The PhD Diaries #3: Shifting Surfaces - Feminist Speculative Fiction & Leadership

 Notes, to-dos, book lists!

Notes, to-dos, book lists!

This entry has been a long time coming. A note on my office wall reading ‘Focus of the Week: Write Feminist Speculative Fiction Blog Entry – Priority’ has been sadly ignored for the past four weeks in lieu of other topics and tasks, and as the days slide quickly by, the optimistic call-to-action becomes increasingly invisible beneath a haphazard mural of brightly coloured squares and hastily scribbled ‘notes to self’; the vestiges of multiple ah-ha moments.

But at last! I am forcing myself to sit-down and write this thing. I think my reticence has been due in part to an over-abundance of material and ideas on this broad and very interesting topic. I’ve felt a little lost in terms of how to start and order my thinking, especially because I want to get it right from the outset (a desire for perfectionism is the enemy of productivity in my case). But this is counter-productive behaviour as the whole point of blogging is self-reflection, play and, dare I say, imperfection.

I’ve attempted (attempt being the operative word) to engage with a set of guiding questions as I’ve read and thought about speculative fiction, these include:

  • Where do feminism and speculative fiction intersect?
  • What ‘counts’ as speculative fiction? Where exactly are its borders (does it even have borders)?
  • Why am I drawn to certain genres over others for this study? Why is SF considered 'genre fiction' and what implications does this label have?
  • What does speculative fiction offer women writers and readers?
  • How do women write about women leaders in science fiction, fantasy, mythology, etc? What roles do they play/portray and with what implications?
  • What underlying psychoanalytical motives and patterns may exist? What do we do when we read speculative fiction?
  • What does speculative fiction offer to leadership studies and leadership development? Is there a speculative fiction ‘effect’? How might it be read as organizational material?

Each question deserves essay-length attention, and no doubt at different points during the PhD I will return to and expand on this set of questions (if ‘speculative fiction’ becomes a key focus). However, the purpose of this blog post is to provide clarification regarding the term ‘speculative fiction’ (as a genre), and women writers’ speculative fiction specifically, by investigating definitions, borders and ‘shifting surfaces.’ This post, then, is a framing exercise – working towards developing a strong justification for focusing on feminist speculative fiction as opposed to other forms and genres of literature – as well as a summary of the research I have done so far on the intersections between feminism, speculative fiction, and leadership development.

Perhaps writing on this topic is pre-emptive (in terms of the order in which different topics in a PhD should be approached; although I rest my case for non-linearity on the boughs of post-modernism) but focusing primarily on analysing and using feminist speculative fiction (and I use the term ‘feminist’ very loosely here to encompass speculative fiction written by women that expresses a critical interest in gender/intersectional issues) is an idea I’ve toyed with for a few months now. While I was searching for fiction for both my Masters, and then again when I came to write an academic article, I noticed that while there is a rich canon of recent women’s writing that “reflects the changing roles of women in society and the challenges women faced in achieving the goals of equality, social justice, and self-determination” (Benstock, Ferris, & Woods, 2002, p. 121), realistic novels are limited by their realism, in that the stories operate within a world where our past and current economic and social systems continue to foster inequality and limit women’s opportunities and choices, particularly in formal leadership positions. I make this assertion with some hesitation, as 1) a ‘formal’ leader is not a prerequisite to leadership’s occurrence, and 2) there are some superb examples of women engaging in and enacting leadership in contemporary literary fiction set in the recent present and which adhere to realistically described social conventions (e.g. Meridian by Alice Walker, In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and no doubt others I am currently unaware of!).

However, when a female character in this form of novel transgresses outside the private/domestic/feminine sphere and into the public/social/masculine domain, she is still an anomaly rather than the norm. However subversively, she still operates inside hegemonic boundaries and the current order of things where the leader/hero is overwhelmingly male. While the ‘realistic’ male character can lead an army, be a president, or spark a revolution without anyone so much as batting an eye, as the renowned African-American SF writer Octavia E. Butler contends, it is only in speculative writing that women writers are “free to imagine new ways of thinking about people and power, free to manoeuvre…characters into situations that don’t [currently] exist” (Mixon as cited in Shinn, 1986, p. 10). (more on this later!). 

