5 sf books worth reading I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered if I hadn’t been reading for SF Mistressworks
I’d always considered myself well-read within the genre, but when people started talking about the poor representation of women sf writers in late 2010/early 2011, I discovered that my own reading was chiefly of books by male writers. And this was despite the fact that through the years my favourite writers had often been women. I decided to change my reading habits, to make an effort to read more books by women sf writers. I also wanted to encourage others to do the same. That’s why I started SF Mistressworks.
A number of the books I’ve read and reviewed for SF Mistressworks were either rereads or books I had always planned to read. But there have been several I doubt very much I would have read had it not been for SF Mistressworks. Such as these five:
The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
I remember seeing the The Women’s Press sf books, with their distinctive grey livery, back in the 1980s. There was a vegetarian café/socialist bookshop I used to visit, back when I was at university, which had a carousel full of them. But I never bought any of them. I don’t recall even borrowing any from the library. Which is a shame. However, I don’t know if I’d have found The Wanderground as appealing then as I did when I read it for the first time last year. It’s about a women-only utopia, and the women have special (unexplained) powers which allow them to speak to plants and animals. They can also fly and talk to each other telepathically. Meanwhile, the men are stuck in the cities – and stuck in their horrible chauvinistic ways. I found The Wanderground – which is more of a collection than a novel – an easy book to like. Perhaps it’s not the most rigorous sf ever written, but some of the stories in it are affecting. And it is an essential antidote to sadly more common science fiction tales of male derring-do in outer space.
Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
I’d never even heard of Marta Randall until someone mentioned this novel when I was putting together a list of 100 recommended sf novels by women writers. As far as I can determine, she was never published in the UK, which might perhaps explain – though not excuse – my ignorance. Happily, I found a copy of Islands at a British sf con last year, bought it, read it and posted a review on SF Mistressworks. In the world of the novel, everyone is immortal… except for a few sports, for whom the treatment does not work. The narrator of Islands is one such sport. She has come to terms with her mortality, but it seems not all of the immortals have. During an expedition to drowned Hawaii to dive for artefacts of past centuries, events come to a violent head. Interspersed with this are the narrator’s early years, detailing how she learned to cope with her condition. Islands is a story carried by its protagonist, so I’m happy to report Randall has done an excellent job in that regard. Perhaps the world-building feels a little old-fashioned, and the ending takes a turn into somewhat implausible superpowers, but Islands is certainly a book worth seeking out.
Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
This is hardly an unknown title, though I suspect most people know it only as a film and not a novel. The book may well be the genre’s first novelisation, as von Harbou based it on her 1924 script. Which likely explains its differences to Lang’s movie. There’s not much difference in story between book and film, though the metallic robot Maria of the movie is in the novel a creature made of crystal. The writing is a little florid and over-emphatic for modern tastes, but as an example of a science fiction tradition entirely independent of Hugo Gernsback and his Amazing Stories, it’s an important historical document.
New Eves, edited by Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman (1994)
The Women of Wonder series of women-only sf anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent are probably better known than this one, but this single volume gives a good overview of women’s contribution to science fiction. The stories covering later decades are, perhaps, obvious choices, but some of the early fiction predates those chosen by Pamela Sargent. New Eves includes sf by writers such as Francis Stevens, Hazel Heald, Helen Weintraub, Leslie Perri… In fact, most of the authors in New Eves with stories published prior to 1950 have been forgotten. Read it for those stories, as well as to rediscover the stories from the 1960s through to the 1990s. There’s also an excellent introduction – but ignore its final section as it pretty much undermines the entire argument laid out in the rest of the piece.
The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989)
You know when you read a novel and you enjoyed it and thought it was quite good, but then later you start to write a review of it and belatedly realise it was a much, much better novel than you had initially thought? That. It may well have been that the disappointing novel I read between finishing The Wall Around Eden and starting the review prompted my re-evaluation, but I’m not so sure. Or it could be the fact that Slonczewski’s novel is post-apocalyptic fiction which doesn’t involve warlordism or slavery. Gwynwood is one of several communities worldwide to have survived a global nuclear war, because it was protected by an alien force-field. But, despite the title, the village is no Eden. The Wall Around Eden has a smart, engaging heroine, a well-drawn cast, and a plot that relies on the ingenuity of its characters for its resolution. In many ways, it’s a masterclass in sf writing. It needs to be brought out in a new edition, perhaps as a YA novel.
Ian Sales reviews books for Interzone, curates the SF Mistressworks website, and writes his own fiction. In 2012, he edited the Rocket Science hard sf anthology for Mutation Press, and founded Whippleshield Books, a literary hard sf small press. His novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, was also published in 2012 by Whippleshield Books. The second book of the quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, will be published in January 2013. His fiction has also appeared in Postscripts, Alt Hist, Jupiter, and the original anthologies Catastrophia, Vivisepulture, The Monster Book for Girls, Where Are We Going? and The Maginot Line.