(A monthly Read Along book group for those who want to explore science fiction written by women.)
I participated in a panel event at the Women of the World festival in London with the title Do Women Dream of a Different Future: Women and Science Fiction and it didn’t take much research to find that women have always dreamt of a different future. Those of us who are writing within and around sci-fi today are standing on the shoulders of authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ and Octavia Butler, and they have been dreaming for a long, long time already. It just feels like not everyone has been listening.
While checking out what is considered the “most famous works of science fiction”, I became increasingly disconcerted by the dominance of male authors on the lists. In one Top 50 I skimmed through, only four women made the cut. FOUR. What’s up with that?!
I was also aghast to realise that although I could reel off a whole stream of luminary male science fiction authors without really thinking about it, I began to stall after maybe seven women. It made me feel awful. As a woman, and as an author, I want to be shouting about women writers. I want to champion them, because it’s only when we all raise our voices together that we can be lifted up and given a fairer share of the spotlight. In another ten years, I hope to Christ we can have more than four women sci-fi authors in a Top 50 list.
With that in mind, for the rest of 2018 and into 2019, I will be reading science fiction written solely by women (and by “women” I mean anyone identifying as a woman), and I encourage you all to join me! It’ll be FUN. We’ll learn new things! We’ll have debates! Maybe we’ll find some new favourite authors! And during it all, we’ll be sharing the book and author love on social media so that everyone can enjoy it, too.
I’m predominantly a Twitter user, so I’ll be polling on there for what books to read each month (our first read started the 1st April 2018), but I will post updates on my Facebook page, too, if I can remember. The hashtag we’ll be using is #ReadWomenSF because I couldn’t think of anything better and sometimes being literal is the best option. It kind of sounds like an order, too, which I quite like. We’ll do a Twitter discussion on the last Monday of every month (barring any annoying scheduling conflicts) to chat about the book and whatnot. And I’ll write a review and post it on here, too. Bam!
It’s a free-for-all Read Along, so you can read or not, skip a month or not, it’s totally up to you (I predict I’ll be reading alone some months, but that’s okay! I do all my reading alone anyhow). Just remember to use the hashtag or follow me (@gemtodd) so you can keep track of everything.
#ReadWomenSF Book Selection
(Amazon links in titles. I always try to pick books where there are cheaper buying options but it’s not always doable. Always worth asking your local library if they have copies.)
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Often compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power – Woman on the Edge of Time has been hailed as a classic of speculative science fiction. Disturbing and forward thinking, Marge Piercy’s remarkable novel will speak to a new generation of readers.
After being unjustly committed to a mental institution, Connie Ramos is contacted by an envoy from the year 2137, who shows her a utopian future of sexual and racial equality and environmental harmony.
But Connie also bears witness to another potential outcome: a dystopian society of grotesque exploitation. One will become our world. And Connie herself may strike the decisive blow…
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (our May 2018 read)
An award-winning literary author enters the world of magical realism with her World Fantasy Award-winning novel of a remarkable woman in post-apocalyptic Africa.
In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the colour of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different – special – she names her Onyesonwu, which means ‘Who fears death?’ in an ancient language.
It doesn’t take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu – a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.
The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is travelling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion. Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Lou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, however, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.
One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The technology company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.
SPEED OF DARK is a powerful near-future science fiction thriller, the theme of which is both universal and intensely personal. It is dedicated to the author’s own autistic son, and to other parents of autistic children, ‘in the hope that they also find that delight in difference’.
In 1976, Dana dreams of being a writer. In 1815, she is assumed a slave.
When Dana first meets Rufus on a Maryland plantation, he’s drowning. She saves his life – and it will happen again and again.
Neither of them understands his power to summon her whenever his life is threatened, nor the significance of the ties that bind them.
And each time Dana saves him, the more aware she is that her own life might be over before it’s even begun.
Octavia E. Butler’s ground-breaking masterpiece is the extraordinary story of two people bound by blood, separated by so much more than time.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Set in the 21st century – a number of decades from now – The Sparrow is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and talented linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who – in response to a remarkable radio signal from the depths of space – leads a scientific mission to make first contact with an extraterrestrial culture.
