Naomi Aldermanâ€™s brilliant science fiction novel The Power justly won the Baileyâ€™s prize for womenâ€™s fiction last week. It deserved to win â€“ but I never thought it would.
The unstoppable rise of female-authored and feminist science fiction tends to upset two distinct sets of stuffy traditionalists: sexists and literary snobs. But by insisting that only a certain sort of art is truly great, theyâ€™re missing out on some gorgeous books.
Itâ€™s always puzzling to meet nerds who have read Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov â€“ but have not read, for example, Ursula K Le Guin and Octavia Butler; or modern literature buffs who worship Ben Lerner but have never heard of Lidia Yuknavitch. More than anything, though, itâ€™s just a pity. If you limit yourself to what feels safe, youâ€™ll miss the very stories that might change your life.
Right now, the real world seems to be out of ideas about how to organise its future â€“ and thatâ€™s exactly why womenâ€™s fantasy futures feel more necessary than ever. Imagining alternative worlds is a political act, whether you want it to be or not, and for some reason, women and people of colour seem to have a particular facility for building fictional worlds that feel both fresh and feasible.
This is nothing new. For generations women writers have been creating stories about what the future might look like, from dark and ominous dystopias to weird deep-space epics and surrealist explorations of sex and social power.
. A great many of our finest male science fiction writers had endless capacity to dream up seditious space battles and strange technology, but limited imagination when it came to societies that didnâ€™t have white, straight guys on top.
In recent years women, queer people and people of colour have horrified the hoary old guard by sweeping the major science fiction prizes.
Mainstream critics are just as horrified that their cosy, predictable world is suddenly full of science fiction writers. The literati donâ€™t want nerds at their parties, and nerds donâ€™t want girls at their parties; and perhaps thatâ€™s why writers such as Alderman â€“ along with modern greats including NK Jemisin, Ann Leckie and Charlie Jane Anders â€“ are producing such original, exciting work. No matter what they do, traditionalists will sneer and grumble â€“ so you may as well be as weird and wonderful as you want.
Until now, female-authored and feminist science fiction has never had the audience or the recognition it deserves. It has rarely been adapted for film or television, as Hollywood heaves with homogeneous stories of square-jawed heroes waging war in space. It took the video streaming service Hulu to take a gamble on dramatising Margaret Atwoodâ€™s cult classic The Handmaidâ€™s Tale: the story of a near-future America ruled by misogynist Christian fanatics obsessed with controlling womenâ€™s fertility.
The show is a lush and faithful adaptation of a book that now feels horrifically prescient. It was commissioned and shot before the past election â€“ and the book was written in a decade when Donald Trump was still a dodgy business bro sleazing around Manhattan, trying to get his picture in the papers.
Right when we need them most, stories about women remaking the world are finally finding a wide and enthusiastic audience across film, television and literature â€“ from The Handmaidâ€™s Tale to the summerâ€™s breakout hit, Wonder Woman, and (of course) The Power.
Alderman is an artist at the top of her game who has worked across a variety of genres, from her Orange award-winning first novel, Disobedience â€“ which tells the story of a young womanâ€™s exit from orthodox Judaism â€“ to running the interactive game Zombies, Run!.
The Power, in the best tradition of fantastic fiction, takes a simple concept â€“ what if women and girls suddenly became physically stronger than men? â€“ and follows its logic to a conclusion that you might not expect. It turns out that power is not a good in itself.
Itâ€™s a great place to start with feminist science fiction. But donâ€™t stop there. Read the classics â€“ Butler, Le Guin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr. Read Catherynne M Valente, Kelly Link, Eileen Gunn, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nnedi Okorafor. And then ask what it is about these stories that has so threatened mainstream literature and culture, and caused them to be largely ignored â€“ until now.
Usually, at times of uncertainty, we turn to familiar stories for comfort. But sometimes the familiar is inadequate. We need to imagine other worlds, and fast.
I happen to think the very best books being published now are by science fiction writers who happen to be women. But hereâ€™s the brilliant thing â€“ you can only properly disagree once youâ€™ve read the books. If you havenâ€™t, I wonâ€™t judge you. On the contrary. Iâ€™m excited for you, and a little envious that you get to discover these stories for the first time. Youâ€™re in for a treat.