Since the very beginning of science fiction as a literary genre, when early scientists used voyages to the moon as metaphors to write about their controversial scientific discoveries, authors have used sci-fi as a rhetorical tool. This is done so as to explore radical ideas and theories inside a relatively safe and fantastic world of fiction that does not immediately alienate the audience the authors hope to persuade.
Scholar and literary critic Istvan Csicsery-Ronay asserts that speculative fiction “is concerned mainly with the role of science and technology in defining human – i.e., cultural – value” and adds that sci-fi “is not a genre of literary entertainment only, but a mode of awareness, a complex hesitation about the relationships between imaginary conceptions and historical reality unfolding into the future.” Like science fiction, speculative fiction, defined more broadly as any literary genre which includes elements of the supernatural, fantastic, or futuristic, as well as alternative histories and dreams, is a useful way for authors to explore the complexities of human values and cultures in a relatively safe place. In this context, the sci-fi genre is as much about considering the plausibility and ethical nature of a possible future and/or an alternative history as it is about fantastic world-building.
Sci-fi is a popular and well-read genre, but its critical importance as a genre for women and authors of color is often overlooked. Exploring both the plausibility and the ethics of possible pasts and futures is incredibly useful for writers working through critical topics and easily translates to issues of personhood and identity. For women and especially women of color, sci-fi is a useful tool for critical writing, since it creates a space (sometimes far into outer space) for authors to explore important issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality without alienating mainstream readers.
From the relative safety of alternate worlds and timelines, women and people of color are freer to explore their own marginalized identities and sensitive issues. What would it be like if there were no gender, or if there were only females, or if race were a disease? These are critical questions with which female authors of sci-fi have grappled. What follows here is a list of eight novels by well-known female authors who’ve written important sci-fi works with which you may not be familiar.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
If you’ve spent any time in the science fiction/fantasy section of your local bookstore, you’ve probably come across the name Ursula K. LeGuin. Her six-book Earthsea series is not only one of the most loved fantasies from the post-Tolkien/pre-Star Wars years of the genre but was made into a BBC radio drama in 1996 narrated by Dame Judi Dench, and in 2004 it was adapted into a TV miniseries called Earthsea by the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel. But it is her novel The Left Hand of Darkness and its exploration of androgyny that makes this list; although it is included as part of her “Hanish Cycle” of novels, this book can be read as a stand-alone.
Memorable not only for the strong sci-fi world development, The Left Hand of Darkness also explores the critical issue of what it means to have gender and how violating gender boundaries is a cultural crime. LeGuin’s ideas have legs: Star Trek: The Next Generation later attempted to borrow this plot in an episode called “The Outcast”, though with limited success. She herself called this novel a “thought experiment”.
The novel touches on issues of culture and war as they connect to gender identity. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to beef up their sci-fi résumé.
The Female Man
Like LeGuin, Joanna Russ is interested in examining issues of gender from the safety of another world, and her novel’s title is a dead giveaway. In The Female Man, gender norms are challenged through people moving between parallel universes. Russ critiques varying notions of womanhood as the characters from different universes intersect and experience what life is like for the others. One of the universes, Whileaway, is also the setting for Russ’ short story “When It Changed” and examines what life would be like in a universe where men are extinct. The narrator opens with her wife driving on the day the men came back to their world.
As a winner of multiple sci-fi writing awards, including the Hugo and the Nebula, Russ demonstrates that she’s no stranger to good sci-fi, and her ability to place critical feminist issues within that fantastic framework lands her solidly on this list.
Readers perhaps remember Jane Smiley best as the author of 1991’s A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and somewhat sentimental) retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The accomplished author likes to challenge herself, however, and before she attempted Shakespeare, she penned a fictional history set in the dark ages titled The Greenlanders.
Readers looking for more stories of dysfunctional Midwestern farm families will be disappointed (or confused) but for fans of epic historical fiction, this is a fascinating read with rich, well-researched details. The book departs significantly from the traditional novel structure, of which Smiley herself is an expert, resembling something more akin to secular Biblical family history – think Game of Thrones with fewer dragons and more yogurt, but about the same number of main character deaths. Seriously: don’t get too attached to any main characters in this lengthy and dense piece of prose.
True to its historical setting – 14th century Greenland – characters starve to death in winter, freeze to death on the tundra ice, are executed for adultery, and frequently die of “natural causes” at the ripe old age of 30-something. While this work of fiction is difficult to read at times, especially because of the length and multi-generational storytelling, it pays off. The detailed recounting of Inuit seal-hunting alone makes it worth the effort. Smiley did her homework.
[Knopf Canada, 2005]
Fans of critical speculative and science fiction are no strangers to Margaret Atwood. The dystopian futures she explores in novels like The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003) are deserving of all the praise I can offer. But it’s the less well-known retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey that lands her on this list.
Atwood’s The Penelopiad takes up the mantel of novels like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983) and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) in its retelling of a popular and well-known classic from the perspective of a minor female character. Literary critic Karen Lawrence notes in her preface to the travel narrative critique Penelope Voyages (Cornell, 1994) that “it is a Western cultural truism that Penelope waits while Odysseus voyages” and she wonders “what happens when Penelope voyages?” Atwood answers that rhetorical question in this novel, which gives Penelope a voice in retelling what actually happened after the end of the Trojan War. Let’s put it this way: she says Odysseus is a liar.
