Hidden Sci-Fi Women of the OED

Hidden Sci-Fi Women of the OED

As a science fiction reader and space fan myself since the mid-80s, this is a topic of great interest to me. Whilst searching for quotations to add to OED entries, I began unexpectedly coming across the names of a few female authors of science fiction. One of the first I found was Vonda McIntyre with her recognizably titled Star Trek novelizations. There are a number of female science fiction authors cited in the OED; some have coined words and many have interesting backstories. The genre has attracted many female authors and readers over the years, although it is traditionally male-orientated. Many of these authors are elusive, hiding behind (often male) pen names.

Here are just a few of those cited:

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, ?1623-1673

Image sources, left to right: Margaret Cavendish, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Margaret Cavendish, published by Silvester Harding, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Observations cover, public domain, via University of Otago.

Margaret Cavendish was an English philosopher, poet, playwright, and author of fiction, with a big imagination. She was born in Colchester in Essex, and lived in Paris, Antwerp, and Rotterdam during the interregnum period. Her husband William Cavendish, who later became a playwright, was a defeated royalist commander when she married him and was judged ‘delinquent’ by the English republican government.

Margaret was interested in the atomism of Epicurus and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, amongst many others. Margaret was invited to the Royal Society in London to watch scientific demonstrations including those of Oxford University alumnus Robert Hooke and his co-researcher Robert Boyle. After publishing various poetic works and plays, she wrote six books on natural philosophy, one of which Observations upon Experimental Philosophy was published in 1666. She was an advocate of making science easier to understand for less expert readers. Within her Observations was a piece of prose science fiction called The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. In this work Margaret depicted herself as two separate but interacting characters, one of whom was an empress who travels to another a planet and converses with the aliens there.

The ‘Blazing World’ is populated by people of various “sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions and humours” some of whom are apemen who do scientific research. They “foolishly waste their time trying to find the philosopher’s stone.” Her work is not the only one in science fiction in containing a technological race of bipedal apes. We hear about Margaret’s ape people in this OED quotation at apeman:

Her story also contains fishmen, birdmen, and worm-men. Some of these anticipate alien races depicted in much later science fiction, such as the fish people in the long-running Doctor Who series, or the hawkmen of Flash Gordon. The book tackles issues of gender equality and points out that ‘the souls’ of various famous male authors “would scorn to be scribes to a woman”. Bathsua Makin, writing in the year of Margaret’s death wrote: “the present Dutchess of New-Castle, by her own genius, rather than any timely instruction, over-tops many grave Grown-men”.

Leigh Brackett, 1915-1978

Image sources, left to right: Planet Stories (magazine), March 1951 via Vintage Pop Fictions. Leigh Brackett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Lorelei of the Red Mist, 2007, Haffner Press, (originally from “Tops in Science Fiction” magazine cover Fall 1953), via ISFDB.

Leigh Brackett was born in Los Angeles, California. As a young woman she worked as a swimming instructor on Muscle Beach, and at the same time produced many adventure stories for pulp magazines. Brackett wrote a large body of science fiction, including a number of short stories, as well as some historical and general fiction. She was a successful screenwriter, working on at two film scripts based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe crime novels (The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye).

Brackett wrote a first draft of the screenplay for the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back in 1978, based on George Lucas’s initial story outline. However, she died of cancer shortly after delivering her draft to Lucas, which led to her being credited as an author on the finished screenplay as a tribute. Her original draft contains all of the big moments eventually included in the film, including zooming through a deadly asteroid field:

The following quotations from some of her short stories are in the OED at the verb reel and at iron mike:

‘James Tiptree Jr.’ = Dr Alice Bradley Sheldon, 1915-1987

Images sources, left to right: Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, James Tiptree Jr. collection 1972, via Goodreads. Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr., at work, Courtesy Jeff Smith and Jeanne Gomoll, via Daily JSTOR. Crown of Stars, James Tiptree Jr.,1988 via Risingshadow.

Alice Sheldon was born in Chicago in 1915. When she was young she worked as a graphic artist, a painter and an art critic. She became a science fiction and fantasy author later in her life, after starting college at the age of 40 and gaining a PhD in experimental psychology. She also worked as an intelligence analyst for the CIA. She adopted the pen name ‘James Tiptree Jr.’ in 1967. The name ‘Tiptree’ was the brand from a jar of (British) marmalade, and the ‘Jr.’ was her husband’s idea. It was not widely known that this was the pseudonym of a woman until 1977. She wrote novels, novellas, and novelettes as well as short stories.

“I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

This quotation in the OED is the coinage for cryostasis:

Anne McCaffrey, 1926-2011

Image sources, left to right: Dragonrider, Anne McCaffrey, Analog magazine, December 1967 via Goodreads. Anne McCaffrey via NESFA Press. Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey, Mass Market Paperback, 1982 via Goodreads.

Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and gained a degree in Slavonic languages and literature in 1947 from Radcliffe College, (which functioned as the female equivalent of the then Harvard College). This was also where Ursula Le Guin studied for her degree, (Anne McCaffrey would have been a senior when Le Guin joined).  Her extremely successful science fantasy series: Dragonriders of Pern, features humans (originally from the earth) who are telepathically linked to intelligent dragons whom they ride in the fictional alien star system of Pern.

She published numerous science fiction series in addition to the Pern books, as well as 6 fantasy romance novels, 4 children’s books, and two cookbooks. McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo award for fiction writing in 1968 for Weyr Search, her very first Pern story, and also the first woman to win a Nebula award for Dragonrider (her second Pern story) in 1969, (narrowly pipping Ursula Le Guin to the post).

