Last week, I decided to pen a tribute to my favourite authors of science fiction, a love letter, really, that has long been in the pipeline.
I started off by listing my favourites. Premendra Mitra. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal. Begum Rokeya. Satyajit Ray. Humayun Ahmed. Jagadish Chandra Bose. Five men. One woman. Professor Shonku, Ghanashyam Das, Misir Ali, and a Sultana from a feminist utopia. The internet said there were many more male pioneers of the SF genre here in Bangladesh, who had won not just hearts, but also accolades.
But, what of the women?
Was Begum Rokeya the sole woman to contribute to science fiction in Bangla literature? I wracked the dusty childhood memories in my brain, shaking loose whatever I remembered of a certain Limbo Shaheb and mad scientist Gobu. Leela Majumdar.
Subsequent research didn't yield much more about the presence of women writers in Bangla science fiction. The love letter was thus scrapped, in favour of a deeper look into the gender biases at play in this vast field of fiction.
In 2017, Tor Books, the primary imprint of Macmillan Publishers Ltd, revealed their publishing figures for various genres for the month of January that year. The ratio of female author submissions to male author submissions in the science fiction genre was ridiculously skewed, clocking in at 0.22:0.78. There is a pronounced sense of gender discrimination in these numbers that is hard to miss. Are women being discouraged from writing science fiction in the first place? Publishing houses often deny that being the cause, saying instead that manuscripts are approved on the basis of merit, which raises yet another question on the "capabilities" of a woman writing science fiction. One can't help but wonder whether it is the pre-conceived notion of male writers being more bankable at play here. This inequality is a continued discrimination that has been at play from long before the 2017 article.
The science fiction genre has largely been dominated by men, despite Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)—which depicted scientific creation with underlying themes of religion, eliminating mysticism—enduring as one of the most popular sci-fi pop culture icons. The novel's publishing history is also mired in debate. It did not bear the name of its author when it was first released, leading people to conclude that it was likely to have been written by Percy Bysshe Shelley rather than his wife Mary. Further investigation into the matter revealed that Percy's role was limited to that of the editor, while Mary brought the monstrous Frankenstein to life with her words and creativity. To what extent Percy's editing added to or took away from the text warrants its own separate discussion.
Personally, I'd credit the Duchess Margaret Cavendish over Mary Shelley for penning the first true science fiction novel. Cavendish's The Blazing World (1666) was well and truly ahead of its time, fusing futuristic elements with the 17th century way of life. The novel centres on the exploits of an unnamed woman from our world who is accidentally transported to another dimension, The Blazing World. Cavendish wrote about an utopian society which reflected the flawed community she grew up in, but exhibited far more progressive ideologies through the characterisation of complex female characters such as the Empress of the Blazing World. A ceiling had been shattered in the realm of speculative fiction with the publication of this novel, at a time when such an action was deemed inconceivable. Duchess Cavendish had written a story about women unbound by patriarchal constraints, women portrayed to be more than just subservient and innocent, but also warriors, leaders, and villains.
Yet "Mad Madge" Cavendish's work isn't recognised as equal to that of Johannes Kepler's, whose Somnium (1634) features one of the earliest documentations of lunar astronomy in literature, complete with elaborate scientific descriptions. Cavendish's imagination of an utopian world—of a future we now call present—set up the stage to inspire incidents of scientific revolution in fiction. On the other hand, in my opinion, Kepler's work never really sought to address underlying issues about man's evolution. And while Kepler was treated as a well-read scholar, a mathematician, and an astronomer, eventually being hailed by many as the 'Father of Science Fiction', Cavendish's work was criticised as having "dull verses" and for portraying a world where "women live like bats or owls, labour like beasts, and die like worms".
Conservatives will tell you that it was the second wave of feminism which inspired female writers such as Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K Le Guin to perfect their craft in science fiction. But historical accounts say otherwise. Women have long been discouraged to engage in anything related to academics; it only makes sense that the sustained sexism would prevent their accomplishments in the field from being recognised. SF became a male dominated genre solely because there was a significant lack of female writers to compete with.
There is nothing wrong with having an extensive number of male writers contribute to a particular literary genre. But the forced exclusion of women due to gender discrimination is both detrimental and unwarranted. The works of most male writers often, if not always, feature content curated for men, about men. Stories about women written by men are filtered to cater to the male gaze. As a result, we end up with hypersexualised female characters who are only there to further the male protagonist's journey, much like Lenina Crowne in Brave New World (Chatto & Windus, 1932), or Sadie Dunhill in Stephen King's 11.22.63 (Scribner, 2011) who is a soft-spoken dame doomed to live out a tragic life of abuse she can't escape. In most SF novels penned by men, nothing spells out "entertainment" like a woman who is treated as a harlot or a punching bag.
Amidst this horribly regressive characterisation of fictional women in science fiction, award-winning writer Orson Scott Card took the patriarchal ideology even further by incorporating his neo-conservative views into his works. Card's novels Empire (Tor Books, 2006) and Songmaster (Dial Press, 1980) depicted a fair share of graphic violence coupled with right-wing sentiments and homophobia, which were deemed to be necessary, provocative additions to the genre by the author who once described homosexuality to the Mormom Times as a "tragic genetic mixup".
In stark contrast to the underlying misogyny in the works of male SF writers, women writers of the same genre advocated for inclusivity and proper representation of marginalised lives including people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community. Following in the rebellious footsteps of Margaret Cavendish, writer Leigh Brackett rose to prominence in the 1940s owing to the popularity of her pulp stories and novels. In what is considered to be the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Brackett was a solitary feminine voice, who regardless left an immense legacy, earning the moniker of the "Queen of Space Opera", and being credited even for her unused screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
Other women authors entered the genre in the 1960s, leveling the playing field that had once been exclusively reserved for men only. Ursula K Le Guin introduced us to the ambisexual world of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace Books, 1969), while Joanna Russ taught us to question the absurdity of gender norms in The Female Man (Bantam Books, 1975). Their works incorporated into their stories what male authors couldn't: a progressive viewpoint. Russ' approach to science fiction was rooted in practicality, which was evident in her own words: "..science fiction is poised to provide myths for dealing with kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we ought to be having". Women had finally begun telling their own stories from perspectives that differed from that of the men in terms of privilege in a patriarchal society.
Perhaps this is what Begum Rokeya had in mind when she wrote about a girl named Sultana who dreamt of a utopia too wondrous for the real world. Begum Rokeya's plight was no different than that of Cavendish's or Russ', and it spilled onto her written works, offering strongly relatable feminist literature for a Bangladeshi girl like me, nearly a century later.
Because of women who pioneered the genre of science fiction—sadly more often in Western literature—I learned about women forging their own legacies from scratch in a male-dominated genre. Gender bias in science fiction is gradually shifting to ensure inclusivity for female writers, a lot of whom have proven their capabilities several times at Hugo and Nebula Awards, post the 2010s. Author Sarah Pinsker received the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2020, after female science fiction authors NK Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Connie Willis, Naomi Novik, and many more from the preceding years.
Here at home, where the patriarchal regression runs much deeper, there is yet to be a female author whose brilliance can rival that of Begum Rokeya's in science fiction.
My love letter will have to wait.
Rasha Jameel studies microbiology whilst pursuing her passion for writing. Reach her at email@example.com