Ursula K. LeGuin (born October 21, 1929)
If you asked someone to name the top female science fiction writer in history, there’s a damn good chance they’ll respond with “Ursula K. LeGuin.” Or they might just respond with “Sir, we need exact change,” in which case stop holding the line up and pay the damn tollbooth operator already. But while 20th century science fiction literature was something of a boy’s club for many decades, LeGuin’s success didn’t need novelty to prop it up. Her talents put her shoulder to shoulder with giants such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Over the course of some 40+ years, she has won two Hugo awards, four Nebula awards, five Locus awards, and one World Fantasy Award. And that’s just for her novels!
LeGuin’s writings include such iconic works as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed. When asked about her influences in an About.com interview, LeGuin proved the old adage that if you want to be a good writer, you better be a good reader:
Once I learned to read, I read everything. I read all the famous fantasies – Alice in Wonderland, and Wind in the Willows, and Kipling. I adored Kipling’s Jungle Book. And then when I got older I found Lord Dunsany. He opened up a whole new world – the world of pure fantasy. And … Worm Ouroboros. Again, pure fantasy. Very, very fattening. And then my brother and I blundered into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. Early Asimov, things like that. But that didn’t have too much effect on me. It wasn’t until I came back to science fiction and discovered Sturgeon – but particularly Cordwainer Smith. … I read the story ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,’ and it just made me go, ‘Wow! This stuff is so beautiful, and so strange, and I want to do something like that.’
Ursula LeGuin turns 84 today.
Carrie Fisher (b. October 21, 1956)
While LeGuin shares a birthday with another female sci-fi icon, only one of them ever strangled a giant space slug to death while wearing a gold bikini, and Ursula made me promise never to share that photo. I kid, I kid. Carrie Fisher had the blessing and the curse of being inseparably associated with one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in the world, and the three Star Wars movies would forever overshadow everything that came after them. Nevertheless, Fisher’s role as Leia Organa stands out for being a strong female character in a genre not always rife with them. Sure, she put on the gold bikini, but there was a lot more to her than that. She went toe-to-toe with the worst the Empire threw at her, and even lost her entire homeworld, but she still kept up the fight. In Return of the Jedi she flipped clichés about damsels in distress on their head and saved a helpless Han Solo. She helped pave the way for later iconic female sci-fi characters on the big screen including Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
Of the three primary Star Wars actors, Harrison Ford was the most successful at dodging the type-casting bullet and having a successful career as an actor, but Fisher stepped behind the camera to pen the bestselling, semi-autobiographical 1987 novel Postcards from the Edge, and the screenplay for its 1990 movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. She dipped into her own life and struggles once more for the 2008 book and stage show Wishful Drinking.
Fisher turns 57 today, and the long shadow of Star Wars is covering her once again. Alongside Ford and Mark Hamill, she is rumored to be returning to her role as Leia in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII.
Damnation Alley (released October 21, 1977)
It must have been rough to be a science fiction movie released in 1977…specifically anytime after May 25, 1977. That is of course the day that Star Wars hit theaters and changed the landscape of big-screen science fiction forever. Whether the comparisons were fair or not, Star Wars became the bar by which all cinematic science fiction was compared. Consider, then, the plight of poor Damnation Alley, which released on this day in 1977, some five months after Star Wars sent a proton torpedo into the box office.
Starring George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent, Damnation Alley was a post-apocalyptic tale loosely based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. After a full-on nuclear World War III, four surviving soldiers set off on a voyage that will confront them with radiation, mutated insects, and of course the requisite bands of savages. Thankfully they’ve got a sweet, sweet ride in the form of the “Landmaster,” an all-terrain vehicle custom built for the flick. Sadly, Damnation Alley earned neither critical nor box office success, but it has become something of a cult classic over the years. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can watch it for free and judge it for yourself.