Science Fiction Studies

# 15 = Volume 5, Part 2 = July 1978

Pamela J. Annas

New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction

Science fiction has always been potentially revolutionary, though it has a long history, especially in the USA, of not coming up to its potential. Originally a product of the pulp magazines in this country, it has likewise not been seen by American critics as aesthetically interesting. Thus, its usefulness as an instrument for exploring social change has, until recently, been ignored. SF envisions, creates, an alternate world which comments on our own. Though it has often been defined as an exploration of the social consequences of technology and scientific research — and certainly one of the questions SF asks is what the effect of science is on individuals and on society — it is not finally technology that is at the center of the genre. Rather, SF refers to the use in imaginative literature of the scientific method as an aesthetic concept. The SF writer, in creating a new or future world, isolates one or a few variables — biological, technological, psychological, social — and performs an experiment, builds an imaginative paradigm, peoples it, and works out the experiment within the confines of this artificially constructed laboratory of the text.

The experiment so performed leads back to this world. The extrapolation of or analogy to a present trend, for example overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner), or conspicuous consumption ("Midas Plague," Frederik Pohl), or the idealization of the mediocre in American politics ("Null P," William Tenn), or the oppression of women into a separate and inferior class of human beings (Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas), is an imaginative and ideational construct that comments on the possibilities inherent in the here and now.

In England, where SF developed in a more or less direct line from the utopian romances of William Morris and the Darwinist dystopias of H.G. Wells, there has been a longer and more respected tradition of social criticism in literary as well as in political writing. SF in the United States has been more often seen as apolitical, as purely escape, as "space opera," as fantasy unrelated to our own world and poorly written to boot. It strikes me as particularly significant that only now, with the present trend of American criticism toward a recognition that literature (and literary criticism) is intimately connected to its social context, has SF been recognized in this country as a type of literature worthy of discussion by the literary establishment.

SF began to establish itself in this country as a popular form in the 1930s, which also saw the reemergence of a tradition of radical proletarian literature. This is not entirely coincidental. The rapid development of SF in the 1930s was the other side of what radical writers like James Agee, Meridel LeSeuer, Jack Conroy, and Richard Wright were ultimately trying to do, which was to imagine alternatives. A look at 30s leftist literature, and films such as King Vidor's Our Daily Bread, shows that while these writers were excellent at analyzing the economic, political and social situation, they were weak where SF writers have proven to be strong — in imagining alternatives.

However, SF writers' imagined alternatives have often, and particularly in the 30s and 40s, been politically conservative to regressive, especially in the glaring illumination of hindsight. The cherished notion, for example, of many SF writers that technology in itself held out the promise of utopia through freeing people from alienating labor has proven to be an illusion. Now that the USA has gone through a few more decades of the mechanization of production in all areas, it is clear that technology in itself is not the crux of the problem. The issue is under what economic system technology is employed and to whose benefit. Under monopoly capitalism, technology does not free the worker from alienating labor; neither does it, contrary to popular belief, upgrade the worker's skill. Rather it has, says Harry Braverman in his excellent study Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, proletarianized larger and larger groups of workers who had thought they had escaped from the working class — clerical workers, to give one of Braverman's major examples.1 A lack of insight into the use to which technology was being put by monopoly capitalism was not unique to SF writers — other writers had largely ignored the problem altogether — but their optimism is more glaring: a large number of SF novels and especially short stories up to the 1960s assumed that, in spite of its problems, technology qua technology would set us free.

Though SF writers have often sounded — and been — politically conservative, the form in which they have chosen to work shares with oppressed socioeconomic groups a perceptual technique: dual vision. For oppressed groups, dual vision means seeing the world and yourself through two sets of opposed values. Black American writers have often noted this phenomenon; W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that "it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others."2 And Joanna Russ writes in The Female Man of "the knowledge you suffer when you're an outsider ... the perception of all experience through two sets of eyes, two systems of value, two habits of expectation, two minds." (§7:2) This duality of perception comes, for a member of an oppressed class, through the experience of having one's reality defined not by oneself, but by somebody else. The dual perception of oppressed groups has, however, the potential for becoming the dialectical perception of revolutionary groups. Dualism is static; dialectical thought, though still based on contradiction, is dynamic. It is a form of thinking which attempts to move from dualism to at least a conditional synthesis. Implicit in the form of SF literature is a non-ethnocentric and dialectical vision of society: non-ethnocentric in that a fundamental premise of the genre is that things-as-they-are should be questioned rather than merely accepted and described; dialectical in that alternate paradigms are played off against any given reality. SF, no matter what its lapses in emphasis have been historically, is structurally suited to a role as revolutionary literature.

