In 1952 The Palm-wine Drinkard became the first West African novel written in English to be published internationally. That it was written by Amos Tutuola, an unknown Nigerian clerk who took to writing to alleviate boredom, meant the book caused a stir. To this day, it’s celebrated as a key example of African fantasy.
But more recent analysis suggests that the Western view of Tutuola as a fantasy writer is slightly patronising, because it overlooks how seriously his work engages with African reality on its own terms.
Similarly, my reading of the novel explores how it is more suitably classified as a pioneering work of African science fiction than of fantasy. And a lot of that has to do with the way Tutuola uses language. Fantasy deals in the mythic and supernatural. Science fiction is an invention more grounded in reality. I suggest that the lazy appeal to African fantasy and folklore is in line with a longstanding dismissal of Africans as technological beings and, by extension, writers of science fiction.
What the book’s about
The Palm-wine Drinkard introduces us to the Drinkard, who passes his time drinking palm wine with his friends. The alcoholic drink is made from the sap of palm trees, collected by a tapster.
Then his beloved tapster dies after falling from a tree. No longer able to access palm wine, the Drinkard soon loses favour with his friends.
He resolves to bring the tapster back from the place where all dead souls go – Deads’ Town. He passes through many strange towns, meeting bizarre creatures on his journey before finally reuniting with his tapster. Only to learn that a dead person cannot leave Deads’ Town.
Bereft, the Drinkard returns home. Having matured on his journey, he is no longer a nonchalant drunkard and demonstrates his newfound sense of civic duty by bringing an end to a famine in his village.
Western critics hailed The Palm-wine Drinkard as inventive and avant-garde. But Nigerian critics were puzzled and even embarrassed by Tutuola’s use of English. They argued no such English existed, even in a purely spoken form.
Putting the debate of literary quality aside, Tutuola’s striking use of language is undoubtedly sublime, able to transport the reader in ways that are necessary and expected for science fiction. He takes great pains to place his narrative within lived and believable African experience that is more in line with science fiction than fantasy.
Creating a sci-fi world
Samuel R. Delany is a luminary African-American science fiction writer and critic. For him, science fiction is able to “generate the infantile wonder” of the reader through language.
In his hallmark essay About 5,750 Words, he gives an insightful explanation of how science fiction is distinct from other types of fiction. Where realism tells what “could have happened” and fantasy explores what “could not have happened”, science fiction opens up space for events “that have not happened” yet.
Fantasy can travel anywhere, but science fiction approaches the world with an inventive attitude rather than a fanciful one. Science fiction can stretch outside our current world, but never to the extent of fantasy. As Delany explains, science fiction writers very carefully use language as part of a process that helps the imagination make the leap from our world into an alternative one.
Tutuola is invested in this balancing act: he stretches the limits of realism but also reins in the unlimited possibilities of fantasy. For example, the Drinkard explains that he and his wife became immortal because they “had ‘sold our death’ to somebody at the door for the sum of £70: 18: 6d and ‘lent our fear’ to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3: 10: 0d per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again”.
Tutuola imagines a refreshing option where states of existence like death and anxiety – much like everything else in our consumerist culture – can be traded or rented and “worn” like clothing. Giving the exact amounts in British pounds marries something as familiar as shopping with the wondrous potential that we may one day discard existential inconveniences as easily.
For every fantastic suggestion, Tutuola provides a real-world equivalent. He places the most bizarre creatures within the limits of our current experience.
In the forest the Drinkard meets a creature whose two large eyes “were as big as bowls” and feet as “long and thick as a pillar of a house”. This reliance on similes or mundane comparisons is part of an effort to weave the fanciful into the reader’s reality.
The Palm-wine Drinkard uses language in ways that critics like Delany insist are universally crucial to science fiction.
African sci-fi and fable
Some contemporary appraisals of science fiction in Africa argue that the genre is rooted in indigenous fable and folklore and should be read on unique – exceptionalist – terms.
Yet reading African science fiction as an exclusive – and even resistant – form of science fiction, we lose sight of the globalising spirit that’s central to understandings of popular culture in Africa.
