The Future Females Craft for Themselves in Science Fiction
The future is ours to sculpt; we have the power to choose what we become in the eras to come by the power of our pen. In fiction, we use stories and words as a playground, imagining those wildest dreams that before just lived in those clouds parked above our heads. Equal rights, alien compounds exclusively for women, and a society sans men. In some cases, female authors writing in the science fiction genre sculpt powerhouse women bulldozing their way through society and in other cases, almost suppress their sex even more in a future that has yet to take place. By keeping us in the rigid status society has built for us, are these authors saying that we are unable to move forward or are they falling behind their writing companions who imagine the futures we strive for? Through writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, we are given glimpses of our possible future as women and in some cases, we are given an ideal place in society to dream of until we finally obtain that goal. In other cases, we are almost written completely out of the story. Female authors in science fiction were finally taking the right to use their imaginations to craft and imagine a future for their sex whether these be fantastic notions or very plausible outcomes and not every woman imagines the same “happily ever after”.
The interesting aspect of the genre of science fiction is its ability to represent issues in the current society in a way that makes them easily digestible. Society might be battling equal rights for all races and a science fiction novel will incorporate space travel and extraterrestrial beings that might seem like pure entertainment but is actually social commentary. The various female authors that will be explored in this essay all use their literature as a means of commenting on their current social atmosphere and to use the medium of the novel to prepare their readers for futures that may be just around the corner. They did this even in a world that was not quite ready for their fiction. In his book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-196, Eric Leif Davin opens his book with a quote from Shawna McCarthy, an editor in the 1980s, said that “Once upon a time, “Back in the old, old days…there were no women in science-fiction. They didn’t read it, they didn’t write it, and they certainly didn’t star in it…For some reason (no one really knows why…), in the mid-to-late 1960s, this situation began to change.” (Davin 1) The reason women were pushed out of science fiction by the men who dominated the genre and when did break through into the fiction that pushed them out, they were oversexualized and contained in the role of side characters.
To begin to comprehend the issues of the types of women represented in science fiction by women, one must first dive into the issue of underrepresentation of women in the genre as a whole. Women have historically been misrepresented and suppressed in various societies and one of the main issues of the twentieth century was giving women the same rights and representations as men. First and second wave feminism ripped through societies and in science fiction, women began publishing their works but due to the historically male dominant genre, this task was a difficult one. In his work Partners in Wonder, Davin points out that “…the real hurdle early SF [science fiction] writers faced was not alleged bigotry in the science fiction community, but the buried bias of sexism in society at large.” (Davin 33) The biases and sexist behaviors were not rooted in the genre of science fiction originally, but in society and until women could carve an equal place for them in society, it was going to be difficult to carve an equal space in a genre dominated by white men.
In Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, readers are launched into the ignorant mind of Genly Ai, a male native of the planet Terra as he navigates the foreign planet of Gethen, an androgynous society where Genly is seen as a “pervert” because he is male every day of his life whereas the natives of Gethen live in an androgynous state until they are in “Kemmer”, a reproductive state where they may take on the traits of either male or female for a few days of the month. In this world that Le Guin crafts, women are still present but only on a planet that is several lightyears away. The characters in the novel are both male and female, taking on traits of both sexes. Genly navigates this world, albeit in a sexist manner which is not uncharacteristic of the time in which this novel was written, trying to become used to these people so very unlike the people of his planet. Her choice of creating a world with predominantly androgynous characters begs the question of why, in a futuristic imagining of the world, would we completely meld the female sex with the sex that has continuously suppressed our rights and needs? Not only have we dealt with them viewing us as property, but now we are the same being. More ironic is the fact that Le Guin in her introduction to the novel said, “In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed…thought and intuition can move freely within the bounds set only by the terms of the experiment…” (Le Guin xii) It would be assumed that when a female author is given a blank canvas to imagine any future for her sex which has been suppressed and thought of as lesser, she would take that opportunity to mold a future gilded in gold and crafted with every right that any female has ever dreamed of. Instead, females are almost completely written out of the story.
