A Common Reader Looks at Women Writing Science Fiction
by Renee Kimball
Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, author Anne Fadiman explains the origin of the term, “common reader”—which Fadiman borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s story, The Common Reader, and Woolf had borrowed from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray (Preface).
“In The Common Reader– Virginia Woolf . . .wrote of “all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.” The common reader, she said “differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole.” This is the whole that I have attempted to create from the thousands of odds and ends that crowd my sagging bookshelves.” (Ex Libris, Preface).
I am a Common Reader, one of those who collect books without purpose—other than I am curious, (or nosy). I am in love with books—and their secrets. I enjoy that challenge of finding a connection—there is always a surprise lurking between the pages.
While I am attracted to all things bookish, I am not alone. Online, hundreds of like-minded bookaholics come together, willing to share their enthusiasm for good books, new authors, and interesting finds—excellent company in this time of social distancing.
Which brings me to this post about women writing science fiction. These bookish groups, and their book prompts, often require reading science fiction—a genre I normally do not read. I struggle with understanding scientific concepts, other worlds, fantastical cultures with fantastical abilities, much less the ability to pronounce non-phonetic imaginary names and languages. I lack imagination for made up worlds, but I admire those who possess it.
And that is how I came to read and admire, not one, but two female science fiction authors—Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. In fact, there are many, many more, but this post addresses only these two.
The science fiction genre is a multifaceted, scientifically imagined environment with fantastical cultures—environments created from almost unruly imaginations, producing amazingly satisfying results, including social and moral lessons. Yet Butler and Le Guin push the boundaries even more—they are rebel authors who use their platforms to fearlessly address social ills: injustice, slavery, discrimination, diversity, feminism, social unrest, and sexuality and much, much, more.
Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler. Licensed by Nikolas Coukouma under CC BY-SA 2.5. Via Wikipedia.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
From Dawn, Book I of III, Lilith’s Brood:The Complete Xenogenesis Trilogy
“Down on Earth,” she said carefully, “there are no people left to draw lines on maps and say which sides of those lines are the right sides. There is no government left. No human government, anyway.”
. . .
“What is it?” she asked. “Flesh. More like mine than like yours. Different from mine, too, though. It’s … the ship.” “You’re kidding. Your ship is alive?”
. . .
“She had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her. . .”
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. LeGuin. By K. Kendall. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Via Wikipedia.
“. . . Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.”
“But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer (tweet that, emphasis mine). I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.”
From The Left Hand of Darkness
. . .
“Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either…but what was it saying?”
Le Guin and Butler were fearless in their writing. LeGuin shook the science fiction world when she wrote about men’s role in parenting. In The Left Hand of Darkness, there are no women, no females, only one gender—male. Men go into “kemmer” when they become a female vessel and are then impregnated by another male. After they become pregnant and after delivery of their progeny, both men serve as parents. Male childcare and nurturing—a subject rarely discussed in 1969.
Butler forged ahead on similar lines, writing about slavery and sexual desire while portraying women in leadership roles, unafraid to demand respect and control. Butler’s aliens from other universes conquer earth and gain control through sexual conquest and mind control. She never shied away from using her writing as a means to remind us of the ills of slavery or subjugation of races while weaving these lessons into the tapestry of her stories. Butler was a leader of Afrofuturism and equality, believing “hierarchical” societies are a danger to society.
Both Le Guin and Butler are now deceased. Le Guin died in 2018, at 88 years of age, after leaving behind a voluminous legacy. Butler died in 2006, at 58 years of age, also leaving a voluminous legacy of work and papers. The list of Butler’s awards is too numerous to produce here; however, she won both the Hugo and Nebula awards twice. Le Guin won eight Hugo and six Nebula awards in addition to numerous others.
Both authors’ works will continue to be revered and read far into the future; it is also hoped other female science fiction writers will follow their example.
Book covers courtesy of Amazon.com.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes