Gender and Science Fiction Crowdsource Question

I've just been approved to teach a class next term at Plymouth State University called "Gender and Science Fiction".  It's an upper-level Topics in Women's Studies course, open to any major.  I've been talking about such a course to my colleagues at the university for at least a year now, and so I'm very excited and have spent a lot of time coming up with possible syllabi.  I now have, I think, at least 5 years worth of material that I'd like to share and discuss in one term.

That, of course, is not possible, so I'm pruning and shaping and focusing.  For instance, perfect as Trouble on Triton is for such a course, I can't imagine spending less than a month on it, and I also think most of the students would still struggle unprofitably with it, because most will not, I expect, be experienced readers of science fiction, so it's unlikely I'll use it, or at least all of it.  (I do want to include some Delany, of course, but may go instead with Babel-17, some of the short stories, etc.)  I also don't want to include only obviously feminist work, but also some things like, perhaps, Starship Troopers (also interesting because of the film of it).  Gender doesn't have to be the obvious concern of the text for us to be able to have interesting conversations about gender/sexuality/etc. within it.

Anyway, I have some questions for all of you out there sliding through the intertubes.  Did a work of science fiction (and I am trying to stick to science fiction rather than fantasy) ever really blow your mind with regard to ideas of gender roles, family, sex, sexuality, etc.?  It's okay if it's something that's attained classic status and I'll have probably thought of already -- part of what I'm weighing is how to balance obvious classics and less obvious choices (Russ's The Female Man will be included no matter what, I expect, but I'm really torn between Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness and Four Ways to Forgiveness, a book I personally enjoy more).  I also have to keep reminding myself that most of the students will never have read any science fiction beyond, perhaps, a few YA novels or perennial classroom favorites like 1984...

And if you're especially interested in these sorts of questions and want to answer some additional ones, here's some extra credit: Did you ever learn anything about science or society that changed your view of gender roles, etc.?  How did you learn it?  Did you ever read an article about science, or a work of critical theory, that memorably expanded your view of gender roles, etc. when you were in your late teens / early 20s?  If you were to make all the undergraduates in the world read one text about gender roles, etc., what would that text be (nonfiction or fiction)?  Is there a movie that for you represents either the best or worst of representations of gender in science fiction?

Thanks in advance for the suggestions, thoughts, and shared experiences -- my primary goal is, as I mercilessly cull my lists, to keep myself from inadvertently tossing out something that I'd regret not having included.  I'll report here later on what shape the class takes...


  1. A bit off topic, but there was an episode in classic Star Trek in which a woman was vengeful because Star Fleet would not allow women to be captains of starships. That was a jolt coming from a show that was set in the 23rd century.

    Later, when Star Trek Voyager premiered, there were some jokes going around that the only way a woman could be named captain of a starship was if they named the ship after a minivan.

  2. Not off topic at all, actually -- I just forgot to mention that TV episodes are absolutely welcome, especially because the class is a 50 minute (3x/week) class, so fitting in TV episodes is much, much easier than fitting in feature films.

  3. In the realm of "old school": you might have a look at gender roles in a Henry Kuttner story, a C.L. Moore story, and then a Moore&Kuttner collaboration. I've always felt like there was something to be gotten at, there, but I never got at it.

    Sturgeon might be worth a glance, too--"Affair with a Green Monkey", "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister" etc.

    Varley deliberate plays games with changeable gender in the "8 Worlds" stories. And in one of the early stories ("Picnic on Nearside" I think) he speculates that incest would cease to be problematic because intercourse and reproduction have been completely separated. This misconceives (as it were) why incest is a problem, I think--mere genetics is the least of the issues involved. But it's a misconception lots of people share.

  4. The new BSG - in particular, 33, Flesh and Bone, and The Farm really point up the show's use of gender roles, and all occur early enough in the series to avoid needing much backstory.
    Books - Susie McKee CHarnas, Candace Jane Dorsey, and Nisi Shawl (there's a fab story in Filter House in which essentially nothing happens except a mother deciding to cut her daughter's hair..anyone help with the name?), M Rickert, etc. And Octabia Butler, of course.
    A gibson story from Burning chrome might be good to show the emergence a new kind of female stereotype in SF - anything with the molly character in it works.)

  5. I think it's more a matter of reading science fiction and having it NOT blow your mind. It's really difficult for writers to put aside their own conception of gender roles; often the future seems a lot like now. A classic case-- in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, women on the moon (a prison colony) are treasured because there aren't enough of them to go around. A woman can have as many husbands as she wants, but the woman still ends up with the housework.