Wielding language as the ultimate form of technology, Tutuola has reassembled it and built a vocabulary for his pioneering work of African science fiction that can easily be read as a worthy participant on the global stage of popular genre fiction.
This article is based on Moonsamy’s chapter in the new book Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century from The Ohio State University Press.
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a theory widely shared on social media suggested that a science fiction text, Dean Koontz’s 1981 science fiction novel, The Eyes of Darkness, had predicted the coronavirus pandemic with uncanny precision. COVID-19 has held the entire world hostage, producing a resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world depicted in many science fiction texts.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s classic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake refers to a time when “there was a lot of dismay out there, and not enough ambulances” — a prediction of our current predicament.
However, the connection between science fiction and pandemics runs deeper. They are linked by a perception of globality, what sociologist Roland Robertson defines as “the consciousness of the world as a whole.”
In his 1992 survey of the history of telecommunications, How the World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke alludes to the famed historian Alfred Toynbee’s lecture entitled “The Unification of the World.” Delivered at the University of London in 1947, Toynbee envisions a “single planetary society” and notes how “despite all the linguistic, religious and cultural barriers that still sunder nations and divide them into yet smaller tribes, the unification of the world has passed the point of no return.”
Science fiction writers have, indeed, always embraced globality. In interplanetary texts, humans of all nations, races and genders have to come together as one people in the face of alien invasions. Facing an interplanetary encounter, bellicose nations have to reluctantly eschew political rivalries and collaborate on a global scale, as in Denis Villeneuve’s 2018 film, Arrival.
Globality is central to science fiction. To be identified as an Earthling, one has to transcend the local and the national, and sometimes, even the global, by embracing a larger planetary consciousness.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin conceptualizes the Ekumen, which comprises 83 habitable planets. The idea of the Ekumen was borrowed from Le Guin’s father, the noted cultural anthropologist Arthur L. Kroeber. Kroeber had, in a 1945 paper, introduced the concept (from Greek oikoumene) to represent a “historic culture aggregate.” Originally, Kroeber used oikoumene to refer to the “entire inhabited world,” as he traced back human culture to one single people. Le Guin then adopted this idea of a common origin of shared humanity in her novel.
Globality of the pandemic
Many medical science fiction texts depict diseases afflicting all of humanity which must put up a unified front or perish. These narratives underscore the fluid and transnational histories of diseases, their impact and possible cure. In Amitav Ghosh’s 1995 novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, he weaves an interconnected history of malaria that spans continents over a century, while challenging Eurocentricism and foregrounding the subversive role of Indigenous knowledge in malaria research.
The epigraph quotes a poem by Sir Ronald Ross, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist credited with the discovery of the mosquito as the malaria vector:
COVID-19 has forced billions into social isolation and continues to wreak havoc on an unprecedented global scale. Eerily similar photographs of masked faces, PPE-clad front-line workers and deserted downtowns emerged from every corner of the world.
What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might well save lives in Tehran by evening. When the U.K. government hesitates between several policies, it can get advice from the Koreans who have already faced a similar dilemma a month ago.
Regarding Canada’s response to the crisis, researchers have noted both the immorality and futility of a nationalistic “Canada First” approach.
Clearly, a nation cannot insulate itself from the deleterious effects of the pandemic by closing its hearts and borders. Tightening immigration can temporarily stanch the flow of people, but the virus, like the “million-murdering death,” is treacherous in its border-defying agility. Presently, as many nations experience a resurgence of nationalism and exclusionary policies of walls and borders, the pandemic is a harsh reminder of the lived reality of our transnational interconnectedness.
We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?
Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.
So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.
Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.
The end to come
Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.
Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.
Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.
Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.
The future reimagined
It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:
I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?
As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.
Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.
Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.
This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.
Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.
This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.
Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.
These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.
The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem.
Science fiction is particularly troublesome when it comes to matters of classification and origin. Indeed, there remains no agreed-upon definition of the genre. A variety of commentators have located the beginnings of SF in the early-20th-century explosion of pulp magazines, and in the work of Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), who proposed the term “scientifiction” when editing and publishing the first issue of Amazing Stories, in 1926.
“By ‘scientifiction’,” Gernsback wrote, “I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive.”
