Tessa’s Travels


The cool obsidian that makes up the walls of the Transgression Centre seems to absorb the beam from the fluorescent light. Tessa sits on the cool metal examination table with her legs crossed demurely. She is completely naked—they’d taken all her belongings when she arrived to be sent along separately—and but she figures she had best try and keep some sense of her dignity here. There is no clock on the wall, and the room itself is oddly insulated; no sound reached her. It never occurs to her to check if the door is locked.

Suddenly, the handle turns and a dark skinned Transgressive officer in a uniform almost as black as the walls strides in. He takes in her naked body without much fanfare and smiles, showing a stark row of white teeth.

“Miss Carter? We’re ready now.” His accent is strong and British and it soothes her jangling nerves as Tessa scoots off the table and follows him out of the room. She figures he will walk ahead of her, the way her father’s bodyguards used to do, always leading her somewhere, scanning for danger; instead, he walks beside her as if they’re out for a stroll and not lost in a sprawling medical centre. The hallway is cool and the air conditioning hardens Tessa’s nipples, but she doesn’t bother to try to cover them—her nakedness is the least of her worries now. Besides, the hallway is empty and the officer has already seen it all.

“Where are you headed?” the officer asks, startling Tessa. She had assumed he would know already.


“Yeah? I had a cousin who went three years ago, my aunt and uncle get occasional transmissions from her. Seems okay, I think. Heard on the news they were having problems with us because of all those diamond mines they’ve built on. Seems crazy they’d have millions of dollars in stones just laying on their beaches like rocks, eh? This way.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Tessa says as she and the officer turn down a short hallway and come to an open door. Tessa waits for the officer to go in ahead of her, but he waves her through.

“Sorry, this is as far as I go. We’ve got sixteen other transfers today.” Tessa isn’t sure why he’s apologizing—as if they’d built some bond in the last five minutes. She nods and steps past him into the room. It is much like the first, except replacing the examination table is a large vat that reminds Tessa of one of those old hydrotherapy chambers from the sixties. What seems like a thousand large and small tubes lead from it down through a vent in the floor. A woman in a black uniform stands at the head of the tub squinting into a small computer screen. She sees Tessa and smiles.

“Ah, here you are! All set?” she bustles towards Tessa and guides her with a gloved hand towards the edge of the vat. Inside is dark, dark, dark. The blackest fluid Tessa has ever seen. It seems almost bottomless.

“What is it?” she asks.

“Oh, they should have told you when you signed the consent form? It’s amniotic fluid. Perfectly safe, of course, but there is no other substance on earth that will recreate your body in the next dimension as completely as this stuff. Come, now, in you go.”

Tessa remembers now, as she steps into the fluid. They had told her, along with a thousand other things when she had decided to leave this dimension three months ago. The fluid is thick and thankfully warm, and when she sits upright in the tub she is covered to the tops of her breasts. The woman attaches several electrodes to her neck and forehead before putting a small IV into her arm, chatting all the while.

“They’ll be waiting for you on the other side when you arrive. They’re some of our best receivers, really. We have some dimensions that slap you out onto the floor and expect you to find your own way. Aristophantis, though, they’re great. I suppose it’s something about having a little bit of both genders that keeps them level. Although I suppose they don’t see it that way. Imagine, living in a place where no one—well, I suppose you won’t have to imagine anything in a minute.” Tessa longs to duck her head under the fluid and shut out the woman’s voice, but she fears she’d suffocate before the woman shut up. Finally, the oxygen mask is slipping over her head and gentle hands are pushing her shoulders down, down, down underneath the fluid as the woman mutters something about being fully submerged, lest she come through in pieces. She takes a big breath of the oxygen she knows will be there and—

Tessa’s eyes open to wide, soundless darkness. Everything is empty, and she feels as though she is floating a thousand miles under the ocean in a sightless, soundless cave. The surface a distant memory, the air—

Air. She needs air. Her mask has disappeared, and Tessa begins to lash out at nothing with her arms and legs, already burning. Just as her body begins to convulse with pain, she feels hands grabbing and pulling her hard, almost wrenching, towards them.

Light, bright and blinding, assaults her. Tessa kneels on a hard floor and gasps for breath. She squints at her knees and sees that they’re covered in a thick, almost oily substance. Suddenly, everything comes rushing back to her in a nauseating flood as the world begins to right itself.

