Writing Strong Women – Tim Jones


The Gingham Road

Is there any genre in which the reader can’t confidently expect to find strong, resourceful female characters? Fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers and police procedurals — strong women, drawn with lesser or greater skill depending on the ability of the writer, are all through them. That is an enormous and refreshing change from when I started out as a science fiction reader in 19mumblemumble – well, it was before Twitter was invented, I can tell you that!

But it occurs to me that there is a sub-genre where strong women are rarely seen, and that’s the post-apocalyptic novel, the current archetype of which is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. That novel is about a man and a boy who, in an America devastated by some unspecified apocalypse, go on the road in a quest for survival. And what about the boy’s mother? Well, she killed herself because she couldn’t take the horror any longer.

A lesser-known entry in the same genre is World Made By Hand, by James Howard Kunstler. It’s billed as a novel of America’s post-oil future, and that’s an important topic on which Kunstler has written cogent non-fiction. But, in his post-oil world, the female characters are basically breeders in metaphorical if not literal gingham dresses (for an extended discussion, see world-made-by-hand).

I can think of counter-examples, the most noticeable being Suzy McKee Charnas’s series The Holdfast Chronicles, in which the strength of the women is shown in their surviving an ultra-oppressive post-apocalyptic patriarchy. But the general assumption of post-apocalyptic literature, even when the apocalypse is of the partial sort portrayed in World Made By Hand, is that whatever culture dominates after the big crash will be a patriarchy, in which all the strength resides in the men and women are marginalised.

Am I reading the wrong books? Are there fine post-apocalyptic novels with strong female protagonists? Or does women’s strength and agency crucially depend on a functioning industrial society in which, for example, the ready availability of effective contraception underpins women’s reproductive freedom?

If you’ve got examples of strong women in such novels, please let me know in the comments – because I’d really hate the Cormac McCarthys and James Howard Kunstlers to have the last word.

Tim Jones is a poet and author of both science fiction and literary
fiction. He lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Among his recent books
are poetry collection ‘All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens’ (HeadworX, 2007),
fantasy novel ‘Anarya’s Secret’ (RedBrick, 2007), short story collection
‘Transported’ (Vintage, 2008), and poetry anthology ‘Voyagers: Science
Fiction Poetry from New Zealand’ (Interactive Press, 2009), co-edited
with Mark Pirie. Voyagers appeared in the NZ Listener’s “100 Best
Books of the Year” list in 2009 and won the “Best Collected Work”
category in the 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

Tim’s short story ‘The New Neighbours’, first published in
Transported, was included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New
Zealand Short Stories (2009) and will be included in The Apex Book Of
World SF, Volume II (2011). Tim was awarded the NZSA Janet Frame
Memorial Award for Literature in 2010.

The latest news about Tim and his writing is on his blog at:

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32 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Tim Jones

  1. Michael Birks says:

    Recent newcomer, so excuse me if it’s already been hashed & trashed, but would S M Stirling’s Nantuckket and Emberverse (_Island in the Sea of Time_ and _Dies the Fire_, respectively) books count as post-apocalyptic for this argument?

    There are a handful of core female characters there who don’t seem, to me, to fit into the Wo-man, Femme Fatal or Lady Macbeth roles. The Juniper Mackenzie character from _Dies the fire_, particularly, comes to mind.

    ::shrug:: There are other characters in the books who fit those squarely, so it seems at least a mixed bunch.


  2. Kim Falconer says:

    Great point about females in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. I think immediately of Tanith Lee who writes a potent coming of age girl in The Silver Metal Lover (Jane’s world has been partially destroyed by a comet) and a strong and brilliant woman in ‘Don’t Bite the Sun.’

    Then there is Janis Richter, quantum geneticist, working undercover at ASSIST (Allied States Stanford Institute of Science and Technology). She creates the first sentient quantum computer in a world where tectonic plate shifts, war and a virulent computer virus has devastated the world. The only currency there is drinking water and ASSIST are holding all the tokens. The heroes in that 21st – 24th century PA Earth are women of the Richter line, right down to Kreshkali, who has the most impact of them all. They run an underground and deal with issues of marginalization including gender biases, totalitarian oppression and a collapsing ecosystem. Let’s just say that geo-engineering didn’t work but they have a new plan . . .

    You’ll find these women in my Quantum Enchantment and Quantum Encryption series, where this future Earth is juxtaposed to Gaela, a parallel world with gender equality and a magical hegemony. It’s not the last word on post-apocalyptic notions , but it is a statement!

    Thank you for your post,Tim I look forward to hearing from others about post-apocalyptic women to love and respect!

    • MaryV says:

      I confess I thought of your characters, Kim, when I read Tim’s post. But I’m glad you stepped in to describe them better then I ever could! 🙂

      Another favourite feminine dystopian character of mine is Sonmi-451 from David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas.’

    • MaryV says:

      …And there’s always the women in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ who are certainly oppressed but strong nonetheless.

    • MaryV says:

      I should refrain from pressing ‘submit’ until I’m actually finished. OK, last one. I mentioned her in a previous post: the character of ‘Stone Telling’ from Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Always Coming Home’. UKL gives an ultimately optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic society. (A utopia of the far future rather than a dystopia)

  3. Helen Lowe says:

    I think there are some strong women characters in David Brin’s “The Postman” which is post apocalyptic, Tim, although they’re not central characters. I would also mention Calyxa in Robert Charles Wilson’s “Julian Comstock”, plus Miranda in Edgar Pangborn’s “Davy” and Candy (Candidia Maria Smith-Foster) in David R Palmer’s “Emergence.” And I definitelyw ouldn’t overlook Margaret Atwood’s “Year of the Flood” for strong women in a post-apocalyptic setting.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    Thanks for these suggestions – the number and variety is reassuring! In addition, @ghetsuhm, a commenter on my Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/timjonesbooks if anyone’s looking) said: “Octavia Butler’s Seed books have a strong female protagonist, but do take place in a patriarchy.”

    I thought of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but I was thinking more of strong women in a non-patriarchal post-apocalyptic society, of which there are also examples above.

  5. I begin by saying I haven’t read them, but – John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War is Over is post-apocalyptic, the main POV character is a girl and it’s YA.

    Now I’m gonna go find it and read it to see if it works 🙂

  6. Tim Jones says:

    Another suggestion on Twitter, this time from @thomasbeagle: “Read Andre Norton’s extensive range of post-apocalyptic novels with female protagonists.”

    • Helen Lowe says:

      Or if we’re going YA, Louise Lawrence’s “Children of Dust” (plus many others) or Peter Dickinson’s “Weathermonger” trilogy (The Weathermonger, The Devil’s Children and Heartsease.) Or closer to home, Fleur Beale’s “Juno of Taris” and “Fierce September” and Anna MacKenzie’s “The Sea-Wreck Stranger” and its sequel, “Ebony Hill.”

  7. Andrew Stevenson says:

    Fully agree with the SM stirling Emberverse, Tiphaine d’Ath, Eilir Mackenzie, Astrid Larsson, Mathilda Arminger…
    Lila Black in Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series – might not be truely post apocalyptic, but is after the ‘reality bomb’
    Jenny Casey in Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered, Scar down etc – Sci fi with apocalyptic event (starship hits earth) and follow on

    • Michael Birks says:

      Hmmm. I think I’d have to argue about Astrid Larssen in the Emberverse. A strong woman, perhaps, but the defining characteristic of that character is actually that she’s a flapping wingnut about Lord of the Rings. To the extent that it’s almost comic relief.

      It’s the same damaged/insane thing as River Tam from Firefly/Serenity: “Yes, I’m a powerful female character, but I’m also obviously mad, so it doesn’t count”.

      Eilir Mackenzie is also appears to be a competent/sympathetic handling of a Deaf/Mute character.

      I’d recommend them, if you can accept the fact that Stirling’s a Military SF writer – it shows – and will be forever haunted by the abominable “Draka” books.

  8. Andrew Stevenson says:

    Delayed firing of synapses…
    Dianna Paxson’s Westria Series should be mentioned
    Sheri S Tepper, Gate to the Woman’s Country (probably others by her, but what do you call post apocalyptic? One person’s apocalypse is another’s fantasy)
    SM Stirling The Peshawar Lancers, not main protagonist (male army officer) but honourable mention
    Souls in the great machine and follow novels by Sean McMullen has Zarvora Cyberline…

    More may follow

  9. Tim Jones says:

    More great examples – and I’ll add another one, again from @Ghetsuhm on Twitter: “Also Tanith Lee’s Lionwolf series, though that’s more fantasy, set after Ragnarok”.

    There are, clearly, lots of strong women characters in post-apocalyptic novels, which is great. So I am going to narrow down the question a bit: what near-future, resource-depletion-type apocalyptic SF novels* have strong women characters and/or a non-patriarchal society? Looking through the list above, “Year of the Flood” (Helen’s suggestion), and Kim’s Quantum Enchantment and Quantum Encryption series seem to qualify – are there others in this (admittedly much narrower) category?

    *I’m counting both “World Made By Hand” and “The Road” as being in this category – even though the nature of the apocalypse in “The Road” is left unspecified, there is certainly a shortage of resources in the world that results.

    • Michael Birks says:

      How well does Stephen King’s “The Stand” fit into the revised definition?

      It’s been a good few years since I read it, but the Grandmother character sticks in my mind. OTOH, there are possibly too many fantastical elements, even in the first part of the story, to really be SF.

  10. Helen Lowe says:

    Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl and Ship Breaker both fit the ‘resource depleted’ scenario (as does Fleur Beale’s Juno of Taris) and come with some great strong women in each book. I particularly mention Lucky Girl in Ship Breaker and the White Shirt lieutenant and the Windup Girl herself in the book of the same name (I’ve loaned both books to someone else, so can’t check actual names!) Julian Comstock is also based around a post oil shock, post mass starvation world, as “I think” is Davy (it’s been a long time since I read it.) “Emergence” is post-nucleur type apocalypse (again, it’s been a while.)

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  12. Tim Jones says:

    Thanks, Helen – I haven’t read any of Paolo B’s books, but I should have thought of them – they are definitely on my To-Read “longlist” (that is, the list of books I want to read but don’t actually have nearby in a large, tottering pile).

    Oh, and while we’re on resource depletion:


  13. Bahiyyih says:

    Excuse me for tripping in so late in the day – (you antipodeans are all way ahead of us in the old world in more ways than one!) – but although I could not begin to contribute to this dazzling bibliography, it does occur to me that a very banal non-literary issue underlies Tim’s thought-provoking question: the crisis in “gender identity” which the West, in particular, is undergoing. One of the reasons I think certain post-apocalyptic novels fall “back” on the old patriarchal models is simply because in ANY crisis – (even a fictive one!) – this is what people do. Whenever certainties are eroded, people retreat into the default position of old patterns. The rash of contemporary novels and films about male bonding, about father/son relations, about “brotherhoods” of one kind or another all have their parallels in novels and films about female bonding, about mother/daughter relations, about “sisterhoods” etc. I may be wrong but it seems to me that the widening gulf between the sexes in contemporary Western society – (fueled in part by gay rights and in parallel, ironically enough, with the sex-segregation of more traditional societies) – simply reflects the crisis which traditional gender roles are undergoing today. We have had to separate and divide before we can re-unite and re-assemble our parts in new combinations.

    • Kim Falconer says:

      Interesting points, Bahiyyih. I think gender roles are in crisis, and the operant word is ‘roles’. When we see gender as performance and not Self, the ‘charge’ is taken off. I like the idea of reuniting and re-assembling into new combinations!

      Also Tim, I wanted to mention Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl! (She’s attracted a lot of critical feminist review – pro and con – but there is no post-A discussion of women complete without her!)

  14. Tim asks whether women’s strength and agency crucially depends on a functioning industrial society in which, for example, the ready availability of effective contraception underpins women’s reproductive freedom.

    Sadly, I must say the answer is probably “Yes”. In a society whose continuation depends on the kind of physical strength that’s needed to hew timber, haul rocks, kill wild animals for food, guide a heavy plough through heavy soil from sunrise to sunset and go off to war to defeat an enemy in hand-to-hand combat, the strongest will always be the leaders, the doers. And in physical things, the average man is about 50% stronger than the average woman.

    Women have a different kind of strength and a great deal of resilience. Even in a patriarchal society, we need not be without power. It’s just that it is not the kind of power that defeats the elements and wins wars. We are much better at working with things rather than against them, and using negotiation rather than combat to effect a desired outcome.

    • MaryV says:

      I’m afraid I have to agree, Satima… a bronze age level of development is actually quite harsh on women, despite our tendency to romanticize agrarian societies. Over and above questions of reproductive control etc etc there are the simple realities of back-breaking labour to eke out a subsistence level of living, going miles on foot every day to fetch water, the prevalence of disease and infant mortality as well as man-made problems in the form of endless petty wars and warlords… There is no need to invent a time machine to verify all this, unfortunately plenty of societies in the world today still struggle with the same basic circumstances.

      I think beautiful bronze-age-style agrarian worlds belong firmly in fantasy fiction, because the reality is and was a little different!

      Luckily the desolate apocalyptic scenarios Tim mentions (‘The Road’, etc) are also fictional. I have a hopeful notion about our actual futures: I think after a lot of faffing around we might actually choose to do things the so-called feminine way – with cooperation, negotiation and consultation. I hope. I pray.

  15. Tim Jones says:

    Thanks for these last few, very thought-provoking responses! They have got onto some of the underlying questions in my article, even though I dressed them in a bibliographic skin (hmmm, that metaphor feels far too close to a Sarah Palinism for comfort…)

    Actually, setting aside her politics, the presentation of Sarah Palin is an interesting case. On the one hand, she codes as very ‘feminine’ in the clothes she wears and her emphasis on motherhood. On the other hand, she foregrounds traditionally ‘masculine’ pursuits such as fishing, hunting, and killing and gutting things. It’s a combination that plainly resonates with a lot of Americans who aren’t known for their commitment to feminism. I wonder what that says about the present state of gender roles, at least in the US?

    Bahiyyih, you refer to the widening gulf between the sexes in western society. If it’s widening now, what’s the point that it’s widening from – i.e. do you think that gap was less narrow in the 1970s and 1980s, or are you thinking of a much longer-scale process? Because I would have thought that, compared to fifty years ago, the gulf was narrower.

    Satima, what you say is probably true of most pre-industrial societies – but I wonder how women who have known (comparative) freedom in our present society would react if our current industrial society broke down and attempts were made to re-instate the former division of labour?

    Putting this another way, Tank Girl (thanks, Kim!) has power in part because she has a tank. I think many women would want to lay their hands on a tank (or its equivalent, violent or not) in such a situation.

    • Sad to contemplate, Tim, but if our current society breaks down there won’t be any tanks of either the literal or figurative variety, and the old order will almost certainly naturally reassert itself:-(

  16. Tim Jones says:

    Mary, I missed your reply while writing mine. I hope and pray that you are right too!

  17. Kebabette says:

    I’d throw my hat in the ring for Mendoza in the Kage Baker series of books on The Company. She’s a cyborg time-travelling botanist – which sounds like a load of fantasy cobblers, but it isn’t. Kage Baker is superb, was sad to hear of her death last year.

    Here’s a nice blog post on her appearance in the first novel In the Garden of Iden

  18. Tim Jones says:

    Thanks for popping over and commenting, Kebabette. I haven’t read any Kage Baker, though I did get as far as getting “The Empress of Mars” out of the library a couple of months back, then running out of time to read it before I had to return it 🙁 – I shall try again.

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