by Don Sakers
The concept of gender is everywhere these days. Whether it’s the rights of trans people, questions surrounding intersex babies, or a multitude of new pronouns to learn, it seems you can’t go out in public or open a browser without running into gender issues.
As with most social concerns, science fiction was there way before the rest of the world. Let’s talk about that.
A couple of ground rules: I’m not going to talk about specific issues like the history of women in SF or gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in SF (either as writers or characters). I’m not going to talk specifically about treatments of feminism or sexual orientation in the field. Each of these topics could easily fill a whole column.
Instead, I want to discuss gender as a concept, a social/cultural construct, and how SF has dealt with that concept. In short, it’s about gender, not genders.
Another ground rule: In the present day, everything about our understanding of gender is in flux. Terminology, science, academic practice, social and cultural patterns—there is no consensus on any of these. Vocabulary, in particular, is unstable and mutable: the terms I use today will almost certainly change their meanings in a few years. Please understand that I do not intend to offend anyone; any misuse is purely by evolution and/or mistake.
One trope that appeared in the earliest SF is that of the single-gender society. Often in these stories, one gender has been wiped out (either globally or locally), with the resultant culture either a utopia or dystopia.
Books featuring all-female cultures go back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). Consider Her Ways (John Wyndham, 1956) and World Without Men (Charles Eric Maine, 1956, revised as Alph, 1956) were early treatments of the trope from a male perspective; later more feminist examples include Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles (Walk to the End of the World, 1972, and sequels), The Female Man (Joanna Russ, 1975), and Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy, 1976).
At first blush, SF dealing with all-male cultures seems to be sparse. Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance (1951) is unusual in presenting simultaneous single-gender cultures: a cosmic accident splits the world into two timelines—one populated exclusively by women, the other exclusively by men. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1994) postulates a colony world of only men.
Further thought shows that all-male cultures were not as sparse as we think: due to the basic sexism of the real world, most early SF might as well have been set in an all-male world; women characters were rare and fictional societies were male dominated and oriented. (Of course, there were some fine exceptions.)
Another trope that involved gender was the notion of swapping genders, either permanently or temporarily. In Virginia Woolf’s 1928 classic Orlando, the title character moves through history changing between male and female at will. Thorne Smith’s Turnabout (1931) was a lighter take on transgender transformation. In such books as Robert A. Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (1970), George MacBeth’s The Transformation (1975), The Passion of New Eve (Angela Carter, 1977) and Justin Lieber’s Beyond Rejection (1980), male characters took on female bodies. Stories involving female-to-male transitions seem to be much rarer—perhaps because in the male-dominated world of much early SF, the trope of women masquerading as (or mistaken for) men was a common element.
The concept of fluctuating genders (what today would be termed “genderfluid”) took longer to emerge in SF. In Elisabeth Mann Borghese’s My Own Utopia (1961), children are born genderless and become female at maturity; some go on to become male later in life. The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969) famously introduces the near-human, usually genderless Gethenians, who take on gender for mating. In Mary Gentle’s Orthe series (Golden Witchbreed, 1984, and sequels), the natives are born genderless and acquire gender randomly later in life. Greg Egan’s 1998 novella “Oceanic” posits a race that switch genders with every act of intercourse.
Gender is much more easily fluid in books such as Imago (Octavia Butler, 1988), Steel Beach (John Varley, 1992), and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series (Ancillary Justice, 2013, and sequels). Special mention must be made of the late Jack Chalker, most of whose works generally included characters who moved between genders at will.
From fluid gender, we move on to non-gendered or non-binary characters and societies. In the aforementioned The Left Hand of Darkness, even though individual Gethenians are sometimes gendered, Gethenian society as a whole is non-binary. In John Scalzi’s Lock In (2014), a percentage of the human race live through genderless android bodies.
Occasionally, an author creates a tour de force with a character whose gender is never revealed to the reader. Notable examples include The Kindly Ones (Melissa Scott, 1987), Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson, 1992), and several linked stories in Kelly Eskridge’s Dangerous Space (2007).
The final gender trope that SF has explored is the notion of three or more genders. This idea first found expression in Into Plutonian Depths, an almost-forgotten 1931 classic by Stanton A. Coblentz. In this book, the inhabitants of Pluto (discovered only a year prior) have three genders (and grow lightbulbs on their heads). The concept of multiple genders receives much more serious treatment in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, 1987, and sequels), Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man (1995), and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (2014).
If you want some good nonfiction that goes into much more detail about gender in SF, try Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (Brian Atterbery, 2002), Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (Brit Mandelo, 2012), Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction (Francesca Barbini, 2017), and Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (Chrissy Tidwell & Bridgitte Barclay, 2018).
