Feminist futures in science fiction
Imagine a world in which everyone is ‘five-sixths of the time hermaphrodite neuters’, but whose gender emerges each month, according to a fertility cycle, alongside a system of temporary partnering. That is the scenario in Ursula Le Guin’s marvellously strange – and gloomy – Left Hand of Darkness (1969), set in a future ice-cold planet in which an envoy from a warmer earth must try to find a way to relate.
Or consider the unhappy lot of humanoid boys being sacrificed to incubate the offspring of giant intelligent – and otherwise caring – centipedes. Olivia Butler’s story in Bloodchild (1984) was part of an extraordinary oeuvre in which she explored race and gender relationships in trans-species plots.
And what about the scene in Zoë Fairbairns’ 1979 novel Benefits, the UK’s answer to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)? In its eugenicist future state, a woman prime minister uses welfare benefits to force women back into the nuclear family to reproduce, while a lesbian-led feminist resistance argues over how to fight back.
Such fiction takes classic sci-fi scenarios but twists and turns them in refreshing directions. For example, feminists emphasise that care-work is just as important as other forms of labour in shaping a society. For this reason, many plots focus on the struggle for reproductive choices and reimagine domestic arrangements. This interest can be seen in the very first true sci-fi novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1831
The text beneath the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein refers to the moment the monster becomes conscious and Frankenstein abandons him in horror.View images from this item (7)
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This tragic tale of what happens when the machine becomes master over its human designer, has inspired artists since its publication. But we can also see it as a meditation on what any mother feels in giving birth to a being over which one has responsibility but not full control.
Bengali Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's 1905 utopian short story Sultana's Dream is another pioneer here. In ‘Ladyland’ men are confined indoors, while women, under new laws which prevent early marriage and ensure girls’ education, reinvent a peaceful, clean civilisation using solar power and ingenious weather control.
Koh-i-Noor, from Aliyah Hussain's EP based on Sultana's Dream
This track ‘Koh-i-Noor’ from Aliyah Hussain’s debut EP takes inspiration from Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s novel Sultana’s Dream.
Ten years later, American Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s 1915 Herland also proposes a non-violent (and vegetarian!) future; men having died out 2,000 years previously, women reproduce by parthenogenesis, sharing all childcare collectively.
How have feminist science fiction writers responded to politics?
During the so-called ‘second wave’ of feminism and civil rights in the 1960s–80s, science fiction solutions became more diverse and complicated. Fairbairns explains that her novel Benefits was inspired by the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement debate over whether housework should be paid for by the state. She felt that ‘there were very convincing arguments on both sides’:
Clearly women whose work is the work of raising children … is as valid a job of work as any other and why should they have to pay for doing that by being financially dependent on men? I totally supported that. But I could also see that if the state started giving women money to look after kids, it would be used as a way of control. So I was in two minds about this, and being in two minds is a good position for writing a novel.
Zoë Fairbairns on the inspiration for Benefits
In this clip, the novelist Zoë Fairbairns sets out the inspiration for her novel Benefits (1979). Fairbairns explains that she too was unsure of the Wages for Housework campaign, describing herself as in ‘two minds’. She cites this as a great position to be in to write a novel.
Zoë Fairbairns: I think Benefits really came out of my time at The Women’s Research and Resources centre, because once it got going every woman’s group in the land sent us their newsletters. So I had this constant flow of feminist newsletters flowing across my desk. I would sort of skim read them all so I would know how to classify them in the library. And as part of that, I became very aware of the debate on Wages for Housework, which was a huge debate at the time. And I found, you know, I found a very convincing arguments on both sides – that clearly women’s whose work is the work of raising children, that is as valid a job of work as any other and why should they have to pay for doing that by being financially dependent on men. I totally supported that. But I could also that if the state started giving women money to look after kids it would be used as a way of control. So I was in two minds about this, and being in two minds is a good position to write a novel. If I had thought I knew the answers, I wouldn’t have written a novel – I’d of written a manifesto. But I just wanted to write a story that would explore that, and just set that story down among a bunch of women. And just explore how it worked, you know – so with kids, some not – and just see how that worked. Erm, the erm, the character of Judy - had forgotten Posey for a moment – the character of Judy was very much based on the mythological figure of Cassandra. Who erm the curse on Cassandra was that she would always tell the truth but never be believed. And Judy always tells the truth, but is never believed because everyone says she’s mad. But she always foresees what’s going to happen. And I’ve always been fascinated by that character, I thought that would be quite a burden wouldn’t it? To always tell the truth, but never be believed. Erm, so that is where she came from.
Related to such literary debates are experiments with sexual relations and identities. A rise in pornographic sci-fi in the 1960s produced the offensive clichés which Joanna Russ amusingly treats as ‘The Weird-Ways_of_Getting_Pregnant’ stories or, conversely, the duplicitous seductress-robot. Lesbian-centred feminist sci-fi offered egalitarian alternatives but, as a group of contributors to the Women’s Press anthology Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind discussed in 1985, this could pose other aesthetic challenges.
