You may have heard that science fiction is a man's world. But with these three standout writers — and plenty of other new, engaging science-fiction titles from women — it may be time to set that belief aside.
The received wisdom says the world of speculative literature — especially science fiction — has always been a man’s world. But lately, some are saying the historical lack of women reading and writing fantasy and science fiction has been greatly exaggerated. According to scholar Lisa Yaszek, this supposed dearth is not the result of biology as destiny, but a deliberate policy of exclusion put in place by John W. Campbell and other pulp-era magazine editors. But whatever the reason for any ostensible shortage of genre fiction by women, or the truth of such a situation’s seriousness, there’s no reason to simply submit to it. Not now.
Ann Leckie, a member of a new generation of award-winning female science-fiction writers, has left the space-opera setting of her Imperial Radch books (“Ancillary Justice,” “Ancillary Sword,” “Ancillary Mercy” and “Provenance”) to write a fantasy novel. “The Raven Tower” (Orbit, 432 pp., $26) is told from the perspective of a sentient boulder, and most of it is in what grammar nerds call the “second-person singular” — the narrator addresses someone directly (as “you”) for the book’s greater part.
Leckie’s readers have come to expect and enjoy this sort of experimental voice in her work. As with her pronoun repurposing in the Ancillary trilogy, this technique is not meant merely to show off the author’s skill but also to enrich our experience of her world. The omniscient strangeness imparted by this latest adventure in viewpoint is perfectly suited to conveying the reality of an immortal being. Our narrator is a boulder who is a god, called by friends — other gods — Foundation of the Hills. It alternately recounts its glacier-slow prior existence and its recent involvement in humans’ rapid and brutal wars of expansion. A trans aide-de-camp; a sulky, bypassed hereditary priest; and the pidgin-speaking delegation from an ostensibly neutral foreign land offer more conventional sources of action and dialogue. But not too conventional: The end of “The Raven Tower” comes crashing down with the weight of both inevitability and surprise.
“The True Queen” (Ace, 384 pp., $15) by Zen Cho is a sequel to her highly entertaining and deservedly successful debut, “Sorcerer to the Crown.” Like the first book, this is a sort of Jane Austen fantasy novel, full of dragons and fairies, and multicultural to boot. Unlike “Sorcerer,” though, it doesn’t quite scratch that Regency romance itch. “True Queen’s” love story is buried beneath several competing plotlines. Among these are the quest for a magical object, the unraveling of a mysterious curse and the struggle over who will reign in Fairyland. Perhaps the rise and fall of the book’s arc is rooted in non-European traditions? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with refusing to conform to reader expectations.
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Muna, introduced as “Queen” opens, is an engaging main character, the diffident and amnesiac twin sister of Sakti, a powerful witch who also suffers from amnesia. Another witch, a vigorous old Malaysian woman named Mak Genggang, shelters the pair for a while, then sends them to England to find and defeat the source of their troubles. This leads to them teaching classes at a school founded by “Sorcerer to the Crown’s” heroine, Prunella Wythe (nee Gentleman), and to their barely surviving a ball crashed by an amusingly psychopathic elf. Taken separately, many of “Queen’s” scenes are entertaining and well-written, and they may work better as a whole when read in the context of further books in Cho’s delightful series.
If philosophy is a science, then Kate Hope Day’s first novel is science fiction, making her yet another example of the field’s feminization. But advance publicity compares “If, Then” (Random House, 260 pp., $26) to mainstream titles such as “The Immortalists” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” Certainly the depth and extent of the author’s character analysis feels literary. But that alone doesn’t disqualify its inclusion in the genre.
Small-scale seismic events occur before the mostly minute shifts in reality the book’s four narrators experience, yet the connection there comes across as almost coincidental. A hospitalized philosophy professor’s theory of parallel universes relates a little more clearly — not causally, but as a model of what’s happening.
“If, Then’s” tale is told by neighbors living on a cul-de-sac in a midsized western Oregon town. In the wake of the transformations they witness, they come to their own accommodations to an unexpectedly elastic existence. Cass, a student of the aforementioned professor and a sometimes gravid, sometimes nursing mother, expands on her mentor’s hypothesis. Cass’ husband, Mark, who has been studying animals’ reactions to natural disasters in the hope that their behaviors will act as early-warning systems, decides he’s being directed to build an underground bunker. Ginny and Samara, a surgeon and a fledgling real-estate agent, respectively, find more personal meaning in glimpses of their alternate lives, once hallucinations are ruled out.
This focus on individual lives is typical of mainstream fiction; often it’s also attributed to female authors. In the latter case, it’s framed as a symptom of feminine weakness, a contrast between the (tediously) minute domestic detail found in Austen’s work and the (dramatically) broad, panoramic sweep of Tolstoy’s. In the former case, it’s said to signify science fiction and fantasy’s innately superficial nature when compared to “serious” literature: How can the imaginative genres be received seriously when they fail to depict the universalizing depth of daily human experience?
They don’t fail to do that. Or the opposite.
As anyone will understand who reads these three books, or who seeks out science fiction and fantasy by women in general, there are uncountable stories to be told, with uncountable emphases. Choosing from the wide variety available by all genders is a wonderful way to celebrate and support the richness of the field’s historical and continuing diversity.