Archive for December 9th, 2010

December 9, 2010

More on women and SF: I ramble about my own list for a bit

I mentioned Torque Control’s current women and sf focus in this post a few days ago. The results are in and Niall has been posting short reviews of the books in the poll’s top ten. So I wanted to talk a little about my own list.

First, there’s the question of defining what science fiction is. I don’t think any of the books on my list would qualify as “typical” sf. Possible reasons for this: it’s a result of my not reading very much sf; it’s because not enough women write sf in the first place and I therefore had to really stretch for names; a “best of” list is not likely to contain much that is typical in the first place, since these are supposed to be the books that really stand out. I suspect my list is a result of all three.
In general I think rigid genre boundaries are a bit silly- genre classification is a tool to help us think about books, and the moment it becomes cumbersome you discard it. But in a situation like this I think it’s also important to be careful of how far one stretches the definition of a genre. As Jo Walton points out here, there are a lot more famous female authors writing fantasy than sf, and part of the point of this month is to examine that fact – redefining fantasy books as sf isn’t going to help anyone.
I really enjoyed this post by Shana Worthen on the subject of how to classify LeGuin’s Lavinia. To my shame I still haven’t read the book despite having bought it at the beginning of the year. I suspect the only sort of science fiction I’m really interested in is social-science fiction (does that exist as a term)? Worthen’s post would apply perfectly to something like Mary Gentle’s Ash, which would certainly have been on my list if it had only been published a year or so later. It’s probably why things like dystopias and alternate histories also figure in my head as “sf”.
People/books that aren’t on my list:
I would have loved to have Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on the list if I could even vaguely justify it to myself as science fiction. I could not.
Aadisht asked in the comments of my last post on this subject whether Gail Carriger was on it. Much as I love the Parasol Protectorate books, she is not. I definitely think her books can qualify as sf, but I’m still waiting for her to write a book that absolutely blows my mind. She’s created a setting that makes this possible, certainly, and it’s bound to happen eventually.
Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan are names that pop up on almost every other list of this sort that I’ve read, but I’ve never read anything by either author. Neither of them is to be seen in most Indian bookshops, but I know my library has some of Robson’s work and I must get down to reading it.
Now the list:
Scarlett Thomas – PopCo
Shelley Jackson – Half Life
Gwyneth Jones – Bold as Love
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Steph Swainston – The Year of Our War
PopCo was a gift from a friend (who posts here) a few years ago. It is the only thing by Scarlet Thomas I’ve read so far, so for all I know her more recent books are better. But PopCo is intelligent and ruthless and fully deserves its place here.
Half Life is something I read a couple of years ago when I went through a stack of Tiptree award winning books in a month – triggered by The Knife of Never Letting Go being a joint winner (with Nisi Shawl’s Filter House). Jackson’s book is rich and playful and complicated and headache-causing. If I hadn’t enjoyed it so much I might think it was too clever for its own good. But I did and it wasn’t and that’s that.
Earlier this year I read Gwyneth Jones’ book of essays and criticism, Imagination/Space. I thoroughly enjoyed it and suspect I prefer Jones’ nonfiction to her fiction. Which makes it all the more impressive that she has multiple entries in the poll’s top ten. Bold as Love is a great place to start reading her work; in addition to being a very strong book itself, it’s the start of a good series. I just discovered that the first few books are actually available for free download on the Bold as Love website.
I spent a while backandforthing over including Whitfield’s book in this list. Eventually I sent it off without her, but then I read this post. I’m still not entirely convinced, but if there’s any chance of having In Great Waters on this list I want to take it. I ordered it this summer after reading some very enthusiastic reviews and was thrilled by it. It maintains its strangeness throughout, it’s powerful and uncomfortable, and really good.
A friend has been telling me for a couple of years that I must read K.J Bishop’s The Etched City but I only took his advice very recently. Apparently he was right. The Etched City starts off like a typical fantasy novel, and then something happens and it all turns inside out and gets very good indeed.
Swainston’s books are another series that look like a typical fantasy at first glance. But it’s set within an interesting multiverse, and as the series progresses (The Year of Our War is the first of the books) this becomes more and more important. In addition, Swainston’s a very good writer.
And that is where my list ends.