On this blog I have talked a lot about how important I think it is to read books by women and people of color, especially if you are not a woman or a person of color. Yay for reading books that aren’t meant for you! I have put a lot of effort into trying to follow this advice myself, and I think it’s high time I share a little bit of what I’ve found with all of you in a more…list-like way. I would like to write a few more posts like this, but I have some more research to do (Asian and Hispanic sci-fi author suggestions, anyone? And yes I already know about Murakami). So for now, I give you:
AWESOME BLACK FEMALE SPECULATIVE AUTHORS
Because Robert Heinlein honestly can’t hold a candle.
1. Octavia E. Butler
First on the list is also the most famous, and the most criminally over-looked. If it weren’t for the prevalence of her novel Kindred (a time-travel narrative about slavery and ancestry), you might never see one of Butler’s books in an actual goddamn bookstore. I live in Seattle–the heart of nerd culture, and also where Butler spent most of her adult life–and even here it’s almost impossible to find a copy of any of her books aside from Kindred. It took me TWO YEARS to find a copy of Wild Seed. This, despite the fact that the woman won both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, AND was the first-ever scifi author to win a MacArthur grant. Basically, Octavia Butler is hot shit and it’s a crying fucking shame that her books haven’t been reprinted into the ground.
The book to pick up first: Parable of the Sower
This is the only apocalyptic totalitarian future novel that ever actually scared me, because it’s the only one I find plausible–or even inevitable. In fact, the set-up for Parable of the Sower reflects what’s happening in Earth’s ecology and in U.S. sociology today to a terrifying degree, despite having been published twenty years ago. This is a brutal novel, full of murder and rape and drug abuse and all kinds of atrocities, as one might expect from an un-sugarcoated apocalypse situation, with none of the usual Hollywood glamour. But despite its frankly horrific setting, Parable of the Sower manages to create and showcase a completely novel and (I feel) uplifting belief system, which champions faith in the future despite the horrors of the present. Its sequel, Parable of the Talents, is a weaker novel, though still enjoyable. The fact that Butler died before finishing the third in the series is the real tragedy here.
2. Nnedi Okorafor
Sometimes credited as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Okorafor has a rare skill among scifi authors, and that is the ability to write for both adults and middle readers with equal skill. I discovered her quite by accident, twice; I first read one of her adult novels, then later read one of her young adult novels, and then realized they were written by the same author. Both were excellent reads, as is the one I’m reading right now, Akata Witch. Okorafor is Nigerian-American, and her Igbo heritage influences her writing, with West African legends and spirits often inspiring her magical mechanics. She’s also the first author I’ve ever encountered to set one of her stories in a future so far future that technology has ceased to exist without it feeling like a ham-fisted pro-paleo back-to-roots diatribe, so major props on that excellence.
The book to pick up first: Zahrah the Windseeker
While I actually prefer Okorafor’s adult novel Who Fears Death?, it’s not the one I’d recommend to starters, due to its…intense nature. It’s essentially a gut-punch in novel form. But Zahrah the Windseeker is an equally compelling story, with a side of charming and adorable. Windseeker is a typical young adult adventure story, following a young girl as she must venture into the dangerous woods near her town in search of a medicine that will save her best friend. It has all the usual hero’s journey beats, distilled into a delightful tale about finding your inner strength and having faith in yourself. Basically, this is a book that’s good for your soul.
3. Karen Lord
Lord was the most accidental discovery for me on this list–I literally found out about her because a friend of mine finished reading one of her books on her way to my house, and then just left it here for me. But it turned out to be a wonderful happenstance, because Lord has this amazing blend of scifi and fantasy that hits all the right notes, and stretches itself in directions I haven’t ever seen before. She’s still a very young author, with only three published novels (the third of which came out in January this year), so she’s definitely one to watch for future works.
The book to pick up first: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Having only read one of her three books, this is the only one I can 100% recommend. This is a social scifi novel, set in a distant future where humans and their many genetic descendants occupy many different worlds, and latent psychic powers have become a real problem for social regulation. The main character is an anthropologist, which sounds like it’s going to be boring but I promise you the worldbuilding in this novel is fascinating, and the central romantic plotline surprisingly compelling, too. Worlds is a totally unique vision of the future, and it made me put Lord’s other two books on hold at the library immediately, so there’s your recommendation right there.
4. N.K. Jemisin
I am not a person who likes fantasy series–especially not the type that comes in four books, each 500+ pages long–but for Jemisin I make an exception. Her fiction is deeply rooted in explorations of oppression and its relationship with economy, all draped in intricately vivid fictional worlds that you could study for years and never get bored. She’s also a master of the unlikable protagonist–basically all of her characters are deeply flawed in ways that should make them horribly unlikable, but instead they just come out seeming utterly human and sympathetic.
The book to pick up first: The Inheritance Trilogy, starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
This trilogy actually includes four books, with the fourth commonly referred to as book “3.5.” The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms explores a vast and complicated fantasy world presided over by the corrupt Arameri family, who serve the god of light and have enslaved the god of darkness, along with several of his children. The plot is built on trans-Arameri intrigue and an ancient feud between the gods, with a heavy dose of class and race politics thrown in. I don’t usually go for novels that involve complicated lineages and fictional politics, but Kingdoms keeps it fast-paced enough to retain my interest, with a delicious side of imaginative prose.
5. Nalo Hopkinson
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Hopkinson is another author whose speculative fiction draws heavily from myths and legends that are usually ignored by canonical western culture, and it’s precisely this that makes her writing so compelling. Many of Hopkinson’s books fit into familiar speculative fiction categories–Brown Girl in the Ring is post-apocalyptic dystopian, Midnight Robber is essentially a complicated Robin Hood narrative–but her careful attention to both world-building and each character’s inner development puts these familiar story lines into fresh perspectives. Like most of the women on this list, she also doesn’t shy away from hard truths, which takes the often fantastic concepts behind these types of stories and roots them in very human struggles.
The book to pick up first: Midnight Robber
Fair warning: this book is written in pretty intense slang/jargon, so it will take you a chapter or two to get into the swing of it. Once you do, though, a gorgeously realized cultural meditation opens for you. Midnight Robber takes on the ambitious task of creating not one, but two fully developed fictional worlds, each with its own social rules and problems, one of which includes an entire alien society in addition to the human one, and somehow manages to keep the reader from getting confused. It follows the life of Tan-Tan, a young girl whose corrupt politician father gets her exiled from her home planet at a young age, and then goes on to disrupt her development essentially her whole life long. The story is couched in a fantastic scifi extrapolation of Caribbean culture, speculating on what a modern world might look like if Caribbean culture prevailed, rather than being overtaken by white colonial ideals.
“Embrace diversity or be destroyed.” –Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler