What was the first science fiction novel? The answer is debatable, of course. But with Brian Aldiss to back me up I’m going to skip past the Sanskrit poets and medieval literature (for now) and jump straight to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
That’s right, ladies.
Mary Shelley rocked the world with her mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and the sentient monster he created in the laboratory. In the true spirit of SciFi, we are presented with an alien other as the antagonist of the novel – an alien created by human beings, using advanced technology. An alien who is meant to make us reflect on what it means to be human in the first place.
Fantastic. But… who came next?
In this month’s Los Angeles Review of Books, Robert Kilpatrick reviews The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers (by Mike Ashley) and points out that the 151 years between Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) are remembered almost exclusively for the great male voices: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hugo Gernsback, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick.
Where did the women go? It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Le Guin, Alice B. Sheldon, and Octavia Butler rose to prominence. (On a side note, if you have not read Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, you need to do so now. Absolute cannon.)
Collections such as The Feminine Future help contemporary society retain a more diverse historical and literary narrative by rediscovering long-forgotten and marginalized voices. Of course that also raises questions about the relationship between gender and publishing (historical and contemporary), and diversity vs. quality. These are complicated subjects, not to be taken lightly, and more than I’m seeking to get into here.
Regardless, The Feminine Future brought to my attention 14 stories published between 1873 and 1930 by women authors. I enjoyed not only the stories, but reflecting upon the authors and the time periods in which they lived, the social fears and inequities they sought to address through their fiction.
In the way that my favorite British TV show, Black Mirror, satirizes modern society and explores the dark side of technology and human nature in the near future, these authors examined robots, women-only societies, and impossible inventions of their own times.
History is never objective; both narrative and memory are socially constructed. I find it strange to think of how many authors I will never read: authors whose work is no longer relevant, whose work will never be translated to a language I speak, whose work I will simply never come across or have the time for. It’s too easy to read narrowly.
So here’s a shout out to Ethel White Mumford, Edna W. Underwood, Florence McLandburgh, Elizabeth W. Bellamy, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Mabel Ernestine Abbott, Edith Nesbit, Lillie Devereux Blake, M.F. Rupert, Clotilde Graves, Francis Stevens, Clare Winger Harris, Sophie Wenzel Ellis, and Alice Brown. Just a few of the early ladies of science fiction.
Now let’s all go read a book.