My junior year in undergrad, a British Literature professor handed me Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Published in 1928, Orlando: A Biography follows the title character as a young man whose body is changed into a woman and gifted with a form of immortality. The book’s timeline stretches from the 16th century to the novel’s publication date, allowing the protagonist to experience life as a woman across the centuries, which includes love affairs with men and women as well as childbirth.
While obviously speculative, Woolf is one of the earliest writers of a speculative work to focus entirely on gender issues. Even beyond feminism, the novel subverts cisgender romance and can be read as a transgender text. Also, Woolf is one of the first, if not the first, lesbian speculative writer—yet I’d never heard her name mentioned in conversations about early speculative fiction.
Perhaps Woolf’s Orlando undermines both literary fiction and SF. In The Big Book of Science Fiction by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, a passing reference is made to Woolf in the introduction:
“It is also worth remembering that in the wider world of literature writers outside of science fiction were trying to grapple with the changing nature of reality and technological innovation. After World War I, […] Virginia Woolf and others experimented with the nature of time and identity in ways that at times had a speculative feel to it.”
I would respectfully disagree as to the description of Woolf’s Orlando as having “a speculative feel” rather than calling it straight speculative fiction (perhaps that definition would better fit a novel such as To the Lighthouse). Even if Orlando is just a one-off from Woolf, why does it not receive more recognition? Mary Shelley was a one-off as well, yet she maintains her figurehead as the mother of science fiction.
Perhaps the heteronormative society got in the way of Woolf receiving recognition for her time-travel novel. Even among her own progressive contemporaries in the Bloomsbury group, lesbians were looked down upon while homosexuality was more celebrated, as depicted by this interaction between Woolf and E. M. Forster: “He said he thought Sapphism disgusting; partly from the convention, partly because he disliked that women should be independent of men.” Considering science fiction in the 1920s, the pulps, and the following Golden Age, weren’t always forward thinking when it came to feminism, let alone non-binary characters, perhaps Woolf’s contribution to science fiction has been buried.
In the Ivory Tower, Orlando: A Biography is rarely mentioned in modern literature surveys and is relegated to women’s and gender studies classrooms. In my experience, Woolf was the token woman writer in the modernist section, with either To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway on display. While gender plays a part in both novels, it isn’t as revolutionary as Orlando.
Perhaps Virginia Woolf was too forward thinking for both SF and literary fiction.