A different warning comes from Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun (1976) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977), where a robot class doing all the work leads to a dull, dissolute and not entirely gender-liberated life for the endlessly reborn and promiscuous hippy humans in the space colonies. Today’s similarly confusing challenges in a sexually liberated yet also neo-Puritan West, are confronted in Naomi Alderman’s 2016 The Power. This thriller explores what happens when women can electrocute people by touching, create their own doctrinal ideology and even learn how to rape.
Feminists have also used the trope of the space-quest to protest women’s historical position as 'she who stays behind and waits'. Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, for example, in Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), has her heroine Mary (an expert communicator with alien intelligences), suffer time blackouts, during which she keeps returning to a changed world. This challenges her recurring desire to bear children. But she is a brilliant inter-stellar linguist who loves her job – so why shouldn’t she be able to both work and mother? A more recent reboot is neuroscience graduate Temi Oh’s Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019), which unravels the relationships between six British teenagers selected for a mission to an earth-like world outside the solar system involving 23 years confined on a spaceship. American Ann Leckie also offers a contemporary twist in space operas which feature transgender or gender-blind warriors, animated artificial consciousness and manipulative gods.
How has feminist science fiction grappled with environmental crises?
The epic dimensions of sci-fi pitch often survival at species-level and many feminists have engaged with themes of population control and environmental catastrophe. These have contemporary urgency, and we can feel the poignancy of earlier imaginings such as Rose Macauley’s What Not, written just as the First World War was ending in 1918. In what Macauley termed a ‘Prophetic Comedy’, an autocratic government is trying to lay the grounds for long-term peace by dividing the population between those with or without brains, to prevent the birth of more people stupid enough to pursue conflict. Kitty, ranked as A in the intelligence spectrum, falls in love with the ‘uncertified’ Minister of Brains, naturally showing the inadvisability of this strategy.
A more utopian solution is Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower, where humans learn to care for each other and the planets through ‘Earthseed’, a new religion based on the principle that ‘God is change’. This vision evolves from the African-American heroine’s inheritance of the condition of ‘hyperempathy’, when she feels others’ pain as if it were her own and bleeds if they bleed. Such questions of whether we can collectively develop enough empathy, including with non-human species and the earth itself, could not be more pertinent.
How does science fiction engage with feminist ideals?
Because sci-fi looks towards the future, it can take feminist arguments in a different direction from realist or historical fiction and interrogate what an ideal feminist society might look like. Admittedly, this can be as obvious and heavy-handed as sexist approaches – Joanna Russ wryly identifies this as the ‘The Noble Separatist Story’. But at its best, it produces intriguing thought-experiments and rollicking adventure stories.
It can also allow us to stretch feminist views on science. Donna Haraway’s ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’ of 1985 put this in theoretical terms, where she argued that feminists should be wary of romanticising a mythical matriarchal past or identity. ‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess’, she concluded, urging feminists to embrace technology and recognise biology to be dependent upon it. A trans-feminist approach might be considered compatible with this, imaged in Susan Stryker’s provocative reclaiming of herself as a Frankenstinian monster, in a world of everyday cosmetic surgery and hormonal treatments.
Certainly, sci-fi shows us that gender harmony and liberation involve transcending simplistic biological determinism. But, as we come to understand biology as itself both changeable and profound, so a feminist future must also engage respectfully and carefully with it. Corporate company perks of egg-freezing; ageist transhumanism; bio-terrorism and surveillance; sex algorithms and racially cleansed robot carers: these arguably show a dystopian future becoming our present.
How can science fiction engage with race?
Afrofuturists have also found sci-fi’s futurist orientation useful to combat a backwards-facing nostalgia, yet without endorsing all it brings. This concept has been associated with avant-garde African American music, a legacy revived by musician Janelle Monáe. In the UK, Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall made the same move, stating he was tired of art which imprisoned those of African heritage in a ‘primitivist’ mode: 'I will not be shut out of future history because of what has happened in the past', he explained in his 2012 oral history. He praises Joy Gregory’s ‘autoportraits’ as an example of art in which there is no obvious futurism, but rather a subtle break from historical literalism alongside a claim to equal rights of representation.
Joy Gregory on Black photography and setting up Autoportrait
Stuart Hall praised Joy Gregory's work for presenting no obvious futurism, but rather a subtle break from historical literalism alongside a claim to equal rights of representation. In this edited clip, Gregory explains how she wanted to expand the parameters of what Black photograph was perceived to be.
