Highlighting heroines: How author Beth Barany empowers women through speculative fiction

Beth Barany/Courtesy

The barrier between what’s imagined and what’s real, from the perspective of many science fiction and fantasy writers, is surprisingly insignificant. Through their stories, these authors construct new worlds — places that we enter into metaphysically when reading their novels, encouraging us to look beyond the confines of our reality.

But given the lack of female representation in many genres of fiction, it is often more difficult for women to imagine themselves as the heroes in these realms. Many authors, however, have transformed this medium to instead illuminate and challenge these inequalities.

Author and UC Berkeley alumna Beth Barany is doing precisely that — using her stories to question gender roles and empower women. She is especially motivated by the imaginative possibilities that science fiction and fantasy stories create.

“I think, as a reader, I love those stories because they take you to a place that doesn’t exist here and (suggest) that more can be possible — so much more,” Barany said. “You can fly; you can travel in time. … It extends what is possible into so much more, and I love that.”

Barany has authored 17 novels in several genres, including science fiction and fantasy. Her most recently published series thrusts readers into the fantastical land of “Henrietta the Dragon Slayer,” where magic is real and talking animals are the norm. The three-book series took 13 years to complete, and it was largely inspired by her love for fairytales and folklore as a child.

“I think, as a reader, I love those stories because they take you to a place that doesn’t exist here and (suggest) that more can be possible”

— Beth Barany

“I’ve been writing stories ever since I was a kid,” Barany said. She grew up composing stories — often adventures — a hobby which eventually evolved into a vivacious passion for storytelling. But it wasn’t until she was 13, after being assigned a series of creative writing tasks by a teacher, that she felt a sense of confidence in her creative capabilities. “It really opened up my creativity as a storyteller,” she explained. “It really gave me a sense of certainty — ‘I’m a writer.’ I knew it.”

It would be a number of years, however, before Barany felt any sense of certainty in pursuing these aspirations. Stringently structured academic work in high school stifled her creativity, and a lack of accessible creative writing outlets in college (UC Berkeley did not have a creative writing degree program at that time) encouraged her to briefly pursue journalistic writing instead.

After dropping out of UC Berkeley, Barany spent time living abroad in Paris, garnering writing experience and publishing her first nonfiction piece. Despite her temporary departure from creative writing, her interest in fiction — in storytelling — never faded.

“I was dabbling in stories this whole time,” Barany said. “I would write maybe a page, a paragraph, a few pages — nothing went anywhere. I had no idea how to write a story. Zero.” She would eventually make the decision to apply to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, only to feel dismayed and left adrift following a rejection.

But she explained that the process of rejection was also largely revelatory. She learned that what she really sought was the opportunity to communicate with people through the medium of fiction — that she wanted to be a novelist.  

It was this realization, she said, that prompted her to really commit to the craft of creative writing. After joining critique groups and seeking advice from fellow writers, Barany was able to delve into her own imaginings and learn how to structure stories around them.

She explained that writing in the genres of science fiction and fantasy lent her ample opportunity for creative exploration. “I think you can write adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy in ways that you cannot do with stories set in the modern world, or even worlds set in the past, because we are constricted by what we know,” she explained.

Barany has been able to use fiction as a medium to fight back against the history of problematic gender roles and representation that have dogged both our society and the media it has created. Women are rarely portrayed as the central protagonist or the hero; they are instead are often exhibited in a position of subservience, with minimal personal agency. The phenomena of the “female automaton,” sometimes called “fembots” or “gynoids,” was a common trope in science fiction going back to the 19th century, equating women to lifeless, controlled machines.

“Boys … have been praised, generally, for being outspoken, forthright, taking leadership. Are women praised for those things? No.”

— Beth Barany

Even in fairytales, as Barany noted, women infrequently demonstrate acts of heroism and bravery; they are often flat, stock or secondary characters with minimal depth. Despite their otherworldly settings, science fiction and fantasy have nevertheless perpetuated societal norms and biases, and they often continue to do so.

“Boys … have been praised, generally, for being outspoken, forthright, taking leadership. Are women praised for those things? No. We’re vilified for taking leadership,” Barany said. “So, as a storyteller, my job is to say, ‘Well, what if I have a young woman heroine who learns how to make friends, including another young woman who she kind of takes under her wing?’ ”

Beyond that, her third book features a matriarchal society in which leadership is passed from mother to daughter. According to Barany, fiction allows her to explore the hypothetical questions often on her mind: “What if we had a culture where women supported other women?” she asked. “And women raised their sons to support women — what would that look like?”

