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.

Recent
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 Phèdre 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.

Classics
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!

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64 comments:

  1. I know where my gift card money is going.

    Thanks!

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    1. Well, let me know what you think if you read any of them.

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  2. I am so flattered that you mentioned HEIRESSES OF RUSS 2012, though Connie Wilkins did all the hard work and deserves the kudos.

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  3. This is my own novel, published by a small press, and it's currently out of print (though available cheap on Amazon), but THE Z RADIANT is SF in which two of the main pov characters are lesbians in a committed relationship.

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  4. My go to recommendation for lesbianish science fiction are Chris Moriarty's two novels SPIN STATE and SPIN CONTROL. The novels work on a number of levels: there's the fun to read space-adventuring; the fascinating social implications of genetic engineering, cloning, and AI; the hard sciences that felt legitimate and real to me; and plenty of queerness.

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    1. I blurbed Spin State :) Yeah, I thought it was good. It definitely belongs on a longer list.

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  5. I'd put Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres in the 'classics' pile. Parts of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods are very compelling. Katherine V Forrest's Daughters of a Coral Dawn put down a marker in the early 80s. Ponders: is a mark of good scifi/fantasy if it doesn't date? Octavia Butler always had interesting things to say (straying into fantasy, but her Flegling is about the only vampire book that's held any appeal for me)

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    1. Wittig is brilliant--but not very accessible, IMO. And part of my--admittedly unstated--bias with this list was for wide readability. Winterson is...variable; as you say, parts of her various books are good. Forrest's book isn't my kind of thing. Butler, of course, is brilliant, but I blush to admit I haven't yet read Fledgling. One of my many gaps...

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  6. I'd also add Russ's Female Man and Kate Bornstein's Nearly Roadkill to the genderqueer classics pile. And finally, Sarah Hall's visceral dystopian near future Carhullan Army is one of my favourite novels, period.

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    1. The Female Man definitely belongs on the longer classics list, and the Hall on the more modern. The Hall reminded me very much of Benefits. Have you read that?

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  7. Just Googled, assuming you mean Zoe Fairbairns, just ordered for my Kindle, will let you know what I think. Thank you!

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  8. I'd suggest adding Rachel Pollack's GODMOTHER NIGHT and TEMPORARY AGENCY to the list.

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    1. I've read one Fletcher book, Temple at Landfall, and enjoyed it immensely.

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  10. I really enjoyed Katharine Beutner's Alcestis, which could be loosely considered sf (it's reimagined mythology/fantasy/historical fiction all at once).

    Thank you for this list! I've read Santa Olivia, I'm partway through Beyond Binary, and I'm adding the rest to my to-read list. :)

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    1. Belatedly seconding the Beutner recommendation. One of the most beautiful books I read last year.

      I'm also enjoying the rest of this list, and adding to my 2014 reading pile as we speak!

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  11. My copy of Gossamer Axe is at home...somewhere...I actually re-read it for the fourth time in 20 years a couple years back. I believe her lover's name was Mirya, and they were living in Colorado (hence why the story takes place in Denver). The last I knew of Baudino, she has converted from Dianic Wicca, and is now a Quaker. So...go fig..

    But yes, GA was and still is an amazing book, that I came across in my freshman year in high school...it really had a significant influence on me.

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  12. One of my favourite lesbian sf short stories is Ursula K Le Guin's "Mountain Ways". Lesbians navigating social structures: yes.

    A new writer who's published some great lesbian sf stories is Benjanun Sriduangkaew. These two are particularly great: "Courtship in the Country of Machine Gods" in The Future Fire (online magazine), and "Chang'e Dashes from the Moon" in Expanded Horizons (online magazine).

    I also loved another new author's story: "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" by Tori Truslow in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (online magazine). It's full of genderqueerness and queer relationships.

    And Rose Lemberg's "Held Close in Syllables of Light", also in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

    (If I may include my own work, I'm especially fond of my story "Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints", in Strange Horizons.)

    As for novels, I recently read and loved Caitlin R Kiernan's The Drowning Girl, which is about many things: hauntings, the difficulty of memory and mental illness, how this impacts the relationship between the main character and her girlfriend.

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    1. Le Guin's later short fiction is marvellous lesbian sf, yes! The Birthday of the World is especially fine, I think.

      But all those other names are new to me. Excellent!

