Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992


Notes and Correspondence

This issue of SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES is dedicated to Stanislaw Lem, now in his 71st year. Dr. Lem enjoys reasonably good health, has a lot of fine dachshunds, and is proud of his son in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Princeton, but has ceased, at least temporarily, to write, for "the world is science-proof and knowledge-resistant, incapable of learning anything from history: Historia NON est magistra vitae."

 

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). The Good Doctor’s physical troubles were evidently much more serious than was suggested by the note in Locus that led to my note on his writer’s block in SFS #56. So far as I can recall, the first Asimov story I read was "Blind Alley" in Groff Conklin’s pathbreaking 1946 anthology, The Best of Science Fiction, reprinted from the March 1945 Astounding. It was a harbinger of all that would follow, with its liberal attitudes and resolution through maneuver rather than physical violence. Asimov’s fiction has represented for me essentially what SF should be: intelligent, thoughtful, ingenious, largely unmarred by sentimentality or melodrama, and seldom contaminated by fantasy. Unlike Heinlein he remained a good liberal and a good materialist all his life. As an educator, though not campaigning for a world state, he carried on the work of H.G. Wells in seeking to bring about a rational world. If his life as man and writer was not completely an open book, it was surely one of the most thoroughly documented in autobiographical writing. It was a very good life, and there is none to take his place.—RDM

 

On Peter Fitting’s "Reconsiderations" in SFS #56. In the current publishing climate, in which most of us who write can expect our books to go out of print rapidly and then disappear from view forever, I can feel grateful for any attempt at an intelligent discussion of my work. Better to be discussed than ignored; even harsh criticism can be preferable to the demoralizing silence that most writers normally encounter.

It was in this spirit that I began to read Peter Fitting’s "Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist Science Fiction" in the March 1992 SFS. He was talking about one of my novels, The Shore of Women; good for him! Since Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean were also under discussion in his essay, I was in excellent company. Whatever his quarrels with these novels, he presumably thought they were worth considering at length, or he wouldn’t have bothered writing about them. One cardinal rule in this business, one I’ve always followed, is never to respond to reviewers or critics. So I was prepared to keep any objections I might have to Mr. Fitting’s essay to myself, except for the following lapses on his part.

Peter Fitting has made errors of fact; he has also characterized my book in a way I cannot let pass. To allow his errors to stand without challenge in a journal that claims to be scholarly is to forget what scholarship is supposed to be about. Mr. Fitting has read badly, misunderstood what he has read, and apparently relied on his impressions instead of re-examining my novel. It is as though he recalled only those details that seemed to support his reading of my book, and forgot those that contradicted it.

Mr. Fitting writes: "In its dialogue with the feminist utopias of the 1970s, Sargent’s novel seems to have accommodated both homophobia and heterosexism in its appeal for a reconciliation of the sexes—a development which unfortunately reenacts a key feature of the backlash against feminism" (36). To me, anyway, this is the equivalent of telling me that I’ve "accommodated" racism, or Nazism. About the only consolation I can take is that Fitting, by saying that The Shore of Women only "seems" to accommodate these prejudices, has at least refrained from accusing me of deliberately pandering to them.

I should mention that the reviewer for the New York Times Book Review came to very different conclusions; in fact, it was my treatment of homosexuality in Shore that he singled out for praise. It wasn’t my doing that Bantam, in its corporate wisdom, decided to delete that praise from the blurbs they used on the novel’s paperback edition.1 In this small way, my novel and I were apparently victims of exactly the sort of mentality Fitting deplores.

But this proves little, except that someone else looking at my novel could (and has) come to very different conclusions from Mr. Fitting’s. Still, anyone reading his essay without having read Shore may be surprised to learn that the Times reviewer and other readers, in print or in person, have praised my book for elements he claims it lacks.

His first factual error in recounting the events in Shore is saying that the novel begins "with Birana’s mother murdering her lover" (36). Yvara, Birana’s mother, attempts to kill her lover in a moment of rage, but the woman survives to testify against her. This may seem a trivial mistake, given that Yvara clearly intended for her lover to die, but errors in small matters can indicate a propensity for making larger mistakes.

