De Witt Douglas Kilgore
Changing Regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s Parodic
From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and
unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British
Empire of 1880. All those planets—with 80 trillion miles between them!—conceived
of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged
by the benevolent Imperium of Earth toward self-development—the White Man’s
Burden all over again. The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri, that’s the size
of it.—Ursula K. Le Guin, "American SF and The Other" (88)
In her 1996 Hecate article, "From the Female Man to the Virtual
Girl," Frances Bonner argues that the energetic feminist sf of the 1970s
has been etiolated by the defection of its writers and by their disavowal of an
explicitly feminist politics. Vonda N. McIntyre and C.J. Cherryh, as "space
opera" writers who have submitted their once radical political agendas to
"the limitations of the conventional SF form," exemplify this failure
(Bonner 4). While Bonner grants that some critics defend the ability of these
writers to destabilize genre conventions, she nevertheless contends that
formerly feminist authors have abandoned their early ambition to take "a
masculine genre" and transform it "by unsettling some of its most
basic assumptions" (2). McIntyre is singled out for particular condemnation
as a writer who produces "a feminized rather than a feminist body of
work" (5). Indeed, it is true that the once fiery author of The Exile
Waiting (1975) and "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" (1973) has in
recent years taken to writing commercially successful potboilers in the Star
Trek and Star Wars franchises. Because she relies upon the generic conventions
of "the conquest of space," McIntyre appears to have retreated from
her previous critiques of the "social and power relationships that
marginalize women" (5). In so doing, Bonner argues, she is ignoring her
responsibility as a feminist sf writer to create feminist alternatives to the
masculinist mainstream of the genre.
Bonner’s critique is characteristic of the harsh reviews that sf focused on
space flight now receives in academic circles. In Scott Bukatman’s evaluation
of posthumanism and cyberspace, for instance, the Space Age, "that period
of aspiration, centralization, technologization, and expansion," overlaps
with postmodernism but represents an "exhausted" period of
technological utopianism (5). A 1997 exchange between Gary Westfahl and Carl
Freedman in the pages of SFS further indicates just how far the stock of
the spaceflight project has fallen. To Westfahl’s energetically stated
"The Case Against Space," Freedman musters a defense that is
self-consciously lukewarm: he tells us that he writes only to defend sf and its
study, and not to espouse the dream of the space future that once energized the
genre. These scholars find little to interest them in the tired old tropes and
images of adventure on the high frontier.
And who can blame them? Despite recent media effusions spurred by the
thirtieth anniversary of the first moon landing, the heroes who made the great
lunar voyages of three decades ago are dead, dying, or selling life insurance on
late-night TV. The political landscape that supported their ventures has changed
profoundly. The Cold War no longer dominates our political life, and the
cultural consensus that energized the space program as the great hope of white
masculinity—memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979)—is
continually fragmenting. At best, our ventures into space smack of the boomer
nostalgia that colors the media’s production of Apollo 11’s thirtieth
anniversary. At worst, the consumption of the space frontier as entertainment is
downright embarrassing. Star Trek, Star Wars, and The X-Files
are all more important as highly lucrative media franchises and registered
trademarks than as sf. By all popular indications, space is dead as a place for
the kind of serious play—scientific, technological, political, literary—that
makes for great sf.
Both these lines of thought effect rhetorics of closure on space-future
fiction. Bonner does so for reasons aesthetic and political: for her, the
literary and social experiment that was the pride of sf has failed. Westfahl and
Freedman join her because for them the US space program has become a
disappointment. Both positions encourage us to approach space-future narratives
as political and epistemological dead ends. If we follow their logic, we must
remove space-future fiction from our research schedules and move on to more
fruitful pastures. This move, I believe, would be premature. There is more going
on in sf’s mainstream than the retrogressive recapitulation of a dead form.
The form still continues to provide a vehicle for surprising and profoundly
radical thought experiments.
In this light let us reconsider the trajectory of Vonda N. McIntyre’s work.
The changes in her fiction from cutting-edge to mainstream sf signal not an
abandonment of her early ambitions, but a thoughtful re-engagement with sf’s
potential as the right medium for those ambitions. Certainly, her tactics have
changed. McIntyre no longer launches full-frontal assaults on the generic
constraints of sf to imagine avant-garde feminist utopias. It is, perhaps, a
sign of the times that she no longer advocates revolutionary breaks or indulges
hopes for complete escapes and fresh starts. But her move from revolution to
reform need not be read as evidence of her capitulation to pessimism and
compromise. On the contrary, I suggest that it is evidence of a writerly
practice that addresses the core of sf from the inside, through parodic
repetition of its well-rehearsed conventions. And because, unlike a call for
revolutionary rupture, this is a bid for change that can be achieved with the
materials at hand, I argue that her work is an optimistic and still ambitious
use of sf.
Following Linda Hutcheon’s lead, I define parody as "repetition with
critical distance" (185). Specifically, by parodying mainstream sf’s
assumption of the human subject held stable by its race, nation, gender,
sexuality, class, and so forth, McIntyre challenges the limits placed by the
genre on the scope of change possible for humanity. Like many in her generation,
McIntyre is skeptical of the Apollo-era space fantasy that allowed a small elite
of white American men to claim that they represented "all mankind."1
Such claims inspire exasperated recourse to satire and parody in order to
critique the political and technical failure of Cold War astrofuturism.2
McIntyre, however, avoids writing burlesques that deny the power and pleasure of
the space-future vision. Instead, she cultivates an ironic distance from which
she neither submits to an ossified dogma nor pretends that the future can be a
clean slate. She challenges assumptions that the future must be a faithful
extension of a patriarchal and racist present-day culture. Her parodic
engagement with sf models makes visible social relations that are repressed in
most space-future narratives. The result is an impure form, an anti-nostalgic
collage that enables the genre to speak to the present. In other words, McIntyre
uses the genre’s own devices to rearrange its meanings. Engaging the space
future as a central motif of sf, she harnesses the genre’s enormous commercial
apparatus for progressive uses. Hers is a tactical feminism that appreciates the
pleasures of the genre and uses them to redirect its resources. As a consequence
she joins those who would subvert the political and epistemological regimes that
have anchored the astrofuturist project since the 1950s.
