Recently, I’ve noticed that the fiction I love and the fiction I write seem to fall into a category that doesn’t quite exist. Or at least doesn’t have proper parameters that define it.
I would describe it as a hybrid of existing categories that for layman’s sake I’ve taken to calling “women’s science fiction.”
As soon as I write the words, I can feel the immediate backlash. So I’ll start by acknowledging all the problems with this proposed category and others like it.
- “Women’s fiction” is a contentious category all by itself. And for good reason I suppose. It implies that only women write it. It implies that only women enjoy reading it. It implies that the feminine is contained in a gender. And that that gender can only be feminine. All of which we know to be untrue.
- Science fiction is also a slippery genre. Is Science Fiction only stories that have at least the smallest root in real science? Does anything that borders on magic automatically get dumped into a fantasy genre? How can we tell the difference between magic and speculative science fiction when so often only time is the differentiator between things that seem magical and new technology. After all, wouldn’t airplanes have seemed mystical if they were written about two centuries ago?
- Combining the two categories is just asking for trouble right? After all if they are both riddled with imperfection doesn’t combining them only make things muddier?
In order to clear these hurdles let’s first talk about what is working about these definitions.
For the most part women’s fiction is in fact written by women and read by women. And truthfully over 80% of readers are women anyways so is it horrible to classify a genre by its most pervasive audience and creators? “Women’s fiction” flawed as the title may be, does definitely create an image in your mind of what to expect, so for the sake of finding readers and readers finding books, it does its job in that sense.
Second of all, we also know that writing in women’s fiction isn’t exclusively for women. After all, it would be difficult to deny that Nicholas Sparks, Grant Ginder and Kevin Kwan can’t fit into this specification.
The same way we know women are more than capable of writing a heart-pounding horror (Shirley Jackson) and an espionage spy novel (Lauren Wilkenson), we know anyone is able to capture heart and high concepts in a single work of art.
So indeed we have evolved to a point, in my opinion, where we have evolved beyond the gender trappings of this category. It’s a poor name that has stuck and it does in some way clarify certain elements/tropes readers can expect.
Why create a new category?
While I’m not on some sort of mission to rewrite the Amazon algorithm or add a new shelf to Barnes and Noble I do find that it can be difficult to locate the exact kind of sci-fi that I enjoy and to find the category where I feel my book specifically belongs.
Here’s what I love that feels like it’s worthy of a new designation:
- Intense emotional scenarios
- Realistic female leads who are strong and weak, sexual and gritty, flawed and mean and ugly and vibrant and empathetic and intuitive. People who are beautifully broken and insufferable fixers. (Is that too much to ask for? Haha)
- Realistic male leads who love their children, get fired from their jobs, battle with sensitivity, make completely unheroic choices and small sacrifices
- I want mothers and daughters and wives and sisters and lovers and friends in all their complexities and quirks
- I want time travel and aliens and parallel universes and space travel and dystopia
Stories I love that do this include authors/directors/writer like Margaret Atwood, Mike Chen, Charlie Jane Anders, Naomi Alderman, Blake Crouch, Lauren Beukes, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Christopher Nolan, John Krazinski, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.
These brilliant people have a massively diverse background but they all create work that produces similar feelings while operating in an otherworldly realm. Feelings that I also find tend to be pervasive in the “women’s fiction” genre. That feeling like they know the human experience intimately and can place it in an outrageous setting we never expected.
And it is that classification I would love to find a name for. It is that genre that I am obsessed with and can never get enough of.
What defines it is an emphasis on character and emotion rather than plot and action (though it has that to0). What it creates is a tangible change in your heart not just a brief moment of entertainment. The tools that it employs are using out of this world scenarios to put you in the mind and soul of real people living today. And I think it deserves something less broad than the categories we have now.
In a New York Times op-ed by Brit Marling (co-creator of The OA) she talks in particular about how women have used the sci-fi genre to change the world.
“Butler and other writers like Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood did not employ speculative fiction to colonize other planets, enslave new life-forms, or extract alien minerals for capital gains only to have them taken at gunpoint by A.I. robots. These women used the tenets of genre to reveal the injustices of the present and imagine our evolution.”
And while I think there are plenty of enlightened male creators also doing this work, it points to the area I specifically would love to see better defined.
Perhaps women’s science fiction is too broad, too clunky and too outdated. It’s simply a framework for what I am getting at. Perhaps soft sci-fi is a better place to start, though that seems to imply that it is the opposite of hard sci-fi which is an entirely different categorization. And I believe that emotional sci-fi is more than possible in the hard science fiction space (as we saw in The Martian). For my own work, I’ve taken to the tag line “science fiction with a soft center.”
Still, I want something more on the nose that gives creators and consumers some ground beneath their feet. The authors I love don’t fit into a specific box, but their work exists in a similar space. A space I one day hope to occupy alongside them.
Why this matters?
I believe we’re at a major turning point in storytelling. Not only are more stories than ever able to reach readers and viewers and listeners, but story is actually being taken more seriously than ever. It’s not “just art” for beauty’s sake and it’s not “just entertainment.” It’s capable of revolutionizing the way we think and the way we relate to each other and sci-fi has a special place in that. So it becomes empirically important that the right stories end up in the right hands. It’s the thing movements are made of. And whether you’re a writer or a reader, it’s essential that people are able to reach the stories that speak to them most.
If you want a romping space opera with laser canons and alien attacks, good for you! I enjoy that stuff too. But for the times where I want something that hits me in the heart and awakens new places in my mind, I’d love a category I can go straight to for that.