Authors make stuff up. Let’s not pretend it’s any more magical than that. It’s when we’re called out for populating those made-up worlds in ways that reveal our assumptions about that future that we get uncomfortable admitting that on the page, we rule absolute. So we hand-wave and sputter about how the characters led the way, about how we were being “realistic,” about common tropes and what came before…
But when we choose who goes into to space, who populates the future, we are doing just that: exercising a choice. And I wanted to see a choice I hadn’t seen before.
So I wrote it.
Sometime in 2013, I crowdsourced a booklist on Twitter. I wanted to know how many science fiction books people could think of that didn’t feature a single character that could be categorized as biologically male. Not just worlds where the only sexual organs people had were wombs and vaginas, but worlds where any other type of sexual organs simply weren’t mentioned or even conceived of. I wanted to see if there was a novel where the idea we roll around as being “male” didn’t show up at all and wasn’t mentioned—not as observers, or some extinct idea. The world could have multiple genders, sure, but not ones tied to genitals like some folks still insist on here (which suffers from many problems, among them being there is no hard and fast “rule” for what being “biologically” one sex or another is. I’m using these terms in the broadest way possible in this article with the understanding that they are flawed); everyone would have the same set.
You might think that’s a weird ask, to find books like that, but consider this: science fiction and fantasy is all about imagining worlds where anything is possible. It’s about building fantastic spaces and cultures and making things that are really different. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, she imagined a world where folks shift biological sex throughout their lives. In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, she created a world of women who were able to propagate through parthenogenesis. Storm Constantine created a world where men transform into hermaphrodites and most women die off in Wraeththu.
So, when you see a world that hasn’t been built, it behooves you to ask yourself: why? And then, immediately—why not?
My new space opera, The Stars are Legion, started with the idea of how we would navigate through deep space on the extraordinary timelines required to travel between galaxies. The idea of creating organic world-ships that could grow and reproduce was not a new idea, but the idea to populate them exclusively with people who had wombs was, I believe, a first. Certainly, this began as a very practical idea. How did the ship create the parts it needed? What if women birthed them? It was space opera womb-punk of the best kind.
People giving birth to objects other than children also isn’t revolutionary—I’m thinking of David Brin’s “Peicework”, and Geoff Ryman’s Air, as well as Christopher Priest’s short fiction about the Dream Archipelago.
What makes a book unique isn’t always about having one big grand new idea. It’s about combining many different ideas in new and interesting ways. I created a legion of living starships populated by people who gave birth to the things it needs. How this arrangement originally came to be isn’t explored in the text, but one can see an empowering version and a horrifying version of how this may have played out. I enjoy the idea of the empowering one, where a group of women from different worlds decided they wanted to see another galaxy, and knew the only way to do it was to literally power the ships to get them there with their own labor. But there could certainly be many interpretations of how this system came to be. I’m the sort of writer who likes to leave doors open for readers.
I’ve gotten lots of questions about how women would organize themselves, how women would lead, how women would blah blah blah when creating this system of starships, as if these women having uteruses would intrinsically change everything about their humanity. How can women be militant? How can they be politically conniving? How can they get bogged down in a war over resources? To which I respond, well, do you know any women in real life? Because, like, humans, uh, do things.
In the case of building the society of The Stars are Legion, what was most important was figuring out how a society would run in which birth and pregnancy were considered so much intrinsically part of the human experience (say what you will, but it’s still shuttered up and backburnered here as an aberrant state, hence the fight to get healthcare protections for those who get pregnant and give birth). Figuring out how these people chose to control their fertility, and what value they placed on it, and how it affected their views on life, how they were all connected but still at war, was the most interesting part of the thought exercise, for me.
As readers, and creators, the best part of what we do is challenging the expectations we bring to our experience of reading or writing a work. I enjoy challenging myself in new and different ways. I want to push forward, dive deep, and see a world that’s really different. A writing instructor once told me that a story of mine suffered from a “failure of imagination.” I don’t know about y’all, but that’s pretty much the worst thing a speculative fiction writer can fail at. So I push harder. I go where others don’t. I make the worlds I’ve never seen.
This article was originally published February 2017.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. Her latest novel, The Stars are Legion, is available from Saga Press.