The room she is in is far quainter than the harshness of the black building she has left. Smooth yellow walls greet her, with a picture window that looks out upon a lush courtyard. There is even a vase of hydrangeas on the counter in the corner of the room. A vat similar to the one she had stepped into stood behind her, open and empty. Tessa jumps and spins around on her knees, slipping in the soiled fluid as hands rest against her neck.

“Sorry, sorry, we’ve just got to get these electrodes out of your hair,” they say. They are tall and thin, like most people on Aristophantis, but with long brown hair and a pair of obvious breasts. Tessa had read somewhere that most people on Aristophantis usually choose to have one breast removed as soon as they are able to, believing it furthers the duality of their bodies, but clearly that isn’t everyone. Tessa shakes her head and wipes her face. When she chose this place, the idea of one being two—or one being neither—appealed to her more than anything. Nobody must choose between anything here, and that had seemed more freeing than anything.

“Would you have a towel?” she asks. One is placed into her hands promptly and she attempts to dry herself as best she can. They pick the electrodes out of her tangled hair and help her to stand, leading her out of the nice room and into a more generic hospital hallway.

“The showers are just here,” they say. “We’ll wait right outside.”

Washing the dried goo off of her body is a blissful moment. So far, Tessa hasn’t seen anything too out of the ordinary—even the showers are the same. Although she hardly imagines that anyone would be walking around with their genitalia clearly visible. In fact, it seems as though she is the only one doing that.

She is given a pair of jeans and a t-shirt—her own jeans and t-shirt, they must have made the trip—and led to a small waiting room with a bank of large windows covering one wall. Her things rest in a neat pile in a corner. After checking to make sure everything is there, she wanders to the window. This side of the building faces the city and Tessa leans against the glass to see all she can. The buildings are not the dark, reflective metal of any metropolis she knows, but a bright, shining marble like a Grecian holdover. Pillars soar far above the Transgression Centre, and Tessa can feel the sun’s heat on her chest through the window. Mountains hover like watchful gods miles away. In the distance, a statue looms, partially obscured by buildings, and Tessa squints to make it out.

“Hermaphroditus,” says a voice behind her. Tessa whirls and steps back from the window. It is the person from before who had hauled her out of the vat.

“I’m sorry?” Tessa is breathless. They walk towards the window and look out, hands behind their back.

“The statue, it’s of Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed son of the gods your Greeks called Hermes and Aphrodite.” They turn to face Tessa, smiling warmly. Their face is angular and marble smooth, with sharp, aquiline eyes. From what Tessa can tell, they look like the pictures she has seen of many Aristophantis citizens. They are almost angelic, framed in the sunlight streaming through the window. Tessa knows that they are here to check her—the transition is not always a smooth one, and the mind can arrive damaged even if the body is not. She knows she’ll be here for at least three days before they allow her to leave and start her new life.

“I hope your transition wasn’t too painful. We weren’t aware you had woken up until you started to struggle. Rarely do we have anyone born so quietly.” They stare at her as if they expect her to account for her own rebirth.

“It was an odd feeling,” is all she says.

“I imagine it was. I have never left Aristophantis myself, but I understand that the process is stressful for the body and mind.”

“Would you ever try it?”

“I’m not sure I have anywhere to go. I’m told that in your dimension, intersexuality is rather rare?”

Tessa shrugs. “I think so. At least, you never hear about it much.” They nod, as if validated.

“Still, it must be fascinating to have so many different ways of identifying.” They seem less interested in Tessa by the second, and their eyes drift to look just over her shoulder. Tessa wants to roll her eyes, but settles for gazing blankly out the window behind them. In the distance, a black dot emerges over the peak of the mountain and seems to hover in the air. Tessa leans closer, confused. Aristophantis prides itself on not even having automobiles, let alone aircrafts. It seems to grow larger by the second.

“What is that?” she asks.

“What is w—” there is a sharp, loud clap and Tessa watches as their left arm explodes in a mass of gore, severed from their half-turned body at the shoulder. Behind them, the window crystalizes and collapses in on itself. Made of something other than glass, it seems to fall out of the building in one great sheet. It is a missile-like thing that Tessa has never seen before. Sleek and dark, she knows she has seen the symbol on the wing, many times. She used to steal her father’s notepads and scratch out the flame balancing on the needle at the bottom of each page.

She thinks she is screaming. She has ended up on the other side of the room, fumbling for the door. Behind her, the wind howls and snatches at her wet hair. The sound of gunfire is deafening. Her fingers land on the door handle and she looks back once more before throwing herself out of the room: fire, smoke. A fraction of the destruction.

