And they’re good at it.
A few years ago I wrote an article about the invisible women of space opera—and pretty much any other subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. Women have always been there, always writing, always breaking new ground—and yet every year or two, someone will write an article that proclaims, “Women Are Finally Venturing into Men’s Territory!” Lists of 100 Best Books are heavily skewed toward white male writers, all or nearly all from North America.
Almost six years later, I like to think we may be in an up cycle for recognition of women’s work.
The awards lists are full of people who are not the standard cis white North American male. The quality of their work is amazing, and its subject matter and settings are as diverse as the authors.
In 2017, I was riding on a tide of righteous rage. I had no clue then how much of a flaming burning dumpster fire the world was about to turn into. Now, in 2023, I think we need to look on the brighter side, for self-care if for nothing else.
Let us take as a given that women and nonbinary persons are writing space opera, and they are rocking it. They have been rocking it. They will keep right on rocking it.
Let’s celebrate our favorites. I’ll give you mine. I’d love to see yours in the comments. To make it a little more fun and challenging, let’s talk about works that have been published in the last decade or so. There are over a hundred comments on my earlier article, and they’re full of recommendations for older works and authors. It’s time for an update.
Lets start with three of my favorites. Three authors and series, all new or nearly new. They’re all, in my biased opinion, really, really good.
Kate Elliott has been writing and publishing for a long time—long enough to be in “classic” territory. She’s written epic fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate history, science fiction. In 2020, she published the first volume of her much-anticipated Genderbent Alexander the Great in Space, Unconquerable Sun. The second volume, Furious Heaven, will appear this April.
Unconquerable Sun is space opera in the grand tradition. Large cast of characters, tangled webs of imperial intrigue. Space battles, court battles, battles over royal and aristocratic inheritance.
Royal heir Sun has to fight for her life in the interstellar Republic to which she is heir. She has a difficult relationship with her mother the Queen-Marshal, and an often deadly one with her mother’s court. To further complicate the situation, the Republic is under attack by the Phene Empire.
The events of the novel are based somewhat loosely on the early adult life of Alexander the Great, complete with a battleship named Boukephalas, after Alexander’s famous warhorse. Elliott knows her history, though she’s chosen not to replicate it exactly. This story takes inspiration from key events in the original, and the relationship between Sun and her mother is not too far off the one between Alexander and his father, Philip II of Macedon.
One thing she does echo somewhat faithfully is the circle of friends that surrounded Alexander and to a large extent defined who he was—for both good and bad. The Companions were his friends, allies, sometime enemies. They joined him in his campaigns, and helped him rule once he had made his conquests.
Our culture applies a double standard to male versus female in just about every way. A man is assertive, a woman is aggressive. A man expresses his emotions honestly, a woman is a drama queen. Men are presumed to be telling the truth until proved otherwise; women are probably lying, or at least exaggerating. And then there’s the definition of a slut: a woman with the sexual morals of a man.
Some of us are, slowly, getting used to the idea of seeing women as we’re conditioned to see men. Putting a positive spin on who and what they are. Allowing female characters to have the range and the possibilities traditionally assigned to males.
Gender-bending Alexander also means gender-bending the Companions. Elliott is particularly skilled at depicting female friendship. Not all of Sun’s Companions are her friends; some actively want her dead. But the give and take among them, the complexities of their various relationships, are some of the best things about the book. I expect them to carry on in subsequent volumes, both because I’m familiar with the history, and because Elliott has laid the groundwork so solidly in this first volume.
Elliott’s space opera takes its inspiration from the history of Western Europe. In that respect it’s quite traditional. The bulk of the genre is written by North Americans. It’s North American and especially US-American in assumptions, in culture, in the way it views the universe.
Many of the newer stars of the genre come from other cultural traditions—and that is splendid. So is the quality of the writing. One of the best of them is Aliette de Bodard.
I came to her work through her fantasy, first her Aztec trilogy, then her Dominion of the Fallen sequence. Her space opera is written at a shorter length, as a series of short stories and novellas, but they’re just as rich, complex, and intriguing as her longer works.
The Xuya Universe, in its later incarnations, is based on the history of Viet Nam. In an interstellar empire beset by enemies and ruled by Emperors and Empresses who never exactly die—their personalities are preserved in memory modules that advise and accompany their successors—people of all ages and classes live, love, and solve mysteries. Not only the rulers live their lives within the circle of their ancestors; the upper classes are granted that privilege as well.
And then there are the Mindships, sentient starships that are born of women and implanted in mechanical shells. And space stations watched over by the preserved intelligences of their founders. When those begin to fail, as in On a Red Station, Drifting, the results are perilous to the humans who live in them, and profoundly poignant.
De Bodard’s writing is rich and nuanced. Her characters are complex, deeply human and deeply flawed. She balances viewpoints among multiple characters, showing us both how they view themselves and how others view them.
They’re steeped in the culture of Viet Nam. The language, the literature and scholarship, the social and familial structures, the food—I can smell the garlic and the fish sauce, and hear the rhythms of the language in the characters’ speech.
There is a sequence in “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls,” when the young Mindship—still only a child, but a child of tremendous intelligence and power—searches for the answer to the central mystery. As she does so, she shifts back and forth from mathematics to scraps of ancient legend, songs and poetry alternating with the language of science. That, for me, is what makes de Bodard’s universe work. It’s a skillful balance between art and science, human and machine.
Space opera loves its warring empires and its thrilling space battles. There’s another side to it, too: the end-of-time saga. The empire that’s endured for thousands of years, but it’s crumbling. It’s failing. It’s deeply decadent. It can be difficult if not impossible to tell where science fiction ends and fantasy begins.
That’s where Tamsyn Muir’s Ninth House lives. Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, Nona the Ninth—and we’re still wondering what’s going on with the Locked Tomb. As the saga grows, it gets weirder, and the characters get more complicated and more out-there.
And yet they’re very human. They want what every human wants. Love. Friendship. A family. Riches and power, too, but that’s kind of secondary. Mostly. How they get it, and what shape it takes, may not be what anyone expects, on either side of the fourth wall.
The Ninth House especially brings the weird. It’s built on a cult of death, guarding the Locked Tomb. Its rulers are necromancers. Its servants are animated skeletons. It’s goth to end all goth. It revels in the macabre.
Wednesday Addams would be totally into it. It has that vibe, but it’s very much its own creature. There’s nothing else like it. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite space operas written by women and nonbinary persons in the past decade? Besides the three I’ve mentioned, there are so many wonderful writers, and new ones lighting up the spaceways just about every day. Charlie Jane Anders, just to name one. Ryka Aoki, Becky Chambers, Kameron Hurley, Annalee Newitz, Nnedi Okorafor, Rivers Solomon, K.B. Wagers… Who are your favorites? Whose works are you most excited about?
Judith Tarr has written fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.