Tue
May 21 2013 10:00am

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

Sleeps With Monsters Recent 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, 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.

13 comments
@tinypterosaur
1. @tinypterosaur
Just bought Up Against It -- Considered Maul, but like you I think it's both up my alley and exactly not up my alley. I'll pick it up later. But I did as you commanded, it sounds like a great read :D
James Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
Let me recommend Rosemary Kirstein's The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power and through them the series of which they are a part.
Chad Haefele
3. hiddenpeanuts
Thansk for the tips - and Up Against It is listed as a special bargain item on Amazon right now - $3.20 for paperback.

Kindle price is still at $6.83 though, grumble grumble.
Fade Manley
4. fadeaccompli
I was going to buy Up Against It, but the paperback mysteeeeriously disappeared on Amazon between when I put it in my cart and when I was going to check out. Guess it's Kindle edition for me.
Ian Sales
5. iansales
Two excellent novellas by Carolyn Ives Gilman, The Ice Owl and Arkfall, both available as chapbooks from Phoenix Pick. Linda Nagata's Nanotech Succession Quartet, Watermind by MM Buckner, Machine by Jennifer Pelland. Timmi Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle probably doesn't qualify as hard sf, but it's definitely worth reading.
Liz Bourke
6. hawkwing-lb
tinypterosaur @1:

I hope you enjoy it.

James Davis Nicolls @2:

I find it hard to recommend Kirstein as hard SF, because the hard SFness is such a process of discovery, and such a delightful reveal, but it's not obviously SFnal from the first page.

(Also, why, why, why does she not write faster? - Okay, brilliant is certainly better than soon, but!)


hiddenpeanuts @3:

Go on, read it, you know you want to. :)

fadeaccompli @4:

I guess I shouldn't have bought that last batchload, then... ;)

iansales @5:

Thanks, Ian!
James Nicoll
7. James Davis Nicoll
Isn't the evolution of the Steerswoman books from apparent fantasy to hard SF part of the fun?
@tinypterosaur
8. dancing crow
re: Steerswoman, absolutely the evolution is part of the delight

seconding Nagata's work, with pleasure
@tinypterosaur
9. Matt Weber, Ph.D.
For variable values of "recent": Butler, Nagata, Slonczewski, Tiptree.
Liz Bourke
10. hawkwing-lb
James Davis Nicoll @7:

I express myself poorly tonight. Sometimes I feel that calling it hard SF upfront takes away from the delight of the reveal?
James Nicoll
11. James Davis Nicoll
Ah. Fair enough.

What's your benchmark for Hard SF? Clementian "did the math, understand the chemistry" or Nivenian "shiny!"*? Or, God help us, a more Adam Robertsian "My equation follows my literary definition of your genre so why are you complaining that I wrote 2 + 2 = asparagus"?

Pamela Sargent added two recent sequels to her 1983 Earthseed: Farseed (2007), and Seed Seeker (2010). It's not impossible they are in the same history as her Venus series, which by the way also got a long-delayed follow-up in 2001, Child of Venus.

* At some point please pitch me a soft-ball so I can point out how many parallels there are between Niven's Known Space and Le Guin's Hainish novels.
Liz Bourke
12. hawkwing-lb
James Davis Nicoll @11:

Hard SF is an aesthetic, I think. It demands science that looks plausible, or at least mostly fails to directly contradict natural laws as we know them (although certain exceptions may have to be grandfathered in as originally being hard SF in intent). The aesthetic also requires copious amounts of shiny "hard" physics technology doing hard physics - or at least chemical or computer sciencey things.

(I've yet to find stuff that's quite rigorous, but is primarily interested in biology, gathered under the rubric of hard SF - not that biological extrapolation gets an great welcome in SF as a whole. Rapture of the nerds, and so on: one thinks that there might possibly be some distaste for squishy, soft, seemingly a-rational flesh that enfolds the rigidity of rigorously-extrapolated reason?)

*throws ball* Tell us, how are Niven and Le Guin like each other?
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@11: Has this got something to do with the Pak and the Hain?

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