It can be argued that by choosing to create this society in a futuristic setting, Le Guin is arguing that society will eventually move past this notion of male versus female and will eventually evolve into one sex that no longer has these quarrels. No longer will one sex be more superior to the other and society can move beyond that age-old argument. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the only character that views women as lesser is Genly Ai himself. The people of Gethen have no choice whether or not they become female or male during their time in “Kemmer”; each will have an opportunity, in theory, to both birth and sire a child. Of course, there is a want to become mother at some point during their life, but the people of Gethen are both mother and father, sister and brother. Throughout the novel, Genly Ai pushes back against this way of living. Several times in the novel, he comments on the character Estraven’s “female tendencies”:
Thus as I sipped…I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious, and adroit. Was it perhaps this soft supple feminity that I disliked and distrusted in him?… For it was impossible to think of him as a woman…whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness…His voice was…scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s either… (Le Guin 12)
Here we see Genly Ai not only struggling against the fact that men and women are the same, but he is also looking at Estraven’s features as mainly female and during these observations, he blatantly says that with these feminine traits, Estraven lacked substance and these feminine aspects made Genly distrust Estraven. The Left Hand of Darkness was published in the late 1960s so these views of women were very characteristic of the time, but one would think that a female author, no doubt tired of the norms she must push against in modern society, would diminish these notions in her writing. She has a blank slate to write a fantastic future for her sex, but instead tendrils of sexism bleed their way into the story.
In an article review on a documentary about Ursula Le Guin that was published on The Guardian, she states that “What I’d been doing as a writer was being a woman pretending to think like a man … I had to rethink my entire approach to writing fiction … it was important to think about privilege and power and domination…” (Flood). The other side of the argument on the reasoning behind Le Guin choosing to write women out of the story, or moving beyond the idea of gender, is the authoress feels that there is no room to write “like a woman”. Females were just getting into the genre in a way that was more than just sexualized side characters and the space that was made for them was a small one that had very little wiggle room. To be successful in a genre dominated by men, you must think like a man in order to be successful, in theory. In Joanna Russ’s article “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”, Russ goes on the defense against Le Guin’s novel by pointing out that while Le Guin was aiming to bypass the societal standards we live by, she has to create an entirely new universe where women are not only equal to men, they are also men. Russ aptly states that “It’s the whole difficultly of science fiction…how to get away from traditional assumptions which are nothing more than traditional straitjackets…There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.” (Russ 208) As this essay points out, Le Guin was given the reins to create an ideal future for women and she felt, to do this, she had to imagine a new world instead of simply building upon the one we already live in. Science fiction is populated with women, mostly those constructed by men, and those that are present in the genre hardly represent the women of the future we strive for.
Russ also brilliantly points out in this essay that while science fiction very well may tackle the issue of men versus female by making them equals or a combined gender, they completely bypass the very issues in society where problems with equality come across the strongest, such as during the act of sex, childrearing, or marriage: “the real problems of a society without gender-role differentiation are not faced. It is my impression that most of these stories are colorless and schematic; the authors want to be progressive. God bless them, but they don’t know how.” (Russ 204) Perhaps living in a society where the notion of a female being the lesser sex is a normal thought, it is difficult to imagine a world where none of those problems exist. However if Russ, a writer living through second-wave feminism just as Le Guin did can see how disappointing Le Guin’s portrayal of women, or lack thereof, is, maybe Le Guin did females a disservice and instead of creatively petitioning for our freedoms, she in a sense created a different straitjacket for us to place ourselves in.
Russ, being a radical feminist, was constantly acting as the defensive to stereotypes present in science fiction and her arguments against works such The Left Hand of Darkness paved the dirt road for previous feminists allowing firmer groundwork for their already compelling arguments. In their book On Joanna Russ by Farah Mendlesohn, a British academic historian and writer on science fiction, Mendlesohn states that “she was not only a woman, but a feminist, and she demanded a better standard of science fiction texts and authors. The image of women, in Russ’s hands, is not just a “failing” (mostly located in SF’s past) to be rued and mentioned in passing, but is a central fault line in SF that, if addressed, would disrupt SF’s “business as usual.” (Mendlesohn 53) Science fiction during the 1960s was dominated by men and not much has changed in modern society; more and more women writers are rising and attempting to forge that future we all crave, but they are still the minority. Joanna Russ was a strong voice demanding that all fiction written about women in the genre should be represented of the future not only that we wish for, but that we deserve.
Science fiction has its norms and tropes that the writers and readers are comfortable with, but norms are there to be challenged and if women cannot have a comfortable place in society where they have equal rights then science fiction should be a place where that ideal place in society is crafted for them. Russ recognizes the comfort zone of science fiction and she was there to challenge it and demand that those comfortable places be destroyed; science fiction is a unique genre in which anything can be imagined so per Russ’s argument, why can’t a future of equality be imagined for women who have been deserving of it from the beginning?