But here Gernsback was already looking backwards in time to earlier writers to define SF. His “definition”, too, was one that could also be applied to literary creations from much further into the past.
Science and fiction
Another longstanding idea is that the “science” in science fiction is key: SF can only begin, many historians of the genre proclaim, following the birth of modern science.
Alongside histories of SF, histories of science have long avoided the medieval period (over a thousand years in which, presumably, nothing happened). Yet the Middle Ages was no dark, static, ignorant time of magic and superstition, nor was it an aberration in the neat progression from enlightened ancients to our modern age. It was actually a time of enormous advances in science and technology.
The compass and gunpowder were developed and improved upon, and spectacles, the mechanical clock and blast furnace were invented. The period also laid the foundations for modern science through founding universities, advanced the scientific learning of the classical world, and helped focus natural philosophy on the physics of creation. The medieval science of “computus”, for instance, was a complex measuring of time and space.
Scholars have started to reveal the convergence of science, technology and the imagination in medieval literary culture, demonstrating that this era could be characterised by inventiveness and a preoccupation with novelty and discovery. Take the medieval romances that feature Alexander the Great soaring heavenwards in a flying machine and exploring the depths of the ocean in his proto-submarine. Or that of the famous medieval traveller, Sir John Mandeville, who tells of marvellous, automated golden birds that beat their wings at the table of the Great Chan.
Like those of more modern science fictions, medieval writers tempered this sense of wonder with scepticism and rational inquiry. Geoffrey Chaucer describes the procedures and instruments of alchemy (an early form of chemistry) in such precise terms that it is tempting to think that the author must have had some experience of the practice. Yet his Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale also displays a lively distrust of fraudulent alchemists, sending up their pseudo-science while imagining and dramatising its harmful effects in the world.
The medieval future
Modern science fiction has dreamt up many worlds based on the Middle Ages, using it as a place to be revisited, as a space beyond earth, or as an alternate or future history. The representation of the medieval past is not always simplistic, nor always confined to “back then”.
William M Miller’s immensely detailed medieval future in A Canticle of Leibowitz (1959), for instance, dwells on the way the past consistently reemerges in the fragments, materials and conflicts of a distant future. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), meanwhile, follows a time-travelling researcher of the near-future back to a medieval Oxford in the grip of the Black Death.
Although “medieval science fiction” may sound like an impossible fantasy, it’s a concept that can encourage us to ask new questions about an often-overlooked period of literary and scientific history. Who knows? The many wonders, cosmologies and technologies of the Middle Ages may have an important part to play in a future yet to come.
Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer who wrote about life in 2167, highlights a few of his recent picks.
My passion is science fiction. Here are my favourite sci-fi books that I’ve read this year:
Women around the globe spontaneously develop the ability to deliver electric shocks through their fingertips. As they begin to use this power to intimidate, control and kill, the world order is turned upside down.
A spectacular novel, and surely the favourite to sweep all the sci-fi book awards for 2017. People can be both cruel and good-intentioned, often at the same time. Introduce a new power imbalance, and society is abruptly transformed. Wonderful writing, and a whopper of a story twist. Turns The Handmaid’s Tale on its head.
A hundred years from now, Florida has vanished under the seas, the Bouazizi Empire is the new world superpower, and the United States has begun its second civil war. In the South, a young woman ends up in a refugee camp and is slowly radicalized into terrorism.
An intense, moving portrait of a future America that maybe isn’t the future after all. The characters are complex and the story is all too real. A spectacular debut.
Tom Barren travels back in time, accidentally alters the course of history, and returns to a horrifically changed, dystopian present day. The catch? Tom grew up in a utopia of flying cars and moon bases, and the dystopia that he finds himself trapped in is our timeline, warts and all.
A gem of a story that provides several new twists on time travel. If you’ve screwed up the timeline, should you fix it? What if there were two different ways to travel through time, with different rules and different consequences? And under all of this is the classic sci-fi question writ on the scale of billions of lives: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few? Hard to put down, with a lovable lead character.
The life story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born in 1947 in Newark, N.J. Except that this is the story of four identical Fergusons, each of whom take divergent paths as their lives play out.
