Let’s Talk About Feminist Science Fiction

Aqueduct PressI’m one of the people reading for The Year’s Illustrious Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy, an anthology of stories published in 2014 which will be edited by Nisi Shawl and published by Aqueduct Press.

According to the announcement, this anthology is the first of a series aimed at presenting remarkable feminist SF/F. The announcement goes on to say:

We intend to assemble anthologies representing the qualities that make feminist SF so amazing, thought-provoking, challenging, and deeply satisfying.

If you’ve read – or written – something published in 2014 that you think we should consider, use this form to submit it. (Don’t send it to me; I might mislay it.)

And that brings us to the question du jour: Just what is feminist science fiction and fantasy?

My basic answer – “I know it when I see it” – is accurate, but provides no more guidance for other people than the similar statement about pornography in a supreme court opinion.

So let’s start with what feminist science fiction and fantasy isn’t.

  • It isn’t a story that passes the Bechdel Test. Let’s face it: the Bechdel Test is pretty minimal. It’s shocking how many movies flunk this very basic standard. Short stories do a lot better, at least these days.
  • It isn’t necessarily a story with fully developed women characters who are important to the story. Stories like that can be feminist, of course, and most of the ones I’ve seen lately certainly aren’t anti-feminist.

By the way, I’ve seen a lot of good stories with fully developed women characters, by authors of all genders. I consider those stories to be a wonderful by-product of feminism and feminist science fiction.

Thirty years ago, I’d have read all the women-centric adventure stories as feminist, because they were unusual and I was so hungry for them. Now, though, I want something more than a kick-ass woman adventurer in my feminist fiction.

  • And it certainly isn’t a humorless story. There’s plenty of funny feminism out there.

It could be argued that anything published by Aqueduct Press is feminist, since the company’s motto is “bringing challenging feminist science fiction to the demanding reader.” But I don’t think Aqueduct would do an anthology if it didn’t think there was good work being published by other presses.

These days, I’d define a feminist story as one that plays with, challenges, or changes our assumptions about gender, human relationships, societal structures, and the like. That’s my current working definition (along with “I know it when I see it”).

Maybe it would help if I discussed the subject in terms of my own work, since I’m often considered a feminist science fiction writer.

In my recent BVC collection, Walking Contradiction and Other Futures, the lead characters in all the stories are female (or at least part female). But I’d only consider two of those seven stories feminist: the title story and “Nohow Permanent.” “Walking Contradiction” tells the story of an ambigendered person – someone who is physically both male and female – and contrasts that character with other people, including some who have surgically altered themselves to be without any sexual organs of any kind. “Nohow Permanent” is a playful riff on gender in a far future. It’s also a homage to Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

But the rest of the stories – three of which are military SF and all of which have bang-up fight scenes – are just stories in which women are important characters and live in worlds in which women soldiers or adventurers are accepted.

My earlier collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, is more representative of feminist work. “A Mere Scutcheon,” in which I put female soldiers into the world of The Three Musketeers, is feminist due to the contrast with the original story (in which women rarely come off well, much as I love it). It’s also funny.

“Homesteading,” which is near future and post-apocalyptic, deals with women who fight and women who don’t think they can fight. “Thirty-One Rules for Fulfilling Your Destiny,” a story in aphorisms, gets in a few good lines about women in epic fantasy or space opera.

“The First Condition of Immortality” is about death. Nothing feminist (or non-feminist) about it.

As for “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” I don’t think it’s feminist because I know it’s rooted in a dream I had as a child. But some people do, possibly because I included a deteriorating marriage.

Which leads me back to my original position. I’m not always sure what feminist science fiction is, but I know it when I see it. And so, apparently, do lots of other people.

Suggest the stories you think are feminist for The Year’s Illustrious Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy. I look forward to reading them.



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