Parody, as Hutcheon describes it, allows an artist to take generic materials
into her work strategically. The past is thereby "incorporated and
modified, given new and different life and meaning" (182). This use of
parody opens the way for a reconsideration of how McIntyre negotiates her own
use of genre conventions. Unreflectively incorporating the history of a form,
however, can produce politically sterile updatings (in this context, the
articulation of a liberal pluralism) that leave our expectations as readers
substantially unchanged. Hutcheon’s definition of postmodern parody helps us
to avoid that cul-de-sac. She notes that the modifications that parody can
produce have "become a most popular and effective strategy of black,
ethnic, and feminist artists, trying to come to terms with and to respond,
critically and creatively, to the predominantly white, Anglo, male culture in
which they find themselves" (206).3 Hutcheon uses parody as the
foundation for a theory of historical agency, an agency that comes into being
through the appropriation and redirection of historical resources. Parody, in
other words, allows the dissenting artist to acknowledge the formative power of
the dominant Eurocentric culture on her/his work, while simultaneously
challenging its repressions. Hutcheon clarifies the importance of the agent in
and of history through her consideration of Paolo Portoghesi’s parodic
aesthetic. For that architect, she writes:
History is not ... a repository of models: he is not interested in
copying or in straight revivalism. Like all the postmodernists (and
this is the reason for the label) he knows he cannot totally reject
modernism, especially its material and technological advances, but he wants
to integrate with these positive aspects of the immediate past the equally
positive aspects of the more remote and repressed history of forms. (189,
italics in original)
As Hutcheon describes it, Portoghesi’s architectural postmodernism seeks to
recover an ornamental history repressed by modernism. This salvage operation
provides a model for reading McIntyre’s anti-racist feminism as a reminder of
the embodied histories that liberal astrofuturism and sf would escape. The
concept of postmodernist parody allows us to understand the stakes for a writer
who is engaged in the ordinary work of sf but who is not nostalgic for its
In her work since the late 1980s, McIntyre makes the double move of writing
from the center of sf convention while retaining a sensibility marginal to its
habits of thought. Understanding her use of parody requires some background. I
will, therefore, first consider the technical and political consensus that
emerged in astrofuturist narratives during the Cold War space race. I will then
argue that we can read McIntyre’s work in the Star Trek future history as a
testing ground where she develops her strategies for addressing the
metanarrative of astrofuturism. Finally, I will turn to the fully articulated
anti-racist feminism of her Starfarer novels to analyze how she engages the
conventions of mainstream astrofuturism and how her distancing and
transformative gestures are replicated within the text by her characters.
The first generation of spaceflight enthusiasts and futurists in the US
imagined the human exploration of space as a conquest no different from the
terrestrial adventures that characterized Western culture in the nineteenth and
early-twentieth centuries. They hoped to replicate the economic, political, and
scientific benefits that Europe had gained from its sorties into Africa, Asia,
and the New World. Even liberal and radical critics of past excesses looked to
space as a resource-rich frontier in which the mistakes of our history could be
redressed. David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1930), Cornelius Ryan’s
collection Across the Space Frontier (1952), Arthur C. Clarke’s The
Exploration of Space (1951), and Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun’s The
Exploration of Mars (1956) are the popular science texts that inaugurated
astrofuturist writing in the 1950s. Science fiction such as Heinlein’s Space
Cadet (1948), Clarke’s Prelude to Space (1951), and Lester del Rey’s
Step to the Stars (1954) reinforced that beginning and created
contemporary echoes of the mid-nineteenth-century political slogan, "free
soil, free speech, free labor, and free men." Their space pioneers are the
direct descendants of the Western heroes—explorers, soldiers, and businessmen—made
familiar in the boys’ adventure fiction of the early twentieth century. Their
stories represent the constant renewal of middle-class, middle-American values
in the wilderness of space, appealing to positions across much of the American
In Heinlein’s paradigmatic space-future histories of the 1940s, for
example, these values are both republican and imperial in sentiment and
aspiration.4 They are meritocratic and egalitarian insofar as they
recognize the import of the American Bill of Rights and the Emancipation
Proclamation. They are authoritarian and patriarchal in how Heinlein apportions
the rights guaranteed by those documents and whom he allows to aspire to the
benefits of equality. Heinlein’s space hero must prove himself. The benefits
of citizenship and equality on the space frontier must be earned within
father/male-centered command hierarchies designed to foster the efficient use of
space-based technology. Within this structure, no one is born with
"inalienable rights"; instead, rights are recast as privileges that
must be earned. While such a system may readily serve a conservative status quo,
it may serve a liberal agenda equally well: the imposition of a meritocracy and
a uniform code of military justice is intended to render irrelevant the racial,
cultural, and gender-based antagonisms that trouble us here on earth.
The command-based, pseudo-military hierarchies endemic to astrofuturist
fiction are justified morally and politically by recourse to the image of the
universe as a hostile place that poses an implacable threat to humanity.
Survival depends upon a social structure that can be mobilized instantly to face
any outside threat. In the CoDominium stories of Jerry Pournelle this social
structure is called "civilization" and is held together by a martial
law that is always ready to hand.5 In such a future, only a
"band of brothers" ethic makes the difference between conquering and
being conquered. As in Heinlein’s future-history narratives, there is little
room here for cultural variation, racial conflict, or alternate economic and
political arrangements. If we assume, as these astrofuturist writers do, that
the future will be an only slightly estranged, although improved, version of the
present, then what we find there will reinforce the inevitability of present
arrangements. For this reason, the conventions of the astrofuturist mainstream
encourage the creation of political futures that are in tension with the greater
freedoms promised by its narratives.
While the political sympathies of early astrofuturists were formed during the
Great Depression and the Second World War, Vonda N. McIntyre’s emerged in the
context of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Robin Roberts describes
the generation to which the author belongs as one that found in sf the resources
with which "to criticize patriarchy" and to discover "a wider
range of possibilities" than those allowed within established society
(137). McIntyre is a member of a group of writers who brought feminism to a
genre considered safe from that particular form of political radicalism.