The hallway is chaos. Empty before, it is now teaming. People rush in both directions, and Tessa isn’t sure which way to go. She needs to get out. She picks someone in green trousers running with what looks like a broken nose, blood pouring down their front, and decides to follow them. As she steps out into the hallway an explosion rocks the building, throwing Tessa and everyone else backwards three feet. Struggling upright, Tessa realizes she’s lost sight of the green trousers, but heads in the same direction. Tessa sobs as smoke begins to fill the hallway, her eyes streaming. Someone grabs her arm and pulls her towards a door—she thinks about fighting, but where would she go? She’s crowded into a stairwell with fifteen other people. The lights are out, and the only sound is distant explosions and muffled weeping. As a group, they struggle down the stairs, flight by painful flight. No one has asked what they will do when they reach the bottom.

Tessa knows they are here for the diamonds—they’ve been vying for them for years—but part of her wonders if they’re not also here for her. Her records were sealed, and he is not all powerful, no matter what he thinks. He cannot know she is here—he would never risk her safety like that. Or would he? Terror and guilt threaten to overwhelm her. She was supposed to be safe.

Another explosion. The building shudders around her. She is not sure if she’ll make it to the bottom. Soot and ash choke her, and she gags.

I was supposed to be safe.


Gulliver’s Travels with a Side of Steampunk: Adam Robert’s Swiftly


Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is arguably very much of its time and transcendent of time. Its technology and form are undeniably dated, but its basic plot points (a lone voyager travelling to distant lands an experiencing a new culture) are ageless. Although this is a mode that existed long before Swift and has/will continue long after, the elements of Swift’s plot leave many questions unanswered and there is always room for expansion. This is exactly what Adam Roberts makes efforts to do in his novel, Swiftly.


Adam Roberts expands of Gulliver’s Travels by exploring what would have happened if the English, with their penchant for colonization, had explored and discovered the people that Gulliver comes upon, and either enslaved or exterminated them. However, Roberts puts his own twist on things, and by setting his novel in the mid/late nineteenth century, Roberts incorporates the industrial revolution and steampunk themes to make his novel a little more expressly science fiction than Swift’s original.

Steampunk is defined as “a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.” Adam Roberts uses steampunk themes in his novel through his depictions of the war between the French and English. Their technological advances in weaponry are impressive and elaborate on the people that Swift has sketched in his novel. Furthermore, the Liliputian’s technological innovations are complex and innovative beyond what Swift imagined. The entire novel has the feeling of an industrialized Gulliver’s Travels, and lends to the overall feeling of chaos that adds to the social and political unrest in the novel.

Although Swiftly isn’t an overly accessible novel, it does pay tribute to Swift’s original text with all the re-invigoration and adaptation of the twenty-first century.

A Culture of Penny Dreadfuls: Implications and Imaginings

8d83a4c39254a65db0f79cb29b24f260.jpgI love Penny Dreadfuls. Or, I love the idea of them. I famously couldn’t get through too much of Varney the Vampire this week (mostly because of time), but I tried. At the very least, I’m fascinated by them, and I think part of that fascination comes from my love of all things Victorian. The huge, hulking, and “baggy” novels of the nineteenth century are my bread and butter, and because Penny Dreadfuls contribute to Victorian culture in a different (and similar) way than maybe Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair, they’re wildly interesting.

I love the nineteenth century partly because it’s a time when books (or reading) were one of the few ways to entertain yourself if you could afford it. The implications of that are sometimes lost on modern readers, I think. Penny Dreadful’s were cheap, colloquial, and fun pieces of entertainment that were so widely read and enjoyed that I have a hard time dismissing them as trash or as insignificant when we think about and understand the nineteenth century.


Texts of this kind serve as entertainment, but they also serve as a way to conversation and community. Everyone is reading these things, or versions of them, and discussing them, retelling the stories, and anticipating the next one together. Installments are purchased by someone and read aloud to others who may not be able to read/able to afford the pamphlet. The discussion that must have been swirling around Penny Dreadfuls may not have been literary analysis, but it wasn’t ever intended to be. People are connected through entertainment and enjoyment, and that’ automatically lends Penny Dreadfuls some merit in nineteenth century studies.

American Pulps don’t appeal to me in the same way because of the cultural difference and the advent of other forms of entertainment (like the radio), and higher literacy rates, but the idea of so many people crammed together in a city like London all reading the same thing is a wonderful idea, and one that can’t be replicated today.

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Of course, popular fiction still exists, and we could all read the next Stephen King or Varney the Vampire and be perfectly happy. However, I’d argue that the community surrounding popular fiction has changed to include so much more: a wide variety of literature, television, film, the internet, etc, and while we’re still talking about those things socially, that collective anticipation might be diminished. But just as it’s important to think about Eliot’s Middlemarch in the context of the Victorian age, it’s vital to look at Penny Dreadful’s and popular fiction of the time to understand the nineteenth century.


Gothic Science Fiction: Edgar Allan Poe

2qckx7q.jpgAs a huge Poe fan, I was excited for this week’s stories. I’m more familiar with the Gothic/horror side of his writing, and stories like “Masque of the Red Death” and are my favourite. But reading “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and others made me think a lot about the intersection between the Gothic and science fiction. Both genres develop rapidly, but at different times. However, traces of each seem to work their way into novels and stories, like with Poe.


A quick Google told me that Gothic science fiction is an actual subgenre of science fiction itself. Judith Wilt argues that the Victorian Gothic changes over to Gothic science fiction at the end of the nineteenth century with books like War of the Worlds, and Dracula, but I might argue that we can see it much earlier, with Poe’s short stories. In a broad definition, Gothic science fiction blends the tone of the Gothic with the tone of science fiction. The Gothic is represented by “a dark subversion of reigning public ideas” (Wilt 620) alongside “punishment for past actions” or “sin coming home to roost” (Wilt 620). This alongside science fiction, which reflects “anxieties about the future consequences of present actions” allow “science or ‘future’ fiction [to emerge] as a gothic form” (Wilt 620). Wilt argues that “the expected counter attack, the dreaded regression, the threatening future, [and] the unhuman” (Wilt 621) are all part of the Gothic, and of science fiction, drawing the two together.


However, is this subgenre able to be applied to Poe? It’s certainly more visible in later works, as Wilt argues, but certainly this idea of past actions haunting an individual and the subversion of commonplace ideals is a theme in Poe’s stories with texts like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but in the context of this week’s texts, I might say we can see early notes of science fiction and the Gothic amalgamating with the fear of regression and the future in at least a couple of the short stories. The haggard and haunted ghosts in “MS Found in a Bottle” are examples of the fear of regression. The narrator is horrified by them, and his greatest fear is that he’ll become one of them. In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Ernest Valdemar is trying to escape the ultimate future: death, and the frozen state he stays in only holds off his inevitable regression into nothing at the end of the story.


Although it’s early, and it might be more obvious with some of Poe’s other stories, there are certainly Gothic or sensational elements in his work that cross over into science fiction. Whether it’s through adventure stories or horror stories, there are traces of the Gothic and science fiction to be found.


Wilt, Judith. The Imperial Mouth: Imperialism, the Gothic and Science Fiction

Journal of Popular Culture vol. 14, no. 4, 1981, 618-628. 

Foreshadowing Nature in H. Rider Haggard’s “She”


In H. Rider Haggard’s She, Leo, Holly, Job, and Mahomed all take a journey that is typical of many science fiction novels: they go on a quest to a foreign place, to find a mystical land/object. Usually they have some kind of guide (Mahomed, in this case) and they often encounter unsettling and even dangerous things along the way that foreshadow what is to come.

One of the most interesting things about She, however, is that the foreshadowing comes in ways that we don’t always expect. Nature repeatedly rejects the Amahagger people’s presence, the presence of the queen, and even of the four travelers. Through nature’s rejection, the unnaturalness of the events with the tribe and the supernatural power of the queen herself is shown as fundamentally wrong and ‘against nature’ in the text.

The first example we see of this one that occurs throughout the text: the mosquitoes. Holly doesn’t know “whether they were attracted by the lantern, or by the unaccustomed smell of a white man,” but they “[a]re presently attacked by tens of thousands of the most blood-thirsty, pertinacious, and huge mosquitoes that [he] ever saw or read of. In clouds they came, and pinged and buzzed and bit till we were nearly mad” (Haggard 81). The mosquitoes are overwhelming, and continue to haunt the men all the way through their journey. There is something unnatural about the way the bugs look and act, and they attack and draw the blood from the men to a detrimental extent.

Furthermore, the attack/fight between the lion and the crocodile is deeply unsettling:

“The crocodile shifted his grip, having, as we afterwards discovered, had one of his eyes torn out, and slightly turned over; instantly the lion got him by the throat and held on, and then over and over they rolled upon the bank struggling hideously. […] the tortured brute, roaring in agony, was clawing and biting madly at his enemy’s scaly head, and fixing his great hind claws in the crocodile’s, comparatively speaking, soft throat, ripping it open as one would rip a glove […] the crocodile, after standing for a minute motionless, slowly rolled over on to his side, his jaws still fixed across the carcase of the lion, which, we afterwards found, he had bitten almost in halves” (Haggard 83).

This scene is gory, ugly, and unnatural. Two predators, one possibly representing Leo, our Lion, and the other representing the queen, fight to the death, and neither of them seem to win. It’s a kind of brutal, irrational fight that signifies a disruption in the animal kingdom, and therefore in the fundamental laws of the universe. The motif in these scenes if violence and corruption that is taken from the natural elements of the food chain, and made extreme or strange by the frenzied feeding in both passages. This early corruption is something we’ll see realized through the queen’s agelessness, the tribe’s attempted cannibalism, and her animation of the dead.

There are also elements of decay in the land, on top of the violent assaults. As the men travel, they notice “many varieties of water-lily in full bloom, some of them blue and of exquisite beauty, though few of the flowers were perfect, owing to the prevalence of a white water-maggot with a green head that fed upon them” (Haggard 86). Furthermore, their journey to the queen is peppered with unsettling images of irregular animals who either behave strangely or who look off, but the land is also rotting from the inside out: “the worst feature of the swamp was the awful smell of rotting vegetation that hung about it, which was at times positively overpowering, and the malarious exhalations that accompanied it, which we were of course obliged to breathe” (Haggard 122).

The landscape around them is inhospitable and corrupted by the unnaturalness of the queen and her powers. All of this is meant to serve as foreshadowing that should create a sense of fear and uneasiness in readers as they go on. If the land rejects these people because of their fundamental violation of the universe’s laws, then they cannot be good, despite how they might first appear. This process is very clever on Haggard’s part: he goes after the things we understand to be true in a covert way that we might not notice the first time, foreshadowing events with the corruption of nature early in the text.

“King of Ladyland:” Feminist Science Fiction and the Feminist Utopia in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman



  1. Feminist Science Fiction
  2. Feminist Utopia
  3. Herland as imaginative space and social critique

Feminist Science Fiction:

Science fiction is difficult to define, as a genre it seems to pull many works and media towards it. Therefore, the task of framing narratives within science fiction isn’t an easy one. However, for the purposes of this seminar, we can understand that science fiction is “full of contradictions” and “can illuminate both what is, and what is not (yet, or in this world)” (Lefanu 21, 22). Instead of being constrained by real-world accuracy and biases as we might argue other genre’s are, science fiction resists those boxes. This “offer[s] enormous scope to women writers who are thus released from the constraints of realism” (Lefanu 21) and “the social and sexual hierarchies of the contemporary world can be examined” (Lefanu 21) through science fiction stories. Women writers do this in order to challenge “ideas of gender roles; and visions of different worlds can be created” (Lefanu 22) that highlight gender in multiple ways. However, though feminist science fiction uses the genre to ask questions, it is also making an effort to try and find the answers in modern, contemporary society or to disprove assumptions about women in the real world.

While science fiction can have strong female characters, the “‘idea that women are second class people is a hard idea to shake’” (qtd in Lefanu 15). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland attempts to shake men entirely through unusual and experimental means that we’ll get to later, but does this actually work for the women in the novel, and are there any questions being asked of contemporary society that Gilman is trying to incite answers for?

The Feminist Utopia:


One of the sub-genres of science fiction that women use as a vehicle to explore gender is the utopia. “The word utopia is generally taken to refer to the fictional representation of an ideal place, somewhere that is ‘better’ than the society or world in which we actually live” (Lefanu 53). However, the word ‘utopia’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘no place,’ so it is important to note that a utopia can exist as “an imaginary place, a nowhere land, a realm like the unconscious, where dreams may flourish and desires be realised” (Lefanu 53). This is important to keep in mind when we look at Herland, because Gilman’s text does have fantastic elements that allow us to see into this world as an imaginative space to reveal women as separate and capable people outside of the patriarchy.

