A couple of weeks ago I gave a lecture for a general audience on women and science fiction, which was also the closing session in a course organized by Jordi-Agustí Font at Badalona’s Espai Betúlia. I was the only woman lecturer in a series of six sessions and, typically, I was asked to lecture on women, even though, as happens, I am now writing a book on men in science fiction. Also typically, the audience for my lecture was significantly lower (I was told) than for the previous sessions (on SF by men), even though the attendees, mostly elderly ladies and gentlemen, were wonderful and asked me very relevant questions.

            A doubt I shared with them was whether the section I had included in the lecture on women and science was pertinent at all. I presented a basic overview of women’s difficulties to participate in science and be acknowledged, from Ada Lovelace to the last Nobel Prize winners, to argue that women SF writers have the duty to popularize women scientists and engineers as role models for young girls. Science fiction by men has always awakened vocations among young boys, inspiring them to dream of their future careers and I believe that if girls are now showing a diminished interest in STEM degrees this is due to a great extent to the lack of role models. There are indeed many women scientists and engineers but they have a very low visibility in the media news and in fiction in comparison to other types of women, professional or not. My Badalona audience agreed with me: no little girl will ever dream of being a great scientist or engineer if she is not inspired by a successful woman, whether real or fictional.

            My argument, however, is quite marginal in the academic field of feminist science fiction, whose latest battles are all focused on identity issues to an extent that seems frankly counterproductive. I attended the same week when I gave my talk the Foundation/University of Glasgow online conference ‘When It Changed’, which, alluding to Joanna Russ’s classic short story, examined to what extent the position of women in SF has improved. I mean in all fields: as readers, scholars, authors and characters. I participated with an incendiary paper (or so I thought) on how the treatment of non-white women SF authors as a special category is damaging their careers and proposing instead that we either stop using racial indicators or use them for all, including white authors, but no scholars seem interested in discussing my concerns. I used as case study Vandana Singh, a brilliant short story writer originally from India who has been working as a scientist for decades in Boston. Singh has asked again and again that her stories be read through the double prism of her scientific interests and her Indian heritage, but her professional background is ignored by most commentators. She is seen, absurdly as I argued, as some kind of South Asian representative imported to fill in a gap in Western (=American) readership.

            Technically, Singh writes SFF, that is to say science-fiction fantasy, a clumsy label to describe SF with, well, some elements of fantasy. SFF is now, as I could see from the conference, the preferred genre mix among women readers and writers. The label ‘speculative fiction’, which author Robert Heinlein offered as an alternative to John W. Campbell’s ‘science fiction’ (itself an improvement on Hugo Gernsback’s ‘scientifiction’), is now being extended beyond SF. The Routledge Speculative Fiction Series, for instance, advertises itself claiming that it offers studies of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, utopian/dystopian literatures, and supernatural fiction.” I am the first to grant that ‘science fiction’ is not a very useful label in many cases, and that the ‘what if…?’ that, according to Darko Suvin, defines a SF plot can be extended beyond that genre into other forms of speculative fiction (‘what if… ghosts existed?’). But what makes me quite nervous is a general tendency in women-authored speculative fiction to place magic at the same level as science or above it. There are no women with magical powers and if we want to empower women we need to give them a far more solid education in the sciences and in engineering. They will not get it, I insist, for as long as teen girls keep on reading fiction in which magic, not science, dominates.

            The problem, obviously, is that the course which science has taken is mostly dominated by patriarchal concerns. The planet is being destroyed by the application of a selfish male technoscience that never took into account its impact. Reading these days Andrea Wulf’s magnificent volume The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, it is quite clear that pioneers scientists like von Humboldt already understood in the late 18th century how technoscience was damaging the planet (yes, not all men support patriarchal science). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is also a very early warning of how the work of just one male scientist can bring destruction on all Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, then, science and technology are now seen as monsters out of control, which possibly explains the ridiculous attitude of the antivaxxers. I had to use Google to recall the names of the wife and husband team that developed Pfizer’s miraculous anti-Covid vaccines: Ugur Sahin, 55, and Ozlem Tureci, 53, based in the German city of Mainz. This is not right. They should be immensely popular heroes, household names everyone should be able to recognize.

            In short, because of the negative reactions that capitalist corporate technoscience elicits (particularly that in the hands of tech billionaires like the obstreperous Elon Musk), there is not, then, any kind of hero worship for scientists and engineers in current SF by women. Or by men. At least in what I am reading by men I am also finding plenty of technophobia; the main interest, if any, seems to be the adventure that follows from fighting criminal corporations, or interplanetary villains.

            The keyword dominating most sessions of the conference I attended was ‘indigenous’ and, a concept new to me, ‘indigenous science’. The corresponding Wikipedia entry, which has a rather long bibliography, explains that indigenous science consists of the “knowledge and experiences” traditionally passed down “orally from generation to generation” and defends the idea that indigenous science “has an empirical basis and has traditionally been used to predict and understand the world.” Surely, indigenous science is particularly relevant to redress the environmental damage done by what Wikipedia coyly calls “scientific knowledge” but I do worry very much that it points at an idealized tribal past which has never existed. The concept also erases lines of research which link tradition and modernity in the so-called West. For instance, aspirin was born when chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt mixed sodium salicylate, the element in willow bark traditionally used to treat pain, with acetyl chloride thus producing acetylsalicylic acid. On the other hand, the syrup I am taking to cope with my chest cold is 100% plant-based.

            There was, in short, no talk of science and technology, apart from allusions to indigenous science, in the conference on women and SF I attended, which I find perplexing, to be honest. Climate change was very much present, but as a sort of dystopian given, not in stories in which women engineers came up with the solution to stop the oncoming disaster (at least not in the papers I attended).

            A last caveat goes to the real impact of women’s SF and whether, as the conference wondered, things have changed. Everyone in the field is aware that the two major awards, the Hugo (given by the fans) and the Nebula (given by the SF authors themselves) are now mostly in the hands of women, with men being a minority also among the nominees. Cheryl Morgan gave an excellent lecture on the evolution of women’s presence in the history of these awards, making the important point that women had been always much more present than we assume, and had won a considerable number of awards in the 1990s. Yet when I asked her how this new visibility of SF women authors translates into sales, her reply was that it doesn’t because book distribution is dominated by men from top to bottom, chain to bookstore. Wordsrated’s ‘Science Fiction Book Sales Statistics [2022]’ is, to say the least, depressing. The ten best-selling SF novels are Dune (1966) by Frank Herbert, 1984 (1949) by George Orwell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams, the Foundation Series (1942-1993) by Isaac Asimov, Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card,  The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut, The Martian (2011) by Andy Weir, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke and Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. Perhaps, if you add the sales of all the SF by women writers you get many volumes sold, but the top 10 remains male, white and old-fashioned.            

I’ll close my musings by mentioning the wonderful Sara García Alonso, selected by ESA together with Pablo Álvarez Fernández, as the first Spanish candidate astronaut who might travel to the Moon. Sara is one of the 8 women, among 17 astronauts, chosen by ESA in a call that has attracted 25% female candidates, a “big increase”, she notes, in relation to the previous call. Sara has an impressive record as a biotechnological cancer researcher and she is indeed the kind of woman who can be a potent role model for girls, a real influencer unlike the vapid women reigning in the social media. I just wonder what kind of SF she saw and read as a little girl that inspired her to want to be an astronaut… and which SF women writers are working on stories with successful women like her as protagonists. Many, I hope.