Gwyneth Jones won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2002 for Bold as Love, the first book in a near-future rock’n’roll retelling of the Arthurian myth. The third instalment in the series, Midnight Lamp, is published by Gollancz.
1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
This famous novel about sex and society is a politically sophisticated adventure story, in which the non-gendered Gethenians (who may take on either sex in their fertile period) are as morally complex and recalcitrantly various as the nations of the earth. What sticks in my mind, aside from the sheer beauty of this book, is the winter journey across the Gobrin Ice at the heart of it, and the elegy for an impossible friendship between Genly Ai, the human male, and Estraven, whose sexual nature Ai cannot accept.
2. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
A bleak fairytale account of human cloning which has since been overtaken by science and coloured by the disappointment and alienation of the post-radical 70s. It will seem dated in terms of social mores but nothing else has changed. This is still a chilling, gripping and heartbreaking landmark science fiction novel, one of the greatest of its time, about the death of the living world: an SF writer’s response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
3. Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr
James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon in real life) was famous, or notorious, for very smart, harsh, and daring psychosexual stories (Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death; And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hillside) that were hailed as ‘ineluctably masculine’ before she was unmasked. You can find some of them in the collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise. Up the Walls of the World is in a far different mode: this is joyous and positively starry-eyed SF, with great characters and my kind of SF outlaws handling the ethics, instead of the smug might-is-righters. In the Tyree fliers, it features the most convincing non-humanoid aliens I’ve ever met.
4. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
I must have walked past this book about 20 times before I bought it. What was she talking about? I didn’t want to be a man! The futuristic dominatrix on the original cover, with her naked toyboy crouching on a leash, didn’t impress me much, either. Eventually, I was sufficiently bothered to hand over my cash. It was a revelation. The Female Man is experimental, clever, funny, violent and startlingly prophetic. Also a great source of ideas for techno-green utopia.
5. Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
CJ Cherryh is one of the major space opera authors, always impressive for the realism of her great ships, the fiendish complexity of the intrigue on board and planetside, and for her bizarre, changed human characters of the future. Cyteen is the magnum opus of a series about a clash of empires, both human in origin, differing in their methods but identical in their lust for control. It’s about domination and slavery, the monsters power makes and the twisted lives of the children born to perpetuate the dynasties. A dark mirror for the cold war era and a horrific science fiction boardroom drama, it will suck you in.
6. Grass by Sheri Tepper
Sheri Tepper’s novels are a big hit with the punters but can be alarmingly didactic: this one’s different. Grass is set on a stunning pampas world, not a million miles from the oceanic vastness of the Great Plains where Tepper was raised. It’s about a diplomat, horse-lover, passionate human being whose engagement with the alien uncovers horror and takes over her life. The examination of the callous, destructive and aggressive culture of human colonial expansion points the moral, but the centre of this book lies in the character of Marjorie Westriding and her encounter with the sublime. Fabulously enjoyable.
7. Synners by Pat Cadigan
The queen of cyberpunk takes on the west coast entertainment industry in a prescient investigation of the unholy marriage between digital technology and the profit motive. What if we can grab consumers directly by going straight to a centre in their brains? A ragged band of music video-makers, hackers, slackers and tattoo artists must race against time to save humanity (well, the USA – the rest of us are relegated to a paragraph) from an awesome virus which has ‘corrupted’ – irony fully intentional – this brilliant scheme. Some techno-SF dates quickly; Synners seems newer and hotter now than in 1991.
8. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
A white woman, seemingly deformed and mute except for her strange ‘singing’, wanders into a Chinese railway workers’ camp in Washington Territory, 1873. A young man called Chin-Ah-Kin gets the job of returning her to her own community – and so begins a mystical journey, by turns brutal, weird and lyric. True-life news snippets between the chapters reveal that the real north-west of 1873 was every bit as surreal as the events of the story. Profound, disturbing and mysterious, this is a novel about the first encounter with an alien intelligence that goes far beyond genre.
9. Light Music by Kathleen Ann Goonan
In some ways, Light Music is a post-catastrophe novel, where an ensemble of characters discovers how shockingly the world has been changed by a bizarre cosmic plague. But more than that, it’s a tour of the consequences of Lynn Margulis’s radical thinking on evolution. This is how we could see ourselves if we weren’t Darwin’s slaves: every self a community, every human being a symbiote city, a node in the richly permeable network of life on Earth. But there’s also a vision of a perfectly possible and daunting future. What happens when our organic, wireless, data/DNA information networks are so pervasive, so interpenetrative with the solid world, that we’re just part of the software?
10. Natural History by Justina Robson
There was a time, not so long ago, when I was about the only British woman novelist active in science fiction. In spite of Mary Shelley we’re extremely rare birds, and always have been. But it’s not for want of talent. Look out for Molly Brown, Liz Williams, Stephanie Swainston (and excuse me for any names I’ve missed). Justina Robson is almost a veteran now with two nominations for the Arthur C Clarke award, for her near-future Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi. Her latest novel is a departure into deep space and esoteric hard science, leavened by acerbic humour and leftwing politics. It’s one of the big UK SF books of the year, and an optimistic conclusion for my top 10.