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Originally published March 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 30, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Science fiction

Outsiders in a wild place

Most people will tell you that women write fantasy more often than science fiction. Perhaps this is because we're supposed...

Special to The Seattle Times

Most people will tell you that women write fantasy more often than science fiction. Perhaps this is because we're supposed to be highly intuitive and thus more comfortable in fantasy's magical realm than the coldly rational world of science. Yet "Frankenstein," the first modern SF novel, was written by a woman, Mary Shelley, in 1818. And three new books show that the affinity between women and science fiction thrives today.

Kirkland author Brenda Cooper made her debut with "Building Harlequin's Moon," her collaboration with hard science-fiction veteran Larry Niven. "The Silver Ship and the Sea" (Tor, 396 pp., $25.95) is her first solo effort, and it's a major contribution to the field.

Pitting genetically engineered war-orphans against the non-engineered humans who defeated their dead parents, "Silver Ship" illustrates what it's like to be an outsider with a depth of realism that could have been at odds with its far-future, off-Earth setting. But the planet of Fremont, wracked by quakes and teeming with exotically beautiful flora and fauna, some poisonous, some predatory, is so carefully drawn it provides a totally believable backdrop for the story.

And 17-year-old Chelo Lee, de facto leader of the orphans, provides it with a really likable central character as she deals with her emerging superhuman abilities, assaults by the natural humans who adopted her, and charges of murder against one of her engineered friends. Fast-paced and full-bodied, "Silver Ship" is character-driven hard SF at its best.

In contrast with Cooper's beginner status, Rebecca Ore's career as an author is well-established. She has written and published seven previous novels, six of them science fiction.

Ore's new book, "Time's Child" (Eos, 336 pp., $14.95) takes place 300 years in the future. Through the eyes of a 15th-century camp-follower and acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, a Viking warrior and a 21st-century computer hacker, we're introduced to a plague-filled world where sterility and scarcity exist side-by-side with time machines. These three unlikely survivors of experiments in time travel go beyond assimilating the shock of the new; they build their own time-machine to rescue others from the past.

Ore's lean prose perfectly captures Renaissance woman Benedetta's pragmatic viewpoint from the moment she wakes up in a fake afterlife, having been left for dead on an Italian battlefield: "Benedetta knew she wasn't in Purgatory when she saw a scab on the angel's knuckle." Fond of hot showers, fast at learning languages, Benedetta finds the future "scary and marvelous," much like her past. Ivar, the cynical young Viking, also fares well in Ore's hands. His adolescent rebelliousness is timeless, and comes across as clearly as his savage-hearted hope of having a woman's throat cut across his funeral pyre.

Oddly, it's Jonah Kirkpatrick, the 21st-century hacker, who is Ore's least sympathetic character, but all are believable, giving her readers flesh-and-blood anchors in a complex power struggle spanning multiple universes.

Susan Palwick also has a couple of novels under her belt, but "The Fate of Mice" (Tachyon, $218 pp., $14.95) is the first short-story collection to come out of her 20-year career. The book is more or less evenly balanced between SF and fantasy, ranging from the title story, the coming-of-age of a white mouse with a boosted IQ, to a horror-tinged retelling of "Cinderella" with the chilling title "Ever After."

Some of Palwick's tales refuse easy classification, like "GI Jesus," which recounts a modern medical miracle of untraceable provenance, and "Beautiful Stuff," the story of a vague but "scientific" process for reanimating corpses and the tawdry political ends to which one man puts the zombies he creates.

"Going After Bobo" combines mainstream literary sensibility with an all-too-plausible vision of coming applications for GPS and RFIDs, "radio-frequency identification" chips which can be implanted in pets — or people. "Gestella" subjects a loyal, loving werewolf woman to the remorseless logic of a life lived in "dog years."

Palwick uses both fantasy and science in her fictions, flinching from neither the rational nor the ineffable in her quest to write stories exploring the fate of all living things.

Nisi Shawl is co-author of "Writing the Other: A Practical Approach," with Cynthia Ward. She reviews science fiction for The Seattle Times.

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