Joy Gregory: I can’t remember who it was, Eddie Chambers or someone had written to me ‘cause Keith Piper was at college the same time as I was. He was over in environmental media and he’d seen me about and they were setting up D Macs or something at the time or – you know – like this Black photography group and erm he’d seen me in the photograph department and thought ‘Oh, Black photographer! Get her to send some work in’. So I sent some work into them and erm Eddie Chambers sent it back with this terse note saying ‘we were asking for work by Black photographers’ which of course, I wasn’t because my work was about aesthetics. Which was completely unacceptable because Black photography by their definition at that time was about being politically Black. And it was actually something I actually – you had to fight quite hard – and a lot after I left college because it was like ‘oh look at that girl there, like she thinks she’s a Black photographer but she’s not really a Black photographer because she doesn’t make Black photography’; because Black photography was deemed to be quite poor quality, quite scratchy and
Interviewer: – political?
Joy Gregory: And political.
Interviewer: – with a capital P?
Joy Gregory: With a big P. [laughs] And my work was like p with a small p, on the basis that you could catch more honey, more flies with the honey [laughs]. And erm, I don’t know, I was really cross with them so I didn’t have very much to do with them at all erm and that went on until Deborah Willis came over from America and was like ‘you can’t really deem what is and what isn’t Black photography according to people, to what people produce’. I mean like the whole idea of you know being able to take photographs is being able to take photographs of what you want. And if you start laying down the law as to what is and what isn’t applicable to a certain race – there you have fascism on your hands. [laughs] So that was very good that she said that.
Interviewer: So how did she say that? When did she come over – I hadn’t realised she’d been over here?
Joy Gregory: Oh right. We’d erm, well when I was at North Paddington I was part of that women’s photography thing there. But at the same time autograph was being set up and erm, Sunil Gupta had taken a bit of an interest in me. Obviously because I didn’t fit into anything. And if you look at all the exhibitions that he’s done since, and all the work – there are always people that don’t quite fit in to any particular category. They’re a bit like outsiders really. But actually work politically in a completely different way to what would seem to be the norm. So he must’ve thought that I was probably a little interesting and so he had invited me to be in the exhibition called ‘Auto Portrait’. And Deborah Willis had come over for that, which was in 1990, and she was also over for the woman’s photography festival. The first one in 1998. Erm, because – I think - didn’t Lorna Simpson come over?
Interviewer: Did she?
Joy Gregory: Or someone like that, yes.
In literature, a wave of African-influenced sci-fi writers are taking Afrofuturism to the next stage. The African Speculative Fiction Society recognised two feminist writers in its 2019 awards, Akwaeke Emezi: whose Freshwater tells of a young Nigerian woman whose mental illness is in fact an otherworldly split consciousness, and Nnedi Okorafor, for her graphic novels about the Black Panther’s techno-genius sister battling for justice in the land of Wakanda.
Sci-fi’s futurism clearly expresses the concerns of the present. And precisely because of this, it is all the more important to appreciate its own history, as it has charted and ciphered the anxieties of each period and constituency. Just as so many sci-fi forms begin from the premise of lost archives being interpreted (or misunderstood) on a future planet, libraries and archivists play their own part in connecting, refracting and rethinking the past towards a – hopefully – better future.
Anderson, Reynaldo, & Jones, Charles E., Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016)
Duncker, Patricia, Sisters and Strangers: An Introduction to Contemporary Feminist Fiction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), Chapter 4
Green, Jen, & LeFanu, Sarah (eds), Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind: An Anthology of Original Stories (London: Women's Press, 1985)
Haraway, Donna Jeanne, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2016)
Kaveney, Roz (1989), ‘The Science Fictiveness of Women's Science Fiction’. In H. Carr (ed.), From My Guy to Sci-Fi: Genre and Women's Writing in the Postmodern World (London: Pandora Press, 1989), pp. 78–97.
LeFanu, Sarah, Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Gwyneth Jones and Josephine Saxton, in Conversation (1985). London: Institute of Contemporary Arts/British Library.
Russ, Joanna, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’. In J. Green & S. LeFanu (eds), Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind: An Anthology of Original Stories (London: Women's Press, 1985), pp. 27–34.
Sargent, Pamela, ‘Introduction: Women in Science Fiction’. In P. Sargent (ed.), More Women of Wonder: Science-Fiction Novelettes by Women About Women (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 11–54.
Stryker, Susan (1993), ’My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.3: 237–54.
Womack, Ytasha, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 2013)
 Add MS 88904/1/145: 1980–1998. Recently reissued as a Modern Classic 2015.
 Zoë Fairbairns interviewed by Margaretta Jolly, Sisterhood & After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, 2010–2013. British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference C1420/24, transcript p. 113, track 05
 LaFanu, Sarah, Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Gwyneth Jones and Josephine Saxton, in Conversation (1985). London: Institute of Contemporary Arts/British Library. C95/195
 Add MS 88904/1/299 Naomi Mitchison (1897–1999) (1980–1999).
 Stuart Hall interviewed by Paul Thompson, Pioneers of Social Research, 2012. British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference C1416/42, transcript p. 134, track 06.