Five Great Speculative Fiction Novels by Women

I’ve been meaning for a good long while to set aside a period to read only women authors. It’s not that they’re unrepresented on my shelves or in my to-read pile. But if I’m honest, I’ve read way more books by men than by women. Having realized the disparity, I felt a certain compulsion to address it. But I put it off for a long time, for whatever reason I could think of when the disparity re-intruded on my consciousness. Again, if I’m honest, my resistance was rooted in discomfort, as much as anything at the realization that my personal pre-sets, left unchecked, had brought about the disparity in the first place. If I did something about it, well, that meant it was a real thing, a disparity between my aspirational and actually-lived selves.

All the more reason to do something about it, and so a few months back, I made a conscious decision to read mostly books by women for a while. And I am surely glad that I did. Not for some consciousness-raising epiphany about men and women and society and literature (though there surely was that), but because I’ve found a rich vein of work that tickles a personal and particular sweet spot that I had been previously unaware existed, and that I had fervently wished was out there. Turns out my pre-sets had just prevented me from seeing it (thanks, patriarchy).

See, I’m a bit of a rare bird in reader culture, or so it seems to me. I love and identify with both speculative fiction in most of its forms and with more highfalutin quote-unquote literary fiction, with all its inquiries into history, psychology, language, and well, you name it. I came up reading both, love both, and wish they got along better in public. As a writer I try and draw from both sources. As a reader I crave works that weave the two together. Despite the continued snootiness of the literary set and the flagellations of spec fic’s misogynist rump, the overlap between the two is growing, and the correlation with the increasing prevalence of women writing speculative fiction leaves little doubt the phenomena are connected.

There’s so much great work being done right now. It’s a really exciting time for a reader like myself.

In celebration of that, and in honor of Lightspeed Magazine’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! issue, here are five great speculative fiction books by women that I’ve read recently, and why I think they are awesome and you should read them, too, whatever kind of books you like to read.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Saint Hilda of Whitby was known as the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages. Being that record-keeping was spotty back when centuries AD were still in the single digits, little is known about the early life of this Northumbrian princess. Hild, the first of a projected trilogy (hurrah!), details her childhood as the seer of Edwin-Overking. Imbued in the minds of all as possessed of mystical powers but actually just incredibly smart, Hild spends her childhood and adolescence navigating the treacherous shoals of court life along with the occasional ride off to war.

This book is amazing on so many levels I’m going to apologize to author and reader in advance because I’m not going to be able to do it justice in the space I’ve allotted myself. The plot alone is enough to keep a reader hooked, the deliberate slowness of the pacing building significant tension until perfectly rendered catalyzing events shake up the whole situation, which continues to evolve, much as life does. Hild’s own arc, both as political player and as child-growing-into woman (in a decidedly unfeminist world), is captivating, with challenges personal and political at every turn and all while straddling two worlds: skirt and sword. She has complicated relationships with all of the people she loves, who like her are players and pieces in a deadly game played out over seasons and years. And all of this happens in a world so immersive, so masterfully rendered, that the reader really is transported, not only into another time, but another worldview, a conception of life wholly different from the present. Griffith weaves it all together so seamlessly you really have to pay attention to see just how well it’s being done. Seriously, she’s kind of my new hero.

Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

Breq has got to be the most fascinating POV character I’ve seen since the Minds in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Breq is an ancillary, a limited copy of a starship hive-mind in a super-soldier body, cut off from the ship and the rest of the ancillaries it had known, all of whom are idiosyncratic iterations of the same consciousness. Breq, for instance, likes to sing, and when given multiple bodies was given to harmonizing, even if the bodies weren’t all in the same place. The ship Breq was attached to took part in a war crime, and the plot of Ancillary Justice involves unraveling its mystery so that the space empire which perpetrated it will have to face up to the truth of its colonialist history. Did I mention the space empire was ruled by an individual with more than two thousand incarnations, some of whom are in power struggles with each other?

There’s so much gee-whiz awesome here that any fan of space opera’s going to find themselves happy, but beyond the intellectual rewards of the unfolding premise and the sheer propulsiveness of the plot itself (space opera! mystery! revenge! self-discovery!), Leckie threads in so many original and subversive ideas that again I’m going to apologize for the ones I miss due to space or memory limitations. The most obvious occurs on the level of the language itself. The Radch Empire, Breq’s basic cultural grounding, does not recognize gender, so Breq’s language is equally genderless, defaulting to the feminine ‘she’ and ‘her’ whether speaking of a man or a woman. It forces the reader to reconsider basic notions, then complicates it by putting Breq in alien cultures that do recognize gender, forcing her to come to terms with a culture alien to her. The other thing that really stood out for me is a sort of two-pronged assault on the cult of pure rationality that characterizes so much space opera, and science fiction in general. Ancillaries, and the larger hive-minds they are a part of, are artificial intelligences, but they have emotions, so they can judge and act, and not disappear into an endless recursive analysis when faced with any decision. Given how devalued emotion usually is in this kind of novel, this is revolutionary stuff, and Leckie makes a good case for why it should and does work. The other half of the pincer is the prominence religion plays in every society Breq encounters, but especially the Radch religion, which is tied up not only with the apparatus but the basic impulse toward empire, a fundamental cultural driver. However a reader might feel about religion, it thickens the texture of the story, and raises interesting questions about the primacy of pure rationality in science fiction, a longstanding limitation (in my mind) the genre has suffered from.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

A time-traveling serial killer is targeting women. On the surface it’s hard to see what makes them stand out, these Shining Girls, but the killer knows who they are, how to find them, and he develops elaborate rituals, jumping from timestream to timestream, visiting his victims as children and passing totemic objects between them. Kirby is the last of the girls, the only one to survive his invariably fatal visitation. Scarred by the encounter, she pursues a career in journalism, and teams up with the reporter who covered her attack to reopen the investigation into her case. At the center of it all is a house in Chicago the killer uses to effect his temporal travels, and a tidy little knot of causation that will leave the reader scratching her head in baffled wonderment at how perfectly it all gets tied up.

