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Friday Fun: Mary Shelley- Mother of Science Fiction

Happy Friday readers! Welcome to the end of another week in 2020. Take a bracing breath and let’s have some fun with today’s topic.

Sci Fi & the Male Gaze

One of the highest awards in Speculative literature is the Hugo. Speculative literature is the umbrella term for Fantasy, Science Fiction, i.e, fiction with fantastical, otherworldly elements. The past few years there has been a strong emphasis on Science Fiction being a bit of a men’s club, despite a prevalence of female authors who have been cornerstones of the genre for the past few decades. This is an aside to other issues of diversity and acknowledgement that have mired the genre, an issue brought to acute awareness with this year’s Hugo award ceremony.

In the early to mid 20th century, the channels science fiction were marketed through pushed hard to appeal to the male gaze. The high action and adrenaline plot lines were a draw for a male leaning audience. Covers reflected this with gleaming space ships, explosions, and scantily clad women. The male heroes of the genre generally fell into the rough and tumble man’s man archetype. With this male leaning market, women often went by ambiguous pseudonyms or initials to avoid the clap back of ‘ladies writing male stories’ such as C.L. Moore.

In 1948, roughly 10- 15% of authors in science fiction were women, though a woman did not win the Hugo award until 1968, which was Anne McCaffery who won with her novella ‘Weyr Search’. The Hugos have been around for nearly 70 years now and over the course of their existence, roughly 20% of the Hugo awards were given to female identifying authors, ( a number which may be higher now thanks to the push for diversity in recent years.) Female identifying authors now make up about 40% of the genre, and the readership numbers are even higher.

“She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…” -Joanna Russ, How to Suppress a Woman’s Writing.

However, what many forget or fail to realize is that women have been involved in the genre since its inception.

Actually, science fiction was created by a woman.

Mother of Science Fiction

In 1816, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley brought his 18 year old wife to the summer home of Lord Byron, Villa Diodati, in Switzerland. The company also included doctor Johnathan Polidari. One night the gathering challenged one another to pen a ghost story that they would read out loud on the chilly evenings. From that challenge, emerged Polidari’s Vampyre and teenage Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The tale of Frankenstein and his nameless monster emerged through the unique lens of a 19th century woman. Mary Shelley was a mother who’d already buried her first unnamed infant child two years prior to that fateful summer. By the time Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, anonymously, she was pregnant with her third child. By the time Frankenstein swept through the public imagination and arrived on stage in 1823, Shelley had given birth to four children and buried three. The nameless state and monstrous nature of Frankenstein’s creature reflect the cycle of birth and loss so central to Shelley’s life, and her timeless themes resonate today. She wrote at a time where women were fighting for the right to vote, to own property, to have a voice, and to have autonomy over their bodies. Where the advantages of wealth and status were intimately tied to the male family members in a woman’s life and she was one incident away from destitution.

Shelley couldn’t have known the impact she would have on literature, or that her dark tale would kick off an entire genre of fiction that explores the concept of ‘what if it could be’. Her fascinating life and subsequent novels are often forgotten. Shelley went on to pen another dark speculative tale with The Last Man, where an unknown pandemic sweeps the world and wipes out humanity. A particularly haunting story considering the current state of the world. It was the unique perspective of her sex and her life experience that created a classic that continues to endure.

Science fiction is experiencing another renaissance with an emergence of BIPOC and LGBTQ authors emerging onto the scene, enriching the genre with stories told through their unique lens. Voices that we hope continue to diversify and empower the genre.

Resources and Further Reading

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