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Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea
Small Beer Press, 286 pages, $17.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9,99 (e-book)
Genre: Short Fiction Collections
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It is possible, however unlikely, that you have never heard of Sarah Pinsker. If that’s the case, now is an excellent time to learn her name—for you’ll be hearing it everywhere, and for the rest of your life.
Sarah Pinsker writes science fiction and fantasy short stories, and damn fine ones at that. Since her debut in 2012, she’s published nearly fifty of them, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, our sibling publication Asimov’s Science Fiction—plus a stunning variety of original anthologies.
So far, Pinsker has racked up four Nebula Award nominations, a second honorable mention for the Tiptree Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and a Hugo nomination. Her novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road” won the 2016 Nebula.
In addition to all of this, she’s a singer/songwriter with the band Stalking Horses, a director-at-large for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and the host of the Dangerous Visions Variety Hour reading program.
To quote Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea is Pinsker’s first collection. It’s a book that every SF reader needs to own. It’s impossible to describe a typical Sarah Pinsker story, but here are some of the elements you’re likely to find: music, unusual ideas, absurdity made perfectly believable, fascinating characters, struggles of identity and disconnection, relatable characters across every spectrum of culture, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, and every other human dimension. What you’ll find most consistently, however, is a view of the world that’s skewed in bewitching, enticing ways.
Take the title, a finalist for the 2016 Nebula. It presents a dystopian future in which all resources are diverted to support the rich on cruise-ship enclaves while the rest of the world collapses. But instead of taking readers aboard the ships, Pinsker shows us only the reflection of that world through the eyes of a captive entertainer who jumped ship, and now finds herself at the mercy of a strange old woman in a desolate landscape. The effect isn’t just gripping; it’s mesmerizing.
Similarly, “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” introduces an amputee who receives a prosthetic limb that seems to remember a previous life. “No Lonely Seafarer” rings multiple twists on legends of treacherous sirens singing sailors to their deaths.
When trying to compare Pinsker to other writers, some names jump immediately to mind: Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, Frederic Brown, Cordwainer Smith, Connie Willis. All of those are true enough, but I’m going to go ahead and call it: In sheer talent, in the ability to craft a story that penetrates your brain and wraps its fingers around your heart—but definitely not in temperament or personality—Sarah Pinsker is another Harlan Ellison. Her impact on the field, already considerable, is only just beginning.
Get in on the ground floor, folks.
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Best Game Ever
Sisu Publications, 399 pages
Kindle: $4.99 (e-book)
Series: Virtuella 1
Genre: Adventure SF, LGBTQ SF, Virtual Reality SF
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R. R. Angell is perhaps another unfamiliar name. Since entering the field in 2006, he’s published a handful of short stories in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and various original anthologies. Best Game Ever is his first novel.
Robby Papenaugh is a student at Bolin College. Nagged by CB, the personal AI assistant he built as a high school project, he daydreams through classes until he can indulge his true passion, virtual reality gaming.
With the Virtual Campus Challenge a week away, Robby and his friends are excited about a revolutionary AI-powered virtual game platform called Virtuella. Virtuella brings unprecedented levels of responsiveness and reality to games—and Robby and his friends want to be among the first to master it.
Then the suicides start. The only common link seems to be Virtuella. As Robby and his friends investigate, Virtuella starts to resist. Soon, it becomes a fight between a handful of college kids and the world’s most sophisticated and powerful AI.
The near-future world of Best Game Ever is richly imagined and skillfully presented. Bolin College students use their augies (augmented-reality lenses) with the same familiarity that today’s students use smartphones. The virtual games seem like genuine fun, even for those readers who aren’t gamers. The well-drawn characters are drawn from across the range of gender and sexuality: Robby is gay (and searching for a boyfriend), his best friend is trans, and snarky CB is as non-binary as they come.
Best Game Ever is the science fiction Hogwarts, full of adventure and wonder, that you’ve always wanted—complete with cyber-tech instead of magic, virtual reality gaming instead of quidditch, and a diverse, LGBTQ cast of exciting characters. In addition, it fully conveys the sheer fun of VR gaming.
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DAW, 388 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Space Opera
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The name Suzanne Palmer may be more familiar to Analog readers: she’s had a couple pieces in these pages, most recently the short story “The Streaming Man” in the March/April 2018 issue. She received the AnLab award for Best Novelette in 2016. She’s a fixture in Asimov’s Science Fiction, where she’s won four Readers’ Awards and placed in the top five more times than I can count. Her work has also appeared in Interzone and various other zines and anthologies. She won the 2018 Best Novelette Hugo for “The Secret Life of Bots.” Finder is her first novel.
Fergus Ferguson calls himself a Finder—although others prefer terms like grifter, repo agent, or just plain thief. Call him what you will; if you want something or someone tracked down and retrieved, no matter where in the galaxy, Fergus is your man.
