Written by Madison Wiser
I grew up between the pages of a book. It may be why I’m still so short today – didn’t quite give myself enough room to stretch and grow tall. But seriously, in the backseat of every road trip, during every elementary school math lesson, and on days both sunny and rainy, I squinted behind my little round, pink glasses and devoured sentences like meals.
Books of all kinds interested me. In fact, I even have a Word document typed up from over ten years ago titled “The Library of Madison Wiser.” According to my records, I loved Harry Potter, of course, and had all seven books in my little library (which was actually just a white bookcase in my room). I was crazy for books about dogs. My little mind thrived on the Percy Jackson books, enough so that in addition to that series, I also had a number of books about Greek myth. Finally, I must have been an adrenaline junkie at the tender age of nine years old, because I liked books about natural disasters – tornadoes, hurricanes, historical plagues, you name it.
I was sitting in the movie theater with my dad when I was thirteen years old, and a trailer came on for a movie called Ender’s Game, based on a novel of the same name written by Orson Scott Card. My dad, in between his usual tradition of pelting me with popcorn, leaned over to me and whispered, “You should read that book.”
Ender’s Game didn’t align with any of my childhood interests – no witches and wizards, no dogs, no Greek myth, and no natural disasters. I liked the look of the trailer, though, which showed a bunch of young teenagers having space battles. So I read it over the course of just a couple days.
Ender’s Game was one of, if not the, formative text of my teenage years. The protagonist, Ender, is recruited as a kid to train at a space station called Battle School to eventually defeat an alien species threatening humanity. Ender and the kids at Battle School are all wildly intelligent, which is why the adults decide to groom them from a young age for combat. I was obsessed with it. After I finished reading it the first time, I read it all over again.
Battle School was an extended metaphor for adolescence – the crushing loneliness of these gifted kids scrapping and scraping to get by and connect, the sense that the adults were against them while simultaneously demanding the best out of them. It was the first book I’d ever read that made me reflect on my own intelligence and learn to value it. From there, I didn’t know what I wanted exactly, but I knew I wanted more. Ender’s Game was considered a science fiction classic, so I used that as my launching pad, reading other classic science fiction books.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, one of the first novels in the genre of speculative fiction (though the title of the first goes to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.) The space opera Dune by Frank Herbert, the cyberpunk thriller Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, the collection of short stories I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Though it fits more comfortably into the dystopian genre, I still consider Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury science fiction, and I love that one just as much as Ender’s Game.
These were all great books that I was reading. Some of them were slightly beyond my understanding, but I didn’t let that stop me. I liked the way science fiction dropped my imagination into new and unfamiliar worlds with new and unfamiliar societies or technology, and left me to piece it together myself. These stories grew my intellect and helped define my taste as a reader and writer, but they never offered much in the way of how to live my life as a young girl. I’m not saying that they had to, either. I wouldn’t call my thirteen-year-old self the target audience for most, if not all, of my favorite science fiction books.
I was growing up, in one sense, but I was growing up almost completely distanced from myself and who I was or aspired to be. Both my sci-fi favorites, Ender’s Game and Fahrenheit 451, actually do have teenage girls in them. Ender’s Game has Valentine, Ender’s sister, who Battle School calls on a couple times throughout the novel to pick Ender up when he’s down and remind him that she loves him. It also has Petra, the only girl at Battle School, who befriends Ender and teaches him all she knows until he’s better than her. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury presents us with Clarisse, who first introduces our protagonist, Guy Montag, to the concept of subversive thoughts in their illiterate society, but dies just as Guy is beginning to think maybe he shouldn’t work a job burning books.
All three of these girls, Valentine, Petra, and Clarisse, they’re more literary devices than humans. An adult man’s idea of what or who a teenage girl is and how she behaves. Which is largely fine, of course, unless you’re a teenage girl reading with no idea how paper-thin those characters really are, and little sense of your own self.