Through no purposeful intention, my initial list of 18 literary texts which met my selection criteria heavily favoured novels which came under the ‘speculative fiction’ or ‘historical fiction’ umbrella. Out of these 18 selections, only two are ‘Real Life’ stories set in contemporary and recognizable contexts. And this is not because I didn’t search high and low for fiction about contemporary women doing interesting stuff in ‘our world’; a significant proportion of my long list (30-35%) was ‘realistic’ fiction. I observed at the time, and before I became familiar with the term ‘speculative fiction,’ that:

Historical fiction, science fiction and dystopian literature emerged as genres that frequently featured interesting ‘leadership moments’. Women’s historical fiction is often written as a form of revisionist [or alternative] history, that is, it gives remarkable [and sometimes fictional] female leaders from the past ‘voices’ in periods and places where they have traditionally been erased from the history books. These are the missing ‘herstories’…Similarly, the science fiction genre offers female writers the chance to interrogate patriarchal politics, misogyny and sexism in more imaginative and utopian/dystopian spaces, as well as being a philosophical tool to closely examine feminist thinking (Moody, 2006). Feminist writers can explore “separatist communities, the exacerbation of women’s oppression, the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, women’s roles, and the deconstruction of patriarchal language” (Moody, 2006, p. 178) in these potentially non-binary, unbounded worlds.

This turn to ‘science fiction’ (and by sci-fi I really meant ‘speculative fiction’) and more imaginative literature emerged naturally as I searched for leadership stories and engaging female characters. I’m also an avid, though wary, consumer of pop culture. The rise of capable and (occasionally) complex heroines in the media, such as Katniss from The Hunger Games, Tris from the Divergent Series, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and now, much to the chagrin of many people, a female Dr Who (all of who you will notice, are acting almost exclusively within speculative, non-real settings), suggests a growing fascination with and appreciation for women enacting leadership, albeit in an alternate reality where such behaviour is both possible and praised. However, I would argue that they tend towards the stereotypical and that there are much better, more interesting and dynamic examples of women engaging in and enacting leadership in literary fiction (as opposed to movies and popular YA fiction). But the trend is exciting to see!

So, what is ‘Speculative Fiction’ (SF) exactly?

  • A Shifting, Shimmering Surface (Shinn, 1986).
  • An awkward box, bulging with discards from elsewhere (Atwood, 2009)
  •  …tensions, contradictions, false starts, and unresolved questions (Thomas, 2013)
  • A narrative genre? a field of discourse? a mode of thinking? a body of literary texts? (Hollinger, 1999)

Speculative fiction is a term which denies concrete definitions and tidy delineations. It is outside; a messy compendium of invention, imagination and possibility. The dictionary defines ‘speculative’ as “pertaining to, of the nature of, or characterised by speculation, contemplation, conjecture, or abstract reasoning (e.g. speculative knowledge); theoretical, rather than practical” (Dictionary.com, n.d.). In her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011), well-known Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, teases out this definition of ‘speculative’ in relation to fiction, writing that

Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms – science-fiction, fantasy and so forth – and others choose the reverse. SF novels of course can set themselves in parallel imagined realities, or long ago, and/or planets far away. But all these locations have something in common: they don’t exist, and their non-existence is of a different order than the non-existence of the realistic novels of Bobs and Carols and Teds and Alices (p. 61).

 Speculative Fiction Chart - Source unknown

Speculative Fiction Chart - Source unknown

Whether it is called fantastic literature, imaginative fiction, ‘wonder tales’, fabulation, or slipstream fiction, speculative fiction encompasses a wide range of sub-genres, including (but not limited to!): science-fiction, fantasy, contemporary mythology, alternate histories, magical realism, social science-fiction, dystopian/utopian narratives, horror, re-written fairy tales and folk tales, time-travel narratives, and surrealism. Consequently, Le Guin’s alternate history in ‘Sur’ falls within the speculative domain, just as Mary Doria Russell’s intergalactic Jesuit missionary expedition in The Sparrow does, along with the Arthurian fantasies of Marion Zimmer Bradley and the pseudo-Medieval world of Olondria created by Sofia Samater in A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.

