Why do we need women in science fiction and fantasy?
Let’s answer that with an exercise in speculation. Imagine a world without tales of mad scientists and misunderstood creations, without parables of stubborn huntresses and defiant handmaids, or without stories of girl geniuses and inter-dimensional goddesses. Imagine a world where no one has ever won three Hugo Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel in a row. Imagine a world without the Three Laws of Robotics or the Star Trek franchise.
This is the world we would have without women in science fiction and fantasy, and as I hope this exercise demonstrates, it would be a much-diminished one.
We need women in science fiction and fantasy because they have always been innovators in these genres. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the first popular science fiction novel. A little over century later, German author Thea von Harbou wrote the script for Metropolis, the first science fiction feature film. In the 1960s science fiction fan Bjo Trimble (along with her husband John) started the letter campaign that saved Star Trek and proved the commercial power of fandom.
In recent years, women have penned blockbuster book and film series including Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman series. And while science fiction has often been seen as a largely white and Western practice, women are changing that, too. This year women and non-binary artists comprised well over half the nominees for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo award, and they hailed from literally around the globe: the U.S. and Australia, of course, but also Nigeria, Singapore, France, China, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and Hong Kong as well as the indigenous communities of Hawaii and the Ohkay/Owingeh nations.
As writers of speculative fiction, women have transformed the way we think about science and society. Mary Shelley taught us to be horrified not by the strange new products of science, but by the reckless actions of scientists themselves—especially as these (usually male) scientists compromised the safety of women and children. By the 1960s, authors Madeleine L’Engle and Anne McCaffrey were winning awards and achieving best-seller status with novels that cast women and girls as scientific and engineering geniuses who saved men from themselves and ensured better futures for all. Last month, N.K. Jemisin became the first author ever to win three Hugo awards in a row for her Broken Earth series, which imagines that powerful women might literally wield the energy needed to heal a fractured planet and its fractured cultures.
Women have also been pioneers in creating science fiction and fantasy that includes both big ideas and complex characters. Once again, Mary Shelley gets credit for beginning this practice with Frankenstein, a novel that gives voice to those alienated from modern society in the guise of a gruesome gothic tale.
When science fiction and fantasy emerged as the premiere story forms of the twentieth-century, C.L. Moore and Joanna Russ made claims for women in the fantastic imaginary with characters such as the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry and the time-traveling barbarian thief Alyx. Jirel and Alyx are amongst popular culture’s first fully realized fantastic “sheroes”: strong and stubborn and brilliant just like their male counterparts, but also capable of using their emotional intelligence to solve problems that the men around them cannot see.
Women’s ability to craft stories that engage both the head and the heart is best demonstrated by the wildly popular Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1981 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the bestselling/blockbuster status of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Despite their very different subject materials, both series hook their audiences with tales told from the perspective of society’s alienated underdogs, who find themselves both opposed to and seduced by the malignant forces around them—and who find that they have hidden strengths that can change the course of history.
Women don’t just write these stories, they direct them, too. In 2010 Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu took the Sundance Film Festival by storm with the short dystopian film Pumzi. More recently, Patty Jenkins became the first woman in Hollywood to direct a film with a blockbuster budget; that film—Wonder Woman—went on to receive a Critics’ Choice Award and an AFI designation as one of the top 10 films of 2017. This year, Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time became the first film directed by an African American woman to earn over $100 million domestically. Like their literary counterparts, these directors invite us to imagine futures where women are both the heroes and villains of their own adventures.
Even as women have forged their own genre traditions, they’ve transformed the practices of their male colleagues, too. In his edited anthology Before the Golden Age, science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov credits pioneering female genre author Leslie F. Stone with inspiring his own career.
In the 1960s, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura broke the intergalactic glass ceiling for women and people of color, and a decade later, Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley picked up guns and rescued themselves from evil emperors and rampaging aliens. More recently, blockbuster films including Arrival, Annihilation, and Black Panther have featured female scientists who strive to save the day not just for themselves, but for humanity as a whole. And if box office receipts and award nominations mean anything, we are likely to see more of these in the future.
And that takes us back to the question that opened this essay: why do we need women in science fiction and fantasy?
The answer is simple: because without them, we wouldn’t really have science fiction and fantasy at all.
About the Author: Lisa Yaszek is Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech University and past president of the Science Fiction Research Association. She is the author of Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008), and coeditor of Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction (2016); she currently serves as a juror for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for the Best Speculative Story of the Year.
The Future is Female! is available now!