The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless Angry

“Is anyone here going to be my friend? Anyone? I have a shiny sword!”

[Content note: This is another one of my giant tl;dr posts of doom. Be forewarned before you venture into the abyss]

I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a Sci-Fi/Fantasy hero. Sure, the armor/spacesuits/dresses would be cool. And I’d like to fight a glorious battle. Or meet an alien. Or turn into a dragon. Or turn into a dragon while I meet an alien and wear a cool spacesuit dress.

But.

I’ve been noticing something weird about SF/F heroes. Specifically the female ones.

They don’t have a lot of friendships with other women.

Hell, there are some SF/F movies/books/etc. where the women barely speak to each other at all.

Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like all those heroines have been cursed by a horrific spell? A spell that prevents them from making friends with other women without dying instantaneously?

Or do they just all have allergies to other women?

Because something’s going on. And I’d like to know what.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy has quite a few iconic male friendships – you’d be hard-pressed to find a book, tv series or movie that didn’t have a prominent friendship between two men.

Frodo and Sam. Spock and Kirk. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Ender Wiggin and Bean. Hugo and Charlie on Lost. Saul Tigh and Bill Adama in Battlestar Galactica. Magneto and Professor Xavier.

But iconic female friendships?

I can’t think of many.

And lest you ask, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When I first got the idea for this post, I went through my reading lists for the past three years. I scoured the web. I look through my bookshelves. I looked through my brother’s bookshelves. I lurked around Amazon.com for three hours.

After a good week of research, I concluded that not only were there very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured prominently, there were very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured at all.

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson

” Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be friends with women, it’s just that for some reason, I’m never allowed to talk to them onscreen.”

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that women are still underrepresented as characters in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. We’re still stuck in the “lone woman” or “exceptional woman” phase of gender equality. Consider all the movies/books/comic books etc. where there is exactly one major female character. Black Widow in The Avengers.* Trinity in The Matrix. Wonder Woman in the early years of The Justice League. Petra in Ender’s Game. Molly Million in Neuromancer. Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. 

[*Emphasis on major. I liked Maria Hill and Pepper Potts as much as anyone else, but they weren’t on the same level of importance to the narrative as Thor, or Black Widow, or even Nick Fury]

Hell, Mulan in Mulan, while we’re at it. Even feminist narratives often have “lone women,” because so many of them tell stories of the first woman to join the army/become a knight/become a scientist/fly to the moon/play professional foozball. And, don’t get me wrong, stories about how women overcome the odds to join male-dominated professions are important.

But what about the stories after that one? What about the one where there are finally two female superheroes? What about the one where the science lab has a 50-50% gender distribution? What about the one where the army has an entire squadron of female knights?

Where are the stories about women mentoring other women? Where are the stories of women who have been best friends since childhood? Where are the stories where two wacky women are thrown together on an intergalactic adventure? Where’s my female Sherlock Holmes and Watson duo?

Where are my stories of epic sromances (rather than bromances) where the (female) hero would cut through entire armies to save their (female) friend?

[By the way, I fully purloined the term “sromance” from a blog post written by the fabulous Karen Healey]

Mulan Sword reflection

“Touch my BFF, and I will cut you.”

Those stories are a lot rarer.

We’re not that interested, it seems to me, in telling stories where there are many women, not just one. We’re not that interested in portraying worlds where women are the norm rather than the exception. We’re still stuck on the “lone women” phase of gender equality.

We’re not that interested in portraying relationships between women. We’re still stuck on how women relate to men.

***

Even when there are multiple women in an SF/F narrative [HALLELUJAH], they rarely ever meet. Or speak. Or have any kind of relationship. Maria Hill and Black Widow in The Avengers? Never say one word to each other. Eowyn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings? They’re in love with the same man, they’re fighting the same enemy… they never speak. In the Game of Thrones series, there are several important female characters, but they’re rarely in a room together. And if they are, they’re not friends. They’re enemies.

You would think women in Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives would have something to say to one another. Even if it’s along the lines of:

“So, what’s it like to be the only woman in a group of superheroes?”
“Oh, you know. It’s not bad. Reminds me of that time I was stuck in an airport in France…”

Or:

“Hey, you know where I can get some tampons in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness?”

Or just a plain, normal, non-gendered conversation like:

“Wow, we’re about to get eaten by a dragon.”
“That’s a problem.”
“We should run.”
“I agree. RUN!”

But no, apparently not. Apparently women just can’t talk to each other in SF/F.

It’s very bizarre. Because – and I hope SF/F authors and scriptwriters know this – there are a lot of women in the world.

It is practically impossible for a woman to go through her life without having a conversation with another woman. It is practically impossible for a woman to go through a single day without talking to another woman. Women are everywhere. Heck, I’ve even  heard they make up 50% of the earth’s population.

Given these parameters, it makes absolutely no sense that the majority of female SF/F characters almost never talk to women. The only way they could pull it off is if they were actively avoiding talking to other women.

This is why I suspect that female heroes of SF/F are all under some terrible curse that prevents them from speaking to other women. It’s the only logical explanation.

[[It’s either that, or most authors are doing a terrible job of representing women’s reality… and since authors have never historically struggle with representing female experiences, I think we can safely rule this explanation out. Right?]]

So. There’s a curse.

And if there is, I must be honest with you: I don’t think I want to be an SF/F hero anymore.

Because I wouldn’t want to live a life without female friends.

It would be horrible. Are you kidding me?

For one thing, how the hell am I supposed to go into battle and save the world without my female friends by my side?

Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who are guys. I would not want to give up those friendships either; some of my best friends are men. But women are friends with men in SF/F narratives, so that’s not really an issue.

[I feel like all my guy friends who read this are going to go: “You don’t love me? ” and run away. So, pre-emptively: “NOOOO, guy friends! I do love you! Don’t leave me!”]

But frankly, most of my closest, most important friendships have been with other women.

The friends who know my deep, dark secrets? Mostly women. The friends who know that I spent a year of my life breaking into my house through a window instead of telling my parents I’d lost the keys? Mostly women. The friends who have survived my propensity for seven hour walks? Mostly women. The friends who put up with my social anxiety, my inability to answer emails and phone calls? Mostly women. The friends who tortured me with high-school drama? Mostly women. The friends who listen to me rant about stuff they’re completely uninterested in? Mostly women.

The friend I have epic conversations with when we pull simultaneous all-nighters? A woman. The friend who talked me through my academic insecurities? A woman. The friend who rearranged my work schedule when she realized I was exhausted – even though it meant she was picking up extra hours? A woman. The friend I went camping for (I hate camping)? A woman. The friend I went running for (I hate running)? A woman. The friend I stopped writing a paper for so that I could help her find her cat? A woman. The friend who turned me into a compulsive biker? A woman.

If I were an SF/F heroine, I would want these women on my team. I’m just saying.

That’s, I think, why the lack of female friendships in SF/F is so striking to me. When I look at the friends I would walk through fire for, the friends I would fight armies for, the friends who I cannot imagine life without – most of those friends are women. And when I look around me at women I know, I see that yes, in fact, these women too, have friends who are female.

Women are friends with women. Imagine that.

Female friendships aren’t an urban legend. They aren’t a statistical anomaly. They’re not all hiding in the forests like werewolves. Unless the nine places I’ve lived in my life have been exceptions to the norm, female friends are a fairly common phenomenon.

Elizabeth Swann Pirates of the Caribbean Keira Knightley

“Where the frack are all the other women in this blasted movie? Did they get eaten by the Kraken?

So just for the sake of realism, there should be a few more female friendships in SF/F.

Not to mention the fact that female friendships are interesting.
They’re fun. Exciting. Dramatic. Low-key. Tense. Anguished. Tortured. Competitive. Sweet. Bizarre. Twisted. Cool. Captivating. Multifaceted.

If you’re not writing about female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re not too clever. And if you’re not reading books with female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re missing out.

Isn’t it sad that we can imagine faster -than-light-travel, fire-breathing dragons and cyborgs, but we can’t imagine two women talking to each other?

Is there really a curse? A curse that says: two women can’t be friends in SF/F? Two women can’t speak in SF/F? Women can only relate to men, and to no one else?

Well, if there is, I’m sick of it. I want to see as many awesome female friendships in SF/F as there are awesome male friendships.

I’m breaking out the curse-breaking equipment, people. I’m compiling a list. A list of SF/F narratives that do have awesome female friendships.

Because it’s time to end the darn curse.

Here, in no particular order, are nine SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. Seven books; one TV show; one Comic Book series.

I know these are not the only SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. I have not read everything. I have not seen everything. Heck, I haven’t even ever seen Star Trek (I’m working on it!). So this list is not meant to be comprehensive. I’m sure I’m missing things – and I’d love to hear suggestions!

Curse-breakers, unite!

[And now I feel like I’m either in Pirates of the Caribbean or a Tomb Raider movie. For the record: if this curse-breaking turns into an epic quest where we all become living skeletons and have to pour the blood of Orlando Bloom on a giant pile of gold to end the terrible curse… my apologies]

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1. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

Trickster's Queen cover Tamora Pierce

This was a tough one, because Tamora Pierce always does a fantastic job with female friendships. Keladry and Lalasa. Keladry, Yuki and Shinko. Alanna, Thayet and Buri. Alanna and Daine. Sandry, Tris and Daja. Beka Cooper and Clara Goodwin.

Pierce’s female friendships are all the more impressive because most of Tamora Pierce’s protagonists are women entering male-dominated professions. Two of her series (Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small) follow the journeys of the first women to train for Knighthood. Yet even though Alanna and Kel are surrounded by men (and make friends with men) they managed to be friends with women too. Female friendships are the norm in Pierce’s writing, not the exception.

The Trickster duology, however, probably has more friendships between women than any of Pierce’s other series.

After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, Aly discovers that the Raka natives are finally ready to throw their luarin overlords. And they need a spymaster. Aly, through bad luck, trickery and manipulation, gets herself that job.

The Raka rebellion aims to put a Queen, not a King, on the throne of the Isles. It’s quite a gender-equal revolution: women and men both act as warrior, spies, mages and leaders. Not surprisingly, Aly cultivates quite a few important friendships and alliances with other women, from her cautious loyalty to Duchess Winnamine (the stepmother to the potential heiress), her easy camaraderie with Chenaol (Aly’s first friend in the Copper Isles and the rebellion’s weaponmaster), her wary “please-don’t-hit-me” friendships with Ochubo (head of the Raka mage network) and Junai (her bodyguard) and her long-distance friendship with Daine.

Aly’s most important friendship, however, is with Dovesary Balitang, a clever and wise thirteen-year-old half-Raka noblewoman. The rebels believe Dove’s older sister, Sarai, is the prophesied twice-royal Queen. Aly’s relationship with Dove is arguably the most important relationship in the book, full stop – the two women’s admiration, wariness and respect for one another is fascinating to watch. And their evolving friendship becomes integral to the rebellion’s success.

It’s a genuine sromance. And it always makes me tear up.

“I don’t need a maid,” Dove said. “I need a friend.” […]
“I will be your friend till the end of time,” Aly told the younger girl.

2. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens Libba Bray Cover

Friends don’t let friends wear Maybelline

Picture this: a plane full of teen beauty queens crash-lands on a desert island. They must survive. They must practice their pageant walks for the Miss Teen Dream pageant. They must keep exfoliating. And they must foil the plans of an evil organization of evil people hidden in a giant evil volcano at the center of the island. [ Yes, this is speculative fiction. It’s a dystopia. Don’t argue with me]

And there are explosions.

I know you just ran away from the computer screaming “WHY HAVEN’T I READ THIS YET?” I know. I feel your pain.

This novel is a high-wire act. It would have been so easy for Bray to spend the story making fun of the teen pageant queens and their silliness. But no. Beauty Queens is a satire, yes, but not of the teen girls themselves. It’s a satire of everything in our society that constrains them, that dis-empowers them, that puts them in competition with one another, that forces them to conform to silly gender norms.

