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.