Feminism in Sci-Fi Interview: Steel by Carrie Vaughn


vaughn-steelScience fiction and fantasy have long been vehicles for social activism.

Nowhere is it better seen than in feminism. Feminism in science fiction has had a storied past all by itself, an incredible way to highlight many of the problems faced by the world. During my last quarter of college, I read a number of books featuring feminism in science fiction, some dating all the way back to 1818’s Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin was a far more contemporary look at the social movement, as is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. No other genre has the ability to represent feminist thought and yet be readable to everyone, engaging to everyone—hopefully changing everyone.

A few days ago, New York Times bestselling author Carrie Vaughn was nominated for the 2012 Amelia Bloomer List, which names “the best books with significant feminist content that will appeal to young readers.” The book that got nominated? Steel!

Here is a bit more about the nominated Steel:

It was a slender length of rusted steel, tapered to a point at one end and jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.

This was the tip of a rapier.

Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought in dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade. When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure.

The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship. Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew. But a pirate’s life is bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home—one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.

Time travel, swordplay, and romance combine in an original high-seas adventure from New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.

To celebrate her nomination, to shed light on feminist thought in present day science fiction, and just to have a great discussion, here is a new interview with Carrie Vaughn:


Shawn Speakman: Hi Carrie! You are best known for your bestselling series work with your heroine, Kitty Norville. In 2011 though, you wrote a book titled STEEL that is very different. Tell Unbound Worlds readers about STEEL and how it came about?

Carrie Vaughn: I had a two-book contract with HarperTeen, because I had some stories I wanted to tell that didn’t involve the supernatural world of the Kitty novels, and that would work best as young adult novels. The first was Voices of Dragons, which came out in 2010. For the second I decided to write a pirate story, because I think I was watching one of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and I decided I could write a much better pirate story than that. Because I like fencing, I centered the story on rapiers and sword fighting, and I made the story about Jill because it’s become a mission of mine to write adventure stories starring teen girls that don’t focus on getting a boyfriend.

SS: STEEL has just been recognized by the 2012 Amelia Bloomer List, which names “the best books with significant feminist content that will appeal to young readers.” As a writer, what role should science fiction and fantasy play in feminism and social activism?

CV: Far be it from me to declare the role science fiction and fantasy should play in anything…my first impulse is to declare, broadly, that science fiction and fantasy should play whatever role people want it to. In Steel, the fantastic elements aren’t particularly feminist – there’s time travel and a cursed sword. The female characters in it are all firmly based on people who really existed. I fence at a club in Boulder that trains world-class teen fencers, and Jill is based on the girls who train there. My pirate captain, Marjory Cooper, is very much based on real women pirates who sailed the Caribbean in the 18th century. That was part of my point in writing the book, that we don’t have to go to fantasy or futuristic worlds to find strong women. They’re all around us, and all through history.

I will say what many other people have said before, that science fiction and fantasy can provide fertile ground for thought experiments, for taking us out of our own world and showing us issues in new lights. SF&F has done marvelous things in terms of holding up issues of sex and gender and questioning the status quo.

SS: The likes of Terry Pratchett and Tamora Pierce have also been recognized by the 2012 Amelia Bloomer List, along with a number of other authors. Great company. How does it feel to be nominated alongside them?

CV: Wonderful. Really wonderful. These are authors *I* look up to. You throw books and stories out into the world and hope they make an impact, even if it’s just for one person. To set out to write a book highlighting strong women characters, then have a respected organization point to it and say, “Yes, this is feminist,” is so validating. It’s an honor.

SS: What books with strong female characters would you recommend young adult women read? Adult women?

CV: Two of my favorite books of all time are Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. (It really is all about the swords with me.) I’d also recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor and Barrayar, for showing strong women in so many different roles – war hero, starship captain, survivor, mother. Anything by Tamora Pierce, of course.

SS: Do you think Kitty is a good role model for young people too? If so, where should they start?

CV: I know Kitty has a lot of teen readers because I get email from them and meet them at signings. I like to think Kitty’s a good role model, but some people might argue with me. She isn’t much of an in-your-face fighter, which is what some people think of when they think of “strong women.” But I definitely think Kitty has a lot of great qualities – she stands up for herself and what she believes in, she’s a leader and a diplomat. She has a sane and stable romantic relationship. They probably ought to start at the beginning, with Kitty and The Midnight Hour.

To learn more about Carrie, visit her website at www.carrievaughn.com!

Steel by Carrie Vaugh is in fine bookstores now!