A tour de force story of adolescence and the path not taken. It’s hard to believe a single author could possibly cram so many real-life details, emotions and characters into a single book. Extraordinarily memorable and engaging.
Humans have spread throughout a galactic empire, our worlds interconnected by faster-than-light wormholes. But what happens to trade, the economy and civilisation itself when the wormholes start to break down?
A fun and fast-spaced space opera, centred on some forthright women and some fresh ideas. In the spirit of Asimov’s Foundation, Scalzi explores the theme of the downfall of empire on a galaxy-spanning scale.
Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.
However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map. That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.
The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.
Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that “publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.
A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.
This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.
But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.
A male dominated genre
In recent years, the bestselling female-authored Divergent and Hunger Games series have been made into multi-million dollar movie adaptations. But women’s contribution to science fiction has historically gone unnoticed – as a look at any compilation list of the “best” science fiction books will attest.
Seventy five per cent of science fiction writers are men. Consequently, there are not a great number of realistic or relatable female characters. No wonder fewer female than male readers have traditionally found it a rewarding genre. Indeed feminist science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ has famously stated that there are “no real women” in science fiction, only images of them, since so many women characters are based purely on male fantasy.
Last year, science fiction and fantasy reader Liz Lutgendorff published an article in the New Statesman after reading the National Public Radio’s list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books – voted on by 60,000 readers. Lutgendorff found the “continued and pervasive sexism” within these books to be “mysogynistic” and “shockingly offensive”.
Speculative fiction writer and critic Sarah Gailey, meanwhile, recently noticed that, of the 31 genre books featuring female protagonists she had recently read, two-thirds included scenes of sexual violence. Writing on the Tor website, she called for genre writers to “do better” when it comes to imagining alternative realities for women:
… we can’t suspend our disbelief enough to erase casual misogyny from the worlds we build. We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.
Gailey mentions this year’s Hugo-winning NK Jemisin as one of the rare writers whose “imaginations are strong enough to let their female characters have stories that don’t include sexual violence”.
Still, this objectification of women in science fiction sadly extends beyond the page. Hugo award-winning fan writer Jim C Hines reminds us that science fiction superstar Isaac Asimov was notorious for harassing women at conventions. Hines recently urged the science fiction, fantasy and comics community to stop “looking away” from the problem of sexual harassment in the industry.
Hard science in science fiction
An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here.
Robert A Heinlein – considered the “dean” of science fiction writers and counted alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the three key figures of the genre – has defined science fiction as:
realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.
Soft science fiction is not so concerned with exploring the finer details of technology and physics. Although its stories are generally set in the future, it is more interested in psychological and social aspects of the narrative (think of works such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)).
Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.
In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.
In 2015, the Sad Puppies successfully placed dozens of books on the final ballot. They then released a tongue-in-cheek Terms of Surrender to their culture war with the Hugo Awards declaring:
… only those works embodying the highest principles of Robert A. Heinlein shall be permitted. Girls who read Twilight and books like it shall be expelled from the genre. We will recognize The Hunger Games as a proper SF novel, but the sequels are right out.
These jibes reveal sexist undertones, intolerance for diversity and disdain for the kind of speculative fiction that is written by women and read by girls.
The lessons of Frankenstein
This hierarchy of “hardness” in science fiction, as well as being a dubious way of judging merit, puts women at a distinct disadvantage, because there’s a serious shortage of women working in science. Only 28% of the world’s scientific researchers are women.
If women aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in scientific fields, it’s unlikely they’re going to have the confidence to write in a genre that uses science as a launch pad for fiction.
And yet, the first example of science fiction is often said to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s gothic horror Frankenstein: the tale of a man who, through scientific experimentation, discovers a way to imbue inanimate matter with life. The novel was first published anonymously in 1818.
Overall, it was popular and well received. But when critics discovered Anonymous was a young woman, the author’s gender caused such offence as to render the writing irrelevant. The British Critic famously concluded its scathing review thus:
The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.
Discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t surprising for the time, but what is surprising is how little has changed for women’s writing over these past two centuries.