Instead of being a “let’s make fun of the silly girls who parade around in swimsuits and sashes,” book, Beauty Queens is about how all these women – the dumb ones, the blonde ones, the silly ones, the mean ones, the women-hating ones, the ones with trays stuck in their head, the ones who love lipstick and the ones who love swordfighting – are actually awesome. It’s a book that’s incredibly supportive of girls and their friendships and their culture. It’s a book that’s also incredibly good at portraying a diversity of female experiences – we have, among others, a transwoman, several women of color, a lesbian character, a deaf girl, a die-hard beauty Queen and a girl who hates beauty pageant (among others). And it’s a book that manages to be critical of oppressive gender norms all while being fantastically optimistic about the potential for making those gender norms explode (and the potential to live fulfilling lives in spite of them).

As the book goes on, the teen beauty queens stop being wary acquaintances playing their prescribed pageant roles and learn to respect and like one another as real people. These developing friendships allow the teen beauty queens to unravel the secrets of the island – and the secrets of their own identity. They discover who they are outside their beauty queens personas. And then they blow things up.

Empowerment and blowing things up.

You want to read this. Trust me.

Mary Lou: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

3. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts Power and Majesty

In Power and Majesty, the first book of the Creature Court trilogy, Velody, a dressmaker, discovers that she is the potential new King of the Creature Court, a group of magicians who defend the city of Aufleur during the night. The Courtiers are almost all men; the King has always been a man. Should she become King, Velody would be the first woman to ascend to the throne.

Power and Majesty is one of the rare books where a woman enters a male-dominated profession yet still manages to maintain her old female friendships. She beats the curse! Whoo!

Velody lives with her two best friends: Rhian, a former rich girl whose family disowned her for going into business, and Delphine, a florist recovering from an old trauma. Rhian and Delphine are as important in Velody’s journey as the beautifully dangerous men of the Creature Court.

Rayner Roberts’ portrayal of Velody, Rhian and Delphine’s love and loyalty for one another is beautiful, smart and insightful.When Velody enters the Creature Court, her first priority is protecting her friends. She battles other Courtiers to keep them from hurting Rhian and Delphine.  When Rhian and Delphine discover that Velody’s the (potential) new King, their first priority is protecting her. They enter into the dark world of the night to support their friend (as best friends do).  They enter into the world of the Creature Court, I should add, almost completely defenseless, since Rhian and Delphine, unlike Velody, have no magic. But they want to protect their friend, and they find ways to do it. Because that’s what you do for your best friends. You go into the night and you fight the bad guys and you find ways to protect them. No matter what.

And it proves that yes, stories about women entering male-dominated fields are not incompatible with stories about powerful female relationships. It’s sad that more writers haven’t realized this.

I haven’t read the next two books in The Creature Court trilogy because they are only available in North America via kindle, and my kindle is down for the count (if anyone knows where I lost my power cord, please tell me!) But reviews assure me that the Rhian/Velody/Delphine relationship remains a huge part of the series. I can’t wait.

“From that day forwards, Delphine pretended she had intended to take the ribboning apprenticeship all along, and neither Velody nor Rhian every challenged her on it.
That was what friends did.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Air Geoff Ryman cover

I’ve talked about Air before, in my “Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women” post. Possibly because I love it madly.

Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a small village in the fictional country of Karzistan. One day, the authorities conduct a world-test of a new technology called Air. Air is like the internet – in your head. The villagers, who don’t own computers or television, are thrown into a panic by this test. One person dies.

Chung Mae, who is nothing if not resourceful, realizes that the village needs to adapt quickly if the villagers are going to survive the full implementation of Air. She launches a large-scale campaign of preparation. And the people she recruits for her campaign?
Other women.

The women are the engines of change in Kizuldah; it is through their relationships, their ambition and their pragmatism that the town survives. Chung Mae and her friend Wing Kwan, for example, use the television to set up a fashion business selling traditional clothes to fashion houses in the USA. Chung Mae and her friends – and rivals – fight and bicker. They create alliances and friendships; they hide their activities from men; they roam out in the world; they help one another protect their families. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read. These relationships are familiar to me. The women are  real people, and their friendships ring true – intense, fulfilling, and sometimes destructive.

“Kwan looked sober. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Oh! You could say that ten times and it would still not be enough.”
“But we came through.”
“We came through.”
Kwan hugged her. “You can stay, you know.”
Mae touched her arm. “I really do not know what I would have done if my friend Wing Kwan had not been so kind. There would have been nowhere else for me to go.”

5.The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

delia Sherman freedom maze cover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three of the nine things I’m recommending are young adult novels (The Trickster series, Beauty Queens and The Freedom Maze) Young Adult SF/F tends to do a lot better in the female friendships department. Perhaps because YA has a wide female readership and authorship, and female friendships have become an established YA trope.

The Freedom Maze is a very recent read of mine, and I can’t recommend it enough. Sophie, a teenager living in 1960s Louisiana is spending a long, boring summer at Oak Cottage while her mother takes accounting classes in the city. One day, Sophie wanders into the garden maze. When she comes back out, she’s been transported to 1860 – the adventure-story-loving Sophie assumes this is the start of a grand time-travel trip.

But things go wrong very quickly: the Martineau family mistakes Sophie for a slave because of her tanned skin, and put her straight to work.

Sophie begins to form friendships with her fellow slaves – specifically with Africa, a smart, strong hoodoo practitioner who helps protect other slaves from their white owners, and with Antigua, Africa’s headstrong daughter. As she becomes closer to these two women, Sophie moves deeper into the reality of slavery. Like Kindred (another time-travel slave-narrative), The Freedom Maze pulls no punches in its depiction of slavery. Sophie’s experiences as a slave are horrific, a far cry from the “Gone with the Wind”-esque picture of happy darkies she’s been taught.Her allegiance to her old ideas of racial politics, her family (the Martineaus) – and even the time period of her birth – begin to fade away. Instead, Sophie relies on Africa and Antigua’s help to survive – and in return, helps devise a plot to save Antigua from being sold downriver to New Orleans.

The novel is very much concerned with the similarities (and disparities) of women’s experiences across races and time periods. It’s also a brilliant portrayal of the way black women’s friendships and relationships helped slaves survive, and even gain agency, under horrific conditions.