Feminist writers have had a tough time from the beginning crafting strong female characters in genres that are not wholly accepting of them. Second-wave feminism, although progressively creating spaces for women to write, created a whole different box for women of color who were attempting to add to the conversation. This was a movement started by middle-class white women to fight for the rights of women. Unfortunately, their fight excluded women of color and due to this oversight, women of color felt they still had no place of equality, not only in society but also in the world of writing and reading. According to an article on a website titled “Ohio Humanities”, Sally Ann Drucker gives a clean definition to the movement that arguably rocked the genre of science fiction: “Second-wave feminism of the 1960s-1980s focused on issues of equality and discrimination. The second-wave slogan, “The Personal is Political,” identified women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand how their personal lives reflected sexist power structures.” (Drucker) Le Guin did arguably take on these power structures in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, because she completely omitted it from the story and created a new society where gender is not an issue. She questions sex and the normality of who gets to go through the bodily-altering process of becoming pregnant but by doing this, she had taken out the gender binaries that society lived with in the 1960s. In an ideal world, whoever wants to have a child may do so and any one person can have every lawful right, but in the world she crafted, women could not see themselves have these equal places in society because it was not society and they were not there.
Octavia Butler, a writer during the seventies is an author that adds to the population of women of color writers. Focusing on spinning narratives featuring strong female characters, Butler used her fiction as a means to escape her own life. As a young African American woman growing up in the fifties and sixties, Butler had enough diversity to overcome without even taking into account the many personal struggles she faced. In her review of Gerry Canavan’s work Octavia E. Butler, Nisi Shawl details the obstacles Butler had to overcome as a female growing up in a world where her take on life was hardly ever represented: “[she] withdrew into her imagination to escape a world at odds with her on so many fronts…she was larger than the accepted norm for females…socially, she was the daughter of menial workers…intellectually, she struggled to keep up with her classmates due to…dyslexia.” (Shawl 23) The struggles and obstacles that Butler had to overcome is directly reflected in the female characters she creates in her works such as Kindred. Instead of painting a portrait much like her own, she portrays not only an image of woman that is not often seen but one who is strong, capable, and has the ability to plow through anything.
Kindred follows the main character Dana as she is pushed between past and her present, slave times and 1970s America. Two turbulent periods for women of color as well as for African Americans. Constantly being transported back in time to ensure the survival of her Caucasian ancestor as he constantly gets himself into dire situations, Dana has to navigate a world that has become a past nightmare for her family and then deal with the consequences of having to save a man time and again who has proven to be the monster she has read about in her history books and been told about by her family who has grown up scarred by the monstrosities of 1800s America. The character Dana is not a shy woman working her way through her life but a strong-minded character who has been face to face with the problems her diverse background has brought her and overcome them. As a character involved in an interracial relationship, she recognizes the image the world paints of her and chooses to look beyond it. She does not let the obstacles that world chooses to place in front of her stop her from doing what she believes is right.
Readers continuously see Dana navigate a world that alien to her in its customs in a very unorthodox way. Instead of melding into the customs of the time, Dana is not afraid to hide the fact that she is an educated, black woman biding her time in a world where a woman was not granted a good education and woman of color was kept far away from anything that might place “dangerous” ideas in her head. Dana is not ignorant of how stupid her choice may be in being open about her education and throughout the novel, she recognizes her adamant spirit and choice to go beyond what is considered normal or safe. When describing her husband, Kevin, who is a white man she became close with at her place of work before marrying him, she details the connection the two of them share: “…against the advice of saner people. He was like me – a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” (Butler 57). Dana is a woman who will not be placed inside a box and she is attracted to those who share these ideals. It is remarkable Butler paints this strong, female character during a time when women’s rights were a hot topic and instead of focusing on strong females in general, she focuses on strong females of color. Butler grew up in a shadow created by the drawbacks in her life such as her weight and learning disability but through characters such as Dana, she paints women of color who are resilient, powerful, and intelligent. Butler may have been prompted to sculpt a character like Dana because she possessed qualities Butler yearned for but instead of seeing those qualities in the mass marketed white character, she placed them inside a woman who proudly wore skin her same color.
Butler’s novel, although arguably incorrectly marketed as science fiction, adds to the conversation of female writers in science fiction but in a different manner than Ursula Le Guin. Not only has Butler crafted a strong female character capable of navigating a strange world without the help of a male character, but she has also created a character of color. Science fiction is a genre that is so focused on the strangeness of things humanity has yet to discover, it completely passes over the parts of humanity that are already considered “strange” and different by the fact that they are simply the minority in a world that is painted white. Minorities are more often than not underrepresented in the genre of science fiction.