Critical evaluations tend to emphasize the early ground-breaking novels and
stories in which this aspect of her work is most readily evident. Texts such as
"Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," Dreamsnake (1975), The Exile
Waiting, and Fireflood and Other Stories (1979) are taken to
illustrate how second-wave feminism spoke to and through sf.6 In a
genre wedded to masculine adventure, her work represented a break from
But despite the awards earned by McIntyre and such compatriots as Joanna
Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Ursula K. Le Guin, the genre’s self-appointed
gatekeepers did not embrace the feminist project. Spider Robinson threw up his
hands at any hint of literary or political experimentation that might be called
"feminist" and pronounced it all boring, manipulative,
"psychotic," or "unreadable" (131-42). Brian Aldiss’s
evaluation was more generous, but he too found little to like in feminist
utopias that he described as "a form of over-reaction founded on suspicion
and hostility" (432). Both critics represented a critical atmosphere that
fostered suspicion toward the imaginative political transformations represented
by "angry" writers, and both sought to limit the impact of feminist
texts by pathologizing their politics. "Speculative fiction," Aldiss
wrote, "has, in general, benefited from the introduction of feminist themes
and concerns, yet, like many forms of radical socialism, feminism itself often
demands a simplistic choice—you are either with them wholly, or against
Thus, while the feminist/anti-racist politics of the 1960s and 1970s made it
possible to talk seriously about racism, sexism, class bias, and other
antagonisms, they did not negate the imaginative power of these regimes within
sf’s mainstream. Rather, a complex movement of protest, repression, and
reaction was set in motion that eventually coalesced around the idea of
"hard science fiction."7 A term that aims to recapture the
generic center of the field, "hard science fiction" imposes a
separation between those who are accepted as scientifically literate and those
who are not. As a consequence, feminist interventions were marginalized as
"soft" and were contained within a sub-genre where they could not
contaminate the serious project of "normal" sf.8
In the late 1960s, feminist sf constituted a formal break with the
patriarchal conventions of sf’s mainstream. It was a historic rupture, a
declaration of independence from the politics of the past. It performed a
refusal of history and influence as radical as that of the modernist avant-garde
in its time. But what was insurgent in the 1970s is no longer so in the 1980 and
1990s. If we accept that sf is a conversation between living actors, then by the
mid-1980s, the genre had adjusted to the shock delivered by feminist work. It
has accepted feminist texts as yet another constituent part and welcomes the
subgenre’s primarily female readership within its commercial apparatus. Hence,
despite its very real literary and political disruptions, the feminist utopia
has been domesticated.9 Its writers have been put in their place as
part of the normal business of popular culture. They are no longer either feared
or derided as an amazonian horde swarming down from the hills with fire and
In this context, McIntyre’s recent work can be read not as the abandonment
of her earlier feminist project but as a refusal to accept its containment
within a subgenre. In response to that segregation, she has developed a parodic
astrofuturism that allows her to salvage her anti-racist feminism from the
margins of acceptable inclusion and to bring it into direct contact with the old
narrative of "the conquest of space." She seeks to resist this
dominant narrative by changing the flow of social and political power in her
space futures. In a series of recent novels, her strategies have included
questioning the subordinate place of women in space-future narrative;
intervening against that narrative’s racial assumptions; finding fault with
its insistence on middle-class, professional primacy on the final frontier;
replacing its naturalized command hierarchy with a democratic, non-patriarchal
order; and situating those who are most often disenfranchised in our world at
the symbolic and sympathetic center of the future. McIntyre addresses the
central tropes of astrofuturist sf as she did not in such early work as The
Exile Waiting (1975) or Superluminal (1977), not in order to repeat
them in slavish imitation but with the kind of ironic distance that Hutcheon
argues is a hallmark of the postmodernist engagement with aesthetic and
political precursors. Her Star Trek and Starfarer novels inscribe
gestures of resistance and subversion, rather than those of outright opposition.
Far from abandoning the oppositional tendencies of her early work, these novels
constitute the continuation of intervention under different rules of engagement.
In the 1980s, McIntyre changed the direction, if not the tenor, of her work
by writing novels within the Star Trek franchise. Although she had to operate
within the social and technocultural conventions established by Gene Roddenberry’s
television series of the 1960s, her move into the Star Trek franchise can be
read as an effort to extend the feminism of her early work into unexplored
terrain.10 Star Trek’s original design as a "Wagon
Train to the Stars" indicates that the show was to share the
presuppositions that fueled the televised horse operas of the era, with space
replacing prairie as the final frontier (Castleman and Podrazik 117). However,
while the popular Western scoured the actual history of racial and ethnic
diversity from the frontier, Star Trek proposed the conquest of space as
an adventure in which humanity in all its variety could participate. At a time
when NASA’s astronaut corps was a lily-white, all-male affair, Star Trek’s
optimistic liberal pluralism made the show a daring experiment.11
Nevertheless, it was a limited experiment. In Roddenberry’s Starfleet,
representation means containment: women, racial minorities, Russians, and
extraterrestrials (i.e., the famous Mr. Spock) all take their assigned places
under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, whose presence reassures viewers
that the stability of the future is guaranteed by the leadership of the
middle-class, white American male (from Iowa, no less).12 Star
Trek’s producers gave their audiences a future in which differences of
race, creed, nationality, and gender are harmonized through the socio-military
structure of Starfleet. It is a future that, despite some obvious limitations,
has remained useful as a template for certain types of narrative mobilizations
and resistances within science fiction.
McIntyre’s Starfleet does not directly oppose or radically change the
technosocial conventions that have remained stable through the numerous series,
films, and most of the novels in the Star Trek franchise. Instead, McIntyre
finds ways to exploit the most progressive moments of the Star Trek
dream. In The Entropy Effect (1981), for instance, a security chief, a
starship captain, a defense attorney, and a brilliantly inventive engineer
represent the types of women who make up McIntyre’s future. She also
emphasizes the full participation of people of color in the Starfleet future by
developing the biographical and cultural background of Lt. Sulu, the
Asian-American helmsman who serves as a secondary character and representative
of his race in the original series. In her characterization of alien others she
softens Star Trek’s "human racism"—the notion that
terrestrial humanity will always be the desired norm—by exploring Mr. Spock’s
hybrid nature. Given that in her narrative, human/alien cross-breeding requires
technological intervention, McIntyre clearly suggests that Spock’s hybridity
and his affiliation with Vulcan are deliberate choices rather than accidents of
biology. McIntyre seizes on the potential inherent in this character to make the
point that, if one had a galaxy of sentients from which to select one’s
preferred life form, terrestrial humans might not be the obvious choice.
In The Entropy Effect, McIntyre makes room for the notion that
social relationships and politics change over time, acknowledges the existence
of conflicts arising from cultural differences, and examines without
sentimentality the ways of power in a military organization. We are introduced,
for example, to members of Starfleet’s border patrol, the one place within the
service where individual expression is allowed free play. Considered renegades,
border patrol officers are more casual about deference accorded to rank, the
wearing of uniforms, and adherence to rules than are the inmates of the
"regular Navy" who make up the crew of the Enterprise (27). The
most admirable and decorated officer of the patrol is Captain Hunter, a woman
whose service record demonstrates unparalleled heroism and "true grit"
(48-49). McIntyre implies that, while Kirk may become an Admiral, Hunter is the
type of line officer who validates Starfleet as a social enterprise.
Unfortunately, her work within the Star Trek franchise makes McIntyre
vulnerable to charges that she is colluding with the cultural imaginary of the
military-industrial complex and its commercial apologists. But such charges
overlook her engagement with that other great engine of space-future dreams:
science. Writers such as Asimov, Clarke, Willy Ley, Carl Sagan, Gerard K. O’Neill,
and (once again) Heinlein are the founding fathers who advocate space
exploration as a scientific rather than a military enterprise.13 In
this intellectual current we find all the hopes of liberal science: the space
future will unfold in service to the acquisition of knowledge, not conquest. If
we seek and find other worlds containing living creatures, it will be in the
spirit of fellowship. What we learn will be the birthright of all, not the
property of a few. And we will gain not only survival but the transcendent
destiny of our species. It is in sympathy with these ideals that we find
McIntyre straining at the limits of the astrofuturism represented by Star
Here again, however, McIntyre does not simply replicate the tradition of
scientific humanism. After all, the liberal scientism represented by space
futurists such as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Gerard K. O’Neill assumes too
much and excludes as much. What can you do with a humanism in which the
assumption of white supremacy and male dominance is inscribed into the natural
world? What can you do with a humanism that allows the humanity of all but will
only grant representative status to some? With the publication in 1989 of Starfarers,
McIntyre began a series of novels in which she struggles with the adequacy of
scientific endeavors as an alternative to military and colonial adventures. In The
High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1976), for instance, O’Neill
argues that the dream of colonizing new planets should be replaced by plans for
the construction of new land in space. The creation of new worlds would give
humanity room to conduct political experiments unconstrained by old world
systems, and would foster a tremendous expansion of cultural diversity. O’Neill’s
dream of moon-based mass drivers, earth-orbiting solar-power satellites, and
Lagrange-point space colonies is justified by the argument that space will be a
place for "the common man." His space future is also designed to solve
the problem of the environmental toll that industrial civilization has levied on
our world. By creating artificial space colonies, O’Neill argues, we will
reduce the resource strain on this and other planets. If we do not colonize
other planets, then we will minimize our chances of destroying them, as we have
damaged our own natural world.
In its time O’Neill’s speculative engineering attracted activists from
the left, including people who had been involved in the environmental and women’s
rights movements (Michaud 87-88). It also attracted the attention of liberals
and left communitarians who were looking for a way out of the Cold War consensus
of Apollo-era space futures. In her acknowledgments, McIntyre directs attention
to this important precursor: "I’ve drawn on the work of Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill,
the founder of the Space Studies Institute. His speculations on the ways human
beings might live and work and thrive in space added immeasurably to the
background of my novel and to the structure of Starfarer" (n.pag.).
O’Neill’s engineering proposals allow McIntyre to imagine people living
in space in a way that does not force her to reinvent narratives of terrestrial
conquest on other worlds. She also borrows O’Neill’s political emphasis on
"the common man" to argue for a general human salvation, rather than
transcendence for a chosen few. Thus, the Starfarer is a Noah’s Ark
that contains all kinds of people, including a grandmother in space. Not
burdened by the need to conquer new territory, its inmates go from earth to
better themselves and to find new knowledge. The ship is an expeditionary vessel
designed to explore both inner/social and outer/physical space. By setting her
narrative within an O’Neill space colony, McIntyre also stakes her claim to
the mainstream of astrofuturism. O’Neill gives McIntyre a political and
technical reference that would be familiar to many of her readers. It gives her
the kind of generic credibility that lends authority to her social speculations.
In her explication of parody, Hutcheon writes of works that "do not try
to escape, but indeed foreground, the historical, social, ideological contexts
in which they have existed and continue to exist" (183). As applied to
McIntyre’s use of O’Neill’s work, this description illuminates the way in
which the Starfarer novels work to rescue the positive elements of the
spaceflight dream rather than to perform a rhetorical dismissal of them. But
while O’Neill’s space future tends to look, as Allen Steele has suggested,
something like the suburbs of New Jersey writ large (Clarke County 91),
McIntyre’s parodic engagement gives it a feminist and anti-racist spin by
playing with the racial and sexual constitution of the human subject. Certainly
her critique of O’Neill’s common-man populism is more in the spirit of loyal
opposition than that of a revolutionary manifesto. Nevertheless, as we shall
see, her space future is a site of experimentation of a type and scope
unimaginable in O’Neill’s utopian suburbs.
Most obviously, in McIntyre’s space future the centrality of a black woman
is represented as a commonplace. With this gesture, the narrative actively
engages the use of black and female figures in astrofuturist fiction,
particularly in texts produced since the 1960s.14 In the hands of
other futurists, such characters exist primarily as counterpoints to legitimate
the power of Man—the white male as author and actor—to stabilize social
relations. In both liberal (e.g., Clarke and Lee’s Rama series) and
conservative narratives (e.g, Pournelle and Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans
), we are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that the black
character is "other" to the writer and to his imagined readers.15
And the job of this "other" remains that of marking the frontier as
the place where the regimes of whiteness and masculinity may find their
McIntyre breaks with these habits by "recreating" herself within
the text as a black woman. She emphasizes the centrality of this figure by
sharing two of her initials and a Celtic patronymic with her: Victoria Fraser
MacKenzie is Vonda Neel McIntyre’s alter ego. McIntyre changes the subject of
the space future from Vivian Sobchack’s "virgin astronaut" to, as
Teresa de Lauretis defines it, "a subject engendered in the experiencing of
race and class, as well as sexual, relations; a subject, therefore, not unified
but rather multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted" (de Lauretis
2). In practice, because the character is not "other," she functions
neither as flattering foil for the norm nor as saintly rebuke. The flatness of
an artificial otherness is exchanged for depth of social detail, historical
specificity, and imaginative scope. In MacKenzie, McIntyre creates a character
who is both marginal to the social relations that constitute the sf mainstream
and central to its astrofuturist discourses.
On Victoria Fraser MacKenzie, the theoretical physicist who heads the Starfarer’s
alien contact department, rests most of the imaginative weight of McIntyre’s
project. As scientist, political actor, and hero, MacKenzie is the agent of a
new and equitable social order. Instead of being grateful for the companionship
and tolerance of her white and male colleagues, MacKenzie talks back and acts
independently. She is not obligingly included in a world defined by others;
rather, she sets the terms for a desirable future. Because of her, the best
ideals of a multivalent Western tradition are salvaged and extended, while its
cultural and political chauvinisms are, if not left completely behind, then at
least strongly questioned.
Whereas the white spaceman of sf convention is imagined as coldly pragmatic,
a master and commander of men through force of arms, MacKenzie is portrayed as a
compassionate older sister, swaying others through force of example and
intelligence. In quiet moments, the imperial hero maintains his authority
through a control of technology that establishes his mastery of the natural
world and of human law. The threat of violence implicit in this mastery
maintains social order. As head of the alien contact department and the
theoretical physicist whose work on cosmic strings makes the Starfarer’s
deep-space expedition possible, MacKenzie is authorized in similar fashion.
However, as a leader in a community that prides itself on having no rigid
hierarchy, the respect she gains is based on her thirst for knowledge rather
than for power. By focusing on a scientist instead of a soldier, McIntyre tries
to break the astrofuturist link between knowledge, technology, and martial
prowess. By focusing on a scientist who is a politically sophisticated black
woman, she expands the spectrum of personal and cultural histories that can
inform astrofuturist narratives. By doing both, McIntyre recasts the space
future as a project possible within the political and social agendas of the
Her astrofuturist experiment dispenses with the militarized social order
valorized elsewhere, replacing it with the structure of an idealized university.