Women may not be likely to publish anonymously these days, but they may still erase their female identities to appease male readership. Many women are encouraged to publish under their initials, to choose a gender neutral name, or even to take a male pseudonym.
Science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, winner of two Hugos and three Nebula Awards under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr, passed her writing off as male for around a decade between 1967–77 before she was exposed as a woman.
Not only did she enjoy more success as a male writer, she was also in a better position to advocate for female writers. She even found that her female pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon was more likely to be included in anthologies if her submission was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from Tiptree.
Today, the fact remains that most female writers would still be better off using a male name. In 2015, emerging novelist Catherine Nicholls found that when she sent her manuscript out under the name of “George”, she was eight times as successful as when she sent it out as “Catherine”.
More than half of the human race is female, yet three-quarters of the voices heard in science fiction are male; and the rest are under consistent commercial pressure to sound male too. Of the 30 science fiction writers named the industry’s highest honour of “Grand Master”, only five are female (16%).
A study of the habits of readers in 2014 found that men “tend to gravitate to reading more male authors“. During the first year of publication, it found a female author’s audience will be around 80% female. A male author’s work will be read by a 50% split of men and women.
But trying to tackle this problem by using a pseudonym or an author’s initials perpetuates the invisibility of women on bookshelves, denying other women role models. It’s vitally important to have more women writing science fiction – using their real names, being reviewed, being read and winning awards.
By the numbers
Both the Puppies groups stand against affirmative action as a way of redressing the imbalance between the sexes in science fiction. However, there are many reasons why affirmative action by publishers and reviewers is needed in a genre suffering from entrenched sexism.
The latest SF Count – the speculative fiction community’s own mini version of the VIDA count of women in literary arts – was announced in May this year. The SF Count tracks the gender and race balance of both books reviewed and their reviewers.
It concludes that six out of every ten books reviewed were written by men. But that’s an average of results across all publications, and there is wide variation within the sample. The lowest percentage of reviews of books by women was 17% from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The highest was 80% from Cascadia Subduction Zone, a publication that specifically aims to represent women writers.
The gender balance of book reviewers averaged across these five titles is similarly low, with just 18% of them women. What’s particularly shocking is that arguably the two most famous and prestigious science fiction publications – Analog and Asimov’s – both averaged 0% female reviewers. The fact that the two most celebrated publications in science fiction asked next to no women to review books is clearly unacceptable.
And yes, reviewers can cry the impossibility of reviewing what isn’t published, just as publishers can claim the impossibility of publishing more women’s writing when it isn’t submitted, and judging panels can lament the impossibility of considering more women’s books for awards when so few are entered.
But it would be far better for the science fiction industry to recognise it has an ethical responsibility to work to correct the imbalance it has perpetuated for far too long, and get started.
It is, as publishing veteran Danielle Pafunda points out, an important part of the position of editor to actively seek out new work and to shape the direction of a publication or publishing house.
We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Until gender equality is achieved, science fiction remains only a fraction of what it could be. Affirmative action for women in science fiction is not only warranted; it’s essential for the growth of the genre.
Tales of strange alien worlds, fantastic future technologies and bowls of sentient petunias have long captivated audiences worldwide. But science fiction is more than just fantasy in space; it can educate, inspire and expand our imaginations to conceive of the universe as it might be.
We invited scientists to highlight their favourite science fiction novel or film and tell us what it was that captivated their imagination – and, for some, how it started their career.
Bryan Gaensler, astronomer, University of Toronto
Time for the Stars – Robert A. Heinlein
Long before the era of hard science fiction, Robert Heinlein took Einstein’s special theory of relativity and turned it into a masterpiece of young adult fiction.
In Time for the Stars, Earth explores the Galaxy via a fleet of “torch ships”, spacecraft that travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Communication with the fleet is handled by pairs of telepathic twins, one of whom stays on Earth while the other journeys forth. The supposed simultaneity of telepathy overcomes the massive time delays that would otherwise occur over the immense distances of space.
The catch is that at the tremendous speeds of these torch ships, time travels much slower than back on Earth. The story focuses on Tom, the space traveller, and his twin brother Pat, who remains behind. The years and decades sweep by for Pat, in a journey that takes mere months for Tom. Pat’s telepathic voice accelerates to a shrill accelerated squeal for Tom, as Einstein’s time dilation drives them apart, both metaphorically and physically.
