Someone I know is writing an article about aspects of science fiction, and has been looking at the evolution of the genre in addition to parallel readings of various kinds.
So a lot of our conversations have been about science fiction and how it’s changed. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading science fiction as usual, for my own enjoyment.
It was while I was reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-anticipated Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen that I began to think about how SF has changed in my non-academic, and non-researched perspective.
So these are impressions, and as always, I welcome suggestions of things I might have missed, both book-wise and branch-wise.
What I mean by ‘branch’ is how many varieties of books now come under the heading of science fiction. But my initial thought began with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.
My longer review is here at Goodreads, but my overall impression while reading was the sense that my favorite genre has grown up, when a book that is mainly about old people coming to terms with the past, and planning their futures, can be written in the context of science fiction.
It’s still got lots of fun world-building. It has intriguing characters of all ages, new and familiar from the series.
But overriding everything is the perspective of age looking back on the traumatic events of the past. So much of Cordelia’s emotional reactions resonated with me, though of course I’ve never been in a position of power, and my traumas have been localized—usually personalized—instead of global. But Bujold has always been able to convince me to live the book as I read it, even reread it, and come away comparing her characters’ experiences with what I’ve seen in the world.
When I finished it, it occurred to me to look at the variety of SF novels I’ve been reading.
Since this blog is meant to be a Saturday-morning-over-coffee quick read rather than a stern-browed study with many pages of citation and detail, I thought I’d confine myself to those recent reads that seem to hang from different branches of the SF tree.
Like Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, which I’m in the middle of right now.
It centers around a girl who can talk to animals, and a guy whose sense of wonder is bound up with scientific invention and exploration. These two find their lives intertwined for varying reasons, beginning with fairly horrific childhoods.
It’s cleverly written, with distinctive characters, and a humane charm that makes some of the darker aspects slide down easy. It’s so different from everything else, while sharing some of the same sfnal tropes, I think the simplest way to describe it is to compare the reading experience with watching a Wes Anderson film.
My feeling as I got into this book was again how much the genre has evolved since I was a kid. Back then it always seemed to me there had to be a white male at center, who solved problems with his fists, scientists were either evil or eggheads, women sidelined, humanity the epitome of evolution. And no fantasy cooties were permitted in the Serious Science. (Though there was some la-la-laing about psi and FTL, as I recall.)
I did encounter science fiction that explored ideas–Blish and Sturgeon had plenty on the library shelves–but even so their stories made it clear that what men thought mattered. Heinlein seemed to be the epitome of everything I was coming to see as a straitjacket on the genre, so by 1970 I’d stopped reading SF altogether, coming back to it in the eighties, but Cyberpunk kind of derailed me (seemed more of the same old) so I stayed with fantasy for a while longer.
Well, there has been lots of good sf to discover since, of course. I’ve caught up with some I missed, but even so, going forward I’m finding that science fiction is including a lot of books that seem to be written for me. That’s a different feel from reading books really meant for other men to read, but I could read them too, if I wanted.
So, back to those books. The two mentioned above have had tons of buzz.
I’ve read some that I enjoyed just as much that haven’t lucked out with the mega-marketing, but stand out in my mind for what they are doing within the sfnal umbrella, as well as being absorbingly good stories. Like the reissue of Kristine Smith’s crackling-paced Jani Kilian series.
The most recent one is Rules of Conflict.
This tautly written, tensely vivid series is best described as science fictional thrillers, with high political stakes as well as personal. In this second book, Jani Kilian faces court martial—at the same time that relations between humans and the alien idomeni are hotting up . . . and Jani’s genetically-modified body is breaking down.
But she has to find a killer before the killer finds her.
Another newly published science fiction novel that involves aliens is Nancy Jane Moore’s first contact story, The Weave.
This novel doesn’t go in new directions so much as take a new and refreshing look at some of the older tropes. Like first contact.
As in Smith’s novels, Moore’s main character, a woman, is also military, but that’s the diverging point. Caty Sanjuro has always wanted to go to the stars and find alien life. After some rough experiences in the marines, she quits the military to study xenology—a subject barely given credence seeing as how no alien life has yet been discovered by humanity just beginning to reach past our solar system.
When aliens are discovered in a mineral rich system, Sanjuro finds herself picked for the expedition to meet them. Moore does a great job evoking the sense of wonder that brought me to read science fiction in the first place, in the way she describes the encounter of the two races on the aliens’ turf. Which—of course—the big corporations hard on the heels of the military/scientific expedition are hell-bent on exploiting.
Another far space story is by Jacey Bedford, Crossways: a PsiTech Novel
This is closer to space opera, which again is not a new thing, but I think that Bedford, like Moore, is taking the old tropes and doing fun things with them.
This type of space opera is the kind I like best, which includes psionics, in this case rigidly controlled, with all the downsides that means.
What happens when the strictly controlled psis want independence from the choke-hold of megacorporations?
Bedford works in a lot of high-octane action and high stakes as well as complicated interpersonal dynamics. And in this, as in all of the above, the book is full of interesting women—good, evil, colorful, all ages.
Finally, for a completely different feel, Desert Rains, by Jana S. Brown, which is also a far-flung-space novel, but branches from there: it takes place on a planet where life is pretty much like the pioneer days, as the main characters struggle to make their ranch a going concern.
When a guy from a wealthier cultural center comes to work as a ranch hand, there are all kinds of repercussions.
The feel here is kind of like a grownup Little House on the Prairie mixed with sfnal elements, and complicated characters.
The single element all these share (besides being science fiction) is that they happen to be written by women.
Any other examples to offer?