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?
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.