Printer Friendly

Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction.

Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction, edited by Lucie Armitt, arrives from an "alternate" world, distant from that of American feminist SF scholarship, a place where the fight for recognition has not advanced so far as it has here, where there are fewer warriors and fewer weapons for the side of feminism. That place is Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and the warriors stand outside the bastions of Oxbridge, blocked not only by their gender but by their interest in a still marginalized subject. This rather dramatic portrayal of Armitt's collection of essays conveys its perspective, the apology of a beleaguered British feminist SF community. That perspective is a valuable one, reminding American readers that we can ill afford the luxury of postfeminist smugness.

Where No Man Has Gone Before contains an introduction by the editor; thirteen essays, ten from the scholarly world and three by science fiction writers, on a variety of feminist issues; and a brief bibliography of works cited. None of the writers speaks from the citadels of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, the notes on contributors, all women, show a network of feminist SF academics linked together by the universities of Warwick and Sheffield, the Liverpool and Sheffield city polytechnics, and The Women's Press.

The connection with The Women's Press is key, for these writers continue the discussion Sarah Lefanu began with her superb In the Chinks of the World Machine - Lefanu edits The Women's Press's science fiction series and has an essay in Armitt's collection. Armitt's aim and scope, as delineated in her introduction, are more circumscribed than Lefanu's. Where No Man Has Gone Before is meant "to focus in greater depth upon specific authors, themes and phenomena," not to be "a definitive, all-encompassing collection," but varied "in approach and attitude" (11). The strength of this book, then, lies not in its original thought so much as in its fresh perspectives.

In her introduction, Armitt discusses the marginalization of science fiction, particularly of feminist science fiction, citing a number of misogynist critics. She counters the criticism that science fiction is escapism by calling SF an "escape into" that "places great emphasis upon the intrinsic link between perceived reality and the depiction of futurist or alien societies" (9). The somewhat defensive tone may seem unnecessary to American readers; if we have not won a respectable place yet, we have certainly advanced these arguments already. But in Armitt's hands, the claims for SF seem fresh again, arriving with new enthusiasm from a new front.

The collection is organized into three sections: "Writing through the Century: Individual Authors" contains four essays on SF writers who "have contributed a specifically female voice" (5); "Aliens and Others: A Contemporary Perspective" has five essays on key issues applicable to women; and "Readers and Writers: SF as Genre Fiction" deals with "problems inherent within SF . . . as they affect readers and writers" (7). In every section the quality of the essays varies, ranging from the shallow to the perceptive, from the witty to the obtuse, but a sense of commitment and discovery is always present.

The first section, on individual authors, contains two strong essays. The first, "The Loss of the Feminine Principle in Charlotte Haldane's Man's World and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night," by Elizabeth Russell, introduced me to works not familiar in the U.S., one - Haldane's - from 1926 and the other more current (1985). Russell's discussion made me eager to search both out. Although the essay has a hesitant style and some confusing charts, it still succeeds because of its fresh angle, combining Helene Cixous's binary opposition of male and female traits with Jungian psychology to draw attention to works not commonly dealt with. Sarah Gamble's "~Shambleau . . . and Others': The Role of the Female in the Fiction of C. L. Moore" also uses Cixous's binarism to examine Moore's recurring characters, attempting, for the most part successfully, to reconcile the seemingly feminist Jirel of Joiry with the seemingly otherwise Northwest Smith. According to Gamble, Moore "both conforms to and subverts" systems which split "human characteristics and concepts into male/female oppositions" (36). Thus Gamble is able to find a feminist subtext in the Northwest Smith stories, though she recognizes that the critic's decoding of the text, however convincing, may conflict with authorial intent. Her elegant conclusion is to see ~the pull towards rebellion countered by an equally strong restraining force in favour of the status quo . . . [as an] irresolvable dichotomy" (48).

Two other essays in this section are less successful, though they make some useful points. Susan Bassnett's "Remaking the Old World: Ursula Le Guin and the American Tradition" makes the persuasive claim that Le Guin writes out of the ongoing American theme of "the clash between civilisation and barbarism" (63). Moira Monteith, in "Doris Lessing and the Politics of Violence," identifies Lessing's "communal rather than . . . individual purpose" in writing (68) and notes her concern with postcolonial themes. Both essays would have benefited by a stricter attention to stylistic matters.