As it happens, another factual error of Fitting’s is far more serious. In recounting the incident in which Arvil witnesses a rape, feels a guilty arousal at the sight, and later attempts to force himself on Birana, Fitting maintains that "Arvil’s shame is not enough to excuse his failure to intervene when Skua rapes Willow, or his own attempt to force Birana" (35). Arvil does indeed fail to avert the rape, but only because he does not realize what is happening until too late, and is unable to reach Skua in time to prevent the assault. Here is his immediate reaction to the rape, in a passage Fitting omitted from the excerpt he quoted in his footnote 4:

I jumped to my feet. The woman had given no sign that she wanted this, and many signs that she did not. I hastened toward them, but even as I pitied Willow, I could not take my eyes from this coupling. Something in me was roused by this sight, however I fought against it. (411)2

Arvil, in fact, does attempt to intervene. Later, when he tries to force himself on Birana, "the thought of her lying there enduring me, hating me, suddenly repelled me" (412). Despite his feelings, he manages to keep himself from acting on his worst impulses, a very different image of Arvil from the one Fitting presents. It is true that Birana tries to comfort Arvil by saying that "what’s true for these men and women isn’t true for us" (413), a statement Fitting says "is not very reassuring," but Birana goes on to say: "There’s evil enough in all of us—what matters is whether or not we act on it" (413).

Fitting maintains that this scene "undermines the ending’s gesture towards reconciliation, inasmuch as Arvil’s guilty arousal suggests some inherent pleasure in domination which is not shared by women.... There seems to be a fundamental contradiction which Birana—and the novel’s ending—attempt to gloss over with hopeful words" (35). If there is such a contradiction, then it is one we all share inside ourselves—evil impulses struggling against our principles, reason at war with instinct. Birana is admitting that women also have evil impulses. Whether or not women have any inherent pleasure in domination is left open to question, but the control the women of the novel have maintained over the world certainly suggests that women can easily adapt to and rationalize a domination that requires cruelty and ruthlessness. Does acknowledging the existence of certain contradictory impulses undermine the hope or possibility of any reconciliation? Fitting seems to imply that it does. But then he apparently wanted a novel with some answers, not one that mirrors the contradictions and ambiguities of human life.

Mr. Fitting refers to Birana’s growing love for Arvil as a "conversion" to heterosexuality. To call either of these characters "heterosexual" strikes me as a misunderstanding of what heterosexuality (or homosexuality, for that matter) is. Does Arvil’s spurning of the sexual advances of other men underline his essential heterosexuality, as Fitting seems to think? This is the same sort of logic that brings crude guys to call any woman who turns them down a lesbian. Does Fitting really mean to say that it is only one’s actions, rather than one’s feelings, that reveal one’s sexuality? If so, a lot of psychologists would strongly disagree with him.

In fact, Arvil acknowledges what we would call his homosexual impulses, even if he does not act on them during the course of The Shore of Women. He tells Birana that love might have grown between him and his former companion Shadow had they remained together (205). He recognizes that, in time, he might seek sexual fulfillment with Tulan, the boy who is infatuated with Arvil (354).3 His love for Birana may make him, for the duration of the story, monogamous in his behavior, but psychologically he is bisexual.

As for Birana, she is originally attracted to Arvil largely because of his physical resemblance to Laissa, his sister. Fitting somehow misses this subversion of the usual anti-feminist scenario, and has also apparently forgotten Birana’s admission to Laissa toward the end of the novel:

"I love Arvil," Birana said. "At first, it was because I saw you in him and thought of what might have been. You should have loved me, Laissa. I would have loved you, I longed for you.... Even now, I can still long for you, but it’s because I see Arvil in you." (454)

Birana is, therefore, admitting that she loves both Arvil and Laissa. To describe her as a convert to heterosexuality is misleading at best.

