Science fiction started as a game for boys, full of rocket ships and death rays. Soon girls wanted to play, too (and the rules of the game changed accordingly). Then one day, circa 1970, a new type of kid appeared on the playground. Characters that were genderless, multi-gendered or other none-of-the-aboves cropped up in major works by such colorful eminences as Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. Certainly sf was not alone in attracting writers who wished to explore the frontiers of gender. But, uniquely, it allowed such writers to create new paradigms of sexuality and then to field-test them in the tough terrain of fiction, where, as we know, the rules of probability hold merciless sway.

The Third Sex

Mission Child, the third novel by Maureen F. McHugh (Avon, $20), earns a place of honor among the already distinguished titles in what might be termed the literature of the Third Sex. Its setting is a human colony on a remote planet much like Earth -- specifically, like the outlands in Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth -- and its protagonist is an adolescent girl (at least as of Chapter One) named Janna, whose people resemble the reindeer-herding Sami of northern Scandinavia. The plot is driven, all too believably, by a clash of cultures: our own McWorld-vs.-Jihad dilemma recast as a conflict between multigenerational colonists like Janna, whose technology is primitive and "appropriate," and recent arrivals from Earth, brandishing flashy consumer goods along with that curse of colonialism, Second Amendment-style: the firearm.

In alarmingly short order, Janna's family is murdered, her village -- a monument to good intentions -- burned to the ground, and the heroine forced to disguise herself as a young man by way of self-preservation. Harrowing adventures ensue. Janna, now calling herself Jan, spends some time in a refugee camp that has the unsettling ambiance of a CNN feed, where she meets a wonderful character known only as "the old shaman." The shaman sees through her cross-dressing and finds something deeper there than mere disguise: a displacement of identity, a soul-shift -- topics on which shamans possess a certain professional expertise. He instructs "her" (we have entered a land without pronouns here) on the art of being a boy, and author McHugh deftly hits several nails on the head: how beings of the male persuasion stand, speak, assert themselves, sip hot beverages. Before long, Jan is able to say quite honestly that she is no longer a girl yet not a boy either. "I am just myself. Just Jan." It rings true.

In prose as clean and precise as a surgical instrument, Mission Child tells a story both deeper and broader than that; but the problem of finding one's place in a vast and rapidly changing world, a place of terror and beauty, lies at the heart of this splendid book.

A New Kind of Fusion

Sheri S. Tepper, author of the classic Grass and other novels, has now given us the literary equivalent of gene-splicing. Her new book, Singer from the Sea (Avon/EOS, $24), is an ambitious hybrid that blends (or at least juxtaposes) traits from sources as disparate as Jane Austen, Frank Herbert and Margaret Atwood, not to mention some well-known bumper stickers. No writer of lesser vision or dexterity could have conceived, let alone carried off, such a project. If the result seems ungainly or even unnatural, this is not so much a failure of Tepper's artistry as a consequence, perhaps inevitable, of carrying a bold experiment to its logical extreme.

A woman's lot is not a happy one on the watery planet of Haven. Girls are drilled in meekness and subservience; young women are forced into ghastly marriages; new mothers die mysteriously before their babies are weaned. The planet itself is a private-sector hell, governed by a set of covenants laid down by its original investors, like a gated community in the sky. Though its inhabitants are a diverse lot, drawn from various cultures of Old Earth (which has succumbed to biospheric infarction), power and wealth lie firmly in the grip of a bunch of old -- and I mean old -- white guys.

Our heroine is a bright, plucky young woman named Genevieve. We meet her at a school for girls run by one Mrs. Blessingham, who instills in her a drawing-room practicality: "The poor are like foxes: they need intelligence in order to survive. The rich, however, have power; they don't need good sense." Genevieve, like young Paul Atreides, has inherited vast but enigmatic powers of a spiritual kind. Haven, like the planet Dune, has a desert where a precious commodity, unique in the universe, is to be found, and a population of mighty but seldom-seen leviathans. There is secret wisdom here, passed down from mother to daughter. There are noble people of color with a prophetic mythology. There are dudes with Germanic names, heavy weapons, and no respect for endangered species. And somehow -- you know this early on -- all these elements are destined to come together in the person of Genevieve, who might be able to save the world if she can only learn to assert herself.

