Welcome to this post about female SF writers. I’ve used the SF abbreviation because some of these writers prefer to be known as Speculative Fiction authors instead of Science Fiction authors and I am respecting that wish.
I’ve chosen this topic as my post for Women’s History Month because a woman defined the genre of Science Fiction and women are often forgotten in this genre. Unfortunately, it’s seen as something that’s just for boys. Only four women have ever been named Grand Master of science fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s absurd.
I know that there are so many women that write, read, watch, and enjoy this genre but it’s often a male-orientated space. Therefore, I’m celebrating these amazing female writers that have produced the most amazing books in a genre that women after excluded from.
In this post I will showcase 4 writers and I’ll start with Mary Shelley…
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) was born in August 1797 and died on the 1st of February 1851. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was also a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. Mary Shelley is famous for being the author of Frankenstein and it is by far her most popular novel. However, Shelley continued her radical writing well into her later life and she was well known for her political voice as both a woman and a liberal.
First conceived in a very famous trip to Geneva in 1816 Frankenstein is hailed as the first modern science fiction novel by critics and writers alike. Shelley was just 18 when she first started writing Frankenstein and it was published anonymously in 1818. While science fiction certainly existed before Mary Shelley’s novel, explored by writers such as Margaret Cavendish and Johannes Kepler as early as 1666, Shelley did help to define the form of science fiction as we know it today. Shelley continued her genre defining writing with The Last Man, the first apocalyptic novel, which was first published in 1826.
Frankenstein deals with the rise in modern science and scientific experimentation, ideas of religion and creation, gender, and sublime nature. It’s written in the form of a frame story, outlined in letters which forces the reader to question the reliability of the story that they’re reading. It’s just an incredibly clever book.
Frankenstein is a science fiction novel but it is also a recognisable Gothic novel. Shelley is able to blend the genres seamlessly to create a novel that questions the danger of knowledge and the effects of defying nature. It’s just a wonderful piece of writing by a very young woman and it’s understandable why it’s featured on so many school curriculums and taught in so many schools, colleges, and universities.
Both Frankenstein and The Last Man cement Mary Shelley’s place as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Her writing has inspired so many other science fiction writers and has influenced the way that we read the genre of science fiction. Mary Shelley should be celebrated more often as a writer of science fiction and a writer in general as she didn’t merely write science fiction novels. In my opinion as a literature student The Last Man should studied more often as a defining piece of literature.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in July 1860 and died on the 17th of August 1935.
She was a prolific feminist writer. Gilman had a real interest in how women were failed by society and it’s obvious in all of her writing. She often drew on her own personal experiences as a woman with depression who was told to “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time… Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” She is most famous for writing The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story that focuses on the physical and mental health of women in the 19th century. It highlights the common diagnosis of hysteria in this era and depicts a woman’s decent into psychosis due to under stimulation and misdiagnosis.
However, I’m not here to talk about The Yellow Wallpaper, I’m here to show how Charlotte Perkins Gilman fits into this post celebrating female science fiction/speculative fiction writes.
From 1911 to 1916 Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a feminist utopian science fiction trilogy which faded into obscurity until recent years. The trilogy is still ignored in favour of her other work but it really is worth reading. The book that I’m going to focus on is entitled Herland and it’s the most read out of the three novels even though it is the middle book of the trilogy. Herland is a utopian novel which describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce asexually. The result is a society free from war and conflict, a peaceful society. Three men invade this hidden society of women and fall in love with some of the women. It made complete sense to me that men would walk into a society full of women and interrupt the balance with ideas of marriage. I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it but it’s clear that Charlotte Perkins Gilman intended to show how men create conflict in society while women are more rational and level-headed. I’d really recommend reading Herland as a piece of feminist fiction from an era where women weren’t even allowed to vote.
Herland’s sequel, With Her in Ourland, really showcases the differences between the society that Gilman lived in and her ideal feminist society. I haven’t read this sequel in a long time but it highlights the dangers of a male-dominated world.
