Alice Sola Kim, “Beautiful White Bodies” (online at Strange Horizons 2009.12.07-14)
A dangerous plague is turning high school girls into ravishing beauties. We found this story’s illumination of teenage girlhood and its passionate desires to be a quite heartbreaking meditation on the meaning of beauty and femininity in the media and popular culture. Especially lovable — the main character. Especially pertinent to us — our protagonist’s hopeless assurances that really, girl geeks can grow up okay. Especially fabulous — the marvelous voice of the piece and the amazing ending.
Vandana Singh, Distances (Aqueduct Press 2008)
Singh has packed this novella-length work with an amazing complexity. Distances is: the story of a woman’s development as an artist in a context where science, art and religion are indistinguishable; a meditation on the uses of knowledge and the power structures they engender; and a nuanced depiction of cultural difference, loss and exile. While not as directly focused on gender as some other works on our list, we saw Distances as a work that expanded and challenged a number of inherently gendered cultural categories. Also, almost incidentally, there are some very interesting depictions of alternative sex and gender arrangements.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, “Galapagos” (in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2009)
Although we immediately loved this story, our initial reaction was that the centrality of a same-sex relationship in the place we might expect a heterosexual one wasn’t enough to persuade us that our understanding of gender was being explored and expanded. But the more we thought and talked about it, the more things we felt the story accomplished. Because a queer relationship does have a different connection to the reproduction of the species, to have a disturbing alien reproductivity routed through queer female bodies did feel radical and new. “Galapagos” made us think of the work of Octavia Butler. There can be no higher praise.
Jo Walton, Lifelode (NESFA Press 2009)
We are all familiar with books in which the setting is some sort of fantasy/feudal blend and the gender roles appear unexamined and uninteresting. So one thing we loved about Lifelode was the way the society’s hierarchical, feudal social structure included both a traditional view of marriage, through which hereditary power is passed on, and an established tradition of polyamorous relationships. Life here is comfortable and relatively egalitarian; through Walton’s characters, we see the power inherent in traditionally feminine social roles. But Lifelode takes place at just that moment when the cozy village of Applekirk finds itself threatened by an alien and terrifying new monogamous order…
Maureen F. McHugh, “Useless Things” in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan (Night Shade Books 2009)
A non-reproductive woman makes idealized child-objects in an uncertain world. McHugh’s story takes place only a tick away from where we now find ourselves, in a pressured environment of economic collapse where any act of generosity and open-heartedness is risky and a good person is a dangerous thing to be. This is not fundamentally a gendered issue, but it often expresses itself in gendered ways. An incredibly evocative, sparely written, powerful story.
Paul Haines, “Wives” (in X6 edited by Keith Stevenson, coeur de lion 2009)
An interesting counterpoint to Ooku regarding projected effects of gender imbalance, Haines’ “Wives” is a sharp, deeply ugly look at white working class Australian masculinity in a world where women are scarce. The dystopian Australian outback where the story mostly occurs is a place of intense misogyny, racism, and transphobia. Horrible and chillingly believable, “Wives” didn’t do anything terribly original, but it did something familiar in a quite new, very visceral, very powerful way.
L. Timmel Duchamp, The Marq’ssan Cycle (Aqueduct Press 2005-8)
After reading the thousands of pages in L. Timmel Duchamp’s five-volume Marq’ssan cycle (Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit, and Stretto, following decades of changes across the world in both large-scale politics and the everyday interpersonal beauties and violences of individual lives, you don’t emerge quite the same as you were when you went in.
Gender is a central focus, as we experience a very gender-segregated society largely from a female point of view and occasionally from that of a post-gender alien species. But any separation of one of the cycle’s themes must necessarily be a shallow depiction of what it is like to read these novels.
Some readers will focus most on the story of human engagement with an utterly different alien race, determined to alter the course of human politics yet determined to be something other than colonizers. Some will be most fascinated by the tale of the Free Zones, anarchist enclaves where co-operative, anti-authoritarian politics develop over decades in the US and elsewhere. These communities are not utopian but are filled with conflict and occasionally violent, yet they remain optimistic nevertheless. For other readers, the most memorable aspects of the cycle will be the near-future dystopian image of an intensely class-divided United States, with its startlingly prescient depictions of torture, imprisonment, and political violence, told with an unsettling understanding of the oppressors’ perspective and yet never without losing sympathy for the victims. And for yet more, it will be on the level of character that Duchamp’s work inspires: her many point of view characters––almost all women––whose personal and political transformations, power-laden interpersonal, frequently sexual relationships, and critical analyses of the world, drive the many intersecting narratives.