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the xx factor: women in science

Madeline Ashby, science fiction writer and futurist, at Bakka Phoenix science fiction bookstore in Toronto. Her debut novel, entitled vN, is ‘about a self-replicating humanoid with a female chassis named Amy, who eats her grandmother alive at kindergarten graduation.’Rosa Park/The Globe and Mail

When Madeline Ashby began to write her first work of science fiction, she thought she'd start with something she knew.

"I wrote from my own perspective as a woman," says Ms. Ashby, a transplanted American living in Toronto, where last year she published her first work of science fiction, with another due later this year.

"Science fiction has the capability to illustrate alternative and alien subjectivities and for a lot of people – including myself – that's by nature a feminist project."

Ms. Ashby's debut novel, entitled vN, came out last summer. While ostensibly sci-fi, it reads in part like a slice of real life.

"It's about a self-replicating humanoid with a female chassis named Amy, who eats her grandmother alive at kindergarten graduation," explains Ms. Ashby, a 30-year-old graduate of Seattle University.

"Thereafter, Amy's on the run and she deals with a lot of things that human women have to deal with all the time: being underestimated, being groped and having to pretend like you enjoy it, and being treated like merchandise."

Ms. Ashby was drawn into the brave new world of science fiction after her father allowed her to watch the futuristic movie Blade Runner (without her mother knowing) when she was 9. Later, in her early 20s, she began writing science fiction after developing an obsession with Japanese anime.

Graduating with a master's degree in strategic foresight from the Ontario College of Art and Design University in 2011, she works today as a freelance futurist for companies such as computer giant Intel, in addition to creating science fiction.

Writing about women's issues at the same time as exploring the new, and often speculative, frontiers of science is what distinguishes Ms. Ashby and writers like her from their male counterparts.

"Female writers seem to use characters or social concepts as the foundation to their stories and then build worlds around them, whereas male writers tend to create worlds and technologies first," says full-time author and professional storyteller Marie Bilodeau, the Ottawa-based author of the Destiny series of space fantasy novels, among other works, including science fiction.

"Hard science fiction explores scientific concepts and is most often written by males while soft science-fiction, or science-fiction with a strong social focus, is written more by females."

These are risky divisions implying, perhaps, that one approach is better than another.

It is why Nina Munteanu, a practising scientist with degrees in freshwater science and aquatic biology who is the author of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, among other futurist books, wants to believe that gender differences in science fiction ought to be irrelevant.

"In terms of what good science fiction does – examining humanity and our journey in life through our relationship with the unknown – I see little difference between gender representations," explains the 59-year-old former Simon Fraser university instructor and lab assistant who today resides in Toronto.

"Science fiction is the literature of consequence exploring large issues faced by humankind."

Yet in all her books, among them the recently released The Last Summoner, Ms. Munteanu, born in Granby, Que., to a botanist father and landscape artist mother, puts women front and centre as a way of telling stories of relevance to women.

"Speaking for myself, and for the other women I know who read science fiction, the need is for good stories featuring intelligent women who are directed in some way to make a difference in the world," says Ms. Munteanu, who describes science fiction as a literature of allegory and metaphor.

"Their heroism may manifest itself through co-operation and leadership in community, which is different from their die-hard male counterparts who want to tackle the world on their own. Science fiction provides a new paradigm for heroism and a new definition of hero as it balances technology and science with human issues and needs."

Those issues and needs are more real than invented, observes Ms. Bilodeau, 35, who counts the popular TV-series Star Trek and the science fiction writings of John Wyndham, George Orwell and Philip K. Dick – males all – among her influences.

"Sometimes those issues are very specific to women, such as juggling a new family and career, to broader strokes, such as choosing to be part of a couple instead of being single, as influenced by societal expectations," said the French Canadian, who writes in English.

"But the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life."

This notion of invented worlds being more liberating – and powerful – than the real thing is what propelled Ms. Ashby to take up a career as a science fiction writer following a close and ultimately life-changing encounter with renowned female science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin.

"I met her in the basement of the old Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle's Pioneer Square, where she was supposed to be reading her latest fiction," Ms. Ashby recalls. "But with the [Iraq] war on, she chose a piece from her collection, The Wave in the Mind. Something she read really struck me: 'The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.' It was then I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life."

But there were stumbling blocks along the way.

"I was anxious about whether my fictional women would seem real enough," Ms. Ashby says. "A large part of being a female science fiction writer is being taken seriously. I've been to sci-fi conferences where panelists talk over my head or only notice me when I'm wearing a low-cut dress. Often people are surprised that I write science fiction and not fantasy. So the stereotypes remain."

And yet the genre is not unwelcoming to women, says Ms. Bilodeau, whose next book, First Star, comes out this fall.

"Science fiction is traditionally a more male-oriented genre, meaning it's both harder to find acceptance as a woman writer and also more freeing because there is so few of us around. It's still pioneering territory with a lot of space for women's voices and visions to grow and be heard."

Ms. Ashby, for one, is willing to explore further this brave new world of female science fiction while putting her own stamp on the genre.

For her next novel, iD:The Second Machine Dynasty, expected out this summer, she has opted for the story to be told from the point of view of a male-styled humanoid.

But have no fear. Her dystopia is still feminist driven.

"He has to deal with similar issues but in a slightly different way," Ms. Ashby says. "For me, the robot body represents the epitome of objectification."


For your bedtime reading, a few science fiction classics written by women:

Frankenstein: Mary Shelley

The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood

The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. Le Guin

Moxyland: Lauren Beukes

Wild Seed: Octavia Butler

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