The protagonists of both her published fantasy book series and her upcoming science fiction series are fiery, kick-ass heroines that defy the traditional expectations for female characters in these genres. Barany worked to fill a void she encountered as a child, having grown up reading fairytale stories with resolved and valiant heroes that were nevertheless exclusively male.

This lack of representation can have a profound effect on impressionable young audiences, namely the inability to visualize oneself in a position of leadership or influence.

“If you never see yourself portrayed in stories, you don’t know who you are necessarily,” Barany explained. “I loved the adventures in the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ stories. … I wanted to be him, but I wanted it to be a girl. … So if you don’t have those examples, you don’t know how to grow into that,” she said. Focalizing models of female heroism was Barany’s method of counteracting this adverse trend. “All my main characters are women,” she said.

The ability to reflect cultural elements in works of fiction is not always negative, and it can open opportunities for social critique. Barany explained that fiction allows individuals to process and prepare for the “what if” — to situate themselves in a different reality and examine the potentiality of alternate circumstances.

Science fiction especially emerged as a major platform for social criticism. Since its conception, authors have used the genre as a medium for social commentary; from more obvious examples, such as George Orwell’s “1984,” to subtler critiques of technology, power and social structure.

Science fiction has also established a unique space where conventional gender roles can be questioned and subverted, opening dialogue about prevailing inequalities in present day society. Authors such as Ursula Le Guin have used futuristic societies and utopias as a backdrop to examine gender politics. Beyond serving as a source of entertainment, these stories encourage meditation on problematic power dynamics.

“It’s considered not practical, but actually, learning how to understand story and construct story is … a powerful skill,” Barany said. “We are actually culture creators by writing fiction.”

Barany explained that the experiences that her protagonists encounter are meant to test them physically, while also allowing for character development. “Being intellectual and being physical are great, but then learning how to love — those are the journeys I like to write about,” she said, referencing the challenges faced by the protagonist of her most recent science fiction mystery series.

She said that writing her most recent series has also allowed her to tactfully address a number of social issues and trends — including female oppression — all in the setting of a space station circulating the Earth 100 years in the future. “There are issues about women that I’m exploring not so much about her, but about the cases that she uncovers. … I’m also dealing with different ways of looking at technology and how it helps and hinders humans,” she explained.

When it comes to sources of inspiration, Barany said she looked to science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Moon, whose transformative science fiction works served as formative examples of captivating storytelling. Her love for fantasy can be traced back to children’s novels such as “A Wrinkle in Time” — stories that test the boundaries of the imagination. But she attributes her dedication to the craft of creative writing to her great-grandmother Meridel Le Sueur, a fiction author who advocated for feminist movements and social reform in her works.

 “Being intellectual and being physical are great, but then learning how to love — those are the journeys I like to write about.”

— Beth Barany

As someone who struggled to gain fluency in crafting her own stories, Barany now uses the writing experience she has acquired to advise creative novices and offer guidance throughout the writing process. Barany runs her own business as a “creativity coach,” helping writers explore and develop their ideas into creative pieces. She also runs a blog where she addresses common challenges writers face throughout the creative process.

Barany explained that one of the most difficult challenges involved in composing a creative piece is simply the process of transitioning — allowing yourself to mentally transport into a creative space, free from the restrictions and inhibitions that so commonly characterize our everyday reality.

“Writing creatively is for yourself — there’s no grade; there’s no deadline,” Barany said. “Revision is your own, so how do you go from a very structured (place) … to a place that’s way more nebulous?”

She added that part of overcoming this impediment involves playful engagement with those seemingly impossible or unrealistic ideas. Without structure or agenda, creative writers can build new worlds and reconstruct their reality. Allowing yourself to toy with the unknown — to consider the impossible — is a skill that takes time to develop, but it can ultimately contribute to an engaging story.

This could be the reason why science fiction and fantasy novelists have readers so enraptured — the ability to radically alter our worldview through stories of astounding adventures in alternate realms is a defining element of these genres, one that authors such as Barany have not failed to recognize.

“We’re (often) constricted by today’s ideas of right and wrong,” Barany said. “Whereas in science fiction and fantasy, we can create new cultures, new ideas.”

Perhaps these fantastical stories, in their capacity to evoke imaginative thought, have the potential to make tangible change in the real world — what was once considered impossible might be closer to reality than we think.

Molly Nolan is the assistant Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected].