The Pleasures of Reading 2015: Forgotten Female Founders of Science Fiction
by Lisa Shapter
Our memory of women’s history is often diminished or distorted in popular culture. We remember Victor Frankenstein’s motherless, never-a-child, son as a grunting, monosyllabic hulk. In fact, he talks like this in the original novel: “[A]m I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing?” When we remember the history of science fiction, especially women’s history of science fiction, we often remember Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s pioneering Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus (1818) or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia Herland (1915) but we forget that the history of women writers in science fiction is longer and older than either of these ‘firsts’.
1) The Blazing-World (1668) by Margaret Cavendish
Science! Satire! A female narrator who survives, like Ishmael, only to be rescued by .... intelligent polar bears?
I wish, with all my Soul, [that this book] ... might be shared amongst my Noble Female Friends .... though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavor to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Caesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.
Read the rest at the University of Pennsylvania’s Celebration of Women Writers website: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/newcastle/blazing/blazing.html
(Penguin Classics used to have a nice edition of this book, but no one has published the annotated edition that does justice to this novel’s humor, its relationship to the history of science, and the author’s other political and social writings.)
2) Mizora (1890) by Mary E. Bradley
A female narrator! Worldbuilding! A single-sexed utopia 25 years before Gilman’s Herland!
(Warning: contains racism. See Pfaelzer for historical context.)
In my world man was regarded, or he had made himself regarded, as a superior being. He had constituted himself the Government, the Law, Judge, Jury and Executioner. He doled out reward or punishment as his conscience or judgment dictated. He was active and belligerent always in obtaining and keeping every good thing for himself. He was indispensable. Yet here was a nation of fair, exceedingly fair women doing without him, and practicing the arts and sciences far beyond the imagined pale of human knowledge and skill.
Read the rest at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/24750/pg24750.txt(Dr. Jean Pfaelzer has produced a critical edition of this book published by Syracuse University Press.)
3) “The Island of the Nine Whirlpools” from The Book of Dragons (1901) by Edith Nesbit
For all its magic and fantastical creatures this is a classic puzzle story with a smart girl and math.
.... [T]he years went slowly by. The wicked King died, and
some one else took his kingdom, and many things were changed in the world; but the island did not change, nor the Nine Whirlpools, nor the griffin, nor the dragon, nor the two stone ladies. And all the time, from the very first, the day of the Princess's deliverance was coming, creeping nearer, and nearer, and nearer. But no one saw it coming except the Princess, and she only in dreams.
Read the rest at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23661.
Reading what pioneering women like these have said for themselves is often a shock and a revelation. I have spent the past year researching the history of 20th century women science fiction authors, and this sense of surprise has been my greatest pleasure while reading in 2015. This brief list is only a starting place for seeing how women have re-envisioned human societies, advanced technologies, and alternate possibilities – and the delights and discoveries these many visions contain.
I wish to acknowledge the kind help of women’s science fiction collector Tom Porter and point intrigued readers to the 15-some other early women writers of satyrical or utopian science fiction (likely including ‘Anonymous’) listed in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: The Newly Updated and Expanded Classic by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.
Lisa Shapter is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Young Writers’ Conference and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. She lives in New England, collects antique typewriters, and is researching a history of 20th century women SF authors. She is a member of Broad Universe and the Dramatists’ Guild of America. Her science fiction play “The Other Two Men,” featuring characters from her short stories, will be performed at the Players’ Ring of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the summer of 2016. Her short stories have appeared in Black Denim Lit, Expanded Horizons, Four Star Stories, Kaleidotrope, and in the anthology Things We Are Not: An M-Brane SF Magazine Queer Science Fiction Anthology. Her novella A Day in Deep Freeze was published in 2015 in Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces series.