“Come with me then,” Antigua turned to her, eyes glinting in the lamplight. “Come take the boat with me, we be free together.”

6. The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Female Man Joanna Russ

The Female Man is one of the most important SF/F works of the 20th century. It a difficult, confrontational, knotty novel that will chew up your brain and spit it back out. And it’s almost entirely centered around women’s relationships with other women.

The story follows four women on four parallel worlds. Joanna lives in a world much like ours. Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended and Adolf Hitler died in 1936. Janet comes from Whileaway, an all-woman planet where the men died in a plague eight hundred years ago. Jael’s world, meanwhile, is a dystopia where men and women are engaged in a literal “battle of the sexes.”

Near the beginning of the novel, Janet mysteriously shows up in Jeannine’s world, then manages to drag Jeannine to Joanna’s world (our world). Eventually all three women end up on Jael’s world. The four women become friends and allies (with varying degrees of success) as they try to understand their predicament. The novel is, essentially, an incisive and moving examination of how women relate to other women. Who are these women to one another? What are their experiences of womanhood? Can they understand one another across these vast cultural differences?

Complex interpersonal relationships between four women who are essentially the same woman (they share the same genes)? Parallel worlds? Feminist utopias?
Count me in.

7. Yoko Tsuno by Roger Leloup

Yoko Tsuno On the Edge of Life Cover Roger Leloup

I almost didn’t include Yoko Tsuno –  though it includes some of the most interesting and intense female friendships I’ve encountered in Science Fiction – because it’s a french comic book series.

And I didn’t think there were any English translations.

BUT THERE ARE.

Two of Yoko’s alien adventures have been translated as “The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul.” Six of her other books have English translations – The Frontier of Life, The Time Spiral, The Prey and the Ghost, Daughter of the Wind, The Dragon of Hong Kong and The Morning of the World. Most of these are out of print, but you may be able to get them at libraries or amazon (I saw some cheap copies). I don’t know if the translations are any good, so this isn’t a ringing endorsement… but I’ll try to find out.

Anyways. Back to the point. The series, which served simultaneously as my introduction to science fiction and as my introduction to comic books, follows Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer  who has a propensity for getting herself involved in epic adventures. It’s an action series, and a science fiction series. But it’s also a series which, at it’s core, is about friendship. Yes, Yoko has her constant traveling companions, Vic and Paul. But Vic and Paul are a background noise; they’re not central to the series. Yoko’s most important friendships are with women: of the 23 books I’ve read, 18 feature a prominent friendship between Yoko and another woman.Indeed, most of Yoko’s adventures come about because she’s trying to help a friend.

And instead she ends up in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

Yoko is deeply, fiercely, uncritically loyal to the women she becomes friends with. It does not matter if you’re a criminal, an heiress, a time-traveler, an alien, an assassin or a rogue scientist: if Yoko likes you, she’ll be friends with you. And once she is, she will walk through fire for you. Or travel to a galaxy a hundred light-years away for you. Or fight the devil for you (this is an actual plot; I am not even kidding). Or time-travel for you.

Honestly, Yoko is a bit like James Bond. Every movie, Bond has a different girl he sleeps with; every book, Yoko has a different woman she become friends with. Unlike Bond, however, Yoko stays close to these friends, who remain important characters throughout the series. Her navigation of her complex relationships with a diverse group of women is a highlight of comic books.

James Bond. Except with less sleeping around. And more awesome.

Yoko Tsuno Khany Roger Leloup

Yoko and her friend Khany, the leader of Vinea

Eva: “Careful! Do you always drive this fast?”
Yoko: “Yes – when I think I’m about to find a friend.”

8. The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente The Orphan's Tales In the Night Garden Cover

Someday, I will stop raving about Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But today is not this day.

Yes, on top of being a feminist retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, The Orphan’s Tales features women who talk to other women. Lots of women who talk to other women, in point of fact. There are many tales, and there are many female friendships. There are also many male friendships and many male-female friendships, all of which are rendered exquisitely by Valente’s  storytelling.

Listing the many female friendships in this series would take far, far too long. So I’ll just focus on the crew of the Maidenhead.
The Maidenhead is an all-female ship: the Captain, the navigators, the deckhands – all of them are women. All of them are also monsters – satyrs, three-breasted women, fox-women etc. They go around the world, rescuing other monstrous women and welcoming them into their ranks. They mentor one another – one of the most important friendships is the one between Tomomo, the Maidenhead’s first Captain, and Saint Sigrid, the Maidenhead’s second Captain. And they become renown the world over… before disappearing mysteriously in the deep blue sea.

Sigrid, an old woman who worships Saint Sigrid (and who used to be a bear), befriends Snow, a white-haired orphan. The two of them go on an epic quest to discover the location of the Maidenhead; they eventually get themselves swallowed by the same giant whale who swallowed the Maidenhead a few hundred years ago.

This is an epic, “fight-armies-for-you,” “get-swallowed-by-a-whale-for-you,” group of awesome, loyal, sromantic female friends. The kind I always look for in my fiction.  And it is glorious.

“Of course we’ll take you,” The Saint said. “Tommy bade us never turn away a recruit. We are a family of monsters, and the birth of new beasts is a cause for joy.”

9. Xena: Warrior Princess

Xena and Gabrielle

Don’t mess with success

I couldn’t make this list without putting Xena: Warrior Princess on it. Xena and Gabrielle are perhaps the only truly iconic female friendship in SF/F culture.* They’re our Kirk and Spock, our Frodo and Sam, our Holmes and Watson.

{when I say “iconic,” what I mean is: everyone knows about them}

And yes, I know. They’re sleeping together. We all know they’re sleeping together. It’s a truth universally acknowledged in Xena fandom that Xena and Gabrielle are a couple.

But despite all the queer subtext, the two women never have a relationship on-screen. As far as the show is concerned, they’re just very close friends. Very, very close friends. So  I think it’s safe to call them friends for the purpose of this list.

Besides, they started as friends.

Xena: Warrior Princess follows the travels of Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, as Xena tries to make up for her dark past as a warlord by saving the helpless. There are a lot of explosions. And swordfighting.

