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
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
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
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
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