We all spend a lot of time focused on recent releases: today, I want to look at SF that has been on the shelf a little longer and – horrifyingly – is disappearing from it as backlist books get so little love in bookshops.
It sometimes seems that if you ask someone for a recommendation of backlist SF, it was all written by a bloke. Well, several blokes – not all by the same bloke, that would be absurd (unless he had conquered time travel, which would be appropriate but unlikely).
It’s an ongoing frustration for me. We’ve all seen the Best Of and Must Read lists that are dominated by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Scott Card, Herbert, Simmons – and, if you’re lucky, Le Guin. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticising their work (although I sometimes do) – I’m criticising the list makers (thank you Penguin Random House and Book Riot, for more diverse lists than usual).
Because women (other than Ursula Le Guin, who is awesome but often stands alone in such lists) have always written SFF. Just as I try – however intermittently – to wade through the well-acknowledged classics of SF, I want to make an effort to explore the amazing female authors in the SF backlist. If I read a book by one of these women for each classic I chew my way through then I suspect I’ll be a happier reader.
So, who is on my list? Well, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin are a given – but I’ve read both before, so they don’t score a place here although I certainly want to read more of their works.
The winner of the first Tiptree Award (now the Sidewise Award), Arnason’s work engages with ideas of class, gender, sexuality and social revolution. In other words, she sounds right up my street. I plan to start with her Sidewise-winner, A Woman of the Iron People, an anthropological first contact tale.
Lois McMaster Bujold
As a four-time Hugo Award winner, Bujold is surely a grand dame of science fiction. I often react badly to many people forcefully recommending the same thing to me, but there’s a gleam in the eye of people I love most when they talk about Cordelia and Miles. I need to finally sit down with her Vorkosigan Saga to meet them for myself (check out Maddalena’s fantastic revisitation series).
A regular award winner for her novellas, Nancy Kress writes harder SF than my usual fare, but with the emphasis still firmly on the fiction over the science so I think we’ll get on just fine. I’ve been meaning to read Beggars in Spain for nearly 20 years, and I just need to get on with it, don’t I?
I’ve heard nothing but praise for Nalo Hopkinson’s work, which is often inspired by Caribbean folklore and narrated in dialect using traditional storytelling techniques. She was an Astounding / Campbell (as it was then) Award-winner for Brown Girl In The Ring, but I’m tempted to start with Midnight Robber.
Vonda McIntyre sadly died earlier this year. In between Star Trek and Star Wars novelisations, she had an illustrious career of winning awards for books that were initially rejected. I plan to read her far-future post-apocalyptic tale, Dreamsnake.
A lesbian and a feminist writing SF in the 70s? Damn right I need to read Russ’s work, not least her satirical classic The Female Man. I may even be tempted to tackle her non-fiction, which I suspect remains horribly relevant.
Connie Willis has enough awards on her shelf to bring it down (11 Hugos and 7 Nebulas among them) and her work always sounds right up my street. The Oxford Time Travel series is so much my jam I’ll be making some toast before I get stuck in.
The Queen of Space Opera was the first woman ever shortlisted for a Hugo – so the least I can do is read her work. That said, I’m not really sure where to start – so any recommendations heartily welcome!
C J Cherryh
Cherryh stands alone on this list in that I’ve at least tried to read Foreigner (I bounced off). I’m determined to give her another whirl – after all, she’s written over 80 books, so one of them must surely suit me, given her reputation for amazing worldbuilding. Downbelow Station will likely be my next attempt.
Woop woop, a woman writing cyberpunk! I loved cyberpunk in my twenties, and while the shine wore off it remains a subgenre I’d like to dip back into. Pat Cadigan’s Arthur C Clarke winner, Synners, is the perfect excuse. Besides, she was hilariously on point with some of her comments at SFX Bookcon last autumn – I feel I owe it to her to read her work.
Maureen F McHugh
Maureen F McHugh is perhaps less lauded and less prolific than some of the others on my list, but she too has a Hugo and a Tiptree / Sidewise on her shelf. It’s After the Apocalypse, a more recent collection of short stories that really calls to me though.
My definition of backlist is focused more on when the author began publishing as many (most) of these amazing women are still writing. I’ve focused on award-winning women who were in print by 2000 (ARGH HOW IS THAT NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO, ahem) – but I can’t help but notice they’re mostly white Americans (mostly) so if you have some recommendations for me that are more diverse, I am all ears.
Next week, I’ll take a look at female authors on my SF TBR who have broken into the genre more recently – and yes, you can assume I’ll be looking at backlist fantasy authors come the spring…
Can you recommend any other backlist SF authors (especially from outside the US and/or authors of colour of any gender) – or can you recommend any specific books by the authors I’ve listed?