Part 2, on contemporary issues in feminist SF, contains two essays on film as well as three on contemporary novelists. One of the former, Susan Thomas's "Between the Boys and Their Toys: The Science Fiction Film," centered on Short Circuit and Tron, is a Freudian study of SF films "in which women are active as the ~heart' at the interface between the boy and his machine" (110). The other, Erica Sheen's "I'm Not in the Business: I Am the Business': Women at Work in Hollywood Science Fiction," goes a bit deeper in its analysis of Starman and Bladerunner. Sheen relates the Hollywood star-making system to SF film's representation of women, thus connecting filmmaking to the subject matter of the films. Her Marxist angle and her equation of the studio system of creating stars to the SF notion of creating robots offer some food for thought.

Armitt's contribution to the collection, "Your Word Is My Command: The Structures of Language and Power in Women's Science Fiction," uses Doris Lessing's The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five and Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue to illustrate an ambitious thesis. According to Armitt, "the power structures upon which societies depend are structured by and through the structures of language; and . . . by providing a fictional context for what has otherwise been largely theoretical abstraction, contemporary science fiction by women [has contributed] to the current theoretical debate on women's relationship to language - and thus power" (123-24). Although the essay is intelligently reasoned, its dense rhetoric is a problem. This and several other essays in the collection would have been better served by a clearer, less qualified and hesitant style, closer to Armitt's writing in the introduction, and closer to the two strongest essays in this section.

"Mary and the Monster: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Maureen Duffy's Gor Saga," by Jenny Newman, begins with a sensible and gracefully written, if standard, interpretation of Frankenstein. But it goes on to compare Shelley's novel to Duffy's Gor Saga (1981), a work Newman makes clear is important. Gor Saga's part-gorilla protagonist, like Frankenstein's monster, seeks his maker in a modern work which explores themes of creativity and maternity echoing Shelley's. Lisa Tuttle's "Pets and Monsters: Metamorphoses in Recent Science Fiction" explores a pattern of metamorphoses in contemporary feminist SF. Its ideal combination of lively writing and perceptive theorizing makes it the most successful essay in the volume. Using a number of contemporary works but focusing on Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love," Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog, Suzy McKee Charnas's "Boobs," and Rhoda Lerman's The Book of the Night, Tuttle describes women who choose to speak as Other, using their marginalization rather than being used by it. She sees these contemporary tales of metamorphosis as "the beginning rather than the end; the reason for their happening of far less importance than how the metamorphosed women respond to their changed circumstances" (99). Tuttle makes the essential point that simply accepting ourselves as we are is not enough. Change is necessary in "an investigation into what it means to be human, when human is female" (107).

The final section of the collection, dealing with SF as genre, is the most disappointing. The inclusion of Nickianne Moody's "Maeve and Guinevere: Women's Fantasy Writing in the Science Fiction fantasies, and the marketing connection to science fiction is quite tenuous. Josephine Saxton's "~Goodbye to All That . . .'" is a personal essay on Saxton's own writing without much general applicability. Further, its hostile tone toward feminism makes it seem even more misplaced: "later the feminists reached out to claim some of my work as if it had come from the childless radicals in boiler suits" (209).

Gwyneth Jones is also a novelist who writes about her own writing, but "Writing Science Fiction for the Teenage Reader" uses the personal to illuminate more general issues. Jones explores the problems of writing SF specifically for teenage audiences and of writing with a specific political agenda. She offers readings of Madeline U'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage to illustrate the importance of the rite of passage as a motif in adolescent SF and to show how she distinguishes between the "feminised" SF of these two works and feminist SF, which she attempts in her own novel The Hidden Ones. A feminist SF novel for adolescents, according to Jones, should "offer an alternative . . . to the misogyny . . . of everyday reality" and should "provide at least the hope of access to science and technology- (172). Jones's description of the struggle to meet her criteria in an entertaining piece of fiction makes for fascinating reading.

Sarah Lefanu's essay almost serves as a companion piece for Jones's. "Sex, Sub-Atomic Particles and Sociology" was developed from a panel discussion with Gwyneth Jones and Lisa Tuttle. Lefanu uses works by Tuttle and Jones to illustrate how feminist SF has broken out of traditional misconceptions about its nature - that it is "worthy, but dull," dealing with the soft sciences, and that it is "political polemic disguised as SF" (179). As an alternative, Lefanu presents the work of these women as feminist because they redefine "human as female" (181) and because they claim "both the conventions and the concerns of science fiction and horror for women" (185). This essay is beautifully written, concise, and inspiring. While it does not break new ground, it serves to pull together issues introduced elsewhere in the collection.

The volume as a whole does not break new ground but is successful nevertheless. Where No Man Has Gone Before offers a unique perspective to American readers, reminding us that battles over the marginalization of genre and gender are far from over. It emphasizes several writers whose importance is not recognized in the United States, and it contains some genuine insights.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Wisconsin Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gordon, Joan
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
Previous Article:Impertinent Voices: Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Women's Poetry.
Next Article:Stories, Theories and Things.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |