The Literature Museum: Sci-Fi and Sexism

“Think of it as the literature museum,” my father told me when I was fifteen. I was a dually-enrolled high school student at the local college, and frustrated with some of the ideas I encountered in the curriculum’s so-called classic novels. Dad, a veteran English major himself, helped me contextualize the antiquated stories by likening them to historical artifacts, exhibited for what they can reveal about their time rather than their current relevance.

Clearly not all readers had the benefit of this analogy. A recent op/ed piece on expresses shock and disgust at how many of the books on National Public Radio’s list of “Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books” contain sexist and racist material. While the author makes some valid observations, I think her outrage is overwrought and lacks perspective on what the list really means.

To caveat, I’ve always been a champion of feminist fiction. Growing up, my parents recognized the value of fictional role models and scoured bookstores for strong, smart heroines. These stories had a tremendous influence on me both as a woman and as a writer. I work hard to create powerful female characters in my own work. So I’m no stranger to criticizing sexism in fiction.

However, most of the books the author critiques are from the mid-20th century. That’s almost 75 years ago. Our ideas have undergone drastic changes in that time, which makes the author’s outrage almost comical: “a book from the 1950s that marginalizes women and has no black characters?! GASP!” I wonder if she would ban a Civil War-era story like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its images of racism, or take umbrage at Jane Austen’s novels because her characters obsess over finding husbands. All fiction is a product of its society. Books are time capsules, reflecting past societies whose values we may find antiquated to the point of offense. We cannot judge them retroactively, only view them in historical context.

Perhaps the author’s real complaint lies with these novels’ inclusion on a list of “top” science fiction. Any ranking of creative works is subjective, and often reflects the most popular or influential examples rather than those with themes acceptable to contemporary audiences. This is likely the case here, as readers voted on their favorite titles.

Contrary to what the op/ed claims, I found a surprising number of the books represent positive female characters. There’s Margaret Atwood’s feminist sci-fi classic The Handmaid’s Tale, Neil Gaiman’s diverse and charming Neverwhere, and Carl Sagan’s Contact, which centers on the work of a female astrophysicist. I noted several other titles that, if not outrightly feminist, don’t perpetuate sexist themes.

Does the list also include some books that modern readers, including myself, would find offensive? Certainly. But what the list really shows is the shift in our visions and values over a century. In that light, the op/ed’s outrage seems almost as tiresome and contrived as the ideas in the stuffy old books it condemns. Those dated novels are simply exhibits in my dad’s imaginary “literature museum”: tools of thought that seem primitive to our eyes now, but provided an important step in the evolution of our culture and the stories it tells.

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