Science fiction is a genre that is a means of pointing out the problems of current society in a way that is easily digestible and entertaining for those watching. On the surface level, the book or movie may be about time travel but in fact, it is a strong piece of social or political commentary. In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Butler uses Dana’s situation of traveling between the two periods to comment not only on the rough socio-political atmosphere of the slave times of 1800s America but also on her current time, 1970s America:
‘“What am I going to do?”
I hesitated, shook my head. “I can’t advise you. It’s your body.
“Not mine.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “Not mine, his. He paid for it, didn’t he?”
“Paid who? You?”
“You know he didn’t pay me! Oh, what’s the difference? Whether it’s right or wrong, the law says he owns me now…”’ (Butler 167)
In this scene between Dana and another character Alice, the two women are discussing the ownership behind not only being enslaved by another person but also the ownership that men possess when it comes to women. Alice has been enslaved and forced into a romantic relationship with a white man, but the words she is saying can be applied to any woman in marriage from slave times to even up to the 1970s. The feminist fight is one that demands that women hold the same power in marriage as men, among many other things. This novel is full of charged language that starts a conversation that has remained muted within the science fiction genre. In Butler’s case, women are no longer fighting to remain center on the stage, and they are now being given the chance to speak their minds in a genre that continually places them in positions where their opinions are viewed as invalid or unnecessary. The plot is no longer simply about men saving the human race or figuring out the big glitch, the problem is now in the palms of a woman and not just any woman, but a woman of color.
One very unique aspect of Butler’s novel is not only the plot of traveling back and forth between slave times in America and the 1970s but also that the main character of the novel is in an interracial marriage with a white man. This makes the plot of the novel that much more charged as our main character is not only battling with the problems that exist in enslaved America, but she is having to explain the problems to her white husband who does not have these scars embedded in his past. It scares Dana how easily her husband, who fought for their interracial marriage, can adapt to a time where his people enslaved her people.
There is a point in the novel where Dana and Kevin are watching slave children play but instead of playing your typical hide and seek, they are pretending to sell each other at an auction and while Dana views this as extremely problematic, Kevin brushes it off as children simply playing a game. This proves just how different the mentality between the two characters is, especially when Kevin comments that enslaved America could be a great time to live in and explore: “ ‘This could be a great time to live in,” Kevin said once, “I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it…”…He looked at me strangely. He has been doing that a lot lately.” (Butler 97) This is a poignant point in the novel that points out the two starkly different situations of the two characters and starts a conversation between two races that is necessary. Butler uses her novel to open the conversation for African Americans to share the struggles they have been dealt with and how, although those instances took place in the past, those scars still show today, and she uses the science fiction novel to add to that conversation.
Octavia Butler is a starkly different writer when you compare her work to Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness focusing on an androgynous society and not exclusively on women and Kindred whose storyline follows a woman’s predominantly. The two novels tell different stories but for female authors of their times writing in a genre dominated by men, the two females have very different things to say solely based on the writings they produce. Le Guin can be seen as failing her sex and using the genre as a cop-out to escape the problems her sex is facing in the present-day and Butler can be seen as not only addressing the issues she faces as a woman but she expands the conversation to include her problems as a woman of color.
Margaret Atwood, another female science fiction writer still making waves today, is the author of New York Times bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale. Her novel details the life of Offred, forced to give up her given name in a society with declining birth rates run by a religious organization. The society is broken up by the women who still have the ability to conceive and those who do not, forcing those who can to be in service of those who do not in order to populate the new world known as Gilead. The novel tackles the reproductive rights of women as well identity and ownership. (Atwood) There is a chilling instance within the novel where the character Offred remarks, “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” (Atwood 33) This state they are forced to live in is nightmarish, but if they are placed in it long enough, they will succumb to it because there will no longer be the wish that it will quickly pass or there will be justice. How far from this world are we truly? In a world where your reproductive rights are taken and sold as a commodity, how much value is taken away from the actual woman in place of her ability to populate? The issue was not one solely created from Atwood’s mind and like many of the science fiction novels previously discussed, Atwood is using her novel as a commentary on the current social atmosphere at the time of this novel’s publication.