While there is some debate regarding sub-genres and classifications (see Atwood, 2011, for a fuller discussion on what she perceives as the differences and similarities between ‘science fiction’, ‘fantasy’ and more general ‘speculative fiction’), as Gill (2013) observes, “speculative fiction is marked by diversity; there is no limit to possible micro-subjects and, understandably in such a mixed field, no standard definition” (p. 72); and even for Atwood (2011), “the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm” (p. 115). 

A novel like Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country is at once a dystopian narrative with clear science fiction features, but is also heavily influenced by Greek mythology and religious tradition, the effect of which is a complex narrative tapestry that transgresses generic boundaries between old (mythic) and new (futuristic). Or similarly, Karen Joy Fowler's novels, such as Sarah Canary, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and her collection of short stories in What I Didn’t See, skip over, under and across genres lines so cleverly and surreptitiously that you are left unsure whether you are reading science fiction, literary realism, fantasy or magical realism. The terms ‘slipstream’ and ‘interstitial’ fiction have been used to denote this blurring of genres and the ‘in-betweenness’ of these types of speculative narratives that resist simple categorization into a single sub-genre (see Higgins, 2009). And so, in agreement with Atwood (2011):

…surely all [these sub-genres] draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large ‘wonder tale’ umbrella. (p. 8)

For the purposes of my work and the sake of creating some unity, Atwood’s ‘wonder tale’ is taken to equate ‘speculative fiction’, and includes the eclectic mix of aforementioned sub-genres. This grouping of literature presents “modes of being that contrast with their audiences’ understanding of ordinary reality…what would happen had the actual chain of causes or the matrix of reality-conditions been replaced with other conditions?” (Gill, 2013, p. 73). Speculative fiction is often characterised by what-if scenarios or hypothetical situations (De Smedt & De Cruz, 2015), particularly as a form of social critique; e.g. What if women had greater physical power than men (The Power by Naomi Alderman)? What if women had complete control of the economic and political base in a post-apocalyptic society (The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Teper)? What if women arrived at and explored the Antarctic before men did (‘Sur’ by Ursula K. Le Guin)? What if a black woman in a not-so-far-in-the-future dystopian America started a new religion (The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)? As Thomas (2013) argues, texts which are speculative in nature “move readers to imagine alternative ways of being alive” (p. 4), and as such, provide learners (whether students and teachers, leaders and followers) with “rich and complex avenues for reading and rereading the world, writing and re-writing the world” (p. 4). I’ll return to the question of ‘What can speculative fiction do?’ soon, but before exploring the ‘effect’ of the imaginative narrative and what it can do for women, I want to briefly consider the realistic fiction/genre fiction binary.

There’s Always a Binary: Realistic Fiction/Genre Fiction

Ok, so I will admit – in the past I’ve been a genre snob. When my Dad or brother have insisted I read ‘this really great book!’ I’m now embarrassed to admit that I've often answered with an English grad’s misplaced sense of superiority: ‘Perhaps, but what type of book is it?’ If the answer was science-fiction, mystery or fantasy (barring The Lord of the Rings of course), then I’d make some dismissive comment about the inferiority of genre fiction and ask condescendingly ‘why waste your time when you could be reading ‘The Classics’ or ‘The Great Literature’ of our age?’ (Which is ironic since novels like 1984 and Brave New World are decidedly speculative but I highly doubt anyone would call them ‘genre fiction’).

In my early twenties, I sped through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones), but I saw this type of reading as a ‘guilty pleasure;’ a distraction from the important literature that I should be reading (e.g. Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and so on). Even though I thoroughly enjoyed fantasy and magical realism, I aligned my value ratings with the traditions of privilege that arose out of the twentieth century literary scene and the modernist aesthetic. The realistic novel occupied a privileged position in my head (and sometimes still does), just as it continues to do in the literary canon (although this is starting to slowly change – see Le Guin, 2016). And unfortunately, ‘Great Literature,’ more often than not, conflates literature written by men and/or about men (for example, see the popular Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century list). In fact, books written by women and from a woman character's perspective rarely win prestigious prizes (Griffith, 2015). (The continued marginalisation of women and their work in the arts and humanities continues to be a systemic problem – click to see this awesome TedTalk by Jude Kelly).

In her non-fiction work, Atwood (2011) traces the historical precedent for this high/low culture dichotomy which places realistic literature in a superior position to ‘genre’ fiction, observing that

In the mid-twentieth century we got into the habit of calling all examples of long prose fiction ‘novels,’ and of measuring them by standards used to evaluate one particular kind of long prose fiction, namely the kind that treats individuals embedded in a realistically described social milieu…Anything that doesn’t fit this mode has been shoved into an area of lesser solemnity called ‘genre fiction,’ and it is here that the spy thriller and the crime story and the adventure story and the supernatural tale and the science fiction, however excellently written, must reside, sent to their rooms – as it were – for the misdemeanour of being enjoyable in what is considered a meretricious way. (Atwood, 2011, p. 57-58).

Le Guin in her latest collection of essays – Words Are My Matter (2016) – also provides a useful summary of this arbitrary and hierarchal ‘judgemental system’ and its pernicious influence on how we rate fiction today: “The word genre began to imply something less, something inferior, and came to be commonly misused, not as a description, but as a negative value judgement. Most people now understand “genre” to be an inferior form of fiction, defined by a label, while realistic fictions simply called novels or literature. This judgemental system…has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of "If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction"” (p. 9-10).

So even though speculative fiction includes a great variety of literary texts, many of which are excellently written, complex, and of “canonical impeccability,” speculative fiction is frequently demoted as a commercial category rather than a literary one (Gill, 2013, p. 71). However, there are signs that fantastic literature is finally being recognised as a credible literary form that deserves serious attention from both critics and scholars as outlined in this Guardian article (their literary criticism and book reviews are always thought-provoking by the way): Game of Thrones and the Triumph of Fantasy Fiction. And there are of course several speculative fiction awards (primarily fantasy and science fiction) that are generally seen as prestigious, including the Hugo and Nebula awards, and the World Fantasy Award.

Is selecting genre fiction for an academic study then (and especially 'genre fiction' written by women), a subversive act in and of itself? A disruption to the privileged binary order of realistic fiction/genre fiction? I would argue further that the term ‘speculative fiction’ is deconstructive in and of itself as it refuses to be hemmed in or defined, as the preceding discussion demonstrated. The structure of category is shaken up, there is ambiguity and disagreement, and binary opposites don’t stay neatly on their proper side of the slash (Klages, 2006). There’s more to explore here, but for now, questions will have to suffice!

What use is speculative fiction to readers/learners? What does/can it do?

The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’
— Rosemary Jackson, 1981/2003, p. 4

This section presents a summary of different researcher and author accounts of what speculative fiction, as a specific narrative form or mode, can do for readers/learners – is there an sf ‘effect’? A set of useful advantages? A collection of relevant themes? [Note: wider consideration of the effect of fictional texts in general and reader-response won’t be explored here (The length! The time!)].

Firstly, speculative fiction is “beginning to consider more clearly the changing narratives of race, of gender, and of the intersections between them” (Hood & Reid, 2009, p. 192), this extends further to intersections of age, class, sexuality and disability (See also Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2009) Edited by R. A. Reid). Melzer (2006) also traces a set of recurrent themes and approaches in science fiction (in this instance, Melzer focuses exclusively on sci-fi texts, however, as previously explained, definitions remain hazy and borders permeable), these include the implications of technological advancement on human life, the nature/culture binary, and the investigation of socioeconomic relations.

While Hood and Reid (2009) caution against assuming fantastic literature is consistently intersectional, a growing number of SF writers are moving beyond a single focus in their work, e.g. either race or gender or class, to explore the interplay between a fuller spectrum of complex identity markers and social issues. For example, Octavia E. Butler’s Parables duology explores race and gender in terms of how they influence women in leadership, alongside a critique of religion, the growing rich/poor gap and cataclysmic environmental crisis. For Ada Palmer, the award-winning author of Too Like the Lightning (2016), fiction is the vehicle through which complex ideas that cannot be easily communicated in academic form can be put forward and unpacked: “Sci-fi lets you look at a society where things are done in other ways; ways too complicated to expound on in an essay. How could you generate a superficially gender-equal, godless society and then expose its failures? It is just too complex” (Source: The Guardian, 2017). ‘Intersectionality’ appears to be the buzzword of the moment in gender and leadership studies (see the recently published Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership, 2017), and well-written speculative fiction is ideally placed to offer insight and a multiplicity of perspectives on the intersections between gender, age, class, ethnicity, and so on, in a way that is ahead of, or at least in-step with, academic theorizing on leadership and intersectionality.

