Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Mary Shelley’s Daughters
Susan Hollis on women science fiction writers as social commentators.
Over recent decades, increasing numbers of women authors have entered the field of science fiction. This follows a long period when there were very few female sci-fi writers, despite the genre having arguably been invented by a woman. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818. In this novel, well known by name but much less read, and in her second novel, The Last Man (1826), Shelley gave voice to two of the major themes dominant in science fiction to this day: concern about technology in relation to the individual or society and the destruction of humanity by forces beyond human control. Ursula LeGuin has pointed out that in the ensuing century and three quarters, science fiction writers have continued to describe the fears and conditions of humanity rather than, as commonly supposed, predicting the future.
Like any writer, the science fiction author is a person of his or her time, telling stories that therefore reflect, not surprisingly, the customs, hopes and fears of the author’s own society. This is true whether the constructed world is just around the corner or millennia in the future. When the author locates that constructed world in the future, he or she attempts less to describe a future-to-be than to describe a world in which one or more characteristic of today’s world has taken on a different importance from that which it has now. In this way the author can use science fiction to provide a social commentary on challenges, problems, or issues confronting his or her contemporary society, a commentary which may or may not be obvious to the audience, depending on their receptiveness to the writer’s views.
Although male science fiction authors participate in this type of commentary, female readers often find particular resonance with the writings of many female science fiction writers. In Frankenstein, Shelley of course examines some issues surrounding the creation of a human being by artificial means, an issue still hotly debated, though with rather different technology, while The Last Man, despite its age, reflects the many post-apocalyptic novels of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Curiously, neither novel includes any significant roles for women within it – perhaps one might say more accurately, her novels reflect rather well the roles of women in her time (1797-1851). After Shelley, however, few women wrote these types of narratives until the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950s, more women entered the field – familiar names include Marion Zimmer Bradley and André Norton – and the numbers grew in the late 50s and 60s. At the same time, women were becoming a larger proportion of science fiction’s readership.
Looking at the work of these female authors, one asks what, if anything new, different, and/or significant they brought to a field previously dominated so heavily by male writers and readers. Science fiction has always been a complex genre, not easy to identify and much more than a set of descriptions of utopian societies; it includes adventure tales of the pulp fiction type, and stories incorporating hard science. It developed new sub-genres after the mid-century as authors explored psychological effects, new technologies, different kinds of universes, and the like. Many of these later twentieth century science fiction writers, both men and women, used and use the genre to project, sometimes in extremes, possibilities for women and men barely imaginable in our contemporaneous civilization. In this new context, women science fiction writers began to see themselves as a group. “There was a growing sense that science fiction was a form in which the issues raised by feminism could be explored, in which writers could look beyond their own culture and create new possibilities,” notes Pamela Sargent in her 1995 anthology, Women of Wonder: The Classic Years. Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s. Furthermore, Sargent continues, “At the core of both feminism and science fiction – at least what ideally should be at the core of both – is a questioning of why things are as they are and how they might be different.” Marleen Barr once observed that the genre allows patriarchal myths to be enlarged for ease of scrutiny. For example, in 1973 James Tiptree, Jr. (real name Alice Sheldon) wrote a story called ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, in which a mother and daughter keep their wits about them in the face of a life-threatening emergency despite the fears of at least one of the men, and when rescue appears possible, they, two initially ‘mousy’ women, women men don’t see, continue off on an adventure to another world with some aliens. So at least some of these novels carried within them implicit criticism of the patriarchal culture, implicit but little explicit, thus setting the scene for the later use of the genre.
Another example of this type of magnification appears in the post-apocalyptic novel A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren (1990) in which, following a nuclear holocaust in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, two surviving women resolutely set out to preserve culture by salvaging as many books as possible, only to find that on their land have settled a group of people dominated by an archetypal (though not accurate) Old Testament-style patriarchal male. The subjugation, indeed servitude and control, of all females in this narrative resonates with that in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984), each of which represents a utopia for selected males and a dystopia for the rest of the community, including all females. The intensified patriarchy of these tales occurs in the aftermath of a cataclysmic change in society leading to the loss of women’s rights and the supremacy of males legitimized by religion. In each novel, however, the female subverts the male dominance, suggesting a sense of latent power that can overcome the oppressive dominance. These stories rely on the idea of female strength discussed and nurtured, at least by some, in female circles but hidden from the world of the patriarchal males. So while describing the external conditions of a future post-apocalyptic world or radical governmental change, each novel is also commenting on the ways of survival inherent among females.
To this group one must also add Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), another tale of women subverting apparently dominant males to achieve their own goals. Tepper has since published other provocative novels, among them Six Moon Dance (1998) which turns patriarchy on its head as matriarchy in the kind of role reversal common in the 50s, highlighting the iniquities and challenges of patriarchy in the process. Six Moon Dance also seems to challenge the ideology that some modern feminists hold about an idyllic matriarchy which is supposed to have existed in prehistoric times. On the world of six moons, the super-dominant and controlling females co-exist with groups of males who operate much as many women do in contemporary patriarchal societies, i.e. rather ineffectually. One group of men plays the role of male prostitutes, while another group consists of a number of very dysfunctional males, graphically described as embodying their obsessions – perhaps reflecting what some contemporary women see and encounter in some men. Included as well are descriptions of class systems and race relations which reflect remarkably what the astute observer sees in contemporary world cultures. A complex narrative, Six Moon Dance challenges the reader to address many ideas and issues present in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Tepper may be saying: let him who can hear, hear; let him who can see, see.
While Tepper addresses a wide range of topics in this particular novel and her novels in general, Ursula LeGuin confronts the reader, male or female, with the issue of sexuality in her classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Set in another time and on another world, this novel challenges the core understanding of ‘male’ and ‘female’. The story sets a protagonist patterned on a contemporary Earthly male in relation to humans who are androgynous; they are able to be either male or female when in their sexual phase, and never know beforehand which they will be during this time. The reader’s expectations are unsettled by pronouncements such as “The king is pregnant” (p.100). By definition kings are male and males don’t give birth, but this king gives birth! Many find this lack of clear sexuality extremely disconcerting, and yet in confronting it, they begin to recognize LeGuin’s challenge: sexuality is very much a social construct. Accept it – as indeed the narrative’s Genly Ai eventually did.
Patriarchy, race, class, gender, utopia-dystopia, technology, and post-holocaust issues are among those women science fiction writers address in their works. While male sci-fi authors may also examine some of these issues, by and large women have shown remarkable success in so doing. The genre clearly not only allows such examination but actively encourages it, as Gordon R. Dickson says in the introduction to his Combat SF (1975):
Science fiction is, in fact, essentially an unstructured think-tank in which authors of differing points of view can paint differing solutions of eventualities suggested by present problems or situations. As a literature it is favorably designed to act as a vehicle for ideas or arguments – to be a seedbag for a philosophical fiction.
Earlier I indicated that science fiction is as much about the present as it is about the future. Awareness of the genre, particularly that written by women, can help us to prepare ourselves for the future and come to terms with our present.
© Dr Susan Hollis 2001
Susan Tower Hollis, who earned the Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, serves as Associate Professor at the State University of New York, Empire State College.
Mary Shelly’s Mother
Although this has nothing whatever to do with science fiction, readers may be interested to know that Mary Shelley’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), the pioneering feminist writer and author of Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Mary Wollstonecraft was born into poverty but, largely self-taught, became one of the foremost radical reformers of the 1780s and 90s. She married the utilitarian-anarchist philosopher William Godwin and died while giving birth to their daughter Mary Godwin, who later married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and became Mary Shelley.