Science Fiction Studies

#51 = Volume 17, Part 2 = July 1990

Veronica Hollinger

Introduction: Women in Science Fiction and Other Hopeful Monsters

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves....It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the super-savers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. --Donna Haraway

Women writers, readers, and critics have exercised a powerful influence on the development of SF over the last three decades; and SF by women, whether or not it defines itself as feminist, has contributed both to the growing sophistication of the genre and to its increasing heterogeneity. The publication in recent years of several full-length studies devoted to the subject1 suggests that SF by women, in spite of an initial—and in some cases continuing—resistance from within an already well-established field, has itself become an established presence, redefining the field in the process and, concurrently, becoming itself redefined.

As the following essays demonstrate, SF by women has by now become a pluralistic enterprise composed of many different and differing voices and ideological positions, not all of which are obviously feminist. The objective of this issue, however, is a feminist one, as we highlight the work of women SF writers and focus attention on their imaginative re-visions of lived reality. For these women, writing SF has provided a means for "telling new stories so as to inscribe into the picture of reality characters and events and resolutions that were previously invisible, untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable, unimaginable, 'impossible')" (de Lauretis: 11). As readers, all of us have gained from these re-visions, re-definitions, and re-solutions.

When SFS, a full ten years ago, published its previous special issue on "Science Fiction on Women—Science Fiction by Women" (March 1980), the introduction called attention to a recent and significant rise in contributions by women/about women in SF. A (more or less) random glance through the issues of this journal since then suggests that in the intervening decade feminist studies have likewise achieved an established position in the field of SF criticism, although perhaps the range of critical positions reflected in SFS has not yet attained the multiplexity of the fiction we most often "read." The fact that some of these studies have been contributed by male scholars also implies a growing interest in feminism and its expanding influence on the critical community in general.

This aforementioned random glance would take in Margaret Miller's "The Ideal Woman in Two Feminist Science-Fiction Utopias" (July 1983), Nancy Steffen-Fluhr on the roles of women in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (July 1984), Peter Fitting on "New Roles for Men in Recent Utopian Fiction" (July 1985), Marleen Barr's study of "female fathering" in the works of James Tiptree, Jr (March 1986), Susan Gubar's review-article on "Feminism and Utopia" (in the same issue), Jean Pfaelzer's "The Changing of the Avant-Garde: The Feminist Utopia" (November 1988), and Patrick Murphy's feminist reading, in "Reducing the Dystopian Distance" (March 1990), of the framing devices in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

While a comparison of this present issue of SFS with our previous special issue on the interrelationships of women and SF can support only very tentative conclusions, it is tempting to suggest some nevertheless. For example, single-author studies—on Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr (Alice Sheldon), Doris Lessing, and Octavia Butler—account for an even larger proportion of the essays here than they did in our March 1980 issue, which included essays on C.L. Moore, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Le Guin as well as a wry critique of "The Battle of the Sexes in SF" by Joanna Russ. This no doubt indicates a welcome rise in the number of "significant" women writers in SF; but at the same time it suggests a certain homogeneity in the delimiting of our critical subject matter.

Since both special issues also include essays by or about Russ and Le Guin, we might pause for a moment to consider that pervasive temptation to indulge in "canon formation" which is one of the pitfalls of the critical enterprise, resulting as it occasionally does in the neglect of rewarding authors whose works are nevertheless not (yet) considered "canonical." Writers like Pat Cadigan and Connie Willis come to (my) mind here. On the other hand, the importance of a "tradition" with which women writers can identify has been argued by many feminist scholars—for which reason, it is gratifying to read, in Meri-Jane Rochelson's review-article, of no less than three new book-length studies on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (we might also add to these "progeny" of Mary Shelley the excellent new biography by Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality [Boston: Little, Brown, 1989]). In this same regard, Jane Donawerth's note on the brief SF career of Lilith Lorraine (Mary Maude Wright) in the 1920s provides us with information about one more precursor of the women who began emerging as (utopian) SF writers three decades later.

In the opening essay, on "Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction," Robin Roberts argues, from within a framework of post-structuralist theory, that "feminist SF writers use both SF concepts and recent cultural theory to challenge patriarchal assumptions." She analyzes the interactions of feminism and post-modernism, with particular stress on the functions of language and representation; and in the course of her argument, she makes a case for popular culture as a productive site of feminist intervention. Her discussion takes into account texts by lesser-known writers Joan Slonczewski and Sheila Finch as well as by Atwood and Le Guin.

