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Nine Women Who Shaped Science Fiction

For a very long time, science fiction was considered something of a male preserve. Obviously, it could be (and has been) argued that the genre is fundamentally aligned with pursuits that are often culturally gendered male: architecture, engineering, mathematics, and so forth. For closer inspection, this argument for science fiction’s gendering is wrapped up in a conflation of ideas of the future with notions of a very specific kind of “technological progress.” It might seem like an odd pairing to disentangle, but it’s worth considering.

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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often cited as the first science fiction novel.

This perspective continues to fall apart when we take into account the works commonly held as the apex of early science fiction fiction. H. G. Wells never really needed to get into the mechanics of how or why the time machine in The Time Machine works. All that mattered was that it was a device that enabled a man to travel through time. By the same token, The Invisible Man is a book about a man who also happens to be invisible. There is no further clarification required (except the kind of ‘clarification’ that make a man clear). Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson never needed to explain the mechanism by which Dr. Jekyll was transformed into Mr. Hyde.

So we begin to see that much of what is, on the face of it, so masculine about the genre is illusory. If science fiction seems somehow less masculine now, then don’t let it worry you. After all, some of the most engaging and influential writing in the genre has been contributed by female authors, even if some of them wrote under male pseudonyms.

Mind of My Mind

Though it was written after Butler’s 1976 novel, Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind is a prequel that establishes the timeline leading up to Patternmaster. Set in 70s California, it establishes the structure and origin of the telepathic “patternists” of the Patternmaster series. The protagonist, a young black telepath called Mary, spontaneously generates a network (or pattern) of telepaths during the moment that she first becomes aware of her gift. She is opposed by her father, an immortal psychic/vampire.

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Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice takes a similar tack to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, with a few notable exceptions. Here, characters do have a fixed sex, but never refer to one another as any particular gender. Where The Left Hand of Darkness consistently uses masculine-gendered pronouns to refer to neutrally gendered characters (as many would consider the ‘correct’ use in cases of uncertain gender), Ancillary Justice consistently uses feminine-gendered pronouns to describe its characters regardless of their gender. The result is that readers may occasionally find themselves suddenly realising that they have little or no basis for having ascribed a particular gender to a particular character, and may have to spend a few seconds re-assessing an exchange to figure out what’s happening. Fascinating use of gender aside, it’s an excellent slice of good-old-fashioned space opera, largely told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, and well worth a look.

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Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is set in a postapocalyptic distant-future Africa, in which the light-skinned race of “Nuru” attempt to systematically expunge a race of darker-skinned “Okeke.” The book tells the story of Onyesonwu, a young Okeke girl dedicated to getting revenge on her father, himself a Nuru sorcerer who raped her mother during an attack. Fortunately, Onyesonwu has magical talents of her own; discovering with help from another sorcerer named Aro that she is a shapeshifter. Part science fiction, part fantasy, it’s a harrowing story of humanity in the wake of rape and genocide that’s often a tough read, but a rewarding one.

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The Children of Men

Set in 2021, P. D. James’ Children of Men charts the course of a humanity that has suffered sudden and total infertility. The last generation of humans, styled the “Omegas,” are characterised as self-obsessed and out of control, as civilization slowly begins to unravel under the weight of its own despair. The knowledge that theirs is the last generation lends a sense of crushing sadness to James’ dystopia, casting even the struggle for power as a total failing. Its abjection is spectacular, leavened only by the sudden appearance of a pregnancy.

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Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Alice B. Sheldon is better known for the work she produced under the pen name, James Tiptree Jr. Like many female authors writing under male pseudonyms, Sheldon produced short stories that often question the relationships between genders. This collection includes the excellent “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” which introduces the reader to a future-Earth on which men have died out, leaving women to run a perfectly thriving civilization perfectly well without them. The excellent “The Women Men Don’t See” is also included, which recounts the story of a male narrator marooned with two women who he is confounded to find not nearly as panicked as he expects them to be.

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Wrinkle in Time

Madelein L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray and her three brothers (the twins, Sandy and Dennys, and their younger brother, Charles Wallace). Meg’s father had been a scientist working for the government, researching an object called the “tesseract,” until his disappearance under mysterious circumstances.The children, along with another child from their school, are taken on an inter-planetary adventure to rescue their father by a trio of space centaurs. Ostensibly a children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time is actually a fairly challenging read, encouraging children to grapple with concepts like non-euclidean geometry and extra-dimensional travel. All of this combines well with the book’s female protagonist to offer younger science-fiction fans something that offers them something genuinely new, without ever condescending to them.

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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian future, in which America has fallen only to be replaced by “Gilead.” There the ability to reproduce has been fundamentally compromised by a combination of pollution and disease. The protagonist, Offred, is part of a class of “handmaids,” women kept by the aristocracy specifically for reproductive purposes. Over the course of the novel, Offred describes her life as a handmaid, as well as her life before Gilead and her indoctrination as a handmaid.

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Left Hand of Darkness, The

Often considered among the first published works of feminist science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of an ambassador, Genly Ai, dispatched to the planet Gethen, whose inhabitants have no fixed sex or gender, being essentially genderless for the majority of their lives. The core of the book tracks the difficulty that Ai has in even knowing how to approach an apparently genderless society, but also gives an insight into the effects that living in such an environment has on Ai himself. Living under those conditions, Ai slowly shifts, taking on what many perceive to be more androgynous qualities. It’s a fascinating look into the potential culture of a society in which gender is not an issue, both for those who grow up in that culture and those who encounter it later.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley is among the most influential women in science fiction, but where Frankenstein has been so thoroughly absorbed into pop culture that it’s almost impossible to read the book without knowing the plot, The Last Man remains hugely under-read. Written a few short years after Frankenstein, The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic novel set in England near the end of the 21st century. Like Frankenstein, The Last Man focuses on a young man from a noble family, though in the case of The Last Man’s Lionel Verney his audacity comes in the form of his anti-royal attitude, rather than a compulsion to reanimate corpses. While the two share a number of similarities, the great distinction is that Frankenstein is a book about the importance of a single life, while The Last Man reads like more of a meditation on an enormous number of deaths…

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