As for Fitting’s contention that The Shore of Women does not have a single positive example of a homosexual relationship (36), I can, offhand, think of at least two. One such relationship, and one crucial to the novel’s conclusion, is that between Laissa and Zoreen; Laissa’s lover remains supportive even after Laissa’s disgrace and punishment. Another is the bond between Ulred and Hare, two men who become Arvil’s companions early in the story. Maybe Fitting missed that one because Ulred and Hare are the sort of characters some might call schleppy, but aren’t schlepps also entitled to relationships?

But Fitting’s most serious omission in his discussion of my novel is the lack of any reference to Nallei, the exiled woman who befriends Birana and a character who definitely undermines his assertion that Shore accommodates homophobia. In particular, he ignores the scene in which Birana first discusses her love for Arvil with Nallei. Birana has been as tormented about her feelings as gay people might be about theirs in the more benighted regions of our world, and Nallei says the following to comfort her:

"Sometimes it seems as if we insist on creating worlds in which some kinds of love are accepted and honored, while others are despised. We chose our way long ago partly because we believed the kinds of love sanctioned in the past, those that bound us to men, helped to bring about the Destruction and made us powerless to protest what men had done. I have had some doubt about that. Perhaps there simply wasn’t enough love among those people for others. Perhaps if they had been free to love whomever they chose, to open their hearts willingly to anyone who might love them, and to let this love grow to encompass everyone in some way, they might have found a way to avoid the destruction of others they loved. Perhaps by denying certain kinds of love, they warped their ability to love anyone truly or to love the earth that they nearly destroyed. At the very least, I can’t see how accepting all the ways one might love and any partner one might choose could have added to the horror of what they did." (340)

Some might call these sentiments unrealistic, or possibly wishful thinking, but I defy anyone to call to call them homophobic.

Enough! The problem with countering Mr. Fitting’s arguments is that you can begin to sound as literal-minded as he was in his essay, which is why I won’t go on to discuss what he has misunderstood in The Gate to Women’s Country and A Door into Ocean. Novels have to deal in ambiguity, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to the criticisms of ideologues and literal-minded readers.

But of course Mr. Fitting has admitted that he was judging these books as part of a "feminist politics of transformation," that he was concerned with "their effectiveness in mobilizing for change" (43). If I had actually succeeded in meeting his expectations, and had come up with more answers than questions (seems to me that questions, rather than answers, are the province of fiction), I wouldn’t be writing this letter to SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES; I’d be booking tickets to go pick up my Nobel Peace Prize.

Fitting admits, at the end of the piece, the possibility that he might have been "overly harsh," or have read these three novels "in too literal a fashion" (45). This, as he tells us, is a reflection of his concerns. In other words, he is saying that his concerns may have distorted his judgment; this undermines his entire argument. He sees Dr. Slonczewski, Ms. Tepper, and me as "backing away from the utopian hopes and dreams of the 1970s in a movement which effectively repudiates earlier utopian energies." Someone else might have said that our novels do reflect the failure of those hopes, but also might have seen this as a point in our favor; given the collapse of the socialist states of Eastern Europe, shouldn’t we be reexamining and questioning our earlier utopian dreams?

Peter Fitting is free to conclude what he likes about my novel. Maybe nothing I’ve said here will change his opinion of The Shore of Women, but I wish he would reach his conclusions based on what I actually wrote instead of what he seems to have seen through the distorting lenses of his own fears, hopes, and ideology. I hesitate to think of what he might make of my latest book, a historical novel about Genghis Khan. —Pamela Sargent.

1The complete quotation Bantam might have chosen to use was this: "I applaud Ms Sargent’s ambition and admire the way she has unflinchingly pursued the logic of her vision; her sensitive handling of the homosexual relationships among women and men (in their respective, single-sex communities) is especially fine" (Gerald Jonas, NYTBR, Jan. 18, 1987, p. 33). Only the part of the comment preceding the semicolon was reproduced on the paperback.

2This and following quotations are from the paperback edition, NY: Bantam Spectra Books, 1987.

