An Introduction to Feminist Sci-Fi

Sci-fi is both speculative and predictive, but most importantly it is descriptive. The authors of feminist sci-fi have an uncanny ability to look beyond their historical context, and through careful construction of different societies, they’re able to shrewdly describe and reflect upon the modern world. As such, we strongly believe that exploring gender and feminist ideas through sci-fi is both instructive, empowering and most importantly fun!

Thus, here we have chosen our favourite creative and heuristic feminist sci-fi works, which we will be reviewing over the next month. These novels make clear that utopias can and do exist, but what must be remembered is that one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia –these authors astutely explore what would happen should the tables be turned – and in doing so they question the foundations of gender – asking boldly how much of what we think about gender is socially constructed and how much is inborn?

We start with the early feminist Sci-Fi writers, the likes of Ursula K Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness), Joanna Russ (The Female Man) and James Tiptree Jr (Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), who boldly ransacked the boy’s Sci-Fi toy box – stole their rockets and spaceships – and made them soar in their own imaginary worlds – It was one ‘big’ step for Sci-Fi and one giant leap for ‘womankind’.

Their legendary novels aroused a bright and blazing meteor shower of insightful and inventive feminist works – we will be reviewing novels by groundbreaking authors such as Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time), Nicola Griffith (Ammonite) and Joan Slonczewski (A Door to Ocean) just a few of the many writers that made a positive ‘impact’.

We strongly believe there is a feminist sci-fi novel for everybody – so to finish off our light-speed tour of the genre we review Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, an empowering children’s novel and a more recent, multiple award-winning work of sci-fi by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice).

So – without further ado – here are the authors that delivered sci-fi onto the doorsteps of the genres most alien life form – women.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin

‘The king was pregnant’

Published in 1969, Ursula K Le Guins, groundbreaking work of feminist and intellectual science fiction, tells the story of Genly Ai, a lone envoy, sent to invite the local humans of the icebound planet Gethen to join the Ekumen – an intergalactic coalition of humans.

After disembarking from his spaceship, Genly Ai finds a world where kings are pregnant and gender remains resoundingly unfixed except for once a month, in heat, when humans can choose male or female characteristics. We follow Genly Ai, in this genderless society, as he becomes drawn into the complex politics of the planet, finds love in unexpected places and tempts death in a treacherous escape across the glacial lands of Gethen.IMG_1600.jpg

Despite its feminist themes – Le Guin acquired a number of feminist critics – amongst their main outcries was a desire to see her write more courageously and explore gender in greater depth. However, for us it is the elegant subtly and ambiguity of this works that we adore, Le Guin gracefully weaves her gender-bending record of conscious into a poignant, poised and wholly immersive story of unconventional love and glacial adventure, so whilst our imaginations willfully loiter in the icy realms of Gethen, Le Guin is showering our subconscious with stimulating questions regarding gender – naturally creating the opportunity for self-directed conversation without surrendering to force and vulgarity.  We expect acts of courage from Le Guin – but she also asks us to be courageous – to plummet headfirst into her wintry Tolkien-esque creation and use her words as a guide rope in the snowstorm of gender inequality.

So, take a leap into the icy world of Gethen – whilst our own planet slowly heats up – there seems no better a time to enter its wonderful wintry embrace.

The Female Man – Joanna Russ

Published in 1975 – The Female Man is Joanna Russ’s best known novel – it is perfect for anyone looking for a less subtle analysis of gender, Russ with surgical scalpel in hand makes a cutting, invasive and sometimes bloody examination of genders stationary body. However, intertwined with her sharp and powerful social commentary is a story full of wit and charm which takes the time – and travels through it – to explore utopia, gender IMG_1601and the divided-self.

Russ’s gender exploration runs parallel to a multiverse SF plot; the ‘Many Worlds’ or ‘Multiverse’ concept is usually accredited to Hugh Everett III (1957), it argues that every trivial decision we make can create a different self and that time travel can be permitted between such parallel universes without causality. We follow what happens when Jeannine, Janet, Joanna, and Jael – four alternative selves from drastically different realities meet. Jeannine and Joanna are from alternate variants of the US, whilst Janet is from a utopian all-female world and finally Jael – the shadow self – the dark side – is an assassin from a planet raging war on men.

We hope you enjoy the Female Man – for those who have already read this novel, we highly recommend some of Russ’s other wondrous stories, including her tales about Alyx, a tough-minded and intelligent female assassin from the classical Greek period, We Who Are About To (1977) a story about stranded intergalactic tourists, Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic (1978) her children’s novel and How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) one of her acclaimed non-fiction works.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever – James Tiptree Jr

“Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too. There is no way I can be peacefully happy in this society and in this skin. I am committed to Uneasy Street. I like it; it is my idea that this street leads to the future, and that I am being true to a way of life which is not here yet, but is more real than what is here.”

James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon before her identity was revealed in 1977. It came as a shock to the Sci-Fi community who had willingly accepted Tiptree as male, because of ‘his’ all-male cast of protagonists and knowledge of stereotypically masculine fields, such as the intelligence service (Sheldon was in fact the first female US photo-intelligence officer – ‘I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation’). Tiptree was also the author to which the James Tiptree Jr award for science fiction or fantasy explorations of gender is named after. Thus, her works are an essential read for any fans of gender-bending fiction.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a quintessential volume of Tiptree’s dark and complex short stories and novellas, which all beautifully explore human nature, our perceptions, gender and sexuality. This volume includes the Hugo Award–winning 70s cyberpunk novella: ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’, The Nebula Award–winning short story ‘Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death’, the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning novella ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ and of course the story for which she is best known: ‘The Women Men Don’t See’.

