Where No Woman Has Gone Before: Women in Science Fiction and Space Exploration

Close-Up Photo of a Person Wearing Space Helmet “That’s one, small step for [a] man… One, giant leap for mankind.”
~Neil Armstrong, July 20th, 1969

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before!
~Captain James Kirk, “Star Trek,” Stardate 1533.6 (actually 1966)

These two quotes are ironed into the brain of many a starry-eyed science fiction and space exploration lover. I know they’ve been in mine since I first watched William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy with my dad as a kid, while he told me stories of watching the Apollo launches when he was growing up on the Space Coast of Florida. The idea of going out and exploring that final frontier turned me into the sci-fi aficionado I am today.

Of course, not everyone has felt inspired or included by these quotes; while a “giant leap for mankind” did occur in 1969, it wasn’t until the mid-80s when Americans sent women into space, and the field has been very male-dominant. And, given the progressive nature of “Star Trek” and many of its audiences, there was some concern about the use of the phrase “where no man has gone before.” Given that Lt. Uhura was on the bridge, boldly going to the same places, why just “man”? This was changed when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered in 1987, twenty years later, to the much more inclusive “no one.” Many non-male voices in the sci-fi community have bemoaned the male focus in science fiction stories. To paraphrase what protagonist Elma York says in “The Calculating Stars”: if you’re going to bring mankind to the stars, you’re going to need to bring womankind, too.

I’ve recently striven to expand my sci-fi experience, as it’s entirely possible to be considered “well-read” in science fiction and still have only read a lot of male-written and male-perspective stories. Below, you will find a survey in three parts: A book I’ve read, a book I’m reading, and one in the “I really should have read by now and should have my credentials questioned for not having done so” category. For other books that fit nicely in this sphere of the genre, check out the companion list to this post here.

“Hidden Figures” meets “For All Mankind” in “The Calculating Stars,” by Marie Robinette Kowal

Book Cover: The Calculating Stars Imagine, if you will, in your best Rod Serling voice, an alternate history: instead of being just a famous misprint, Dewey actually does defeat Truman in the 1948 election. Imagine then that not mattering all too much as a meteor smashes into the Eastern Seaboard, simultaneously decapitating the federal government and boiling away part of the ocean, sealing the doom of the human race, unless we can get humanity to the stars. Enter Doctor Elma York, a computer for the space program, accomplished wartime WASP pilot, and talented physicist, who rightly thinks that any effort to get a stable and sustained human population off-planet will, obviously, require women of all creeds and identities.

Unfortunately for Elma, it is the 1950s. Sexism, racism and prejudice in her workplace — the newly minted international space agency — run amok even as the global community strives together to ensure the survival of the human race. She must struggle against a cemented hierarchy that is starting to come apart at the seams, as well as overcome her social anxiety and her own prejudices, in order to become a Lady Astronaut.

I enjoyed this book, and felt it did a fantastic job highlighting the struggles of women in STEM fields in the mid-century. I drew comparisons to “Hidden Figures” in its story, as did several reviewers, where it dug into how, though the space program accomplished a great many things, it did so without giving due credit to the women, both white and of color, that made up the backbone of their computing power and mathematical calculations. It was also neat to see a sci-fi novel feature Kansas City heavily, as that is where the space program relocates to after the impact!

A few criticisms to balance the post: I expected the story to be much more about Elma’s struggle with the patriarchy, and a larger focus on the questions of what happens when a meteorite hits a modern civilization’s center of power, but the story became much more about Elma’s internal struggles with anxiety and her relationship with her family. This was still a powerful and well-told story about those issues, don’t get me wrong, but it was not what I was prepared for from the elevator pitch.

As a Kansas City area native, Kowal got some things wrong name-wise for the era, like calling the airport Elma flies out of New Century AirCenter, which, in the 1950s, was Naval Air Station Olathe. So it seems like she may have just googled “Airports in KC” to fill out the background of the piece. It happens in a few other places as well, but that might just be me being nit-picky!

As a final note, there were several awkward intimate moments throughout the book that threw me out of immersion, including the use of “we are go for launch” as an innuendo. But hey, if that’s what gets your rocket off the gantry, no judgment from me!

What To Do When You’re a Billion Miles from Nowhere: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Have you ever dreamed of just dropping everything in life, buying a one way ticket to anywhere, andBook cover: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet heading out into the great unknown? Well, Rosemary Harper does that on a much more interplanetary scale. On the run from a past she’d sooner the rest of the galaxy forgot, Rosemary finds herself on a creaky old ship headed out to the absolute fringes of space to tunnel a wormhole to the farthest flung planets you can imagine, crewed by a truly multiplicitous crew of colorful characters.

I’m only a few chapters into this one, but I am thoroughly enjoying a character-driven sci-fi story! So many sci-fi books are about the adventure, the action, and the derring-dos, and often don’t feature what happens on the long hauls through the void, what you do while the warp nacelles are calibrating, and what the Enterprise crew really get up to while they’re cruising at Warp 7 (For an answer to that, watch “Star Trek: Lower Decks”). Though it is enjoyable, sometimes it does feel like there is truly nothing going on, and the characters are just shooting the breeze. But sometimes that’s just what we need.

The focus on found family features heavily in this book, as it does in many stories where the characters are all confined in a space smaller than your average suburban house, but the jewel of this version of the archetype is in the novel’s focus on community through diversity. There are non-conforming identities, sexualities, and biologies galore aboard the Wayfarer, and the story and the character interactions are all the stronger for it. I can’t wait to read even more, as I’ve seen there’s several more books in the series as well.

Contact” by Carl Sagan, or How I Am A Sham of A Sci-Fi Reader

Audio Book Cover: Contact I hang my head and must admit, I have yet to read “Contact.” Despite being up there in the Sci-Fi Canon with such books as “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” “Left Hand of Darkness,” and “Dune,” Carl Sagan’s great sci-fi work has never graced my reading shelf. It’s not like I have an excuse, either; I’ve read “Pale Blue Dot” for crying out loud! But for some reason, I’ve never compelled myself to read this science fiction masterpiece that concerns itself with one feeling: optimism.

When the SETI project receives an encoded signal from space, they are convinced that it must be from extraterrestrial intelligence; it contains a series of prime numbers as well as a rebroadcast of the 1936 Olympics, the first TV signal strong enough to escape the Earth. Furthermore, it contains instructions on how to create a device that will enable humanity to travel to and communicate with the aliens. Dr. Ellie Arroway, a brilliant radio astronomer whose skills in signal interpretation prove critical to the deciphering of the signal. It is her view through which we see the puzzle, and the story, unfold.

Or so I’m told. Again, I haven’t read it, and I’m sorry. Maybe soon it will make its way to my nightstand, now that I’ve revealed my flaws to you, dear reader.

These brief reviews and critiques only scratch the surface of women-led sci-fi out there, and I cannot wait to read even more.  For several others that made the list, either by reputation or recommendation by friends and fellow library workers, check out my booklist here!

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