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  13. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

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  14. Thanks for this post, I've definitely got some new things to add to my reading list! (Have read and enjoyed, books of yours and Kelley's, of course, I especially loved "Slow River" and Kelley's "Solitaire".)

    My addition would be Melissa Scott, my favorites are "Trouble and Her Friends" and "Dreamships" & "Dreaming Metal".

    Coincidentally, Melissa just announced on twitter today that she's been asked to co-edit Heiresses of Russ 2014! https://twitter.com/blueterraplane/status/313725348753846272

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    1. Wow, well that's great. I'll look forward to the new Heiresses.

      My favourite Scott is Trouble and Her Friends.

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  15. surprised not to see Vonda McIntyre? her books are not necessarily outright lesbian, but many have a normative fluid sexuality - not to mention polyamory - that is very lovely...

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    1. I'm a big fan of McIntyre's work. Her Dreamsnake and Exile Waiting made a big impression on me. But, as you say, it would be a stretch to classify her work as lesbian sf.

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  16. Nicola - I like your list, but please don't forget Laurie J. Marks' Elemental Logic series of fantasy novels. Published so far are Fire Logic, Earth Logic and Water Logic. I'm told the final book, Air Logic, is nearing completion. These books are written in a beautiful style, and have well-drawn lesbian and gay characters, and a fascinating premise, which focuses on the roots, consequences and possibly even the solutions to war. I also love their adventure and the delightful lesbian love story. Another favorite of mine is Laurie's Dancing Jack, which uses the tropes of fantasy to explore grief and includes the most exciting riverboat scene I've ever read. - Diane Silver, who can't seem to remember her Wordpress log-in today.

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    1. Oh, I most certainly haven't forgotten Laurie Marks! I loved Fire Logic (the others diminish gradually, in my opinion). And Dancing Jack is good, too.

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  17. Yes, Laurie Marks immediately jumped to my mind as missing from this list!
    Thanks for the other suggestions. Will definitely check them out.

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  18. My own _Adventuresses_ collection took the SFR Galaxy Awards' "Most eclectic collection of lesbian speculative fiction" award this year.

    I was tickled pink.

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  19. Thank you, everyone, for adding to my to-purchase list. And thanks, Nicola, for bringing up this topic!

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  20. Laura Mixon's short novel Glass Houses worth considering, in my view.

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  21. Liz Williams Winterstrike, lesbian separatist baroque space opera. On Mars! Also her Darkland and Bloodmind series.

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    1. Liz and I shared an agent for a while :)

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  22. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall (I think it was a Tiptree finalist), and Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand. Both fantastic, both on the literary end but super accessible. Also loved Alcestis and Santa Olivia!

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    1. I read the Hall under its English title The Carhullen Army (much better title!). I haven't read Radiant Days yet--but have liked a lot of Hand's stuff.

      And then there's your own work: Ash, of course, a wonderful lesbian retelling of Cinderella, and Huntress (both fantasy), and now Adaptation and, soon (September, yes?), it's sequel, Inheritance.

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  23. I just read and loved Jennifer Pelland's "Machine" which features a lesbian protagonist and her very complicated relationship with her wife. Also, L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan cycle has a great many lesbian characters.

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    1. I couldn't cope with the physical/sexual abuse of the machine protagonist. Just couldn't.

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  24. I just finished Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean and simply loved it. If I had my choice of any fictional place to live, it'd definitely be Shora.

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  25. I'll recommend 'Fortunate Fall' by Raphael Carter, "In the Mothers Land" by Élisabeth Vonarburg and 'The Sardonyx Net' by Elizabeth A. Lynn.

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    1. The Sardonyx Net was a shocking read to me when I first stumbled across it a very long time ago. Hard, sharp writing, like nothing I'd come across before. And so different to her fantasy.

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  26. I see that her great short stories have been mentioned, but Ursula K Le Guin's novel, The Telling, also has a lesbian protagonist.

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  27. I personally enjoyed sword of the guardian. More fantasy than anything else, but I liked it:)

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  28. Shameless self promotion of a speculative short fiction story I wrote:

    http://www.aphelion-webzine.com/shorts/2012/08/LessOfHer.html

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  29. Most of what I've read seems to be F, not SF, but I think Mary Gentle's "Golden Witchbreed" would fit the classics list.

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  30. I enjoyed "The Girls From Alcyone" by Cary Caffrey.
    It's about a group of girls who get who get their genes enhanced.
    The main protagonist falls in love with one of the other girls in the group.

