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
'The last man! I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.' Mary Shelley, Journal (May 1824). Best remembered as the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man eight years later, on returning to England from Italy after her husband's death. It is the twenty-first century, and England is a republic governed by a ruling elite, one of whom, Adrian, Earl of Windsor, has introduced a Cumbrian boy to the circle. This outsider, Lionel Verney, narrates the story, a tale of complicated, tragic love, and of the gradual extermination of the human race by plague. The Last Man also functions as an intriguing roman a clef, for the saintly Adrian is a monument to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend Lord Raymond is a portrait of Byron. The novel offers a vision of the future that expresses a reaction against Romanticism, as Shelley demonstrates the failure of the imagination and of art to redeem her doomed characters. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe.
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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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.