The Starfarer, with its interior landscaping of gardens, curvilinear
paths, and underground homes, violates the sense of hierarchy and rational
pattern inscribed in the functional division of rooms, corridors, and
rank-ordered cabins that are the hallmarks of naval vessels. When a new member
of the alien contact department asks her about the "crew" of the
starship, MacKenzie explains that her colleagues prefer to be referred to as
"faculty and staff" (39). At several points the narrative foregrounds
the struggle waged by MacKenzie’s department to keep the Starfarer free
of weapons, even for "defensive" purposes. Through all the means
available, McIntyre is at pains to separate her version of the space future from
that which a more traditional astrofuturism has made part of our common culture.
The Starfarer inhabits a universe quite different from that of the USS
The social order of the Starfarer consists of a liberal-progressive
academic community existing in a state of socialist democracy. Leadership
positions are taken by women in all areas, from physics to art to exploration,
following a pattern established by McIntyre in Dreamsnake (Wendell 126).
Relationships between individuals and departments are negotiated rather than
mandated. The community functions more as an extended family or an academic clan
than as a professional bureaucracy. Decisions are arrived at by consensus rather
than through channels of command. McIntyre presents the sloppiness, the
democratic messiness, and the inefficiency of this system in deliberate contrast
to the military efficiency demanded elsewhere. Her self-conscious engagement
with carefully chosen targets is perhaps best signaled by the reaction of one of
MacKenzie’s partners to an order that the faculty of the starship wear
government-issued uniforms. The character modifies the uniform so heavily that
it becomes an eccentric statement of his individual dissent. His symbolic
desecration challenges the nostalgia for military order that pervades the sf
imagination. Through such gestures, McIntyre reintroduces the values of
"cooperation, communication, [and] harmony with nature" and questions
the conventional wisdom that a patriarchal military authority is the most
natural or efficient way of organizing people who live and work in space
MacKenzie herself is an African-Canadian whose ancestors settled in the Great
White North after escaping from American slavery during the nineteenth century.
Within the narrative, this family history is given a political and personal
weight that authenticates both the character and the social experiment that she
advocates. MacKenzie is introduced to the reader in the first novel of the
series at a moment of crisis for the Starfarer expedition. The space
colony is designed to test the validity of MacKenzie’s theoretical work in
superstring theory and to provide a model of international scientific and
cultural cooperation. However, the US government, headed by a conservative
anti-technology president, is doing all it can to derail the Starfarer
project, demanding that the starship be used either to relieve population
pressure on Earth or as a surveillance platform from which the enemies of the
nation can be monitored (37-38). The latter is precisely the role that Wernher
von Braun and Willy Ley suggested for their space stations of the early 1950s.
They reasoned that a "manned" space station, in low earth orbit, would
be an incontestable high ground from which the free world could guard itself
against Communist aggression.18 MacKenzie’s abhorrence of the
political and military use of her project signals McIntyre’s ironic distance
from the founding fathers of her imagined future.
The military use of the Starfarer would violate the multinational
agreement that created the space colony, an agreement that MacKenzie helped
draft. The best defensive political move in these circumstances would be to trot
out the commercial-benefits rhetoric so often used to sell the high frontier to
the American public. But MacKenzie opposes this convention when she responds
honestly to questions about the benefits to be expected by Starfarer’s
proposed journey beyond the solar system. When answering the questions asked by
the Premier of her home province of British Columbia, MacKenzie speaks her mind
as a scientist, not as a politician:
"‘Madame Premier,’ Fraser MacKenzie said, ‘I cannot tell you
what scientific advances will result from the deep space expedition. If I
could, there would be no need for us to go on the voyage at all. I could
speculate,’ Fraser MacKenzie continued. ‘So could anyone with a minimal
level of scientific literacy. But speculation is a game. The history of
humanity is a record of explorations intended for one purpose that have
completely different effects. People didn’t walk East across the Bering
land bridge, or sail West across the Atlantic, because they expected to find
North America. We didn’t go to Mars expecting to break through to
superconducting bio-electronics.’"(24, italics in original)
Here a black female is authorized as a scientist to speak to politicians on
behalf of science in its purest form, as a passionate pursuit of knowledge. This
might seem a point of minor consequence, but its significance derives from how
rare such moments are both in the real world of science and in the fictional
worlds of science fiction.
Changing the subject who articulates the astrofuturist dream, however, does
not mean simply replacing a white father with a black mother.19 If
that were the case, MacKenzie would confirm Bonner’s contention that McIntyre’s
work represents a "feminisation" of the genre rather than its
transformation (5). The regimes of power that trouble her would remain
undisturbed in Starfarers. But in this case it does matter who is
speaking; indeed, the validity of the message depends upon the speaker. The
history and experiences of MacKenzie’s African and African-Canadian ancestors
are explicitly invoked in the text through the figure of her great-grandmother.
When this black woman defends a charter which forbids colonization and
exploitation, the weight of the history she represents lends urgency and
poignancy to her words. McIntyre does replace the "virgin
astronaut"/the white space hero, but does not attempt to fill his shoes.
Her character speaks, instead, from and for the victims of colonial heroism and
articulates their desire for a different future. Thus McIntyre’s parody is
intended to force scientific humanism to live up to its own ideals, suggesting
that it can do so only by changing its subject.
Despite the dissenting work of a handful of black writers, sf conventions
assume that the problem of racism will be solved in the future by the
disappearance of the category of race. While intended to improve on the
contemporary politics of race, this assumption generally throws out the
historical and cultural specificity of racialized others along with the social
meaning of phenotypic characteristics.20 That specificity, coded as
"difference," represents the trouble and danger to which racism is
thought to respond. Eliminate difference and the problem of racism evaporates.
Within this logic, the problem of racism can be erased if its victims are forced
to forgive its perpetrators and if we all forget the history of racialization
and the richness of cultural variation.21 The problem with this
solution is that it enshrines white masculinity, unmarked and untroubled by
culture, race, and gender, as the norm to which all "difference" must
assimilate. In this vision, anyone who goes up to space in ships is, to echo
Donna Haraway, "necessarily a white boy in moral state, no matter what
accidents of biology or social gender and race might have pertained prior"
to the great adventure (28).
McIntyre’s characterization of MacKenzie is notable because she allows her
character to indulge in the full range of human activity without giving up her
historical and emotional affiliations. The Starfarer does not require a
"band of brothers" who forget all social attachments in their trek to
the stars.22 In choosing to make MacKenzie’s family history an
issue, McIntyre graces the character with a social specificity rare for black
characters outside the bounds of African-American writing. The history of
slavery and racism is presented as informing the future that can be built in
space, rather than as a shameful past that we must forget.
The character and spirit of Starfarer’s social experiment is further
signaled through Victoria Fraser MacKenzie’s membership in what she calls a
"family partnership," a form of marriage that allows several sexually
active adults to cohabit in a socially recognized relationship.23 The
MacKenzie family partnership is composed of MacKenzie, Satoshi Lono, a
Japanese-American geologist, and Stephen Thomas Gregory, an Anglo-American
geneticist. By representing three racial groups, two nationalities (US and
Canadian), and a more than dichotomous range of gender roles and sexualities,
the family partnership is designed to displace gender identities formed in the
iconic mono-racial, middle-class, nuclear family.
