Utopia, Science, Postmodernism, and Feminism: A Trilogy
of Significant Works
Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant (Two Women of
the West). Unveiling a Parallel: A
Romance. Intro. Carol A. Kolmerten. Utopianism and Communitarianism
Series. Ed. Lyman Tower Sargent and Gregory Claeys. Syracuse University Press
(800-365-8929), 1991. xlv+158. $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.
Marina Benjamin, ed. A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature.
Rutgers University Press (800-446-6224), 1993. xiii+248. 17 b & w illus. $48.00 cloth,
Jenny Wolmark. Aliens
and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism. UK: Harvest
Wheatsheaf (0442-881900), 1993. xii+167. Cloth and paper. Sterling prices not known. US:
University of Iowa Press (800-235-2665), 1994. xii+167. $29.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
1. Unveiling a Parallel, first published in 1893 and out of
print since 1894, is a "lost" feminist utopian novel written by two women from
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Carol Kolmerten's informal and informative introduction gives the
reader some background on the lives of Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant and
usefully situates their novel within the traditions both of the sentimental novel and of
late nineteenth-century American utopian fiction such as Edward Bellamy's Looking
Backward. As Kolmerten notes, over two hundred utopian novels appeared between 1888
and 1918, "the largest single body of utopian writing in history" (xxiv).
The parallel which Jones and Merchant unveil is a double one: at the same time as they
develop the similarities between America in the nineteenth century and the civilizations
on Mars visited by their aeronautically-inclined young male narrator, they also argue for
the basic similarities between male and female natures which would become apparent once
women attained the rights and privileges traditionally enjoyed by men alone.
The structural similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's more familiar
feminist-utopian novel, Herland (1915), are obvious: as in Herland, the
narrator is a young male explorer who encounters a new world and a new world order, and
whose naive questions and reactions provide the excuse for various of its inhabitants to
explain this new world's social systems and values to him and to the reader. The fact that
the narrator is a quite conservative young man who is convinced that the patriarchal and
capitalist way of American life is the epitome of human development paves the way, as it
does in Herland, for nice touches of humor and satire.
The differences between Unveiling a Parallel and Herland are also
significant, however. Perhaps most interesting is the fact, also noted by Kolmerten, that
Jones and Merchant do not end their novel with the ritual of heterosexual marriage to
which even Gilman, in spite of the fact that Herland is a separatist utopia,
gives lip service. Although their narrator does indeed find the woman of his dreams on
Mars, the novel ends with his return to Earth--alone.
It is also interesting that Jones and Merchant construct no less than two utopian
societies, Thursia and Caskia, on their imaginary Mars, each of which provides their
narrator with an object of romance. Thursia, whose drawbacks only gradually become
apparent, is a society much like their own late nineteenth-century America, although
richer and more elegant. Here the narrator meets and is attracted to Elodia, a young woman
who is successful in business, a power in the community, the mother of an illegitimate
child who does not live with her, an experienced lover, and a leader in her social circle.
Elodia is everything that successful young men in the "real" world would like to
be, no worse and certainly no better: she drinks too much and is also addicted to a
potentially harmful drug. Naturally, the narrator, convinced of the essential passivity
and purity of female nature, soon becomes disgusted with her, especially as she makes
absolutely no effort to change her own life to fit his expectations.
Elodia is perhaps Jones and Merchant's most interesting and sophisticated creation in Unveiling
a Parallel, the embodiment of the woman who enjoys traditional male privileges and is
as unlike an angel in the house as it is possible to be. Their narrator's visit to Thursia
provides the authors with some fine opportunities to satirize the nineteenth century's
burdensome idealization of women.
When the narrator moves on to Caskia, the truly utopian society in the novel, the story
loses much of its sparkle and takes on a more conventional tone. It is in Caskia that he
meets Ariadne, the woman to whom he gives his final allegiance. Caskia is a society which
lives by the principle of universal love and, as such, is clearly Jones and Merchant's
ideal community, just as Ariadne is their ideal woman, embodying as she does many of the
virtues attributed to the feminine principle at the end of the nineteenth century. In
Caskia, however, this is no drawback, since the entire society has espoused these virtues.
