I started reading science fiction young, before realizing it wasn’t suitable material for a girl with aspirations of fitting in with her fourth-grade contemporaries. It was the genre my dad and older brother favoured, and the surfaces of my childhood home were littered with paperbacks with lurid covers: a dinosaur riding an ichthyosaur across the desert (Jack Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls); or a humanoid cat glowering over a worried-looking, two-headed tripod (Larry Niven’s Ringworld). Who could resist opening these books to see what tales lay inside? Not I.
I soon discovered that the sex scenes in these books were way more interesting than the chaste kissing and petting the kids at Sweet Valley High were up to (albeit in a Dürer’s Rhinoceros sort of way; in retrospect, many of these old-school SF authors did not appear to possess firsthand knowledge of female anatomy or— you know—the actual mechanics of sex). Soon I was hooked, and not just for the salacious content. When the reality of being an introverted, slightly awkward kid attending Catholic school in rural Ontario became unbearable, I’d escape to Arrakis and lose myself in the messianic journey of Maud’Dib, or follow the adventures of a resurrected Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) as he searched for the source of the great river on Riverworld.
By my teens, I contained within me an archive of worlds, characters, concepts, and stories that enriched my life immeasurably. The trade-off—a sense of not quite existing on the same planet as many of my peers—was worth it, even if it didn’t always feel that way. Not only did science fiction provide escape, it was an antidote for religious indoctrination, challenging the conservative, Catholic vision of the world I had been raised to accept as my own. My allegiance was to a universe far bigger and weirder than anything Christian dogma could encompass.
At some point in my early twenties, however, I stopped reading science fiction. I lost patience with the flat characters, clunky prose, and outright misogyny that typifies so much of the genre. My reading began to veer toward realism and non-fiction. In retrospect, I think I was trying to accept the world as it was, to put away childish things. I went to law school, got married, had kids, and embarked on a career as a corporate lawyer. I felt I no longer had the luxury of questioning the world as it was; my job as an adult was to succeed according to its metrics.
Yet gradually, as my kids grew older and began asking the thorny questions that kids ask, I started to wonder if my acceptance of things had gone, perhaps, too far. It took a few years, but I managed to find my way out of the corporate cul de sac. And slowly, I found science fiction again. I rekindled a childhood love for Ursula K. Le Guin and was dazzled by her ability to imagine less destructive ways of organizing society. I read Octavia Butler for the first time and was astonished by her depiction of society collapsing into a racialized dystopia— and then being rebuilt, one community at a time. These authors and others—Marge Piercy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Corey Doctorow, Karel Čapek, etc.—eroded the shell of cynicism I’d formed over my conscience by insisting that there was nothing inevitable about environmental degradation, white supremacy, capitalism or misogyny.
Thus, when I decided to try my hand at writing, it was science fiction that called to me. I’m now in final revisions of my first novel, Everclear, a coming-of-age story set in the near future in northern Quebec. The act of imagining this future feels laden with responsibility, and I’m attempting to construct this story with great care. I believe firmly that our words bring potential worlds into being.
In her brilliant and fearless acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin put out a call to “realists of a larger reality” who “see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society […] to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” The call is increasingly being answered by Indigenous, Black, and LGBTQIA writers of science fiction such as jaye simpson, Cherie Dimaline, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemison— writers who, because of their lived experiences, assemble the pieces of our shared reality in unexpected ways. To me, this is the opposite of escapism; it’s an invitation to see the world with new eyes and answer the moral imperative this vision affords us. This is why I read science fiction, and why I write it: not to escape this world, but to re-imagine it.
And, of course, for the cringy sex scenes.
Suggested Reading List
Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead, 2020
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguious Utopia, by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, 1976
The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, 1993
Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
Jennifer DeLeskie is a former lawyer and new writer, currently revising a draft of her first novel. Her non-fiction piece, “April 2, 2020,” will appear in Chronicling the Days (Guernica Editions), forthcoming in Spring 2021. Jennifer volunteers on the board of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.