3Mr Fitting overlooked this scene between Arvil and Tulan when he asserted that "sexual relations between the men are usually described in terms of rape" (46). Arvil acknowledges that the boy would be vulnerable to such acts without his protection, but goes on to say: "I cannot lie with one so young. You must know of such men— Wirlan is another like me—who can only be satisfied with a man close to their own age, instead of with a boy who is weaker and unable to resist" (353-54). Earlier Arvil explains some of the men’s customs to Birana:

"There are those who go to boys and prefer them to other men, even when the boy is unwilling, and there are boys who will offer themselves for an extra piece of meat or a gift of some kind." I thought of Cor, who had given himself to the Wolf when the Wolf was Headman, and then to Geab. I had despised him for it, for I had known he did not go to those men out of love or respect. (205)

Arvil, then, disapproves of such behavior and clearly knows that there are other ways to behave. I might also add that, during her sojourn in a shrine, Laissa recalls stories of "a strong love between two men" among those the men have told her.

I won’t deny that, in the brutal world the men of Shore are forced to inhabit, there is a fair amount of rape. (Many of the sexual contacts between men and women in some of our own societies might be accurately characterized by that term.) But it is clearly not the only way, or even the most common way, in which the men in the novel express themselves sexually.

In Response to Pamela Sargent. Mea culpa. In my discussion of Shore of Women I made a couple of factual errors. I wrote that the novel opened with Birana’s mother murdering her lover, when in fact it was an attempted murder. In writing that there were no positive examples of homosexual relationships, I overlooked Laissa’s relationship with Zoreen.

I dispute the other "errors of fact" Ms. Sargent attributes to me, for I see them rather as differences in reading and understanding.

Calling Arvil and Birana heterosexual or homosexual is not the point. I did neither; I said and I repeat that against a setting in which the separatist utopia of the women is portrayed as a failure, the novel stages a return to heterosexuality as a solution. In fact I didn’t use the term "homosexual" in reference to Shore, although I did twice mention "homosexuality." In the first instance I wrote:

These criticisms are not meant to imply that compulsory homosexuality is the mark of authentic feminist fiction. Rather, the struggle for sexual choice has traditionally been an important goal of feminism, one which certainly cannot be said to have been achieved. Remembering that in the divided world of Shore the majority of men and women presumably find love and sexual pleasure with members of the same sex, I find it quite disturbing that there is not a single positive example of such a relationship, male or female. This absence is especially significant when contrasted to the scenes of Birana’s heterosexual awakening. (36)

As Sargent has pointed out, I overlooked Zoreen’s relationship with Laissa. Including as well the omission of the very brief portrayal of Ulred and Hare, I would amend "not a single" in the above quotation to "so few."

In my second use of the term I wrote that I thought that "there was an underlying aversion to homosexuality which dictated the novel’s outcome" (42). Going back to the novel a year later, it still seems to me that it has "accommodated both homophobia and heterosexism in its appeal for a reconciliation of the sexes" (36).

In my article I looked at three recent novels in the context of the feminist SF of the 1970s and of the backlash against feminism of the 1980s. While I disagreed with what I considered the implicit strategies to be found in the novels of Slonczewski and Tepper (which I read alongside Shore), I found them valuable contributions to the ongoing feminist revaluation of alternatives and strategies for change. Sargent’s novel was a disappointment because, unlike the novels of Slonczewski and Tepper which continue to struggle with issues like violence and gender and which had moved beyond some idea of a normative sexuality, Shore offered only a return to the status quo of heterosexism. These concerns and views do indeed form what Sargent calls the "lenses" of my own "fears, hopes, and ideology." I would call them orienting rather than "disorienting"; and that’s what every critic brings to the task of reading.—Peter Fitting

 

