by Anthony Enright
This weekend all the geeks in the Land of Lakes assembled in a hotel in Bloomington for the annual fête of all things sci-fi and fantasy known as CONvergence. While sci-fi is sometimes seen as a world of overgrown boys, this year’s CONvergence theme – Wonder Woman – focused on the significant contributions to the world of sci-fi by women both as creators and as characters. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for sci-fi novels (which I used to devour by the dozen as a child), and the CONvergence theme got me thinking about great sci-fi written by female authors that may be not so well known to the casual sci-fi reader.
While there’s a plethora of sci-fi (by both genders) that focuses on highly advanced technology or mind-bowingly alien worlds, there’s much less that explores how those developments would affect the relationships of individuals and societal structures when they’re faced with extreme situations. When sci-fi does delve into those ideas I believe it becomes more resonant, more literary, and more personally affecting (The Dune series may be the best example of this). I’ve always been particularly drawn to the novels that go beyond the technological and scientific speculation and delve into changes to social and personal institutions, and perhaps coincidentally many of the best are written by women. This is not to say that all sci-fi by female authors is emotional and relationship driven – some are deep into the brutal and cerebral hard sci-fi category. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a current of intellectual curiosity about what may be going on inside the heads of the characters in sci-fi situations in novels by female authors that goes beyond just inventing kick ass characters and grand scenarios for them to act in. As more sci-fi has began to mirror the complex and provocative notes struck by the five novels (or series) below, the genre has slowly moved out of the ghetto of teen boy fandom and taken its rightful place as fine literature.
Lilith’s Brood (formerly the Xenogenesis trilogy)
Octavia Butler is one of the unsung masters of the sci-fi genre, and I believe her three-novel Lilith’s Blood (formerly known as the Xenogenesis trilogy) is as fine a piece of writing as much more celebrated canonical sci-fi masterpieces (such as Asimov’s Foundation Series and Herbert’s Dune novels). The series follows Lilith Iyapo as she awakens aboard a vast spaceship, an alien race of “genetic traders” have chosen her to help them train and lead humanity back to Earth after it has recovered from a catastrophic nuclear holocaust. But there’s a catch, and it’s a horrifying doozy. The traders want to accompany the humans, and “share” some genetic material, which needless to say doesn’t exactly thrill the skittish humans. It’s actually a pretty conventional sci-fi scenario, but Butler imbues it with so many complex and fraught allusions (race relations, sexual identity and politics, feminist and gender issues and social/family bonds) that the series seems completely new and refreshingly different from almost anything that came before. It’s interesting to see an author take on sensitive issues in a genre novel and succeed in making such a bold and satisfying statement. So many other sci-fi novels either skirt around potentially controversial subjects by pushing far into the future or by locating in a galaxy far, far away; Butler does neither, and therefore her book has an almost painful immediacy. Much has been made of the Xenogenesis trilogy’s use of a female protagonist of color, but much more revolutionary is the willingness for a sci-fi series to address race and sexuality head on.
Mary Doria Russell
Religion and sci-fi have seldom had a friendly relationship. Either the whole concept of advanced technology all but negates conventional notions of religion, or religion is seen as a convenient method of social engineering. It’s a surprise then that The Sparrow manages to both challenge concepts about faith and religion, and colonization that are difficult to seriously discuss in a contemporary context. The plot centers around an early mission to a planet sending out sentient signals of alien life organized by a Jesuit order. The mission goes horribly wrong, and only Father Emilio Sandoz, a priest, survives to return, he’s damaged physically and psychologically. The story unfolds in flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz’ interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest to determine what really happened. The reason the novel works is that it creates both narrative tension and an emotional depth that draws you in and asks you to determine if doing the ‘right’ thing justifies terrible consequences. It’s a novel of ideas that just happens to be in the science fiction genre and it’s a must read.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
Talk about speculative fiction. In 1969, the “Summer of Love” was in full flower, and nearly every preconceived notion of propriety was being questioned. The same year, one of the most seminal sci-fi novels of the 20th century was published. The Left Hand of Darkness follows diplomat Genly Ai as he navigates a planet called Winter where the climate is chilly and the citizens are genderless and experience sexual urges only once a month. Creating this unique society allows Le Guin to explore what life would be like without the contrasts (climactic, gender, political) that dominate our way of defining the world. It’s a brilliant precursor to many of the conceptual and social movements (free love, feminism, gay rights) that defined the next two decades and just a great piece of writing in any genre.
Oryx And Crake
Margret Atwood’s well-known The Handmaid’s Tale is on many best sci-fi novels lists. Her lesser known Oryx And Crake is nearly as good, and slightly more strange. It sticks with you and reminds you of how taking things to extremes can clarify and illuminate current events. The novel starts in a post-apoplectic world after an never identified event following the hermetic Snowman, who is supported and almost worshiped by the human-like Crakers. Hybrid beasts produced by genetic engineering (such as wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks) freely roam the countryside. In flashback, we visit the highly controlled and grotesquely overstimulated world of the near future/recent past where corporations rather than governments control all elements of individuals’ lives and the lower echelons of humanity live in Pleeblands, neighborhoods where chaos reigns. The plot becomes too thick to describe, but the amazing genetic modifications created by the corporations inevitably leads to catastrophic consequences, and the two lead characters are both the cause and unwitting actors in a tragic opera of technology and biological accidents. It’s Atwood at her most intelligent, and manages to be both a fun read and a very thought-provoking book.
A strange novel that examines the nature of symbiotic relationships, as well as disturbing master/slave themes, Carol Emshwiller’s Mount was published early in the last decade. It follows Charley, a young human who has been bred as a mount for a dominant alien race who have taken over Earth centuries earlier. The book chronicles how Charley is confronted with the reality of his situation only when he’s forced to see a life outside the role he was born into. Even when faced with freedom, Charley really just wants to get back to the relative comfort of his life of servitude, and the simple positive reinforcement of doing his enslaved job well. There are powerful family dynamics and a nuanced understanding of how damaging and interdependent the dynamic between dominant and submissive social groups can be. If you’re okay with some pretty thick metaphor in your sci-fi or are intrigued by the skin-crawling idea of humans harnessed as alien mounts, this well-conceived young adult novel will resonate with you.
More CONvergence 2012:
Click HERE for photos from CONvergence 2012 by Clement Shimizu exclusively for l’étoile.
Click HERE for Niles Schwartz’ recap of CONvergence 2012 for the Niles Notes.
Click HERE for Jeremy Messersmith’s review of CONvergence 2012 exclusively for l’étoile.