The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

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*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

90 Percent of YA is Crap

Malinda Lo has written an articulate blog post on the way the internet continually reengages with the question of why adults read young adult literature. She sets about “unpacking” the various approaches to the question focusing on reception theory and shared cultural interpretations. I find her post both illuminating and well stated, but I’m also slightly irritated by its necessity. I find the question essentially not worth asking.

I am an unwavering proponent of Sturgeon’s Law.

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
—Theodore Sturgeon, March 1958 issue of Venture

But I also believe there is an important idea that should follow his revelation: crap can be fun and fun shouldn’t be taken lightly.

To me, the answer to the question of why an adult reads YA breaks down into two interrelated parts:

  1. 10% of YA is self-evidently as good as any other literature and should therefore be read by pretty much anyone; and
  2. Specific kinds of YA crap might appeal to any adult based on personal taste.

I might personally find Twilight or The Hunger Games derivative or annoying, but I can’t really condemn an adult for enjoying them while I have Battle Royale sitting on my bookshelf next to War and Peace.

At some point in our intellectual development, we all need to embrace the possibility that art can be objectively good* (or at least well executed), or historically important or culturally relevant and still not appeal to us personally.

I can intellectually assess Battle Royale to be a little junky as literature and still vastly prefer it to War and Peace, which is clearly a magnificent work of art, yet bored me senseless.

The concept of adolescence as a stage in human development didn’t really exist prior to the last half of the 19th Century. And I think it’s fair to question how much of the ghettoization of young adult literature as a genre—much like the divisions between science fiction, fantasy and horror—is a product of 20th Century marketing rather than an organic response to the preferences of readers.

That any reader would question the value of reading something like Ursula K. LeGuin‘s masterful Earthsea books because they’re often shelved with the YA is absurd to me. And the Earthsea books resemble something like the YA favourite Harry Potter series in that they are also made of words written down and distributed to readers—but the qualitative similarities thin out past that point despite some rudimentary plotting coincidences [coughschoolforwizardscough].**

As to the question of why cultural groups might embrace certain specific kinds of YA crap, you are more than welcome to explore the interesting ideas contained in reception theory and forms of groupthink. But before we wind down those academic paths, can we not separate out the really good 10% of YA first?

Don’t all genre classifications become immaterial when the quality of a given book rises to a certain level? Do we really care that The Lord of the Rings is so-called high fantasy or Brave New World is dystopian science fiction? Aren’t they both still great books for young adults regardless of where they get shelved?

We—the chattering class—probably need to spend more time trying to critically assess which books, out of the mass of those currently marketed as YA, are going to eventually be recognized as part of that all-important 10%,*** and stop judging people for enjoying crap.

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*I’m asking the postmodernists and post-structuralists to just roll with me here, but I’m aware you’re out there and I have some sympathy with your point of view—some.
**Try not to bag on me about this point, the Harry Potter books are clearly very entertaining and I’m not really accusing J.K. of ripping off Ursula—being influenced by, maybe.
***Raise your hands if you’ve read The House of the Scorpion.