The evolution of feminist science fiction

Although perhaps seen as a masculine genre, science fiction is filled with the imaginings of women writers, who use its futurism to manipulate gender conventions, envision a utopia of equality, or warn us of frightening patriarchal realities. Over time, and corresponding with the progression of feminism, this subgenre has grown and tackled a range of interconnecting themes, such as race and environmentalism.

Mary Shelley is no doubt the mother of sci-fi, her novel Frankenstein (1818) signalling the beginnings of futuristic technology, artificial humans and scientific invention in fiction. The idea of machine becoming master is certainly relevant today, and Shelley uses this design to criticise the hubristic pursuit of innovation. Equally, though, Frankenstein’s focus on reproduction traces a perversion of the maternal role, which subverts ideals of female domesticity. Shelley therefore echoes the feminist ideas of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, through Frankenstein’s radical themes.

Another pioneer is Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Bengali short story, Sultana’s Dream (1905), which depicts a utopia where women rule the world: in ‘Ladyland’, men are trapped indoors, while women develop advanced technology that enables flying cars and labour-less farming. Through solar power and weather control, they create a peaceful society, where crime is eliminated and girls’ education is ensured. In 1915, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Hermand also promotes a non-violent, matriarchal civilisation, in which men died out 2000 years before, and women reproduce by parthenogenesis.

Gender is irrelevant in Ursula Le Giun’s wonderfully weird Left Hand of Darkness (1969), in which a human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Gethen, where he struggles to understand their culture. The inhabitants of Gethen are androgynous and ambisexual, and so Le Guin’s universe reveals the centrality of gender divisions in the present. Genly Ai attempts to categorise the Genethians by gender, but they do not understand his language; the separation from these human constructs allows Gethen to become a more equal society. Le Guin was presumably influenced by the second wave of feminism, which began in the 1960s, and aimed to implement equal rights and overturn patriarchal structures.

The Women’s Liberation Movement grew from the second wave, and its Wages for Housework campaign directly inspired Zoe Fairbairns’ novel Benefits (1979), in which a woman prime minister uses welfare benefits to force women back into the nuclear family to reproduce. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) envisions a similar dystopia: the totalitarian state of Gilead suppresses women’s reproductive rights and confines them to a subjugated existence.

With the development of climate fiction, or cli-fi, more science fiction authors began to engage with both feminist and environmentalist themes. Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower depicts a future apocalyptic society, ruined by poverty, chaos and inequality. Women fear sexual assault, slavery has returned and interracial relationships are stigmatised. Its protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has inherited a gift of ‘hyper-empathy’, which allows her to feel the pain of others, and ultimately create a new religion called ‘Earthseed’. This ideal of collective empathy with both people and non-human species, as well as the earth itself, could not be more relevant.

Race has also become a prevalent discussion in feminist sci-fi: Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (2018), for example, explores Igbo views on gender roles as well as the psychological difficulty of a fractured racial identity. It tells the story of Ada, who is inhabited by separate selves, called Asughara and Saint Vincent, who grow more powerful when she leaves Nigeria to go to America for college. These selves turn out to be gods, rooted in Igbo cosmology, though Emezi also comments on mental illness and the distortion of the mind through Ada’s split consciousness.

Sci-fi presents an ideal vehicle for expressing the fears and troubles of the present, and so it is important to chart the history of feminist science fiction, not only because it so clearly reflects the concerns of each period, but to ensure that these patriarchal or unjust societies never materialise, and that a feminist utopia is a clear, attainable vision for the future. 

Featured image: Pennan Brae on Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel