Beginning with the nineteenth century writers of utopian novels, feminists have explored the possibilities of life outside a patriarchy and have considered the worst possible scenarios if certain patriarchal practices were to be magnified into a dystopian world. Ursula K. Le Guin, considered by many as one of the most significant female science- fiction writers in the late twentieth century, offers a broad definition of science fiction: The writer asks “what if” and then explores the imaginary results.
This definition may seem too broad for many. Octavia E. Butler, for example, does not consider her book Kindred (1979) to be science fiction, although its premise is that a twentieth century African American woman is repeatedly transported back into the time of slavery. As a working definition, however, Le Guin’s allows for a variety of novels with the common ground of speculation. In her own work, such as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), winner of Hugo and Nebula awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America, and Always Coming Home (1985), a collage of different genres, she emphasizes the imaginative in creating societies. For many, the genesis of science-fiction writing was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which was concerned with a society of women who, isolated from men, had evolved their own culture; Inez Haynes Gillmore’s Angel Island (1988) explores similar themes. The earliest science-fiction text, certainly representing feminist values of a healthy respect and fear of the results of science and a concern for all living creatures, is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Written by a nineteen-year-old, it remains in print and has been considered a classic by the standards of the most traditional canon.
Writers of feminist science fiction face two problems, one common to all writers of utopian communities, the other a dilemma for feminists in particular. For all science fiction, exposition can be unwieldy and boring, and many writers solve the problem by having an outsider approach the utopia or dystopia in need of explanation. This character is often a man who does not understand how women could develop self-sustaining communities (Gilman’s Herland and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean). In both these novels, female characters who have lived in a women’s society choose to enter into relationships with men from the outside. Although many male science-fiction writers, both in characterization and marketing, have used women’s bodies to sell books, women rarely have posed a problem to the creation of their imaginative societies. For the feminist author writing a utopian novel, men as they represent the patriarchy must often be...
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