Monday, March 18, 2013

Good lesbian science fiction novels

From: MP

I was wondering if you would be willing to recommend good lesbian science fiction novels. I find those are hard to come by.

I am sure you've been asked this before but I haven't found a post about this in your blog. If I missed it, I apologize.

I have finished all the Aud books. I'm starting Slow River.

And congrats on becoming an American citizen.
Thanks for the congrats. I've just got my passport: now it feels very real. All those terrible immigration battles of the 90s are really, really behind me. Later this summer, assuming I'm correct in my predictions about SCOTUS's opinion on the same-sex marriage cases before it, no one in my position will ever have to make new law again. Immigration into the US for same-sex couples will be as easy (and not) as for opposite-sex couples.

I've just searched my own blog and couldn't find any recommendations for lesbian sf. I need to fix that. I remember what it's like to search and not find. I wrote an essay about it, "War Machine, Time Machine," (written with my partner Kelley Eskridge).

Let's define terms. First of all, lesbian. I've written elsewhere (ranted, really) that there's no such thing as a lesbian novel. But, eh, we all know what what we mean by the term: book-length fiction with a woman protagonist who generally prefers to have sex with women. And by sf I mean speculative fiction: an umbrella term that covers most genres of fantastical fiction. Yes, the many genres (science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, horror, alternate history, paranormal etc.) are quite different but as there is precious little really good stuff I don't see the point of this kind of subdivision—plus it's often difficult to decide which subgenre a story belongs to. Oh, and I find I'm prejudiced in favour of work whose writers appear to have come up through the sf genre rather than the lesbian genre. But see below.

Let me be the first to admit that I often don't keep up with sf; there are serious gaps on my shelves. However, there are several sites that do keep up. Try, for example, Science Fiction for Lesbians, and take a look at their four- and five-star books. (My books only get four stars, huh, but Kelley's get five, so their ratings are not utterly insane...)

My recommendations are broken into two short lists: four very recent books, and six classics, for a round total of ten. You asked for novels but I'm going to include anthologies. Anthologies are useful because they expose you to different styles and attitudes. It's a good way to find writers whose work, er, works for you.

I'll begin with Heiresses of Russ, edited by Connie Wilkins and Steve Berman (2012), which is a snapshot of last year's best short sf by or about women who love women. This book amazes me: there are enough speculative fiction stories with queer female characters to make an excellent anthology of selections from one year. One. Single. Year. Wow. Times really are changing. This is the book that made me realise there's no longer any way to keep up with the genre; there's too much. I am smiling as I say this: there's too much lesbian sf!

Beyond Binary, edited by Brit Mandelo (2012), is a collection of genderqueer and sexually fluid fiction. I gave it a long blurb, which reads, in part:
These writers--the vast majority identify as female, a thrill all of its own--play with many versions of queer. The stories range from a 35-page novelette that begins at the raw edge of loneliness and ends in exuberant human connection, to a 6-page blink of quantum weirdness encompassing all possibilities. The stories teem with gay, trans, lesbian, bi, polyamorous, asexual, unspecified, and imaginary people--as well as aliens, angels, and androids. But each ends with some oh-so-human satisfaction, resolution, or glad understanding. Beyond Binary is peopled by those who are brave, who say Yes to joy--and not only survive but thrive.
Some of these pieces are truly strange. Some are delicious romps. But in the end this is the rarest of anthologies: the sum is greater than its parts. Read it. Read it all.
I'm guessing you'll find many writers to explore further. That 35-page piece, for example, is "Eye of the Storm," by Kelley, collected in Dangerous Space. (Kelley also wrote Solitairea New York Times Notable Novel, and science fiction.)

One novel from last year that I found intriguing is In the Now, by Kelly Sinclair. It could be labelled science fiction—or a reincarnation thought experiment, or perhaps a trans fantasy. My guess, though, is that Sinclair hails more from the lesbian end of the writing spectrum than the science fictional. The prose is mostly workmanlike, though lacking in real beauty and brio. (There are weird narrative grammar glitches and several narrative time hops that I found mildly disconcerting.) But I really enjoyed the clear separation of gender and biological sex. And I liked the characters. And if you give the author initial suspension of disbelief over the possibility of life after death, she uses science well—and consistently. An odd book, but, as I say, intriguing. Definitely worth a look.