Being a female writer in the 1980s came with challenges just as it did in any preceding decade. Margaret Atwood was quoted in Bouson J. Brooks’s detailing that “as Atwood soon discovered, as she confronted the disabling myths of the woman writer current at the time, “the advantages of being a Canadian woman writer were canceled out by the disadvantages of being a woman writer,” for according to the socially constructed roles open to the female artist in the late 1950s and early 1960s, women writers were doomed to suffer…” (Bouson 7) Progressing from the 1960s to the 1980s, it would be assumed the roles of women and their rights would progress with time, but unfortunately time was moving faster than society because during this time, women were still battling to maintain an equal place in the workforce, the home, and in society. In her fiction, Atwood created spaces that were just as controlling and restrictive as she found them in society and through this, shared a message on the treatment of women and their rights.
During the 1980s, second wave feminism was still raging on and women were becoming more sexual and open about sexual relationships and reproductive rights. The Handmaid’s Tale takes these very real battles and puts them into a context that is more nightmarish and alien. The average reader sitting down to read Atwood’s novel would not dream of a world where women were imprisoned in order to populate the world, but yet with the arguments that were being made against the use of birth control and the more talked about issue of difficult conception, this narrative was not incredibly far from reality. Women’s rights were being talked about as if they were a commodity versus natural rights belong only to the woman as an individual. Margaret Atwood argues that these are rights that are not to be sold or modified to satisfy the needs or wants of society. There is a point in her novel where the main character Offred in in the bath thinking about how she viewed her body before she was placed in this role of “populator” and how she views it now: “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will…There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. Now the flesh arranges itself differently.” (Atwood 73) Her body is no longer a free object that she has sole control over. She is forced into a role and forced to submit to meet the needs of society. If our world were to reach a means where we could no longer populate or a rising class were to take control to regulate how we populate, this very scenario Offred is in could become real. Her views of her body are not very far from our current reality and they are not only applicable to where she is; they can be applied to women who have been victims of race, who struggle with body dysmorphia, and many other issues. This is not a single view that a single woman in a fiction novel possesses. It can be felt across many means and it is a reality for many women.
These three authors were given a pen and paper and a chance to write down a future they imagine for their sex. Not all futures contain our hopes and dreams, some contain nightmares and as explored in this essay, sometimes the future we as women imagine for ourselves is not an ideal one. Sometimes our future means revisiting the past to acknowledge scars that are still healing and other times, our future is no unique and far from our normal realm of thinking that we are almost no longer a part of the picture. Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Margaret Atwood are prominent female authors within the genre of science fiction and all three have taken the genre and given it a different shape and purpose. Science fiction is a genre where we are free to explore the future realms and to imagine what is next for the human race. Women, who were just breaking through on the scene of the genre, began to take the blank page and future that science fiction provides for them and craft what might be next for us all. This genre can be uniquely used as a means to share a social proclamation and to warn against what might be next for us as humans or singularly as women. Each authoress has taken the genre and used it in a different way to share their purpose and each one made waves. Le Guin gives us a future that even in the year 2019 seems far, far away. Butler tackles an issue from her present, which is now our past, that we are still battling to recognize properly today, using time travel to the past to explore past wounds. Atwood creates a nightmarish future that might not be far from our reality. Each purpose they served had a message and each message was delivered using means of space, time travel, and dystopia. Each woman imagined a different future for us, and using the medium of a science fiction novel, they have placed these futures into the hands of their readers with messages to adhere to and remember. They have all warned us and have done their best to prepare us for what might be next because although some of these imagined futures may be lightyears away, some might be just around the corner and the purpose of these women was to share a message and a warning and better prepare their female comrades for what might be around the corner.
Atwood, Margaret. Handmaids Tale. Penguin Random House, 1986.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “Career, Life, and Influence.” Margaret Atwood. Salem Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=500746&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.
Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965.
Lexington Books, 2006. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=623384&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Drucker, Sally Ann. “OH Blog and News.” Ohio Humanities, Apr. 27AD, http://www.ohiohumanities.org/betty-friedan-the-three-waves-of-feminism/.
Flood, Alison. “Ursula K Le Guin Film Reveals Her Struggle to Write Women into
Fantasy.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/30/ursula-k-le-guin-documentary-reveals-author.
Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Berkley Publishing Group, 1969.
Mendlesohn, Farah. On Joanna Russ. Wesleyan, 2009. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=335118&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Russ, Joana. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Criticism: an Anthology of Essential Writings, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017, pp. 200–210.
Shawl, Nisi. “The Genius Octavia Butler.” The Women’s Review of Books, no. 6, 2017, p.22. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.522044233&site=eds-live&scope=site.