Elizabeth Cummins then takes up Le Guin's development as a "Land-Lady"—a retrospective which culminates, like Roberts' essay, in a reading of Always Coming Home. In the process, Cummins provides a critical "geography" of the worlds of Le Guin's fiction discussed in the context of her recent non-fiction collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World, as well as in the context of Le Guin's own life-experiences.

Kathleen Spencer's study, which focuses on "the rescue of the female child" as a central narrative motif in Joanna Russ's writing from 1967 to 1982, develops within a framework of psychoanalytic theory, specifically that of Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982; Le Guin also cites this work with appreciation in Dancing...). Spencer draws attention to "the prominence of the rescue motif in feminist utopias" generally, and in Russ's fiction in particular, as an important thematic pattern which has generated stories analogous to, but also very different from, narratives of adolescent male rites of passage. At the heart of this feminist thematics of rescue, Spencer suggests, is the fantasy of "rescuing the self."

In "The Case of the Haploid Heart," Nancy Steffen-Fluhr offers a moving—and timely —retrospective of the SF career of James Tiptree, Jr. This she reads in the (psychoanalytic) light of Tiptree's life as Alice Sheldon, laying particular emphasis on Tiptree's formative relationship with her mother, Alice Hastings Bradley. While also providing a useful overview of much of the critical material written to date about her author, she pursues the idea that Tiptree's fictions constitute a "psychomachia—a dialogue between various parts of the Self." "From the very first," according to Steffen-Fluhr, her "stories ring out with rage, frustration, fear, and pain and, most of all, with an unsparing empathy for all creatures being squeezed and hurt by life."

Doris Lessing's SF is represented here in Phyllis Perrakis's essay on "The Marriage of Inner and Outer Space" in Shikasta, the first book of Lessing's "Canopus in Argos" series. Perrakis defends Shikasta from the critical charge that "the whole work is a depressing vision of the inadequacies of human nature" by focusing on the interplay between "inner space" and "outer space" visions, the "double vision" which acts as a structuring principle throughout the novel. In the course of her analysis, Perrakis also examines the various deconstructions—of inside/ outside, self/other, mind/body, and science/spiritual reality—which readers are invited to activate in their reading of Lessing's fiction.

Our final essay, on the work of Afro-American writer Octavia Butler, calls attention to the tendency in many SF texts by women to essentialize human nature in various ways, a tendency from which Butler's work is by no means exempt. However, as Hoda Zaki also demonstrates, "Butler's novels contain an implicit and internal critique of and rebuke to one aspect of liberal feminist ideology: its claim to speak for all women, regardless of class or color—a claim founded upon the assumption of the transhistorical and transcultural, engendered unity of all women." Moving away from psychoanalytical criticism, Zaki builds her discussion around issues of socio-political import, examining the utopian and anti-utopian elements in Butler's recent SF within the context of potential feminist political intervention.

A comparison of these essays with those in our 1980 special issue and with my sample of studies published by SFS during the '80s suggests an ongoing, perhaps increasing, socio-political emphasis in feminist SF and SF by women. It is true that Zaki's study of Butler's work is the only one in this present issue whose title announces its specific focus on utopia/dystopia; but the essays by Cummins, Spencer, Steffen-Fluhr, and Perrakis all draw attention, in different ways, to various kinds of utopian (and dystopian) affinities and interests in the works of their subject-writers, ranging from the personal utopian yearnings delineated in Russ's fiction to the imaginative re-creation of an entire culture by Le Guin in Coming Home. Given that feminism is itself a profoundly utopian enterprise, and given also the steadfast grounding of feminist politics in the realm of the personal, the extent of utopian (and dystopian) positions demonstrated in the works of these writers is exemplary.

Three of the present essays—Cummins' on Le Guin, Spencer's on Russ, and Steffen-Fluhr's on Tiptree—amount to virtual retrospectives of the careers of their subject-authors, attesting to the prolific output of these writers and to their by now long-standing interactions with the SF field. At the same time, each of these critics, in adopting an approach which in one sense or another qualifies as psychoanalytical, presents the fiction of her author as embodying an instructive tension: a vision which is at once idiosyncratic—i.e., uniquely personal—and paradigmatically feminist.

Although only Roberts' essay directly involves itself in the critical debate about the relationship(s) of feminism to post-modernism generally, it is worth noting that deconstructive theory underlies much of the thinking in these pages. Feminist studies tend to function at a far remove from the cool philosophical territory marked out by Derrida, but feminist scholars have usefully appropriated the strategies of deconstruction to undertake the breakdown of long-standing binary oppositions which have supported the oppression of women.

