I recently finished reading The Power by Naomi Alderman, a piece of speculative fiction that considers the repercussions for the balance of power between the sexes in a world where women and girls uncover a latent ability to generate an electric charge from within that’s so powerful that they could kill men with just a touch from their fingertips.
It’s a brilliant premise, (and an excellent book btw), but it did get me thinking about feminist fiction generally. Not least because I recently published my own book, Darkness, also a piece of speculative fiction, but in this scenario the balance of power between the sexes is challenged by an all-female terrorist group that rises from the ashes of a third World War to prevent the rebuilding of patriarchal structures of power and oppression.
The two books were both published at the tail end of last year and this coincidence did me few favours as when I spoke to an Editor (male) of a leading books publication, he told me that the publication felt they could only justify the review of one piece of feminist fiction as more than that might be “too specialist” – and Naomi’s book got the review.
Now, clearly I didn’t get the memo that there was a limit to the amount of feminist fiction that could be considered in any fixed time period. I mean, how did I not remember that feminism is a minority issue and ‘women’s subjects’ should no way come close to challenging the eye-watering predominance of men and male thought! Foolish me!
Another sign, sure, of too many male gatekeepers and the associated fears of seeing parity as a scary proposition to be resisted. But that’s not why I am writing this specific post – though it is interestingly relevant to the broader topic…
So, I had all of this rattling around in my head, and then, coincidentally, my book club picked The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin as their next read. An iconic piece of feminist science fiction that examines misogyny and the role of gender in society through the existence of a planet where all inhabitants are androgynous – “ambisexual” neither male or female – and only take on temporary male/female sexual organs for procreation, which is fleeting, and after which they return to an ambisexual state.
And all of this got me thinking, is this really what it is going to take? Are the desperate and extreme scenarios that speculative fiction brings us an indication, a marker, for how unlikely, how remote, equality is in our reality?
Because though fiction is fiction, much of its power is drawn from what it can observe, what it can tell us, about our lives today, about the human condition. About our reality.
And though this would include contemporary fiction, it is the role of speculative fiction I am focusing on here as I want to look at change. It is speculative fiction that takes themes and developments in society today, extrapolates them out or throws a spanner in the works, and considers what the repercussions would be.
I know feminism and complex, multi-dimensional female characters are becoming more prevalent in contemporary fiction, and many fictional works include examination of what it is to be a woman in contemporary society. And this is all great. Why I look to speculative fiction here is what it is telling us about what would need to change for equality to be achieved.
And what it seems to be observing right now is the effort and/or the extreme that will have to come around for the power structures to be truly shaken up.
And that is unbelievably depressing.
You see, we’re never going to be able to electrocute men. Women’s bodies are never going to develop into portable machines of death that, through a genetic abnormality, allows women to slay enemies just be grabbing their arm. (I appreciate that is a crushing disappointment btw so sorry to be the bearer of bad news).
And similarly, though World War Three may feel that it’s not that far away, it’s a frightening thought that the premise of my own book feels that it has to set up the wholescale destruction of the human race for there to be any chance to truly unseat the patriarchy.
And I’m pretty sure the human race will be completely eviscerated before we find another planet with advanced life on it, let alone one where gender is irrelevant. And anyway, even if that planet does exist, I’m inclined to leave them to it as frankly we can’t be trusted to not fuck everything up these days.
So what I’m trying to say is that, despite these pieces of feminist speculative fiction having exciting thought-provoking ideas and prose, when you step back from them, I feel sad that their desperately fantastical premises and impossibly unlikely scenarios could be a reflection, a response, to how unlikely gender equality is in our reality.
And then we get to Margaret Atwood’s seminal The Handmaid’s Tale, which doesn’t so much imagine a future where a freak event could bring about equality – it supposes that it actually could get a whole lot worse.
If feminism were likely to succeed, if equality was not just possible but within our grasp, there would be no need for feminist writers of fiction to resort to such outlandish pieces of speculative fiction. Instead, we resort to such extreme setups because we know, we believe, that this is what it will take. And that’s the optimistic ones.
And that is truly a sobering thought.
So, there is no tidy wrap up for this post. I don’t have any profound conclusions to add or deductions to share with you all. And I sure don’t have any answers right now. I simply wanted to share the sobering, and not a little depressing, observation of how the desperate situation of gender inequality in our reality manifests itself in fiction.
I guess the fight goes on, both in reality and in fiction, until the need to write such pieces becomes obsolete. Not that I have much, if any, confidence that that will be soon.