The Temple of My Familiar
The unforgettable tale of the women Celie and Shug in The Color Purple is what readers remember best about author Alice Walker, and for good reason – despite Steven Spielberg’s cowardly treatment of the lesbian subject matter in the film version. However, Walker not only penned a pseudo-sequel to that novel called Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), but she also wrote a sci-fi tale of romance and time travel titled The Temple of My Familiar.
Walker isn’t skittish about difficult topics, to which the issues of incest in The Color Purple (1985) and female genital mutilation in Possessing the Secret of Joy can attest, so it’s no surprise that she has some critical lessons in this text as well. Instead of a meek protagonist moving through her real life, however, Walker gives the reader a reincarnated ancient goddess traveling back and forth through time – sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a man, once even as a lion – to unpack contemporary issues of oppression faced by black women including sexism and racism. Sadly, not much has changed for women of color since Walker penned this novel a quarter-century ago, and the commentary she offered then is well worth another look now.
The first book in a series of four known as “the Freedom series”, Freedom’s Landing begins with the story of humans who become enslaved by humanoid aliens called the Catteni. While Anne McCaffrey is certainly known in sci-fi circles for the Dragonriders of Pern (1967) series and the thinking spaceships in the “Brains and Brawn” series, beginning with the very popular The Ship Who Sang (1969), it is her Freedom series that makes this list, in part because she attempted to explore issues of dominance, slavery, and rebellion, and in part because it’s one of the very prolific McCaffrey’s later works.
The story is full of lush, detailed descriptions of the strange planet where the captured humans find themselves. Sci-fi purists who love the genre for its immersive world-building will love McCaffrey’s world. The story follows an alien noble who becomes a symbol for what the humans hate most, at the same time that he becomes an ally to them and a love interest for the main character, a female human slave. McCaffrey was the first woman ever to receive a Hugo and a Nebula award, and the Freedom series demonstrates why her accolades were no accident. (Am I the only one who imagined that the Catteni looked like the Cardassians from Star Trek? Read it and get back to me.)
Okay, so anyone who has read Toni Morrison has probably read Beloved. I included it anyway because I wanted to make a point about sci-fi. When books become categorized – that is to say, canonized – in certain genres, something that frequently happens is that those books are ignored by readers of other genres, even when they share characteristics with those other genres. You may have read Morrison’s tale of escaped slaves in your African-American literature course as a junior in college, but it probably wasn’t on your list of great sci-fi novels, and it certainly isn’t shelved at Barnes and Noble in the horror section. But did you ever stop to consider how speculative the novel is?
The whole thing is a ghost story with a gruesome ax murder as its climax, and it’s doing some critical work with that horror. Imagine if the film adaptation would have been less Oprah Winfrey and more Blair Witch Project. Morrison’s opus embodies everything that women of color have employed sci-fi to do. Even if you’ve read it before, consider re-reading it with an eye for the sci-fi details and how those details are particularly useful for Morrison’s tale of slavery and freedom. (And Hollywood, please, for the love of all that is good and just, do not remake Beloved as a shaky-cam, “found footage” horror movie set in the Antebellum South.)
Everything Octavia E. Butler Has Written and Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora
[Warner Aspect, 2000]
This list concludes with one of the greats of the sci-fi genre. If you’ve never heard of Octavia E. Butler or haven’t read her work, I pity you. Go out and get a copy of one of her novels; any will do: The Parable of the Talents, Kindred, Imago… anything. Butler is always concerned with the intersections of race and gender – especially the Hegelian Other – and with building worlds featuring dystopian pasts or futures populated with time travelers, vampires, aliens, and all things fantastic and wonderful.
In her short essay “The Monophobic Response”, included in the 2000 collection of short stories by authors of color titled Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (Warner Aspect, 200) (which you might also want to read), Butler notes that we need aliens because they aren’t human. We can love them or hate them as the need arises removed from consequences. Since he/she/it is a fiction, the alien can be created or destroyed to meet the mercurial needs of the audience. Butler says:
In our ongoing eagerness to create aliens, we express our need for them, and we express our deep fear of being alone in a universe that cares no more for us than for suns or stones or any other fragments of itself. And yet we are unable to get along with those aliens that are closest to us, those aliens that are of course ourselves.
As Butler points out, our desire for the alien-other is twofold: we want someone to talk to and to care for us, but we also need someone to destroy who is not like us. The alien functions as an outlet for our own deepest desires, both to love and to hate ourselves and each other. The alien Other can convert us, but it can also be cured or destroyed if needed. The alien is a “safe” Other that allows us to explore issues of difference without requiring us to name that difference.
Just as the alien-other represents individual difference, the alternate worlds of speculative fiction stand-in for the real world. Exploring our world while removed from the reality of it creates a space for exploration that might not otherwise be comfortable. Such alternatives are not only enjoyable to read, but they also get at the heart of critical awareness, and the authors noted here represent the best of the best in the sci-fi genre.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 16 June 2015. Minor updates to the text and article layout have been made in this revised version.