I’ve been silent this past month because I’m wrapping up a novel – a geopolitical thriller, ruthless conspiracy and romantic tragedy, an argument about empire and resistance. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a work of fantasy, but like all art, it exists in a political context. It doesn’t have a choice.
Here I want to plug a number of writers who’ve both contributed to my own political awareness and perpetrated some great art of their own.
This is not a comprehensive who’s-who of exciting new voices in SF/F – not all of them are new, and, of course I’m open to recommendations! But it is a list of people I’ve read who feel dangerous, charged, contagious – menaces to your internal sense of who writes the fantastic and why. Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein should not be the Rushmore of science fiction, nor Tolkien the embalmed Lenin in our internal Red Square.
Behavioral science taught me the power of the frequency heuristic: much of how we think is shaped by mere exposure. If you want to change your brain’s prototypes about what a science fiction writer looks like, where she’s from, who she loves – you have to fill your experience with examples. You can’t look through your blind spots just by flexing good intentions. You won’t become that egalitarian future-person in a happy beige utopia you saw on Star Trek: The Next Generation by deciding not to care about labels of sex, race, nationality. You have to make an active effort to fill these gaps.
Reading these writers opened me to how closed my horizons had been.
Aliette de Bodard’s award-winning Immersion builds itself from one of the most spectacular and commanding premises I’ve ever seen – perhaps the finest example I know of genre writing’s ability to take something vast and social and complex and make it hard, tangible, real. Behind that flagship she’s admiral of a small armada of stories. Hunt them down. Be impressed.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who I caught on to through Aliette’s recommendations, struck me first with ‘Courtship in the Country of Machine Gods‘, but ‘Annex‘ is a story I love too, one that opens with that central question – resistance or subversion? She is going to blow the fuck up. You will see her on the Campbell ballot for best new writer next year.
I haven’t read enough Zen Cho. I will – she’s spoken of by voices I like to heed. I’m crowdsourcing absolution of this sin to all of you.
C. J. Cherryh’s had a long, storied career, but, look, people still say that women don’t write military science fiction, don’t write hard SF, don’t write space opera. Long before a woman wrote many of the best episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Cherryh’s Downbelow Station gave us – you know what, I’m just going to have to do a separate post on Downbelow, and on what it did for the genre. It’s one of those books you’re accidentally describing when you rant, late at night, about what you wish authors would do.
Ted Chiang writes some of the finest and most broadly acclaimed short stories in the field. His work is painstakingly assembled, apparently the product of a demon mechanism, one that does not so much write as cohere a concept and then thresh it out and flense it apart and put it all back together just so, considered with a totality that feels like it should be enshrined in information theory. Story of Your Life and Others collects many of his works.
(I’m really sorry about that naval impressment pun.)
Lavie Tidhar and Nick Mamatas are two writers whose fiction I’ve barely touched, but whose political writings I’ve been aware of for a long time, and who’ve been profoundly influential on me. Tidhar’s efforts to open American readers to world science fiction are really important. Both of them are superb on Twitter. If I don’t read them soon, this device buried in my cervical vertebrae will detonate, robbing me of the motor functions required to do anything but watch young Michael Caine’s scenes in ‘The Battle of Britain’ over and over again. Thanks, Obamacare.
Kij Johnson’s another well-established writer, painted in acclaim, but both as a teacher and a prose stylist she’s been a formative influence on me and I couldn’t write this list without her. No author I know has launched a more aggressive and disruptive attack on her own artistic project than the notoriously in-your-face ‘Spar’, but you can see her structural mastery on display in ‘Mantis Wives’, ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’, and elsewhere. Her novel Fudoki is, in my reading, secretly an articulate and moving attempt to heal the wound between genre and literary fiction, even while it is also about a dying empress and a cat who turns into a woman and becomes a feudal Japanese warrior.
Cat Valente just got her own post here. I could probably write another.
Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Ghostweight‘ floored me. Being floored is a figure of speech, but we should really take it more seriously: concussions are dangerous, and pugilistic Parkinson’s is just one example of the permanent changes that being punched can inflict on the brain. Her recent ‘The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars’ on Lightspeed crystallizes a whole constellation of her interests – stunning imagery, language, weapons, space opera built on figures of mythic humanity. But elsewhere in her work, questions of how to resist, of what it costs – including a wonderful story about warfare conducted through language. You should pledge your mind to her collection Conservation of Shadows. And follow up on the Korean history she works from – if you grew up in the west, you didn’t learn about some incredible figures, including history’s finest naval commander.
Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Privilege of the Sword were sentinels and forerunners, opening up the elegant, poisonous power plays of fantasy-of-manners and demanding recognition of subjectified gay and bisexual characters. Privilege, which sets an unsure teenage girl against the decaying aristocracy, is particularly dear to me. I wish I’d read her ten years earlier than I did. Her wife Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze is a painstaking and aspirational example of how to do your research and respect your subject matter.
Kameron Hurley. Gonzo, gruesome, gender-aware, her bug-ridden Bel Dame Apocrypha doesn’t feel dystopian so much as cynically pragmatic: frequently, people are this bad. There’s a stereotype drifting out there in the cultural ether that Those Shrill Hairy Feminists dream of a peaceful pastoral women’s world, as if they’ve never heard of Margaret Thatcher or Kaftar. Hurley would rather remind you that women, too, can lust and kill and exploit and play realpolitik, that any world ruled by human beings can go dark.
It’s always worth a reminder that Ursula LeGuin wrote some of the most important science fiction and fantasy of the last century. The Left Hand of Darkness (pronoun issues recognized) and The Dispossessed should be mentioned right with 1984 as universally important works of literature: open to criticism, certainly, but central.
There – a few who’ve been on my mind. I know I’ve forgotten some, and missed more (criticism by K. Tempest Bradford and Athena Andreadis springs to mind right now, and I’m cursing my time restrictions writing this post). Please recommend writers to me!
New recommendations — Octavia Butler forever. She has the well-known Kindred and I really liked her brutal little vampire novel Fledgling, but if you really want a taste of what she can do, read her short story collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, which includes stories about race, disease, gender, and colonialism, all stunningly written.
NK Jemisin, whose Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series contains diverse casts of color, a blind protagonist, openly discussed polyamory, and incredible worlds full of gods and mortals, politics and interpersonal struggles.
Alaya Dawn Johnson, whose novel The Summer Prince I just read recently — it’s her first YA novel, but she has a variety of other novels written for adults. It’s set in post-apocalyptic Brazil, five hundred years from now, and has diversely explored sexuality, a strong female narrator, and exclusively characters of color, and which confronts culture clash, immigration, classism, environmental and technological concerns, and the struggle between political idealism and political reality.
Karen Healey is a straight white YA author, but her novel Guardian of the Dead is the only novel with an asexual protagonist I’ve ever read; its main character is a fat teenage girl who does martial arts; and it deals with gender, sexism, racism, different mythologies, and negotiating relationships.
Malinda Lo — I have heard really great things about Malinda Lo, and the short fiction I’ve read by her has been terrific. I am just about to start reading her novels, so if anyone wants to check in about how they were in a bit, I’d be happy to help, but certainly she writes powerful characters, generally LGBT women of color, in conflict-charged situations. She is also a good person to check out if you’re looking for more about diversity, especially in YA — she helps run a blog called Diversity in YA, she’s collected a ton of statistics on LGBT representation, and she blogs about things like how not to write painfully stereotypical characters of color and LGBT characters.
And seconding some authors from this post —
Zen Cho! Seriously, if anyone is looking for a starting place on mind-blowing fiction, I cannot recommend “House of Aunts” or “Prudence and the Dragon” highly enough. She is funny, insightful, and brilliant at relationship dynamics within and across cultures.
And I second Ursula K. LeGuin, who aside from all the novels you have probably heard of, has also written a wide variety of stunning short stories, including her short story “Solitude” — readable, by the way, in a short story collection called “Diverse Energies” which features racially diverse protagonists in YA sci-fi and fantasy stories. “Solitude” is about cultural differences as observed by the daughter of an interplanetary anthropologist.
Yoon Ha Lee floored me completely as well. Again and again, with different stories. Ellen Kushner and Kij Johnson, also heroes of mine.
I’ll have to check all these other writers out!
Wow, I just came across your blog after listening to Never Dreaming (in four burns) from the Clarkeworld podcast — I was intensely moved and inspired by that story and I wanted to find more writing by the same author… And I’m so glad I did! I’ve not only discovered a new favourite fiction writer and a new favourite blogger but also a wealth of wonderful recommendations. Thank you! (And many thanks to the commentor above me as well).
Glad you liked the story, and glad to help you find more!