Awhile back there was a thread at I Blame the Patriarchy about feminist science fiction. Here's an incredibly incomplete list of some feminist-minded science fiction that I love. The stories and novels won't be shockingly new to most people who are well-versed in fantasy & science fiction, but I think they're newish to people who don't really watch the genre. I'm also going to skip some of the more obvious feminist canon, such as Tiptree, Butler, Delany, Russ, LeGuin, Atwood, and Piercy. If you haven't read them, go out and read them!
With those provisos in mind, I'm confining myself to three short story recommendations, and three novel recommendations, so please don't take this list as representative of anything except the first few wonderful things that occurred to me. I'll probably revisit the topic later. :)
- Knapsack Poems by Eleanor Arnason
"Knapsack Poems" by Eleanor Arnason is what I've been calling my favorite short story since I ran across it in an anthology last year. It's about some convincingly alien aliens whose physical presence involves a radical reinterpretation of gender and body. Since it's online, I'm not going to say more. Go read. :)
- Love's Body, Dancing in Time by L. Timmel Duchamp
Love's Body, Dancing in Time is a short story collection by L. Timmel Duchamp, the editor of the feminist publisher Aqueduct Press. In this collection, she explores gender, sexuality, and self-definition, through interesting characters, worlds, and extraordinarily beautiful imagery. All of the stories reflect a deep engagement with feminist ideas, rendered striking and moving through Timmi's unique interpretations.
Timmi's work has an academic cast which the pedant in me really enjoys; one of the stories in this collection is an alternate history examination of Abelard and Heloise, written as an academic paper. My favorite story in the collection is "The Gift," the story of a woman from a world with a binary gender system who travels to another world and falls in love with a man who is a member of a third gender.
- With Her Body by Nicola Griffith
The stories in this collection are striking and dark, with strange, beautiful imagery. My favorite story in the collection is "Yaguara," the last story, which carried me away -- past writer brain, past self reading the book.
In the afterword, L. Timmel Duchamp writes a fascinating analysis of Griffith's stories; she discusses Griffith's exclusive use of women as sexual creatures which creates a world where women are not othered in response to men's sexuality. She also talks about the constructs our culture has built around feminine versus masculine fiction -- for instance, how universality is constructed as masculine, so that feminine characters are seen as 'limited' and 'embodied.' While Nicola's stories were so beautiful as to carry me past the intellectual interpretation of the work while I was reading, I was pleased to have the concepts brought to my attention by Timmi's afterword when I was done.
- Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
This book weaves through the consciousnesses of three black women in different places and historical periods: a slave in the Carribean; a dance hall girl who was the lover of Charles Baudelaire; and an Egyptian slave girl who worked in a brothel, and later became a saint.
I found this book utterly seductive. Reading it was a profoundly moving experience, for me. The prose is gorgoeus, and there's a kind of fiery, driving strength that propels the tension through disparate places and events. The reader gets to know each character intimately, and Nalo's deft, insightful, poetic prose allows each storyline to carry the weight of untold and unwritten histories. Unsurprisingly, it's really smart about the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, spirtuality, history, and the tension between colonized and pre-contact reality. For more good reading, check out Nalo Hopkinson's blog.
- The Slave and the Free by Susie McKee Charnas
The Slave and the Free seems to be a rerelease, compiling the books Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines which were originally released separately. I wasn’t sure whether or not to include these books, because they seem to me to be just as much feminist classics as Tiptree or Delany, but I don’t think I’ve met many non-science-fiction-oriented people who’ve read them. And that’s sad.
These books postulate a post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which women's oppression has become literal slavery, homosexuality has been naturalized, and the men interact according to the hierarchical guidelines of age cohorts. A female slave escapes the dystopian society at the same time as it begins to collapse. Leaving the boundaries of the country where she was born, she joins the Freewomen who live outside. Among them, she finds not utopia, but an ambiguous society. The novels raise sophisticated questions about what utopia and dystopia are or should be, always choosing the complicated answer over the simplistic one.
- China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
I wasn't sure whether or not it was fair to call this book explicitly feminist -- not that it doesn't reflect feminist ideas, but feminism doesn't seem to me to be one of its projects. And then, as I was poking around on the internet, I saw that it's a recipient of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award -- which is given to science fiction work that plays with gender. The characters in this novel are indeed portrayed with deep characterization that doesn't abide by gender roles, but I imagine that the Tiptree committee may have been drawn by this book's portrayal of a world in which homosexuality has been heavily stigmatized (in America) and made illegal (in China). In this novel, China is the major power, and America is a colonial backwater, which has significantly altered the political and cultural landscape of the world.
The novel is told in episodic bursts. The main character has three or four chapters, but the people who wind through his life get to tell their own stories, often in ways that don't relate directly to the main character's plot. I was drawn in by the book's simple imagery and prose, and by the effortless way in which it drew deep characters and a startling world. The prose is both deceptively light and emotionally evocative. Each turn on world politics, race relations, and gender, feels effortlessly smooth and accurately drawn.