There's been much talk recently about the invisibility of women in SF, for excellent reason. In the Guardian's reader poll of favorite SF writers, for instance, only 4% (edit - apparently it's more like 12 %, not that that's much better) of the 500 plus books mentioned are by women. Polls like that are a waste of time under the best of circumstances but the disparity does serve to highlight the problem. Anyone with an eye on the SF blogosphere is probably more than up to speed on the surrounding debate, but this post by Cheryl Morgan is a good entry point into the discussion.
Let's be honest - it's not too bad a time to be a white male SF author. I make a living from my books, I've been the recipient of a well publicized multi-book deal, and there are a good number of other British SF writers who are able to sustain a career solely on the basis of their writing. Many of these writers, such as myself, Steve Baxter, Peter Hamilton, John Meaney, Paul McAuley, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke and so on, are well into our second decade of full-time authorship. There are also many writers who are sustaining careers while also holding down "proper" jobs, either by choice or necessity - excellent, inventive writers like Tony Ballantine, Chris Beckett and so on. Yet, astonishingly, in the UK there is currently only one British female science fiction writer - Jaine Fenn (who happens to be a friend) - with a contract. This is not a happy state of affairs. It would be a dismal state of affairs even if women hadn't already made a vital contribution to the evolution of the form. Irrespective of the importance of women to the field in the past, though, there's little or no possibility of their having any effect in the future - at least in Britain. Things are reportedly a bit better elsewhere. In a recent piece I wrote for a forthcoming academic book on SF, I was at least able to mention a couple of contemporary American female SF writers doing something like space opera. Not many, though.
In all this I was reminded of one of the most enjoyable SF books I've read in the last 12 years, a book that I don't think picked up anything like the traction it deserved, but which certainly shaped some of my own ideas in books like Redemption Ark and House of Suns. It's not space opera, it's too sober-minded for that, but it is monumentally epic and galaxy-spanning, and it's drenched with really cool SFnal thinking, from speculation about artificial intelligence, posthuman evolution, to the practicalities of interstellar warfare in an Einsteinian universe, and contact with aliens. That book is VAST, Linda Nagata's fourth novel:
VAST was published in 1998; I read it in 1999. I can safely say that it is one of the very novels that has literally haunted my dreams, in that the book exerted such a powerful hold on my waking imagination that come nighttime I found my sleeping brain racing ahead with the story. It's awesome!
On a personal note, I emailed Linda Nagata expressing my enthusiasm for the book and she was kind and generous enough to send me a couple of her earlier paperbacks. Although it hadn't been any kind of obstacle to my reading, I was then intrigued to see that VAST was in fact part of a future history she had already been mapping through earlier books. I must emphasize, though, that VAST works enormously well on its own terms. My own copy is still boxed away somewhere following a house move, or I would re-read it now, but I'd certainly recommend it to anyone in the mood for some head-spinning far future Einsteinian SF in the same general direction as Greg Egan's Diaspora or Greg Bear's Anvil of the Stars. It's very much it's own thing, though, and fully deserving of a wider audience than it gained at the time of publication.
In other news... I've been interviewed by From Bar to Bar! If you've not read one of these quasi-fictionalised interviews before, prepare to be weirded out. Many thanks to Tibor for having me, and I hope my answers are of interest.
I love VAST, but if anything I love one of its predecessors, THE BOHR MAKER, even more. It's very hard to find though - VAST was at least re-issued in the UK I believe...ReplyDelete
The Bohr Maker is great as well, Peter. I still need to track down Deception Well, the third novel.ReplyDelete
Looks like Vast is out of print. Appears to be a few used copies floating around though. Thanks for the recommendation.ReplyDelete
Nagata is selling her old novels as ebooks, including Vast.ReplyDelete
It was a nice interview but I hate to be launched spaceships out. :)ReplyDelete
That's a +1 on the recommendation, in fact, I ran across your work by searching for something similar in theme and mindblowiness to Vast.ReplyDelete
Yeah, I loved Vast as well, but didn't know it was part of a series of books. Makes me want to go back, get those and re-read Vast.ReplyDelete
Only one. Wow, that's shocking.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the head's up - I've just ordered the first volume in the series for my Kindle and am keen to check it out...ReplyDelete
I read Vast, the Bohr Maker and a couple of Linda Nagata's other books a few years back (I still have some of the paperbacks on my bookshelves). I was fortunate enough to be a member of Compuserve's classic SFLIT Forum in the mid-late 1990's, when it was THE place to be, and every SF writer of note who was online seemed to be a member there (these were the days before everyone and their dog had their own websites or blogs). Linda Nagata was also a member, and we were able to keep up to date with her books whilst being able to chat to her. She fascinated me - most female SF authors that I read (LeGuin, Rusch and a few others) wrote the softer stuff. But here was a lady who wrote dark, techno, almost cyberpunk, ultra-hard, far future SF as well as any of the big male SF authors, and better than most of them. Her books deserve a MUCH wider following, and really, really should be re-issued to the mass market sooner rather than later. I, for one, will be hurrying off to the link given above to download all of her ebooks, and, hopefully, fill in any gaps in my Nagata collection of dead-tree books. I hope many more people support this highly talented and greatly underrated author by doing the same.ReplyDelete
Limit of Vision and Memory are none too shabby either. I have Vast in HC and it looks as good as it reads. Apart from Jaine Fenn who I haven't read, the only other Brit chic writer I know of is Justina Robson who I think write's some of the most complex yet humane SF I've ever read. Both her and Nagata are required reading IMO.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the recommendation! I immediately bought Vast (it and the rest are fairly recently available in Kindle editions) and I'm about 1/2 way through; it's fantastic. It definitely echoes a bit of the flavor of the Conjoiner universe to me (or I supposed that could be the other way round?)ReplyDelete
Anyway, great reading - thanks for bringing her books to attention!