Suffice it to say that it is Elodia whom the contemporary reader is likely to remember,
and Elodia who will probably strike that reader as the more truly human of the
Jones and Merchant are not particularly sophisticated writers, and it is unlikely that Unveiling
a Parallel will displace Herland from its position as the classic
early feminist utopia. Nevertheless, it has its own charms, and serves to remind us of the
many twists and turns on the road to women's social equality. One hundred years after its
first publication, the vast majority of North American women are still far from achieving
even the less than completely desirable success enjoyed by Elodia in Thursia. The realm of
universal peace and love represented by Caskia seems as out of reach as it ever was.
2. A Question of Identity is an important new collection of
essays which explore some of the ways in which fictional and non-fictional texts have
served as sites for the construction both of women and of science. As Marina Benjamin
explains in her introduction,
this collection points to the continued relevance of major currents of Enlightenment
thought: notably, science's persistent need to define, explain, and categorize women, and
our enduring reliance on the distinction between subject and object as a basis for
distinguishing the typically male world of knowers from the world of the known, which is
all too frequently symbolized by woman. (4)
After her own introductory essay sets out the parameters of the collection, Benjamin
groups the subsequent nine essays into four sections: "Enlightenment
Identities," "Reproductive Identities," "Evolutionary
Identities," and "Cognitive Identities." Benjamin's introduction is a
broadly ranging theoretical discussion of the problematics of identity and agency, the
relevance of these concepts to theories of the construction of Woman, and the complexities
involved in contemporary attempts to (re)construct female identity outside the framework
of Enlightenment patterns of thought. Her conclusion, which leads directly into the
concerns of the essays following her own, "is that the need to address what might be
called the question of identity is fundamental to challenging the subject-oriented
epistemology of modernity" (21).
While not all the essays collected here are directly relevant to the sf field, all of
them are stimulating, intelligent, and well-researched, and some of them are absolutely
fascinating. I was particularly interested by John Mullen's "Gendered Knowledge,
Gendered Minds: Women and Newtonianism, 1690-1760" and Londa Schiebinger's "The
Gendered Ape: Early Representations of Primates in Europe." Mullen's essay is a
report on the construction and popularization of "Newtonian Philosophy," a
popularization which conscripted women into playing the roles of "its awed witnesses,
its dutiful devotees, and ...its best test" (42). As Mullen demonstrates,
"Newtonianism seeks, or shows itself seeking, 'the ladies' because they are the
untutored auditors who could endorse the new Philosophy by being enabled to comprehend
it" (56). Schiebinger's essay, which includes some really quite amazing illustrations
to make its point, is a report on the development of primate studies in the eighteenth
century, and the extent to which science, in the guise of "objective" reportage,
imposed its own culturally-specific notions of gender differences upon the natural world.
She also demonstrates some of the ways in which these "objective" readings have
been instrumental in the construction of an essentialized female subject which exists only
as the sexual "other" of the "universal" male subject.
More immediately relevant here are several essays which intersect directly with sf and
with speculative fiction in general, such as Marie Mulvey Roberts' "The Male
Scientist, Man-Midwife, and Female Monster: Appropriation and Transmutation in Frankenstein"
and Susan Squier's "Conceiving Difference: Reproductive Technology and the
Construction of Identity in Two Contemporary Fictions" (which examines two sf novels
in detail, Robin Cook's Mutation and Fay Weldon's The Cloning of Joanna May
The single most important essay from the perspective of contemporary concerns in
speculative fiction--and also one of the best in the collection--is undoubtedly N.
Katherine Hayles's "The Life Cycle of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman," which
examines the image of the cyborg, arguably one of the most relevant theoretical
constructions of the last decade, within the context of issues of identity, subjectivity,
and the power of the cultural imagination:
Standing at the threshold separating the human from the posthuman, the cyborg looks to
the past as well as the future. It is precisely this double nature that allows cyborg
stories to be imbricated within cultural narratives while still wrenching them in a new
Hayles's essay is a report on the "life cycle" of the cyborg in the recent
popular imagination. She explores some of the ways in which a culture processes something
like a new mode of subjectivity, and she demonstrates how this process takes place within
the stories that we tell ourselves. In the process of her own intellectual and imaginative
(re)constructions, she examines a wide range of sf narratives, from Bernard Wolfe's Limbo(1952)
to Anne McCaffery's stories in The Ship Who Sang(1970) to John Varley's
"Press Enter" (1986) to Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1989).
