Science Fiction Studies

#51 = Volume 17, Part 2 = July 1990



Elizabeth Cummins

The Land-Lady's Homebirth: Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin's Worlds

Abstract.--Ursula K. Le Guin's latest collection of non-fiction, Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), appears to be a record of change, of the birth of a more outspoken, self-critical womanself. However, a reconsideration of Le Guin's fiction about her four primary worlds (Orsinia, Earthsea, the Hainish universe, and the future American West Coast) reveals that this woman author who has attached such significance to the connection between place and person--this land-lady--has been undergoing changes of mind all along. Furthermore, these changes are particularly evident in the fiction about her home--the fiction about Orsinia, the Central European home of her parents' families, and the fiction about the future West Coast where she actually resides. In her home-world settings, she breaks through cultural assumptions about gender, society, and narration. Reading her fiction world by world allows us to follow a journey in which Le Guin has periodically come home to give birth to a new sense of herself as writer and as woman.  

Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis

The Marriage of Inner and Outer Space in Doris Lessing's Shikasta

Abstract.--The structure of Shikasta not only conveys Lessing's increasingly comprehensive view of reality; it also makes for a reading experience that can both educate and change her readers. She presents two different, complementary perspectives on her fictional world. One, the "inner-space vision," centers on Shikasta (a skewed version of Earth) and deals with the inner growth and development of its inhabitants. The other centers on the planet Canopus and deals with its longer range, more all-encompassing view which includes Shikasta and other planets and empires--the "outer-space vision." The interaction between these two perspectives--the effect of each on the other--is what determines the meaning of the book. Each perspective has one main narrative voice (although that voice is embedded in numerous other accounts, reports, and histories): Johor's in the outer-space vision, Rachel Sherban's in that of inner space. While Rachel fails to understand and accept Canopean help in the form of her brother George (the incarnation of Johor on Shikasta), the book's analysis of her inability to escape her distracting emotions and to listen and respond to George's words leads the reader to consider other alternative attitudes and modes of behavior.

In the outer-space perspective of the first half of the book, the gloomy perception of Shikastans as helpless victims of a cosmic accident is found mainly in Johor's memories of his first two visits. During his third visit, his reports gradually move from cold, impersonal accounts of terrorists to more tolerant reports, which also better capture the atmosphere and "feel" of Shikasta. Furthermore, the reader gradually becomes aware that this change in attitude on the part of Johor is reflected not only in the altered style of his reportage but also in the whole structure of the book, which is a tribute to the Canopeans' new understanding of Shikasta. The archivists who are responsible for compiling Shikasta have not only recognized the new perception of Shikasta embodied in Johor's reports; they have also added to them the accounts of other agents and the long final section that reveals--through Rachel's diaries and other documents--how Shikastans themselves perceive their world and relate to George Sherban. Ideally, by the end of Shikasta the reader has a new understanding of the interrelationship among all peoples and the connection between a deep knowledge of the self and of the cosmos. 

Robin Roberts

Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction

Abstract.--Feminist SF of the 1980s can be discussed most usefully in the terms of post-structuralism and post-modernism. Post-structuralist feminist SF problematizes language in respect both to its acquisition and the gendered and hierarchical structures embedded in it. Many works of feminist SF published in the 1980s focus on language and reveal a post-structuralist sensibility to the power and contradiction inherent in communication. Most significantly, their authors criticize the use of language as a means to hierarchy and domination. At the same time, they use language to expose hierarchies of dominance embedded in the practice of science.

The range of post-modernist elements in contemporary feminist SF is considerable; some texts contain few, while others are permeated with them. The first category comprises texts containing trenchant feminist analysis but relying only tangentially on a post-modern sensibility toward language. Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986) and Sheila Finch's Triad (1986) can be considered representative of this type, sharing an emphasis on language, science, and a masculine-feminine societal conflict. A second group of texts develop post-modernist aesthetics further through the form of the books themselves. Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985) and, to a lesser degree, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) exhibit a non-linearity and self-reflexiveness that together effect a breakdown of traditional distinctions, including generic ones. Le Guin's work in particular stretches the shape and definition of what is called fiction, and does so to criticize the narrow-mindedness of patriarchal Western culture. Her text is the most thoroughly post-modernist of the four because of the way in which it radically subverts conventional novelistic structure.