The two women are constant companions. Gabrielle is initially a naive farmgirl who joined Xena to have adventures (and avoid an arranged marriage), while Xena is… a formerly evil warlord. Many of the individual stories involve Xena saving Gabrielle (or Gabrielle saving Xena). And the major emotional arcs in the series center around Xena and Garbrielle’s friendship.

They’ve died for each other. They’ve fought armies for each other. They’ve saved – and killed – each other’s children. They’ve gone to heaven and hell together. They were crucified together. They raised a daughter (Hope) together. The show calls them “soul mates.” They’re reincarnated together.

They’ve got the most epic friendship of all times, is what I’m saying. As far as I’m concerned, Kirk and Spock, Frodo and Sam and Holmes and Watson can all go take a hike. It’s Xena and Gabrielle all the way for me.

Xena: “Gabrielle, the love that we have, it’s stronger than Heaven or Hell. It transcends good or evil. It’s an end in itself! Our souls are destined to be together.”

[Ares, upon discovering that Xena is pregnant]
Ares: “I didn’t know you were looking for a father.”
Xena: “I’m not.”
Ares: “Well then, someone clearly has the job.”
Xena: “Yeah, Gabrielle. “

Xena and Gabrielle Friends

Xena: “So… you’ll be my friend?”
Gabrielle: “Sure! I love a woman with a shiny sword.”
Xena: “HAHA, we’ve beaten the curse!”
Gabrielle: “The curse?”
Xena: “The curse that says no two women in SF/F can speak to each other without dying.”
Gabrielle: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a myth.”
Xena: “Uh, Gabrielle, we live in ancient Greece. One of our best friends is a Centaur. The other ones are Amazons and Gods. It’s quite mythic around here.”
Gabrielle: “Okay, so it’s not a myth. It’s an urban legend.”
Xena: “You’re an urban legend.”
Gabrielle: “Oh, ha-ha. You’re lucky I like your sword, or I’d go find a smarter friend.”

Edited To Add:

I’m keeping a running list of all the books/TV shows/whatever with prominent female friendships that I remembered AFTER writing the list. [I’m only adding things to the list that I’ve seen or read, just because it’s the only way I can vouch for their…veracity. Doesn’t mean I don’t agree with other suggestions!]

1. Cold Magic and Cold Fire by Kate Elliot. How could I forget about this series? (which I love) Cat and Bee 4ever!

2. Sailor Moon. For obvious reasons.

Related Posts:

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May Reading Roundup: Who Saw the Fantasy?

I Never Wanted to Be A Boy (A Tribute To Authors)

How the Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist


Eight Great Science Fiction Books for Women – An Alternative List

A couple weeks ago, Flavor Wire came out with an article titled “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls.”

lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance.* To help with the gender imbalance in this delightful, political, strange genre of speculative fiction, we’ve put together a list of 10 great science fiction books for girls and women — though we think anyone would enjoy them.

Now, as a female science fiction fan who always wants to see more female representation in the Sci-Fi field – and who is always looking for interesting books to read – I was cautiously excited about this article.

I shouldn’t have been.

I was with them for their first three picks, but when they pulled out The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I went “EXCUSE ME?”
And then it was just a comedy of errors. Horrible, horrible, horrible errors.
Who in the name of the Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf thought it was a good idea to put Strangers in a Strange Land on a list of books meant to appeal to women? The writer of the article even says: “ the female characters in this novel aren’t particularly inspiring.” Which, frankly, is pretty generous. Most of the female characters in the novel exist to worship the main (male) character, and one of them says this (inspiring) line: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault. The tenth time – well, all right.”

Yeah, that’s the kind of line that’ll get women to read science fiction.

I’m sure critics are popping up in the background to say: “But wait a minute! Strangers in a Strange Land is a classic of the science fiction field! Sure, it’s misogynistic, but it’s also a great read.”

And I would reply: “You are quite correct, my good sirs/madams. However, when one purports to be writing a list specifically to appeal TO WOMEN, it behooves one not assail those women with a giant dose of misogyny on their first read. It would be a little like trying to get African Americans to read more historical literature, and recommending they start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Nor does it behoove one to recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,*** a novel that, while not necessarily sexist, does include a great deal of carefully-described graphic rape scenes. While we’re at it: I loved Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and when I was growing up it was a major science fiction gateway drug for me, but Card’s female characters have serious issues.”

***My favorite part of Flavorwire’s recommendation of The Windup Girl, for example, is when the writer makes it sound like Emiko (the titular wind-up girl) is the main character. She’s not. She’s the sideshow, the secondary plot. The protagonist is Anderson Lake.

In fact, I wasn’t particularly pleased with the list’s “feminist” picks either – although I have a huge personal attachment to both Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, neither of them are books I would recommend for a first time science fiction reader. They’re novels that take an unflinching look at gender disparity, sexism and tyranny… so both of them make for pretty harrowing reads. Great for falling in love with genre fiction!

Part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls – oh, wait. Actually. Question. Why is this list called “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”? Because if it’s actually for girls – for teenagers and younger children – my brain is about to explode. Who would recommend The Female Man, Strangers in a Strange Land and The Windup Girl to young girls? I am choosing to believe that by “girls,” the author means women, because I can’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would recommend a book (The Windup Girl) with over twenty pages of rape scenes. (There are plenty of teenager girls who could handle The Windup Girl, but it isn’t something I would recommend universally – and certainly not without a fair warning). So if this is really a list for women, can we call them women? And not girls? There’s a difference. Thank you!

Pardon the tangent. So, the part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls, of course, is that not all women want to read the same things. There are lots of women who love hard science fiction, and there are many women who prefer “soft” science fiction. Some women prefer a character-driven story, others like stories that delve into the nitty-gritty mechanics of the science. Some enjoy futuristic dystopias, others space operas, some like a post-apocalpytic landscape, and others yet prefer a good time travel narrative. Some want to read about social justice issues and feminism, others would really rather not. And most women want to read different things on different days. We are not a monolith, either as a group or as individuals.

But I can safely bet that most women would like their fiction to include interesting female characters. Which is why it’s so disheartening that out of ten books flavorwire recommends, only four have a female lead. You would expect that a list that is supposed to cater to women, female characters would at least have equal representation.