  6. I advocate HARDCORE for Left Hand of Darkness. Also, maybe some Anne McCaffrey (I'm thinking of the Ship Who series). There's also Octavia Butler (who deals with both gender AND ethnicity) or Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale in particular). Maria Russel Doyle--The Fall of the Sparrow (and this one has some interesting takes on male gender as well). I've also heard of arguments for Frankenstein as a discourse on failed mother/fatherhood (which becomes all the more poignant when you read up of Mary Shelley's life). James Tripree Jr.'s short stories are often sci-fi-ish and DEFINITELY have feminit over/undertones.

    While I LOVE (and I mean LOVE) Starship Troopers, I don't think that there is enough gender/sexual/identity stuff in it to really do the course topic justice. It is, after all, an examination of the machine that is war/recruitment for war.

    I don't know if you've thought about graphic novels? Some to consider (if you want to) might be: Sandman (by Neil Gaiman--specifically the sections deailing with Death, who is a highly empathetic woman), or maybe Promethea (Alan Moore--same dude who did Watchmen).

    As for movies, consider movies with strong female characters like Alien (Ripley rocks), Terminator (ditto for Sarah Conor).

    And then there's women of sci-fi TV like Starbuck, Number Six(in the new Battlestar Galactica), Dana Scully (X-Files), Oliva (Fringe), Lt. Uhura (Star Trek--many people forget that after Spock, it wasn't Scotty who was in charge, but UHURA), Rose Tyler (Doctor Who), Wonder Woman...

    And I'll stop there.

  7. For books, hands down Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand of Darkness' was a mind-opener in sci-fi format regarding gender roles/ambiguity. A strictly one-gender human studying the people of a planet who are gender neutral until mating, and then can be either gender, and coming to terms with all that reveals about his own gender biases, etc.? MADE for your class.

  8. Elizabeth Bear's Hammered trilogy, in which women fight, cry, celebrate, die, scheme, screw--everything, and no one ever stops and goes, "Wait, about those boob-things of yours..."

    For the extra credit: Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein. The book that blew the doors off my perception of gender as a binary system.

  9. There's Tiptree, obviously--just reading the bio about her life would be a great course--and Kelley Eskridge's "Dangerous Space." And is it Delany's "Star Pit" that plays with gender pronouns so sweetly?

  10. Might I suggest some counter-programming?

    The way in which feminism and sf has always been addressed (at least in my experience of reading about the topic) is by championing the works of feminist SF writers.

    However, I think that this approach to the topic tends to assume a certain degree of familiarity with how women were represented PRIOR to feminism influencing the SFnal discourse.

    By focusing on the backlash AGAINST patriarchal attitudes in SF I think that a lot of the texture of SF's sexual politics has been erased.

    So I think that while there's a lot to be said for studying Le Guin and Russ there's just as much to be said for looking at a book like Budrys' Rogue Moon.


    Go and read the section where the scientist and the adventurer first meet by the pool. It's an astonishingly intense scene that is all about two alpha males competing for the affections and attentions of an attractive woman.

    By looking at a work like Rogue Moon you would not only give the study of Russ and Le Guin some sense of context as it would make it clear what they were reacting TO, it would also serve to highlight some of the wider social attitudes that were prevalent at the time of feminism's rise to prominence in SF.

  11. We are creatures of similar mind, Jonathan -- I called the course "Gender & SF" rather than "Feminism & SF" so that we could look at stuff that isn't in any way feminist, including earlier work. I hadn't thought of Rogue Moon, and though the novel itself is out of print, the novella is probably not so long that I couldn't get it cleared for photocopying...

  12. Venus Plus X seems to be the Sturgeon to look at, I think. Suzette Hadin Elgin needs to be included, any of the books with her feminist language. And for contrast, you really should go back to one of the real oldies, like Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Maid of Mars or Ray Cummings' The Girl in the Golden Atom. Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet (justly forgotten) could do for a reactionary contrast, if you want something newer.

  13. for me, the story of Tiptree as a person and how people's perception of her work changed was the first thing that really blew my mind as regards gender and science fiction - not from the bio which is excellent and I read many years later, but I first came to read about her first in Women of Other Worlds by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams, which has some great essays, stories and other ephemera.

    If you haven't already I really recommend you look at Justine Larbalestier's Daughters of Earth which has a clever presentation of a discussion essay (many by quite significant writers) with each story, and some really good classic stories in the mix like "Rachel in Love".

    Also a way to sum up the course could be a class discussion about the Tiptree Award? Such material as last year's judges report or some of the essays about how it started, why it felt necessary - there's lots of material online. The beginning of Wiscon and some of the guest of honour speeches over the years might make good reading too.

    But as you said, it's not like you're short of material :D

    Following on from the Anne McCaffrey suggestion, the original story/novella of the Ship Who Sang would probably be a better class choice than the novel!

    I think Starship Troopers would be a very interesting read, especially if read in conjunction with the film, which has its own gender issues.

    Good luck with this, what a fantastic opportunity.

  14. Nothing's ever blown my mind on that topic, but I'd like to recommend Ill-Met in the Arena by Dave Duncan for two reasons. First, it's a female-dominated society written by a male author, which should generate interesting discussion. Second, because it's the only time I've ever seen a book set in a female-dominated society which didn't stop for an extended conversation about why female-dominated society is better or worse than male-dominated society. The protagonist muses briefly near the beginning that life is a tad unfair for young noblemen, and that's about it.

    Extra credit #1 and 2: Lots! I have an interest in human-computer interaction and usability, part of which is learning how the human mind works. There's a lot of interesting research coming out of situational psychology right now showing how what once were thought to be inborn differences in male and female brains can in fact be produced by cultural influences.

    Extra credit #5: Up-- nearly all the worst about portrayals of women.

  15. For Tina: As much as I love Anne McCaffrey, the Ship series is problematic in it's portrayal of disability. Studying these books would require some discussion about the intersection of ableism. I opened the first Ship book just recently during a similar discussion with a friend, looking for a passage, and the first scene where her pilot takes control of her is all about "defending a virgin's honour" - I was WTF? Yep, it had been a while since I read the books, and I'd discovered feminist theory since my teens!

    I am currently reading two great feminist sci fi lit crit books, which come with stories and accompanying essays:
    "Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the 20th century" edited by Justine Larbelestier
    "Women of other worlds: Excursions through Science Fiction and Feminism" edited by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams

    Pamela Sargent's "Women of Wonder" series is another I've had recommended to me.

  16. Oh snap, Tansy beat me to it LOL!

  17. Some thoughts on SciFi and Gender.

    You might look into the strange stories that appeared in some of the early HEAVY METAL MAGAZINES. They often complained that their issues only sold with T&A on the covers but that's not what was inside.

    There was the stereotypical DEN by Richard Corbin with the hero being a he-man and the heroine being stacked like a brick outhouse. I think these types of serials or illustrated stories were the last refuge of stereotypes.

    For sheer erectional silliness, THE HORNY GOOF in Moebius 0 - The Horny Goof & Other Underground Stories. I say this because it was the first time I really understood the ludicrousness of horniness in the male.

    And to stick with the Heavy Metal theme, the HEAVY METAL MOVIE (fat chance if you can locate an honest version with the right soundtrack or the nose dive uncut) ties its stories together with the LOC-NAR and the heroine wins, of course.

    In other thoughts:
    Sci Fi gender ranges all the way from Star Trek's MUDD'S WOMEN in which beauty is provided by a pill. They also had green seductresses and remember Kirk kissed Uhuru -- the first interracial kiss on TV ever.

    And speaking of sexpots in star Trek - SEVEN OF NINE - was dressed for only one reason. Marina Sirtis had a good body, too.

    And the critically panned BARBARELLA that was supposed to be avant garde and "oh so" women's lib.

    There's a ton of social comment between Elizabeth, the wife of the original Dr FRANKENSTEIN and Elizabeth in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Most of that social comment is the scary-true type. Allthough, I don't know what message a comparison of the two roles carries other than social differences.

    The history of the relations between the sexes is part and parcel of SciFi.

    Sigourney Weaver made herself into an action hero in ALIEN and then played the sexy ingenue in a series of movies. The true counter role to ALIEN was GALAXY QUEST. I mean think of Zsa Zsa Gabor's infamous QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE as the antithesis.

    Star Trek Voyager has a hysterically funny BRIDE OF CHAOTICA! that sends up old 50's SciFi in so many wicked ways. If you consider that it was spawned out of FLASH GORDON and all sorts of other space horse operas, it is quite a social comment.

    Of course, none of this may fit your course.

