Hello, ladies. Are you into science fiction?
Consider The Female Man, a 1970 science fiction novel by the late Joanna Russ, which takes place in four worlds inhabited by four different women who share the same genotype and whose names all start with the letter J. There’s Jeannine Dadier, who lives in 1969 in an America that never recovered from the Great Depression; Joanna, also in 1969, but in an America like ours; Janet Evason, an Amazonian beast who lives in an all-female world called Whileaway; and Alice Reasoner, or “Jael,” a warlord from a future where women and men have been launching nukes at each other for decades.
The first time I read The Female Man, I felt like the hotel room carpeting had been ripped out from beneath my feet, revealing a glittering intergalactic parquet that had somehow been there all along. After all, I considered myself to be a sci-fi buff of the highest order, but I had come to it, like many young readers, through the space operas and adventure tales of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. I still love these writers, of course, but the idea that science fiction—my genre of choice—could actually be written to me, about me, was unknown.
Those were boy stories. The Female Man is not a boy story.
Instead, The Female Man is one of the many wonderful, provocative, and maddeningly nonlinear science fiction novels which emerged alongside second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s. It might seem outré, but few mediums are as effective at articulating the aspirations of feminism. Science fiction is, after all, defined by its capacity to construct believable alternate realities: among these, why not worlds free of sexism, or utopias beyond gender? Such fabulations can be as exotic as lunar colonies and cities populated by androids. And, of course, women are aliens—who better to write alien stories?
Two classics of the feminist science fiction canon.
Science fiction tells us more about the present than the future; any Trekkie will attest to the truth of this statement. For all its forays where nobody has gone before, the primary conflicts of the original Star Trek series were the conflicts of the 1960s: race relations, imperialism, and the Cold War. The same goes for feminist science fiction. Novels by Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia Butler were the literature of a movement, speaking to the fears and desires of women in the final decades of the 20th century.
Science fiction has long been a boy’s club. Consider what endures from its first major appearance in popular culture, as lurid genre fiction printed in pulp magazines and paperbacks: zap guns, rockets, virile space colonists, and abducted women, caught in the writhing tentacles of some interchangeable extraterrestrial foe. The derring-do of Buck Rogers and the steely resolve of John Carter were sold to young men reading Popular Mechanics and pulp comics—not to their sisters or mothers. For the feminist science fiction writers of the early 1970s, the temptation to break in and subvert this playground, to tweak its phallic rockets and intergalactic imperialism, proved irresistible.
It wasn’t without precedent, incidentally. Frankenstein, which according to many critics is the first true science fiction novel, was written by a 21-year-old woman named Mary Shelley. Women penning utopian literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth century often addressed the issues relevant to first-wave feminism; in the 1905 novel Herland, a single-sex utopia is described as the ideal social order, free from war.
Which is to say that there’s nothing objectively masculine about science fiction. There’s nothing objectively anything about it; science fiction is a blank slate. It often takes place in the future, after all, a place to which no gender, nation, doctrine, or technology can stake a true claim.
Sure, there have always been women in science fiction, but they were frequently of the "damsel in distress" persuasion. Image via Pulp Covers.
Back to The Female Man. Although some of the book takes place in the future, no single woman’s reality is “our” past or “our” future. Rather, they’re all manifestations of the same woman, spread out over time. They are potentialities, the multitudes contained in every woman. As Russ writes, “to resolve contrarieties, unite them in your own person.” It’s a good metaphor for what literature does, too, which is give us access to the manifold strangeness of the world and its possibilities, to say nothing of the possibilities of a world without constraints determined by gender.
Science fiction in particular offers us worlds so different from our own that we, as readers, can feel suddenly nauseous and disoriented; genre critics call this sensation “cognitive estrangement.” And yet it always crashes back down to confront the problems of the present in a specifically cognitive way.
That is its function. Its strangeness clarifies our normal—and makes it, too, seem strange. By giving us glimpses into alternate worlds, places where the cultural physics we take for granted are skewed 180 degrees, science fiction helps us to see our actual position without bias. “Feminist science fiction is a key,” writes the critic Marleen S. Barr, “for unlocking the patriarchy’s often hidden agendas.”
Alice B. Sheldon, a female science fiction writer who wrote under the male pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. for decades. A literary prize is now given in her name for books that explore gender through science fiction and fantasy. Photo via NPR.
One particularly effective way to unlock those hidden agendas—or simply to worldbuild outside of the constraints of male-dominated society—is to imagine single-sex worlds. Beginning with the Amazons of Classical antiquity, there is a long tradition of female-only places in literature and mythology, and many canonical books from the slim but robust canon of mid-70s feminist SF take place in such worlds:
The Female Man, of course, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Jayge Carr’s Leviathan’s Deep, where men are hapless concubines and errand boys, Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground, where women have fled male-dominated cities for the wilderness, and the oeuvre of Suzy McKee Charnas. Other novels from the period, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s transformative The Left Hand of Darkness, about a planet of sexless androgynes, take a more fluid approach to gender.
In all of these cases, the question is the same: what happens when men are removed from the equation? Perhaps there is world peace. Perhaps lesbian relationships become the norm. Perhaps dense matrilineal rituals replace our existing societal customs. Perhaps the reproduction of the species is achieved in a different manner, sexlessly—or through a new kind of sex. Perhaps it’s a dystopia.
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but the simple speculation forces us to reconsider the things we take for granted about our world. For example, imagine living in an all-female colony your whole life, raising only female children, accustomed to a government and an economy run by women, and seeing a man for the very first time. He would appear to be an alien, as in this description from Joanna Russ' iconic story When It Changed:
They are bigger than we are. They are bigger and broader...They are obviously of our species but off, indescribably off, and as my eyes could not and still cannot quite comprehend the lines of those alien bodies, I could not, then, bring myself to touch them...I can only say they were apes with human faces.
Talk about cognitive estrangement! It’s not surprising that science fiction has been variably discovered, in wave after wave, by communities seeking a creative tool for cultural critique. Its boundaries lie wherever the last person left them. Before the feminists, there were the New-Wavers, who ported literary techniques and the psychedelic insights of the early 60s over to the genre, in the hopes of refracting some light around the uptight establishment.
After them, the deluge: Afrofuturists, cyberpunks, countless subgenre writers tinkering with the tropes of alienness to make a point. Regardless of the agenda, however, science fiction writers always use the same mechanism: change the world in some significant way, tip it on its side. What tumble loose are our preconceptions. Where they land, the ground is never quite so solid again.