News from France. In February 1990, French SF scholars witnessed the unfortunate demise of France’s preeminent SF journal Fiction (originally published as the French counterpart of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—see George Slusser’s article in SFS #49, Nov. 1989, 16:307-37)— following publication of its 412th issue. Issue #413 of Fiction had been prepared for printing but, because of financial difficulties, it never appeared on the market. Does this now mean that there no longer exists in France any professional journals devoted to SF? Alas, the answer is yes—or almost. J.-P. Moumon (who published an article on SF in Chile in SFS #33, July 1984, under the pseudonym of Rémi-Maure) now edits a quarterly "international" SF journal called Antarès. I put "international" in quotes because this journal publishes articles on SF authors from Italy, Spain, France. etc., but not (or very little) on SF from the United States. Aside from Antarès, a few other French-language SF journals published outside of France continue to exist. For example, the Belgian SF journal Phénix publishes special issues on a variety of authors—Moorcock, Spinrad, Stephen King, Serge Brussolo, and J.G. Ballard (forthcoming)—and it is available in some French libraries, and the Québecois SF journals Solaris and Imagine... are also available in France via subscription.

In addition, the growing abundance of PCs in France has, in the last few years, permitted the development of several SF publications of the "small press" variety which distinguish themselves from "fanzines" by the level of their seriousness. One might cite, for example, Nous les Martiens which is the oldest, the most regular, and the most serious of these and which opens its columns not only to SF authors and critics but also to editors of SF publishing houses like Jacques Goimard (Presses-Pocket) and Gérard Klein (Laffont). Another of these journals is KBN, although it is the most recent and a bit more "fanzinesque." Another is called Les Etudes Lovecraftiennes which, as its name indicates, targets the work of Lovecraft.

Finally, not to be outdone, the French university system’s Centre des recherches en littératures de l’imaginaire (CERLI), established in 1979, continues to provide a forum for SF scholars to work along with scholars of fantasy and the fantastic, and to publish their findings in CERLI’s Cahiers (now in its 19th issue). And the journal Métaphore from the Université de Nice, in addition to its thematic issues, also publishes the proceedings of the Colloques internationaux de SF organized by the university. Métaphore is currently also in its 19th issue, and we are anxiously awaiting its forthcoming issue which will publish, under the editorial leadership of Denise Terrel (and in both French and English), the proceedings of the university’s most recent Colloque.

Here are the addresses of the journals mentioned: Antarès, Villa Magali, Chemin de la Calabro, 83250, La Valette, France; Phénix, 46 rue de la cible, 1030, Bruxelles, Belgique; Solaris, c/o Pomerleau, CP 25 succ A, Hull (Qc), J8Y 6M7, Québec, Canada; Imagine..., c/o M. Lemaire, 3418 rue de la Paix, Saint Foy, G1X 3W6, Québec, Canada; Nous les Martiens, C/42, 189 Blvd. Faubourg St. Dénis, 75010, Paris, France; KBN, F. Pinsard, 11 rue des vignerons, 33800, Bordeaux, France; Les Etudes Lovecraftiennes, c/o Joseph Altairac, 57 rue de Stalingrad, 95120, Ermont, France; Cahiers du CERLI, c/o Ponnau, Lettres modernes, Chemin de la Sensive du Tertre, BP 1025, 44035, Nantes, Cedex, France; Métaphore, c/o Terrel, Faculté des lettres, 98 Blvd. Herriot, BP 369, 06007, Nice, France.—Roger Bozzetto (ABE).

 

The Science Fiction Foundation in Trouble. The Science Fiction Foundation at the Polytechnic of East London is the only SF research center in Europe based in an institution of higher education. Since its establishment in 1971 it has built up a large library, consisting of original manuscripts as well as books and magazines, and researchers come to it from all over Europe and North America. Its journal, Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, has been published regularly since March 1972—exactly 20 years—and, after 54 issues, has built up an international reputation. It remains the only academic journal of SF criticism published in Europe and, if I can put in a plug, remains essential reading for any SF researcher.

