Star Trek writer DC Fontana no more: Five women authors of sci-fi you must read
Move over Isaac Asimov and HG Wells — it’s time you picked up the layered feminist science fiction of Joanna Russ, or the socially conscious speculative works of Octavia E Butler and PD James, the dystopia imagined by Margaret Atwood and Mary Shelley’s enduring Promethean tale Frankenstein.Updated: Dec 10, 2019 10:19 IST
Thrilling fans of adventure and science fiction for over five decades, the TV show Star Trek has influenced popular imagination like no other. A host of memorable characters formed the staff of the USS Starship Enterprise, but the most poignant of ’em all probably was Spock, torn between his vulnerable human side and logical Vulcan commitment.
The recent death of the creator of this character, and one of the show’s creators, DC Fontana, has again brought back attention to the perennial absence of women from the upper echelons in entertainment. Fontana had to choose to be known primarily by her initials so as to bypass any sexist preconceptions within the industry. In memoriam, here is a throwback to five women authors who wrote about science and dystopia, who you must definitely read.
Octavia E Butler
Dystopia and apocalyptic worlds are what instantly come to mind when one talks of science fiction. Butler’s Xenogenesis, or the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, starts with a woman waking up 250 years after a nuclear disaster renders Earth uninhabitable. An alien species called the Oankali have salvaged a few members of the human race, and the young woman, called Lilith, has her task cut out: to convince her fellow humans to start interbreeding with the extraterrestrials. Butler’s Wild Seed, from her acclaimed Patternist series, follows two immortal Africans, Anyanwu and Doro, whose ethics lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wild Seed is being made into a web series, backed by Widows (2018) and Suicide Squad (2016) star Viola Davis.
The British novelist might be synonymous with detective fiction, but she is also the writer of the book that inspired the Orwellian Alfonso Cuaron dystopian drama starring Clive Owen. The Children of Men doesn’t employ a nuclear holocaust or a zombie apocalypse to wipe out humanity and leave suffering beings in its wake, but sees the slow poison of sterility choking Earth’s inhabitants to extinction. Unlike the movie and her works, the resolution is smartingly and disconcertingly ambiguous. While the film worked as an apocalyptic thriller, the book is a stunning examination of the politics of a dystopian state.
The grand dame of postmodernism in literature, the 80-year-old Canadian, the daughter of a biologist, is very much active even today — she recently came out with the sequel to her groundbreaking, trailblazing work of feminist and science fiction dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. Her acclaimed MaddAddam trilogy (which inspired the video game Intestinal Parasites) follows Toby from a group of survivors from the Waterless Flood, as a bioengineered quasi-human species prepare to inherit the planet. The riveting Oryx and Crake trilogy is set in a ‘brave’ new world that has Snowman, the protagonist, surviving as the only human among engineered hybrid monsters.
Many hold Frankenstein to be one of the foremost works of science fiction in novel form, and it forms an intersection of quite a few genres, including Gothic Romanticism and cyberpunk. Written in a frame narrative, the Promethean tale sees scientist Victor Frankenstein give birth to a hideous but extremely intelligent creature. After it is abandoned by its creator, the being sets out in search of the latter. It embarks upon adventures where he is consistently let down by humanity and grows disillusioned. Shelley was hugely influenced by the prevalent ideas of the time, including galvanism and occult practices, and finished writing the book — as part of a bet, no less — at the age of 20!
Modern science fiction would be a little less science fiction without Russ. Her feminist science fiction novel The Female Man features four women — with the same initials to their names — from alternate worlds, who cross over and to live the others’ experiences. The book’s mind-boggling treatment of the first-person POV takes the thrill of the genre to a staggering level. The Adventures of Alyx (1976) is a collection of stories featuring the eponymous heroine with varying attributes — her journey as a pirate who left her abusive marriage; a barbarian; a guide escorting vacationers in the alien world — but minus the sexist fantasy cliches. Russ’ 1970 novel And Chaos Died takes on overpopulation and decreasing sensitivity towards violence.
Author tweets @Prannay13