1. Feminist writers have recently discovered the revolutionary potential of SF. In the last decade or so, an increasing number of women have started to write SF stories and novels. It is important to understand that feminist SF is as much a result of recent feminist literature as it is of SF, SF itself has been an overwhelmingly male-dominated genre. Men wrote it; men (and boys) read it. The literature was based on largely unquestioned patriarchal assumptions. With few exceptions, women in the worlds of SF were props rather than characters when they appeared at all. Indeed, on the evidence of a large number of stories and novels, an anthropologist from Arcturus 3 might logically conclude that Earth had only one sex: male. Kingsley Amis suggested in 1960 that the proportion of male to female readers was somewhere between fifteen to one and five to one; my own experience suggests that the ratio was closer to twenty to one. Why women (and girls) did not read SF is no mystery, and Amis noted that at that time only one in fifty SF writers was a woman.3

Why did women writers choose not to work in this genre until very recently? One good reason is the potentially revolutionary nature of the form. In order to build paradigms of an alternate vision of reality, a writer needs to have a fairly secure base from which to build and some sense of what is possible. She needs either a tradition into which she fits as a writer or, more generally, as a member of a class, or she needs a community of some kind which shares enough of her basic assumptions. Either a tradition or a community is necessary in order to develop a dialectical awareness of oneself in relation to past and future. Clearly, if you feel you have no present alternatives and no future, you may put your stories into an ostensible future but you do not create significant alternative visions of reality. If what you see is that you are trapped with no way out, what you write is static fiction which explores and delineates the limited world in which you do exist.

While this sense of entrapment has been especially true of women writers, it has also been true of modernist literature in general. Dualist thinking, which explores a static yet contradictory reality, is a major characteristic of modernist literature. The condition of women, then, has become for writers of both sexes a metaphor for the alienated and trapped condition of humanity in the modern world. This is probably why, as Carolyn Heilbrun suggests in Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, "the woman as hero is more frequent in great modern literature precisely because the peculiar tension that exists between her apparent freedom and her actual relegation to a constrained destiny is a tension experienced also by men in the modern world."4

When a group discovers itself, the first kind of literature produced is an explanation of the constraints within which the writer exists. Then comes a stage which is frankly autobiographical, a minute exploration of the limits of one's world, but with a consciousness that one is a member of a group. That is, one moves from a static to a dynamic perception of reality, from the consciousness of oneself as an isolated individual to the consciousness of oneself as a member of a class. The writer is no longer simply describing the given, but consciously placing her or his self, recovering a past which is newly seen. One moves from an eternal present to a present connected dynamically to the past. Clearly, the next stage is a consciousness of the way both past and present connect to the future. This is the crucial transition for the literature of any group with an emerging consciousness of itself as a group: the move from isolation to a sense of connection which is both spatial and temporal.5

SF as a genre is more useful than "mainstream" fiction for exploring possibilities for social change precisely because it allows idea to become flesh, abstraction to become concrete, imaginative extrapolation to become aesthetic reality. It allows the writer to create and the reader to experience and recreate a new or transformed world based on a set of assumptions different from those we usually accept. It allows the reader, for a while, to be reborn into a reborn world. And, through working out in concrete terms philosophical and political assumptions, it allows the reader to take back into her or his own life new possibilities. There is a dialectical relationship between the world and its imaginative and ideational reconstructions in the creations of the mind. The artist says for us what we almost knew and defamiliarizes what we thought we knew.

2. Since the publication of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, a number of women writers have begun to work with the concept of androgyny, creating alternate worlds based on an image of unity in which "male" and "female" elements are poised in harmony within the individual and/or society. Alternatives to sex role stereotyping are central to the utopian visions of feminist writers. Such alternatives range widely from visions of worlds which have entirely eliminated men and therefore sexual polarization, through visions of worlds which are biologically androgynous, to visions of worlds in which male and female functions and roles simply are not sharply differentiated. They can nevertheless be grouped together loosely under the concept of androgyny. For the feminist writer, androgyny is a metaphor, more or less explicitly, which allows the writer to structure utopian visions that eliminate or transcend contradictions which she sees as crucial. These attempts to move from sexual polarization to androgyny are analogous to a movement in thought from dualism to a dialectical synthesis.

Definitions of androgyny generally operate on two levels. One is psychological and social, and focuses on the androgynous personality. Carolyn Heilbrun defines androgyny as "a condition under which the characteristics of the sexes and the human impulses expressed by men and women are not rigidly assigned.... Androgyny suggests a spirit of reconciliation between the sexes; it suggests, further, a full range of experience open to individuals who may, as women, be aggressive, as men, tender."6 The second aspect of the concept of androgyny is what might be called the androgynous moment. Barbara Gelphi defines androgyny as "a psychic unity, either potential or actual, conceived as existing in all individuals."7 And in "The Androgynous Vision," Nancy Bazin and Alma Freeman write that: "Directly or by implication, the term androgynous has also been identified historically with the mystical moment or a sense of oneness with God, the moment of vision or revelation, orgasm, manic ecstasy, and the aesthetic experience."8 These are far-ranging and inclusive definitions of androgyny. The very inclusiveness of the concept of androgyny suggests that the center of the utopian concern of feminist writers is in modifying sex roles to allow for full human development of each individual person. Such an inclusive definition of androgyny points to a conceptual emphasis or, if you will, to an ordering of priorities. Any "utopia" which neglects the problem of sexual role-typing is no utopia at all.

For women writers the concept of androgyny itself has a problematical history, since most of its proponents have been male. Cythia Secor, In "Androgyny: An Early Reappraisal," suggests that the image of the androgyne is less useful for women that the image of the strong woman — for example, the witch or the Amazon — because the latter suggest energy, power, and movement, while the androgyne, Secor writes, is an image of "static completion."9 The problem for women writers attempting to use the concept is that most visions of the androgyne — because worked out by male writers, from Jung through Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves and D.H. Lawrence to Robert Bly — have been of the masculine personality fulfilled and completed by the feminine.10 These writers have been concerned with the one-sided hyper-masculine socialization of their own personalities and have recognized the necessity of recovering those qualities in themselves — such as tenderness, a capacity to nurture, a sense that one is an integral part of the universe rather than separate from it — that a patriarchal civilization had, in them, repressed as feminine and weak. It seems to me equally necessary that women writers work with the concept of androgyny to create female characters who have recovered those aspects of themselves which are traditionally "masculine" yet nondestructive.

Androgyny, or for that matter any exploration of sex roles, is not an area that has had much appeal for male SF writers. Most SF has been based on the assumption that the nuclear family and interaction between men and women would remain the same, even if everything else changed. This has a parallel in the US radical literature of the 1930s, where writers could envision a transformed social order which nevertheless retained the nuclear family and sex role stereotypes untouched. In general, male SF writers have avoided any discussion of sex and sex roles. However, a suppressed yearning to transcend sexual role-typing as a pattern for social interaction is implicit in the SF writer's creation of other intelligent species with whom human beings could not relate in sexually defined terms. Three rare examples of SF literature in which sex roles are the thematic center and in which androgyny is at least a possibility are "Consider Her Ways," by John Wyndham, "Second Game," by Charles V. DeVet and Katherine MacLean, and Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon.

The resolution of the central puzzle of "Second Game" (1958) is dependent on the protagonist's recognition that, in the culture he is investigating, the women are androgynes seven years out of eight." The explanation for this biological adaptation is that the planet is climatically harsh and the people have been engaged in a centuries-long life and death struggle with another species. Only a certain amount of stability for child bearing and rearing is possible, so the women have adapted biologically. The men are always men. The story bears some resemblance in theme and setting to Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. But in "Second Game," the androgynous adaptation is, first, limited to women and, second, is finally seen by the authors as a weakness. The culture and the planet of Velda are conquered by Earth because Veldian men intermarry with Earth women, who are women all the time and therefore superior to Veldian females, who are only biologically women one eighth of the time. Velda therefore loses cultural autonomy and biological distinctness as a species, and the reader is never told what happens to the Veldian women/ androgynes. Apparently they have become obsolete and are of no further interest.

Ted Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) also posits a biologically androgynous world and makes a number of points about the pernicious effects of sexual role-typing through two fairly effective technical devices: the androgynous world of Ledom is presented to us through the consciousness of an American male of the 1950s (complete with all the attendant prejudices), and chapters describing Ledom are intercut with chapters following the daily life of a suburban couple of that period. While Venus Plus X was way ahead of its time in dealing with the issue in a sympathetic way, Sturgeon's treatment has certain obvious problems. First, the inhabitants of Ledom are biologically normal individuals surgically altered as children to become hermaphrodites. This emphasis on technology is disturbing, as is the fact that the androgynous society of Ledom is not self-perpetuating. Sturgeon tries to deal with this problem by seeing Ledom not as a utopia, but as an example to the rest of the unaltered and role-trapped world, though in fact the rest of the world doesn't know that Ledom exists. On the relation between Ledom and the outside world and on the ultimate reason for the existence of this artificial society, Sturgeon gets somewhat murky and sentimental.

"Consider Her Ways," a 1956 novella by British SF writer John Wyndham, is set in a future society composed entirely of women. The men have died off in some plague. The title of the story is based on the Biblical quotation, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways" (Proverbs 6:6); and the society itself is modeled on the rigid stratifications of insect colonies. There are four biologically distinct types in the all female society of Wyndham's story:

The Doctorate — the educated ruling classes.... The Mothers, whose title is self-explanatory. The Servitors, who are numerous and, for psychological reasons, small. The Workers, who are physically and muscularly strong, to do the heavier work. All the three lower classes respect the authority of the Doctorate. Both the employed classes revere the Mothers.12

The female protagonist of the story, a woman from our own time transported into the future and trapped in the grossly huge body of one of the class of Mothers, is horrified at this vision of the future. And, of course, so are we. It reminds us of Huxley's Brave New World with its biologically determined social status and of H.G. Wells' warning in The Time Machine and First Men in the Moon about what the English class system might evolve into. What is particularly disturbing about "Consider Her Ways" is Wyndham's assumption that an all-female society would inevitably be conservative and static and that social roles would be even more rigidly defined than in our present world.

3. Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1975), based on her 1972 short story "When It Changed," also posits at least one possible future society composed entirely of women. The history of Russ' Whileaway, like that of the world of Wyndham's novella, records a plague which killed off all the men. After a period of disorganization, the society rearranged itself. In both Wyndham's novella and Russ's novel, advanced biological techniques, such as cloning or the merging of ova, are a given. What both writers are interested in is the social structure of a society of women. Wyndham makes his society of women so rigid, so unfree, so controlled, that his 20th-century heroine recoils in horror. Russ' basic assumption, in contrast, is that a society of women would be freer, more individualistic, less rigid, than any society based on patriarchal assumptions.

Joanna Russ places her utopian vision of an all-female society in direct contrast to a number of other possibilities. There are four main characters in The Female Man, from four alternate universes, and all four are variants of the same woman, the same basic material shaped by four different environments. Joanna, the character whose voice is closest to the author's, is from our own world, and is a college professor, thereby, presumably, having made it in a man's world. Jeannine is from a world very similar to ours, but which never recovered economically from the Great Depression and in which sex role stereotyping is more thorough than in our own. Janet Evason is from Whileaway, an alternate world some 800 years in our future, a world in which there are no men. And finally, there is Jael, a biologically adapted professional assassin, from a future in between ours and Janet's; there are men in Jael's world, but men and women are engaged in a war against each other in which the men will eventually be killed off.

The Female Man is a study of sex roles and of the hostility between the sexes, a hostility that is an inevitable result when any group oppresses and denies identity to another. In one sense, The Female Man is a novel about coming into consciousness and, as a result, advancing out of stasis to the possibility of action. In another sense, and stylistically, The Female Man is one long conversation (or diatribe, depending on your politics) between the character Joanna and our world. Joanna describes how it is to be a woman in a man's profession, describes various cocktail party games like "His Little Girl" and "Ain't It Awful," talks directly to the reader. The worlds of the other three women clearly exist as possibilities inside Joanna's head: that is, she walks through her own world with these three other people also inside her. Jeannine, Janet, and Jael are alternative possibilities and responses for Joanna and, with variations and including Joanna, for ourselves. The responses range from the passive one of Jeannine through the articulate but, in terms of action, ineffectual one of Joanna to the murderous response of Jael, an assassin for Womanland who thoroughly enjoys her work. Now clearly, while Jael is one possible response to oppression, it is not one with which Joanna, the first-person narrator, is entirely comfortable. Such a response means that one's energy is engaged in fighting men; that the rest of one's life is subordinated to this struggle. The utopian vision of The Female Man is located not in Wornanland and Jael but in Whileaway and the character of Janet Evason.

There are no men on Whileaway.13 This is the simplest and most thorough way of constructing a utopia without sex-role polarization. There is therefore no division of labor by sex. Instead there is physical work for young women, with time off for artistic work and child-birth and rearing, and intellectual work for older women. There are love bonds and partnerships between women, but no nuclear families. Instead there are extended families which include a range of age and among which a young woman may choose freely. There is a great deal of work to be done and everyone is expected to work. Whileaway, like many feminist utopias, is an anarchist society which emphasizes both individuality and social responsibility. The one crime punishable by death on Whileaway is solipsism, opting out, refusing to work, saying, in essence, none of you exist. There is no class structure on Whileaway; there are no differences of wealth and status. As a result, there are no property-based crimes; material goods belong to everyone. Most crucially, there is no constraint on movement and there is no fear:

There's no being out too late in Whileaway, or up too early, or in the wrong part of town, or unescorted. You cannot fall out of the kinship web and become sexual prey for strangers for there is no prey and there are no strangers — the web is world-wide. In all of Whileaway there is no one who can keep you from going where you please.... (§4:18)

Sex-role polarization is a species of dualism. Androgyny is based on a uniting of contradictions. In that sense, the world of Whileaway, where the entire range of response and action is open to any individual, can be seen as an androgynous world. Eliminating one sex in order to allow full development as human beings to the other is at one end of a spectrum of ways the concept of androgyny has been used in feminist SF. What the apparent extremity of this particular solution points to, more than anything else, is the problem women writers have faced in dealing with a concept of androgyny that is male-defined and the subsequent necessity for redefining androgyny from a female perspective. At one point, Joanna relates the central metaphor of the Symposium — a definition of love as the attempt to unite with some other who mirrors you and completes you — and says that the best way to possess that which we don't have, and therefore need and want, is to become it. Hence the title of the novel — The Female Man; woman becomes man in the generic sense of the word, that is, as it means human being, and comes into full consciousness of self. Joanna writes: "To resolve contrarieties, unite them in your own person." (§7:2)

4. Ursula K. Le Guin's work, from Rocannon's World (1966) to The Dispossessed (1974), is an exploration of the biological, psychological, social, and mystical dimensions of the I-Other duality, very often metaphorized explicitly as androgyny.

Planet of Exile (1966), for example, is a formal and fairly traditional expression of the movement from dualism to unity, from separation to completion. Chapters of first-person narration are alternately assigned to a woman who is a native of the planet and to a man of another race who is part of a colony abandoned on the planet. The novel is a simple love story of how these two people of different races and different sexes come together and merge physically, through producing a child, socially, through a marriage which binds the two races together, and mentally, through telepathy.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) assumes a world locked in an ice age, a world its natives call Gethen and its interstellar visitors Winter, a world of biological androgynes. A Gethenian may be either or alternately male or female, may bear a child one time and father a child the next. She/he has no control over the form sexuality may take. Full sexuality occurs only during three or four days of the lunar cycle and this period of estrus is called kemmer. During somer, the rest of the month, a Gethenian is neither interested in nor capable of sexual intercourse and, for all practical purposes, is an androgynous neuter. As one commentator in the novel remarks: "Four-fifths of the time, these people are not sexually motivated at all. Room is made for sex, plenty of room; but a room, as it were, apart. The society of Gethen, in its daily functioning and in its continuity, is without sex." (§7)

The social consequences of this biological androgyny are worked out in detail in The Left Hand of Darkness. There is no war on Gethen. There is no division of labor by sex; the standard justification for such a division is answered, since any individual may bear a child. There is no rape. It is always the Year One on Winter: there is no hurried and anxious drive toward progress and there is little exploitation of people or the land. In government, there is a balance between hierarchy and anarchy. Le Guin writes:

To me the "female principle" is, or at least historically has been, basically anarchic. It values order without constraint, rule by custom not by force. It has been the male who enforces order, who constructs power structures, who makes, enforces, and breaks laws. On Gethen, these two principles are in balance: the decentralising against the centralising, the flexible against the rigid, the circular against the linear.14

There is no division of humanity into strong and weak, protective and protected, dominant and submissive, owner and owned, active and passive. (§7). The philosophy/religion of Winter, concentrated in the ceremony of Foretelling, is based on a profound vision of transcendence through the weaving together of disparate elements: "Light is the left hand of darkness/And darkness the right hand of light." (§16)

Into this world of androgynes comes the Envoy, Genly Ai, a biological male sent there to invite Gethen into the League of All Worlds. His problems with the inhabitants of Winter come from his inability to judge them as human beings without first defining them as men or women. And he has problems with his own self-image as well, since the Gethenians judge him without sex-based preconceptions. They judge him solely as a human being. However, throughout The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin uses the male pronoun to refer to the biologically androgynous inhabitants of Gethen. Feminist criticism of this novel has focused on the use of the generic "he" and on the choice of a man, Genly Ai, as the main character and interpreter of Gethen. Gethen would have looked different to us if Genly Ai had been a woman, 15 but instead we see this androgynous society through the eyes of a biological and culturally conditioned male. What Le Guin has done is to embody in Genly Ai the main problem feminists have had with the concept of androgyny: that it has usually been looked at and defined from a male perspective. Looking through Genly's eyes, directed by the generic "he," and as a consequence of Le Guin's putting Estraven, the main Gethenian character, "almost exclusively into roles which we are culturally conditioned to perceive as 'male' — a prime minister ... a political schemer, a fugitive, a prison-breaker, a sledge-hauler."16 Estraven and the other Gethenians appear male to us. Beyond these problems for the reader, though, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly's gradual coming to consciousness, his own conceptual transcendence of dualism and sexual polarization. He teaches his Gethenian comrade, Estraven, mindspeech, but he learns from Winter a great deal more than he is capable of giving.17

The novels which follow The Left Hand of DarknessThe Lathe of Heaven (1971), The Word for World is Forest (1972), and The Dispossessed (1974) — all use the device of contrast between a mentality which is dualistic and one which is androgynous. The Lathe of Heaven does this on an individual level, The Dispossessed on a social level, and The Word for World is Forest on a species level. George Orr, the main character of The Lathe of Heaven, is a dreamer whose dreams literally change reality. The novel is based on the contrast and struggle between George, who doesn't want the power to change reality, and a psychiatrist, a specialist in dreams, who has been assigned to George to cure him of his "obsession," and who turns out to be hungry for the very power George would like to decline. Dr. Haber is a classic patriarchal personality: superficially strong, needing to dominate, to name, measure, categorize, and separate, he is basically noncreative and has an overwhelming need to define the world, to capture it in his own intellectual paradigms, rather than to accept it and be of it. George is, in contrast, superficially weak and passive. He is not governed by ego and a need to make progress like the doctor, but instead is balanced, sane, harmonious, and in organic relation to the rest of the world. He has a center and, as a dreamer whose dreams come true, he is literally creative. One character in the novel describes George as "a block of wood not carved ... the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything." (§7) Even Haber's tests describe George as androgynous: "Both, neither. Either, or. Where there's an opposed pair, a polarity, you're in the middle; where there's a scale, you're at the balance point." (§9) Of course, from Haber's point of view, this is "self-cancellation." Haber sees the universe as essentially linear change; George sees it as a cyclical alternation and balance between change and stillness.

