The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

——
*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

Top Five Reads of 2013

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco

I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.

So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.

5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple


I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.

In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.

Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.

Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.

Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.

4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.

The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.

In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.

The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.

3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher

If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.

Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.

It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.

2. The Passage, Justin Cronin

This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.

Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.

The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.

Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.

Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.

What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.

The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.

You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.

Honorable mentions:
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale
Fatale, Ed Brubaker & Sean Philips

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.