Read To Win

Women science fiction writers won big at the Hugo awards this year. Here are five you should read

There’s life, some of it alien, beyond Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and James Triptree Jr.

The 2017 Hugo Awards were announced on August 11 at the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Helsinki. It has already made headlines for women writers and editors winning all twelve of the individual Hugos, as well as the John W Campbell award. The women writers are a significant part of the team awards as well.

This clean sweep is a first, although women have been dominating the international science fiction and fantasy awards for years now. It is also a triumph, especially for the Hugos, which have been plagued since 2015 by a malicious right-wing voting bloc called the Sad Puppies, who sabotage the nominations every year and oppose any kind of “diversity” in the genre.

This rhetoric of diversity has become more familiar in the political sphere in the last few months, especially after the election of Donald Trump as the United States President, but it’s not new. Now we are suddenly more aware that there is still a disproportionately large number of white men in the world who are intolerant of any kind of deviation from themselves – including women, LGBTQ people, people of colour, disabled people and so on.

But diversity in literature has been an uphill struggle for years, especially in science fiction and fantasy, which already considers itself a “progressive” genre. The conservatives of science fiction and fantasy probably don’t believe in creationism or vote for Trump, but neither did the engineer at Google, possibly, who recently sent a memo to the company claiming to “scientifically explain” that women are biologically incapable of being equal to men in technology professions.

As Indians, we all tick at least one diversity box, but the science fiction and fantasy fans that I grew up with in Calcutta were overwhelmingly and acridly male. It was unthinkable to be considered a serious reader, leave alone an expert, even by a guy who has just read his first science fiction book. And the authors we read – the only authors we knew of – were also all male, and mostly all white, with the only exception of Ursula Le Guin, also a winner of this year’s Hugo Awards.

Image credit: K Tempest Bradford
Image credit: K Tempest Bradford

The only person who is entitled to claim women authors winning awards is no longer newsworthy is the person who regularly reads those women authors’ works, and funnily enough, those are usually not the people who make that claim. For the rest of us who would like to read more women authors of science fiction and fantasy besides Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and JK Rowling, here is a helpful list.

Here are five of the women writers who won this year:

NK Jemisin

In 2016, NK Jemisin became the first black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Fifth Season. In 2017, she won the award again for its sequel The Obelisk Gate, becoming the first author to win it twice in a row. The third book in her Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, was released this week. The epic series takes place on a planet with a supercontinent called Stillness, which is slowly heading towards an apocalypse through social and natural forces big and small.

“Hmm. No. I’m telling this wrong.

After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you. Damaya was herself and the family that rejected her and the people of the Fulcrum who chiseled her to a fine point. Syenite was Alabaster and Innon and the people of poor lost Allia and Meov. Now you are Tirimo and the ash-strewn road’s walkers and your dead children . . . and also the living one who remains. Whom you will get back.

That’s not a spoiler. You are Essun, after all. You know this already. Don’t you?

Nassun next, then. Nassun, who is just eight years old when the world ends.

There is no knowing what went through little Nassun’s mind when she came home from her apprenticeship one afternoon to find her younger brother dead on the den floor, and her father standing over the corpse. We can imagine what she thought, felt, did. We can speculate. But we will not know. Perhaps that is for the best.

Here is what I know for certain: that apprenticeship I mentioned? Nassun was in training to become a lorist.”

— From "The Obelisk Gate"

Lois McMaster Bujold

The Hugo Award for the Best Series was given for the first time in 2017, and Lois McMaster Bujold won it for her Vorkosigan Saga, which she has been writing since 1989. Several individual novels from the series have won and been nominated for Hugos in the past. It is a long series that requires a lot of patience and immersion. Beginning in a galaxy in which several planets have been colonised by humans and separate cultures have developed, the world of the Vorkosigan Saga and its characters progress as the stories evolve.

“A sea of mist drifted through the cloud forest: soft, grey, luminescent. On the high ridges the fog showed brighter as the morning sun began to warm and lift the moisture, although in the ravine a cool, soundless dimness still counterfeited a pre-dawn twilight.

Commander Cordelia Naismith glanced at her team botanist and adjusted the straps of her biological collecting equipment a bit more comfortably before continuing her breathless climb. She pushed a long tendril of fog-dampened copper hair out of her eyes, clawing it impatiently toward the clasp at the nape of her neck. Their next survey area would definitely be at a lower altitude. The gravity of this planet was slightly lower than their home world of Beta Colony, but it did not quite make up for the physiological strain imposed by the thin mountain air.

