Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

Guest Post for Stacked: About the Girls

Stacked ran a really great series of essays for Women's History Month this past March called About the Girls. Some of my favorites included Brandy Colbert's "What About Intersectionality and Friendship in YA?" and Amy Reed's post about writing "unlikeable" heroines. The site was kind enough to ask me to contribute an essay, as well, which I'm reposting here. If you want to read it on Stacked, though, please check out this link.


When you think of “girly” books, chances are, you’re not thinking about science fiction. Sci-fi, along with horror and other “weird” fiction, has long been male territory, where women are the exception. I learned this lesson over and over again as a teenager searching for sci-fi written by or starring women. Not that I didn’t get any pleasure from Robert Heinlein’s “boys” novels, for example, or gain insight about issues like poverty (Citizen of the Galaxy) or self-determination (Farmer in the Sky), but there was a special kind of excitement in finding a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist. After all, even Ursula Le Guin, who inspired me and whose books I loved dearly, often wrote about men.

The big boom in young adult literature came right after I graduated from college. Suddenly, here were all the books I had been desperate to read as a teenager, when my YA reading choices were limited to Sweet Valley High (too fluffy and formulaic), John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (good, but about rich boys courting tragedy at boarding school), and I Know What You Did Last Summer (the best of the bunch). Now I could read about kick-ass young women with magical powers and girls doing everything I had dreamed of as a teen. But the sci-fi pickings were still fairly slim. I loved fantasy, too, and now there was plenty of it, but where were the spaceships? Where were the girls surviving on hostile planets, like Rod Walker in Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky?

I had come across Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer, about a young woman sent to a planet to help mine crystals by singing, at a used book store in high school. I wanted so desperately to finish reading the trilogy, but my small-town public library didn’t have the other two books, and the internet hadn’t quite caught on in rural North Carolina at that point, so I couldn’t track them down. Every time I went to a used book store for the next five years, I checked for the rest of the Crystal Singer series, with no luck. I’m sure there were other sci-fi books by and about women out there, but they were so few and far between, the chances of them making their way into my orbit were slim to none. Like many girls and women, I was making do with glimmers of what could be, like the scene in Return of the Jedi where Leia disguises herself as a bounty hunter and tries to rescue Han (before she ends up chained and in a bikini). 

Enter The Hunger Games. I was working at a book store at the time and managed to snag an ARC before the first book came out. I read the whole thing in one sitting, incredibly moved and energized. I felt like Molly Grue in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn when she comes across the title character for the very first time and bursts into tears, shouting, “Where have you been?” Where had books like this been when I was a teenager? Why had it waited to show up until I was at an age where I was “supposed” to be reading adult books? But like Molly Grue, what was ultimately important to me was that it was here now. I didn’t know it yet, but The Hunger Games was about to usher in a tidal wave of dystopian fiction. It was going to lead all of its fellows out of the sea.

Some people don’t think of dystopian fiction, which women are writing in staggering numbers, as part of science fiction. I have to disagree. When you have genetically modified monsters running around a reconstructed post-apocalyptic North America with advanced technology and striking class divisions, you’ve got sci-fi. Others refer to dystopian novels dismissively as “soft” science fiction, as if books that deal with bio-ethical or sociological issues are not “real” science fiction. “Real” sci-fi is “hard” sci-fi, and it belongs to men.

Of course, this is a fallacy, too. Women have staked out territory in all areas of sci-fi in recent years. Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy has made major inroads in introducing female YA readers to harder science fiction. Marissa Meyer has given us a cyborg Cinderella in her Lunar Chronicles series. Lauren DeStefano has deftly intertwined genetics and feminist issues in her Chemical Gardens trilogy. And the international writing team of Amie Kaufmann and Meagan Spooner has shown us through their Starbound series that all kinds of girls are welcome in the science fiction universe, both kick-ass soldiers and those whose appreciation of a nice ball gown doesn’t change the fact that they are whip-smart survivors.

The fundamental trouble here, though, is the false dichotomy set up between hard and soft science fiction. Why do we think we can’t have our space ships and explosions together with our explorations of the ethics of cloning or ruminations on the ways alien cultures might view sexuality differently from our own? Why do some people think of “soft” sci-fi as somehow lesser? Many women, myself included, write soft science fiction because sociological issues like cultural bias, discrimination, and abuse materially affect our lives. Authors like Nnedi Okorafor, who writes both YA and adult novels, Mary E. Pearson, and Alaya Dawn Johnson deftly bring social issues into focus under a science-fictional lens, and the result is dazzling.

In actuality, science fiction is the perfect arena for exploring sociological issues, because the genre has long taken on hot topics and attempted to reframe them in a way that might help us view our own world differently. We can take a fresh look at race, class, or terrorism without the baggage we have when reading the news, then return to those real-world issues with a fresher, deeper understanding. Women like the ones I’ve mentioned have proved they are not afraid to do this. In fact, they excel at this, one of the most fundamental values underpinning science fiction writing.

Women carving out a space for themselves in science fiction is changing the face of the genre, and changing it for the better. It is broadening and deepening the conversations we have in science fiction. If we keep reading and writing, who knows what brave new worlds we’ll discover next?

This post originally appeared on Stacked on March 31, 2015.

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