Illustration by TravisTheGeek.
There was the GamerGate, then the ridiculous drama that the Hugo were. 2015 really contributed to make everyone think that science-fiction was a conservative genre, not to mention sexist, fascist, racist and homophobic, despite the history of the genre itself.
So here is a short collection of SFF novels that could all pass the Bechdel test. This list comprises only ten books (and it was bleeding hard to keep it to only ten books!) with completely personal choices and by chronological order...
1. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974.
Science-fiction, Planet Opera, Stand Alone Novel, Hugo Awards.
The Dispossessed belongs to the second feminist wave in scifi and follows up on The Left hand of Darkness. Le Guin characterizes her novel as an ambiguous utopia and presents two twin worlds, Anarres and Urras. The main character is a scientist and the story alternates with his life on Anarres and his life on Urras and their social and political issues. It received the Hugo Awards in 1975.
2. Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life, 1977.
Charmed Life is the first volume in the wonderful Chrestomanci series. Eric Chant and his older sister Gwendoline are orphans. Eric seems like a lovely ordinary boy but Gwendoline is a witch and, well, a witch. Chrestomanci, who is some sort of policeman for the wizards, welcomes them in his castle and Gwendoline is on her worst behaviour. It's an adorable novel and the characters are all very relatable.
3. Octavia Butler, Kindred, 1979.
Fantasy, Time Travel, Stand Alone Novel, Own Voices.
It always makes me laugh when I hear that science-fiction and fantasy are two genres written by white males for white males, because I immediately think of the remarkable Octavia Butler who not only was female but was also an Afro-American. Kindred is a novel where Dana, a young Afro-American woman, travels through time between her era, at the end of the 1970s and a Maryland domain during the slavery era and where she meets her ancestors: a white master and a black woman. Kindred is a beautiful and gripping novel about slavery, the relationship between men and women and white Americans and Afro-Americans.
4. Sheri Tepper, Grass, 1989.
Science-fiction, Planet Opera, Stand Alone Novel.
Grass is a complex and fascinating novel that tells the story of a human family who tries to integrate in the aristocratic society of the planet Grass in order to find a cure to a plague that decimate humanity. The main character is Marjorie: caught between her religious convictions and a catastrophic family life, she will try to find answers and will upset the established order. The novel is intriguing, beautifully written and quite gripping.
5. Terry Pratchett, Maskerade, 1995.
Almost every Terry Pratchett novel would pass the Bechdel test. But I've chosen Maskerade for which I have a particular fondness. The novel is in the Witches series inside the Discworld series, and usually the main characters are Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat. But here comes Agnes. Agnes, about whom people say she has beautiful hair because it's the nicest thing one can say about her appearance, Agnes who is made to be a witch but who doesn't want it. So she decides to leave it all and go to Ankh-Morpork to become an opera singer. Ensue a parody of musicals and Agnes' quest to know who she really is.
6. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, 1995-2000.
Fantasy, YA, Multiverse.
This trilogy has been attacked by many Christian groups which may seem bizarre to whoever wouldn't read the complete series. It focuses on Lyra, a young girl who lives in an alternate Oxford. She goes searching for her friend Roger who has been abducted: she will travel the world and find out that many others exist. The character ensemble is remarkable and the female characters are essential to the plot. The work is amazing as much for the style than the story itself or its themes. It was awarded the Whitbread Prize.
7. Iain M. Banks, Excession, 1996.
Science-fiction, Space Opera, Stand Alone Novel.
Excession is part of the Culture series, a series of novels loosely related which all take place within an anarchist utopian society in the far future, and in which the relationships between men and women are completely different from ours. Thanks to technology anyone can change sex for a part of their life, to say nothing of the asexual space ships avatars. In Excession those two aspects are mixed in a love story between Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen and an alien encounter story.
Excession isn't the most readable of Banks' novels for who isn't used to scifi and space opera, but I think it's one of the best.
8. Robin Hobb, The Liveship Traders, 1998-2000.
Fantasy, Epic & Heroic Fantasy.
The Liveship Traders takes place in the same universe as the famous trilogy The Farseer but some years later. Robin Hobb writes a variation upon nautical fiction and pirate stories but since it's fantasy she adds ships able to think and speak. The trilogy follows the Vestrit family and more particularly Althea and her niece Malta. The development of the two characters is a delight and the books examine slavery or violence against women. Sadly, the novels tend to lose their pace with the secondary but necessary plot.
9. Charles Stross, The Merchant Princes, 2004-2010.
The Merchant Princes is a science-fiction series about parallel worlds whose main character is Miriam Beckstein, a journalist who finds herself travelling between our world and a feodal parallel Earth. It's one of Stross' first novels and you can feel it in the first volume, particularly in how Miriam behaves... Which feels weird when you know the quality of his female characters in all his following stories. But as soon as the second volume, this little bump is soon forgotten and the plot is gripping with a main character who's relatable and tenacious.
10. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice, 2013.
Science-fiction, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Space & Planet Opera.
Breq, the avatar of a spaceship AI, is on a quest while flash-backs reveal how the Radch empire had colonised the planet Shis'urna. Ancillary Justice is a space opera and a revenge story. But it's also a very challenging novel: the Radch empire doesn't differentiate genders, so all the characters are called with feminine pronouns. And when, suddenly, Breq uses a maculine pronoun for a character, the reader realises with bewilderment how the feminine pronoun that was first used for this character had biased how we viewed him/her. So it is a challenging novel and also a very well written one but it's a pity the plot remains quite conventional. It received the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2014.
Among my previous posts, I also warmly recommend the unmissable Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold (scifi) and The Fey by K. K. Rusch (fantasy).
All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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