Denser vegetation marked the upper boundary of the forest patch. Following the splashy path of the ravine’s brook, they bent and scrambled through the living tunnel, then broke into the open air.

A morning breeze was ribboning away the last of the fog on the golden uplands. They stretched endlessly, rise after rise, culminating at last in the great grey shoulders of a central peak crowned by glittering ice. This world’s sun shone in the deep turquoise sky giving an overwhelming richness to the golden grasses, tiny flowers, tussocks of a silvery plant like powdered lace dotted everywhere. The two explorers gazed entranced at the mountain above, enveloped by the silence.

The botanist, Ensign Dubauer, grinned over his shoulder at Cordelia and fell to his knees beside one of the silvery tussocks. She strolled to the nearest rise for a look at the panorama behind them. The patchy forest grew denser down the gentle slopes. Five hundred meters below, banks of clouds stretched like a white sea to the horizon. Far to the west, their mountain’s smaller sister just broke through the updraft-curdled tops.”

— From "Cordelia's Honor"

Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s debut novel Too Like the Lightning was a nominee for the Best Novel award, but she ended up winning the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is nominated and presented alongside the Hugos, but is not officially a Hugo award. Palmer, who is a professor at the University of Chicago, adds to the mounting evidence against the complaint that women cannot write hard science fiction or political intrigue. A novel that takes place on Earth in the 25th century with a radically different past, this is a complex historical and philosophical read.

“You will criticise me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

I wondered once why authors of ancient days so often prostrate themselves before their audience, apologize, beg favors, pray to the reader as to an Emperor as they explain their faults and failings; yet, with my work barely begun, I find myself already in need of such obsequies. If I am properly to follow the style I have chosen, I must, at the book’s outset, describe myself, my background and qualifications, and tell you by what chance or Providence it is that the answers you seek are in my hands. I beg you, gentle reader, master, tyrant, grant me the privilege of silence on this count. Those of you who know the name of Mycroft Canner may now set this book aside. Those who do not, I beg you, let me make you trust me for a few dozen pages, since the tale will give you time enough to hate me in its own right.”

— From "Too Like the Lightning"

Seanan McGuire

A treat for lovers of shorter fiction, the novella Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire won all three of the major awards this year – the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus. The story is a reversal of the popular trope of the young boy or girl being introduced to a magical world. This is a dark, gruesome story about young people who were introduced to magical worlds but since then have been rejected from them, and need to re-learn how to survive in the mundane world. A sequel is forthcoming.

“The girls were never present for the entrance interviews. Only their parents, their guardians, their confused siblings, who wanted so much to help them but didn’t know how. It would have been too hard on the prospective students to sit there and listen as the people they loved most in all the world – all this world, at least – dismissed their memories as delusions, their experiences as fantasy, their lives as some intractable illness.

What’s more, it would have damaged their ability to trust the school if their first experience of Eleanor had been seeing her dressed in respectable grays and lilacs, with her hair styled just so, like the kind of stolid elderly aunt who only really existed in children’s stories. The real Eleanor was nothing like that. Hearing the things she said would have only made it worse, as she sat there and explained, so earnestly, so sincerely, that her school would help to cure the things that had gone wrong in the minds of all those little lost lambs. She could take the broken children and make them whole again.

She was lying, of course, but there was no way for her potential students to know that. So she demanded that she meet with their legal guardians in private, and she sold her bill of goods with the focus and skill of a born con artist. If those guardians had ever come together to compare notes, they would have found that her script was well-practiced and honed like the weapon that it was.”

— From "Every Heart a Doorway"

Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar’s short story Season of Glass and Iron , published first in the Starlit Wood anthology and then in Uncanny magazine, also won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards this year. Primarily a short fiction writer and poet, El-Mohtar writes stories that sparkle with lush, intricate descriptions, magical worlds built close to the real one, with well-rounded, surprising, stereotype-breaking diverse characters.

“Tabitha walks, and thinks of shoes.

She has been thinking about shoes for a very long time: the length of three and a half pairs, to be precise, though it’s hard to reckon in iron. Easier to reckon how many pairs are left: of the seven she set out with, three remain, strapped securely against the outside of the pack she carries, weighing it down. The seasons won’t keep still, slip past her with the landscape, so she can’t say for certain whether a year of walking wears out a sole, but it seems about right. She always means to count the steps, starting with the next pair, but it’s easy to get distracted.”

— From "Season of Glass and Iron"
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