While the partnership resembles polygamy, the family structure in which a
spouse can have more than one mate, MacKenzie is quick to clarify the difference
between the two: "The technical term is ‘family partnership.’ It is not
as rigidly defined as polygamy. A family partnership is gender-transparent. It
does not require a particular mix, like several members of one gender or one
member of the other" (63). McIntyre underscores the transparency of the
MacKenzie partnership through the non-identification of an off-stage member
named Merit. Merit is important to the family partnership as the one who brought
its members together and served as the family’s "house manager."
Merit, however, was the victim of a tragic accident that occurs before the
events narrated in Starfarers. Merit’s absence gives McIntyre the
luxury of not having to describe the character beyond a name and fond memories.
The author’s silence about this character’s sex, race, class, sexual
preference, and other identifying features forces the reader to face her/his own
assumptions regarding the figure who would fit this unmarked space. Identity as
a function of racial or gendered specificity disappears, to be replaced by Merit’s
memory. For this character, race and gender become the most superficial of
markers. By implication, then, s/he can become open to an as yet unimaginable
range of social affinities.24
But the MacKenzie family partnership does not imply the advent of a utopia in
which difference does not make a difference. Instead, it is the harbinger of a
social formation in which the proliferation of differences provokes the
disruption of norms. Here McIntyre implies a future that continually replicates
difference rather than resolving it. In other parts of Starfarers, she
entertains the possibility of an astrofuturist posthumanism of the sort
fictionalized in Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985).25 Again
it must be emphasized that the family partnership does not reflect a military
structure in which individual differences are sanded away to create a mechanical
sameness. Rather, McIntyre allows for individual specificity as a part of what
has to be negotiated in both domestic and public life. The members of the family
partnership do not live in some impossible harmony, but are forced to address
the tensions created by Merit’s death, by financial stress, and by personal
differences. An open-ended structure made even more so by Merit’s death, the
family is vulnerable to the influence of newcomers who might become part of the
partnership. Through the family partnership, we begin to realize that McIntyre’s
interest in the space future lies in the possibility of the metamorphosis of
identity in both its individual and social aspects. The biographical and
historical specificity of her characters sympathetically emphasizes their
differences in a way that invalidates any notion that a "universal
man" could be the linchpin of future social order. In fact, the wide range
of differences, both artificial and natural, imagined by McIntyre encourages the
speculation that in her space future there will be as many genders, races, and
sexualities as there are people. McIntyre usurps the universal humanity into
which all must fit, not in order to prescribe a particular alternative to
conventional social relations, but to imagine a society built around the freedom
to refashion one’s self and one’s associations. Social and political
consensus, if it comes, arises out of the affinities that people of very
different backgrounds may find through reasoned argument and common interest. It
cannot be imposed from above by a mandated similitude of interest, purpose, or
character. McIntyre imagines a future social order in which ever-proliferating
human differences may be nurtured and embraced by a clan-like sense of family.
The MacKenzie family partnership, therefore, is not represented as the
utopian social formation that will resolve all conflicts around difference.
Rather it is presented as a point along a line of social development that can be
seen as retrogressive or advanced, depending on the evaluator’s position in
the social/ political matrix. For MacKenzie, that matrix contains her
great-grandmother, an anthropologist whose life and presence connect her to
older black communities and their experiences. Grangrana serves as a connection
to a past marked both by traditional social relationships and by previous
struggles against the use of race and gender to define a hierarchy of masters
Victoria knew the struggle her great-grandmother had had to endure to
succeed, in a different time, it seemed, to her, nearly as bizarre and
incredible as the lives of Grangrana’s great-grandparents, who had escaped
to Canada from the United States during the years of slavery. Grangrana’s
stories of times past had taught Victoria the fragility of freedom. (60)
Grangrana’s experience of freedom’s fragility makes her fearful of what
her granddaughter may have given up to join the family partnership. In a
conversation with Victoria she expresses her concern:
"[W]hen you told me about this arrangement, I remembered some of the
foolish things I did when I was your age—younger than you."
"But it is not like that, it is not a cult, Merry didn’t use
charisma to keep us as pets, or worshippers, or slaves."
"Chérie, you never know it until it’s over. It’s so easy
to persuade yourself to give up yourself for someone. Especially someone you
Despite the sympathy that McIntyre encourages in her readers for the family
partnership, she also directs attention to this respectful and well-considered
dissent. Here social orders, familial relationships, and attitudes are not
merely personal taste or fashion but are grounded in historical experience. The
conflict between Victoria MacKenzie and her great-grandmother plays itself out
within the context of love and history. Grangrana’s concerns arise not from a
need to remake her granddaughter in her own image, forcing Victoria into some
preordained pattern, but from a desire to see her kin maintain a hard-won
freedom and the happiness that flows from it. This sense of the simultaneously
emancipatory and dangerous potential of all choices prevents a reading of the
Starfarers’ world as a "utopian" project.
McIntyre’s space-future vision is cautionary rather than enthusiastic in
tone. There is an ambiguity in her work that is not present in that of other
astrofuturists who play it straight. She implies that the will to power could
poison even the Elysian experiment of the Starfarer campus. Grangrana
recognizes, as her granddaughter may not, that the seductions of power are not
absent from even the most intimate social relationships and the best political
intentions: "‘They seem like good men, Satoshi and Stephen Thomas,’
Grangrana said. ‘But do not stand for it if they pretend to be better than
you. Men like to do that, even when they do not realize it’" (60). We are
left in a space future where social perfection is sought but never quite
achieved. It is one in which MacKenzie’s personal and professional family
partnership serves as narrative/moral center but cannot be privileged as its
apotheosis. McIntyre presents this partnership as but one alternative among
many, perhaps better than some but certainly no worse than others. After a tense
moment with her great-grandmother over the partnership, Victoria laughs and
explains to Grangrana the reason for her laughter: "It’s that you think
my household is outrageous and all my other friends think it’s terribly old
fashioned" (60). The space future that McIntyre presents here supports
continual experiment but no final revolution.26
The novelistic breaking of new ground through commentary on the past has thus
far extended from the author’s ironic distance from the conventions of her
genre to her character’s at times difficult negotiations with her own
affiliative history. At both metafictional and intratexual levels, it is clear
that no complete rupture is possible and that newness, if it is to be, has to be
brought into being through creative salvage operations. One final such operation
makes clear McIntyre’s political fears and hopes. Like many other American
futurists, she bases her notion of a desirable future on the template of
American democracy.27 In a climatic scene in which the faculty and
staff of the Starfarer must decide whether to continue their pioneering
venture or to heed governmental demands that they turn back, McIntyre invokes
Jeffersonian notions of liberty:
"I see nothing revolutionary," Satoshi said, "about
wanting to do the job we were sent up here for."
