The fundamental reason I love fantasy and science fiction as much as I do is that it’s an opportunity to imagine a world different from the one we know. It should be no surprise that feminist and queer themes in science fiction abound, because imagined worlds allow us to look at all the assumptions of our everyday existence from a new angle.
But imagining new worlds isn’t easy. After all, some of the givens of our world are so deeply ingrained that we can’t even dream of a world that’s any other way. There are a few different approaches I’ve seen to communicating feminist messages through fantasy and sci fi worlds, which I’ll do my best to summarize here. Then I’ll offer some advice on how to come up with a feminist fantasy or sci fi world of your own.
1) Imagine a world more patriarchal than our own.
This may seem counterintuitive. How would a world even more sexist than the one we know help communicate a feminist message?
The distinction comes on the Watsonian vs. Doylist level. The Watsonian level is the point of view of a character in a story. The Doylist level is the point of view of the reader of the story. A story can be sexist on the Watsonian level, but feminist on the Doylist level. An example of this distinction is the movie Dr. Strangelove, which is war-crazed on a Watsonian level but fundamentally anti-war on the Doylist.
I think this approach works because exaggerating the patriarchal forces in our society can make them easier to see. It also asks more of the characters who must fight for justice. A book that does this really well is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book is set in a dystopian future United States in which all women are forced into reproduction with men chosen by the state. It’s scary and enlightening to see how logically this world develops from the one we know. It’s a warning. The main character must be extraordinarily courageous to overcome the extraordinary obstacles in her life.
Tamora Pierce’s Tortall fantasy books also do a good job at this. These books are directed at children, and their more overt sexism makes it easier to understand for kids. It’s no surprise these books made me and countless other children into feminists.
2) Imagine a world with similar gender dynamics to our own.
This may seem boring, but most fantasy and science fiction falls into this category, and you can still put a feminist spin on it. The magic and technology of fantasy and science fiction worlds give characters new tools for fighting patriarchy. Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Yelena in Poison Study by Maria Snyder use their magic to help overcome sexism in their respective societies. No one ever expects them to be as powerful as they are, not even themselves, because they’re women. The fantasy mechanics of each world give them power, bringing to metaphorical life the power of women to change the world.
In science fiction, we can imagine how new technologies might shake up the patriarchy as we know it. A good example is in the Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. In this series, there’s an increasingly common technology called the uterine replicator, that allows fertilization and gestation of children to happen entirely outside the body. This series shows how this technology disrupts all the established social orders and changes what it means to be a parent, male, female, or other.
3) Imagine a world less sexist than our own.
Now here’s where world building can get very interesting, though much more difficult. It’s very hard to imagine a world without sexism, because it’s so deeply ingrained into every part of our society. But I think this exercise is very important, because it’s not good enough to be against patriarchy. We also need to have a vision of what we want the world to look like.
A classic science fiction book that does an amazing job of this is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. This book imagines a world in which there is no gender at all. There is a complete and believable alien society that manages to do without gender – thus questioning why we view gender as so essential.
The TV show Battlestar Galactica also does this, but in a more low-key way; gender is a theme in this show, but not a central one. Without fuss or comment, women are integrated into every part of society on a par with men, with no distinction made unless it’s directly relevant to the situation. They take leadership roles in both military and civilian life, and women are important figures in mythology and religion. The only part where the show really slips up is that I can’t believe there would be a pro-life movement in a completely gender-egalitarian society, since pro-life beliefs are fundamentally based on sex-shaming and disregard of women’s bodily autonomy.
For contrast, let’s consider a book that I think does a very bad job trying to imagine a less sexist society: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. This book is often cited as feminist fantasy, and I believe the author intended it to be such. However, the book does a bad job world building because Carey lets assumptions and attitudes from the real world creep in through her fantasy world. If sex work is completely accepted, even sacred, in her world, why would the insult “whore” exist? If all sexualities are equally valid, then why would marriage only be between one man and one woman? If kink is a valid expression of sexuality, then why would sexual domination be used to truly humiliate and degrade someone?
This brings me to my advice about imagining feminist fantasy and science fiction worlds of your own: think about implications. Beliefs are like octopuses. They wriggle around and get their tentacles into unexpected places. Practically every moment of your day is affected by beliefs about gender. Change even one of those beliefs, and every aspect of your life is altered.
For an exercise, spend a day thinking about how gender affects you from moment to moment. Yesterday morning, I had banana bread for breakfast, and felt bad about it, because I should be eating something healthier for breakfast and I had brownies the day before. I went to lunch with a male colleague, and the man behind the counter asked my colleague what he wanted first, even though he was still looking at the different sandwiches and I had clearly made up my mind. During a break at work, I spent fifteen minutes gazing longingly at clothes online, even though I have neither the cash nor the room in my closet to buy anything. All of these aspects of my day would have been different if our society had a different set of beliefs about gender, so think about how everything, even the little things, might change.
I’d love to hear about your favorite imaginary feminist worlds in the comments, or about anything you’ve written yourself. I’m always happy to talk shop about writing techniques, especially if it’s to encourage other feminists to write!