Each of these captivating stories tackle both important feminist and societal issues, with ferocity and fervor, Tiptree writes originally about body politics, female alienation, consumerist culture, ‘the population problem’ and much more. Each story has its own unique sci-fi twist which in turn creates an exciting environment to discuss such issues.

For a long time, these enthralling tales were mostly available in out-of-print collections, yet now Tiptree’s ambitious stories have been assembled into one gorgeous volume. Thus, it’s a good time to get a copy of these captivating gender-bending works.

A Door Into Ocean – Joan Slonczewski

1986 – A Door Into Ocean – is Joan Slonczewski’s most groundbreaking work of both feminist SF and of world-building SF. As a biologist Slonczewski uses hard science to create an immersive watery world. For those that enjoyed the scorching desert planet, Arrakis, come to life in Frank Hebert’s, Dune, and the icy realms of Gethen in Ursula K Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness, Slonczewski’s watery kingdom, Shora, is their stupendous ocean equivalent.

Growing up in Cornwall, you are never far from the ocean, as children we were told that if we held a seashell, most often a conch shell, to our ear, we would hear the sound of the sea. For us, A Door into Ocean is the literary embodiment of a conch shell, Slonczewski’s world-building is so powerful, it’s almost as if you can hear the ocean as you dive into her ‘sea’ of words and take a ‘swim’ in the watery depths of Shora’s all-female pacifist society.

The story begins on Planet Valedon, a patriarchal and capitalist society where we are introduced to Usha the Inconsiderate and Merwen the Impatient, two alien moonwomen dressed in fine sea-silk, with webbed feet and hands and beautiful amethyst skin tinged by their violet ‘breathmicrobes’. Merwen and Usha are ‘lovesharers’ who come from the sapphire in the night sky – Shora – Valedon’s moon, a world whose sea has no shore. Shora is home to the Sharers – an all-female society whose sense of gender would probably now be referred to as pansexual. The Sharers form an ungoverned society who are highly advanced in the biological sciences, live in harmony with nature and are pacifists who showcase Gandhian techniques of passive resistance. As such this wonderful novel has strong ecofeminism and non-violent revolution themes.

We follow a host of wonderfully ‘human’ characters from wise Merwen and boisterous Lystra, to the endearing ‘male-freak’ Spinel, and the adaptable alien Nisi. We watch as a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world and send in an army, and when conflict erupts you find yourself entirely invested in the fates of Slonczewski’s beautiful cast.

We love that intermingled within this plot is a host of exciting biological topics, such as genetic engineering (‘lifeshaping’), divergent and convergent evolution, and the idea of living communication networks (clickflies and starworms). Further, we admire how Slonczewski seems to find an intersection between politics and biology, whereby she makes clear that much of politics can be explained in terms of human and animal biology.

There has been a small number of scathing feminist reviews regarding this novel, however we side with the majority and promote Slonczewski’s work as an explorative, empowering and balanced feminist text. We admire that ‘A Door into Ocean’ explores a culture where physical strength does not correlate with power, as it so often has in our own evolutionary and societal history, even in our current culture dominance by use of physical strength rears its ugly head through domestic violence and rape cases. Slonczewski studied non-violent resistance through the Quaker religion and the works of Gene Sharp (The Politics of Non-Violent Action: Top of FormThe Methods of Nonviolent Action), so we watch as the Sharers embark on a peaceful revolution using tactics that are littered throughout our own history, whether during the Arab Springs or WW2. Thus, Slonczewski demonstrates effectively that physical strength is only one of the facets of power, her all-female society shows us that self-understanding, non-violent resistance and a culture based on sharing can ‘fight’ physical force. Even the Sharer’s language (‘wordsharing’) reinforces their inability to accept any circumstance in which one being dominates another by force, in fact they belittle power itself: ‘Power is a sharing thing…the more power you hold, the more power holds you.’

All in all, this is a beautiful novel and to top it off the book itself is gorgeous!

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle

“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”

Published in 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time – is a fantastical and wholly imaginative tale featuring interstellar travel though space and time, ‘tesseracts’, alien planets, an evil disembodied brain, dark things that threaten to overcome the universe and most importantly an unruly Sci-Fi heroine!

Despite being a children’s book and a galaxy leapfrogging adventure – in 226 pages – of noticeably large font – this book explores Einstein’s theory of relatively, warns against communism, ‘is a work of Satanism’, a religious parable, an astute philosophical discussion, a response to the Cold War and has consistently made the list of frequently banned books. We love the depth that L’Engle manages to achieve in this simple and accessible tale, but we have primarily chosen this adventure-devouring coming of age novel for its feminist undertones and empowering heroine – some believe for them it planted the seeds of female empowerment – others even say ‘There are really two kinds of girls. Those who read Madeleine L’Engle when they were small, and those who didn’t.” (Cynthia Zarin’s New Yorker profile of L’Engle).

This remark is hardly surprising once you’re introduced to Meg Murray, the story’s boisterous, geeky, independent misfit with a dogged tenacity – who takes the fate of the universe into her hands when she sets out to find her missing scientist father.

Yet, Meg the grumpy heroine isn’t the only wonderful character in L’Engle’s Sci-Fi, there are precocious and psychic younger brothers (Charles Wallace), motherly eyeless aliens (Aunt Beast), Nobel Prize winning mothers (Katherine Murray) and a trio of shape-shifting ‘elderly’ ladies (Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which). All in all, this is a wonderful and empowering tale for all ages and a perfect bedtime read, we highly recommend.

Reviews for Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy), Ammonite (Nicola Griffith) and Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie) coming soon. To get email alerts for these reviews and other upcoming book reviews and articles, subscribe to the Snooks Books mailing list on the right-hand side of the page.

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