This is ultimately a breezy kids’ adventure novel, but it had a massive influence on me. Modern physics wasn’t abstruse. It was measurable, and it had consequences. I was hooked. And I’ve never let go.
Michael Brown, astronomer, Monash University
2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey encompasses human evolution, space, alien life and artificial intelligence. Despite being released the year before Apollo 11, the Academy Award winning special effects still make its vision of space inspiring. It can be spine tingling when seen at an old fashioned cinema with a wide screen and a 70mm print (such as Melbourne’s Astor).
Technologies in the film are ahead and behind what we have today.
The most memorable (and arguably emotional) character of 2001 is HAL, an eerily intelligent computer that is far in advance of any computer in existence. And yet astronauts on the moon are using photographic film, rather than digital cameras.
Kubrick deliberately made some space travel seem routine, so his space travellers are frozen in 1960s norms. The astronauts are mostly white men, with women mostly relegated to roles such as flight attendants (an exception is a Soviet scientist). Fortunately, in this regard, the 21st century is more advanced than 2001’s imagined future.
Alice Gorman, space archaeologist, Flinders University
Out of the Silent Planet – C. S. Lewis
The first book of the classic “Space Trilogy” was written 20 years before the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first “world-circling spaceship”. C. S. Lewis was no scientist – he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature – but his deep knowledge of pre-modern cosmology gives his take on space travel a unique flavour. I find myself returning to Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel, Voyage to Venus, over and over again.
In the story, Lewis’ hero, Ransom, becomes a reluctant astronaut when kidnapped by the uber-colonial “hard” scientist Weston for a journey to Mars. Confined in the spherical spaceship, he becomes aware of a constant faint tinkling noise. In the world before space junk, it is a fine rain of micrometeoroids striking the aluminium shell.
Ransom’s “dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds” fostered by modern science, is transformed by the experience of actually being in space.
His revelation is an intimately joyous recognition that space, far from being dead, is an “empyrean ocean of radiance”, whose “blazing and innumerable offspring” look down upon the Earth. He feels “life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come?”
How, indeed, could we not long for space after such a vision as this?
Duncan Galloway, astrophysicist, Monash University
Ringworld – Larry Niven
It was Larry Niven’s Ringworld that led, in part, to my career in astrophysics.
Ringworld describes the exploration of an alien megastructure of unknown origin, discovered around a distant star. The artificial world is literally in the shape of a ring, with a radius corresponding to the distance of the Earth to the sun; mountainous walls on each side hold in the atmosphere, and the surface is decorated with a wide variety of alien plants and animals.
The hero gets to the Ringworld via a mildly faster-than-light drive purchased at astronomical cost from an alien trading species, and makes use of teleportation disks and automated medical equipment.
The appeal of high-technology stories like this are obvious: many contemporary problems, like personal transportation, overpopulation, disease, and death have all been solved by advanced technology; while of course, new and interesting problems have arisen.
Grand in scope, and featuring some truly bold ideas, Ringworld (and Niven’s other books set in “Known Space”) are as keen now as when they were written, 40 years ago.
Helen Maynard-Casely, planetary scientist, ANSTO
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Whether you have heard the radio play, read the book or seen the film, this story of a hapless Englishman negotiating his way through the galaxy is an essential piece of nerd culture. I first heard the play as a teenager, and even now not many weeks go by without me delving into sections of this trilogy of five-parts.
As a scientist, my life can seem a little zany to an outsider. When your job does sometimes actually entail reversing the polarity of a neutron flow, you need to look to an even crazier fiction world for your escapism. And for me this book is it. A world where sperm whales and bowls of petunias can appear in space for no reason at all and staggering co-incidences happen every time you power up your spaceship.
The genius (and I do not use that word lightly) of Douglas Adams’ writing is that the loopy concepts of the book are presented with a thin veneer of “scienceness”, enough to make the fantastical concepts that little more believable. Then he “normalises” it all. A packet of peanuts will help you survive a matter transference beam, for instance.
The heart of this book is its characters, a suite of people/aliens that are echoed in every workplace (certainly every laboratory) across the world. Walk into any science institute and there will be a two-headed power-hungry presidential leader railing upon post-docs, with brains the size of planets, who really wish you hadn’t talked to them about life.
I get the impression that Douglas Adams would not have wanted you to take anything away from this book. But, for me it gives continued inspiration that there is always another way to sidle up to a problem. Most of all though: don’t panic.
Matthew Browne, social scientist, CQUniversity
Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks
I love a lot of science fiction, but Iain M. Banks’ classic space-opera Consider Phlebas is a special favourite.
Banks describes the “Culture”, a diverse, anarchic, utopian and galaxy-spanning post-scarcity society. The Culture is a hybrid of enhanced and altered humanoids and artificial intelligences, which range from rather dull to almost godlike in their capabilities.
Most people in the Culture lead a relaxed, hedonistic lifestyle, going to parties, doing art, taking drugs (which they can synthesise from bio-engineered glands) and generally having fun. The tedious business of actually running the whole show is mostly left up to the most powerful AIs, called Minds, who manifest themselves in the great star-ships and orbitals in which most citizens live.
Of course, it’s a big galaxy, and not everyone shares the Culture’s easy-going approach to galactic citizenship. Consider Phlebas is set against the backdrop of a growing conflict between the Culture and the Indirans, a speciesist, religious and hierarchical empire with expansion on its mind.
Perhaps the best thing about Consider Phlebas (apart from the wonderfully irreverent ship names the Minds give themselves) is the fact that a story from this conflict is told from the perspective of an Indiran agent, who despises the Culture and everything it stands for.
My own take on the book is as an ode to progressive technological humanism, and the astute reader will find many parallels to contemporary political and cultural issues.
Rob Brooks, evolutionary biologist, UNSW Australia
The Truman Show – Peter Weir
Truman Burbank, played with a delectable balance of animation and pathos by Jim Carrey, lives a confected life as unwitting protagonist in a reality television show. Conceived on camera, adopted by a corporation and manipulated at every stage by the show’s sinister creative genius, Christof (Ed Harris), Truman nonetheless comes to realise that his world is a sham and that almost every interaction he ever had was a lie.
Against the backdrop of Seahaven’s dystopic perfection, Weir exposes prescient glimpses of reality television, surveillance culture and the stalkerish targeted advertising we now find in our social media streams.
As a student of behaviour, I’ve always rued the amputation of biology from the social sciences, particularly the wasted opportunity that saw sociobiology turned into a perjorative in the late 1970s, at least outside the study of insect sociality. The rejection of evolutionary thinking as “biological determinism”, and its positioning as opposite to progress and liberation, has always rankled me.
I recall watching the film alone, between conferences, at an ancient cinema in Santa Cruz. What excited me most, and kept me up much of the night scribbling notes that would eventually shape my research direction and lead me to popular writing, was Weir’s clever inversion of the relationships between nature/nurture and determinism/free will.
While Cristof’s nurture tramples Truman’s nature throughout the film, in the end something inherent to Truman sets him free, as he whispers: “You never had a camera in my head!”.
Geraint Lewis, astrophysicist, University of Sydney
We never learn the name of this Victorian scientist, a man who explains “there is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space” and builds a machine to explore this new world. It was not from Einstein that I discovered the non-absolute nature of space and time, but from the Time Traveller, and his present-day incarnation, Doctor Who.
The Traveller doesn’t head to past, to be a voyeur at historical events, but into the unknown future. And the future of Wells is not glorious! The Traveller finds evolution has split humans in two, with delicate Eloi being little more than food for the subterranean Morlocks.
Escaping mayhem and heading even further into the future, the Traveller finds the life’s last gasp under a swollen, red sun, eventually seeing the Earth succumbs to final freezing, before he returns to the relative safety of Victorian London.
This scientific vision of the future struck me, and the nature of time has remained in my mind. At the end of the story the Traveller heads back to continue his exploration of the future; playing with the equations of relativity is likely to be the closest I will ever come to realising this dream.