I got about a third of the way through this book before I consciously realized how good it was, how complicated a thing had been made to look easy. I was just pulled along by the story. It jumped seamlessly from one character’s perspective to another, in a way that seemed unremarkable, it was so perfectly done. It jumped seamlessly, also, between decades and times, slipping preconceptions and particularities on like period costumes worn by individual people, all of them rounded and real and living amidst their own struggles. The obvious mystery drives the plot, which is in addition to the rest a really well-executed investigative thriller, but the invitation to solve the deeper mystery (Who are the Shining Girls? What makes them different?) drives the narrative, and the answer is subtle, never openly revealed, and telling if you can read the subtext. The mechanics of the speculative frame are unapologetic, never bothering to explain, forcing the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief that’s nonetheless resolved, in its self-contained way, by the end. I would say this book demands to be read on its own terms, but that wouldn’t be accurate. It’s just so well done that you do, and love it every thrilling page of it. I sure did.

The Best of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord

The Sadiri are the predominant human species in the galaxy, or were until their closest rivals poisoned their home planet, an act of genocide whose echoes resound throughout this gently amazing book. Led by the mentally- and psionically-accomplished Dllennahkh, a colony of Sadiri men have arrived on Cygnus Beta, a backwards colony that’s home to immigrants and refugees of all sorts, looking for suitable mates so as to repopulate their species. Grace Delarua is the liaison assigned to lead them on a tour of Cygnus Beta’s immigrant communities, and as they travel together not only does a vibrantly textured world unfold, but the two very opposite protagonists fall gently and believably in love.

Exploration and contact between different cultures, and the way cultures evolve and interact, is the overriding theme of this picaresque, which takes its title from a line from Candide. And indeed there is a certain innocence to the hyper-rational Sadiri that’s at odds with the granular realities of the communities Delarua helps them navigate. Danger and conflicts abound, but they are human-sized instead of the vast upheavals so typical of science fiction, especially space opera. Those vast upheavals are present in the Sadiri genocide, but it’s the aftermath that provides the context, the hard work of picking up what pieces are left and building what you can from them. Told in alternating first and third person to good effect, the story feels real and immediate in the sections from Delarua’s perspective, and more ruminative from Dllenahkh’s. The structure itself echoes the attraction between opposites that ties the whole thread together, the love that develops between Grace and Dllenahkh, and the overarching vision is so well-realized that its marked difference from the usual fare only comes as an afterthought.

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

Hey, I said she was my new hero. After reading Hild, I went on to read two more of her novels, Slow River and Ammonite, and though both were intricate, rewarding, and extremely well-executed, I think Ammonite fits better on this list, though only just barely. Grenchstom’s Planet, or Jeep, was colonized and abandoned after a native virus wiped out the masculine half of the population. Hundreds of years later, Company is back to see if there’s any return to be had on their investment. Everyone is surprised to find a population of women living in tribes, reproducing through some unknown process. A mission is sent, and then stranded after all the men (and some of the women) contract the virus and die. Enter Marghe, an anthropologist and cultural liaison, who’s being sent to Jeep to study the natives and test out a vaccine. Her journey of discovery, of both planet and self, takes her from an orbiting space station to a frozen tundra where tribes of herders and marauders live in animal skin tents, and the transformation she undergoes is vivid and intense, leading to new understandings and climaxing in a standoff between two armies, a situation only she can resolve, while the fate of everyone she holds dear hangs in the balance.

Aside from being a ripping good yarn, with enough travails and tense moments to please any adventure fiction fan, Ammonite’s conceit of a world without men gives Griffith the opportunity to develop her characters (all women) as people, and not in relation to men, in a way that’s both convincing and deeply subversive. She takes every advantage of the opportunity she’s carved out, and describes a constellation of believable people doing what they think best given limited information and personal histories. The questions at the heart of the story (Where did the virus come from? How do the women procreate? What do you do when you can never go home?) give the narrative momentum, but it is the unveiling of the landscape, both personal and geographic, that proves most telling. It’s also refreshing to see the logistics of long journeying get attention as sources of adventure and tension, rather than being glossed over as prelude to some messy confrontation. It’s also nice to see someone trying to avert a conflict instead of win it, to see a narrative driven by the negotiations of diplomacy instead of the glory of battle. It may seem less exciting on the surface, but from within it is as edge-of-your-seat compelling as any set-piece battle, and more so than the vast majority. Something I’ve noticed about Griffith’s work, about many if not all of the works on this list, is how it slowly but inescapably draws you in, until by the time you realize it’s happening it’s already happened. There’s that moment of epiphany, when you realize just how good the hands you’re in are, and the rest is that much better for realizing.

The list is far from exhaustive, themed only by my exposure and enthusiasm. If you’ve made it this far, you must be into this stuff, too. What else should I be reading?

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