At the very least, one would imagine that books recommended specifically to women would not contain female characters who are stereotypes. Sadly, most of the books on the list are known for their two dimensional female characterization. Again, not the way you’re going to get women to read science fiction. Look, I will put up with Orson Scott Card’s “all women ultimately belong in the kitchen” mindset, but I’m already a fan. You don’t have to convert me.

In retrospect, though, I should have seen that the list was going to be a disaster from a mile away.
Let me quote, once more: “lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance”

Here’s the thing: yes, there are women who might like SF who aren’t “giving it a chance.” But there are a lot of very good reasons those women aren’t giving SF a chance. SF, after all, is a field that has traditionally had a lot of problems with women (and other minorities). Often, it’s not women who don’t give SF a chance – it’s SF that doesn’t give women a chance. Female characters are historically underrepresented in SF, as are female authors. Even when there are women in SF, they are often invisible. Female characters and authors are usually forgotten or ignored in favor of their male counterparts. The recent Strange Horizons study on gender in SF shows that even though women write almost half of the SF/F on the market, they’re still overwhelmingly under-reviewed by major outlets.

SF culture can also be quite hostile to women – I’ve witnessed blow-up fights about whether women belong in military SF, or whether women can truly “enjoy” hard SF. Famous female authors have to deal with death threats, rape threats, hate mail and misogynistic slurs at a rate that stuns their male counterparts. When Nicola Griffiths suggested one way to combat gender inequality in SF was to take the Russ pledge, certain sections of SF fandom practically called for her head.

A close friend of mine (M) asked me point blank last summer how I could read SF when there were so many problematic aspects to the genre. She had a point. After all, I don’t read comic books because even though I grew up loving superheroes, I cannot handle the misogyny present in mainstream comics. And I’ve had to train myself not to read comments on article about gender and genre online, because they inevitably devolve into rhethoric that makes me want to dig out my brain with spoon.

Many women don’t “give science fiction a chance” because they perceive the genre as being uninterested in women. They’re not completely wrong. And when Flavorwire publishes a list of books for women that’s a pastiche of classic SF texts with a few feminist works  rather than an actual exploration of books women might enjoy… well, they’re just reinforcing the problem.

But I know SF is interested in women. I know that it has the potential to be a great genre for women. I think it’s the field with the most potential for deconstructing gender stereotypes. It can expand our understanding of gender and femininity. It’s the realm where everything is possible – faster than light travel, yes, but also gender equality, racial equality, the end of xenophobia, transphobia and homophobia.

SF is the mythology of the future. And the future belongs to women just as much as it belongs to men.

In light of the many, many issues in the flavorwire article, I’ve decided to put up an alternative list of “Great Books for Women” to get into Science Fiction. Lists are necessarily imperfect, especially when they’re as broad ranging as “Great Books for Women.”  My list will necessarily be even more imperfect, since it only includes my point of view, and I have very specific likes and dislikes (I prefer my works with great characterization and social commentary).

Nevertheless, lists are useful. They’re filters. I rely on these kinds of lists – award lists, year-end-best lists, best-books-for-college-students-who-like-aliens lists etc. – to find books I’ll enjoy. If I were trying to get into science fiction, I might well try to find a list of suggestions. So all in all, I think it’s useful to provide alternatives to the flavorwire list (and I do mean alternatives. I imagine other people have created lists of their own; I hope others will as well. The more options, the better!)

I had very loose parameters in constructing this (eight book) list. I don’t believe that there are things women “like” more than men, not really. I do believe that the way to attract women (or anyone else) to a genre is to do the two things the flavorwire list failed to do:

1. Avoid offending them

2. Prove they have a place within that genre (as characters, authors etc.)

So I have only recommended works that contain no overt misogyny, and that have good female characters (although they don’t all have female leads). So without further ado, here is my eight-book list of “Great Books” of Science Fiction for women. These are not works meant solely for women. They’re not guaranteed to attract women. They’re the books I would recommend to someone who is just starting out in the genre, male, female or other. They’re also just damn awesome, and if you’re a genre fan, you’ll probably enjoy them (no matter your gender).

Please feel free to add suggestions for other books!

Eight Good Books For Women to Explore Science Fiction. Or For Men to Explore Science Fiction. Or for Science Fiction Fans looking For New Reads. Well, Okay, For Anyone Looking For A Decent Read.

1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The novel centers on Genly Ai, a human ambassador to the planet of Winter (Gethen). Ai is supposed to convince the denizens of Winter to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community.
The people of Winter are androgynes – neither male nor female, except for a few days near the end of the month, when they morph into either a man or a woman. The transformation depends on who they’re around at the time. To a certain degree, the androgynes are triple-gendered: male, female and neutral.

Genly Ai, a (male) human ambassador, has come to Winter (or Gethen) to convince its denizens to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community. He is mildly horrified by the non-gendered nature of the citizens of Winter. The heart of the novel lies in the slow development of a  friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven, the prime minister of Gethen.

This all sounds rather slow, but I assure you, it is not. Le Guin is a master of plot: the exploration of gender, the conflicts between alien species, the courtly intrigue, the massive character development – all of these elements combine to make The Left Hand of Darkness a novel that is both incredibly affecting and entertaining. And Le Guin’s prose is gorgeous – there are lines from the novel I still remember, two years later.

Flavorwire also recommended this one, actually, so point for them.

2. Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’m cheating here, because Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. They’ve been combined into one volume, however, so… I feel less guilty. Plus, if you read one, you’ll want to read the other. Trust me.

Cordelia’s Honor are the first novel(s) in Bujold’s massively popular series, the Vorkosigan saga.The story centers around Cordelia Naismith, a captain in the Betan army. While exploring a new world, Cordelia’s force is attacked by the Barrayan army, leaving Cordelia stranded on the planet with Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most notorious citizens of Barrayar. He’s known as the “Butcher of Komarr.” Not a man you want to spend a lot of time alone with, in other words.