Tepper's prose is polished, her manner of storytelling practiced and graceful. She has a deft hand at character-drawing and a sharp eye for detail. Paradoxically, these talents sometimes work against her in this novel, which is refined and reflective when rawness and rough edges might have been advantageous. Her themes of ecological awareness and feminism are admirable, though their very worthiness often gets in the way of their dramatic impact. We know the menfolk of Haven are bad because they treat their women with contempt (and worse). But what else do they do, what roles do they play in this story? It almost seems not to matter. The plot turns upon a biochemical revelation that might be a wry narrative joke -- everything really does come down to hormones -- but seems at cross purposes with the clear meaning, or meanings, of the novel: Celebrate Diversity, Save the Planet, Be All That You Can Be.

Here's the Story

British novelist Storm Constantine is preceded, these days, by her reputation as the Dark Queen of literary Goth, the Anne Rice of the pierced-nipple set. On the strength of The Oracle Lips (Stark House, Eureka, Ca., $45), a collection of 23 stories and one poem, I would say that the reputation she really deserves is that of a fine, underappreciated writer.

The stories here, spanning Constantine's career, were written mostly for small genre magazines and for special-interest anthologies. They vary in subject matter and in relative strangeness, although certain motifs recur: dangerous angels; lovely, long-haired boys; solitary young women; forbidden knowledge; worlds that are at once ancient and futuristic; and the term "reptilian," employed especially in the context of a particular, non-human smell. Constantine's titles suggest the ambience of pleasurable if often fatal decadence that pervades these tales: "Sweet Bruising Skin," "Panquilia in the Ruins," "Angel of the Hate Wind." Some of these stories are truly beautiful, and some are truly unsettling; the very best, like "The Time She Became" and "Blue Flame of a Candle," are both.

Constantine provides a brief introduction to each work. Her comments evince a modest, thoughtful, engaging personality, though now and then the talons come out, as in her summary dismissal of the cyberpunk movement: "This was yuppy sf, obsessed with technological gadgets and the ultimate in cool." Of greater interest to her fans will be her discussion of the links between these stories and novels like Stalking Tender Prey and Scenting Hallowed Blood.

Michael Moorcock contributes a brief, quirky introduction to this volume, which has been published in a signed and numbered edition of 1,000 copies. I hope it will find its way to the mass market before too long. Constantine deserves to reach an audience beyond the borders of Goth Nation.

Creating a Universe

I confess an aversion to packaged literary products: "shared-world" anthologies, media spinoffs, books-for-hire based on plot sketches by famous writers. But this, undeniably, is a classy one. Robert Silverberg has recruited a dream team of sf superstars -- Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Haldeman, Orson Scott Card, David Brin, Dan Simmons, Nancy Kress, Frederick Pohl, Gregory Benford, Anne McCaffrey, Greg Bear, and player-coach Silverberg himself -- and asked each of them to revisit the fictional universe for which he or she is best known and, as Silverberg puts it, "to write a short story or novelette that explores some aspect of their famous series that they did not find a way of dealing with in the books themselves."

It's hard to make any global statements about the resulting Far Horizons (Avon/EOS, $27.50), except to note that it marks an ironic culmination to a journey that began, for some of these writers, with innovative multi-author anthologies like Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Michael Moorcock's New Worlds. You never knew what to expect in those early collections. In this one, by contrast, you know almost exactly what to expect. The worlds are aged and the visions safe. You just have to hope that these old pros can still pull off a surprise or two.

Well, they can, of course -- though the surprises here are not always happy ones. To accentuate the positive, Joe Haldeman has performed a remarkable feat in his neatly titled "A Separate War," which achieves both the punch and the commendable brevity of his Vietnam-era novel The Forever War. Nancy Kress's "Sleeping Dogs" is a fine story, period. Ursula K. Le Guin has gamely served up a fresh tale from the universe of Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed (among others), though I'm not sure readers unfamiliar with her oeuvre will find "Old Music and the Slave Women" easily approachable. The same reservation applies to Gregory Benford's "Hunger for the Infinite," a sort of lost episode in his long-running account of the struggles of humanity to survive in a brutal galaxy overrun by mechanistic "life." Like such novels as Across the Sea of Suns, Benford's long story is both disturbing and strangely awe-inspiring. Nothing of the kind can be said about Orson Scott Card's "Investment Counselor," a trivial addition to the never-ending Ender story; nor about Anne McCaffrey's "The Ship That Returned," which prolongs a saga that already has been franchised through several co-authored sequels.

The most melancholy point of the collection, however, is Frederick Pohl's paragraph-long recollection of the honors he received for his novel Gateway, published in 1977. That was a good book, all right. "Far Horizons" is, when you think about it, a pretty apt title for a volume that makes even its own contributors look wistfully back across a landscape traversed by starry-eyed young explorers many, many years ago.

Richard Grant's novels include "In the Land of Winter," "Tex and Molly in the Afterlife," and the forthcoming "Kaspian Lost."