Author,Karina Sumner-Smith, joins us today to discuss and ask the question “Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?”
Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?
A recent Tweet caught my attention: fantasy author Kate Elliott, one individual shared, writes really great friendships between women.
I’ve heard many good things about Kate Elliott’s work, most notably her skill with complex fantasy worldbuilding, but it was that one phrase – “great friendships between women” – that made me scramble to buy her books. Perhaps my reaction seems a little extreme. Yet real, believable friendships between women can be difficult to find in fantasy and science fiction, and are something that I desperately want and need as a reader and lifelong fan of the genre.
I’ve seen plenty of books with “strong female characters” – but I’ll be honest, few of the characters billed as such show what I think of as real emotional or mental strength. Fewer still resemble the strong women I know. And, looking at the women in my life – my mother and grandmothers, my dearest friends, my colleagues and co-workers – few of them have to stand entirely alone, as “strong” women in fiction so often do. In life, women can draw strength and support through their connections to others – not least of all their friends.
Friends. Not just family or those to whom they have romantic ties, but friends – the people who are there for them through everything. And, for many women, some of the strongest and most enduring friendships are found with other women.
Yet where, in science fiction and fantasy, are those friendships? Where are the strong ties not between a woman and her romantic interest or her family, but her friends?
Friendship has always been a defining factor in my life, and so it only makes sense that it’s a defining factor in my fiction as well. When I wrote my fantasy novel, Radiant, it didn’t seem strange that the core emotional relationship was not a romantic one, but the development of a friendship between two very different young women in strange circumstances. This wasn’t a conscious choice, nor an attempt to make a point through fiction; rather, I fell in love with these characters and their hesitant, fraught ways of attempting to understand and connect with each other.
Then people started asking: Why did you want to write about a friendship between women? Why isn’t there a romance? Will there be romance later?
Fine questions all – and, in truth, I could write thousands of words on why a romance would be a terrible idea for my main character, emotionally and physically, at this point in her life. Yet repetition of those questions – and the fact that they need to be asked at all – brought forth a rather more concerning question: why are friendships between women so often seen as less meaningful than those women’s romantic ties?
Or, if we’d like to put a more controversial spin on it, why is friendship a worthy emotional driver for a novel only if it involves a man?
It isn’t a challenge to think of strong, important friendships between men within science fiction and fantasy literature and culture. Frodo and Sam. Harry and Ron. Spock and Kirk. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen. The list goes on. So, too, are there examples in which a female character may share a friendship with a male character, or be accepted by a larger male cast. Yet, even there, it’s rare for such friendships to exist without the introduction of romantic elements or sexual tension.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that in a broader culture in which we still struggle to find works that pass the Bechdel Test, strong representations of female friendships are thin on the ground. And yet I am surprised, if only because the very friendships that I struggle to see reflected in the literature that I love are the ones that have been most critical to me in my everyday life.
Friendships in which women are not competitors or rivals for male affection, power, or social approval. Friendships in which women support each other, work with each other, argue with and defend each other. Friendships that are not inevitably torn apart by a conflict over a male character, or made to sink into the background once the romantic interest walks on-screen.
Which is not to say that these stories don’t exist at all. Mercedes Lackey’s Tarma and Kethry stories were much beloved throughout my adolescence for just this reason. I cheered to see the friendship between Delia and Sadie in Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow, and the mutual support between main character Kate and her friend Pen in Jaye Wells’ Prospero’s War series – though neither relationship takes center stage. In YA, examples of great female friendships leap to mind – Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity foremost among them – but few are science fiction or fantasy.
Even searching, examples are hard to find – and I refuse to believe that’s because there is not worth, nor an audience, for works of fiction in which powerful female friendships are portrayed.
So tell me: who am I missing? Whose books should I be reading? Because I’m ready to read SFF stories with female characters that reflect the type of women that I know and the rich, complex relationships between them.
Karina Sumner-Smith is a Canadian fantasy author. Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, with the second and third books in the trilogy to follow in 2015. Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things”. Karina lives in a small, lakefront community in rural Ontario. Visit her online at