I can recommend Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey (2009). It's an absolute blast. Here's what I said when I read it:
Lesbian boxing mutants, woo hoo! It was also peculiarly one-dimensional in places. But, oh, what assured narrative; so lovely to be in competent hands. I knew nothing of this book before I started it and haven't read anything about it since. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that this, like the King (Stephen King's 11/22/63), had its genesis at the dawn of the author's career. It has that fresh-new-writer-in-the-world feel to it. Also like the King, I was initially worried about the story trajectory. But, again, it ended well. Perhaps a little too well. It's obvious Carey is writing a sequel, and I feel about that the same way I felt about the Ph├Ędre books: Kushiel's Dart was wonderful, the sequels unnecessary and a dilution of the original premise. But that's just the kind of reader/writer I am. If you can tell the story with one definite spear thrust, then you don't need endless dancing and jabbing. Mileage varies. (I know lots of readers would love to have a sequel to Ammonite...)
Of course, when it comes to series novels I have no room to talk. I wrote three books about Aud; unless something goes horribly wrong there'll be more than one book about Hild. But back to Santa Olivia. In science fiction terms, this isn't exactly hard sf. There's a lot of hand-waving and pointing away from thin ice. But it's fun and a fast read.

I think the heyday of lesbian sf is still to come. I think it will be astonishingly good, partly because it won't need to be about being queer. That battle is ending. It's essentially won. (Lots of tidying up to do, of course.) It was a battle named and begun by the mothers of our genre. Here are a handful of the classics, from the 1970s to the 1990s. The first two are short story collections, the rest novels; I've talked about several of them, and others, on my enormous List of Things I Like.
  • Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (aka Racoona Sheldon, real name Alice Sheldon). Stories. Some of these pieces will rip your heart out; some will make you think; some will help you see the world anew. Tiptree does love and science, dire warnings and the real world in equal measure, and she has no peer.
  • Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ. Short science fiction, including "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," which is, for me, the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever. And I suspect "Souls" might have had a tiny bit of influence on Hild.
  • The Chronicles of Tornor, Elizabeth A. Lynn. This is a loosely connected sequence of novels starting with Watchtower. Fantasy, but no magic, unless you call love and aikido magic; I think this book influenced the way I write about bodies in the real world; it certainly paved the way for to learn aikido a few years later.
  • Gossamer Axe, Gael Baudino. Fantasy. An ageless Celtic harper forms a heavy metal band to free her lover from the faerie. Great music and magic writing. No holds barred lesbian romance (but definitely with a fantasy lineage). Fabulous. When I picked up this book I read the very first writer's bio that said something like, Baudino lives with her lover xxxx in xxxx. (I can't find my copy or I'd quote.) And I knew, right then, that I wasn't the only writing dyke in the genre world who felt no need to hide.
  • The Holdfast Chronicles, Suzy McKee Charnas. Sequence of dystopian novels. The first and most important (in my opinion) are Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines. Charnas is ostensibly a straight writer, but she gets dykes and gay boys right. I couldn't have written Ammonite if this book, and work by Tiptree and Le Guin and Russ, hadn't come first. The first is an unsettling dystopia, but not claustrophobic—like, say, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale—and a ripping good read.
  • Thendara House, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Science fantasy. Set on Darkover, a recolonised world of spaceports and native polities, Free Amazons and psi powers, swords and energy weapons. Fabulous stuff. Occasionally clunkily written. It is a sequel to The Shattered Chain, but I read TH first and like it better.
I could have chosen any of another couple of dozen, but these struck me as representing the heart of the (US) genre. (There are many wonderful UK novels—Fairbairns' Benefits, Jones's Divine Endurance—and Australian, and Canadian, and others.) I'm hoping readers will have some suggestions in the comments belownot just for good lesbian sf but good lists of same.

ETA: Make suggestions! I'll compile a list in a follow-up post. I had an original list of three dozen books but that seemed too long (and I didn't have time to hunt down links for all) so I cut it to ten. But a big list would be fab!