As the author of several speculative works, including The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAdam Trilogy, Atwood (2011) frames her consideration of speculative fiction in terms of what it can do that ‘normal’ or realistic novels cannot do. For example, she argues that SF narratives are ideally placed to “interrogate social organization by showing what things might be like if we rearranged them” or the implications of introducing new and proposed technologies (p. 62). Garrison (2009) contends that this ability to “offer opportunities for readers and writers to reimagine components of society outside the constraints of contemporary social, economic, and political contexts” (p. 229) is one of the primary attributes of speculative fiction.

By traversing into the realm of the ‘not-quite-human/not-quite-possible’ and towards the outer reaches of our imagination, the nature and limits of humanity are exposed in explicit, and at times uncomfortable, ways (Atwood, 2011; Dursey, 2013), and yet SF “renders itself knowable and understandable by necessarily constructing itself from the language, forms, and prevailing notions of the present” (Garrison, 2009, p. 229). This theory of speculative fiction (and more specifically, science fiction) as the “literature of cognitive estrangement” was originally proposed by the well-known sci-fi scholar and Marxist Darko Suvin. Estrangement occurs as readers enter alternative worlds that are very different from their own and operate according to unfamiliar rules and structures, yet at the same time are wholly familiar (Yost, 2014). Suvin argues that “by imagining strange worlds we come to see our own conditions of life in a new and potentially revolutionary perspective” (as cited in Parrinder, 2000, p. 4). This reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘alienation of the familiar’ in his plays (Mother Courage and Her Children being a personal favourite of mine). By removing the stamp of familiarity so spectators won’t be “carried vaguely hither and thither,” Brecht’s alienating techniques force the focus onto what is happening ‘between’ people, actions and events, creating a ‘space’ to criticise, discuss and alter what is portrayed. Suvin advances a similar case regarding cognitive estrangement in science fiction which is summed up nicely by Yost (2014):

Science fiction narratives often discuss issues barely within the collective consciousness of the mass audience. The depiction of resolutions to complex societal issues demonstrates change is possible. This depiction of the possible becomes a strong combination for activating the moral imagination of the audience and leading to changed behaviours and social systems. At the very least, the narratives can trigger understanding that a problem exists, as most readers and viewers of science fiction are keenly aware of parallels between the fictional worlds of the story and the reality of contemporary societies. (p. xi)

Subsequently, the speculative story often acts as “a semi-disguise or decorative front” for social critique and criticism of present-day political structures and patriarchal institutions (Atwood, 2011, p. 63). This is obvious in Atwood's own work where The Handmaid’s Tale “asks explicit questions about what happens in a totalitarian patriarchal society that denies women access to all economic, legal and political rights” (Churchwell, 2017, pp. 3). In this way, self-conscious works of speculative literature “may present other realities, but their alternative worlds will comment on this world—negatively to satirize its shortcomings, or positively to provide a model for emulation, as in some utopias” (Gill, 2013, p. 81).

De Smedt and De Cruz (2015) consider SF in terms of its epistemic value, asking and answering, ‘what are the similarities and differences between fictional stories and philosophical thought experiments?’ Drawing on research from the cognitive science field (see also Oatley, 2016 and his research on 'theory-of-mind' and fiction), they argue that philosophical thought experiments (as part of analytic philosophy) and speculative fiction encourage similar cognitive exercises, including “episodic future thinking (to consider future possibilities) and counterfactual reasoning (to imagine hypothetical possibilities)” (p. 59). Mental prospection on the part of the reader is triggered by the ‘what if’ questions posed by speculative narratives, e.g. “What if we lived in a genderless society, where we could temporarily assume a given gender, depending on whom we are in a relationship with (The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin)?” (De Smedt & De Cruz, 2015, p. 60).

