Science Fiction Studies

#51 = Volume 17, Part 2 = July 1990



  • Charles Elkins. The Uses of Science Fiction (Donna Haraway. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science)
  • Meri-Jane Rochelson. Mary Shelley's Progeny (Anne K. Mellor. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters; Allene Stuart Phy. Mary Shelley; Mary K. Patterson Thornburg. The Monster in the Mirror: Gender and the Sentimental/Gothic Myth in FRANKENSTEIN)


Charles Elkins

The Uses of Science Fiction

Donna Haraway. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. NY: Routledge, 1989. ix + 486pp. $35.00.

Readers of SFS are certainly justified in wondering why such a book as this--focusing as it does on the "cultural/historical/personal anlagen that have colored the work of primatologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, et al. since the turn of the century," adopting a "critical stance that reflects the French tradition of Foucault and Derrida, the semiotics theory of Eco and others, and her own unique vision" (Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1989)--would be reviewed in a publication devoted to scholarly works on SF and utopian fiction.

The answer to this fair question has in (small) part to do with the relation of Primate Visions to John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision" (1978). That SF short story was one of the stimuli which inspired Haraway, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to write her book. Its importance, as she sees it, is that "Varley constructs a utopian community designed and built by the deaf-blind. He then explores these people's technologies and other mediations of communication and their relations to sighted children and visitors. The interrogation of the limits and violence of vision is part of the politics of learning to revision" (p. 384). Haraway is certainly interested in the "violence" (symbolic and literal) of vision (literal and symbolic), and especially in the relationship between our vision--what, how, why, who, when, and where we see--and those (human/animal) who are the subject of (and who are subjected to) our vision. But this interest in itself would not justify a review of her book in these pages.

Nor would one of her more intriguing anecdotes about the pioneer taxidermist and primatologist, Carl Akeley, the creator of the gorilla dioramas in New York's American Museum of Natural History, be enough. It seems that two of Akeley's safari companions, Mary Hastings and Herbert Bradley, became the parents of Dr Alice B. Sheldon, later known as James Tiptree, Jr. Questions concerning the sexual identity of Sheldon/Tiptree bear on some of Haraway's major themes--questions of gender and the nature of patriarchal society. Apropos of the fact that Robert Silverberg "used Tiptree, whom he later learned was Dr Alice B. Sheldon, as an example of fine masculine writing that must have been produced by a 'real' man," Haraway writes: "A man and a mother, a scientist and a writer of science fiction, a woman and a masculine author, Tiptree is an oxymoronic figure reconstructing social subjectivities out of a childhood colonial past and into a post-colonial world of other possibilities" (p. 386). But there are much more relevant connections to SF in what Haraway has to say than these sample observations of hers suggest.

Using terminology drawn from the post-structuralists, the deconstructionists, semioticians, and Michel Foucault, Haraway's study is a brilliant tour de force, one of the consequences of which is a provocative, stunning, deliberate blurring of the distinctions between taken-for-granted opposites-- e.g., science/literature, fact/fiction, etc. Indeed, she boldly asserts that "in part Primate Visions reads the primate text as science fiction" (p. 5). In doing so, she argues:

To treat science as narrative is not to be dismissive, quite the contrary. But neither is it to be mystified and worshipful in the face of a past participle. I am interested in the narratives of scientific fact--those potent fictions of science--within a complex field indicated by the signifier SF. In the late 1960s science fiction anthologist and critic Judith Merril idiosyncratically began using the signifier SF to designate a complex emerging narrative field in which boundaries between science fiction (conventionally, sf) and fantasy became highly permeable in confusing ways, commercially and linguistically. Her designation, SF, came to be widely adopted as critics, readers, writers, fans, and publishers struggled to comprehend an increasingly heterodox array of writing, reading, and marketing practices indicated by a proliferation of "sf" phrases: speculative fiction, science fiction, science fantasy, speculative futures, speculative fabulation.

SF is a territory of contested cultural reproduction in high-technology worlds. Placing the narratives of scientific fact within the heterogeneous space of SF produces a transformed field. The transformed field sets up resonances among all of its regions and components. No region or component is 'reduced' to any other, but reading and writing practices respond to each other across a structured space. Speculative fiction has different tensions when its field also contains the inscription practices that constitute scientific fact. The sciences have complex histories in the constitution of imaginative worlds and of actual bodies in modern and postmodern 'first world' cultures. Teresa de Lauretis speculated that the sign work of SF was 'potentially creative of new forms of social imagination, creative in the sense of mapping out areas where cultural change could take place, of envisioning a different order of relationships between people and between people and things, a different conceptualization of social existence,' inclusive of physical and material existence'....This is also one task of the 'sign work' of primatology. (p. 5)

This is heady stuff, and Haraway certainly challenges the reader, linguistically as well as conceptually. Most of all, she demonstrates the possibilities of using SF for conceptual modeling.

Some of her analogies are not simply interesting but also reveal whole new vistas and possibilities for investigation. For example, in discussing the use of monkeys in the US space program, Haraway thinks of the primatologist, Jane Gooddall, and her jungle laboratory in the "wilds of Tanzania" (p. 136) and compares the jungle to (outer) space. Thinking of Tanzania, Haraway comments: "This wilderness is close in its dream quality to 'space,' but the wilderness of Africa is coded as dense, damp, bodily, full of sensuous creatures who touch intimately and intensely. In contrast, the extraterrestrial is coded to be fully general; it is about escape from the bounded globe into an anti-ecosystem called, simply, space" (pp. 136-37). There are similarities, however: "Space and the tropics are both utopian topical figures in western imaginations, and their opposed properties dialectically signify origins and ends for the creature whose mundane life is outside both: civilized man. Space and the tropics are 'allotropic': they are 'elsewhere,' the place to which the traveler goes to find something dangerous and sacred" (p. 137). In discussing the role of the chimpanzee, HAM (Holloman Aero-Medical), one of the monkeys rocketed into space, Haraway observes:

HAM is a cyborg, the perfect child of space....Enos and HAM were cyborg neonates. Linguistically and materially a hybrid of cybernetic device and organism, a cyborg is a science fiction chimera from the 1950s and after; but a cyborg is also a powerful social and scientific reality in the same historical period....Like any important technology, a cyborg is simultaneously a myth and a tool, a representation and an instrument, a frozen moment and a motor of social and imaginative reality. A cyborg exists when two kinds of boundaries are simultaneously problematic: 1) that between animals (or other organisms) and humans, and 2) that between self-controlled, self-governing machines (automatons) and organisms, especially humans (models of autonomy). (pp. 138-39)

In its brilliant conclusion, Haraway alternates between narratives of science, SF, and their cross-fertilization. In a section entitled, "Reading Primatology as Science Fiction: The Second Foundation and Stanford's Second Primate Project, 1983-84," she uses Isaac Asimov's The Second Foundation to recapitulate the themes of Primate Visions, "of repetition, identity, cooperation, whole, difference, change, conflict, fragment, reproduction, sex and mind" (p. 369). She argues that "Asimov's story provides a loose-fitting but still suggestive way to read the...second Primate Project..., in comparison and contrast with its twin, complement, and predecessor, the first Primate Project in 1962-63" (p. 370). She compares the publications of the first two projects in terms of their "bio-politics of difference" (p. 372) and uses Asimov's famous (or is it infamous?) creature, the Mule, to symbolize questions of gender and the antagonistic forces at play in questions of feminism and anti-colonial discourse. Haraway contends that Primate Visions demonstrates how

science fiction has provided one of the lenses for reading primatological texts. Mixing, juxtaposing, and reversing reading conventions appropriate to each genre can yield fruitful ways of understanding the production of origin narratives in a society that privileges science and technology in its constructions of what may count as nature and for regulating the traffic between what it divides as nature and culture. (p. 370)

And the traffic goes in both directions. In her final subsection, entitled "Reading Science Fiction as Primatology: Xenogenesis and Feminism," Haraway looks at several women SF writers, including Alice Hastings Bradley (a.k.a. James Tiptree and Rocoona Sheldon), Marge Piercy, Doris Lessing, Joanna Russ, and especially Octavia Butler. She observes:

Like Tiptree--and like modern primatologists--Butler explores the interdigitations of human, machine, nonhuman animal or alien, and their mutants in relation to the intimacies of bodily exchange and mental communication. She interrogates kind, genre, and gender in a post-nuclear, post-slavery survival literature. Her fiction, especially in Xenogenesis, is about the monstrous fear and hope that the child will not, after all, be like the parent....Butler's fiction is about resistance to the imperative to recreate the sacred image of the same....But unlike Lessing, Piercy, Russ, Le Guin, Atwood, Wolf, or Tiptree, Butler's uses of the conventions of science fiction to fashion speculative pasts and futures for the species seem deeply informed by Afro-American perspectives with strong tones of womanism or feminism. (p. 378)

Haraway proceeds to offer a very suggestive reading of some of Octavia Butler's work, particularly Dawn (1987), volume one of the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and demonstrates that the narratives of science as Primate Visions constructs them can provide a richer, more complete understanding of Butler's SF.

For readers unfamiliar with the terminology--or jargon--of post-structuralism and post- modernism, this could be a difficult book to read and fully grasp; however, the rewards are well worth the effort. Primate Visions is a splendid achievement and a forceful vindication of those of us who believe in the value of interdisciplinary research. As the title suggests, this book will change the way one sees the world.

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