My favourite feminist SF/fantasy reads

I’ve been talking to a couple of people on Twitter about my favourite feminist SF/fantasy and reads and what they mean to me.  It’s made me want to put together a review of novels dear to my heart, works that I return to when I need a glimpse of how things could be different.  They’re in no order of merit or affection, I’ve just written about them as they spring to mind.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. I first read this at university, when I took a Women’s Studies elective called something like Utopias and Dystopias: women’s science fiction. I’d read other novels by Marge Piercy, but had been unaware that she had ventured into SF (she also wrote the stunning Body of Glass).  Published in 1976, WOTEOT is very much of that decade.  The essence of the plot is that Connie, a Mexican-American domestic violence victim, is judged as mentally unwell after she fights back, and is incarcerated in a psychiatric ward and heavily drugged.  While under the influence of major tranquilisers she begins to experience a visitor from another time, who shows her a Utopian future where gender differences are minimised, people strive for careful ecological stewardship, and men and women share parenting (even breastfeeding!) equally.  The community lives – or is going to – live in 2137 but Connie is often uncertain whether they are real at all, a drug-induced vision, or evidence that she is psychotic after all.  35 years after publication, this may all seem rather hippie, or  blandly earnest in its men-and-women-are-all-people-let’s-care-for-the-planet vibe, but Piercy’s vision of a more equitable future was once ground-breaking and remains appealing to anyone who hankers toward a simpler lifestyle.

The Gate to Women’s Country is another text I was introduced to studying that university module.  Before this, I had never even heard of Sherri S Tepper (shame on me).  TGTWC contains both utopian elements, in the form of Women’s Country itself, a matriarchal, matrifocal community into which only those men who do not relish aggression and violence are welcomed, and dystopian ones (it includes a section protagonist Stavia is captured and enslaved by a group of deeply abusive fundamentalist men).  In this version of a post-apocalyptic future, boys are sent through the Gate at a young age to be trained as warriors; in their teens they must decide whether to renounce aggression and return to Women’s Country to live as servitors to the women, or to remain in the garrison forever.  Those who  stay will only be allowed to meet with the women twice a year, when sexual contact is permitted and babies are conceived.  Published in 1988, TGTWC has a more complex view of gender in which even the apparent basis of Women’s Country itself (woman: nurturing, rational, good; man: aggressive, physical, irrational) turns out to be much less straightforward than it might appear.  One aspect of this book I really don’t like, however, is that the Women’s Country selective breeding programme has been used to eradicate homosexuality – women can be anything they like, it seems, except lovers of other women, which seems frankly odd, given that they are forced to choose between aggressive military men they see only once a year, or servitors who are presented as being rather wet second-class citizens.

It wasn’t on my course, but it definitely while I was at uni that I first read Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean. The novel is set on a moon named Shora, orbiting the planet of Valedon.  Shora is an ocean world inhabited by an all-female race known as the Sharers, who live in careful harmony with their environment, and find it extremely hard to conceive of coercive power relationships.  When a military force from Valedon arrives to subdue the natives, the Sharers have no means of responding other than passive resistance, which is of course interpreted variously as insolence, stupidity or weakness by the Valans.  When a young Valan man named Spinel “goes native” and demonstrates his willingness to try to live as the Sharers do, he first has to convince them that he is human, as they find it hard to understand that anyone who is truly human could behave as most of the Valans do.  Interestingly, although as an all-female species the Sharers are of course lesbian, a Sharer woman falls in love with Spinel and it is she who reassures him that it is his spirit that is important, not his anatomical construction.

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin is the first in a trilogy, but to my mind it is by far the strongest of the three.  It was published in 1984, and envisages an America in which the 19th Amendment (granting women’s suffrage) has been repealed sometime in the late 90s, eventually leading to women’s rights being completely eroded and their status being reduced to that of property.  The power of language is the central theme of the novel, as in this future Earth’s prosperity relies on being able to communicate with other races to permit interplanetary trade, and as a consequence linguists enjoy extremely high status.  Linguistic abilities are regarded as a hereditary gift, concentrated within families.  The male linguists are, however, unaware that the women of their families communicate in a secret women-only language called Láadan.  Elgin put a lot of effort into creating a grammar and phonology for Láadan – you can read about it on Wikipedia where you will find that, surprise, surprise, Elgin is an academic linguist.  Láadan is a key tool in the women’s hidden struggle towards emancipation, and central to the rather tense plot is the need for it to remain a complete secret from the men until the moment for revolution is ripe.