3. Jenny Wolmark's Aliens and Others is a recent and
significant entry into the ongoing dialogue among cultural theorists about the complex
interactions between feminism and postmodernism. Her own specific concern is to situate
contemporary feminist sf within the field created by these intersections and the resulting
study is an important addition to the growing number of works on feminist sf.
Wolmark's is not the first attempt to analyze feminist sf within the postmodern
context. Marleen Barr's Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (1992)
takes a much different approach to the subject and comes to very different conclusions,
arguing that "feminist fabulation" (a term which Barr uses to include a wide
range of fictions, including feminist sf) has a kind of "natural" place in any
postmodern canon (see my review in SFS #60). Wolmark's approach is more cautious.
She notes the various parallels between feminism and postmodernism but warns against
conflating the two. Noting as well some of incontrovertible contradictions between the
two, she borrows a phrase from Laura Kipnis to suggest that "the intersection between
them can ...best be characterised as a 'shared theoretical moment'" (20). It is the
exploration of this "shared theoretical moment" that is the aim of her study.
As Wolmark's subtitle indicates, her exploration is structured around several sites of
intersection, between feminism and postmodernism, between sf and postmodernism, and
between feminism and sf. In a very useful introductory chapter, she lays out the
theoretical framework for the readings of specific texts which make up the bulk of Aliens
and Others, constructing this framework through a dialogue with postmodern theorists
such as Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Linda Hutcheon, and feminist theorists such
as Meaghan Morris, Sandra Harding, Nancy Fraser, and Linda J. Nicholson. She concludes her
introduction with a convincing argument for the generic specificity of feminist sf,
despite its occasionally uneasy situation within the broader sf field.
Wolmark's introduction also clarifies the concern around which her subsequent chapters
will be developed, a concern very similar to that which shapes Benjamin's collection. As
Wolmark states early on, Aliens and Others is "primarily a study of the ways
in which feminist science fiction addresses questions of subjectivity, identity and
difference, and challenges the dual definition of the 'alien' as other and of the other as
always being alien" (2). These issues, to a greater or lesser extent, are also
central to postmodernism, and result in the creation of one of those sites of intersection
between feminst sf and postmodern theory which are the focus of Wolmark's study.
The four chapters which make up the rest of Aliens and Others examine works by,
respectively, Octavia Butler and Gwyneth Jones ("Unpredictable Aliens"); Vonda
McIntyre and C.J. Cherryh ("Destabislising Gender and Genre"); Suzie McKee
Charnas, Sheri Tepper, Pamela Sargent, and Margaret Atwood ("Troubles in Women's
Country"); and Pat Cadigan, Marge Piercy, Rebecca Ore, and Elisabeth Vonarburg
("Cyberpunk, Cyborgs and Feminist Science Fiction"). This final chapter is
perhaps her most interesting, addressing as it does some of the issues most relevant to
contemporary feminist sf, specifically, its interactions with cyberpunk and its
construction of alternative images of the cyborg. On the other hand, her detailed readings
of texts by Jones, McIntyre, Cherryh, Ore, and Vonarburg pay overdue attention to some
feminist writers whose work has not always been adequately recognized in recent critical
discussions of feminist sf.
As the names listed above indicate, Wolmark's emphasis is on genre sf, as opposed to
the more rarified varieties of slipstream sf and speculative fiction which usually figure
in studies of postmodernism (such as, I admit, my own). This constrains her readings to
some extent, since the conventional conservatism of genre sf narratives is more or less at
odds with the more experimental nature of much postmodern fiction. And her occasional
readings of less conventional texts, such as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, do not
always do justice to the complexities of contemporary postmodern fiction. On the whole,
however, Aliens and Others succeeds admirably in the task it sets for itself.
Wolmark's readings are intelligent and fairminded, and her engagement with the theoretical
underpinnings of her project is both stimulating and satisfying. She takes the time to
address, for example, the pessimism inherent in Jameson's and Baudrillard's analysis of
the postmodern condition, rightly arguing that
the decentring of the modernist legacy,
along with the decentring of the unitary subject, have been of immense importance as far
as feminism and feminist cultural production is concerned, enabling the question of
gendered subjectivity to become part of the postmodern agenda. (11)
It seems to me, in fact, that this is the most potentially useful full-length study of
feminist sf to appear since Sarah Lefanu's In the Chinks of the World Machine:
Feminism and Science Fiction(1988). I will just note here that both Lefanu and
Wolmark are British; whether or not this is significant is anyone's guess.
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