Feminist science fiction - on the radio!

27 August 2014

On Monday, I co-presented a short show on Berlin Community Radio, with my friend Kate McCurdy, on a topic that has been fascinating us for a little while now – feminist science fiction. We looked at a few key pieces of science fiction from as far back as 1905, with a short reading from Sultana's Dream, another reading of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (one of our favourite pieces!), and talked briefly about Afrofuturism, too. We were joined by April who provided us with some awesome spacey tunes.

We did a fair bit of research for the show, which I've arranged below into an article, with links to works we mentioned– we said much of what is written below in the radio show though, which you can listen to online here. Suggestions for future radio show segments are welcome, as are recommendations of other feminist science fiction books to read! 

Text below co-written with Kate- I would recommend either listening to the show, or reading the post below, to get your fill of feminist science fiction! 

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Science fiction as a genre allows us to imagine and present new ways of thinking about how society is organised; this, within a feminist lens, can be particularly powerful. Contrary to how scifi might be perceived, it's not often used as a technique to imagine what the future will actually be like, but rather, as Ursula K. LeGuin says – “science fiction is not prescriptive, it's descriptive.” It's much more of a commentary on how our current society works – putting characters on another world, or within another era, helps the reader to take a much more critical look at how things actually work.

Feminist science fiction, a sub-genre of science fiction, largely tends to deal with women's roles in society, examining how gender is constructed, whether that be through the creation of a utopia where the problems caused by gender imbalances and inequalities don't exist, or through a dystopia where inequalities are emphasised, or have led to terrible consequences. As the feminist critic Marleen S. Barr writes, “feminist science fiction is key for unlocking the patriarchy's often hidden agendas.”

Feminist science fiction has a rich history – early feminist science fiction works somewhat echoed what's known as 'first wave feminism', which dealt with asserting basic legal and political rights for women, addressing sexism and gender equality in areas like voting and property rights. One way in which this struggle can be seen within science fiction was the portrayal of single-sex worlds, seeking to explore the question - what happens when men are just taken out of the picture entirely?

Incredibly, one of the earliest known feminist science fiction utopias was created by a woman in what is now modern day Bangladesh, in 1905, in a short story called Sultana's Dream. Given my family ties, I was especially happy to discover this! The author, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein, was a Muslim feminist, whose impact on women's empowerment can still be seen across the subcontinent today. She led an unusual, and fascinating life; she set up the first school in Bengal for Muslim women, and founded the Muslim Women's Society, both of which are still going strong today. The school she founded provided the first opportunity for women (probably of my grandmother's generation) to become literate.

She wrote Sultana's Dream when she was still young; I find this, along with other facts of the environment, truly incredible; she was writing under British colonial rule, growing up in a fairly strict Muslim society, and over 100 years ago. The story, written in the first person, tells of how Sultana comes to visit a place called Ladyland, where gender roles are swapped; men stay in indoors in purdah, and women are in charge of running the country. She is shown round Ladyland by a woman called Sister Sara, who is utterly scathing about the abilities and skills of men, discussing openly the quicker mental abilities of women in Ladyland, and the uselessness of men there.

The criticism of traditional gender roles within the story couldn't be stronger; in Ladyland, women manage to do the same amount of work in 2 hours as men would take during the whole day, as men used to spend more time “talking about their work” than actually doing it; the women manage to convince the men to be shut up within the houses through quicker mental abilities rather than force; the women use their technological and scientific inventions (previously deemed as “sentimental” by the men) to win a war with a neighbouring land, and then rule peacefully upon the land. The forward thinking and sharp criticism within the short story truly astonishes me, and I would thoroughly recommend reading the story if you have a spare 5 minutes or so.

Second wave feminism expanded the debate to question the role of women in public and private arenas, and began to question the social construction of the very idea of femininity. Similar themes can be seen through science fiction which reconceptualises gender in more fluid ways, creating androgynous worlds, or populations who can have multiple genders.

The most striking (and, probably well-known) example of a book which explores these themes is Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which an alien visitor comes to the planet Gethen, tasked with providing a report on how the society works to his home planet. Gethenians are like humans in most respects, but they are fully androgynous and sexually ambiguous, meaning that any one individual can take on any gender and its associated roles. Once a month, Gethenians “enter kemmer” – meaning, they begin to become sexually active, and seek out a partner. Once they have found their partner in kemmer, each of them takes on either the male or female role, but neither has a predisposition to either, and being “in kemmer” lasts for two to five days, after which both return to being androgynous, if conception has not taken place.

This means a few major things about the way their society is organised: firstly, that the physical roles assigned to men and women are split evenly across society, as anyone can become pregnant, and people can both bear children themselves, while being the father of others.

Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.

The lack of assigned gender roles means that nobody is considered to be weaker or stronger – and in fact, the alien visitor to the planet struggles throughout the book with how to approach and deal with people without being able to assign to them a gender and associated assumptions of social behaviour. He realises that, from his planet (as on ours!):

Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby

My co-presenter on the radio show, Kate, discovered here a link between this (supposedly fictional) theme, and reality, through feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling’s research on intersexuality. She notes that an estimated 17 of every 1000 live births show evidence of characteristics from both sexes, ranging from chromosomes to hormones to genital appearance and function. There are historical accounts of intersexuals with mixed genitalia; much as the Gethenians in LeGuin’s story, these intersexuals could - and did - spend their life happily engaging in what we would call “heterosexual” intercourse with both men and women. Since the mid-twentieth century, individuals born with ambiguous genitalia have generally undergone surgery as newborns, so that physicians could reassure parents (who are often not fully informed of this process) that they had given birth to a “normal” little boy or girl.

In her book Sexing the Body, Fausto-Sterling describes sexuality as existing not on a linear spectrum from male to female, but an orthogonal spectrum on which masculinity and femininity vary separately - an organism can become biologically more masculine and simultaneously more feminine, or less of both, over the developmental cycle. We can see a hint of the androgyny identified by LeGuin in Fausto-Sterling’s revised conclusion to her 1993 essay, ‘The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not enough’:

Sometimes people suggest to me, with not a little horror, that I am arguing for a pastel world in which androgyny reigns and men and women are boringly the same. In my vision, however, strong colors coexist with pastels. There are and will continue to be highly masculine people out there; it's just that some of them are women. And some of the most feminine people I know happen to be men.

The idea of the crossover between the supposedly fantastical world of science fiction and reality is one that is explored more explicitly within another genre we chose to talk about briefly – Afrofuturism.

The term 'afrofuturism' was coined by Mark Dery, in an essay he wrote in 1994 called Black to the Future. A poignant quote from this: “African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendents of alien abductees.”

There's multiple ways of deconstructing this – the way in which scientific and technological experimentation has taken place in the past, using people of colour as the 'test subjects' – for example Henrietta Lacks' cells being used without her consent in the 1950s up until today – or, quite simply, that during the slave era, black people were actually considered to be of another species, and this was used as justification for the horrors that were imposed upon them. Perhaps the word 'alien' wasn't used; but the trope of 'otherness' that was imposed leads quite naturally to the genre of science fiction, where otherness can be explored and re-imagined.

While Afrofuturism is not explicitly or necessarily related to feminist writings, it's hard for me not to relate the two very strongly; as Ytasha Womack explains in her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black in Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture,

Afrofuturism is a free space for women, a door ajar, arms wide open, a literal and figurative space for black women to be themselves. They can dig behind the societal reminders of blackness and womanhood to express a deeper identity and then use this discovery to define blackness, womanhood, or any other identifier in whatever form their imagination allows.

Womack goes on to talk about numerous women Afrofuturists who have had huge influences on popular culture – not just within writing, but with music (such as Grace Jones, Janelle Monae) – within art, like – even technology, such as Dr. Jarita Holbrook, who has “dedicated her life to uncovering the history of African stargazing.” There's a fascinating discussion within Womack's book of how Africa's scientific and technological legacy has been largely overlooked, for example the continent's longstanding understanding of astronomy. Again – the links between science fiction, science and reality, are blurred here.

Probably the best known Afrofuturist writer is Octavia Butler, who was writing long before the 'Afrofuturist' label was coined, and who has inspired many other writers. In her book Kindred, which combines a critical discussion of the slave trade together with time travel, she takes an African American woman living in the 1970s back to a slave plantation, where all of her understandings of society are turned utterly upside down. She travels back in time with her husband, a white American man, which highlights starkly the difference in their assigned roles in society, and brings the main character to have to adapt to a society that is a world away (almost literally) from her own. The inevitable links between race and gender are explored in many of Butler's books, and especially the slave trade.

More recent Afrofuturist written works include Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, an unflinchingly powerful story of a black woman who discovers supernatural powers which can, if used correctly, end the genocide of her people. Okorafor mixes topics that aren't commonly seen together; shaminism and juju, female genital mutilation, space and time travel, within the book, to create something that doesn't quite fit within the 'strict' genre of science fiction, but lies somewhere between magical realism, fantasy, scifi and the supernatural.

...and there ends our pretty basic introduction to feminist science fiction. There are lots of sub-genres that we didn't mention, and other related genres to science fiction that we didn't get a chance to cover. Recommendations of books to read are always welcome, let us know! 


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