A popular feminist slogan claims the future is female. True or not, the future of science fiction certainly is – at least if its present is anything to go by.

For most of the 2010s women dominated the six-strong shortlist for the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction novel, the genre’s most prestigious accolade. No male writer has won either it or the Nebula Award since 2015, and the last two Hugo shortlists have been all-female affairs. Two of the last three winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award have been women too.

Among this cohort of serial award-winners and nominees are writers such as Ann Leckie, Rebecca Roanhorse, Sarah Pinsker and NK Jemisin, the first black author to win the Hugo. Collectively their work deals with themes such as race, identity, gender and sexuality. So where once the stars of the genre were men like Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov, now it’s the distaff side which dominates.

That’s not to say the late 20th century was devoid of female science fiction writers. Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood are all giants of the genre. But cast an eye over the 50 or so years in which publisher Penguin has had an imprint specialising in science fiction (it was launched in 1963 and overseen initially by Brian Aldiss) and it’s clear the output has heavily favoured men. Not that all the male author names on the Penguin list were actually men. Alice Sheldon used the pen name James Tiptree Jr, but that’s exactly because sci-fi was seen as a boy’s game. “A male name seemed like good camouflage,” she once said. “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

HeraldScotland: Alice Sheldon used the pen-name James Tiptree JrAlice Sheldon used the pen-name James Tiptree Jr

Redressing the balance somewhat, an ongoing project of smart re-issues is helping to shine a light on the work of the female authors in the Penguin Classics Science Fiction list. A first tranche was published last summer and featured Tiptree Jr’s 1973 short story collection 10,000 Light-Years From Home as well as Trafalgar, written in 1979 by the Argentine author Angélica Gorodischer. Its titular hero is Trafalgar Medrano, a café-dwelling raconteur in Gorodischer’s native city of Rosario who drinks endless cups of coffee while spinning barely-believable yarns about his life as an intergalactic trader.

Earlier this month, Penguin published the second instalment in the re-issue series, this time featuring Sheldon’s satirical and slyly comic 1975 short story collection, Warm Worlds And Otherwise, and Anna Kavan’s cult 1967 novel, Ice.

Ice is a fractured, dream-like first person account of an un-named male narrator’s pursuit of a woman he thinks he once knew. He follows her across various countries, travelling by ship, helicopter, car and truck in an odyssey set against the backdrop of some vague apocalyptic event which is gradually covering the planet in sheet ice and glaciers. Scenes and settings change almost mid-sentence and the woman, whenever he tracks her down, is often in the company of a man called the Warden, who may or may not be the narrator’s double. The sci-fi author Christopher Priest, whose novels have been filmed by Christopher Nolan and David Cronenberg, is a fan and for American author Jonathan Lethem, Ice is “a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move”. With its backdrop of climate change and nuclear war and its recurring themes of sexual violence and female agency (or lack of), it’s not hard to see why Kavan’s weird, virtually plotless novel leaves such an impression on those who encounter it.

As its title suggests, Warm Worlds And Otherwise is equally topical. Opening story, All The Kinds Of Yes, features a Karl Marx-quoting alien who arrives on Earth by “chartered slambang” and proceeds to have sex with both men and women. In The Last Flight Of Doctor Ain, an academic encounters a vision of Gaia as a beautiful young woman. He then travels with her by plane to a conference in Moscow, flying via Glasgow in the teeth of a flu-like pandemic which is killing everyone on Earth. And in The Women Men Don’t See, one of the best-known stories in the collection, a macho male narrator on a fishing trip can’t comprehend why the two women he has been marooned with in the Mexican jungle would want to leave Earth with the aliens they encounter rather than be saved by him.

HeraldScotland: Anna Kavan, author of IceAnna Kavan, author of Ice

Just as fascinating as the works themselves are the life stories of their authors. Anna Kavan’s real name was Helen Woods and she was born to a wealthy English family in Cannes in 1901 and raised in Europe and the United States. Her father killed himself when she was 10, she later had an affair with her mother’s former lover (at her mother’s instigation) and, suicidal herself, spent much of her life in and out of psychiatric clinics. The biographical blurb on the new Penguin edition of Ice adds that she was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach in order to improve her game: other versions have her being introduced to it by racing drivers on the French Riviera. Many readers of Ice see the novel as a description of heroin addiction and the alienation and anguish it brings. Not for nothing did Brian Aldiss call Kavan “De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister”.

Chicago-born Sheldon, meanwhile, was an artist and graphic designer who rose to the rank of major in the US Air Force during the second world war and then studied for a doctorate in experimental psychology, writing sci-fi on the side. For a decade, nobody knew James Tiptree Jr was a woman and it was only in 1977 that she was unmasked. In 1979 she wrote a suicide note, filing it away for future use, and in May 1987 it was found beside the bodies of her and her husband. It’s believed they died in a murder-suicide pact.

Uplifting biographies they aren’t. But out of those difficult life experiences has come some extraordinary literature whose power is undiminished and whose themes feel unnervingly relevant today.


Ice by Anna Kavan and Warm Worlds And Otherwise by James Tiptree Jr. are out now (Penguin, £8.99)

The shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award 2021 will be announced on June 30 https://clarkeaward.com/