J.K. Ullrich | May 17, 2016
The first science fiction book I remember features a female engine mechanic, Lieutenant Lily, who “loves the big machines” and is the best shot on her spaceship’s crew — she’s also a frog. On my frequent library visits, I’d plunder the children’s section for more silly space adventures like Jane Yolen’s Commander Toad. As my reading advanced, however, I realized Lieutenant Lily was an endangered species. Although my parents and librarians found dozens of wonderful books with with plucky heroines (no mean task in the 1990s, before young adult fiction became a publishing craze) there seemed to be a black hole on the sci-fi shelf. Why did females, as characters or as authors, seem so rare in sci-fi stories?
It’s a puzzling phenomenon in a genre that women pioneered. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, often credited as the first science fiction novel, in 1818. When sci-fi exploded in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s, women often published stories under androgynous noms de plume, like C.L. Moore. Female readers also helped popularize science fiction as a commercial genre. In 1953, the editor of a pulp story collection observed that “a lot of girls and housewives and other members of the sex are quietly reading science fiction… we honestly never expected such a surge of women into science fiction.” The 1970s brought a female science fiction writers’ renaissance. Authors like Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre and Lois McMaster Bujold earned Hugo and Nebula awards for their work. There’s no question that female authors left an indelible legacy in the genre.
“SFWA has bestowed its ‘Grand Master’ award on 32 authors since the inaugural presentation in 1975, but only four recipients are women.”
Yet when we talk about classic sci-fi, more people think of Asimov and Bradbury than Atwood and Butler. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has bestowed its “Grand Master” award on 32 authors since the inaugural presentation in 1975, but only four recipients are women. In 2011, The Guardian conducted an online poll to determine readers’ favorite sci-fi novels. Out of more than 500 authors respondents mentioned, only 18 were female, a paltry four per cent. Despite strong female voices shaping science fiction from its origins, men have established hegemony in common perceptions of the genre.
Perhaps that’s why, in one instance, a person from a literary association assumed I was a man. After I gave an email interview earlier this year about my award-winning debut novel, the posted piece described a conversation with author J.K. Ullrich “about his book Blue Karma and his writing process.” Since I publish using my initials rather than my full name and write in the sci-fi genre, it seems that the writer jumped to the conclusion that I was a male author. The mistake incensed me, but rage cooled into resolve: I realized that writing gives me an opportunity to challenge these gender biases and continue the female sci-fi tradition.
Girls need to hear female voices in science fiction, as creators and as characters. Just ask astronaut Mae Jemison. She says watching Star Trek as a girl—specifically, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura—inspired her career. Not only can engaging girls in this genre foster interest in scientific fields, where women remain a minority, but it also encourages them to think more boldly about their place in the world. In sci-fi, “there’s no barrier as to what female characters can achieve,” says Marie Octobre, associate professor and librarian at the Gill Library in Brooklyn. “In reading these stories, the next generation will not limit themselves to what society says women should or should not do.”
But rather than embrace female characters as a positive force in science fiction, our culture persists in editing them out. The most recent Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, made headlines when movie-themed toys omitted Rey, the film’s female protagonist. Outraged fans took to social media, asking #WheresRey? Wherever she is, she keeps good company with Black Widow, Storm, Gamora and other leading ladies routinely excluded from their franchise’s marketing; The Fantastic Four is not the only sci-fi ensemble with an Invisible Woman. Heroine erasure reinforces two troubling assumptions. First, that only boys are interested in sci-fi stories. And second, that boys will—or, even more disconcertingly, should—ignore female characters in imaginary play.
The latter point raises particular concern because stories shape our minds on a biological level. A 2011 study on social cognition and story comprehension identified substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and those used to interact with other individuals. Stories are essentially neurological simulations that influence our social skills. Gender segregation in fiction, therefore, perpetuates it in real life. It leaves boys ill-equipped to interact with female counterparts and denies girls a role in the future worlds such stories depict.
Authors and librarians alike should aspire to a healthier paradigm. Middle-school librarian Robert Behlke recommends any book he thinks will get students to read, irrespective of gender. “I have always identified with strong characters regardless [of gender],” he says. “I want good stories.” I take a similar approach with writing. Both my debut novel Blue Karma and my upcoming trilogy opener The Darksider combine page-turning plots with dynamic protagonists of both sexes. While I’ll always champion heroines like those I discovered in my childhood libraries, I believe all readers deserve exciting narratives and a cast of characters that reflects the richness of human experiences.
Writers can reimagine gender roles in science fiction, but we rely on librarians to invite readers into those tales. “As a public librarian who values having all voices heard in our collection, I wouldn’t hesitate to help by purchasing more sci-fi books with female writers or protagonists,” says Dallas-based librarian Elizabeth Kwan.
Promoting these books in themed displays alongside more familiar titles may help integrate them into the genre’s continuum. Library-hosted discussion groups could explore current events such as climate change or genetic engineering through science fiction, encouraging patrons to rethink assumptions about the genre. All these may seem like small steps, but even human exploration of space began with “one small step” on the moon. If we can open our minds to stories of faraway worlds, surely we can recognize that women in science fiction are anything but alien.
J.K. Ullrich is the author of Blue Karma, LJ’s 2015 Indie Ebook Awards winner in the science fiction genre. She is also a judge for LJ’s 2016 Indie Ebook Awards.