However, utopias–and the need for them–are very much grounded in contemporary life. “It is […] the engagement with the here and now that fuels the desire for something else, for something ‘elsewhere’ (Lefanu 53). The oppression of women in society pushes feminist writers to react against that with stories that explore gender. According to Carol Person, there are several processes that feminist utopias encourage: “a kind of ‘coming home’ that signifies multiple things—a return to the self and a return to the mother figure, finding unity and integration, and a respect for the individual” as well as “the liberation of self and society” (Lefanu 54). Basically, “the essential self [is] revealed once the distorting and mutilating effects of patriarchal order have been removed” (Lefanu 54). Feminist utopias attempt to remove what Joanna Russ says is the issue in science fiction (and, you could argue, literature as a whole): that there are no ‘real’ women, but women who are only seen by men.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes a feminist utopia with Herland, based in utopian separatism (Espelid), where “separatism is of prime importance, indeed is a prerequisite for any kind of social change” (Lefanu 55). For Gilman, “a separatist world allows women physical freedom to express love for other women” (Lefanu 55) and “Herland represents a natural progression from utopias spurred by women to a utopia where the convenient absence of men has facilitated even greater improvements” (Sutton-Ramspeck 20). This is a kind of radical notion, that men need to be removed entirely for women to flourish, but it is the mindset that all-female societies are sometimes written in. We know that “Gilman proudly wrote fiction with the purpose of fostering social growth” (Sutton-Ramspeck 19) and like many utopias, Herland touches on each aspect of the culture Gilman creates. Some of her solutions or social structures are fantastic, but many of them are simply radically different than the traditions within the patriarchy. “Carol Farley Kessler has described Gilman’s exemplary stories as ‘pragmautopias,’ ‘realizable’ scenarios, stories that subversively adapt the techniques of realism to describe how her ‘readers might go about realizing her utopian visions’ through everyday changes” (qtd in Sutton-Ramspeck 19). Through this, we can look at Gilman’s text in two ways: as a feminist utopia that represents an imaginative space for a woman confined by the patriarchy, and a social critique that wants to spur change for and by women in the contemporary world.



Herland, though generally considered Gilman’s most successful foray into utopian fiction, is one of several utopias she wrote” (Sutton-Ramspeck 19)—the others were called Moving the Mountain and With Her in Ourland, but this one is the most popular, and provides a lot of fascinating commentary that we can look at. Before we try to understand Herland as a piece of feminist science fiction and a feminist utopia, we need to understand the feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For Gilman, the social ideas that women were incapable of sexual desire or passion of any kind were very obviously “socially transmitted” but “she also accepts certain distinctions as biologically and socially immutable” (Bartkowski 27). For example, Gilman held with the belief that “women’s essential tendency is to protect, as opposed to men, whose tendency is to fight” (Bartkowski 27). The woman as protector is an important vision when we look at Herland. Gilman positions the males in the text as fighters who are distinctly and fundamentally different from the women in this regard. This plays into the imaginative space of the feminist utopia, and creates a society of protectors.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman.jpg

In Herland, we can track the ways in which the ‘mutilating’ patriarchy is removed from this society, and women’s instinct to protect is highlighted. When Herland’s history is recounted, we get a rough idea of the way in which the patriarchy had thoroughly corrupted this society:

“They were decimated by war, driven up from their coastline till finally the reduced population, with many of the men killed in battle, occupied this hinterland, and defended it for years, in the mountain passes. […] They were a polygamous people, and a slave-holding people, like all of their time; and during the generation or two of this struggle to defend their mountain home they built the fortresses, such as the one we were held in, and other of their oldest buildings, some still in use. […] While the whole fighting force was doing its best to defend their mountain pathway, there occurred a volcanic outburst, with some local tremors, and the result was the complete filling up of the pass” (Gilman 81).

The men war themselves into extinction, and the corruption and ugliness that they cultivate (slavery, war, and death) is also destroyed. However, after they are gone, “a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women” (Gilman 82) remake the society into something new and two thousand years beyond the influence of men.

One of the most fascinating hallmarks of any utopia is that the reader is usually taken through each established social system. In Herland, we get the same thing, except with the added connotation that each time we see something, the phrase ‘this is what a society without men might look like’ is always attached. For example, “[the cats] were rigorously bred to destroy mice and moles and all such enemies of the food supply; but the birds were numerous and safe” (Gilman 76). The women don’t keep impractical animals, and they don’t support needless death even in cats and birds. In regard to the land itself, “these careful culturists had worked out a perfect scheme of refeeding the soil with all that came out of it […] everything which came from the earth went back to it” (Gilman 104). The entire island “exists to produce food – the entire country is essentially one large productive garden” (Curtis 151). Furthermore, their government is based in a rational (Curtis 151) and structured environment. Their population issues are not met with “predatory excursions to get more land from somebody else, or to get more food from somebody else, to maintain their struggling mass” (Gilman 94). Instead, the women “sat down in council together and thought it out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were” (Gilman 94). Gilman imagines a world where what is basically the yoke of the patriarchy is thrown off and thoroughly discarded in favour of a society that has no interest in war, but rather protects its people, crops, and animals by carefully containing them. It is important to note that these women are protectors, and not in need of protection. Gilman’s society is full of women who “needed neither protection nor service” (Gilman 113) and “the tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out” (Gilman 84). She imagines a world of capable women who are entirely reliant upon themselves, and her vision of what that society might look like is fantastic, but idealized and rational. For Gilman, the feminist utopia is the space where she can realize her vision utopic vision, and science fiction gives her the leeway to do so.