"Even if a more important job has developed back home? We’re
needed. The ship is needed. None of you is willing to admit it, and I’m
sick of you all. You forget—‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’"
"I’m sick of hearing that quote abused," Satoshi said.
"Jefferson wasn’t talking about the danger of foreign powers—even
King George and the whole British Empire. He was talking about the danger of
handing over our freedoms to a despot of our own!" (213)
McIntyre implies here that the politics informing her social experiment on
the Starfarer are not all that different from the vision that led to the
founding of the United States of America. If the dangers to liberty come from
us, its protections must also come from us. The past provides some resources,
but no ready-made model. After all, it is one of the ironies of our history that
Jefferson, the philosopher of liberty, was also Jefferson, the owner of slaves.
While McIntyre suggests that even in a new world we will have to continue the
fight for liberty, she also wants to ensure that the practice of democracy will
be extended beyond the narrow elites of Jefferson’s day, and of our own, to
include all people.
Working with the materials she inherits from previous articulations of the
space-future project, McIntyre also finds room to speculate about social
alterity. The narrative that she produces in the Starfarer series may be termed
an astrofuturist feminism because its deliberate parody of space-futurist
conventions, however polite, avoids the nostalgia that suffuses the work of
Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and other self-proclaimed inheritors of the
Heinlein mantle. I have argued here that her work both accommodates and resists,
through parodic engagement, the stabilizing regimes of the order encoded in the
conventions of astrofuturist narrative. McIntyre articulates a feminist
astrofuturism that reflects a changed and changing social awareness. She also
avoids the simple humanism that would have social good automatically flowing
from any movement out into the space frontier. The negotiations, promises, and
compromises of politics do not disappear, and freedom requires not only eternal
vigilance but also eternal experimentation.
Working through the conventions of an astrofuturism that has been
predominantly masculine, white, and militaristic, McIntyre seeks to reinvent the
future prepared for us by the dominant popular and political culture. Her
writing challenges the literary and social conventions of the imperial hero, the
technological conquest, the socio-military order, and the nuclear family to
displace the gendered and racial meanings that inhere in their hierarchies.
Through the character of Victoria Fraser MacKenzie—her history, her faith in
scientific exploration, the academic anarchy of the Starfarer
starship/campus, and a culturally and biologically open family partnership—McIntyre
reforms the fundamental social and political meanings that astrofuturism has
inherited from the first generation of spaceflight enthusiasts. In so doing, she
articulates for her readers an abiding hope that the exploration of space will
foster a transnational renaissance that will free us from parochialism and
imperialism. At the core of her work is the faith shared by all astrofuturists,
a belief in the transformative potential of space flight and in the promise of
its technologies. The postmodern civility imagined by McIntyre exchanges settled
identities and places for the motile potentials of trackless space. At the same
time, she harnesses the space-future project for goals other than those
naturalized by mainstream aerospace. In her astrofuturist narratives, the
liberating potential of space-born technoscience finds room for maneuver.28
1. This claim is an important part of the political rhetoric
mobilized in support of the civilian space program of the 1960s. Neil Armstrong
underscored the sentiment in his lunar landing speech—"That’s one small
step for man, one giant leap for mankind"—itself an interesting variant
in the long tradition of footprints-and-flags rhetoric that defines the history
of exploration, discovery, and possession.
2. "Astrofuturism" describes a type of
twentieth-century technological utopianism that takes the human exploration and
colonization of space as its goal. See Howard P. Segal’s Technological
Utopianism in American Culture, as well as my "Engineer’s Dreams:
Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, and Astrofuturism in the 1950s."
3. For instances of the use of parody by disenfranchised
subjects, see Judith Butler’s readings of drag in Gender Trouble
(especially 128-49) and Bodies That Matter (121-40), as well as Homi
Bhabha’s deployment of the notion of mimicry in "Of Mimicry and Man"
4. See especially the stories "Requiem" (1940),
"Logic of Empire" (1941), "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon"
(1948), and "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (1950).
5. This series reached a high point with the galactic empire
of The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), a novel co-written with Larry Niven.
The future history of the series begins with the near-future military adventures
West of Honor (1976) and The Mercenary (1978). Its most recent
installment is Go Tell the Spartans (1991), co-authored with S.M.
6. See Robin Roberts, Jenny Wolmark, and Diane S. Wood for
discussions of McIntyre’s early writing.
7. The contributions of black and women writers to "the
hard stuff" is contested terrain. In George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin’s
co-edited collection, Hard Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany and Ursula
K. Le Guin and are both presented as writers who have made significant
contributions to our understanding of the genre. Within the anthology, however,
there is no general agreement as to whether those contributions belong within
some technoscientific hard core or if they are of any importance to the
tradition of space-future fiction. David Clayton notes that "scientific
discourse plays a crucial role" in both writers but that their novels are
not often read as examples of "hard science fiction" (59). Further, in
citing Delany’s criticism of Starship Troopers, he correctly indicates
that Delany operates under political and sexual assumptions at variance with
those found in Heinlein’s work (67). Gregory Benford argues that Le Guin is
"not a hard SF writer" and that her best-known novel, The
Dispossessed, "is [only] marginally science fiction" (89). George
Slusser concurs with the former, if not the latter, sentiment and argues that Le
Guin’s most important contribution to hard sf is to embody its outside, to
oppose the "male elitism" of its "hard vision" (238). She
represents a humanistic opposition that is marked by a "retreat from
space" (243) in a career that had been devoted to the crafting of
"space epics" (283). While James Gunn’s own generous definition of
"hardness" does allow for Delany’s and Le Guin’s engagements with
sf’s central preoccupations, the former’s tendency to bewilder the
science-fiction reader (79) and the latter’s "cerebral" approach
(77) move them away from that center. If space may be considered the natural
domain of hard sf writers, this collection implies that there is little room for
minority views about race and gender on the final frontier. Significantly, Le
Guin is the only woman to receive sustained attention in this collection, with
the exception of Paul A. Carter’s brief consideration of Leigh Brackett
(142-44). Delany is alone as a black writer and receives much less space.
Patricia S. Warrick, a literary critic, is the only female contributor in the
collection’s list of sixteen scholars and writers.
8. It is certainly true, as Allen Steele has noted, that a
reactionary politics has organized itself under the banner of hard
science fiction, but it does not necessarily follow, at least in principle, that
a fiction writer’s willingness to work within the constraints of contemporary
science and technology is a clear indication of her or his political position.
See Steele’s "Hard Again."
9. Sheri S. Tepper’s continuing success as a popularizer of
utopian feminism is perhaps emblematic of this change. In Gibbon’s Decline
and Fall (1997), for example, she produces a narrative in which the
differences between women and men are both fundamentally biological and
exploited by an almost supernatural extraterrestrial antagonist. Once that enemy
is defeated, and a solution to the tragedy of human biology is offered, the way
to a future free of dominance and oppression along gender lines is open. In the
absence of any serious rendering of a feminist politics, solutions that might
emerge from it cannot be imagined from within the text.