I loved Memory. Tech-Heaven is also very good, despite the unfortunate title. If Vast helped inspire House of Suns, I have to read it: House of Suns is one of my favorite SF novels of the past decade. Linda has been releasing her e-books in a wide variety of formats, and with much better editing than is typical of commercial e-books, and I think a ton of the profits go straight into her pocket. Thanks for mentioning her here. I would love it if she started doing well enough on e-book sales that she started writing more books like these.ReplyDelete
I get a bit sick of the "not enough woman" argument with things like this and for example say in physics. No one disputes that girls have preferences in younger life (how many get a GI joe for xmass), why not older life? Woman on average just don't like physics dito for non fantasy sci fi. Sure there are exceptions, but they are exceptions non the less.ReplyDelete
I am willing to bet that your reader profile is also very heavily slanted to males. Probably in similar proportion.
My wife reads excessively. Almost every author is a woman. Perhaps we need more male author writing romance novels instead (or worse, vampire romance novels).
I politely disagree. Alastair Reynolds has no problem attracting women followers.ReplyDelete
Hi Deborah - I'd like to think that was the case, although (like most writers, I suspect) I don't really have any good feeling for how my readership breaks down along gender lines. The people who show up for signings, or who email me or post comments on my blog, are a self-selecting set, and I'm not sure how they map onto the larger constituency of readers. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I do notice different gender ratios in different countries, but again it's hard to draw definitive conclusions.ReplyDelete
Hi Alistair--thanks so much for this post. I discovered it after noticing a bump in ebook sales for VAST, and have been shamelessly exploiting it ever since. I wanted to write you a nice thank you but couldn't come up with your email, so I thought I'd stop by here. I very much appreciate the kind words and am glad to know your own books are doing so well.ReplyDelete
Get ready for another bump, as I'll be purchasing the other books in the Vast universe, and your new ones! :)Delete
Hi Linda! Thanks so much for dropping by, I'm delighted, and very pleased that my post might have driven some readers toward VAST and your other novels. Exploit away! And I look forward to our paths crossing at some point. Good luck and best wishes.ReplyDelete
Well I for one am happy to have been part of the bump in sales of Vast - thank you for the recommendation! I kept being reminded of Galactic North - your story not the collection - as I read through Vast. And yeah - "mind blowing" was right.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for this post! Linda Nagata was a huge influence on me and a whole generation of women hard SF writers. It was frustrating - and more than a little daunting - to see how hard her books were to find for a while. And it's great to see them coming back into circulation. I had the same experience as you with VAST, by the way; I first read it with no awareness that it was even part of a larger cycle. Luckily it works beautifully as a standalone novel. But still, I confess .... I'm very much looking forward to rereading it now that I've finally read the BOHR MAKER as well. Nagata is a brilliant writer and, I think, a major underground influence on the genre. Nice to see her getting some long overdue attention!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Chris! I like the idea of an underground influence, very true I think. Sorry to report that I've yet to read any of your books, but I hope to rectify that omission soon. It's telling that I read VAST in 1999; by 2000 I was into a book a year contract and my own SF reading took a sharp nosedive from that point on. I was probably able to read 15 or 20 SF novels before 2000; now it's a good year if I read 5.ReplyDelete
Great recommendation, I'm enjoyingVast on my iPad (kindle reader). An excellent story so far, I was in dire need of a good read, this is great!ReplyDelete