Social commentary is not unusual for utopias, but it is very carefully constructed in Herland. If the novel is too rooted in the fantastic, it can be easily dismissed, if it is too rooted in contemporary issues, then it moves out of the realm of feminist science fiction. To combat this, Gilman places Terry, Jeff, and Van in the novel, and has Van, a male, narrate the text:

“In Herland, Gilman […] follows the narrative conventions of Utopia, a traveller encounters a strange new culture and gradually embraces its superior values. One might suppose that the appropriate traveler to a woman’s land would be a woman, but Gilman cleverly takes advantage of the conventions by having Vandyck Jennings, her seemingly open-minded narrator, share the same sexist expectations as his companions (and most of her readers)” (Sutton-Ramspeck 20-21).

While Van is used to touch on the hallmarks of a utopia, he is also a device through which we can view this world and Van’s not-uncommon sexism. Beyond this, the three male characters are an isolated representation of the patriarchy. We have “Terry[, who] was strong on facts—geography and meteorology and those; Jeff could beat him any time on biology, and [Van] didn’t care what it was they talked about, so long as it connected with human life, somehow” (Gilman 33-34). In other words, the three men represent “the stud, the romantic, and the academic rationalist” (Curtis 151) who all arrive in a land populated only by women, each with a different position in the patriarchy. Through the three of them, we see different approaches to the women of this novel. Jeff “idealized women, and was always looking for a chance to ‘protect’ or to ‘serve’ them” (Gilman 113). Terry is a conqueror who wants to be “king of Ladyland” (Gilman 41) and assumes that he can “have [his] pick of them” (Gilman 112). Finally, Van, although he is “the most receptive of the three male characters” (Bartkowski 28), suffers from the same sexism and bias that each of these stereotypes are culturally immersed in. For example, he believes that “women [should be] kept as different as possible and as feminine as possible. We men have our own world, with only men in it; we get tired of our ultra-maleness and turn gladly to the ultra-femaleness” (Gilman 148). Van has trouble seeing and understanding these women as women, since it is not the way “Van has learned to see and recognise him” (Bartkowski 29). None of these men walk into Herland without some preconceived notion of how women should be. So why does Gilman choose to incorporate these men, especially Van, the narrator, into her novel? Frances Bartkowski says that “Van and his friends are the objects of humor, and even humiliation” for readers, but Gilman’s choice gives her “a great deal of space in which to play, […] Herland maintains its humour throughout the constant and repeated exposure of the men’s preconceptions about what a world of women could be” (Bartkowski 28). While I think this is true, and we see the men as rather foolish for most of the text, the men are also there to lend an element of reality. The three men represent prevailing stereotypes of masculinity, as well as the cultural and social constructs that try and define who women are and what they should be doing. The women ask simple questions that force the men to confront the outrageous paradoxes of the patriarchy. Terry explains that “the term virgin is applied to the female who has not mated” (Gilman 73), and when they ask “does it apply to the male also? Or is there a different term for him?” (Gilman 73), Terry must “pass[…] this over rather hurriedly” and admit that “the same term would apply, but [is] seldom used” (Gilman 73). There are moments like this one throughout the text, and they are pulled in through the three men who are outsiders, with a set of assumptions that contemporary readers would also have. Gilman uses her three male characters to critique the patriarchy in her novel by using them as objects of humour and explanation.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is one of the earliest pieces of feminist science fiction and feminist utopia. The genre she writes in allows her to create and extrapolate on events and concepts, while keeping itself rooted in contemporary life. She builds a world outside of the patriarchy that is full of protectors rather than fighters (who destroyed themselves 2000 years ago) and who sustain themselves through rationality and non-violence. Through her feminist utopia, Gilman is able to create and imagine a different world that has both fantastic and real-world implications. Science fiction utopias are limitless, and that’s what draws feminist writers like Gilman to them. Furthermore, Gilman is carefully able to construct a social commentary that is based in real world assumptions through Terry, Jeff, and Van, our three outsiders who represent some facet of masculinity and the patriarchy. Their presence/narration is meant to insert an element of reality into the text while also keeping it funny. Gilman takes what the three men (and consequently readers) expect from a society of women, and turns it on its head. Van sums up Gilman’s feminist utopia and social commentary perfectly when he says

“We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours. We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children—feebleminded ones at that. We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel. We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper” (Gilman 106).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is a feminist utopia that restructures women in an imaginative and critical framework rooted in the real-world.