De Smedt and De Cruz (2015) argue that speculative fiction goes a step further than analytic philosophy by eliciting the emotional transportation of the reader into a story. By encouraging empathetic engagement with fictional characters and identification with the myriad viewpoints and positions they represent, SF suspends the need for immediate resolution or judgement on the part of the reader and, as De Smedt and De Cruz claim, this “reduces the need for cognitive closure…[and] allows for richer exploration of philosophical positions than is possible through ordinary philosophical thought experiments” (p. 59). De Smedt and De Cruz use the example of students resisting reading a monograph which defends libertarian political philosophy, the text in this case Robert Nozick’s (1974) Anarchy, State and Utopia. A better alternative, they propose, would be to choose an SF novel that investigates similar issues to the non-fiction tome, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Not only will a novel put the reader in a different, more open frame of mind, but “one need not accept or reject the libertarian views of its author, but can go along with the story and see what a fictional libertarian society looks like” (p. 65-66).

I find what De Smedt and De Cruz (2015) are saying here is particularly relevant to teaching and learning about gender, identity and leadership, especially since it is a contentious, often uncomfortable and confronting subject, as well as complex. For example, this week I co-taught two lectures at Massey University on ‘gender and leadership,’ one to a third-year leadership class and the other to a postgraduate management class. We had a tight time schedule, but covered off topics like ‘absent-but-present’ expectations and identity (based on Ladkin’s (2010) work), unconscious bias, the leadership double-bind, social constructionism (briefly), the current status of women leaders in NZ today, boardroom equality, the business case for diversity, and the media response to Jacinda Ardern as Labour’s new party leader. I was very interested to observe the students’ responses, as when I'd been a student in both these classes a few years ago there was a negative backlash against some of the material (I remember one student commenting to me that “Sure, women have it bad occasionally, but what’s the point complaining and whining about it all the time? Women always use the 'gender card'”).

Overall, I think the lectures were well-received (no one walked out of the class, which has apparently happened before!), but based on some of the responses and the general themes of the discussion during question times, I’ve made the following general observations:

  • Gender roles are largely taken-for-granted and remain, of the most part, unquestioned. Students tend to see these male/female roles as biologically determined – men ‘take charge’ and women ‘take care’ due to biological factors and differences in their brains and bodies, rather than seeing these differences as socially constructed.
  • Belief that Western society is organised as a meritocracy (or should be). The underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is explained by the fact that either women aren’t suited to the positions available or they’re not trying hard enough to get into formal leadership roles (e.g. they want children instead, willingness to drop down to part-time work), and the ones who do succeed are either neglecting their families or, if they don’t have children, are psychologically damaged (as one student put it) and have a ‘man’s heart and brain.’
  • Don’t see much need for systemic economic and social change or significant re-organisation of the workplace so as to give men and women equal opportunity (e.g. 'things are fine the way they are, why would you change it?' 'Once the older people leave the workforce, everything will be better').
  • General unfamiliarity with the fields of sociology, history, anthropology, feminism and psychology, and lack of understanding regarding social constructionism and gender (although I think they found the information we provided very interesting).
  • Students were aware, however, that sexism continues to be rampant in the business world and see this as a problem. 

I run the risk of over-generalizing here and I know this isn't the case for all students, but even when presented with overwhelming evidence of the influence of 'absent-but-present' gendered expectations and the negative impact of unconscious bias on women's leadership experiences and access to power, the students seemed to be struggling to imagine a different future or different ways of doing and understanding gender and leadership. They're not asking 'what if...?' and that's a problem.

