When you lay out the recent examples of older women in science fiction and fantasy, you find a decided lack.
Or at least I do. (Let me ’splain.)
By “older,” I mean women whose concerns are those of motherhood, middle age, old age: women who believe in their own mortality, who wear the weight of their pasts as well as their responsibilities to the future, who have a place in the world: a place that may or may not be comfortable, or suitable, but worn in around the edges and theirs. By in science fiction and fantasy I mean acting as protagonists, or as mentors whose importance to the narrative is not sidelined or minimised by relentless focus on the youthful angst of less mature characters.
I came up with a list. Lois McMaster Bujold leaps right to its head. Ista dy Chalion is the protagonist of Paladin of Souls, a book that had a profound affect on me when first I read it, and continues to affect me deeply even during rereads. A woman of forty, whose children are either dead or grown, whose husband died long ago, whose mother has only recently passed away, she has spent most of her adult life suffering the effects of a curse that led to her madness, and to her being thought mad and delicate still. Even though the curse was broken.
(The way in which the curse acted upon Ista is painfully familiar. Her grief may have been strange and at times extravagant, but she could see a danger to which others were blind, and her family and society’s refusal to believe her is strongly reminiscent of the operation of gaslighting.)
She’s a woman striving to move out beyond the roles others have appointed for her—or that long use has accustomed her to, herself—to discover who she is when she has the choice to act for herself, on her own account. It is a profoundly hopeful book, even in its darkest moments, for this narrative of agency not rediscovered, but reclaimed.
Bujold also gave us Cordelia Naismith, of course: a women mature in her life and advanced in her career, whose “shopping!” scene in Barrayar is iconic in its maximum deployment of Awesome in the minimum amount of space.
Count Piotr’s hand slapped down hard on the table. “Good God, woman, where have you been?” he cried furiously.
A morbid lunacy overtook her. She smiled fiercely at him, and held up the bag. “Shopping.”
For a second, the old man nearly believed her, conflicting expressions whiplashed over his face, astonished, disbelief, then anger as it penetrated he was being mocked.
“Want to see what I bought?” Cordelia continued, still floating. She yanked the bag’s top open, and rolled Vordarian’s head out across the table. Fortunately, it had ceased leaking some hours back. It stopped face up before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.
After Bujold, the next writer to use women of maturity as protagonists who comes to mind is Sir Terry Pratchett. Pratchett has his flaws, but the elderly buddy-act of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg steal every scene they’re in from the very moment of their first appearance together, in Wyrd Sisters. Granny and Nanny are caricatures of particular sorts of elderly women, of course—the woman who never married and is quite happy that way, thank you, mind your own business if you please, who aged into terrifying sternness; and the terrifyingly friendly old lady with what seems like millions of grandchildren, all of which she is prepared to talk about at the drop of a hat while giving advice on the best way to catch a man and make babies of your own, cackle cackle rude joke—but Pratchett’s particular genius is to take caricature and make character anyway. They’re heroic, in their own commonsense, no-nonsense, manipulative for your own good, proud, prickly, and interfering ways, sticking an oar in to get rid of annoyingly bad rulers, evil relatives, wicked elves, modern vampires, and so on. (And to thwart opera ghosts.)
And it’s always struck me as unbearably funny, and also apt, that the dwarf name for Granny Weatherwax is “Go Around The Other Side Of The Mountain!”
The third writer who comes to mind, mostly because I just finished a reread of her New Amsterdam collection, is Elizabeth Bear. A number of the “New Amsterdam” stories feature Abigail Irene Garrett, who ages from approximately her forties to very old indeed. The novelette Bone and Jewel Creatures, set in the same universe (albeit a different time) as Range of Ghosts, positions a very old sorcerer and her relationship with her (ex) lover and said ex-lover’s son in the central role. Carnival, Undertow, and the Jenny Casey trilogy all feature women with a significant amount of life behind them.
I’m deliberately excluding immortals and antagonists (especially needlessly wicked ones) from my criteria. Which narrows the list a good bit: apart from these three authors, I can think of very few others writing women of maturity. Perhaps some of Catherine Asaro’s characters may count, although part of my problem with enjoying romance storylines is that they seem to turn otherwise sensible adults into teenagers who forget every lesson about life they ever learned, and this does not appear congruent with depicting maturity. (Use your words, people. Clear communication is a social good.) I’m certain the forgetting-of-every-lesson happens to some people. But, still. Everyone?
Perhaps there are good portrayals of protagonisting mature women in SFF I haven’t read. Still, I’ve read what I imagine to be a representative sample of work published in the last fifteen years… and there’s a lack. Yep, definitely a lack.
Someone should maybe try rectifying that.