Further reading:

Utopian Separatism: Feminism and Science Fiction by Anette Myrestøl Espelid: https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/25319/utopian_separatism_espelid.pdf?sequence=2

11 Sci-Fi Books Every Woman Should Read: https://www.bustle.com/articles/112286-11-sci-fi-books-every-woman-should-read

7 Bad-Ass Feminist Sci-Fi Must Reads: https://www.bookstr.com/7-bad-ass-feminist-sci-fi-must-reads

Other Feminist Utopias:

Questions to consider:

Do you think there is a downside to having a male narrator in Herland? What might a female narrator have changed about the text?

Is this society truly ideal? Is there anything that we can point to that makes us question the validity of Herland?

Does Gilman’s social commentary resonate, or is her separatism to radical and unreasonable?

Works Cited

Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Curtis, Claire P. “Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal.”             Contemporary Justice Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 2005, pp. 147-162.

Espelid, Anette Myrestø. Utopian Separatism: Feminism and Science Fiction. University of Ohio, 2012.  

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Herland and Related Writings. Edited by Beth Sutton-          Ramspeck, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 33-163.

Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sutton-Ramspeck. Introduction. Herland and Related Writings, by Charlotte Perkins      Gilman, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 9-24.

When Martians get More Screen Time than Women: War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

War of the Worlds is such a fun novel, and H.G. Wells is always able to entertain. The book deals with a host of themes and allusions that are carefully constructed in the text to make the thematic significance of the book more apparent. However, Wells’ female characters, or female shadows, are interesting when we consider the implications of women in a post-apocalyptic world. Many of the female characters are silent, or can’t stop screaming, with one semi-redeeming exception. This begs the question: is there a place for only a certain kind of female character in science fiction (before the twentieth century), and does Wells’ description of them reflect an anxiety about women in general?

There are three ‘main’ women in the text: the narrator’s wife, and the two women the narrator’s brother meets. The narrator’s wife exists in a space of qualifying dialogue, saying things like “don’t, dear!” with a “deadly white” face and “they may come here” over and over (46-7). She falls into a kind of one-dimensional, uncomprehending panic as soon as we meet her, with her husband (the narrator) left to comfort her. “The necessity of reassuring [his] wife” (48) falls to him, and we get no thought, genuine reaction, or interesting dialogue from his wife, and don’t know her at all beyond her “sweet anxious face” (48) before she is passed off to the narrator’s cousins and falls out of the book (and our minds) until the end of the novel. Although we don’t get much of her character, Wells seems to be saying that we don’t need much beyond what she contributes to her husband. She is a damsel in distress in its purest incarnation: saved and sequestered.

The other two relevant women in the text are the “two ladies who became [the narrator’s brother’s] fellow travellers” (147), who he comes upon “just in time to save them” (147). “One of the ladies, a short woman dressed in white, was simply screaming; the other, a dark, slender figure, slashed at the man who gripped her arm with a whip she held in her disengaged hand” (147). It becomes clear to the reader that the woman in white is a similar to the narrator’s wife, and archetypal damsel, but the rescue that happens isn’t so much a result of the narrator’s brother as it is from the slender woman, which changes the way we might view her. She’s a powerful woman, and commands far more of herself and the situation than her sister-in-law, but she is still secondary, and is pushed back into the role of a “silly woman” (211) when “Miss Elphinstone was white and pale, and her sister-in-law sat weeping” (162).

All three of these women are, at the very least, secondary. Despite Miss Elphinstone’s sister-in-law’s moxie, she must depend on the narrator’s brother. So, why doesn’t Wells allow them a voice? Part of the answer is because he doesn’t think to do it, but I also think that with the end of the world and the destruction of British values and consequently the patriarchy, the question of what to do with women becomes too big to answer. In theory, all the social systems that govern and confine women in nineteenth century London are destroyed, but we have only one women in the text who is even close to taking advantage of this, and she still relies on a man. Of course, the world is ending and everything’s on fire, but if the effort is being made here to maintain patriarchal values and stereotypes surrounding women, then there can certainly be an effort to subvert them.

This is almost too large a topic for a blog post, but it is interesting to consider.