Speculative Fiction: Women Writers & Leading Ladies

Speculative fiction has specific advantages for women writers, and especially feminist writers. As Shinn (1986) explains, and as I have touched on previously, the possibilities offered by a genre characterised by ‘shifting surfaces’ and stylistic experimentation gives women the freedom to work outside “the limits that define them in patriarchal society” (p. 10). SF author Pamela Sargent observes in Women of Wonder (1978) that

Only sf and fantasy literature can show us women in entirely new or strange surroundings. It can explore what we might become if and when the present restrictions on our lives vanish, or show us new problems and restrictions that might arise. It can show us the remarkable woman as normal where past literature shows her as the exception. Will we become more like men, ultimately indistinguishable from them with all their faults and virtues, or will we bring new concerns and values to society, perhaps changing men in the process? How will biological advances, and the greater control they will bring us over our bodies, affect us? What might happen if women in the future are thrown back into a situation in which male dominance might reassert itself? What might actually happen if women were dominant? How might future economic systems affect our societal roles? (p. 48). [bold added]

A rich history of women’s feminist speculative fiction exists, starting with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia as portrayed in Herland (1915), but gaining serious traction with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s/70s. Seminal works include Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Octavia E. Butler’s extensive oeuvre (including Kindred in 1979), the magical realism of Angela Carter (e.g. Nights at the Circus in 1984), and of course, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, too name only a very few. In their purposeful engagement with feminist thought, these writers “called into question normative assumptions about gender and sexuality and imagined alternative forms of relationships between men and women” (Higgins in Reid, 2009, p. 73). For example, Salvaggio (1984 - ‘‘Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine’’ and ‘‘Octavia Butler’’) reads Butler’s “stories of power,” which feature the struggles of strong female characters (such as Lauren Olamina in The Parable of the Sower) tasked with negotiating the contradictions of “enslavement and freedom, control and corruption, survival and adjustment” (p. 6), as narratives which usefully illuminate feminist concepts.

Now, with a revival of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale in the wake of Trump’s election, and what appears to be a stall in the march towards gender equality (Eagly & Carli, 2012), The Guardian (2017) claims there is a new literary revolution underway akin to that of the 70s and 80s; “a new breed of women’s “speculative” fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies, is riding the radical tide.” And I would be inclined to agree. In June 2017, Naomi Alderman won The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her speculative (dystopian) novel The Power; followed by a longlist nomination for the Man Booker Prize. Set in what appears to be the present-day, but narrated from an undated future, The Power presents a clever and disturbing narrative which asks, what if women suddenly became physically stronger than men (with the power to electrocute at will)? How might the world change? Other recently published speculative favourites of mine include The Winged Histories (2016) by Sofia Samatar, Who Fears Death (2010) and Binti (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor, Welcome to Thebes (2011) by Moira Buffini, the collected works of Nalo Hopkinson, and Too Like the Lightning (2017) by Ada Palmer. Furthermore, where in the 70s and 80s, SF authors of colour were largely excluded from the White literary canon (especially women, Octavia Butler being a rare exception), finally, women (and men) of different ethnicities are starting to be properly recognized for their literary prowess and contributions to the SF field (see anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy). However, we still have a way to go - finding copies (to loan or buy) of Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor's award-winning novels is much more difficult than finding those by white female authors like Atwood or Le Guin. I've been desperate to buy The Shadow Speaker by Okorafor for awhile now but it's not currently available in NZ or overseas, even though the novel has been shortlisted for a range of prizes. White privilege clearly still exists in the publishing industry, especially when it comes to reprints. 

Ways of Engaging: Feminist Speculative Fiction & Leadership Studies

Very broadly speaking, there are two ways organizational studies (and thereby leadership studies) can engage with literary texts. Firstly, as in my Masters thesis, reading novels for insights into women’s leadership experiences and as material and/or a resource for learning (e.g. case studies, guided readings, critical reflection). The texts illuminate the theory, and the theory illuminates the texts. Here, leadership concepts and problems (like those associated with gender) are explicated with examples and analysed excerpts from literary texts in order to offer more complex, nuanced and intersectional descriptions of and approaches to women’s leadership issues than those found in standard case studies or popular non-fiction texts like Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013) by Sheryl Sandberg, which offer somewhat singular and pseudo-universal perspectives (e.g. White, Wealthy, Western). The feminist speculative novel then, acts a form of data or content that can utilized in many ways (e.g. for resource development, teaching, leadership development, or a leader’s book club). And it almost goes without saying, the ‘reader’ and their response (e.g. how literary texts work as mediators for ‘meaning-making’) is of primary interest.