  18. For me, Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" hit like a depth charge.

  19. For me it's the obvious, but the obvious for good reason:

    LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness (not only was it a mind-blower in terms of gender-identity but I really like how she incorporates Artic exploration/adventure into the novel, an area historically dominated by males)

    Tiptree's The Women Men Don't See (on first reading this seemed so prosaically sf that it was almost surprising that it stayed so firmly in mind afterward--it packs a depth charge that kept detonating)

    These were fictions that changed the way I looked at the world when I first read them, many years ago, well before they were seen as classics.

    --Eric S.

  20. surely you'll have thought of M. John Harrison, but i'll say it any way: M. John Harrison: Light & Nova Swing; the novels in Anima, too, though they do feel a bit distanced from the heart of genre (as i believe you yourself have mentioned); the the short stories, particularly 'Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring'.

    Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories.

    Adam Roberts' New Model Army.

    Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, though it would probably be cruel to foist that on students who haven't already read it to read it & who now must go through it in such a short time.

    B.I. # 59 from David Foster Wallace's (brilliant, imho) Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; while not strictly SF, has much to say about the obsessive, SFish (SFnal?) sort of creative impulse, refracted through the lens of gender. this is the one with Elizabeth Montgomery, 'Bewitched', stopping time & masturbation.

  21. Babylon 5 is worth looking at as an example of how a lot of supposedly gender progressive SF doesn't hold up to its claims after closer inspection.

    The series had two seemingly strong women in positions of power. This was no small feat for a mid 1990s TV series. However, scratch the surface and things look a little different. The main supporting female character was little more than a combination of two gendered character stereotypes combined: assertive bitch and closeted lipstick lesbian. The female lead came from a culture that was (very conveniently) naive and childlike. She also fell from being a very independently-minded leader to being the male lead's completely passive wife, passing along the way through a phase where she got the men around her to do what she wanted through manipulation or outright seduction.

    This is in addition to a number of telling incidentals, such as a member of a polygamous culture choosing which of his five wives he preferred--all of whom fit a misogynist stereotype to a tee, or the fact that most women on the series were referred to by their first name only while most men were referred to by last name, title, or rank.

    If you need an example of how the portrayal of gender in SF isn't always what it seems, Babylon 5 is the series for you.

  22. Give a thought or two on THE HANDMAID'S TALE which is one of those dystopic stories about equality and oppression. It is also accessible as a book and movie.

    Another piece of SciFi in both forms (book and cinema) is THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. That deals very effectively with the non-linear life. There are other scifi books out there that deal with time travel but this one is particularly easy to grasp the grand philosophical problem of causality.

    The BACK TO THE FUTURE movies made causality easy to understand without requiring an advanced degree in cosmology or quantum physics.

  23. I read Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon in my early 20s and it was a revelation to me in terms of how women are portrayed in SF. Most of the women I had read in SF up to that point had either been the ditsy romantic interest or the guns-blazing take-charge heroine. Remnant Population instead has this older woman (her age is still a rarity in SF) who finally breaks off the parts of her societal role she disliked and creates a new place for herself. I loved how the small things like Ofelia's skill and talent in sewing and her parenting skills became an important part of how and why she became the ambassador to an alien culture.

    Some women, like myself, actually like the traditional womanly arts and don't want to be the guns-blazing take charge type, but it is good to see how those traditional roles can be both embraced and broken free of, and through them we can still have a significant effect on the world.

  24. Forgot John Wyndham's Trouble with Lichen.

    Didn't forget John Norman's Gor novels, but was hoping someone else had the poor judgment to have read any of the series and the insensitivity to admit it.

  25. Did a work of science fiction (and I am trying to stick to science fiction rather than fantasy) ever really blow your mind with regard to ideas of gender roles, family, sex, sexuality, etc.?

    I don't know if strictly speaking they blew my mind, but I cannot imagine that reading Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) and Some of Your Blood (1961) in ninth grade didn't do something to my conceptions of sexuality and gender. (Of the two, actually, I'd say the latter had the more lasting impact.) I would also point to Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History (2000).

    Is there a movie that for you represents either the best or worst of representations of gender in science fiction?

    It's always worth showing people Alien (1979), which includes both resourceful female heroism and very tiny underwear.

  26. There's a John Varley short story in which gender changing has just become an option in society and a wife chooses to change her gender against her husband's wishes. It explores how both of them (and their children) deal with the change.

    I just reread The Kindly Ones, which was interesting because the main character's gender is never identified- a fact I totally missed the first time I read it. Reading it a second time, it was interesting how my perceptions of his/her gender changed as the story went on. It revealed a lot of my subconscious gender biases to me.

