That the book title The Time Traveler’s Wife even exists speaks to a problem in a meta-sense. It’s telling that, right in the damn title of one of the most celebrated books of last decade, one of the most classic and defining science fiction subgenres intersects with the problematic way fiction is marketed to women — that is, in terms of their relationships with men. (Both common title constructions The ___’s Wife and The ___’s Daughter, in which ___ is a dude virtually 100% of the time, can be burned with fire now. Editors and marketers, please do better.) And in spite of its huge success, it’s a novel frequently excised from genre conversations because of its romantic subplot. Girl cooties in our time machine, oh noes! This book — or rather, the dialogue and signals around and about this book, more than the text itself — is symbolic of erasure on so many levels that it hurts my brain even worse than it chaps my ass.
Where are the women time-travelers?
I’d wanted to write a post highlighting all the books in this subgenre I could find that featured female protagonists. And what I’ve found is that… there aren’t many. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I haven’t read yet; Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which is — no other way to say it — rapey. This isn’t to pick on any of these books specifically, as I adore The Time Traveler’s Wife and am purposefully making my way through Butler’s oeuvre as slowly as I can bear, as she’s my science fictional shero. But I think there’s something missing in the field as a whole when the most preeminent examples of female protagonists in these stories are raped or enslaved — or not even the true protagonist in the first place, but the spouse of one.
Science fiction is about possibility, about our dreams for the future. Many girls dreamed of space exploration — well, I’m agoraphobic, so that’s right out. Perhaps because I’m also a history geek, time travel has always been my most fervent genre-related dream. It’s funny that the only novel I’ve read that really speaks to it is a fantasy novel — Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, in which the protagonist Paama, gifted with the entropic power of the gods, is taken on a tour of the past to learn what she would do wielding the force of chaos. Along the way she makes choices about whether and how to intervene in wars and plagues, to determine the fate of whole city-states as well as one lost boy.
It’s the usual case that when asking “Where is this thing I want?” you can find it, at least some of it, in short fiction. The first issue of Uncanny Magazine includes a story, “Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer, in which a woman time-travels to see her deceased grandfather. I’ve often thought of my relationship to my dad and how inextricably it’s tied to my love for sci-fi, how my earliest weekend babysitters were stormtroopers, and how one of the small, personal moments I’d want to see is him watching the moon landing, which he did when a good decade younger than I am now. Genevieve Valentine’s “Insects of Love” is one of those magical realism-esque time travel stories with alternate timelines and possibilities, in which a woman tries to save her sister; I read it quite a while back and found it gripping, but never wrote about it because the story is smarter than me. In “First Flight” by Mary Robinette Kowal an elderly woman forms a friendship with a man in the past that will transcend the century between them.
And perhaps my favorite science fiction short story of 2014, “Makeisha in Time” by Rachael K. Jones, confronts the erasure of black women from history. Makeisha blinks out of the present only to live a whole lifetime at some random point in the past — whether that’s a few minutes before she drowns in the ocean or an entire adult lifespan in which she builds empires:
Makeisha has always been able to bend the fourth dimension, though no one believes her. She has been a soldier, a sheriff, a pilot, a prophet, a poet, a ninja, a nun, a conductor (of trains and symphonies), a cordwainer, a comedian, a carpetbagger, a troubadour, a queen, and a receptionist. She has shot arrows, guns, and cannons. She speaks an extinct Ethiopian dialect with a perfect accent. She knows a recipe for mead that is measured in aurochs horns, and with a katana, she is deadly.
She faces a present in which in all of her past contributions, as well as all of the contributions of women she’d known from her many lifetimes, are attributed to some nonexistent dude. As her present life falls apart around her, she finds that the answer was inside her all along.
The intimate and personal, the grand and sweeping — women are so frequently erased from time: the past, the future, and this small subgenre that bends the points between. But they don’t have to be.
This is a start.