This breaking down of hierarchical oppositions through the deconstruction of binary thinking is certainly one of the most valuable critical methods available to feminist critics today; and its underlying presence in these essays suggests to me the necessity for feminist critics—of whatever school—to participate in the theoretical debates which are currently swirling all around us, to clarify our own positions as rigorously as possible, and to take advantage—in a movement of feminist bricolage—of whichever theories and methodologies prove efficacious to our own ongoing political engagement.

If we get it right, the productions of our theoretical bricolage may be truly monstrous, comparable to those monstrous creations which have long been a central presence in SF by women and in feminist SF (we might read them too as Mary Shelley's progeny). The last 30 years have seen the introduction of numerous such creations into women's SF, although earlier examples—such as the woman/robot, Deirdre, of C.L. Moore's classic early story, "No Woman Born" (1944)—are also part of this "tradition." We can include here: the androgynes of Le Guin's planet Winter (1969); Tanith Lee's SF vampire, Sabella, of Sabella; or, The Bloodstone (1980); the women/clones who populate the future in Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976); the "constructs" of Butler's XENOGENESIS series (1987-89), genetic hybrids produced through the inter-breeding of humans and aliens; and of course, Russ's female man (1975). In every case, these "monsters" represent the breakdown of conventional ways of being-in-the-world; they raise questions about what it means to be both female and human; and they suggest definitions which "were previously invisible, untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable, unimaginable, 'impossible')."

Inasmuch as feminist SF and cyberpunk have more in common than might immediately meet the eye,2 it is worth recalling Bruce Sterling's description of the characters populating the cyberpunk landscape—products of the breakdown of borders between the human and the machine—as "hopeful monsters" (p. 4). If we take our cue from those SF writers whose monstrous creations have compelled our admiring attention, then we as critics may also produce hopeful monsters, through the collapse of boundaries between the imaginative and the critical, between the theoretical and the practical, between the political and the personal.

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most exciting pieces of feminist theory I have read lately—Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s"—is also very much concerned with the creation of monsters. Haraway's essay, "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction" (p. 174), might well be a case of feminist cyberpunk theory, and is thus itself, perhaps, a kind of monstrous hybrid. Haraway uses the image of the cyborg, an entity which is at once human and machine, as the central metaphor upon which to base her agenda for post-modern feminism. "Cyborg unities," she contends, "are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling" (p. 179).3 Through a piece of fortuitous timing, this issue of SFS also contains Charles Elkins' review of Haraway's new book, Primate Visions, an interdisciplinary work of feminist politics, primatology, and anthropology which privileges SF for its ability to re-conceptualize potential changes in society and human social relations.

When SFS published its first issue on women and SF, feminist theory and scholarship were just beginning to enjoy the academic acceptance which many of us have by now taken for granted. Our present number likewise appears at a crucial juncture in the history of feminism and feminist studies. The '80s have not been a comforting decade; they have seen the problematic rise of post-feminism (so chillingly extrapolated in The Handmaid's Tale) as well as the renewal of the debate over abortion; and their backlash against feminism has frequently taken the form of increased violence against women. For these and many other reasons, we should recognize, even as we celebrate the growing influence of feminism and the proliferation of feminist SF and SF by women, that there remains much work for the women/monsters in SF to do if the hope which they promise is to be realized.


1. See, for example, the works by Natalie Rosinsky, Marleen Barr, and Sarah Lefanu cited below.

2. Samuel R. Delany and Joan Gordon, for instance, have made strong cases for linking feminism and cyberpunk.

3. For another use of—and perspective on—this metaphor within a feminist context, see Robin Morgan's poem "Monster" (1972), which concludes:

May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped.

May I learn how to survive until my part is finished.

May I realize that I

am a

monster. I am



I am a monster.

And I am proud.



Barr, Marleen S. Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1987.

Delany, Samuel R. "Some Real Mothers: An Interview" [by Takayuki Tatsumi], Science-Fiction Eye, 1 (Mar. 1988):5-11.

De Lauretis, Teresa. "Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms, and Contexts," in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986), pp. 1-19.

Gordon, Joan. "Yin and Yang Duke It Out," Science-Fiction Eye, 2 (Feb. 1990):37-39.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s" [1985], in Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, ed. Elizabeth Weed (NY: Routledge, 1989), pp. 173-204.

Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women's Press, 1988.

Morgan, Robin. Monster. NY: Random House, 1972.

Rosinsky, Natalie. Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Sterling, Bruce. "Letter from Bruce Sterling," REM, no. 7 (Apr. 1987), pp. 4-7.

  moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home