The two develop an unlikely alliance in their attempt to get off the planet – an alliance that, in an even more unlikely turn, transforms into a romance. Yet this is not a typical love plot. Both Cordelia and Aral are middle-aged; their life experiences have imbued them with maturity. They’re also both interesting characters in their own right. Cordelia is anti-militaristic, but she can – and will – out-maneuver anyone who gets in her way (with a weapon, if necessary). Aral was born and bred to the military, but he’s a veritable fount of honor, who is deeply conflicted about the legacy of his time in the army.They’re not just teenagers jumping into a romance due to hormones.

On top of their slowly-developing feelings, Cordelia and Aral have to deal with their conflicting planetary loyalties, a couple massive wars, mutineers, psychopathic politicians and incompetent soldiers. Cordelia is one of the most competent heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading: it’s a true joy watching her solve problems.

3. Kindred and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

I debated for a while on this one. Not that I don’t think Octavia Butler should be on the list – I just wasn’t sure whether to put Kindred or Wild Seed on there. They’re such superb novels that in the end, I gave up and put them both on. Kindred centers around Dana, a woman from San Francisco in the 1970s America who is dragged out of time and space to a plantation in Antebellum Maryland. She quickly discovers that her ancestors were slaves on the plantation, and realizes she must bring around the union of her great-great-great (something) grandparents in order to go home.

Wild Seed is about the conflict between two immortals – Doro, who can transfer his mind to any body, and Anyanwu, who can transform into any shape. Doro wants to create a new species of humans through selective breeding, and thinks Anyanwu is the perfect “wild seed” to use in his experimentation. The story is one of genetic engineering – but the genetic engineers are ones who modify DNA across vast spans of time through their own bodies and their children.

To a certain extent, both novels are about the same thing: how to survive in societies where power dynamics are completely against you. Dana has to act like a slave in order to stay alive in the American south; Anyanwu has to bend to Doro’s will in order to keep her family alive. Yet neither woman is a victim – Butler shows their resistance and intelligence in carving out spaces of freedom for themselves.

Butler’s one of the few SF authors who has gotten some critical attention (and deservedly so). She’s also the author Flavorwire readers most often named as “missing” from the 10 best books for women list. Again, I can see why. I’m sure her plots, as described above, seem simplistic, but they’re not. To a large extent, Butler’s genius comes from taking “traditional” SF plots and humanizing them. Yes, time travel is fun, but Butler makes it personal, and viscerally real. Yes, genetic engineering could get you a monster – but what’s the human toll of genetics in action? Those are Butler’s stories, and they’re gorgeous in their execution.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Oh, Air, how I do love thee.

Air takes place in a small village in the fictional Asian country of Karzistan. As the novel opens, a worldwide experiment with a new information technology called “Air” takes place. Air is like the internet – but in your head.
Since no one in the village has been warned about the experiment, chaos ensues. A few people die. In the aftermath, Chung Mae, the village’s leading fashion expert, decides that the village must prepare for the next advent of “air.” They cannot allow themselves to be destroyed or marginalized by the arrival of this new technology.

Few books do as good a job of exploring the consequences of technological change as Air does. True, much SF is about theorizing those consequences. Most books,however, do it from the perspective of white north americans or europeans, which is, when you think about it, rather incredible. If technology truly transforms the life of anyone, it is the most “marginalized, disadvantaged” people in society – and not always for the better.

All this sounds rather grim, but Ryman writes with a heightened sense of the comic and with joie-de-vivre which makes the novel a wonderfully joy0us experience. The characters, particularly Mae, are fantastic. The plot is smart, and includes all these well-drawn asides that make you feel like the three hundred pages of the book encompass the entire village. In a clever mimicry of the polyphonous structure of the internet itself, Air is a cacaphonous novel: there are many characters, and they all have something (or many things) to say.

5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

China Mountain Zhang takes place in the near future. China is the dominant world power; the United States has bowed to the inevitable, and become a communist bastion. A normal SF story would probably trace a plucky (white) hero’s fight against the Chinese hegemony. Here, the main character is Zhang Zhongshan, an ABC – American Born Chinese. His name translates as “China Mountain” – hence the title.

Zhang wants nothing more than to find a good career and a quiet life. But Zhang has two strikes against him. For one thing, he’s not really a full-blood Chinese: his mother was Brazilian. For another, he’s gay in a society where to be gay is punishable by death.
Zhang is talented and hard-working, and as a result, he receives many opportunities for advancement. His first boss wants to mentor him as his successor. He later manages to get a student visa to China – a chance most americans would kill for. But in all these instances, Zhang’s ability to succeed is complicated by his need to “pass” as Chinese and straight. Near the beginning of the novel, for example, Zhang’s boss Qian sets him up with his daughter, San-xiang. Zhang realizes that marrying San-Xiang would guarantee his success in the world, but refuses to let his lie go that far. He almost tells Qian that he is gay, realizes that execution is not a good way to go, and instead reveals his Brazilian heritage. Qian fires him.

One of my favorite aspects of McHughes work is her refusal to let her secondary characters remain two dimensional pictures in her novel’s landscape. The novel includes several long “asides” from Zhang’s story. She devotes an entire chapter (the novel is quite short, so a chapter is a significant length) to San-Xiang, the girl setup to marry Zhang, and San-Xiang’s decision to get plastic surgery. We also read about colonial life on Mars, and Angel, a “kite-flyer” in New York City with plenty of talent but terribly sub-par equipment.

China Mountain Zhang is a quiet, beautiful, affecting novel. Although it’s not about heroes, it tells stories of ordinary, everyday heroism, the kind we need to get out of bed and live our lives. Although it’s neither about wars and politics, McHugh infuses each of Zhang’s decisions and actions with significance, reminding us of the weightiness of “normal” life.

6. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I couldn’t possibly complete this list without some good, old-fashioned time travel. Especially by Connie Willis. If H.G. Wells is the father of Time Travel, Connie Willis is the President of the Science Fiction association. (By the way, I fully realize that Kindred involves Time Travel, but the time travel in Kindred involves absolutely no science (I still say it’s SF, but that’s another fight)).

In the future, scientists at the fictional Oxbridge University have perfected the technique of time travel. They use it to send academics back in time to do historical research. Such research is very carefully controlled: entire sections of history, including the middle ages, are deemed too dangerous or volatile to send people to.

