Perhaps bolstered by the success of Hulu's television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale and perhaps because of the rising tide of anger, fear, and apprehension over and about what path to the future we seem to be on, there is a renewed groundswell of feminist science fiction in popular culture today.
We may be living in a new golden age of feminist science fiction (and of science fiction in general), but it is important to note and remember that feminist science fiction has never gone away. It has been an integral part of science fiction from the very beginning. The nature and the place of the conversation it has engendered and facilitated may have shifted depending on the era, but it has always been here.
Feminist science fiction has never gone away, but we have a damnable habit of forgetting those who have come before, especially those voices that were not among those few writers we still talk about decades later as if they were the only voices that mattered.
First and Second Wave Feminist Science Fiction
In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry on feminism, writers Helen Merrick and Lisa Tuttle point out that beginning in the late 1970's critics have considered "feminist sf within a longer history stretching back to Nineteenth-century Utopian works that arose as part of the movement for women's rights. Unlike the utopias of male writers, these fictions always question the sexual status quo and foreground the position of women"
Those early utopian feminist novels are considered part of the first wave of feminist science fiction. Like those early feminist utopias, the second wave of feminist science fiction also looked to question the "sexual status quo and foreground the position of women", but these later writers did so in ways that were far less optimistic and often far grimmer. The writers of the second wave often looked at issues and problems they saw in their present and pushed the ideas out as far as they could go to see what that might look like. The second wave of feminist science fiction was larger, louder, and left an indelible mark on the genre itself.
In her essay "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ" (originally published in Aurora, Issue 25), Jeanne Gomoll notes that
"It was not one or two or a mere scattering of women, after all, who participated in women’s renaissance in science fiction. It was a great BUNCH of women: too many to discourage or ignore individually, too good to pretend to be flukes. In fact, their work was so pervasive, so obvious, so influential, and they won so many of the major awards that their work demands to be considered centrally as one looks back on the 70’s and early 80’s. They broadened the scope of SF extrapolation from mere technology to include social and personal themes as well. Their work and their (our) concerns are of central importance to any remembered history or critique.”It is worth noting here that Aurora (originally titled Janus) was only the second feminist science fiction fanzine to be published (26 issues published between 1975-1990), the first being the very short lived fanzine The Witch and the Chameleon by Amanda Bankier (5 issues published between 1974-1976).
Some of the authors debuting during that second wave of feminist science fiction are giants and legends of the field, though even some of those may be better known simply by name and reputation than active and current reading of the works. There may be none bigger and more important than Ursula K. Le Guin. Her novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are right considered classics and masterworks. We won't list out the award recognition for every author in this introduction, but Le Guin is in a class by herself, having won 7 Hugo Awards (most recently in 2018), 6 Nebula Awards (not counting the one she declined in protest), 3 World Fantasy Awards, a staggering 22 Locus Awards, a National Book Award, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. We won't count the number of nominations Le Guin has received.
Ursula K. Le Guin is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to major feminist writers from the 1970's. In some ways Joanna Russ may be best known now for her literary criticism and for her nonfiction work How to Suppress Women's Writing. Of course, The Female Man is a title that nearly
every serious reader of science fiction has heard of, whether or not they have read it. Likewise, James Tiptree, Jr (Alice Sheldon) is another writer remembered more by name than by work (and for having the Tiptree Award named after her), though her story "The Women Men Don't See" is counted among the legendary works of science fiction.
This, of course, raises the question: remembered and read by whom? Readers today focused on the new and shiny and who are engaged in the impossible task of keeping up on the field likely are not reading the major writers of the 1970's and even beyond. After all, that is more than forty years in the past. How many important writers or films or songs from forty years ago have truly remained embedded in the public consciousness? Those paying attention to the history of the genre will know the writers who remained important and they will know those who did and who should have remained in the public conversation. Names like Margaret Atwood, Sheri S. Tepper, Octavia E. Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, Pamela Sargent, Eleanor Arnason, Suzette Haden Elgin, Marge Piercy, Angela Carter, Carol Emswhiller, Katherine V. Forrest, Donna J. Young, Jayge Carr, Joan Slonczewski, and Joan Vinge.
We asked "remembered and read by whom?" and it is a nearly impossible question. There is no true metric to know that a reader of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is not also a reader of Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time or that a reader of Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars is not also a reader actively working through the four novels of The Holdfast Chronicles from Suzy McKee Charnas. We recognize that when a list of major feminist science fiction writers is put together, there are certain names that frequently are mentioned and when the label feminist is dropped so are most of those writers.
These writers provide both a direct and indirect line of influence to so many important science fiction writers of today, feminist or otherwise.
