Hello, and welcome to 2017! It’s a new year, which means it’s high time for a new Women to Read post. From 2013 to mid-2016, Women to Read was a monthly series highlighting work by women and appearing at the much-missed SF Signal. When SF Signal announced their closure in May 2016, many kind people expressed their hope that Women to Read would continue, and few folks offered to give it a home, which I truly appreciate. Before I go further, I just want to say thank you to everyone who read, signal boosted it, said kind things about Women to Read over the years. I’m always delighted to hear of people enjoying the posts, and finding new-to-them authors. I’d hoped the series might end up somewhere that could bring it a wider readership and bring more attention to the work of some wonderful authors. Alas, several possibilities fell through, and rather than see the column vanish, I decided to experiment with hosting it here.
The column may or may not be monthly, we’ll see how things go, but I’ll do my best. I’ll also continue posting the sibling series, Non-Binary Authors to Read here as well. (For more general reviews, I also contribute a monthly Words for Thought column at Apex.) If you’re new to Women to Read and are curious about what I’ve done in the past, all the posts are archived by year and you can find them on the tabs below the header. I do my best not to repeat authors, and make every effort not to screw up identity, but if I ever make an incorrect assumption and mis-gender anyone, please let me know!
I hope people will continue to read, enjoy, and discover new authors through this series and spread the word about their amazing work. Here we go!
Carolyn Ives Gilman has been nominated for awards including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Tiptree, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. There are many starting places I could recommend for her work, however I’m recommending Touring with the Alien from the April 2016 issue of Clarkesworld because I’m a sucker for a stories featuring truly alien modes of being. Too often aliens come off as thinly-disguised humans, different from us in appearance, but possessing human ways of thinking and human (frequently white and western) values. The only thing recognizably human about Gilman’s alien is that it is referred to with male pronouns, but that appears to be matter of convenience for the human characters in the story. Avery specializes in transporting dangerous things, and is assigned the job of essentially babysitting an alien and his human translator, Lionel, who like all translators was taken from his family at a very young age and raised among aliens. Lionel is almost as alien as the alien he translates for, and Earth isn’t home to him. As they set off on a modified tour bus, which has been loaded with a shipping crate containing the alien, Lionel slowly opens up to Avery. He does his best to explain the aliens; they exists in the realm of the unconscious, and their intelligence is an autonomic function, like humans’ breathing. However Mr. Burbage – as Avery comes to refer to the alien – is curious about consciousness, and has formed a unique bond with Lionel, one that is killing him. The act of being conscious is burning him up, and soon he will progress to the final stage of his lifecycle, dissolving into distinct cells and soaking into the ground. The story unfolds with a slow burn, raising questions about the nature of consciousness and living. What is it to be alive? What is the definition of a family? What role does free will play in the alien/translator relationship? Gilman leaves the questions open – a prompt to the reader rather than an attempt to provide a point of view. Touring With the Alien is a lovely, meditative, and touching story, even as it explores grand questions of thought and consciousness. Between that and the truly alien alien, it is an excellent starting place for Carolyn Ives Gilman’s work.
Next up, my recommended starting place for Day Al-Mohamed’s work is The Beacon and the Coward from the November 2015 issue of Apex Magazine, a steampunk flavored story about the nature of heroism. Danville is a surfman at a lighthouse staffed entirely by black men. They’re all veterans of the Civil War, but unlike Danville, most of them have had metal limbs or mechanical eyes grafted onto or into their bodies against their will. Because they are black, the military felt free to experiment on them, and Danville is one of the few ‘natural’ men on the crew. He’s also a coward. When the order came to charge, he lost his nerve; this mark on his military record, and his conscience, has followed him ever since. As the story opens, Danville is preparing to leave the lighthouse. His past has caught up with him again, and even though his boss trusts him, Danville has no desire to deal with the scorn of his fellows. A massive storm and a passenger ship threatening to wreck on the reef cuts Danville’s plans short. Despite his fears that he’ll once again freeze at the critical moment, Danville joins the rescue. As a natural man, it’s up to him swim a line out to the sinking ship. Despite their increased strength, the soldiers with mechanical parts would sink and drown. Danville saves the lives of one of his colleagues, and a young girl from the passenger ship, proving his boss’ trust in him, and proving to himself he’s not a coward after all. The Beacon and the Coward is a story of redemption and second chances. It’s also a story about trust, and not being defined by a single moment of fear. That it is inspired by a true story, which you can read about on the author’s website, makes the story even more incredible. Al-Mohamed draws a thoughtful parallel between the two situations Danville finds himself in – a battlefield, and sinking ship. Even when fighting for a good cause, war can seem like a wasteful act. Danville saw friends cut down by bullets on the battlefield and was unable to act, but when a random act of nature put innocent lives at risk, he waded in (literally) and proved himself a hero. The steampunk element is incorporated with a light touch, and Al-Mohamed uses it to great effect to comment on the horrors of war and the colonial mentality often inherent in the genre itself. The Beacon and the Coward directly addresses the idea of brown bodies as lesser, disposable cogs in a machine, by making them part of the ‘wonders’ of the mechanical age without their consent. It’s a powerful piece, and a worthy place to start with the author’s work.
Sticking with the heroic vein to round out the post, my recommended starting place for Leigh Wallace’s work is Bedtime for Superheroes from the anthology Tesseracts 19: Superhero Universe edited by Mark Shainblum and Claude Lalumiere. One of the tropes of SFF, and the superhero genre in particular, is that going on quests and saving the world is a game for the young. Older characters are sidelined as wise mentors, and those roles are typically reserved for men. Old Bruce Wayne mentors young Terry McGinnis, Hollis Mason passes the torch to Dan Dreiberg, Yoda and Obi Wan mentor Luke Skywalker, Dumbledore aids Harry Potter on his journey, and so on. There are fewer examples of wise old women passing their knowledge on to the next generation. There are plenty of wicked crones and jealous stepmothers plotting to stealth youth and beauty, as if those are a woman’s only assets, not her knowledge. In Bedtime for Superheroes, Wallace turns things around and gives reads what feels like The Facts of Life, but with superheroes. The story opens with Marie making tea for herself, then laying out three extra mugs, each with their own personality and flavor of tea. Just as she’s about to settle in, a ninja appears on her living room couch. The ninja is her granddaughter, Lacy, a superhero, lamenting the loss of buttons on her ninja costume and asking her grandmother to make repairs. Lacy is soon joined by a pirate and an angel. Each is given her own mug of tea, and Marie quietly listens to their complaints, tidying up after them and giving them gentle nudges toward good habits. She does all this unobtrusively, playing the role of an invisible old woman, just as society expects her to, stepping aside and making way for the young. Throughout the story, Wallace nudges the reader the way Marie nudges her charges, making it clear there’s more to Marie than meets the eye. The ultimate reveal of her true identity comes as a satisfying end to the tale. The quiet details of domestic life – the way Marie cares for her girls, preparing their tea, matching their mugs to their personalities, knitting and quietly gathering more girls into her fold – provide the key to Marie’s character. She notices everything, no action she takes is wasted, and every movement has a purpose as she directs the lives around her without anyone noticing. Like Al-Mohamed’s story, Bedtime for Superheroes expands on the notion of what it means to be a hero, and who gets to be a hero. There are different ways of wielding power, and not every path to victory involves kicking ass. Bedtime for Superheroes is an excellent addition to the superhero genre, and an excellent starting place for Wallace’s work.
Three recommendations seems like a good start for the series reboot, so I’ll leave things there for now. Keep an eye out for more Women to Read posts to come, and in the meantime, leave your own suggests for women to read in the comments!