McCaffrey has, at the time of writing, 67 quotations in the OED spanning the whole of her career from 1967-2011. This quotation from her first novel: Restoree, is at unmaidenlike:

Unlike most science fiction of the era, Restoree’s heroine is a strong-willed, intelligent woman who is able to think for herself and act on her own initiative. 

This quotation at air lock, n. is from McCaffrey’s ‘Brain & Brawn Ship’ series:

This quotation from Dragonsdawn in the Pern series, is at retro:

And this quotation is from her ‘Talents Universe’ series. Moon crawler is another name for a moon buggy:

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Image sources, left to right: Rocannon’s World, 1966 via Wikipedia. Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Lightspeed Year One (magazine), 2011 via Goodreads.

The legendary Ursula Le Guin had a literary career spanning nearly 60 years and influenced many other authors, including Salman RushdieNeil Gaiman, and Iain M. Banks. She was born in Berkeley in California in 1929 and studied Renaissance French and Italian at Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951.

Le Guin received numerous accolades during her career, including eight Hugo Awards, six Nebulas, and twenty-two Locus Awards, and in 2003 became the second woman to be honoured as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (the first was ‘Andre’ Alice Norton = ‘Andrew North’, honoured in 1984).

Perhaps more famous for her Earthsea fantasy series, Le Guin submitted her first science fiction story to Astounding Science-Fiction magazine at the age of eleven. In 1966 she published her first book set in the ‘Hainish’ world which is an alternative/future history in which civilizations of humans live on planets orbiting a number of nearby stars. Most of Le Guin’s science fiction oeuvre are set in this world. She won the joint Hugo-Nebula award in 1969/1970 for The Left Hand of Darkness and in 1974/1975 for her science fiction novel The Dispossessed which is currently cited 23 times in the OED.

She coined ansible, the name for an instantaneous communicator which works across any distance in Rocannon’s World. The entry also contains a quotation from her 1969 novel the Left Hand of Darkness.

A version of the device is used in Orson Scott Card’s science fiction series: Ender’s Game. The term was later used as the title of a British Sci Fi Fanzine/Newsletter first published in 1979 (and still published both in print and online). It is now also the name of an open-source software automation platform.

Le Guin’s 1974 novel Dispossessed reportedly uses Robert Oppenheimer (the director of the Manhattan Project’s laboratory—who was a family visitor when she was a child), as a model for Shevek, its physicist protagonist. Here are some of the quotations from Dispossessed in the OED at light-speed, off-world, off-worlder, and viewscreen:

Vonda McIntyre 1948-2019

Image sources, left to right: Dreamsnake, cover by Stephen Alexander, 1978 via Wikipedia. Vonda N McIntyre, photograph: Andrew Porter via The Guardian. Superluminal, 1983, (2021 ed) via Fantasticfiction.

Vonda McIntyre was born in 1948 in Louisville, Kentucky. She spent some of her early life in The Hague in the Netherlands, as well as in the U.S. She graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in biology in 1970 and also studied genetics there as a postgraduate.

By her 30s, she was one of science fiction’s leading female authors. McIntyre wrote the novelizations of the films Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanStar Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. She invented the first name of the Star Trek character Hikaru Sulu, which became accepted after Peter David, author of the comic book adaptation, visited the set of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and convinced director Nicholas Meyer to insert the name into the film’s script. She won several Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards, including the joint Hugo-Nebula award in 1978/1979 for her novel Dreamsnake in which the central character is a healer who uses genetically modified serpents to cure illnesses.

She has, to date, 23 quotations in the OED. Here are some based on the cosmological objects and incidents encountered by the Starship Enterprise:

At nova:

At black hole and mayday:

Instead of instantaneous communication (as coined by Ursula Le Guin at ansible), Vonda McIntyre talks about the famous Star Trek instantaneous transportation device (a concept that dates back to at least 1940) in this quotation at transporter:

Here’s another of her Star Trek quotations, at meltdown:

Storm Constantine, 1956-2021

Image sources, left to right: Hermetech, illustration by Bruce Wells,1991 via Goodreads. Storm Constantine via Alchetron. The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure, 2003 via Goodreads.

Storm Constantine was born in 1956 in Staffordshire in the UK and started writing in childhood. Her first novel The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit was published in 1987. This was the first in her well-known Wraeththu (pronounced ‘RAY-thoo’) series, in which a new kind of androgynous human has evolved and is pitted against ‘old’ humanity in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Its lead characters are hermaphroditic and based on the people of the goth culture of which she was a part. They are sometimes read as gay, bisexual, or having a completely different form of sexual orientation. Her books have been described variously as ground-breaking science fiction, cyberpunk, occult, and dark fantasy. In the 1980s and 90s she worked with various goth bands contributing art or written pieces.

Constantine wrote more than 100 titles during her career, including stand-alone novels, short story collections, and other series including the ‘Artemis’ duet. These science fiction tales are about a colony world where radical feminism has gone disastrously wrong and males have been made completely subservient. Her work was known and respected by both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Her stand-alone novel Hermetech is cited in the OED seven times, so far. Here are some of these quotations:

At freeze-frame:

At me-ness:

At ajangle:

Further Reading

Early Female Authors of Science Fiction/Fantasy — a San Diego State University Library Blog Post by Jesica Brubaker.

Women SF Writers — an entry in the ‘Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’, most recently updated Sept. 2021.

Brave New Words — the OUP Dictionary of Science Fiction, 2009 by Jeff Prucher.

The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jesse Shiedlower.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.