Request number two from my friend L:
Any books where a queer woman protagonist is a scientist of some kind and that’s not used as a shorthand for her queerness?
Well this is a toughie. When I tried googling some key search terms, I found this interesting Autostraddle article on how queer women scientists are as hard to find as unicorns. Hmm, if real-life ones are hard to find, how hard are they going to be to find in fiction? Also, because the term “scientist” is close enough to science, during my searches I found a whole whack of resources on queer women in science fiction, which is awesome, but not what I was looking for.
I had a few false starts, too with this question. L, I know you had mentioned hearing about a book from the now sadly defunct Queer Books Please podcast with a scientist character. I managed to track it down: it’s The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. There is a geologist in that book, but she’s unfortunately not the lesbian character, who is a musician. Rats!
I’m intrigued by this idea of “shorthand for her queerness” because I’ve never heard of science being used that way before! As far as I can tell, none of these books that I found fall into that category at all.
I’ve really only got two full books I’ve read that I can heartily recommend. The first is Y: The Last Man, a comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. One of the three main characters is Dr. Allison Mann, a geneticist and scientific genius, whom humanity is now depending on for the survival of our species. No big deal. This series takes place in a strange sci-fi world where everything with an XY chromosome has suddenly dropped dead except one guy and his pet monkey. Allison is a totally bad-ass, smart, Asian-American lesbian. She was my favourite character in the series. Her gender probably falls under what I’d call chapstick femme and in comparison to other characters’ more masculine genders, I thought it was an unconventional and interesting choice to establish her as the self-assured lesbian. Later on in the series, Allison gets a really awesome girlfriend who’s an Australian pirate/sailor with an eyepatch. For serious.
Jeannette Winterson can’t help but write beautiful and strange stories and her novel Gut Symmetries, which features an English theoretical physicist who manages to fall in love with her American counterpart and then, his wife. It’s part bisexual love triangle, and part meditation on the nature of love and the world. It’s only fitting that two of the characters are physicists, studying and trying to discover how everything in the universe fits together. Look at this gorgeous excerpt:
Stella turned towards me and crumpled my heart in her hand.
‘Do you fall in love often?’
Yes often. With a view, with a book, with a dog, a cat, with numbers, with friends, with complete strangers, with nothing at all. There are children who grow up as I did, with the love clamped down in them, who cannot afterwards love at all. There are others who make fools of themselves, loving widely, indiscreetly, forgetting it is themselves they are trying to love back to a better place.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta has a scientist in one story, “America,” which is about a young woman who is studying water and oil spills (forgive me since I don’t remember exactly what kind of scientist). She’s trying to get a visa to go study in the US and join her partner. It’s only one story, but I did want to take the chance to plug this book, because it’s really great!
Oddly enough, this list about lesbians in cold places on goodreads that Danika from the Lesbrary made using resources from the Queer Books Please podcast was quite useful. I figured that one plausible reason authors might come up with for sending their characters to places like Antarctica might be that they’re scientists, and I was right. Most of these are your standard romance genre books, so don’t expect literary fiction L!
Ice Hole by Kiera Dellacroix is about a scientist falling in love with a commander in Antarctica while on a secret government mission. This story takes a paranormal turn! Melt by Robbi McCoy features a former student and teacher reuniting and falling in love in Greenland. The teacher is a glaciologist. Warming Trend by Karin Kallmaker also has a protagonist studying glaciers, this time in Alaska, and, obviously, falling in love. Colder Than Ice by Helen Macpherson features “Allison Shaunessy [who] is a woman on the edge. As an archaeologist with the Flinders Museum of Australasian Exploration, she and her team are racing against time to secure funding for an unprecedented excavation in Antarctica.”
I reached out on twitter while doing this search, and got some much-needed recommendations! Two folks, Megan Derr and Julia Alaric, both put in a word for Business Makes Strange Bedfellows by E. E. Ottoman, which sounds deliciously gothic. One goodreads reviewer calls it “Frankenstein meets Dracula with lesbians!” The main character is the Frankenstein, a scientist studying the arcane and occult field of resurrection in 19th century New York. When a monstrosity that she has created gets loose and begins to murder, she is forced to make a deal with a dangerous and manipulative vampire, who wants payment in a method other than cold cash.
Brooke Carr brought up Love by the Numbers by Karin Kallmaker, which is another romance, featuring a behavioural scientist who is thrust out of her anti-social comfort zone “[w]hen her academic tome is treated as a viral ‘love manual’ [and] her ecstatic publisher books her to appear all over the U.S. and Europe.” She needs an assistant, and ends up with this interesting character: “Lillian Linden-Smith needs this job. With a relentless TV lawyer and public mob still out for her blood for crimes committed by her “American royalty” parents, getting out of the country is her only hope for anonymity.” Love/hate at first sight, of course.
Pennance by Clare Ashton also looks great, albeit a very different kind of book. A quiet study of a woman—who’s a computer tech kind of scientist—dealing with the loss of a partner through a car crash and fire, Pennance is set in a “small introverted village in Cornwall [the U.K.].” What many readers remarked on in reviews of this book was the palpable emotional atmosphere Ashton creates, and how readers are steeped in Lucy the bisexual main character’s depression, isolation, and eventual slow-burning romance with a new neighbour. There’s also some polyamory in this novel!
Catherine Lundoff recommended two feminist science fiction books: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. A Door Into Ocean sounds like fascinating world building: “it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesis–there are no males–and tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighbouring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army.”
Nicola Griffith is a writer who’s been on my to-read list for ages, but I haven’t managed to read one of her books yet. Maybe Ammonite might be a good one to start with. I’ve heard nothing but high praise for her imaginative SF and historical fiction. Here’s the synopsis:
Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep–and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing…
Danika Ellis mentioned Little White Lie by Lea Santos, which looks like a fun, light read by and about a Latina lesbian who is a geneticist and who somehow gets tricked into appearing on a makeover TV show and falling in love with the make-up artist. Danika also told me about Saving Grace by Jennifer Fulton, featuring what sounds like a morally dubious “scientist [whose] her secret mission [is] to evaluate Moon Island for corporate purchase by a chemicals giant looking for a waste dump far from civilization” and Gulf Breeze by Gerri Hill, with a wildlife biologist doing environmental work for Habitat for Nature and becoming close with a wildlife photographer.
A few other friendly people on twitter recommended: Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein [two bisexual scientist characters], Stolen Time by J.M. Brink [lesbian scientist main character], Waking Up Gray [bisexual linguistic anthropologist] and crime novels by R.E. Bradshaw [queer criminal scientists], Ladyfish by Andrea Bramhall [lesbian biologist], When Dreams Tremble by Radclyffe [lesbian biologist], The Ghost Sister by Liz Williams [one scientist protagonist], and Ellen Klages’ short story “Time Gypsy.”
Thanks to the storm of folks on twitter who responded to my question! Literary queers are a pretty awesome bunch of people. Any more to add to this list, readers?
Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send me your LGBTQ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject.