Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. If you’re new to the series, you can catch up with the tabs along the header, collecting my past posts by year. Basically, I recommend women whose work you should read, and point to a particular place to start. Here we go!
Susan Jane Bigelow is an author, librarian, political columnist, and is responsible for the Extrahuman Union series. My recommended starting place for her work is Die, Sophie, Die from Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, a special project of Lightspeed Magazine. The story centers on Sophie, a woman who finds herself the target of harassment due to an article in which she dares to express an opinion which proves unpopular with online trolls. She’s subject to rape threats, death threats, and doxxing – all the usual tools of online harassment. While most of the threats Sophie faces are sadly common, the uncommon element manifests in what appears to be a twitter bot with the power to circumvent all her blocks. At first it tells her to kill herself, as do many of the other messages she receives, but gradually the messages change until they seem to be asking for help. Sophie sets out to investigate, bringing her face to face both with an unexpected aspect of technology, and one of her all too human trolls. Bigelow states in the Author Spotlight accompanying her story that she’s luckily never been the target of online harassment in this way. However I suspect the story will strike a nerve with many/any women who have seen this very situation happen over and over again. The very fact that Bigelow considers herself lucky stands as a testament to how prevalent trolling and harassment are. What should be an aberration is sadly all too common. Women who express opinions in public have sadly come to expect this kind of treatment. In Die, Sophie, Die, Bigelow puts the horror of the situation front and center, showing the impact on every aspect of Sophie’s life. Bigelow gives her story an SFnal twist that offers a note of hope, but even this hope highlights the dark side of social media. Something new is born in the form of a singularity, however it makes itself known through harassment, realizing that hate is a surefire way to get itself noticed. The story serves both as commentary on a phenomenon impacting many women, and a satisfying SFnal tale. On both fronts, it is an excellent starting place for Bigelow’s work.
Next up, my recommended starting place for Khaalida Muhammad-Ali is Concessions published at Strange Horizons. The story is set against a backdrop of scarcity. The protagonist, Bilqis, is a doctor, one with the power to determine the health of mothers and the babies they carry just by touching them. Bordering the land of scarcity is a prosperous city, however entry requires the renouncement of faith. As a result, Bilqis and her lover, Sule, live in exile, scrabbling for their existence, and hoping for the best for the child Bilqis carries. The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. As the title implies, the story explores sacrifice, and the question of what compromises a person might be willing to make in order to survive. The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a lovely and painful story, and a worthy starting place for Muhammad-Ali’s work.
Lilliam Rivera is an award winning author whose YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, was released earlier this year. My recommended starting place for her work is The H8TE, originally published in Sucker Literary, and reprinted at Nightmare Magazine. On the surface, The H8TE is a zombie story, but underneath it’s a story about the complicated love between a mother and daughter, and navigating the cliques, jealousies, and relationships that come with high school. Sarah’s mother has been stricken by the N1H8 virus, or as it’s known, The H8TE, reducing her to mindless, hungry creature. Sarah keeps her chained up in a bedroom, doing her best to keep her alive while keeping anyone else from finding out about her. Her best friend, Brenda, has a new friend, Alison, who seems intent on turning Brenda against her. Sarah’s only real ally is Ray, who is like a brother to her. However accepting help from Ray means putting him in danger, and putting her mother in danger as well. Lilliam perfectly captures Sarah’s isolation, both self-imposed, and from her peers. She’s in an impossible situation, forced to shoulder too much responsibility for her age, and left with nowhere to turn. As the best zombie stories do, The H8TE uses the supernatural to reflect very real fears – the idea of losing a loved one, and the idea of a child forced to take on the role of the parent, caring for the person who is supposed to care for and protect them, and doing it alone. At the same time, Lilliam weaves in social pressure and the casual cruelty of teenagers toward each other as they try to find their place in the world. For many, seemingly the quickest way to ascend in the social order is to separate and metaphorically consume the weakest in the pack. It’s an effective story, encapsulating many fears, and its an excellent starting place for the author’s work.
Finally, my recommended starting place for Desirina Boskovich’s work is the novella, Never Now Always, which will be published by Broken Eye Books in June, and is currently available for pre-order. Lolo lives with other children in a vast labyrinth, overseen by the Caretakers, creatures with staring eyes, but no mouths or ears. The Caretakers experiment on the children, forcing them to remember events from their past, though each time they do, the memories seem different. From the start, Boskovich plunges the reader into the same disorienting world that the characters inhabit, where dreams, nightmares, and memories all blur together. Reality itself is in question, but the one thing Lolo is sure of is that she has a sister, and that her sister was taken from her. Some of Lolo’s memories are beautiful, like a Fourth of July cookout, and playing in the grass with her sister and their dog. Others are visions of loss, her sister ripped away from her on a playground, a strange city where Harvesters devour children and fill the streets with blood. The narrative is threaded with uncertainty. Which memories are real, the idyllic ones, or the terror? What do the Caretakers want? Boskovich uses language effectively to capture this uncertainty, and the shifting nature of reality. The children’s sense of time and even themselves is fragile, threatening to unravel at any moment. While Lolo struggles to hold onto her truth, and searches for her sister, a sense of despair hangs over the narrative as well. Boskovich draws parallels between her nightmare world and the dark side of being a child. Everyone is bigger than you. You have no power. Your reality is defined by the adults around you, and if they don’t have your best interests at heart, what then? How do you fight back? Can you? Or will the ones in control of your environment, your food and shelter, of telling you what to think and what’s best for you, prevail in the end?
“There have always been taller ones, stronger ones, ones who knew what we didn’t know,” Gor says, hesitant. “Before the structure. Before the labyrinth. Before the Caretakers. They’ve always been there. They’ve always hurt us.”
It’s a chilling statement, but one that carries a ring of truth. Along with this dystopian vision, Boskovich also explores the importance of stories, the ones we tell ourselves and each other, and how they help us navigate the world. Even when the situation is terrifying, the story is beautifully written. Never Now Always is frightening, effective, and disorienting, and a worthy starting place for Boskovich’s work.
That’s it for this month’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations in June. As always, I would love to hear about your favorites. Drop me a note in the comments with women I should be reading, and where to start with their work.