I have always loved reading Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF); I loved exploring what it might be like to live in a completely different world. At some point I began to realize that the genres I loved didn’t always love me back. The most respected stories were by men and about men, and women were often not portrayed at all, as in early Asimov, or portrayed in problematic ways, e.g. Heinlein’s women who are incredibly othered. Newer books may be a bit less blatant, but their portrayal of women can still be really problematic. Female characters often seem like afterthoughts and women’s stories are rarely given center stage. SFF offers a lot of ways to explore gender, yet a few months ago, when Alex Dally MacFarlane posted on Tor.com suggesting the gender binary should not be the default for SFF, she was attacked.
As a teen I read lots of books that I would now avoid. I read quite a few problematic books. I read what I could find in bookstores and libraries and on my parents’ shelves. Some of what I read was lovely, but most of my teen reading was really sexist. Books by women and books with feminist themes were not always easy to find. Over time, I’ve figured out new ways of finding books to read so I can avoid these issues. I joined online communities (like Sheroes!) where people talked about feminist books, and I started reading SFF blogs with a feminist focus. But I know it can still be hard to find feminist books that aren’t pushed through the main channels, especially older books.
This post is for people who like the idea of feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy but aren’t quite sure where to start. I attempted to include a mix of older classics along with some newer favorites of mine. These books consider feminism and gender in a variety of ways. There are books that foreground female characters or explore gender and society.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: Simultaneously dystopic and utopic, this book is about a woman in a mental institution who visit a utopic future. The mental institution is as grim as any dystopia; however, the future she visits is very feminist with roles such as “mother” being detached from the gender of the person performing the role. The book also explores how women are disempowered and how even people who feel powerless can shape the future.
A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski: This book uses and subverts the planet of women trope. The planet is called Shora and the women are purple and have the most awesome eco-tech. The women have a managed ecosystem that provides for all their needs. As someone who studies ecology, I especially loved this aspect of the book. Slonczewski’s Quaker values are very much in evidence, as the main characters attempt to resolve their problems with nonviolence.
Slow River by Nicola Griffith: All of Griffith’s work is amazing and worth checking out, but this one happens to be my personal favorite. It’s about troubled families and finding one’s place in the world, and also using bio engineering microbes to treat sewage. I love it when the science in science fiction is biology! The main character is a queer woman, who was kidnapped and is now estranged from her family, and must work to find herself again. (Trigger warning: Child abuse)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: All of Le Guin’s work touches on feminist themes, but this one deals with gender most directly. The book features a planet were the people are physically sexless most of the time, except for a few days a month, when they become either male or female bodied in order to procreate. It is beautifully written.
The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott: This series engages with feminism in a much more political sense than the works I’ve discussed so far, and features more direct discussion of the legal rights of women. This book offers a complex alternative earth, were the ice age didn’t end, the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs are still with us, Rome didn’t defeat Carthage, and, oh, there is magic. I loved Cat, the main character, who is fierce and unapologetic, and has an important relationship with her cousin, Bee.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book is secondary world fantasy about a young woman in a restricted society who wants to be a scientist. The book addresses the obstacles she faces in a very feminist manner. Brennan has a background in anthropology and folklore, which really shows in her world building.
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard: This book is a study of two women in power. It’s also an awesome story about a complex family that lives on a space station that makes its own fish sauce. I find the focus on domestic issues, such as running a household and planning dinner parties, traditionally women’s work, to be very feminist.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ: An under-rated classic, The Female Man mixes together the stories of women from different timelines, including the female-only society of Whileaway. Russ really focuses on feminist issues like presenting oneself as feminine and saying no to men. This book is postmodern and can be a bit hard to follow in places.
The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier: A great history of feminism and SFF that looks at not only how stories have been used to discuss gender, but also the role of feminist debate within science fiction fandom. The history of women participating in SFF is often erased, so I found it very valuable to have this resource. This book acknowledges that women have always been part of SFF, both reading and writing.
Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planing. She also spends too much time reading, and loves science fiction and fantasy.
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