Kathleen L. Spencer

Rescuing the Female Child: The Fiction of Joanna Russ

Abstract.--Whereas, in a patriarchal culture, stories about a boy's maturation process typically emphasize separation from parental figures, stories about a girl's maturation tend to focus on her sexual initiation: his story is about individuation, hers about a new sort of intimacy and a merging of identity with her mate. But because feminists define female maturity in different terms, they need a different kind of story. In the fiction of Joanna Russ we find such a story: in the repeated narrative pattern Russ herself calls "the rescue of the female child." What the child is rescued from is patriarchy. In Russ's fiction, the rescuer is always a middle-aged woman (35-45 years old); the child is either about 12 (i.e., on the edge of puberty) or, more commonly, about 17 (on the edge of sexual awakening). There are five stages of this rescue, increasing in complexity: (1) the physical removal of the child from a life-threatening situation in a patriarchal culture; (2) the rescue of the child from the psychological crippling of a culture which devalues her as female; (3) the rescue from "compulsory heterosexuality"; (4) the rescue of the self, as the older woman in some kind of time-loop goes back to help her younger self rebel against or survive patriarchal restrictions; and (5) the rescue of the mother, accompanied by some significant gesture of reconciliation with the woman who had earlier been seen only as the teacher and enforcer of patriarchy's limits. All of these stages seem to be important parts of the feminist awakening, and most can be more easily imagined and more fully represented in the mode of SF than in realistic fiction.

The author's conclusion connects this pattern with the developmental theories of Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow as a way to further illuminate its significance for feminist scholars and readers.

Nancy Steffen-Fluhr

The Case of the Haploid Heart: Psychological Patterns in the Science Fiction of Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr)

Abstract.--Alice Sheldon's SF stories exhibit a psychological pattern in which images of symbiosis are juxtaposed with images of extreme separation and estrangement. This pattern is, in part, projective, linked to the unresolved gender conflicts in Sheldon's childhood--and especially to her ambivalent relationship with her mother, against whom she defined herself. The violent tensions in Sheldon's SF plots thus express not only her overt sexual politics, but also a psychomachical struggle--the ongoing drama of a personality at war with itself. Sheldon's yearning for integration, intimacy, and surcease is evident throughout her work; but that wish is often defeated by an equal and opposite fear of closeness, dependency, and helplessness...a fear of the loss of Self in the Other. Whatever their initial trajectories, her stories tend to become vicious circles which serve to validate an elemental self-division--the no-win war of Me against Her. Sheldon's feminism is thus subtly limited. Although she empathetically represents women as alienated, "toothless" victims, she is far less able to imagine characters who are free and whole female selves. Nevertheless, her work constitutes a precious achievement. She was never able to transcend her private pain and inner conflicts; but she was able to express that pain and conflict in precise and memorable terms. And in that emotional authenticity lies her enduring power.

Hoda M. Zaki

Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler

Abstract.--Octavia Butler advances notions of human nature and politics which include the belief that human nature is violent and biologically determined. For her, politics is incapable of improving the human condition. Her works are especially utopian when she describes alien societies. The ideological elements in her works link her to many other 1970s' feminist SF works which, although utopian, are essentially liberal. Butler shares with them similar views on human nature, views which are rooted in an ideology of gender difference developed in the late 19th century by opponents to women's equality. Her works, however, contain one element of racial estrangement not found in most SF and feminist SF: fully developed characters of color. This inclusion at once enriches and rebukes liberal feminist ideology and SF.

Jane Donawerth

Lilith Lorraine: Feminist Socialist Writer in the Pulps

Abstract.--Mary Wright, who published two feminist socialist utopias under the name Lilith Lorraine in Gernsback publications, offers proof both of women's authorial presence in SF's "Golden Age" and of the continuance of a feminist utopian tradition through the 1920s and into the 1930s. A poet, editor, teacher, radio lecturer, and traveler, Lorraine published poetry and SF under several pen names, some of them male. In The Brain of the Planet, a dime novel published in 1929, Lorraine describes a socialist utopia developing under the influence of a radical professor's thought-wave machine. In "Into the 28th Century," she imagines a future feminist socialist utopia resulting from a war between the generations. Her works are important to historians of SF for her communitarian Christian socialism, her feminist analysis of the economics of marriage, her presentation of an alternate technology of reproduction, her development of the theme of mental telepathy, and her justification of racial prejudice in terms of a science of eugenics.

.[A response by Eric Leif Davin appears in SFS 52 (November 1990).]

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