Science fiction was invented by a teenage girl. You heard me. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, widely considered to be the first proper sci-fi novel, was written by 19 year old Mary Shelley in 1818. She did it on a bet from Lord Byron.
Though often viewed from the outside as a boys’ club, there has always been a space for women in speculative fiction (an umbrella term used to refer to science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other fantastical flavours of fiction). Authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Emma Bull, and Octavia E. Butler have been in the business for years, and they have all produced superb work. Yet none of them have ever managed to create a cultural phenomenon like the one that’s gripped mainstream young adult literature for a little less than a decade now. It took something a little fluffier to turn every middle school girl in North America into an obsessive fantasy fan.
It took Twilight, everyone’s favorite cultural punching bag. The ubiquitous vampire romance series gets a lot of criticism from readers and non-readers alike, and deserves much of it. The central character is given little personal agency, and her suitors are borderline abusive. But deeply flawed as it is, Stephenie Meyer’s series did something incredibly important: it opened the floodgates for a deluge of speculative fiction largely written by women, starring female protagonists, targeted at girls. As of now, the market is flooded with lady-centric fantasy and sci-fi: The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, and Divergent, to name just the series that have been chosen for Hollywood’s mega-franchise marketing push.
Science fiction is associated in the mainstream with kitsch and special effects, but the most thoughtful examples of the genre use these to package explorations of abstract social, political, and philosophical concepts. Think of Star Trek; sure, we laugh at the rubber-suited aliens, the technobabble, and William Shatner’s scenery-chewing, but that’s not all that’s there. At the centre of that camp, there was usually a cool idea about time travel (Hugo award-winning episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”), or a theory about humanity’s conception of the divine (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”). Sci-fi makes it easier to think outside the box.
So sure, The Hunger Games has a distracting, easily-mockable love triangle at the forefront of its emotional story arc, and there’s no doubt that’s what drew in a good chunk of its readers. But we can’t ignore that this love triangle occurs in a post-apocalyptic North America, in the midst of a televised, gladiatorial-game that makes a neat mechanism for criticizing modern reality television. Katniss Everdeen, our heroine, is constantly aware of the camera’s eye. She even displays impressively savvy cynicism by playing up her relationship with one point of her love triangle to garner public sympathy and help survive. The ‘romance’ half of the paranormal romance genre is often disparaged, but when the intersection of love and dystopia can create such interesting, knotty problems for a reader to chew on, it doesn’t deserve the flack.
Why is all this important? A speculative fiction reader has to learn a new way of thinking, how to gather and synthesize information on the fly in order to understand a plot. Sci-fi helps us think big; fantasy is a way of examining the world as it could be, were it subject to a different set of rules untethered from our reality. Now, teenage girls are finding their way into these genres, twisting and stretching their minds to inhabit universes a few shades different than the one in which they make their home. They’re learning to think in ways that may, if we’re lucky, encourage them to explore fields that are sorely lacking a female influence.
That’s not to say that modern literary affairs are completely as they should be: The privileges and social conventions of our own society carry over into our fantastical media, in a form that is worryingly intact; it’s still pretty damn hard to find a protagonist who isn’t white, straight, and cisgender in the mainstream. But it doesn’t have to stay like that. Science fiction has taught us to hope for wild, previously inconceivable change.