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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 sex through war or natural disasters and disease. The societies may be portrayed as utopian 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 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 only recently resumed space exploration. The women reproduce via cloning and consider men to be comical.
A Door into Ocean is a 1986 feminist science fiction novel by Joan Slonczewski. The novel shows themes of ecofeminism and nonviolent revolution, combined with Slonczewski's own knowledge in the field of biology. The water moon Shora is inhabited by women living on rafts who have a culture and language based on sharing and a mastery of molecular biology that allows them to reproduce by parthenogenesis.
In Elizabeth Bear's Carnival (2006), a matriarchal, primarily lesbian society called New Amazonia has risen up on a lush planet amidst abandoned alien technology that includes a seemingly inexhaustible power supply. The Amazonian women are aggressive and warlike, but also pragmatic and defensive of their freedom from the male-dominated Earth-centric Coalition that seeks to conquer them. Distrustful of male aggression, they subjugate their men, a minority they tolerate solely for reproduction and labor.
Men-only societies are much less common. 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.
Cordwainer Smith's 1964 short story "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal" portrays a society in which all of the women have died out. A. Bertram Chandler's A Spartan Planet (1969) features the men-only planet Sparta, which is dedicated to the values of militarism loosely modeled upon the ancient Greek city state of Sparta.
Ethan of Athos (1986) 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 civilization 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. The titular "unlikely hero" is gay obstetrician Dr. Ethan Urquhart, whose dangerous adventure alongside the first woman he has ever met presents both a future society where homosexuality is the norm and the lingering sexism and homophobia of our own world.
The gay fantasy book series Regelance by J. L. Langley depicts a world where men are able to reproduce via replicative technology. While there are still women amongst the lower classes, who reproduce in the traditional manner, there are none among the upper classes which the series focuses on.
Sexless or hermaphroditic worlds
Some other fictional worlds feature societies in which everyone has more than one sex, or none, or can change sex. 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 at different times have either female or male sexual organs and reproductive abilities, making them in some senses intersex. 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 the sexes is another relatively common trope of speculative fiction—physical separation can result in societies that are essentially single-sex, although the majority of such works focus on the reunification of the sexes, 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.
- Gender in speculative fiction
- Lesbian utopia
- LGBT themes in speculative fiction
- Sex and sexuality in speculative fiction
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