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    1. I'd never heard of that one but it gets great reader feedback. I'll take a look. Thanks.

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  31. Most of the reccomendations I wanted to make have already been made. :) Here's a few I didn't see:

    Fantasy: The works of L-J Baker -- particularly "Broken Wings", "Lady Knight", and "Promises, Promises" -- are favorites of mine. In addition to the Caelano series which has already been mentioned, Jane Fletcher has a very good fantasy series that starts with "The Exile and the Sorcerer". Shea Godfrey's "Nightshade" was a great first novel. Chris Anne Wolfe wrote some good stuff, especially "Roses and Thorns". I also really liked "Black Wine" by Candace Jane Dorsey.

    For Science Fiction -- "The Child Garden" by Geoff Ryman is excellent. "Dust" and its sequels, by Elizabeth Bear, are pretty good. "Santa Olivia" has a sequal out now, by the way ("Saints Astray"), but I didn't think it was as good as the first one.

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  32. I'm honestly surprised not to see John Varley's Titan (and the other novels in his Gaea series) not mentioned here. Not only does sexuality factor into the story line, but he confronts gender identification, sexual assignment surgery, and many other subjects considered taboo in 1979, when he first published the work. When I read it in middle school, it truly knocked me on my heels.

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  33. Hi, I'm a 42 year old hetero male. I recently realized that some of the SF I was exposed to as an adolescent was very liberal sexually. I was pleasantly pleased to realize (10+ years ago) that the coolest guy in the Road Warrior was gay-- and none of my friends cared.

    I think John Varley is my biggest influence. Thoughts on him? He seemed so progressive back in the day (when I was 13), but he seems like a horrible repressive as an old man. I can specifically remember his depiction of a homoerotic (male male) encounter and I thought something like, "I'm not into that, but I'm OK with that."

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  34. oh my God... what Thomas said.

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  35. Same lame anon again...John Varley has a lot of lesbianism in his work, but since I was a hetero male adolescent, it is more titillating/pornographic and less memorable than the challenging bisexualism and male homosexuality.

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    1. Anon @8:12: I prefer that no one on this blog uses the word lame as an insult. I lay out my reasoning here

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  36. Love Gossamer Axe and Thendara House. What about Camarin Grae (Winged Dancer, Paz)? Perhaps not the most well-written books ever, but fun and fascinating concepts.

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    1. I think I might have tried something by Grae a long time ago. If I recall correctly I bounced off it.

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  37. As for classics, you should consider Chris Anne Wolfe's awesome Amazons in "Shadows of Aggar" and "Fires of Aggar." Sci-fi, compelling characters, and fun reads.

    Cheers!

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    1. Another book I bounced off. This is one from a lesbian lineage rather than science fiction, right?

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  38. Marooned in Realtime by Vernon Vinge

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  39. My partner reminded me that Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Herland" is probably one of the earlier lesbian novels. No overt lesbian content, but in a world where only women exist, it's kind of inevitable.

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  40. Outside this list's purview, given that it's a comic, but Jenn Manley Lee's Dicebox, about sarcastic itinerant laborers in the distant future, is excellent and gorgeous:

    http://www.comic.dicebox.net/2009/01/01/wander-pre-ramble/

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  41. It's more novella or long short story, but I very much enjoyed "Aurora Awakening" by Thalia Fand (available for Kindle via Amazon or on the author's website at http://thaliafand.blogspot.com/). It's definitely more lesbian than scifi, and there isn't a whole lot of plot to it, but the writing is tight and there's plenty of tension before the... er... climax. Ahem. I liked the spacer patois that the story was narrated in, too.

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  42. This might be fan fiction but it's truly amazing and you can read it without having watched the series before too. The quality of the writing is really up to par or even surpasses most of the published works out there.

    The author has created a really interesting world based on ancient Rome, with a few twist added to it.

    http://www.fanfiction.net/s/3816271/1/Inter-Nos

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  43. I highly recommend Heather Rose Jones' recent debut novel "Daughter of Mystery", as well as her earlier Skin Singer short stories in various volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies, all of which have lesbian protagonists. "Daughter of Mystery" is a great read and has the neatest system of magic I've yet encountered.

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  44. I would second the drowning girl recommendation and also recommend other work by Caitlin Kiernan such as The Red Tree.

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