Deadlier than the male: The imperial designs of Le Guin, McCaffrey, and May

Ursula K. Le Guin (left, illustration by Essy May), Anne McCaffrey (middle, illustration by Linda Eicher), Julian May (right).

This post is the third in a roundtable co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann on science fiction and imperial history. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Tris Kerslake
Central Queensland University

For as long as the concept has existed, the struggle for empire has been seen as the most masculine of endeavours; strategic conflict, war and bloodshed on an industrial scale was not, apparently, for the ladies.

Of course, this attitude originated in the patriarchal headspace that considered women to be most useful as producers and nurturers of the next generation of soldiers, rather than as soldiers in their own right.

This mindset has never really been shaken off and wanders on even today in the realm of science fiction (SF), despite the best efforts of Black Widow in the latest DC marvel escapade (Infinity War, 2018). Publishers routinely advise women SF/Fantasy authors such as K. A. Stewart (Second Olympus, 2015), Rob Thurman (Everwar, 2016), and K. J. Taylor (The Last Guard, 2016) to avoid adopting a feminine authorial name as male readers tend not to read female writers of SF.

This is a shame for several reasons, not least of which being that any male readers who think this way are missing out on some of the best pulse-thumping action involving the violent ending of worlds, the annihilation of aggressive alien species and the unleashing of unspeakable doomsday weapons.

Imperialism flourishes in all its forms in SF and the spread of empire has formed the crux of stories written by the most respected names in the SF genre, not all of them men. To illustrate this point, I shall examine, in brief, a unique imperial concept from each of three past and much-lauded SF authors, all of whom shared the XX chromosome: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011), and Julian May (1931-2017).

These women have published a total of 181 SF novels between them, as well as several hundred historical, romance and children’s books. They have edited collections of SF works and produced uncounted short fictions, magazine articles and reviews in the SF genre. All have received plentiful Locus, Nebula, and Hugo awards and are inductees in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Specialising in speculative fiction, these women wrote millions of words on the founding, forming and, of course, the falling of empire.

Le Guin has produced far too many thought experiments on empire to detail here, so I will focus on a single and quite chilling idea from The Dispossessed (1974). Dispossessed tells the story of twin worlds of Tau Ceti, Annares and Urras.

Urras has all the good stuff: nice climate, plenty of water, minerals and a wealthy capitalistic-patriarchal approach to the getting of things. Anarres has dust and politics. Subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia,” this novel chiefly explores how an experiment in theoretical temporal physics results in the invention of an Ansible (a contraction of “answerable”), a device enabling instantaneous communication from any point in the galaxy to any other point.

Despite both its technological “hard” SF and the advent of a colonising war, this particular novel is more about the idea of empire than about space battles and burning planets.

The most memorable and chilling notion in the entire narrative comes from the appearance of a simple wall.

It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important … Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it. It depended upon which side of it you were. (Le Guin, 1974, p.1.)

This intellectually disturbing image suggests that once people believe they are part of an empire, they will do very little to question that belief, enabling their overlords to act as they please. And such is the case in Dispossessed, as the inhabitants of Anarres appear apathetic in their own defence, until, one day, these “dispossessed” people are able to speak for themselves with the aid of the Ansible. Gayatri Spivak once famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” (1983), a question most presciently answered by Le Guin’s Anarresti some nine years prior.

A core notion of imperial hubris is visible in Anne McCaffrey’s novels of Pern, a world of dragons. You might be saying to yourself, McCaffrey’s Pern narratives aren’t SF, they are mere fantasy, and probably have unicorns and magic in there somewhere, right? Aha, not so fast, my SF-reading friend.

If you take a little time to explore McCaffrey’s Pernese chronicles, you’ll see her fluffy little cycle (of 23 novels) begins with the bleakest post-apocalyptic premise of a desperate, dying Earth, choking on a millennia of pollution, war and Malthusian excess. In a last-ditch attempt at survival, colonising teams are sent into the lonely cosmos, surveying every earth-like planet they can. Enter the Rukbat system, where the third planet has been hurriedly assessed as “Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible.” However, McCaffrey’s essential premise is far more subtle than an acronym; as one of the overarching tropes in SF, the human diaspora and colonisation of Pern is so normalised, so expected, none of her stories even attempt a rationalisation, confident in the fact that if humans want a new planet, they shall have a new planet, ethics be damned.

