Patricia Gruben talks Women & Science Fiction

For me, the definition of science fiction is “What if…?” This open question inspires filmmakers to stretch the boundaries of the genre in every direction – style, theme, and narrative structure – and get away with it. It allows us to ask questions like “What if people changed gender halfway through their lives?” “What if we could build androids with empathy?” “What if we could change the past and thus change the future?” and ultimately “Who are we?” “Who could we be?” “How do we know what we know?”

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien

I’m teaching a course in science fiction film at SFU this term, showing films that ask these questions in many different ways. Many of them are of special interest to women – Alien, with heroic but sensible Ripley; Blade Runner and Ex Machina, with gorgeous robotic women programmed by men to be ideal objects of desire; Under the Skin, with an alien in a woman’s skin who discovers that empathy can be fatal; and Advantageous, which explores ageing and single-motherhood from the perspective of a dystopian near future.


Avantageous, written and directed by Jennifer Phang, won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Festival this year. It’s the story of Gwen, who finds out she’s being laid off as the spokesperson for a cosmetic surgery company just as the company introduces a new technology – the transfer of personality into a whole new body of your choice. Desperate to afford a good school and other opportunities for her young daughter in a highly competitive world, Gwen volunteers to be a test subject for the process so that she can get her old job back in a younger, more attractive body. While the film is clearly built around topical issues, it’s understated and enigmatic, and beautifully shot on a low budget, a great example of what can be explored in science fiction – without having to pretend we know the answers. It’s available on

Patricia Gruben - Photo: WendyD

Patricia Gruben – Photo: WendyD

By Patricia Gruben

Patricia Gruben,  PhD, is an associate professor of film in SFU’s School of Contemporary Art. She is also the director of The Praxis Centre for Screenwriters and a writer/director.

WIFTV currently hosts a national genre writing contest for women, #FromOurDarkSide. Submit your max. 5-page feature film concept (horror, fantasy, sci-fi or thriller) by January 4th, 2016.


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