The Word for World is Forest is similar to The Lathe of Heaven in its focus on the connection between dream and reality. The Athsheans live as much in the dream time as in what they call the world time; both are real and important. A tribal decentralized society, its politics are handled by women and its philosophy by men. The Great Dreamers are usually men, though everyone dreams; the heads of tribes are almost always women, though those men who are not Great Dreamers also hunt. Also similar to The Lathe of Heaven is the conflict between two opposed philosophies of life. The planet is sea and forested islands, and the Athshean's word for world is forest. The Athsheans are centered and integrated within themselves, their society, and in their relation to their physical environment. In contrast, the Terrans, who have arrived on a colonizing expedition, exploit both the people and the land; they begin cutting down the forest and they enslave the Athsheans, whom they see as furry green monkeys.

The story of the Athsheans has close parallels to the exploitation and extermination of American Indians by the white settlers in this country.18 At least as important as the description of the society of the Athsheans in this novel is the damning portrait of the Terran military expedition, characterized by an absolute inability to perceive a connection between self and other. In its more virulent forms, in the character of Capt. Davidson in this novel and in Dr. Haber in The Lathe of Heaven, this inability to connect self and other is finally defined as insanity. The Athsheans ultimately drive off the Terrans, but in doing so they learn from them something that had not previously been in their culture: how to kill. Le Guin remarks in a note to the first publication of the story that though what she had wanted to write about was the forest and the dream, what she ended up writing about was "the destruction of ecological balance and the rejection of emotional balance."19 As a result of this emphasis, The Word for World is Forest is probably the most painful of Le Guin's works to read.

These two alternatives of dualism and androgyny, of separation and connection, become in The Dispossessed the alternatives of a capitalist society (Urras) and an anarchist Society (Anarres). The central character of The Dispossessed, Shevek, goes from his own anarchist world to Urras to begin to bring the two together again through a sharing of science. The novel opens as Shevek leaves for Urras, and chapters alternate between present time and Shevek's past life story on Anarres, told in stages between events happening on Urras. This structure allows a critical analysis of Urras, which is patterned after our own world, because we look at it initially through Shevek's eyes; gradually we also follow his socialization into a utopian world radically different from our own. This is a reversal of the usual utopian form (The Time Machine, When the Sleeper Wakes, Island) where the protagonist is somehow thrown into the new world from our own and we share his assumptions from the beginning. In The Dispossessed, it is our world which is analyzed from a fresh viewpoint, a viewpoint which we gradually learn to understand and share.

Anarres, like Gethen, Whileaway, and other feminist utopias, does not divide labor by sex. Any person may do what she or he is temperamentally suited to do. Like Winter, Anarres is a harsh world. A great deal of ingenuity and cooperation and hard work are necessary simply to survive. There is no economic competition, however. People are trained from childhood to share what they have and to work where they are needed. No one is compelled to do anything. Instead, people are educated into a sense of social responsibility, a sense that each individual is vitally connected to her or his society, that indeed, the aggregate of individuals is society. "What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice."20 There is no government as such on Anarres. It is an anarchosyndicalist society where social functions are performed by an interlocking structure of work syndicates, each formed for a particular task and disbanding when it no longer serves a function. The society is planet wide, the economy is coordinated, but, thanks to a sophisticated computer technology, bureaucracy is minimal (though one of the themes or questions of the novel is how to arrest the insidious growth of bureaucracy and power-seeking even within an anarchist society).

The physicist Shevek, central character of The Dispossessed, had worked out a field theory which goes beyond relativity, a theory of simultaneity which would, on a practical level, make possible instantaneous communication across light years. This scientific/metaphysical concept of simultaneity is analogous to androgyny because it denies separation and duality. It denies the separation between here and there; it comprehends the universe holistically rather than partially. An Odonian proverb goes: "true journey is return." This sense of the inherent connectedness of the universe is the theme of The Dispossessed and the center of Ursula Le Guin's utopian vision, though in The Dispossessed, as in her other novels, Le Guin chooses to focus on a moment when that balance and sense of connection are in danger of being lost.

5. People are shaped by the possibilities open to them. Odo, the woman whose theoretical writing started the anarchist revolution on Urras some two hundred years before the time The Dispossessed opens, saw that it would be necessary not only to remove her followers physically from capitalist Urras, but to remove them psychologically as well. She did this by creating an entirely new language for the settlers on Anarres. Odo realized that the anarchist settlers would not be truly free of patriarchal and capitalist assumptions as long as they carried with them a language which was structured upon these assumptions.