Kivrin, a young medievalist, doesn’t care much about “dangerous” or “volatile.” She persuades her advisors to send her back to 1320 – twenty years before the arrival of the black plague to England. Her instructor, Professor James Dunworthy, thinks this a terrible idea (spoiler: he’s right), but he’s overruled by the department chair, who wants the fame that will come from such a pioneering effort. No one, after all, has ever gone this far back in time.

But soon after Kivrin is sent into the past, the time-travel machine’s technician collapses from a strange illness. Soon, the entire city shuts down as the disease spreads, leaving Kivriin stuck in the past, and the machine under quarantine. And then, whoops, poor Kivrin figures out that she’s not in 1320 after all. She’s in 1348 – right smack in the middle of the black plague. From there, the narrative switches back and forth between Kivrin’s efforts to survive the plague and save the village she’s been sent back to, and Professor Dunworthy’s attempts to save Kivrin while not dying himself.

I like H.G. Wells, don’t get me wrong, but if he and Willis got in a fight, I’d put my money down on Willis for the win. Wells explores the idea of time travel. Willis gives the idea consequence. We know Kivrin. We known Dunworthy. We come to know the members of the village – a formidable task, given the culture and time difference. When they are cut, we bleed. Her prose is gentle and remarkably restrained. Her characters are lovely. Her jokes are witty. But by the end of my eight-hour speed-read through Doomsday Book, I was an emotional wreck. It was like getting knocked out with a teddy-bear – I didn’t see it coming (it’s a teddy bear! Who suspects the teddy bear?)

The Doomsday Book also won a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus. So, you know. Everyone loved it.
But if you’re going to read it, I recommend buying a lot of chocolate beforehand. And some tissues. I needed them.

7. Feed by Mira Grant

I’ve gushed about Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy in several posts, and unfortunately, it’s not going to get any better here.

Okay, sure, zombie uprising. Scary. But what happens after? What happens if we survive? What happens to human society? Those are the questions Grant answers in Feed, which takes place some twenty years after the zombie apocalypse.  Zombies are almost everywhere, but American society has reconstituted itself. Hey, we’re even conducting that most fundamental of American activities: a presidential election.
George and Sean Mason, a brother and sister duo, are two young, up-and-coming journalists / bloggers. They regularly confront the outside world – the zombied world – in order to inform (or entertain) the public. And they’ve been invited to cover the presidential campaign. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

Not surprisingly, everything goes to hell in a handbasket very quickly. Do not expect to go to sleep very often while reading this novel. I couldn’t put it down.

All zombie novels have some measure of social commentary, but I haven’t read a single one that does it as subversively as Feed does. On the flip side, NOT all zombie novels have the depth of characterization present in Feed. Grant makes you fall in love with characters, and then she throws them on the ground and jumps on them over and over again and makes you watch, and it’s horrible. And wonderful. George and Sean hold a special place in my heart – their sibling relationship is so strong, and so interesting. I’m not a fan of the zombie genre, as a general rule, but I absolutely love the Newsflesh series, and I’m awaiting the final novel with bated, terrified breath.

7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is my all-time, bar-none, no-pretenders allowed favorite science fiction novel. Ever. In fact, I love it so much that it’s in my top three novels PERIOD. It’s the novel that convinced me that, no matter what my parents or teacher said, science fiction could be about Important Things (note the capitalization). It’s also a novel that fills me with near-religious awe every time I read it. Which is Saying Something, because I’m a pretty committed agnostic (again, note the capitalization).

Around the year 2020, humanity discovers that alien life exists, less than four light years away. And they’re broadcasting music. Music. The Jesuits decide they must send a mission.

The novel switches back and forth between two stories. The first story is that of the mission – the preparation for the trip, and the eventual arrival at Rakhat. The second story is that of Emilio Sandoz, 50 years in the future. He is the mission’s only survivor. Rumors of his behavior on Rakhath have turned him into a man reviled as a murderer and a whore. His fellow Jesuits are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – if he talks. Emilio is not talking.

The Sparrow is a mystery of character. In the storyline of 2020, Sandoz is a devout, joyful man. As the mission moves closer and closer to Rakhat, he becomes so close to God that D.W. Yarborough, his immediate superior, uses the “S” word (saint) to describe him to the vatican “I see the potential for it (…) I tole ‘em I think we got ourselves a genuine big-time mystic on our hands. “Wedded to God and at certain moments in full communion with divine love” is how I put it” (231). Fifty years later, Sandoz (who is only 3 years older, thanks to the laws of relativity), is a bitter, self-destructive, ravaged, God-hating man. How did he change? What could possibly have happened to transform him this radically?

The Sparrow is also a mystery of religion. I usually shut down a bit when religion comes into novels – it’s often done in a way that alienates me. But I love The Sparrow because of, not in spite of, it’s religious core. It’s one of the best explorations of religion and religious faith I’ve ever read. It’s smart and merciless in its questions. And it’s unflinching in revealing the answers.

Another wonderful part of Russell’s novel is the team assembled to go to Rakhat. Unlike most first-contact stories, the team isn’t made up of military types, or “experts.” Instead, everyone is a Jesuit, or a civilian, chosen more for their connection to the initial discovery on Rakhat than their technical skill. Because they’re not wedded to military devotion or professionalism, the team becomes bonded as a family, rather than as a “unit.” Russell makes each member of the team a complex, crunchy character – entities so real that I’ve long ceased to think of them as characters, and started to see them as “people.” From Emilio’s best friend Anne to his superior D.W. Yarborough, to the woman  Emilio loves,  Sofia Mendez – I know them all. The characterization is superb.

It’s also a damn funny novel, in spite of the darkness of the storyline:

 “There are days when I think that, underneath it all, God has got to be a cosmic comedian. Anne, the Good Lord decided to make D.W. Yarbrough a Catholic, a liberal, ugly and gay and a fair poet, and they had him born in Waco, Texas. Now I ask you, is that the work of a serious deity?”

So that’s my lovely, eight-book list of Great Works of SF for women. What have I missed? What else would you recommend?

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