On the other hand, the potential of the novel (in its strangeness and ambiguity) extends to acting as a disruptive mechanism that ‘unsettles’ or ‘estranges’ the normal ways of attending to organisational theorising. For example, referring to Thomas Pynchon’s speculative WWII novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, Pelzer and Case (2013) argue that literary writing can be “philosophy put into practice: fiction disclosing organisational phenomena” (p. 156). Picking just one scene from Pynchon’s 700+ page tome, Pelzer and Case draw on Derrida’s theory of deconstruction and ‘différance' to inform their analysis and reveal a “miniature thesis on organization” found in the novel – the myth of the ‘centre’ in relation to the leader figure: “Pynchon’s organisation works without a heart. The important person – in the end the decisive one right in the centre of the organisation cannot exist – is nothing but an empty myth” (p. 158). Good novels and their respective authors (aka Kafka) then, can expand the imaginary of leadership and organisation studies beyond customary forms of analysis and towards alternative ways of understanding leading and organising (Beyes, 2009).

A recent call for a special themed section in Organization Studies outlines what reconsidering the role of the novel in relation to organization studies might look like:

...we seek to bring to light the ways in which the works of novelists share the same subjects as organization theory yet reconfigure them; works that are contaminated by discourses of organization, and in this way allow to go beyond, irritate and inspire extant disciplinary insights. This can take the form of ‘thick descriptions’ that fit yet expand the categories of organizational thought, or of novelistic lines of flight towards different landscapes of organizing. We particularly encourage in-depth engagements with specific novels or works of literary writers in which organization and organizational thought takes place and is made strange, allowing us to see organization as well as, perhaps, the texts themselves anew and with fresh eyes. (Beyes, Costas, & Ortmann, 2016)

There is evidence that speculative fiction written by women has been used to “narrativize social inquiry about patriarchy” and as a “philosophical tool to explore feminist thought” (Moody, 2006, p. 178). As Melzer (2006) explains, feminists have long recognised the “political implications of the genre and increasingly employ science fiction narratives to explore social relations" (p. 4). Melzer cites Donna Haraway (author of the famous essay 'A Cyborg Manifesto') as one of the first critics to discuss the role feminist science fiction plays as a form of feminist theorizing (as opposed to SF simply being a reflection of feminist thought). But what this looks likes in relation to the types of feminist speculative novels currently being published – e.g. The Power by Naomi Alderman, Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – and the implications of SF offering 'blueprints of social theories' (Melzer, 2006), is still very much up for debate and exploration.

Concluding Thoughts

Well that was a mission! In summary, well-written and socially conscious speculative fiction is an “ideal literature for rethinking the world through words” (Zigo & Moore, 2004, p. 88 as cited in Dorsey, 2013). The shifting, shimmering surfaces of fantastic literature, particularly that by women writers, offer the reader/researcher/leader an alternative set of perspectives outside hegemonic discourses (and no longer limited by the subject positions such discourses necessarily entail) from which to visualize, explore and learn about leadership.

I realize this is a very broad summary of the topic and so my next step (or I should say, what I am currently doing) is to delve into literary theory and philosophy in order to start building a stronger framework for analysing and utilizing women’s speculative fiction. In this essay, I’ve cited a couple of chapters from the book Fictional Leaders: Heroes, Villains and Absent Friends (2013), a fascinating text that compiles a diverse range of in-depth studies of leadership, “as described, admired and sometimes excoriated by some of the world’s greatest novelists and poets” (read ‘men,’ of course). The chapters vacillate between scholars taking a ‘novel as data/case study’ and ‘novel as theory’ approach and so in my next blog post I’m going to review the methods and literary theory these authors employ to draw out meaning from fictional texts, and from there start building my own framework.

Reference List

Atwood, M. (2011). In other worlds: SF and the human imagination. New Youk, NY: Doubleday.

Benstock, S., Ferriss, S., & Woods, S. (2002). A handbook of literary feminisms. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Beyes, T. (2009). An aesthetics of displacement: Thomas Pynchon's symptomatology of organization. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22(4), 421-436.

Churchwell, S. (2017). Drama queens: Why it’s all about women and power on screen right now. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/game-of-thrones-handmaids-tale-wonder-woman-female-power?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=236193&subid=20575544&CMP=bookmarks_collection

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