Feminist Science Fiction Today
If the past of feminist writing is grounded in ways in which the future looks towards bleakness, what about the present of feminist futuristic and speculative writing? What are the futures we imagine for ourselves now that we’ve seen the ways in which the world has and, more importantly, has not advanced? In what ways has this shifted—do strides in one area override the lack of movement, the struggles, in another? Are the futures we imagine too bleak? Or are they not bleak enough? Not angry enough?
The feminist writers of now are imagining futures at once both bleak and filled with light. These futures seem to say: don’t imagine that it can’t get better, but do know that it probably won’t.
Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer imagines a future as constricting and smothering as the present, all while floating an undercurrent of hope---will love get us through? Can we fight what’s being crushed upon us? How do we do that? The album Dirty Computer ends on a rallying cry, the film that goes along with it ends on a note of devastation. This duality reflects the future of feminist sci-fi writing, which seems to balance every ray of hope with one of acceptance that the world rarely gets better.
In Lidia Yuknavitch’s Book of Joan—the future is bleak but hope can be found in a Joan of Arc like
In Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, the plantation era is reimagined in space in the story of Aster who works to uncover the mysteries of the ship they are on as well as the trauma and history of their own past. The novel not only talks about race in compelling ways, but also questions gender binaries and the rigidness of the male versus female dynamic. This is a novel that is not only filled with beautifully examined queerness, but also forces us to contend with the powers of language as both agent of freedom and agent of oppression.
Other writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, and more, struggle with many of the same questions. Their works imagine a future that could be brighter, but requires fight and strength and hope in order to get there. These futures are also not only the predominately white and straight feminisms of the earlier era. They are futures in which all sexualities, gender identities, and races are being represented. Even if the writing itself paints a bleak future, the hope can be found in the voices whose stories are finally getting the chance to speak these futures.
In her essay "For a Genealogy of Feminist SF: Reflections on Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction, 1818-1960", L. Timmel Duchamp argues for feminist science fiction as part of a grand conversation within (and beyond) the genre.
"It is my constant sense of our feminist-sf present as a grand conversation that enables me to trace its existence into the past and from there see its trajectory extending into our future. A genealogy for feminist sf would not constitute a chart depicting direct lineages but would offer us an ever shifting, fluid mosaic."We envision Feminist Futures to be a small part of that grand conversation. With this project we aim to explore just a tiny fraction of the monumental feminist science fiction that has been written. We have a particular focus in discussing some of the major feminist science fiction works of the 1970's and the 1980's as part of that second wave of feminist science fiction.
Through dossier reviews and essays, we will look at the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ and James Tiptree and Sally Miller Gearheart and Pamela Sargent and Suzy McKee Charnas and more. We expect to also touch on some of the more modern writers such as Nicola Griffith, Ann Leckie, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Kameron Hurley. We'll explore novels and anthologies and short stories. We'll have personal reflections and a look into the experience of attending Wiscon, the feminist science fiction convention.
We have so much planned, and even if we're able to hit the mark and write about everything we would like to, we're still going to miss so much. We are limited by the time it takes to put all this together, by just being unfamiliar with some major writers who we will then just miss. We know that Feminist Futures is only going to scratch the bare surface of feminist science fiction. We know that we're going to get some stuff wrong and we'll do our best to correct those mistakes. We also recognize that it is nearly impossible for a reader in 2018 to read a work from 1972, 1982, or even 1992 with the same cultural context with which it was written and by which it would have been understood by its contemporary readers. We are limited by the context of our own experiences and our own histories. We are ready for the challenge.
The exciting thing about Feminist Futures is the opportunity it has given us to visit and revisit some of these raw classics of the genre and push us to read more and wider than we might otherwise have done when focused on the new shiny. The ramifications for what we cover and talk about on Nerds of a Feather may well stretch far beyond the bounds of Feminist Futures.
The Dossier Reviews for Feminist Futures will have the following subheadings to focus our commentary.
File Type: Whether the work is a book, film, game, etcThrough the dossier reviews and essays, we look to engage with that grand conversation surrounding feminist science fiction and reflect on how some of those masterworks and seminal works of feminist science fiction are remembered today and how they are might be read by a modern reader.
Executive Summary: Plot summary
Feminist Future: How the work blends feminism with science fiction or fantasy.
Hope for the Future: Regardless of whether the work initially presents a feminist hellscape, does it also offer any sort of hope for a better world after? If so, how?
Legacy: The importance of the work in question
In Retrospect: An editorial commentary on how good / not good the work is from the vantage point of 2018.
"We felt as though we had become involved in a conversation - which was probably due to the texts themselves tending to be distinctly reflexive and dialogical and constantly demanding of their readers immediate reflections on what it means to be a woman in the world as it is and how different the world could become, depending on what women might do or become." - L. Timmel DuchampWelcome to Feminist Futures.
Beginning October 29, 2018, Feminist Futures will run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through Thanksgiving and possibly into December.
Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.
Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes