Science Fiction Studies

#68 = Volume 23, Part 1 = March 1996


De Witt Douglas Kilgore

Changing Regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s Parodic Astro­futurism

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 feminised 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 stabilizing regimes.            

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 political spectrum.            

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 convention.

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 them” (432).            

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 sword.            

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. HerStar 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 Trek.            

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 [1991]), 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 apotheosis.16           

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 American left.            

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 Enterprise.

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 (Roberts 146).17            

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 and slaves:

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 love.” (59-60)

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” (124-40).            

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. Stirling.

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 frontier.            

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’suniverse, 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 program.

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 (1883). 

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 that of Michel de Certeau.

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