Science Fiction Studies

#63 = Volume 21, Part 2 = July 1994

Veronica Hollinger

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, $18.00 paper.

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 two women.

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 [both 1989]).

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 direction. (153)

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 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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