At the 100th meeting of the Council of the SF Foundation on February 6, 1992, the Polytechnic announced that it would be withdrawing all financial support to the SF Foundation at the end of the fiscal year 1992-93 (i.e., in 12 months’ time). The Polytechnic, of course, like all other British universities and polytechnics, is under severe financial pressure at the moment. The Polytechnic estimates the running costs of the SFF at some £40,000 per year: most of this is based on the salaries of the two part-time secretaries, plus overheads; only some £12,000 relates to the cost of the accommodation of the SFF in the Polytechnic’s Library (and I personally believe that the £40,000 is a considerable over-estimate of the actual costs). Unless this sum can be found, every year, the SFF will be forced to move, or, if it cannot find alternative accommodation, to disband. The journal can probably survive, since it is largely self-financing; but the future of the SF Foundation as a research center is clearly in doubt.

The Council of the SF Foundation, with the help of the Friends of Foundation, are naturally now beginning to look into alternative sources of funding (and any donations, made out to "Friends of Foundation" and sent to Rob Meades, 75 Hecham Close, Walthamstow, London E17 5QT, United Kingdom, will be very welcome!), and to look for an alternative home. But some of us also feel that it is not too late to appeal to the Rector (or, currently, Acting Rector) of the Polytechnic to ask him to reconsider. It may be that he has not fully realized the national and international importance of the SF Foundation. Perhaps he has not fully realized that it is incumbent upon all universities now (and the Polytechnic will shortly become the University of East London) to develop centres of excellence and centres of research, and how important it is also to be able to boast of areas of uniqueness and distinctiveness. The Polytechnic has a distinguished course in Cultural Studies, yet for the last fifteen years has made no effort to use the resources of the SFF in this area: no full-time academic has taught SF at the Polytechnic since Peter Nicolls retired in order to complete the first edition of his Science Fiction Encyclopedia. The management of the Polytechnic do not seem to recognize this waste of a resource: they do not seem to realize that they are the only institution of higher learning outside North America (I stand open to correction here by readers of SFS!) to house such a collection and such a source for teaching and research.

I should be most grateful if readers of SFS could please write NOW to the Acting Rector, Polytechnic of East London, Romford Road, Stratford, LONDON E15 4LZ, United Kingdom, pointing out the importance of the Science Fiction Foundation to SF scholarship, and asking him to reconsider his decision to cease funding SFF. A large number of letters from distinguished academics abroad has actually worked in the past, and it may well work again. I thank you, on behalf of the SFF Council, for any efforts you make on our behalf.

If the Editors of SFS will permit [They will.], I will keep readers informed about developments over the next year, which is obviously going to be crucial for the survival of the Foundation.—Edward James, Editor, Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction; Co-Director, Center for Medieval Studies, University of York, UK.

 

Gender-Neutral Terms for Humankind. One point that arose in editing Elyce Rae Helford’s article in this issue was whether the Polish word for humankind is masculine or gender-neutral. Peter Swirski writes us that "Człowiek (‘Man in general’) is certainly gender-neutral, although I guess it would be possible to argue for some vague and distant connotations with the masculine perception of the term. One would have to contend, however, with the presence of another word for the distinctly male Mężczyzna for ‘man as man."’ For what it is worth, my experience with Hungarian warns me that gender-neutral terms for humankind are often connected distantly to the masculine. The question is not whether there is a distinct term for man as man, but whether the general term can be used to cover all-male activities, and yet appear inappropriate when used to cover all-female activities. For anglophone readers of the English translation of Solaris, all this is quite irrelevant: whatever Lem’s intention in writing the Polish Solaris, the word used for humankind in the English text is simply man.—ICR

 

Not 1st, Perhaps 24th. A note from N. Katherine Hayles acknowledges an error (pointed out to her by Paul Schlueter) in her review of Lorelei Cederstrom’s Fine-Tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing (SFS #56, March 1992). She had erred in repeating Cederstrom’s claim to have written the world’s first dissertation on Lessing. Schleuter, who was for a time the editor of the Doris Lessing Newsletter, writes us that the first in the world was by Gottfried Graustein in 1963 in East Germany, the first in the US by John Alfred Carey in 1965 and the second by himself in 1968, with twenty following in the years 1970-1977, all preceding the granting of Cederstrom’s degree in 1978.

 


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