Dave, Lorimer, and Bud, three American astronauts on a mid-twentieth-century circumsolar space mission, lose contact with the Houston space station. In response to their calls, they instead hear the voice of a woman over the ship’s speaker, who tells them that the Houston space station was disbanded centuries before. Their ship, caught on the edge of a black hole that “collapsed the local time dimension,” has rocketed forward in time 300 years. The three men, stunned, realize that they will never again see their wives or children. Even more shockingly, they learn from the crew that picks them up that an epidemic resulting in sterilization decimated the human population; the population of the world is now only 2 million; and that society is now run entirely by women and focused around five activities: food, transportation, communication, space, and babies.
Published by Alice Sheldon under the pen name of James Tiptree in 1976, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a story not only about space travel but also about what a society with no men might looks like. In the world populated only by women, there is no war, but also little technological progress: the women still use 20th-century zeppelins as a means of transportation. Society reproduces itself by cloning, sisters (those with identical genetic information) love each other dearly, and there is little need for hierarchy or governmental rule. Writing in the context of the women’s liberation movement, Tiptree used science fiction as a means to explore the possible implications of women’s empowerment, reproductive technologies, and female separatist political visions.
Science fiction has long been a genre dominated by male authors writing for a male audience. It’s not uncommon for lists of “best science fiction” to include exclusively male authors. Prestigious science fiction awards go disproportionately to white men, particularly to older white men. Recently, a number of female science fiction writers have blogged and spoken about explicit sexism in science fiction associations, conventions, and publications. For example, E. Catherine Tobler publically left Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) after a 2013 edition of its newsletter commented on the appearance of “lady editors” and an article in the next issue “told women to emulate Barbie, to ‘maintain our quiet dignity as a woman should.’”
Yet science fiction has a long feminist history, as well. From some of the earliest works that could be marked as science fiction (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Mummy! by Jane Loudon), women have written core texts exploring the boundaries of scientific visions. And within the subgenre of feminist utopia, feminist science fiction writers can do the important political work of imagining their utopian ideals.
Indeed, science fiction has liberatory political potential that should not rest in the hands of men alone. Female American authors have used science fiction to advance feminist and queer visions of the future.
In her essay “Dreaming the Future,” Hilary Rose writes that the feminist utopia allows us to imagine what a world without current norms of gender and sex would look like. According to Rose, by writing their visions for women’s rights or women’s liberation into science fiction, authors are employing a genre that makes “it possible both to see and see through the structures and inevitablisms of this society” in a way that is “profoundly subversive of the dominant culture.”
One of the earliest works of feminist science fiction is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, published in 1915 in Gilman’s serial, Forerunner. Gilman imagines a society, Herland, that for 2000 years has only included women. After a volcano cuts off their land from the outside world and a violent conflict necessitates the death of all men, the women of Herland find themselves able to reproduce with no men. A woman would find herself infused with joy, become pregnant, and give birth to a daughter; women can choose not to become pregnant, but in Herland, motherhood is the ultimate honor and joy: notes one Herlander, “almost every woman values her maternity above everything else.” The narrator of Herland, a visiting man, observes that this women-only society has no war, no poverty, and no racism. Instead, the Herlanders focus on agriculture and motherhood.
Historian Ann Lane rediscovered Herland in the 1970s, and the story was published as a book for the first time by Pantheon Books in 1979. Lane notes that Herland reflected Gilman’s political visions. Gilman imagined, organized for, and wrote about a humane, communal society motivated by nurture and life-giving—which she believed to be essentially feminine values. Although she did not call herself a feminist, Gilman wrote many books and articles arguing for women’s autonomy in the public sphere, a women-and-birth-centric religion, and care for all children, among other visions. For Gilman, fiction was simply another tool to make a feminist political point.
The 1970s saw a plethora of feminist science fiction, including utopic science fiction works inspired by the lesbian separatist movement within women’s liberation. Joanna Russ, both science fiction author and literary critic, helped define this era of writing. Russ’s 1975 novel The Female Man explores the everyday activities of an all-woman world called Whileaway. Russ imagines that the women of Whileaway reproduce using a technological process that involves “merging of the ova” and parthenogetic reproduction. Janet Evason, a woman from Whileaway, mysteriously ends up in our 1970s America. In the following interchange excerpted from the first chapter of The Female Man, Russ uses a television interview with Janet to satirize contemporary society:
MC: One sex is half a species, Miss Evason. I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist). Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?
JE (with massive dignity and complete naturalness): Huh?
MC: I said: Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway? Sex, family, love, erotic attraction—call it what you like—we all know that your people are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that’s enough?….
JE: I am married. I have two children. What the devil do you mean?
MC: I—Miss Evason—we—well, we know you form what you call marriages…. But there is more, much, much more—I am talking about sexual love.
JE (enlightened): Oh! You mean copulation.
JE: And you say we don’t have that?
JE: How foolish of you. Of course we do.
MC: Am? (He wants to say, “Don’t tell me.”)
JE: With each other. Allow me to explain.
Such a scene unabashedly catered to contemporary queer female readers, whom I imagine took vindictive pleasure in the fictional MC’s discomfort. While The Female Man does much more than simply explore the sexuality of a female-only world, Russ clearly intended her book to titillate, amuse, and inspire her lesbian readers.
What has come of feminist science fiction since the 1970s? Candas Jane Dorsey writes that queer science fiction has not moved very far in the past 30 years—“For many of us, our internal year for gender and sexuality is still 1969, shouting ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to us.’” She notes that there are “a few key texts that have actually done what [SF] is supposed to do, and have pushed the envelope of what is sex and what is gender. Pause for a moment to remember your favorites. Then, onward.” Dorsey calls for more visionary science fiction that plays with sex and gender, challenging heteronormativity and the gender binary more completely than ever.
Certainly, queer and feminist authors are still writing science fiction. Since the 1970s, younger SF writers like Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Margaret Atwood, Nicola Griffin, and others have published literature touching on feminist themes; the Gaylaxica convention provides a platform to connect LGBT science fiction, fantasy, and horror fans; the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award annually honors science fiction that explores or expands an understanding of gender. Yet relatively few young feminists today discuss the thrilling liberatory potential of feminist utopian science fiction. I would like to offer this genre—both its canonical works of the century and its modern manifestation—as an inspirational site for feminist thinkers and activists, rich with potential for theorizing and fantasizing about gender and sexuality.