The Holdfast Chronicles by Suzy McKee Charnas. Four novels make up the Holdfast Chronicles, two published in the 70s and two more in the 90s.  The Holdfast is another postapocalyptic patriarchal dystopia in which women (referred to as “fems”) are used as slaves for work and breeding.  In the first novel, Walk to the End of the World, a fem called Alldera leaves Holdfast to try to find the legendary band of free fems. What she finds is fully explored in the second of the quartet (my favourite!), Motherlines.  Rather than simply escaped fems, out on the grasslands there lives an “Amazon” society of nomadic horsewomen who live in a tribal structure reminiscent of Native American cultures.  As the Riding Women have no contact with men, they are of course exclusively lesbian and perpetuate their society through some fairly mind-boggling interaction with their horses (I seem to remember that their ancestors were geneticists).  In the later books, Alldera leads a force of women back to the Holdfast to recapture it, and the women find themselves in danger of becoming as cruel and oppressive as the Holdfast men have been, now that they are in power.  In terms of speculative thought experiment, therefore, the later books are probably more interesting; but nothing beats the utopian escapism of the Riding Women.

Speaking of Amazons, I can’t resist a mention of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Free Amazons of Darkover. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many books make up MZB’s Darkover series, but the basic premise is that many years ago a group of Scottish (yes, Scottish) scientists made landfall on the planet of Darkover and couldn’t get home.  Luckily, it turns out to be cold, dreary place excellently suited to building castles and the wearing of tartan.  Over the centuries, the original families have developed into clans, wars have been fought, and the clans have developed various psi-powers.  I’m making it all sound a bit rubbish, and it’s certainly true that the Darkover books are more pulpy than anything I’ve mentioned so far.  But at her best, MZB was an absolutely outstanding writer (see The Mists of Avalon and The Best of MZB).  The Free Amazons of Darkover is a collection of short stories about a group of women who live autonomously within the largely patriarchal Darkover society, and they also form the main subject matter of novels such as The Shattered Chain and Thendara House.  The Amazons are an entirely female guild of independent women or “Renunciates”, who live separately in their guildhouses, and for whom friendships and love relationships with women are of central importance.

I’m going to wrap this up with some Ursula K Le Guin.  I have heard that Le Guin doesn’t like her work being referred to as feminist, but she’s certainly very good at exercising curiosity as to why and how we construct gender roles and expectations.  The Left Hand of Darkness (published in 1969) is set on a planet of people who are of no gender most of the time, until they enter a cyclical state of fertility known as “kemmer”, at which point they may develop either male or female characteristics.  This gives rise to the delicious opening line, “the King was pregnant.”  Or how about her short story Mountain Ways (from the anthology The Birthday of the World), set on the planet O, where marriages are contracted not just according to one’s gender, but also in accordance with one’s moiety?  “Ki’O society is divided into two halves or moieties, called (for ancient religious reasons) the Morning and the Evening.  You belong to your mother’s moiety, and you can’t have sex with anybody of your moiety.”  A marriage therefore contains four parties: the Morning man, the Evening man, the Morning woman and the Evening woman. The Morning woman can lie with the Evening Man and the Evening woman, but not the Morning man, and so on, making four combinations of permitted sexual conduct within a marriage.  “It’s just as complicated as it sounds,” says Le Guin, “but aren’t most marriages?”  My favourite, however, is Always Coming Home, a utopian work about a race of people called the Kesh, who Le Guin says “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”  In common with some of the novels mentioned at the top of this blog, a strong ecological consciousness runs through Always Coming Home, and the influence of Native American culture (as well as Le Guin’s Taoism) is felt very strongly.  Rather than a novel per se, ACH is a patchwork of oral history, songs, stories, poems and folklore of the Kesh, a kind of textual archaeology, which reveals that they “might be going to have been” a tribal, egalitarian culture which strives to live in harmony with the environment and non-human beings.  Central to the text is the story of Stone Telling, who leaves her Kesh village in search of her father, a general in a warrior tribe, and experiences life in the patriarchal South City of the Condor People.  Sadly, this book has been out of print for some time, but I understand that when it was first published it came with a soundtrack (!), an audiocassette of Kesh songs and poems.  I wonder if anyone still has one of those?


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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3 Responses to My favourite feminist SF/fantasy reads

  1. Clare says:

    Spooky – I’m just reading Birthday of the World, having recently read the Left Hand of Darkness. The first le Guin book I read was ‘Changing Planes’ – fabulous short stories set in a variety of equally imaginative worlds. I don’t read much sci-fi these days (though I loved it as a child) – must check out some of the others you mention!

  2. Susan says:

    Bradley’s Arthurian books are interesting as a reflection of society’s concerns and values; especially when compared to earlier versions. Hers show the growing environmentalist concerns as well as having a definite feminist ideology. The earliest Arthurian stories were written as a literary challenge to the French (“your Charlemagne isn’t as good as our Arthur”) and Guinevere barely featured (I can’t remember if she was in this version at all) as the tale centred around Arthur’s military prowess. The French grabbed the story and turned Arthur into a man cuckolded by his friend (Lancelot was of french extraction) and played heavily on the Catholic idea that Eve was responsible for the Fall of Man. Later iterations are excellent examples of how stories are reworked and reflect their eras. Sara Douglass wrote an interesting non-fiction book called ‘The Betrayal of Arthur’; you might find it interesting.

  3. spicejac says:

    I’ve read a lot of these novels – and enjoy seeing them up written about again. Thank you!

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