They say there’s nothing like travel to make you see your home a little differently, and the beauty of science fiction, of course, is that travel isn’t limited to this planet or even this moment in time. Here are eight of our favorite books that explore women’s lives across time and space.
The Female Man
A foundational text of feminist science fiction, Russ’s novel features four women from wildly different worlds. Joanna’s world hews closely to life on Earth in the 1970s (when the novel was written) and Jeannine comes from a version of Earth where the Great Depression never ended and World War II never occurred. Janet comes from a peaceful, technologically advanced world where men were killed off centuries ago and reproduction occurs through parthenogenesis, while Jael comes from a planet where the sexes are quite literally at war, with limited trade and forced servitude. These four women travel to each other’s worlds, interacting with societal mores that are entirely foreign to them, and learn more than they thought possible about their own home worlds, and themselves.
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This clever linked collection from one of the undisputed masters of science fiction finds protagonist Sita Dulip in a boring, frustrating airport layover that takes her to destinations she never expected. In each chapter of this fascinating travelogue, Sita visits a different reality, quite literally changing planes, and in classic Le Guin style, each new destination features some key difference that causes us to reflect on our own world.
In "Porridge on Islac,” Sita encounters a society where genetic modification has been taken to extremes, creating species of humans intermingled with the DNA of flora and fauna. In "The Royals of Hegn,” she visits a country where nearly the entire population are royalty, and the handful of commoners are treated as celebrities. In "The Fliers of Gy,” Sita meets a race of people who occasionally grow wings, which are regarded as a kind of birth defect. And in the deeply unsettling “Wake Island,” she finds herself among a society of people who’ve been engineered not to need sleep, and as a result have become depraved and monstrous. Changing Planes is a marvelous book, best read – where else? – in an airport.
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In this intriguing time travel thriller, Shay and her grandmother Brandy switch both bodies and times, and must navigate their strange new surroundings and their familial ties. What sets this book apart is that it’s a fish-out-of-water story in two directions – both women are shocked by the social expectations of their new time – but also that it turns both women’s relationships to their family upside down. Shay finds herself being married off to a man she knows is not her grandfather, while Brandy wakes up pregnant and engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Meanwhile, Rachel, Shay’s mother and Brandy’s daughter, provides a link between the two timelines as both women learn to redefine their relationship to her.
The Future of Another Timeline
In a version of the near future where tightly-regulated geographical features on each continent enable researchers to travel back in time, a war is brewing. Though travelers are strictly forbidden from interfering in past events, Tess and a small group of fellow activists suspect that a group of reactionary male travelers have been tweaking the timeline, trying to create a future where the rights of women and marginalized groups are severely curtailed. They each remember timelines that never were, alternate versions of the distant and recent past that were subtly or drastically different. The question is, how do they fight back? Interwoven through Tess’s timeline is the story of Beth, a teenager in the 1990s riot grrrl scene in California, who finds herself party to a murder after one of her friends is assaulted. The story of how, and when, these two women’s timelines come together makes for a compelling, intersectional time travel adventure.
An indelible cornerstone of science fiction, Butler’s novel is the story of Dana, a young black woman dragged back and forth through time between 1976 California and a Maryland plantation in 1815. It’s a difficult, emotional, and often violent fight for survival whenever Dana finds herself in the past, and when her husband Kevin, who is white, becomes stranded in 1815, the novel gets into a thorny, compelling examination of power dynamics in interracial relationships. Dana’s relationships to the other slaves and to the plantation’s violent, possessive heir are also central to the story, and utterly devastating. It’s an intense narrative about trauma, American history, and power.
Woman on the Edge of Time
Connie Ramos knows the future. Having survived tragic loss and hardship, she’s unjustly committed to a mental institution - but she’s not insane. Rather, she’s a conduit to the future, having communicated with a being who shows her a number of possible outcomes for Earth’s current path. One is a paradise, a utopian future where bigotry, homelessness, pollution, hunger, and imperialism are all unknown. The other is a hypercapitalist society where the rich harvest bodies and women are grown and bred for sexual appeal. It seems that Connie herself will be the determining factor - but can she succeed in defeating the technology that will lead to the worst possible outcome?
After solving a series of unusual murders, Miranda finds herself transported to the spirit realm, tasked with finding the being behind the murderer’s actions with the help of a pair of semi-immortal brothers, Chance and the Trickster. With the brothers as her guides, Miranda attempts to navigate a world where the barrier between dreams and reality is permeable, where the maze of investigation is both literal and figurative. The narrative here is as labyrinthine as this strange and mythical shadow world, and Lord’s creation both acknowledges its roots in Caribbean folklore and simultaneously defies easy categorization. If you love discovering new sci-fi books by female authors, you'll want to get lost in this maze.
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