Marge Piercy, in her most recent novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), creates a future utopia whose anarchist, androgynous assumptions are contained and reflected in its language. Piercy has been slowly moving toward this kind of utopian vision. Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) is a different kind of SF, using extrapolative elements such as an attempted revolution by adolescents facing the Nineteenth Year of Servitude (compulsory service used by the state to form and control each individual), in order to explore the problem of sex-role stereotyping within the New Left. Small Changes (1972) follows the lives of two women involved in the feminist community in Boston. Both novels contrast female characters (Joanna and Ginny in Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Miriam and Beth in Small Changes) who are superficially liberated with those who do in fact develop an autonomous and integrated sense of self. In Woman on the Edge of Time, the possibilities of human freedom are located not so much within the individual characters as within the social structure and the relation between the individual and that social structure. Consuelo, the main character of Woman on the Edge of Time, is oppressed both because she is a woman and because she is Third World. A Mexican woman living on welfare in New York, she is committed to a mental institution as dangerous for defending her niece from a pimp's beating. Consuelo hears voices and sees visions. Slowly it becomes clear to us that she actually is in communication with a visitor from the future, Luciente. We only gradually discover that Luciente is a woman, since Piercy has managed to give Luciente behavior-patterns which are both and neither male or female. In addition, Piercy has replaced "he" and "she" with the word "person," and "his," "him," and "her" with the abbreviated "per": "This is per village, but person's gone more than here." (§9) "Person" and "per," though they fall on our ears strangely the first few times they are used, become acceptable and nonjarring if the reader works at it a little. Though they have the disadvantage of not coming from a collectively accepted linguistic practice, their advantage is that they allow an androgynous, nonpolarized reference to characters in the novel. As neutral terms, "person" and "per" tend not to carry with them a whole set of assumptions and expectations, based on sex, about what is possible for a given character.

However, Piercy links the potential existence of this androgynous utopian future directly to the fragile possibilities of our own time. There are other alternative futures. At one point in the novel, Consuelo projects herself by mistake into another of these alternatives, a nightmare totalitarian future which is a logical extension of the dualisms of class, race, and sex of our own and Consuelo's present. She finds herself in a technologically advanced society which adapts men to be professional killers and in which women are surgically altered to heighten sexual characteristics; they avoid being dismantled for the organ banks only by participating in statecontrolled, institutionalized prostitution. (§ 15)

The present time of the novel is set mostly in Bellevue a hospital whose authorities are using Consuelo in an experiment to control "socially violent" behavior: a combination of electronic and chemical devices has been surgically implanted in her brain. Consuelo's final act in the novel, is to poison — execute — the psychiatrists who are acting in a way that will lead directly to the totalitarian alternative future of sexual polarization rather than to the androgynous anarchist future. This is, of course, shocking. And Piercy deliberately makes the ethical questions more difficult by choosing as her protagonist a person already defined by her society as "insane" and "socially violent." Has Consuelo ever seen Luciente? Are both these alternative futures only the ravings of a madwoman? Surely a woman who kills her doctors is insane?

What Consuelo has learned, if we accept that she is sane and her society is not, is her place in history. She has learned that past, present, and future exist inside each individual and that each individual has to take responsibility for the future and act. Passivity leads to someone else shaping a future that may be lethal to all you hold sacred — such as human freedom.

Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ in The Female Man are more immediately threatening to the reader than Ursula Le Guin precisely because they are describing the present more explicitly than Le Guin is — though even Le Guin, in The Word for World is Forest, focuses more on what stands in the way of her vision of wholeness and balance than on that vision itself. For Joanna Russ in The Female Man and Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, the present is not androgynous. It is characterized by fragmentation and separation rather than wholeness, by sexual polarization and duality rather than androgyny and a dialectical synthesis. The response is anger; both Woman on the Edge of Time and The Female Man are angry books. Finally however, for all three writers it is an anger at the past and present, shaped and directed by a utopian vision of a possible future which would be based on a realization rather than a suppression of human potential.

Virginia Woolf asked, back in 1928, whether there was or ever would be such a thing as a female sentence. Contemporary feminist writers have recovered and created words, images, and utopian visions which emerge expressly from the perspective of women artists and which, taken together, are beginning to coalesce into a literary and political tradition of our own. Contemporary feminist SF writers have a surprising number of revolutionary assumptions in common: a politics of anarchism, a metaphysics of the organic, a psychological and social vision of unity, wholeness, balance, and cooperation. The concept of androgyny often serves as a way of bringing all these assumptions together. In a society that defines people by sex, sex is a social and political issue. As a utopian possibility that transcends sexual dualism, androgyny is therefore a political response.


1. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (US, 1974).

2. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) (US, 1961), pp. 16-17.

3. Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (US, 1960), pp. 50-51.

4. Carolyn Heilburn, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (US, 1973), pp. 93-94.

5. Gérard Klein, in "Discontent in American Science Fiction," SFS 4(1977):3-13, argues that, in contemporary American SF, "the predominant feeling is that there is no future." This sense of finality, cataclysm, and apocalypse may well be an accurate description of a genre which is still overwhelmingly male dominated. However, Klein's thesis is not as readily applicable to feminist SF. The writers I am concerned with in the present article — Le Guin, Russ, and Piercy specifically, and others such as Suzy McKee Charnas, Anne McCaffrey, and Vonda McIntyre — are in fact imagining both alternatives and futures; they are imagining potential utopias and dystopias based on present possibilities, fears, and dreams; and this is a phenomenon directly related to women's rising consciousness of ourselves as members of a distinct and politically self-aware social group.

6. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, p. x.

7. Barbara C. Gelphi, "The Politics of Androgyny," Women's Studies, 2(1974):151.

8., Nancy T. Bazin and Alma Freeman, "The Androgynous Vision," Women's Studies, 2(1974): 186.

9. Cynthia Secor, "Androgyny: An Early Reappraisal," Women's Studies, 2(1974): 165.

10. See especially C.J. Jung, Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self (US, 1959), Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (US, 1956), Robert Graves, The White Goddess (US, 1948), any of Robert Bly's volumes of poetry such as The Light Around the Body or The Tooth Mother Naked at Last, and certain of D.H. Lawrence's protagonists, such as Birkin in Women in Love.

11. Charles V. DeVet and Katherine MacLean, "Second Game," Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg (US, 1970).

12. John Wyndham, "Consider Her Ways," Sometime, Never (US, 1957), p. 110.

13. "When It Changed" ends with a note on the name of the planet: "But men are coming to Whileaway.... In Faust's words: Verweile doch, du bist so schoen." In Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (US, 1972), pp. 278-279.

14. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary?" Aurora: Beyond Equality, eds. Vonda McIntyre and Susan J. Anderson (US, 1976), p. 134.

15. Le Guin's recent revision of a short story called "Winter's King" (The Wind's Twelve Quarters [US, 1976] pp. 85-108), which was originally written a year before she started The Left Hand of Darkness, suggests that the choice of a male hero and the choice of "he" to refer to the androgynous Gethenians does structure our perception of them as male. "Winter's King" was originally written using the male pronoun; in the revision Le Guin simply substitutes "she" for "he" in referring to the protagonist of the story. As a result, the reader sees the character in the revised version not as a man, though she is still referred to as "king," but as a woman.

16. Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary?", p. 138.

17. Telepathy is an important part of Le Guin's vision of androgyny, simply because it breaks down the physical and social barriers between people who, superficially, are very different. The possibility of telepathy has been explored by too many SF writers to list here. A cursory examination of the way the concept has been used in SF suggests that telepathy, which posits a meeting of minds that transcends physical and social separations, is best understood, like the creation of intelligent species to whom we could not respond in social/sexual patterned ways, as an expression of a yearning for androgyny. However, such attempts to transcend physical and social separations can, in SF as elsewhere, be used to serve almost diametrically opposed ends. For example, Robert A. Heinlein's use of telepathy in "Lost Legacy" (1941) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) does not even transcend class distinctions. He merely creates a new class structure, those who have learned how to communicate telepathically and those who have not, and beyond that, those telepaths who are good and those who are evil. So he manages to retain separation, a class structure which is both social and metaphysical, and dualism, while using a concept which is inherently antithetical to all three.

18. Ursula Le Guin had a more personal relationship to this than do most twentieth century Americans, since Ishi, the last Yana Indian, spent the final four years of his life with Le Guin's father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. See Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds (US, 1961), for the similarities between the culture and history of Ishi's tribe and that of Le Guin's Athsheans. Thanks to Susan Vermont for bringing this to my attention.

19. Le Guin in Again, Dangerous Visions, p. 126.

20. Ursula Le Guin, "The Day Before the Revolution," The Wind's Twelve Quarters, p 272.



Feminist SF writers of the 1960s and 1970s share a surprising number of revolutionary assumptions: a politics of anarchism, a metaphysics of the organic, and a psychological and social vision of unity, wholeness, balance, and cooperation. The concept of androgyny often serves as a way of bringing all these assumptions together. In a society that defines people by sex, sex is a social and political issue, and as a utopian possibility transcending sexual dualism, androgyny is a political response. Following a survey of why male-dominated popular science fiction has failed to live up to its revolutionary promise, this essay surveys science fiction that incorporates references to androgyny: The Left Hand of Darkness and other novels by Ursula K. LeGuin, Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Feminist writers of SF have created utopian visions that have emerged expressly from their own perspective as women artists, and that have begun to coalesce into a literary and political tradition of their own.

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