In the true tradition of Jesuit adventurers before him, Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, suffering – even death – but nothing can prepare them for the civilisation they encounter. Or for the tragic misunderstanding that brings the mission to a devastating end. Once considered a living saint, Sandoz returns alone to Earth horrifically maimed, both physically and spiritually, the mission’s sole survivor – only to be blamed for the mission’s failure and accused of heinous crimes.
Written in clean, effortless prose and peopled with memorable characters who never lose their humanity or humour, The Sparrow is a powerful, haunting fiction – a tragic but ultimately triumphant novel about the nature of faith, of love and what it means to be ‘human’ and widely considered to be a classic of the genre.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
A landmark book in the fields of science fiction and feminism.
Four women living in parallel worlds, each with a different gender landscape. When they begin to travel to each other’s worlds each woman’s preconceptions on gender and what it means to be a woman are challenged.
They made me kill thousands, but I only have one target now.
The Radch are conquerors to be feared – resist and they’ll turn you into a ‘corpse soldier’ – one of an army of dead prisoners animated by a warship’s AI mind. Whole planets are conquered by their own people.
The colossal warship called The Justice of Toren has been destroyed – but one ship-possessed soldier has escaped the devastation. Used to controlling thousands of hands, thousands of mouths, The Justice now has only two hands, and one mouth with which to tell her tale.
But one fragile, human body might just be enough to take revenge against those who destroyed her.
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.
But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.
Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.
But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BAILEY’S WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION
A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)
The stand-alone sequel to the award-winning The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.
But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.
Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2017 HUGO AWARD AND THE ARTHUR C CLARKE AWARD
Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things that every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them – three strangers washed up by the sea, their gazes hungry and insistent, trailing desire and destruction in their wake.
The Water Cure is a fever dream, a blazing vision of suffering, sisterhood and transformation.
Sealed by Naomi Booth (157 pages)
“We came out here to begin again. We came out here for the clear air and a fresh start. No one said to us: beware of fresh starts. No one said to us: god knows what will begin.”
Timely and suspenseful, Sealed is a gripping modern fable on motherhood. A terrifying portrait of ordinary people under threat from their own bodies and from the world around them. With elements of speculative fiction and the macabre, this is also an unforgettable story about a mother s fight to survive.
Heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete are done with the city. Above all, Alice is haunted by the rumours of the skin sealing epidemic starting to infect the urban population. Surely their new remote mountain house will offer safety, a place to forget the nightmares and start their little family. But the mountains and their people hold a different kind of danger. With their relationship under intolerable pressure, violence erupts and Alice is faced with the unthinkable as she fights to protect her unborn child.
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (255 pages)
The brain was perfect, the tiny, crippled body useless. So technology rescued the brain and put it in an environment that conditioned it to live in a different kind of body – a spaceship. Here the human mind, more subtle, infinitely more complex than any computer ever devised, could be linked to the massive and delicate strengths, the total recall, and the incredible speeds of space. But the brain behind the ship was entirely feminine – a complex, loving, strong, weak, gentle savage – a personality, all-woman, called Helva…
Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)
Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.
Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.
Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.
Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.
And when a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:
What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?
Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (our October 2018 read)
They were created to save humanity. Now they must fight to save themselves.
For years the human race was under attack from a deadly Syndrome, but when a cure was found – in the form of genetically engineered human beings, Gems – the line between survival and ethics was radically altered.
Now the Gems are fighting for their freedom, from the oppression of the companies that created them, and against the Norms who see them as slaves. And a conference at which Dr Eli Walker has been commissioned to present his findings on the Gems is the key to that freedom.
But with the Gemtech companies fighting to keep the Gems enslaved, and the horrifying godgangs determined to rid the earth of these ‘unholy’ creations, the Gems are up against forces that may just be too powerful to oppose.
Osiris: The Osiris Project by E. J. Swift
Nobody leaves Osiris.
Wealthy socialite and granddaughter of the Architect, she spends her time in pointless luxury, rebelling against her family in a series of jaded social extravagances and scandals until her twin brother disappears in mysterious circumstances.
He lives in the Western Quarter, home to the poor descendants of storm refugees and effectively quarantined from the wealthy elite. His people live with cold and starvation, but the coming brutal winter promises civil unrest, and a return to the riots of previous years.
As tensions rise in the city, can Adelaide and Vikram bridge the divide at the heart of Osiris before conspiracies bring them to the edge of disaster?
Empire of Dust by Jacey Bedford (Please note, I can’t seem to find an ebook version of this title.)
To combat manipulative megacorporations with telepathic technology, two heroes must rebel, overthrowing the enemy’s oppressive influence in the first book in this exciting sci-fi adventure
Mega corporations, more powerful than any one planetary government, use their agents to race each other for resources across the galaxy. The agents, or psi-techs, are implanted with telepath technology. The psi-techs are bound to the mega-corps — that is, if they want to retain their sanity.
Cara Carlinni is an impossible thing – a runaway psi-tech. She knows Alphacorp can find its implant-augmented telepaths, anywhere, anytime, mind-to-mind. So even though it’s driving her half-crazy, she’s powered down and has been surviving on tranqs and willpower. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.
She’s on the run from Ari van Blaiden, a powerful executive, after discovering massive corruption in Alphacorp. Cara barely escapes his forces, yet again, on a backwater planet, and gets out just in time due to the help of straight-laced Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest company rival.
Cara and Ben struggle to survive a star-spanning manhunt, black-ops raids, and fleets of resource-hungry raiders. Betrayal follows betrayal, and friends become enemies. Suddenly the most important skill is knowing whom to trust.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (our November 2018 read)
The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways–farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.
The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Nebula Award-winning book.
Available blurb: A new chapter in the Saga of the Skolian Empire finds Kamoj Quanta Argali, a young noblewoman, agreeing to marry a powerful stranger in order to save her people from starvation, in a novel that first appeared in serial form in Analog. Reprint.
The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
The Gate to Women’s Country tells of a society that exists three hundred years after our own has nearly destroyed itself. Now, male warriors are separated from women at an early age and live in garrisons plotting futilely for the battles which must never be fought again. Inside the women’s towns, education, arts and science flourish. But for some like Stavia, there is more to see. Her sojourn with the man she is forbidden to love brings into sharp focus the contradictions that define their lives.
And when tragedy strikes, Stavia is faced with a decision she never thought she would make – a decision that could forever change their world …
The Gate to Women’s Country is a novel that rivals Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in scope, impact, and the sheer power of its storytelling.
The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
When we first meet Kit, she’s a fox.
Nineteen-year-old Kit works for the research department of Shen Corporation as a phenomenaut. She’s been “jumping” – projecting her consciousness, through a neurological interface – into the bodies of lab-grown animals made for the purpose of research for seven years, which is longer than anyone else at ShenCorp, and longer than any of the scientists thought possible. She experiences a multitude of other lives – fighting and fleeing as predator and prey, as mammal, bird, and reptile – in the hope that her work will help humans better understand the other species living alongside them.
Her closest friend is Buckley, her Neuro–the computer engineer who guides a phenomenaut through consciousness projection. His is the voice, therefore, that’s always in Kit’s head and is the thread of continuity that connects her to the human world when she’s an animal. But when ShenCorp’s mission takes a more commercial – and ominous – turn, Kit is no longer sure of her safety. Propelling the reader into the bodies of the other creatures that share our world, The Many Selves of Katherine North takes place in the near future but shows us a dazzling world far, far from the realm of our experience.
Defender by G X Todd
Defender by G X Todd is an imaginative thriller that draws on influences from Stephen King, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman to create a new world – where the biggest threat mankind faces is from the voice inside your own head. If you loved The Stand, you’ll love Defender, the first in a four-part series.
‘So accomplished that it’s difficult to believe it’s a first novel, Defender is already worthy to take its place alongside The Stand in the canon. An absolute gem of a book’ John Connolly
‘Compelling, suspenseful and altogether extraordinary’ Lee Child
In a world where long drinks are in short supply, it’s dangerous to listen to your inner voice.
Those who do, keep it quiet.
But one man listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.
There is a reason why Pilgrim and Lacey must cross paths.
They just don’t know it yet . . .
So there we have it. We have three titles to choose from every month and then vote for what we’ll read. The Poll for which is normally pinned to my Twitter (@GemTodd) for a few days at the end/start of each month so you can cast your votes (or comment on my FB post or on here if you don’t use Twitter). And please, please share this book group with your friends so we can get as many people as possible to read along and appreciate all things women and sci-fi! Cheers.