2012 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event: Catherine Lundoff: Lesbian Protagonists in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Jan 10, 2012 by

Portrayals of lesbian characters in science fiction and fantasy have a rich history, good and bad. Lesbian villains as well as lesbian characters who get killed off in the course of a book are still thick upon the ground in some portions of the genre. But there are lots of worthwhile reads that don’t fall into those patterns. The following is a quick overview of some of the books and stories where the main character is a lesbian who lives to fight or code, as the case may be, another day.

Science fictional and fantastical lesbian characters came into their own with the rise and growth of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Science fiction as a genre follows social trends as often as it predicts technological advances and this is one area where that plays out. Some of the most influential early works include The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Wanderground by Sally Gearhart and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. Bradley wrote a number of lesbian, gay and transgender characters in her Darkover series as well as in standalone novels. The Shattered Chain, with its women guides and warriors forging a new way of life on a patriarchal planet ruled by telepaths, was a coming out/coming of age novel for a lot of female fans. The Wanderground and Russ’ Whileaway stories both deal with all female societies run by lesbians, a theme that crops up often in other, later works.

All female cultures or cultures where lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships are the norm came into their own in the 1980s. Mainstream publishers took notice, publishing such fantasy novels as Elizabeth Lynn’s The Northern Girl and sword and sorcery epics like S.M. Stirling and Shirley Meier’s The Cage and J.F. Rivkin’s Silverglass novels. Small and medium-sized presses like Naiad and Lace published books such as Katherine Forrest’s Daughters of the Coral Dawn and Diana River’s Journey to Zelindar, both dealing with all lesbian societies.

The 1990s were the heyday of lesbian characters in mainstream science fiction and fantasy, coinciding with the popularity of the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena inspired a thriving online fanfiction community that in turn nurtured the talents of many writers, editors and publishers who went on to build today’s lesfic publishing and writing communities. Some significant mainstream sf/f titles and influential authors included Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends a tale of lesbian hackers set in a cyberpunk future, Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe, about a musician who goes to Faery to rescue her lover, Nicola Griffith’s science fiction classic Ammonite, Severna Park’s Speaking Dreams, and Laurie Marks’ Dancing Jack, a fantasy about a rebel leader turned ship’s captain.

Medium-sized and small presses contributed their share. St. Martin’s Press published Rachel Pollack’s Godmother Night, about a lesbian couple and their relationship with Death. Firebrand Books published Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, about an immortal African American lesbian vampire and Seal Press published Ellen Galford’s The Dyke and The Dybbuk, about an ancient Jewish demon and the contemporary lesbian who she haunts. Cleis Press published editor Pam Keesey’s acclaimed lesbian vampire anthologies, Daughters of Darkness and Dark Angels.

Many of the writers mentioned above continued writing lesbian characters into the 2000s and were joined by many new voices. Kelley Eskridge’s dystopian novel Solitaire, Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel’s Bending the Landscape series of LGBT short fiction and Hiromi Goto’s surreal Tiptree Award-winning novel The Kappa Child were all published in the early part of the decade. Lesbian science fiction and fantasy romances also became quite popular, particularly those published by presses like Bold Strokes Books. Some BSB sf/f titles include The Wild Hunt by L. L. Raand, the Everafter vampire series by Nell Stark and Trinity Tam, Shadow of the Knife by Jane Fletcher and Rebel’s Quest by Gun Brooke.

The last few years have seen a number of new titles from mainstream, LGBT presses and indie authors with new spins on lesbian characters. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey is about a genetically engineered freedom fighter in a near-future post-apocalyptic U.S./Mexican border town while Ash by Malinda Lo, is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts and Michael Merriam’s Last Car to Annwn Station draw on Norse and Welsh mythology respectively as the backdrop for the adventures of their lesbian protagonists. The heroine of Caitlin Kiernan’s horror novel The Red Tree is a novelist. Naomi Clark’s Silver Kiss has a werewolf returning to her estranged pack and investigating a murder while Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife is a lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth. In addition short fiction anthologies like Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic, Bitten by Moonlight and Sleeping Beauty, Indeed attest to a growing interest in short fiction with lesbian protagonists.

Since this is by no means an exhaustive list, for more fun with lesbian sf/f, check out the following bibliographies and award lists:


Catherine Lundoff is the award-winning author of Night’s Kiss (Lethe Press, 2009) and Crave (Lethe Press, 2007) as well as A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2011) and Silver Moon: A Wolves of Wolf’s Point Novel (Lethe Press, 2012). She is the editor of Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories (Lethe Press, 2008) and the co-editor, with JoSelle Vanderhooft, of the Rainbow Award-winning Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic (Lethe Press, 2011). www.catherinelundoff.com

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  1. My hope: That ebook publishers will more fully embrace LGBT voices and continue the history you outlined here, expending it into all genre fiction.

  2. What a great round up. There are some where that I haven’t heard of/read.

    Thank you.

  3. I don’t know why that came out as from “unknown,” but it’s from me 🙂 Myolen at gmail dot com.

  4. Thanks for the round up, Catherine. I’ve read several of these and loved them. Now I have more books to add to my TBB list. Yay!

  5. Everyone else said it, but it’s still true. Great round-up Catherine. 🙂 I love reading stuff like this! It gives me more avenues to explore in my search for great books.

  6. She

    Interesting post. Certainly have added more books to my reading list. I’ve never read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy but I’m always open to new books and authors.

  7. So cool to see what’s gone before and that there is new material being offered. Thanks for pointing out recommendations. I feel like I’ve been living under a rock with some of the readables I’ve missed.

  8. Fantastic overview!

  9. Thank you for this list. I fondly remember Darkover as a source of lesbian protagonists.

    I’ve posted a link to my LiveJournal; I’m sure my audience will like it. One my poetic series, “The Adventures of Aldornia and Zenobia,” has a pair of lesbians as the protagonists. “The Morose Mascot,” currently in microfunding, belongs to that series: http://ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com/2090178.html

  10. Great round-up. I can’t add anything to the list, but I definitely learned about some new and interesting titles. 🙂

  11. Like several other posters, I discovered some titles I’ve never heard of–thanx! However, wanted to point out that Stirling and Meier’s “The Cage,” while it works FINE as a standalone, is part of a series. To my knowledge, the other titles are “Snow Brother,” by Stirling, “Shadow’s Daughter,” by Meier, “Sabre and Shadow” by Stirling & Meier, and “Shadow’s Son” by Stirling, Meier, and Karen Wehrstein. IM(-H)O, all are quite worthy to stand alongside “The Cage.”

  12. A nice cheesy sword and sandals 80s era read is J.F. Rivkin’s Silverglass, which was followed by three more series novels. The covers make it clear the protag is a swordswoman with a sorceress ‘shieldmate,’ very Darkover-influenced.

  13. There’s also Jim C. Hines’ absolutely stellar Princess series from DAW (starts with The Stepsister Scheme). There’s one lesbian character (also a Person of Colour), a second character who appears a few times in the series and I *think* she’s either lesbian or pansexual (it’s never openly stated), there’s a second lesbian character in book three and book four has… ehhhhhh, I don’t want to spoil it.

    Definitely a great series though, one I’ve loved reading.

    Oh, and John gets my support for Sarah Beauhall/the Black Blade series. I absolutely love those books. And Sarah. *Especially* Sarah.

  14. Bronwyn

    Gael Baudino was the first lesbian author I ever read, and my first encounter with lesbian characters in fiction. I came across her when I was about 16 – even now many years later I still have a great fondness for her books.

  15. Thanks for all the great comments and suggestions everyone! And congratulations to Jean Marie who won the random drawing for a copy of my collection “A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories.” 🙂

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