It’s not like the 2010s didn’t have their fair share of female protagonists: Clary from The Mortal Instruments, Katniss from The Hunger Games, and Tris from Divergent. I’d read all of those books, too, at nearly the same time I was tearing through the science fiction classics. I liked these stories well enough, for their fantasy or their action, but I still didn’t connect with the representation of teenage girls, especially in the ways these stories end. Clary and Katniss essentially live happily ever after with their male love interests, while Tris dies in the final book of the series.
I never really found characters to identify with until I had my own car and money to go to the bookstore in my senior year of high school and beyond, into college. I returned to the genre I love, science fiction, and read books from smaller publishers and authors like Dreadnought by April Daniels, The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie, and Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. If you’ve never heard of any of these books, well, neither had I, not until I’d done considerable digging.
Here’s the last truth about why I’d never really recognized myself on the page: back when I read Ender’s Game, I was a closeted bisexual kid growing up in the conservative South, in a small town, with my Catholic family. My relationship to my gender, and the expectations of it, was strained at best and antagonistic at worst. Of course I resented how Valentine, Petra, and Clarisse were little more than stepping stones on Ender and Guy’s paths to self-actualization and enlightenment. I grew up reading about aliens and androids and spaceships, but the most outlandish concept of all to me was a gay female protagonist. The three books I read later in life, now three of my favorites, all feature that.
The Abyss Surrounds Us is set in the near future, where enormous sea creatures called Reckoners defend ships sailing Earth’s oceans, and the protagonist, Cas, is kidnapped by pirates due to her knowledge of Reckoners. Along the way, in the midst of a plot with cool sea monster battles and high seas intrigues, Cas falls in love with one of the pirates, a girl named Swift. They experience romantic tropes I’d only ever seen authors write for straight couples before, such as “oh no, there’s only one bed so I guess we have to share for the night” and “dammit, we’re handcuffed together now.”
Dreadnought is a superhero origin story that follows a trans girl named Danny, who inherits the power of a hero named Dreadnought, and finds herself working alongside another hero, Calamity, to save their city. At the end, not only does Danny get to punch through the bad guy, but kiss the girl, too. There’s one especially striking scene where she flies up into the clouds to collect herself because she feels so angry, at how the world treats her because she’s trans, at the responsibility on her shoulders. I’d never read an author unafraid to capture the fact that teenage girls experience such ugly feelings, too, and it’s only human.
My favorite of the bunch, though, is Gideon the Ninth. In that one, the protagonist, Gideon, agrees to become the cavalier – essentially the protector – of another young woman named Harrow, who’s travelling to another planet to use her powers as a necromancer to compete and serve under the Emperor of their galaxy. I love this book the most because Gideon herself is ridiculous. She spends her time reading naughty comic books, cracking sex jokes at all the other self-important characters, and complaining about the fact that she has to fight with a rapier instead of her preferred longsword. Beyond just being badass and funny, though, the author also allows Gideon to be kind and considerate and big-hearted. She agrees to be Harrow’s cavalier because she truly cares about her, and it is ultimately that softer side of Gideon, her ability to care more than her ability to swing a sword, that saves the day.
I love the fact that Gideon is ridiculous because I’m that way, too. She’s allowed to be all of those things while simultaneously having an enormous crush on Harrow. When I read all three of those books, I experience the adrenaline rush of things I love about science fiction, like the space battles or the giant creatures, and I also finally see myself on the page. I grew up faster intellectually than I ever did emotionally, and now, I am finally learning self-acceptance and compassion, through the stories of protagonists I see myself in.
My diet of both types of science fiction — all the classic books I consumed as a young teenager as well as the contemporary sci-fi I’m now reading as a young adult — have been integral to my development as a reader, writer, and person. I value them both, but in different ways. Though, perhaps evidenced by the way I can gush about Cas, Danny, and Gideon, when I find myself lost and in need of something to pick me up when I’m down, I find myself turning to them more. I’m still, in many ways, growing up between the pages of those books.