Possibly to ameliorate such a homocentric view, McCaffrey does not permit her human interlopers an easy colonial existence. Not content to kill off the home planet, McCaffrey then decides to establish Pern as a false utopia, with the introduction of the Red Star.

The night sky, as seen from Pern, created here.

McCaffrey’s fell creation (a Sedna-class object, lurking within Rukbat’s Oort cloud), travels in an elliptical orbit around Pern every 250 years, bringing with it death, disaster and ruin as it ravens all unprotected life with a vile, thread-like organism. As an example of “science” in SF, the rogue planet is not entirely far-fetched, unlike a number of the technologies formulated by such authors as Robert Heinlein and Iain M Banks, whose epic Libertarian technotopias span the aeons.

For every step forward the Pern colonists take, McCaffrey knocks them back three, devolving a highly technological civilisation with interstellar capacity, into feudal survivalism. Only then does she bring in the dragons; the result of an age-long scientific experiment initiated by the original colonists in their search for a weapon against the Red Star’s menace. McCaffrey forms and informs this futuristic imperial project with the rediscovery and uptake of reasonably good science (though Newtonian physics might squint at the dragons). Writing the struggles of her Pernese colonists as a faint echo of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628–1691), we see that Pern, despite the interminable setbacks, is the leading edge of a potential new federated domain.

However, unlike the Puritans, McCaffrey’s colonists followed the God of Science. Instead of Governor John Winthrop, we read of Admiral Paul Benden and, paralleling the first vicious winter that decimated the people of New Plymouth, we see the first forays of the Red Star as it catches the settlers unaware and utterly unprotected.

Julian May, also writing under the male pseudonyms of Bob Cunningham, Lee N. Falconer, John Feilen, Wolfgang Amadeus Futslogg, Matthew G. Grant, Ian Thorne and George Zanderbergen, is a terrific ender of empires. In addition to her Galactic Milieu, Rampart and Boreal Moon projects, May, in conjunction with Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley, wrote the Trillium series (1990-1997). Of high fantasy rather than hard technical SF, May begins the series acknowledging the “Vanished Ones”; an ancient people destroyed by internecine civil war and the use of dreadful technologies. Through a variety of clues, both anecdotal and visual, the reader is led to understand that the dead civilisation, possessed of interstellar travel and the ability to create vast, habitable space stations, was human. Thus, even before the story proper begins, we see that the present-day inhabitants of the post-holocaust planet are descendants of the original Earth-colony.

Collaborating with her authorial partners, May goes on to almost destroy—through the use of rediscovered “devices,” natural disasters and technology-assisted magic—the world of the Trillium for a second time. As the continental plates begin to break apart and bright lava glows eerily in the night skies as long-dormant volcanoes erupt for the very last time, May brings out one last formidable device to “re-set” the planetary balance.

Although panned by critics for its dull characters and monotonous landscapes, the world of the living trillium is quite an exercise in the deconstruction of multiple ages of imperial conquest, settlement and rule. There is a feeling, reading the final novel in the series (Sky Trillium, 1997), that the whole exercise of empire was included only so that it might be destroyed, as if the destruction, fall and mythologising of one empire is needed to provide a base for the next one. As with Le Guin’s Urras, sometimes empire is more important in its destruction than its construction.

There are too many brilliant female SF writers to produce a comprehensive list here, each one of whom has broadened the SF landscape with discussions of imperial tropes and subalternised peoples. Many SF texts written by women seem to view the existence of empire as something almost preordained, as if imperialism is a male construct around which female writers have been made to build their futuristic worlds. Women SF writers also seem to have colonised the productive space between the hard edge of physical science and the yielding backdrop of the fantastic. It begs the question: what would happen to SF and empire if we could start writing the genre from scratch, without the preconceptions and discrimination and see what might be achieved?

It is fitting to finish this discussion with one of the first female SF authors, Mary Shelley, who produced a pivotal work in the concept of subjugation and the imperial mindset when she wrote her Frankenstein (1818), a story of a modern Prometheus who dared to appropriate the power of the gods. Ironically, Shelley published this, her greatest novel, anonymously. Publishers and readers automatically assumed that her husband, Percy Shelley, was the author.


Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo. Marvel Studios, Burbank, California.

Kerslake, P. (2010). Science Fiction and Empire, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.

Le Guin, U. K. (1974). The Dispossessed, Avon Books, New York.

McCaffrey, A. (1968). Dragonflight, Ballantine Books, New York.

May, J. (1997). Sky Trillium, Del Rey Books, New York.