The three books in the trilogy are called Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland. You can buy the full trilogy from The Book Depository here and there’s free worldwide shipping!
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in October 1929 and she continues to write now. She is an author of novels, children’s books, short stories, poetry, and essays. She mainly writes within the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction. Le Guin has won several awards for her speculative fiction including five Locus, four Nebula, two Hugo, and one World Fantasy Award. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted her in 2001 and The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made her its Grand Master in 2003. She’s a renowned author and she’s the perfect example of an accomplished female speculative fiction writer. Her work is also considered to be feminist speculative fiction and Le Guin marks the third woman in this post that writes about gender and feminism.
Her books often depict futuristic, alternative worlds and they explore the themes of the environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and politics. One of her most well-known books is The Left Hand of Darkness and it’s even studied at universities (including my first university).
The Left Hand of Darkness is a piece of feminist speculative fiction and it depicts an androgynous/ambisexual race from a world very different to Earth. Ai, a human male raised on Earth, travels to the planet of Gethen as an envoy. The book deals with the issue of gender and everyone in the book is referred to by male pronouns despite the fact that they ambisexual. The book has a complicated plotline that tackles politics and racial and gender stereotypes. The Left Hand of Darkness also explores themes of sex, religion (specifically Taoism), and betrayal. It’s an incredible book that I really recommend reading. The novel is part of the Hainish Cycle and there are several other books set in the same universe.
Another of Le Guin’s books that is widely recommended is The Lathe of Heaven. Set in 2002 but with the culture of 1970s America, The Lathe of Heaven depicts with a man who can change reality through his dreams. It explores heavy drug use, racism, overpopulation fears, war and peace, and many other themes that are prevalent in utopian and dystopian novels. I haven’t read it yet but people keep recommending it to me so I’ll have to look at it soon! The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted into two films The Lathe of Heaven (1980) and Lathe of Heaven (2002).
It’s obvious that Le Guin is a celebrated speculative fiction writer and I know that people will continue to love her writing for years to come.
Marge Piercy is an American novelist and poet who was born in 1936. She is also a social activist and a feminist. Her books vary in setting, some being set in the future and some during historical events such as the French Revolution and WW2. She continues to write and her latest collection of poetry, Made in Detroit, was published in 2015.
Woman on the Edge of Time is considered to be a feminist speculative fiction classic. The plot examines both utopian and dystopian universes and through time travel it explores the idea of multiple possible futures. The main character, a Hispanic woman named Connie lives in an important time in history, and she herself is in a pivotal position; her actions and decisions will determine the course of history.
One future, the dystopian future, features a class of wealthy elite who live on space platforms and pacify the rest of the population with drugs and mood controlling surgery. They also harvest the organs of these common people, who have set lifespans, to increase the lifespans of the wealthy elite. In this future women are valued solely for their appearance and sexuality, and they often resort to having plastic surgery that gives them grotesquely exaggerated sexual features. It’s a horrific future but it’s also one that seems incredibly possible, even more today than it did in the 1970s.
The novel is concerned with environmental issues, homophobia, racism, class systems, poverty, consumerism, imperialism, gender, and totalitarianism. None of these things exist in the second future that the book explores. The utopian future is the agrarian, communal community of Mattapoisett where men breast feed and everyone is androgynous. However, the death penalty still exists in Mattapoisett so it’s not entirely utopian.
Another novel by Marge Piercy is Body of Glass (called He, She and It in the US) which is a cyberpunk novel that was published in 1991. The book is set in 2059 and depicts a world where economic and political power is held by few huge multi-national enterprises with their own social hierarchy. Similar to the dystopian future of Woman of the Edge of Time the main part of the population lives separate from this affluent society created by the multi-national enterprises. The main population is forced to live in destruction and their lives are dominated by poverty, gangs and the law of the stronger man. Body of Glass is a technology fueled science fiction novel and it’s well worth the read.
These are the writers that I know best but there’s so many female SF writers out there. If you have any suggestions of books/authors I should read then please comment below! I need to read more books by female SF writers and more books by female writers in general.