His latest heist should be a simple one: recover the starship Venetia’s Sword, recently stolen by corrupt trader Arum Gilger. Gilger, a disgraced noble, is on a quest for power. . . . If something unfortunate happens to him, authorities won’t be upset.
Fergus locates Gilger and the ship on the remote human colony world of Cernee. As he arrives, a nasty civil war breaks out; he’s forced into an alliance with one of the factions to penetrate Gilger’s defenses and hired mercenaries. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Fergus is way too involved in local politics (and some of the local people) for his safety.
Oh, and there are the mysterious, half-mythical aliens whose triangular ships keep following Fergus around, for their own nefarious purposes.
Fergus is one of the most lovable wisecracking rogues since Slippery Jim diGriz. Both the world of Cernee and the larger interstellar milieu are intriguing and well-presented. There’s nothing quite so fun as a heist gone wrong, and this one’s a dilly. With a first novel of this quality, Suzanne Palmer is another one who’s going to make more of a mark than she has already.
The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF Volume 5
Edited by David Afsharirad
Baen, 336 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Series: Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF 5
Genre: Adventure SF, Military SF, Reprint Anthologies
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In science fiction fandom, there’s an old saying that demonstrates the field’s respect for both established practice and innovation: “We did it last year, so now it’s a tradition.” By this measure, David Afsharirad’s The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF series, now in its fifth year, is a revered institution. And with good reason.
Editor Afsharirad has drawn from magazines (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed), websites, and original anthologies to bring us twelve stories by as many authors, among them some of the most exciting names in military SF. These tales display the full range of military SF, from traditional space battles and powered armor to bio-enhanced soldiers and space pirates to lunar noir and Crimean War steampunk.
The authors include Brendan DuBois (with a story set in his Dark Victory series), William Ledbetter (asteroid miners), Christopher Ruocchio (horror aboard an alien derelict), Kristine Kathryn Rush (space pirates vs. 11-year-old girl genius), and Michael Z. Williamson (space warfare).
And look, here’s Suzanne Palmer, with “Thirty-three Percent Joe,” a story narrated by a soldier’s enhanced implants.
Most of the action in military SF happens in novels and multi-novel series; it’s always a pleasure to be reminded that the genre also produces some outstanding short fiction. If you like military SF, don’t miss this one.
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Paul di Filippo
PS Publishing, 129 pages, $24.00 (format)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Genre: Alternate Worlds, Noir SF, Trips in Time
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Paul Di Filippo has published over thirty novels and hundreds of short pieces. He’s been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and has won both the British Science Fiction Association Award and the French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.
Paul Di Filippo is one of those authors who defies categorization; he uses the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, and any other genres he wishes, dumping them all into a blender and mixing to produce a delightful, unique smoothie . . . the kind that goes down really nicely, then keeps reminding you of its presence for days. And you’re never quite sure exactly what it’s doing to your insides. . . .
Aeota follows private eye Vern Ruggles as he receives a mysterious text reading “find aeota yesterday everywhere.” Dismissing it, Vern turns to his current case, locating a vanished scam-investor for his outraged victims. Before he makes any progress, his wife Yulia calls; it seems she’s received another mysterious message that refers to Aeota.
Thus begins a surreal odyssey that takes Vern through time, space, and alternate worlds in search of Aeota. Along the way he encounters sapient slime, his stillborn daughter Aelita, Tinidril the Green Lady of Venus, and a threat to life everywhere and everywhen.
If you’re looking for a surreal romp through a deliciously absurd world, a tale that grabs you and won’t let you go until the final page, Aeota is just the answer to your search.
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The Gordian Protocol
David Weber and Jacob Holo
Baen, 512 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
Genre: Alternate Worlds, Military SF, Trips in Time
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Whenever a superstar author collaborates with a relative newcomer, there’s always nasty speculation that the superstar merely supplied an idea, which the lesser-known author then expanded into a novel. A librarian of mine has a phony book cover on which the name “James Patterson” is blazoned in three-inch letters, followed in microscopic print by, “scribbled an idea on a napkin and all the actual work was done by,” then the junior author’s name in half-inch letters.
In reality, it almost never works that way. In the case of The Gordian Protocol, the evidence argues against such an interpretation, beginning with the fact that the basic idea is so unlike David Weber and so consistent with Jacob Holo’s work.
Jacob Holo is an indie writer who’s been publishing since 2013. His The Dragons of Jupiter (2003) and three books of the Seraphim Revival series (Bane of the Dead, Throne of the Dead, and Disciple of the Dead, all 2015) are military SF. Time Reavers (2014) pits a psi-talented teen and her offbeat friends against monsters from outside time. With his spouse, H.P. Holo, he’s written the first book of a young adult fantasy series called The Wizard’s Quartet.
