Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Recent(ish) Hard SF By Women

It occurs to me that this year I’ve spent plenty of time on fantasy, while neglecting science fiction. A trend likely to continue until 2014 at least….

So for today, let’s spend a little time redressing the balance, and talk about hard SF by women.

Defining hard science fiction, rather like defining epic fantasy, is a tricksy business. (Or hobbit.) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction itself acknowledges the potential impossibility of any rigorous definition, concluding only:

“[T]the most important thing about it is, not that it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit; it should seek to provide natural rather than supernatural or transcendental explanations for the events and phenomena it describes.” [Link.]

So, discarding definitions, I’m just going to talk about the science fiction that impressed me with its science, its weirdness, or its ideas. But I’m going to begin with a book I haven’t read, simply because discussions about it make me want to read it while at the same time make me think it might really not be my thing.

Sleeps With Monsters Recent Hard SF By WomenThat book is Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, first published in 2003, which was the focus of a tripartite discussion at Torque Control in summer 2011. (Reality, Product Placement, and Feminism.)

But it was Martin Lewis’s discussion of the first chapter that initially arrested my attention and made me think: this is weird, and: this is provocative, and: this is interesting:

“[I]t very quickly becomes clear that our narrator is masturbating with a firearm. What better collision is there of humanity’s twin obsessions of sex and violence? Happiness is a warm gun, indeed.

The image is startling enough on its own but it is also so cleverly and skilfully evoked. The languid first sentence is immediately derailed by the “grey infinite smell” of the second sentence. It is an alien intrusion in what we think is a familiar scene (it also conjures up the gun as a physical object with remarkable economy). Having subverted our expectations, Sullivan goes on to subvert the language of pornography.”

(Another writer whose work sounds fascinating but to whose SF I have been shamefully underexposed is Justina Robson: Silver Screen (1999), Mappa Mundi (2001), Natural History (2003), and Living Next Door To The God Of Love (2005)—I’ve only read the last one.)

Getting closer to the present, I remember Chris Moriarty’s Spin State (2003) and Spin Control (2006) with very great favour—and finally, with Ghost Spin, can get my hands on another like them. Mary Rosenblum’s Horizons (2007) comes to mind with some little affection, and despite its flaws, C.L. Anderson’s Bitter Angels (2009), which I only read recently, is an interesting SF setup in both social and technological terms. And I do commend to your attention Aliette de Bodard’s 2012 novella On A Red Station, Drifting.

But to whom do I really want to draw your attention in this post?

Three women in particular.

Sleeps With Monsters Recent Hard SF By Women

Kameron Hurley's Rapture

Kameron Hurley, whose Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy (God’s War, now out in the UK from Del Rey, Infidel, and Rapture) combines old-fashioned planetary romance—the planet-bound counterpart of space opera—with the aesthetic of the New Weird. And is one of the best, most intense, and most provocative pieces of SF I’ve read.

M.J. Locke, the open pseudonym of Laura J. Mixon. Her 2011 novel Up Against It was named on the 2012 Tiptree Honour List, but aside from this piece of recognition? Up Against It has been criminally overlooked. Near-future near-space SF set on an asteroid in the middle of a series of cascading crises, the most immediate—and most pressing—of which is a resource shortage. They need ice to live. And thanks to a catastrophic accident, they’re rapidly running out.

READ THIS BOOK. Seriously. This is one of the best works of “hard” science fiction I’ve read. It’s fully as good as anything else in the field—better than most, with well-developed, fully rounded characters, interestingly plausible science, and a smashing thriller plot. Not to mention a society under constant surveillance. And feral AI. It reminds me, in a way, of Charles Stross’s less future-shocky SF.

Elizabeth Bear has been, I will confess, a friend to me. But I don’t think that affects my appreciation for her versatility as a writer. Her SF, with the exception of the somewhat weak Undertow (2007) is vibrant and full of ideas, from her debut cyberpunk-esque trilogy (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwide), to her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy of Dust, Chill, and Grail, with its mix of hard SF generation-ship concepts and an Arthurian aesthetic reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber. My favourite, however, remains 2006’s Carnival, with its spy-thriller plot of cascading betrayals and its combination of social and technological extrapolations: it continues to speak to me after multiple re-reads.

What examples of recent hard SF by women would you recommend? Me, I keep meaning to read Jaine Fenn—has anyone else read her work?


Liz Bourke cannot think of anything interesting to say about herself today. But she has a blog. And a Twitter.

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