As I get longer in the tooth, and the distance between me and fifty shortens at terrifying pace, I have begun to look for heroines aged over forty. Partly because even though I grow older, I still want the story to be all about me. But also because heroines over forty are so rare to find. We become invisible, domesticated, hidden away from sight. The men have risen to power, and get to make the decisions or go on the adventures. So when I do find a woman past forty leading the story, I am delighted, because I see that life does go on for women—that possibilities still remain, that there are still new chapters, and that the wisdom that comes from experience has worth, and can lead to a new lease of life. Old women too can be explorers.
Here are five female characters who can still kick ass, even after forty.
Tenar in Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin was there first, as she often is. In Tehanu, we come back to Tenar, the heroine of her Earthsea novel The Tombs of Atuan, now a widow with two grown-up children, who is learning how power diminishes with old age. When the novel was published, many readers found it hard to accept that Tenar, who had once been a powerful child priestess, was now a farmer’s wife. But the book seems to me about living beyond fame and power, and, more, about insisting upon the value and worth of the powerless: the widow, the scarred child, the mage-that-is-no-longer-a-mage. Under the guidance of Moss, an elderly witch, Tenar builds a new family from the lost, the scarred, and the abandoned. And Le Guin takes her most iconic series, and remakes it, root and branch.
Cordelia Vorkosigan in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Fans of Bujold’s space opera series the Vorkosigan Saga have, over the last thirty years, loved her sensible, intelligent, and resourceful heroine, from the beginning of her story as Captain Naismith, commanding a ship during a war; watching her run away with Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, who happens to be on the other side; and, as Regent-Consort, becoming the most powerful woman (behind the throne, of course) in the Barrayaran Empire, responsible for the education of its young Emperor. In this most recent novel in the series, Cordelia is older, and widowed, and about to reinvent herself once again. Other books in the series are military sf with a spin; this novel concerns parenting, and the new forms of family that technological innovation will allow. You won’t want to start the series with this book—but that’s OK. The whole series is a marvel. (I should also mention Bujold’s fantasy novel Paladin of Souls: at the start of the book, its heroine, Ista, is a widow, a dowager queen, and surplus to requirements. By the end she is… Well, should read this brilliant, subversive novel (and its counterpart, The Curse of Chalion), and see.)
Dr Katherine Pulaski in Star Trek: The Next Generation
I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as it came out on video in the UK, long before the Internet. This meant I had no idea of the received wisdom about the show, and so I had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to like Dr Pulaski. Determined, straight-talking, confident in her abilities, and more than a little crotchety—I loved Pulaski! She arrives on the Enterprise, does her thing, annoys everyone, and leaves. I thought she was a hoot. Pulaski mixes up the chemistry of the show, and she’s nobody’s fool. I’d love to see her and Picard in a screwball comedy, the holodeck version of The Thin Man, with Picard as Nora (adventurous and curious) and Pulaski as Nick (hard-drinking and wise-cracking). That’s a show I’d watch in a heartbeat.
Helen Kane in The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Meg Howrey’s richly imagined novel concerns a mission to Mars—with a twist. We follow the three astronauts selected not as they blast off for Mars, but as they embark upon a seventeen-month simulation of the mission. At the heart of the book is the world’s most famous woman astronaut, Helen Kane, a collected, ambitious, and intelligent woman who has worked her whole life for this chance. Helen is fully realised: as career woman, as widow, and as mother—her relationship with her daughter Mireille, an aspiring actor eclipsed by her mother, is brilliantly and tenderly drawn. The book’s concern is the personal and the psychological; the rarity of characters like Helen make her all the more precious.
The many heroines of Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series
Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series began life as a practical joke at a convention panel about science fiction TV shows. She began to describe her ideal TV show, saying, “Hey, are none of you watching this show? It’s great!” and then decided she ought to write it. And she did—a four-book series about the crew of Starfarer, a deep space vessel ready for its first exploratory mission, when the government orders it to be retooled as an instrument of war. What do the crew do? Steal the ship, of course. The set-up on Starfarer is not like the quasi-military set-up of Starfleet (McIntyre also wrote five exceptional Star Trek novels). Instead, we have a faculty-in-space, making decisions by consensus, rather than issuing orders. We see a diverse crew: scientists, ecologists, alien contact specialists, a retired Nobel Prize winning scientist, and Florrie Brown, the first grandmother in space, who knows a narc when she sees one. This is a wonderful novel series that should be much better known.
Una McCormack’s novella The Undefeated, the protagonist of which is a woman way past forty, is available from Tor.com Publishing. She has also written two novels about Dr Pulaski, Star Trek—Deep Space Nine: The Missing, and Star Trek—Deep Space Nine: Enigma Tales.