Revisiting HERLAND on BBC Radio 4

PrintE-mail Written by Rich Cross

A new documentary, being broadcast on Radio 4 on this morning, celebrates the extraordinary and ground-breaking talents of American science fiction author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose acclaimed 1915 novel Herland imagined a utopian future world populated entirely by confident and self-sufficient women.

Written at a time when women in the US were deprived of the vote and discriminated against in all areas of culture, society and the law, Gilman’s vision of a future in which the evolution of gender had ended in the birth of a new era of peace and equality was a remarkable proto-feminist tale.

Herland tells the story of how three male explorers discover an all-female community on an isolated island. Initially imprisoned by the women, the captives eventually come to appreciate the prowess and capabilities of their female hosts and the attractive principles on which their society is run. In time, the men become free citizens and find partners – who, as proud and independent individuals, are unlike any of the women they have had relationships with back home.

When the baser instincts of one of the male travellers reasserts itself, a trial sentences him to expulsion. But as the isolation of Herland ends, and contact with the world beyond the island is re-established, the future of this women’s paradise looks less certain.

Questioning many of the social norms of early twentieth-century America, Herland is an exceptional (if often overlooked) literary landmark in utopian science fiction, and at the time many found that the novel’s ideas made for a challenging read – just as much as an escapist one.

Presenter Geoff Ryman revisits Gilman’s work and explores how the worlds of science fiction and the ideas of gender have intersected in genre literature in the decades since. Ryman meets with Stephanie Saulter (the Evolution trilogy), Sarah Hall (The Carhullan Army and The Wolf Border), journalist Laurie Penny, and Dr Caitríona Ní Dhúill, author of Sex and Imagined Spaces, to reflect on the potential and pitfalls of egalitarian science fiction.

With his guests, Ryman sets out to explore why many authors of utopian fiction have struggled to imagine worlds in which the concept of ‘gender’ has itself become alien. Following on from this research, Ryman’s companion BBC Radio 4 Extra drama No Point Talking takes the themes of Herland as a starting point for a story set in an imaginary future California, which has separated into two distinct and rival ‘utopian’ states.

Herland is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:30am today (Thursday January 28th) and can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06yfhqr. No Point Talking will follow on Radio 4 Extra at 6pm at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06yk7w1. Both programmes will be available on the BBC iPlayer Radio after broadcast.

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