Female Leads

I’m back from Conflux–my first big scale speculative fiction literary conference–and it was great. I’m not going to give  a full rundown of it here, because that would basically consist of me listing a the names of all of the new and established Aussie spec fic writers that I met and trying to find adjectives to describe them that mean ‘awesome’ and ‘friendly’.

On Saturday I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of female leads in speculative fiction and the final question that moderator Sean Williams asked was for us to name our favourite books featuring female protagonists. For some reason my brain was stuck in the world of superhero comics (I had earlier attended a panel on that topic) and all I could manage was “whatever Gail Simone writes”. Mainstream comics, it must be said, offers a disappointingly sparse selection and my delivery was a bit gloomy, I fear. But as soon as the next panellist began to speak a variety of prose works came to mind and I thought I would share a few of them here.

William Gibson’s Blue Ant Trilogy offers two of my favourites: Cayce Pollard, the brand-allergic consultant from the first novel, and Hollis Henry, the rockstar-turned-journalist protagonist of the second two books (I’m sure this latter comes as no surprise to readers of mine.) Supporting character Heidi Hyde–the drummer in Hollis’ defunct band–is just as good a character, I think.  These characters are strong and vulnerable and surprising and smart and utterly believable.

Lissa, the librarian hero in Narrelle Harris’ vampire anti-romance The Opposite of Life, is a great example of writing against the genre tropes. Lissa is a normal girl, a bit geeky, a bit nosey, trying to cope with underemployment and a series of family tragedies. When the guy she’s interested in is murdered she is drawn into the mystery by Gary, a socially retarded engineering student-turned vampire. Lissa isn’t waiting for some dark prince to turn her into a supermodel action hero; she just wants to live her life in a world were her friends are not randomly murdered. Lissa is a smart, active protagonist with a wry sense of humour. You’d swear you knew her.

US Marshal Karen Sisko from Elmore Leonard’s Miami crime novel, Out of Sight is another favourite of mine. I did enjoy the J. Lo/Clooney movie (I believe there was also a short-lived TV series) but the book version is the best. Sisko is tough, funny, loyal and ultimately unforgiving. To my mind makes her one of the most interesting characters in crime fiction–period.

Anaplian, from Iain M. Banks’ Matter, is another great female lead. Anaplian is a princess from a backwater planet who becomes a highly-trained espionage agent for a greater galactic civilization, the Culture. When her father, the king, dies, Anaplian returns home to pay her respects–but the intrigues over the succession are only a small part of a conspiracy that spans the galaxy. There’s a wonderful moment where Anaplian looks the society that marginalized her and realizes that, with her training and enhanced physiology, she can defeat any warrior in the kingdom. She could raise an army and take it for her own… and it wouldn’t even be difficult for her. But that’s not how the Culture operates.

Jason Fischer’s first novel, Quiver, features an excellent female protagonist in Tamsyn Webb. A headstrong, resourceful, sarcastic heroine who is very handy with a bow and arrows, now matter how crazy her adventures across the zombie-infested planet, Tamsyn is a very convincing portrayal of a teenage girl. She makes mistakes that cost the lives of more than just her friends, but she tries to do what’s right and she keeps on going, despite the unrelenting horror and loss.

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