Science Fiction Studies

#30 = Volume 10, Part 2 = July 1983

Linda Leith

Women and Science Fiction

Marlene [sic] S. Barr, ed. Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981. 191 pp. $16.95 cloth; $8.95 paper.

Tom Staicar, ed. The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It (Recognitions Series). NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982. viii + 148pp. $11.95 cloth; $6.95 paper.

The SF that has increasingly been published by women surely constitutes the most interesting recent development in the genre. Individual women writers have of course been receiving attention from SF teachers and scholars, as both the rehabilitation of Mary Shelley and the lionizing of Ursula K. Le Guin testify. Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel that the trend as a whole has been noticed rather less than it deserves. This is particularly the case when one considers the remarkable fact that a substantial number of these women are utopists. Glimmers of hope are not so often found in this desperate world that we can afford casually to disregard a significant utopian spirit. Indeed, given the importance in the past of utopian writing as a signal, we would do well to sit up and take notice of this new expression of hope for a better future. Like their great predecessors in earlier ages of upheaval and (however alloyed) optimism, these new utopians are signaling a world ready to be born.

Future Females: A Critical Anthology, edited by "Marlene" S. Barr (her name has apparently been misspelled on the cover; elsewhere it is "Marleen"), takes a large look at "SF viewed in terms of women," considering sexism in SF, women SF writers, female SF characters, male SF writers whose tales involve women, and also what Barr calls "expectations of critical essays about women in the genre" (p.4; see below). These categories, she explains in her preface, reflect her desire to give "women and science fiction" wide definition and scope. This ambitious undertaking requires, I feel, a more adequate introduction than Barr's preface provides, and it is perhaps inevitable that the contributions should be uneven. The value of the collection lies principally in what it has to say about the feminist utopias, and also in the additions it makes to the literature on sexism in SF.

The "Recent Feminist Utopias" are most fully discussed in Joanna Russ's essay of that title. In it she looks at works by Monique Wittig (Les Guérrillières, 1971, in English translation), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed, 1974), Samuel Delany (Triton, 1976), Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Shattered Chain, 1976), Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976), Sally Gearhart (The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women, 1979), Catherine Madsen ("Commodore Bork and the Compost," 1976), and Alice Sheldon ("Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" under the pseudonym "Raccoona Sheldon," and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" as "James Tiptree, Jr.," both 1976), as well as her own The Female Man (1975). These works, Russ argues, are remarkable not only for their explicit feminism but for the similar forms the feminism takes in the works written by women. All the societies described are ecology-minded, largely non-violent, sexually permissive and joyful, and accessible to and safe for women; moreover, they tend to be classless and without government, and they view female sexuality as initiatory rather than passive and reactive. Some depict all-female, and therefore lesbian societies, and difficulties with intruding males. "Careful inspection of the manless societies," Russ writes, "usually reveals the intention (or wish) to allow men in...if only they can be trusted to behave" (p. 78).

Carol Pearson, in "Coming Home: Four Feminist Utopias and Patriarchal Experience," discusses both 19th and 20th-century works by women writers who assume that the patriarchy is unnatural and that it fails to create environments conducive to the maximization of female--or male--potential. Most feminist utopias tend, she argues, to affirm the value of certain traditionally feminine occupations. Similarly Russ, who makes several of the same points as Pearson and who acknowledges her debt to an earlier version of Pearson's essay (the latter's "Women's Fantasies and Feminist Utopias" appeared in a 1977 issue of Frontiers), stresses the extent to which such works specifically address women's issues. Towards the end of her essay Russ goes down a list of the characteristics of the recent feminist utopias. "Some of the above," she says, "is common to thoughtful people of both sexes, like the dislike of war and the insistence that violence has consequences, but most are specific to women's concerns" (p. 82). I  find it remarkable that no larger claim is made at this point. It is not only violence that is a concern "common to thoughtful people of both sexes." Harmony with the natural world, a dislike of urban environments, classlessness, sexual permissiveness, and joy--these are surely issues of interest to thoughtful men too. And if white middle and upper class men in industrially advanced societies, say, are less likely to be worried about freedom in work, for example, and in the public world (since indeed they are privileged), it would be wise of us to remember not only that not all men are so privileged but indeed that only a minority is. When, as is often the case, the evidence of the feminist utopias allows for a common purpose for men and women, let us not be too quick to rule it out.

The implications of the feminist utopian works are touched on by several of the writers in Future Females, whether or not they deal directly with such works. Scott Sanders' essay on "Woman as Nature in Science Fiction" argues that in much SF, "women and nature bear the same features: both are mysterious, irrational, instinctive; both are fertile and mindless; both inspire wonder and dread in the hero; both are objects of male conquest" (p. 42). What begins by seeming like yet another convincing argument that SF has indeed been sexist in the past, has in fact a revolutionary corollary connecting it with the feminist utopias Sanders never directly mentions. Since the "feminine" (like the "natural") is actively repressed in so much SF, when it does appear it unsettles the masculine order. What we need, Sanders concludes, "in SF as in society at large, is an end to this polarization, a reunion of those qualities falsely sundered under the labels of 'masculine' and 'feminine'" (p. 58).

Future Females provides various answers to various phrasings of the question "How sexist has SF been?" Eric S. Rabkin argues that SF has not really been as bad as it's been painted ("Science Fiction Women Before Liberation"); Anne Hudson Jones that Rite of Passage has sexist limitations ("Alexei Panshin's Almost Non-Sexist Rite of Passage"); James D. Merritt ("She Pluck'd, She Eat") that SF women, when they are not just Las Vegas showgirls, are too often Eves upon whom we can place all the blame--"mothers of us all who will make us suffer for the rest of our days" (p. 41). In "An Ambiguous Legacy: The Role and Position of Women in the English Eutopia," Lyman Tower Sargent concludes that "the eutopia has been generally unimaginative regarding women's position in society" (p. 97) and comments on the lack of an English movement similar to that which has produced the recent feminist utopias in the US (his article, which appeared in the May 1975 Extrapolation, should have been updated). Other discussions of sexism in SF are found in a couple of very slim pieces (a short article by Edward Whetmore and a shorter response by Arthur Asa Berger) about Dr. Janet Lester of Star Trek's "Turnabout Intruder."

While it may well be my well developed "professional avoidance techniques" that are to blame for my criticism of the personal "transactive" contributions of Norman N. Holland ("You, U.K. Le Guin") and Marleen Barr ("Charles Bronson, Samurai, and Other Feminine Images: A Transactive Response to The Left Hand of Darkness"), I would argue for the exclusion from the volume of what seem to me unilluminating, unfocussed, and self-indulgent responses to Le Guin's work. It is, I presume, these two articles that Barr's preface refers to vaguely as having to do with "expectations of critical essays about women in the genre"; one would hope to see feminist criticism better served than with Holland's "I reach out to you, U.K. Le Guin, to join my hand to yours to re-create The Left Hand of Darkness" (p. 137) or Barr's "I have had my low points too" (p. 146).

As editor, Barr has chosen to include written comments about two of the articles. While Berger's adds hardly at all to the collection (his quarrel with Whetmore is over analytical techniques in communications theory rather than over either women or SF), Robert Scholes's "A Footnote to Russ's 'Recent Feminist Utopias"' is worthwhile. After mentioning Philip Wylie's The Disappearance, with its all-male and all-female worlds, and after considering how much "nicer" (his word) women are than men, he concludes his remarks as follows: "Personally, I have a sinking feeling that men are what they are all too biologically: the males of a species selected for survival in a primitive universe now destroying their social fabric to buy more largely lethal weapons. Maybe an all-female world is the only hope for the future of the human race. It's worth considering" (p. 87). I would have liked to see more responses in the volume and more disagreement over central issues. As it is, the most strikingly dissenting voice is Rabkin's, whose contribution curiously appears as the opening essay.

Also included in the collection is an interesting essay by Suzy McKee Charnas ("A Woman Appeared"); an analysis of the form of Marge Piercy's novels ("In and Out of Time" by Susan Kress); and Jeffrey Berman's "Where's All the Fiction in Science Fiction?," which discusses the role of literature and art in future worlds depicted by women. The volume concludes usefully with Roger C. Schlobin's "The Future Females: A Selected Checklist Through 1979." This consists largely of references to novels written in English; no short stories or writers of only short stories are named, but anthologies that feature women writers exclusively have been included. There are some errors and some surprising omissions, among them the following: Marion Zimmer Bradley's Snowqueen! appears as Starqueen and is wrongly placed at the end of the Darkover novels listed in reading order; the Phyllis Gotlieb entry consists only of Sunburst (1964), omitting mention of O Master Caliban!, which was published in 1976, well within the checklist's 1979 limit, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) appears twice, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) not at all.

The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It is a less ambitious book than Future Females. The editor, Tom Staicar, outlines his modest aim in his foreword: "We hope that The Feminine Eye will both entertain you and show you new aspects of the significant contributions of women to science fiction" (p. viii). In fact the collection lacks focus and its merits are those of its individual contributions to an even greater extent than is usual in such volumes.

It consists of nine previously unpublished essays, in each of which a critic discusses the work of a single woman SF writer. These essays provide introductory and celebratory material on Leigh Brackett (by Rosemarie Arbur), C.L. Moore (by Patricia Mathews), Andre Norton (by Roger C. Schlobin), C.J. Cherryh (by Mary T. Brizzi), James Tiptree, Jr. (by Adam J. Frisch), Suzy McKee Charnas (by Marleen Barr), Marion Zimmer Bradley (by Susan M. Shwartz), Suzette Haden Elgin (by Edgar L. Chapman), and Joan D. Vinge (by Carl Yoke). The paucity of material elsewhere about women SF writers will assure that this collection will have its uses, especially since most of the essays are themselves sensible and often interesting. However, the volume still gives me the impression of its having been thrown together. Its major faults are an uneven sense of how much biographical material to include, an excess of plot summaries, a tendency to belabor the obvious, some rather simplistic thematic concerns, and an unwieldy system of endnotes. On what basis, moreover, did Staicar select from the many recent writers that could have been focused on? And why is the essay on Suzy McKee Charnas precisely not about her SF? (It's about The Vampire Tapestry.)

On the whole The Feminine Eye is a disappointing book. Reading it, one is struck by various characteristics of women's SF (the tendency among women to write SF that borders on fantasy; the resoundingly humanistic ethic of women's SF; its anti-mechanical bias; its medieval bent, etc.) that complement what Pearson, Russ, Sanders, and others have to say in Barr's volume. To the extent that one is so struck, one is compelled to lament the fact that nowhere in the book (not even in Staicar's foreword, which is really entirely inadequate) is there any discussion of this remarkable consistency; but one is also compelled to acknowledge how profoundly interesting the subject of women and SF can--and should--be.

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