonarberg

          and (much more lightweight, but a fun exploration of gender) Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee.

          Plus Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs
          of a Spacewoman

          I don’t have complete records of what I read before starting the blog in 2006, but off the top of my head I’d certainly want to see Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, Sheri S Tepper’s The Gate to
          Women’s Country
          (and possibly Raising the Stones, too, although it’s much less successful than Grass), and Ursula Le
          Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness in there. I guess that The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell), Ice (Anna Kavan), Orlando (Virginia Woolf), and The Handmaid’s Tale all fail the test of being in print in the UK. Only just started reading Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang and Jane Gaskell’s A Sweet, Sweet Summer, and so it’s too early to tell whether they would be candidates, although so far both are living up to recommendations.

          What would I drop? I’ve only read ~20 of the current Masterworks, but of those I could happily do
          without Lord of Light, Dancers at the End of Time, Childhood’s End, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, all of which are pretty minor entries in their author’s canons, and (perhaps more controversially…) Blood Music.

          For the Russ, the Tiptree and the Mitchison, though, I could do without everything I’ve read except A Canticle for Leibowitz and Left Hand of Darkness

          • Now I’m going to disagree with you here, Nic 🙂 I hated Orlando (although I included it on my list), and I suspect the two Le Guin’s already in the SF Masterworks series are enough to show how good she really is. I’ve not heard of the Kavan – I’ll have to look that one up. The rest of your suggestions I would agree on… But not the titles you think should be dropped. The Clarke is probably his best work, the Zelazny is good, and the Moorcock may be a minor Moorcock but only if you include his vast catalogue of fantasy.

            • 😀

              “The Clarke is probably his best work”

              Left me completely cold. The City and the Stars, on the other hand, is ace.

              “the Moorcock may be a minor Moorcock but only if you include his vast catalogue of fantasy”

              That’s not really an argument for including him on an SF list! One of the weaknesses with the list as it stands is the profusion of minor works by big-name authors (as Edwards acknowledges above with regard to PKD); I’d much rather see a greater range of authors than have someone on there for the sake of sentimentality.

              This probably isn’t the best time to note that I’d love to see a revival of the Fantasy Masterworks series, is it?

              If we have a quota on Le Guin (three, if you count the hardback series, which I did in my comment last night), I’d go for Four Ways over Lathe of Heaven.

              • I’m the opposite – didn’t like The City and the Stars much. (And I like the idea of Rendezvous with Rama more than I like the implementation.)

                The Dancers at the End of Time may be minor compared to some of Moorcock’s fantasy, but I remember it as being fun. And I can’t think of another sf novel by him worth including (some the early ones are really bad).

                I’d forgotten about The Lathe of Heaven. Much as I like Four Ways to Forgiveness, I wonder if three Hainish books might give the incorrect impression that Le Guin only wrote that.

          • Interesting. I can certainly agree with you about Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (a collection which I’d failed to register until Graham Sleight drew it to my attention recently). It neatly addresses what I thought were the individual weaknesses of other Tiptree titles. Also The Gate to Women’s Country, which is in the process of becoming available.

            I’m afraid I never really got on with Memoirs of a Spacewoman, which always struck me as being written by somebody who liked the idea of sf, but didn’t quite have the right toolkit as a writer, and who wrote other, better books outside the genre. I’ve never read Elisabeth Vonarburg, but am unaware of any real chorus of applause for her work. I have read some Jane Gaskell, but have never in forty years ever heard a single person suggest there was anything particularly exceptional about A Sweet, Sweet Summer. And though I published both Mary Gentle and Nicola Griffith the first time round, I didn’t feel either of those books fitted the bill — which is not to say they aren’t good books, as I hope I’ve made clear

            I actually liked Raising the Stones better than Grass, but maybe because it was the first Tepper title I published. But it seems to me that Grass has the edge in terms of general reputation. We Who Are About To… is also my favourite Joanna Russ novel, as it happens. I loved it for the way it cut through all the robinsonade cliches about what would happen if a ship crashed on another world, and stated very clearly, no, none of that would happen. What would happen is that you would die.
            But it doesn’t appear to me to have gained the reputation that arguably it should have.

            I should perhaps have said that the series is limited to novels except where there is no realistic alternative, which rules out Four Ways to Forgiveness (but why that book rather than The Wind’s Twelve Quarters?).

  20. Ian:

    I neglected to say, last time I commented here – thanks for hosting this discussion! It’s given me plenty of things to hunt down second-hand, or accelerate up my TBR. And a further reminder that I must, must read Butler, Cherryh and Lessing!

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