Feminist science fiction – in all its gritty glory

Sammy HK Smith writes how Battlestar Galactica re-ignited her love of science fiction and how strong female sci-fi characters helped when writing her book, ANNA…

Science fiction, speculative fiction, in fact all the sub-genres herein, is a fantastic place to really express emotions, social commentary, thoughts, idealisms, violence, human rights (and lack of) and so on… But writing with these in mind there’s a sense of trepidation and hesitancy. Whether this is a thread of the community in which we write or a personal responsibility, or even both, I’m not sure, but the topics need to be handled with care and sincerity, and they can often be polarising.

Writing a novel that focuses so heavily on sexual violence, and more specifically violence against women, the emotions run thick and fast. ANNA was a really hard piece to write and I found myself stopping often and delving into the gogglebox help me break away from the world I created.  I’d find myself re-watching old episodes of the early 00s remake of Battlestar Galactica – if there’s ever a sci-fi show that focuses heavily on societal issues, religion, politics and freedom vs control then its BSG. So say we all! Even now I get all fan-girly!

I’d love to watch the strong female characters of Kara Thrace (Starbuck) swaggering around with bravado and quips, President Laura Roslin steadfast in her role to unite the civilians and the fleet, Athena torn between her true Cylon nature and love for a human, and Number 6 whose manipulations of a man destroyed the 12 colonies. Watching them hold their own and grow into my favourite characters was a joy. These were women who on the surface appeared perfect, but underneath they struggled with the demons of abandonment, guilt, imposter syndrome, the yearning for family in the military and so much more. The emotional depth of the characters was something I adored.

BSG helped me re-ignite a love of science fiction, and I quickly moved on to look for something else to fill the hole. I watched a LOT of shows: Killjoys, Dollhouse, The 100, Dead Like Me, Continuum, Jessica Jones, Orphan Black and it became obvious to me that my tastes geared towards strong female characters with agency! Feminist sci-fi, if you will. Every time a strong female character graced my screen, I filled with joy. I loved how strength wasn’t just about how hard they could punch, or how fast they could run. These were women that could raise families, stand up for themselves, run businesses, deal with health issues, realise when things got tough and ask for help. They were so much more than a trope.

It was writing ANNA and watching these strong women that led me to want to do more in the publishing world, and so I started Grimbold Books with a friend and in 2017 we won the British Fantasy Award for best small press. Why am I mentioning this? Well, we wanted to showcase as much diverse talent as we could and one of our first publications was an anthology of short stories called Fight Like A Girl edited by Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke. Female authors, fantasy and science fiction stories showing their characters strength in a multitude of ways. I admired each and every one of those writers. If I could capture 1/10th of their passion in my writing, I was on to a winner!

I tried to continue to read copious amounts whilst writing ANNA, but found my brain was mush. I work within a department focused on protecting vulnerable people from harm, and that often left me completely frazzled and so TV and films became that wonderful ‘let go’ from reality.

BUT, I did find a few wonderful books over those few months – The Power by Naomi Alderman was a real shake-up to the stereotypical dystopia genre by giving women the strength (physical and otherwise) to shift the gender bias in their favour, and Vox by Christina Dalcher showed us a glimpse of a world where women were limited to how many words a day they could speak. I think it was when I bought The Power that I received an online recommendation for Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. A book on sexual trauma and building a new identity set in a science fiction world but with fantasy-based metaphors.

It was reading these books and watching these shows that I realised I wanted to write a book that was real, with a story that people could relate to and take a sort-of comfort in, a story of a woman fighting with more than her physical strength. Something raw and powerful that didn’t hold back any punches but that offered hope in the dystopia. Sexual violence is never going to be an easy read, but to me, it’s vital that these stories are told and they reach an audience. Am I nervous of the reaction? Of course. I’m terrified. I don’t pretend or intend to capture every possible reaction of someone caught in a hideous situation, but I offer a view of how one woman might deal with abuse, and the struggles she faces when she comes face to face with her abuser.

I hope that ANNA is as strong as my favourite females from fiction.

ANNA by Sammy HK Smith is out on 27 May from Rebellion.