The Gordian Protocol is a very satisfying blend of alternate worlds and military SF. Professor Benjamin Schröder teaches history in a world where World War Two ended when the Pacific Allies rebuilt their fleet after Pearl Harbor and marched through occupied Japan to conquer the U.S.S.R. It’s a peaceful world, although it does have its frustrations.
Without warning, Schröder begins to recall a different universe, one with no Pacific Alliance, no invasion, a relentless cold war and an unstable, violent Middle East.
It’s about then that a stranger knocks on Schröder’s door raving about alternate reality, time travel, and whole universes on the cosmic chopping block. Someone’s going to have to decide which universes die and which are saved . . . and Schröder himself seems to be the one.
Despite a few rough spots, The Gordian Protocol is an enjoyable and rewarding read.
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Crown, 356 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF, Satire SF
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Speaking of junior authors . . . Rob Hart was co-writer, with James Patterson, of thriller Scott Free (2017). He also writes mystery thrillers, most notably the Ash McKenna series.
The Warehouse is both a near-future thriller and an incisive social satire. It’s being marketed as in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell, and it’s just as much “real” science fiction as those examples. It might be a bit of a hard slog for thriller or literary readers, but SF readers will enjoy it without any trouble.
The world’s problems, from climate change to uneven wealth distribution to mass unemployment, all seem to be solvable when a new high-tech company called Cloud appears on the scene. With gargantuan warehouses all over the country, Cloud has enough jobs for everyone. Company towns, called MotherClouds, provide clean, cheap housing for workers, powered by the company’s vast solar farms. MotherClouds become utopias, as machines anticipate and answer every human need of their workers.
Well, we’ve all heard this story before, and we know that life inside utopia isn’t as good as it looks. Paxton, a security guard, feels lucky to have a happy, secure life in the MotherCloud. Zinnia, a stock-picker, has a different perspective. She’s an industrial spy, sent by a rival corporation to learn Cloud’s secrets. And Paxton is her ticket to inside access.
It’s not long before Paxton begins to question everything he’s believed about Cloud. By then, though, his life and Zinnia’s are both at risk. . . .
The Warehouse is a solid, excitement-filled satire. Like all effective satires, if it doesn’t make you at least a little uncomfortable with aspects of our present consumerist world, perhaps you need to think again. Definitely recommended.
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Marque of Caine
Chareles E. Gannon
Baen, 512 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Series: Caine Riordan 5
Genre: Military SF, Space Opera
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In four previous books, dauntless intelligence agent and diplomat Caine Riordan has made first contact with aliens, defended Earth from invasion, and saved whole sapient species from destruction. In the previous book, Caine’s Mutiny, he lost both his career and his wife. His career was taken away by Earth bureaucrats, his dying wife spirited away in cryo-suspension by the Dornaani, an alien race whose advanced bio-tech is the only hope to save her life.
Two years later, Caine gets the message he’s been waiting for: a summons to the Dornaani home world. He finds the world in turmoil, the Dornaani empire falling apart. Even worse, his wife’s cryocell has gone missing.
The quest to find her leads beyond the boundaries of known space, where he uncovers evidence that the Dornaani Empire’s collapse is being engineered from outside. More than that, it’s part of a plot to clear the way for the destruction of Earth.
Gannon’s Caine Riordan is like a mix between Keith Laumer’s Retief, A. Bertram Chandler’s Commodore Grimes, and David Weber’s Honor Harrington. If you’re after stalwart heroes and deliciously complex interstellar politics, this is the book for you.
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Baen, 336 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Genre: Military SF
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T.C. McCarthy, a CIA weapons expert, is the author of the Subterrene War series (Germline, 2011; Exogene, and Chimera, both 2012). Tyger Burning, his new novel, is distinct from that series.
A generation ago, in the war between China and America, Maung fought as a Dream Warrior: one of an elite squad of Burmese soldiers whose brains were fused with AI computers to make them ultimate fighting machines. In the present day, Maung lives in the United States, unemployed, scrabbling for temp jobs to support his family. People remember the atrocities of the war, and blame them (rightly) on the Dream Warriors. Those who, like Maung, managed to escape punishment are reviled and feared.
When an alien race arrives on Earth with a threat to exterminate humanity, Maung abandons his family and flees to the outer reaches of the Solar System. There, on a prison asteroid, he unites with his exiled brethren.
Out there, Maung discovers a secret weapon system that has been lost since the war. With its help, perhaps Maung can save Earth . . . and redeem his people.
With unusual but compelling characters and deeper-than-usual moral complexity, Tyger Burning is the sort of book that will leave you thinking about it for weeks after you finish.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. Until next time, may all your pronouns be appropriate.
Don Sakers is the author of Five Planes and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/drupal6/.
Copyright © 2019 Don Sakers