I nicked this list right out of Laurie Penny’s “Fear of a Feminist Future”, which was first in The Baffler and then in What Future (which we just reviewed). This is a great essay, which starts with an early 90s report on possible dystopias. The nadir of the various scenarios was a female-dominated society wherein feelings were more important than thought, and this doomed civilization. Seriously. Penny’s essay ends with “If you can imagine spaceships, if you can imagine time-travel, if you can conjure entire languages and alien races out of the wet stuff behind your eyes, you shouldn’t have a problem imagining a society beyond patriarchy. A feminist future may be inconceivable – but it is coming nonetheless. It is already being written and rewritten by those who reject the brostradamus logic of late capitalism, by those who refuse to cling to the paleofutures of previous times.”
Great stuff, and she adds this feminist sci-fi reading list (the middling blurbs are mine):
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Out just last year and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Power is already slated for TV. What would happen if women suddenly had the ability to shoot electricity through their hands? In this novel, the emergence of that physical power in women starts a slow shift in the power structure of the whole world, with men finding themselves dominated in the way women have been for millennia. Alderman explores the possibilities in politics, religion, and even follows through to examine the dangers inherent in power-wielding itself.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Another award winner (Hugo) and another TV show, this is the first of a series (the second of which also won a Hugo). This is top notch world-building. On a planet with one super-continent, regular, massive geological disasters can only be mitigated by the persecuted minority at the bottom of a rigid caste system. Against the massive scale of impending planet-wide disaster, this is a personal story about three women whose lives are separate but connected… or are they? Go get buried in this one.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
This one is like the first season of a really good team-based space opera TV series, in that it’s less about resolving a specific plot and more about the stories and relationships of the various characters. The ragtag crew of a space-tunneling ship trundle out to the boondocks on a job; adventure ensues.
Of course, you know mighty Octavia Butler (a local!), and we’ve talked about her here before. Sower and Talents are set in an eerily believable near-horizon dystopia: a societal meltdown stemming from extreme economic inequality and environmental collapse (we know it as the RNC platform). The protag, gifted(cursed) somewhat like an empath, forms a sort of religion/philosophy and a new community — which is put in danger by a powerful “Christian” fundamentalist movement. I mean, this is barely science fiction at this point. Still, Butler is in the pantheon of great sci-fi writers, so don’t neglect this work.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
This one from the 70s is dark. A woman in a dystopia is thrown in and out of a mental hospital (as per usual, and for the usual reasons – for resisting male violence), when she encounters time travelers. They enlist her help to ensure their utopic future (a really interesting one) and prevent an alternate dystopic one (see above: RNC platform). She grows in her contact with the folks from the future, and makes some tough choices in her present.
The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin
Here’s another 70s novel and a multiple award-winner, from Ursula K. LeGuin, cozy up there in that sci-fi pantheon with Octavia Butler. A scientist travels between neighboring planets with near opposite organizational principles, wrestling with the faults of both and protecting a controversial new technology of his own invention. This book is less about feminism and more about anarchy versus capitalism, but of course, all those those ideas (and more!) are inextricably linked. This novel is part of her indispensable Haimish series; you might even call it a prequel.
The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
Women live in civilized enclaves, with education and other nice things, and men live in spartan-ish warrior camps. There are protocols for interaction, and select men are allowed to serve the females, but the genders are kept separate on a permanent basis. This is only the arrangement in Women’s Country, one of a number of distinct civilizations in this futuristic post-apocalypse. Despite those broad world-building strokes, this is very character-driven and has lots of surprises.
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
These guys do the best anthologies. Sisters of the Revolution stretches back about 40 years, and covers not only a diverse range of authors (from Joanna Russ to Nnedi Okorafor), but a wide range of styles and subgenres, from fantasy to surrealism and weird fiction (not that the distinctions are always… distinct).
The power and beauty of science fiction (or speculative fiction) is in asking that essential question of all change: What if? Feminist sci-fi draws on a particularly immediate set of source materials for that question. The goal is to some day be past having to ask it.