    I would mention that if you're teaching an elective class, there is a good chance that most of the people electing to take it will be familiar with science fiction.

  27. Paul Haines' novella "Wives" from the Australian anthology X6 is recent & original, with a disturbing & thought-provoking extrapolation of some current gender issues. The Elysium series by Joan Slonczewski (sp?)takes place in the future, when humans have colonized extra-solar planets, adapting culturally and in some cases biologically;highlighting multiple gender issues. The "Elemental Logic" series, by Laurie J. Marks, while more in the fantasy genre, really did "blow me away" with its quiet & matter-of-fact acceptance of what most of us would consider unusual gender roles & issues. Both of these series highlight social & gender issues without being preachy or propagandist, & are very well-written & entertaining as well.

  28. D'oh! I should have immediately thought of the manga story They Were Eleven. (There's also a short movie adaptation which sticks very closely to the original story.)

    One of the subplots involves a cadet from a planet where people start off genderless and can choose one at puberty, subject to societal constraints. The cadet wants to earn the chance to be a man, which is seen as more prestigious in his/her society but is restricted to a small number of people. The hero wants the cadet to be a woman, because he's falling in love with him/her.

  29. "Brown Girl in the Rings" by Nalo Hopkinson would be very accessible, and still managed to deal with lots of complex stuff on poverty, gender, and race.

    "Earthseed" by Octavia Butler is a rare text in that it deals with apocalyptic themes in a manner that includes women, people of color, and realistic communities dealing in a very plausible, rational fashion as a group to the larger world's problems.

    Kelly Link's numerous fantastic short fictions might also be great to add to the list.

    Best of luck with your course!


    "Nothing Human" by Nancy Kress is, in many ways, about mother-hood in an sf-nal world, and the morality of Darwin

  30. I can't think of a lot of fiction that hasn't been mentioned yet, but I'd suggest Raccoona Sheldon's "The Screwfly Solution" and Gene Wolfe's "The Ziggurat". I'm sure there are better examples from Wolfe's ouvre but this one almost made me stop reading him (actually I did for more than a year).

    But I'd also want to mention some short non-fiction: Beverly Friend's "Virgin Territory: The Bonds and Boundaries of Women in Science Fiction" included in Many Futures, Many Worlds, edited by Thomas Clareson (loved this one, but I read it a long time ago so I'm not sure I remember right); Russ' epilogue to "When it Changed" from Again, Dangerous Visions, or her longer "Amor Vincit Foeminam" included in To Write Like a Woman; and now that some Anonymous reminded me of the Molly character from Gibson's stories (and what about the Delany interview with Tatsumi, "Some Real Mothers..." included in Silent Interviews) I think it would be interesting to compare Joan Gordon's "Yin and Yang Duke It Out" (included in Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio) to Nicola Nixon's "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?" (which can be read here [sorry, I don't know how to link those things from here]).

  31. I vote for Left Hand of Darkness, too. I've no titles to suggest, but I now have many to look for.

    I fear I may use up all my credits at

    I hope you'll let us all know what you end up using in the course.

  32. Here's another vote for Left Hand of Darkness. I do love Four Ways, but whenever I use Left Hand in the classroom I follow it up with her essay "Is Gender Necessary REDUX" and her short story "Coming of Age in Karhide." Taken together, these three readings (four, actually, since the essay is a revision with both versions presented) map out some rich and important developments in Le Guin's thinking re: gender.

    Agreed that there should be some reactionary stuff in the mix. Contrast helps us see more clearly. A little L. Ron Hubbard, maybe?

  33. EXTRA CREDIT: For criticism, Laura Mulvey stretched my thinking a fair bit with "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."

    (Here's an excellent and pithy demonstration of the gaze in the original Star Trek. Warning: some photos may be slightly NSFW. Not the Star Trek stills. The ones further down.)

    For scientific reading, Darwin's Origin of Species can be useful in surprising ways. The bit on sexual selection in chapter four can lead to productive conversations about essentialism (and various related embarrassments committed by evolutionary psychology).

  34. Strange how people have not mention Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. It is a nice mixture of a realistic novel and utopian scifi...

  35. So late on this, sorry: How aboutDOOR INTO OCEAN by Joan Slonczewski? It did not blow my mind, but I liked it very much. (I was blown away by her BRAIN PLAGUE, but that's a different topic.)


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