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A relatively common motif in speculative fiction is the existence of single gender worlds or single-sex societies. These fictional societies have long been one of the primary ways to explore implications of gender and gender-differences in science fiction and fantasy. In the fictional setting, these societies often arise due to elimination of one gender through war or natural disasters and disease. The societies may be portrayed as utopian – particularly in feminist texts – or dystopian, as seen in pulp tales of oppressive matriarchies.
There is a long tradition of female-only places in literature and mythology, starting with the Amazons and continuing into some examples of feminist utopias. In speculative fiction, female-only worlds have been imagined to come about, among other approaches, by the action of disease that wipes out men, along with the development of technological or mystical method that allow female parthenogenic reproduction. The resulting society is often shown to be utopian by feminist writers. Several influential feminist utopias of this sort were written in the 1970s; the most often studied examples include Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Utopias imagined by male authors have generally included equality between sexes, rather than separation. Female-only societies may be seen as an extreme type of a biased sex-ratio, another common SF theme.
Such worlds have been portrayed most often by lesbian or feminist authors; their use of female-only worlds allows the exploration of female independence and freedom from patriarchy. The societies may not necessarily be lesbian, or sexual at all—a famous early sexless example being Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Some lesbian separatist authors have used female-only societies to additionally posit that all women would be lesbians if having no possibility of sexual interaction with men, as in Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith. The enormously influential The Female Man (1975) and "When It Changed" (1972) by Joanna Russ portrayed a peaceful agrarian society of lesbians who resent the later intrusion of men, and a world in which women plan a genocidal war against men, implying that the utopian lesbian society is the result of this war.
During the pulp era, matriarchal dystopias were relatively common, in which female-only or female-controlled societies were shown unfavourably. In John Wyndham's Consider Her Ways (1956), male rule is shown as being repressive of women, but freedom from patriarchy is only possible in an authoritarian caste-based female-only society. Poul Anderson's "Virgin Planet" depicted a world where five hundred castaway women found a way of reproducing asexually—but the daughter is genetically identical to the mother—with the result that eventually the planet has a large population composed entirely of "copies" of the original women. In this female-only world, human males are considered mythical creatures—and a man who lands on the planet after centuries of isolation finds it difficult to prove that he really is one. An example of a contemporary dystopian female world is Y: The Last Man, which features one male human and monkey who survive a cataclysmic event killing all other males.
James Tiptree Jr., a woman writing secretly under a male pseudonym, explored the sexual impulse and gender as two of her main themes; in her award-winning "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), she presents a female-only society after the extinction of men from disease. The society lacks stereotypically "male" problems such as war and crime, but is stagnant. The women reproduce via cloning and consider men to be comical.
Men-only societies are much less common than women-only societies. Joanna Russ suggests this is because men do not feel oppressed, and therefore imagining a world free of women does not imply an increase in freedom and is not as attractive.
Some examples include:
Ethan of Athos by Lois Bujold, inspired by the real world male-only religious society of Mount Athos, shows a world in which men have isolated their planet from the rest of civilisation to avoid the "corrupting" effect of women. Children are grown in uterine replicators, using ova derived from tissue cultures; the novel's plot is driven by the declining fertility of these cultures.
Cordwainer Smith's short story "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal" portrays a society in which all of the women have died out.
Genderless or hermaphroditic worlds
Some other fictional worlds feature societies in which everyone has more than one gender, or none, or can change gender. For example:
Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) depicts a world in which individuals are neither "male" nor "female" but can have both male and female sexual organs and reproductive abilities, making them in some senses intersexual. Similar patterns exist in Greg Egan's novel Schild's Ladder and his novella Oceanic or in Storm Constantine's book series Wraeththu about an oogamous magical race that arose from mutant human beings.
John Varley, who also came to prominence in the 1970s, also often writes on gender-related themes. In his "Eight Worlds" suite of stories (many collected in The John Varley Reader) and novels, for example, humanity has achieved the ability to change sex at a whim. Homophobia is shown to initially inhibit uptake of this technology, as it engenders drastic changes in relationships, with homosexual sex becoming an acceptable option for all.
Segregation of genders is another relatively common trope of speculative fiction—physical separation can result in societies that are essentially single-gender, although the majority of such works focus on the reunification of the genders, or otherwise on links that remain between them, as with Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, David Brin's Glory Season and Carol Emshwiller's "Boys". Even an episode of Duckman tried this.
Sometimes the segregation is social, and men and women interact to a limited extent. For example, when overpopulation drives the world away from heterosexuality in Charles Beaumont's short story The Crooked Man (1955), first published in Playboy, homosexuals oppress the heterosexual minority and relationships between men and women are made unlawful.
List of works
- Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
- The Female Man
- When It Changed
- Consider Her Ways
- Ammonite (novel)
- The Cleft
Genderless or hermaphroditic worlds
- Gender in speculative fiction
- Homosexuality in speculative fiction
- Sex and sexuality in speculative fiction
- Lesbian utopia
- Attebery 2002, p. 13.
- Bartter 2004, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p. 101.
- Brulotte & Phillips 2006, "Science Fiction and Fantasy", p. 1189.
- Bartter 2004, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p. 102.Incorrect summary from Reid's article; citation needed
- Majerus 2003, p. 4.
- Landon 1997, "Writing Like A Woman: Joanna Russ", p. 129.
- Larbalestier 2002, "Mama Come Home; Parodies of the Sex-War", p. 72.
- Clute & Nicholls 1995, "Sex", p. 1088.
- Romaine 1999, p. 329.
- Stanton, Michael N. (12 October 2007). "Le Guin, Ursula K. (b. 1929)". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,Transgender, and Queer Culture. Chicago, IL: Glbtq.com. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
- Garber & Paleo 1983, "Ursula K Le Guin: Biographical note" p. 78.
- Attebery, Brian (2002). Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-93950-8.
- Bartter, Martha A. (2004). The utopian fantastic: selected essays from the twentieth ICFA. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-31635-7.
- Brulotte, Gaétan; John Phillips (2006). Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature. CRC Press. ISBN 1-57958-441-1.
- Clute, John; Peter Nicholls (1995). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2 ed.). New York: St Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Garber, Eric Garber; Lyn Paleo (1983). Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. G K Hall. ISBN 978-0-8161-1832-8.
- Landon, Brooks (1997). Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. Twayne. ISBN 0-415-93888-0.
- Larbalestier, Justine (2002). The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6527-X.
- Majerus, M. E. N. (2003). Sex wars: genes, bacteria, and biased sex ratios. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-00981-0.
- Romaine, Suzanne (1999). Communicating gender. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 978-0-8058-2926-6.