Sci-fi is the perfect medium to explore gender issues, as it allows us to imagine a society that is better or worse for women and thus provide some insight into what we could achieve in the present. However, a lot of authors fall back on lazy stereotypes for female characters or fail to fully think through how their sci-fi concepts affect women. The one piece of advice I would give to sci-fi writers of all genders is: think about the role of women in your fictional society and what this says about the world you are creating.
Recently, I have read three novels, well regarded in the space opera sub-genre, that look at gender in future societies in very different ways. However, can these books be classified as feminist and what do they have to say about how sci-fi authors view female characters?
The most recent of the three books is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which is set in a future where the human space is dominated by one human society called the Radchaai. The Radchaai are genderless and the author uses “she” as a pronoun throughout the book, which is written in the first person. Whenever the narrator describes any human, whether Radchaai or not, she always uses the female pronoun. Non-Radchaai humans frequently point out to her that some characters are male but she still makes mistakes.
Leckie is trying to make some form of statement about a future where humans have evolved beyond the need for genders and the associated baggage but it is not made clear in the book. Nor do we get an idea of gender relations in any other human society or their views on the genderless Radchaai. Is this common in the future or does the rest of human society still have entrenched views on the differences between men and woman? Other issues - such as: do they differ biologically or just in gender? How do they reproduce? In what sort of family unit are children raised? - are also not covered. I get the feeling Leckie wants to say something about gender in Ancillary Justice, but her point is murky at best.
Second is Glory Season by David Brin, which is set on a matriarchal world where women are not only the majority but also hold all positions of power. Males are restricted to a few token roles and are the subjects of crude stereotypes about their intelligence. However, Brin does not portray this world as a feminist utopia, as there are still social conflicts within Glory Season. Cast, job, background, religion and wealth are all important divisions within their society, and power is still concentrated within the hands of a few rich and powerful women.
Where Glory Season falls down is not having something coherent to say about the role of women in this society. This book makes the vague point that totalitarianism and oppression are human characteristics and present in all societies, but the text is hardly feminist and is not clearly informed by a feminist theory.
The book does feature a woman protagonist (sadly this is unusual in the sci-fi genre) who questions gender roles and the fairness of their clan based society. It also reflects on the need for society to change drastically and radically to achieve gender equality and stop violence against women. Glory Season is about a woman finding her independence and not being a victim of wider social constraints.
This said, I think David Brin wrote the book because he had an interesting idea for a future matriarchal society and not because he had something profound to say about the role of women in our or any other society. The author has failed to fully consider the implications about writing about a matriarchal world and thus any feminist points the book might have made are lost to confusion.
Finally, I want to talk about the feminist sci-fi classic The Handmaid's Tale. Unsparingly, the other two books do not come off favourably when compared, but I want to focus on why The Handmaid's Tale handles the role of women in the future better than the other two books. This is mainly because it has a clearly defined point about the role of women in the future, which also says something about the role of women in our society. It is hard to confuse its points about how women are only valued as incubators to produce more men, there is no vagueness about how women are restricted and judged based on their adherence to an impossibly high moral standard.
Margaret Atwood’s book takes the role of women in the future and makes it the focus of the narrative, thus making a clear point. Not every sci-fi book has to focus only on the role of women in the future, but it does need to be clear about how imagined social and technological changes affect genders relations and the role of women.
Glory Season has a lot of interesting ideas about the future but does not have a clear point to make. Ancillary Justice has a point, but it is ill defined and lost in opaqueness. The Handmaid's Tale has a point to make and is clear about it.
As a sci-fi writer, there is no excuse for not considering the role of woman in any imagined society or for falling back on gender stereotypes. Your book does not have to be a statement on gender relations but as a writer you do need to think clearly about gender roles in any world you are creating.