10. My reading of McIntyre’s Star Trek novels is informed by
Michel de Certeau’s ideas about the possibilities of resistances and
challenges to commercial culture within the mundane practices of everyday life.
My argument, in other words, is for a textual multivalence that cannot be
reduced to a simple expression of market forces. Henry Jenkins (in Textual
Poachers) and Constance Penley (in NASA/Trek) demonstrate the
significance of textual multivalence in their studies of media fans and readers.
11. See Daniel Bernardi’s critique of the racism lurking at
the core of Star Trek’s liberal-pluralist vision of the future in
"Star Trek in the 1960s," an argument he documents more
extensively in Star Trek and History. I take his argument seriously but
would add another perspective. Given the almost complete erasure of people of
color from the America represented in dramatic television, the mere fact of
their presence was something of a revolution in the 1960s. In the great shout of
conservative speech around the subject, it is easy to forget that the twin goals
of the Civil Rights movement—the end of segregation and assimilation—were
prompted by a strong desire among middle-class black liberals (my parents among
them) to make race unremarkable. In their terms they wanted to see
representations of their "essential humanity," not their blackness. We
must remember that this was the cultural context that conditioned the politics
and the reception of the original series.
12. Bernardi notes that racial representation in Star Trek
takes us to a human universe in which the "very white" Kirk is the
figure who articulates and embodies the universal peace of the future ("Star
Trek in the 1960s," 210, 223-24).
13. While further discussion of this tradition falls outside
the scope of this article, it would begin with Clarke’s The Exploration of
Space (1951), Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (1957), and
Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973).
14. The tradition of representation that I am addressing here
is only tangentially related to the work produced by the black sf and fantasy
writers (e.g., Delany, Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders, and Stephen Barnes)
working in the same period. As the writer who has insisted upon the paradigmatic
and deciding presence of black female characters in sf, however, Butler is a
particularly important precursor for McIntyre; see her Dawn (1987), Wild
Seed (1980), Parable of the Sower (1993), and Parable of the
Talents (1998). But as influential as these writers have been in redefining
the social and literary landscape of science fiction, none of them directly
engage the astrofuturist project that orients McIntyre’s work.
15. The black female characters in question are the admirable
Dr. Nicole des Jardins in Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s The Garden of
Rama (1991) and the brilliant and amoral terrorist, Skida Thibodeau, in
Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans (1991).
16. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) exemplifies
this habit. In this novel, common humanity is eventually represented by a black
man, Jan Rodricks. When the human race evolves beyond earthly existence at the
end of the novel, he remains behind to witness the apotheosis. Rodricks is an
emblem of Clarke’s hope that the future will bring a final solution to the
problem of race: racism no longer exists in the future of this novel because
racialized figures are left behind (89).
17. In Inherit the Stars (1977), James P. Hogan argues
that a military hierarchy is the most efficient human social model for the
conquest and management of space. He reiterates this argument as a plot device
in his recent pastiche of the 1950s space-cadet novel, Outward Bound
(1999). In Starfarers, by contrast, McIntyre represents the military as
wasteful and pathological, and therefore unequipped to pioneer the space
18. See Wernher von Braun’s "Prelude to Space
Travel" (12-70) and Willy Ley’s "A Station in Space" (98-117)
in Ryan. Their arguments helped justify the military use of space technology
during the Cold War.
19. If that were the case, McIntyre would be replicating the
kind of "feminist politics" we find, for instance, in Heinlein’s The
Number of the Beast (1980).
20. Thulani Davis makes this point in "The Future May Be
Bleak, But It’s Not Black."
21. See, for example, Nicole des Jardins’ saintly demeanor
and philosophy in Clarke and Lee’s The Garden of Rama.
22. The continuing power of this astrofuturist trope is
demonstrated by the Heinleinian pastiches essayed in the recent Jupiter series
novels, Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle’s Higher Education (1996)
and James P. Hogan’s Outward Bound (1999).
23. McIntyre’s invention tropes Heinlein’s practice in
imagining reconfigured family structures on the high frontier, such as the
"line-marriages" of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and the
"patrilocal matriarchy" of the Free Traders in Citizen of the
Galaxy (1957). In Aliens and Others, Wolmark notes that McIntyre
experimented with her notion of the family partnership in The Entropy Effect,
a Star Trek novel. There it is presented as a social/political form that
challenges Captain Kirk’s Starfleet (70-71). Within Star Trek’s universe,
however, this alternative to Starfleet’s rigid, patriarchal hierarchy cannot
be maintained. Diane S. Wood provides a more complete evaluation of how McIntyre
field-tests the notion of family partnership in her Star Trek novels.
24. Those familiar with McIntyre’s work will recognize Merit
as a reworking of Merideth, an ungendered character in Dreamsnake (1978).
According to Carolyn Wendell, Merideth is a feminist construct that makes gender
"less important than one’s personality and capabilities" (126).
25. In Schismatrix, spacefaring humanity has
transformed itself into two posthuman factions, the genetically-engineered
Shapers and the cybernetically-enhanced Mechanists. Here the conventional ways
of stabilizing human difference have been superseded by an increasingly powerful
and fine-grained technological intervention into the very structure of
biological life. McIntyre’s near-future vision presents that transformation as
possible but does not resolve it on the grand scale that Sterling realizes.
26. McIntyre is very direct about generational differences
between the "revolutionary" generation of the 1960s and MacKenzie’s
own. MacKenzie is disappointed upon finding that she has little in common with
the "grandmother in space" who represents that previous generation.
Their sharpest conflict comes over whether to land on and colonize a new planet.
MacKenzie is opposed to transforming the expedition into a repetition of the
treks of white settlers, while the grandmother is all for it. This is the writer’s
sotto voce comment on how the communitarian left can become implicated in
the colonialist ethic that it otherwise condemns. This criticism could be
leveled, with particular justice, at many who supported O’Neill’s L-5
27. And it is Heinlein, again, who lays the foundation in this
for astrofuturism. He, in fact, made regular use of American history and
historical mythology in setting out the political and moral structures of his
futures. The American Revolution is used, for example, as a template in The
Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), Between Planets (1951), and Red
Planet (1949). "Logic of Empire" (1941) and Citizen of
the Galaxy (1957) are both structured around the issues of slavery and
freedom that inform our memories of the Civil War. The Rolling Stones (1952)
is a refiguration of the Western migrations of the nineteenth century with space
as the new frontier. "Misfit" (1939) recalls, in part, the social
programs of the New Deal. And "Space Jockey" (1947) evokes the world
of Mark Twain’s classic semi-autobiography, Life on the Mississippi
28. Ross Chambers develops the term "room for
maneuver" in his study, Room for Maneuver: Reading Oppositional
Narrative (1991). In part, the term refers to his analysis of the act of
reading that produces texts as oppositional. Chambers’ work resonates with
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