Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992



Peter Fitting

Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist Science Fiction

Abstract.--Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986), Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986), and Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988) may be read as interlocutors in a dialogue with the feminist utopias of the 1970s.

In terms of its setting and plot, Sargent's The Shore of Women portrays a matriarchal society which dominates and exploits men as a failed utopia; and in its appeal for a reconciliation of the sexes it seems to have accommodated both homophobia and heterosexism through the narrative of a conversion to heterosexuality. The Gate to Women's Country shifts the utopian focus away from the contours of the alternative community to the mechanism for achieving the better society--one based on changing "human nature'' and the male predisposition to violence, a problem for which Sargent had no solution. A Door into Ocean, finally, argues forcibly that there are limits to what can or must be done to protect a utopia, rejecting the strategies enunciated in the 1970s by a whole range of utopias which acknowledged the necessity of violence to bring about a new society.

In contrast to the utopias of the 1970s, these three novels do not focus on the evocations of alternative societies, but rather blend representations of alternative patterns of life with more rhetorical and figurative evocations of a transformed world. In the manner of the critical utopia, these three novels propose correctives to what their authors saw as some of the excesses of the 1970s utopias. Yet at time these works seem to go too far in their implied critiques of the '70s utopias. The references here to liminality--door, gate, shore --seem to stand not only for a vision of a world on the verge of being born, but as a retreat, the doorway through which the authors are backing away from the utopian hopes and dreams of the '70s--a gesture which to some extent repudiates the earlier utopian energies.

[A response by Pamela Sargent, and Peter Fitting's reply, appear in SFS 57 (July 1992).]

David Ketterer and Esther Rochon

Outside and Inside Views of Rochon's The Shell

Abstract.--David Ketterer offers an interpretation of Esther Rochon's extraordinary novel The Shell which places it in the tradition of Québécois "island stories'' and relates it to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Both works feature sympathetic "monsters'' and originated in dreams related to pregnancy, birth, and death. Rochon's monster, it is argued, embodies an acceptance of all that is wonderful and all that is hideous and disgusting about the human condition. Esther Rochon, in her "Notes on Coquillage,'' elaborates on the genesis and process of composition of The Shell, including a first version entitled "Mourir une fois pour toutes'' (To Die Once and For All) and various problems that arose in transforming this short story into a novel. She also discusses the influence on The Shell of both Tibetan Buddhism and the geography of Québec, as well as the relationship between the chronology of events in The Shell and its rearranged narrative form. 

Elaine Kleiner

Romanian "Science Fantasy'' in the Cold War Era

Abstract.--The case of Romanian SF offers a fascinating glimpse into the impact that modern scientific thought has had on a little known non-Western literature emerging from a predominantly agricultural East European country buried for decades behind the Iron Curtain. As in other European nations, the tradition of Romanian SF emerged in the 19th century from utopian precursors. The genre enjoyed a small but loyal following and developed steadily throughout the 20th century despite Romania's unhappy involvement in the world wars and brutal oppression under a Stalinist-style communism. The path of this development, however, is unique to the nation and, to some extent, in the Eastern bloc as well. Circumstances of publication demanded that Romanian SF be carried through the short story rather than the novel. Because few works of Western SF were translated before the 1970s, partly as a consequence of Romania's forced isolation and state control of publishing, the genre developed independently of Western influences for the most part. It remains inseparable from the larger body of fantastic literature, the Romanian title for SF actually being alternately "anticipatieri romanesti'' (romance of anticipation) or "povestiri stiintifico-fantastice'' (science-fantasy story). A survey of 350 Romanian SF works written between the 1960s and 1980s revealed that fully 62% are set on Earth rather than elsewhere in the cosmos, their content reflecting variations on a single central theme: humanity's struggle to accept natural limits and limitations on human existence. This paper seeks to acquaint Western scholars with key elements of the Romanian SF tradition as it emerged from a highly centralized socialist state which privileged scientific and industrial development even as it stifled free inquiry and contact with the West.

Steven Lehman

The Motherless Child in Science Fiction: Frankenstein and Moreau

Abstract.--This essay explains the persistence of the myth deriving from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein as the result of its primary thematic focus on womb envy. The novel was largely inspired by the author's procreative frustrations, and the myth has enjoyed such persistent popularity for nearly two centuries because it addresses mainly unconscious male frustrations of the same kind. Frankenstein is read here in the light of Bruno Bettelheim's Symbolic Wounds, which in its revision of psychoanalytic theory gives womb envy equal place with the orthodox Freudian concept of penis envy. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau is interpreted as another example of crazed male science usurping a natural female function. Epistemology is a closely related theme in these novels: both suggest that the origin of all learning is rooted in genital curiosity. The horrific effects of both derive from their depictions of the threat posed by modern science to traditional sex roles.

Terence Whalen

The Future of a Commodity. Notes Toward a Critique of Cyberpunk and the Information Age

Abstract.--Cyberpunk is an aggressively stylish form of SF which puts a hard dystopian spin on the information age without ever disputing its ascendance. Part of this is due to the fact that cyberpunk suffers from the dimmed aspirations of its own era, a time when high technology is counterbalanced by lowered expectations, when any sort of productivity is set off against a prevailing stagnation. There are, however, more subtle motives. New forms of culture are particularly sensitive to the historical contingency of various signifying practices. Emerging as it does in the context of late capitalism, cyberpunk is both inspired and stunted by the social process which enables thought to be alienated from its producer and exchanged as a commodity. The grimmest cyberpunk is haunted by the suspicion that information is not merely the socially average form of knowledge, but rather the form taken by capital in the signifying environment. This difference, between meaning as a "humane'' consumer good and as a cold instrument of production, is precisely the site where information can become a critical concept. It is also, I would suggest, the fundamental terrain of cyberpunk, for here it endlessly encounters barriers that it cannot burst asunder. Or ore accurately, it cannot overcome those barriers without annihilating itself as a literary genre. 

Ralph Willingham

Dystopian Visions in the Plays of Elias Canetti

Abstract.--In two little-known plays, the author of Crowds and Power explores the possibility of achieving utopia through laws and/or social institutions which depend upon the individual's willingness to conform. The outcome of each drama indicates Canetti's belief that such conformity is too weak to overcome those individual desires and needs which come into conflict with the social structure. Comedy of Vanity (1933-34) depicts a society which has banned mirrors, pictures, and all forms of image worship. As a result, people become obsessed with what they cannot have, to the detriment of society as a whole. In The Numbered (1956), citizens are led to believe that their society controls the moment of death. Rather than eliminating uncertainty, however, this leads to the creation of a class system in which the short-lived are jealous of the long-lived, and in which the latter exploit the former. The resolutions of these plays are especially interesting in the light of such dystopian fictions as Brave New World, We, and 1984, since they demonstrate the position that the only way to achieve utopia is to encourage citizens to believe that they are already happy.

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