Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = February 2008

Susan Vanderborg

Gendering “Otherspace”: The “Martian Ty/opography” of Johanna Drucker and Brad Freeman

Post-World War II American speculative fiction has provided a rich field for storytelling that satirizes and inverts gender stereotypes. Much critical scholarship, however, tends to focus on how authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, or Octavia Butler use sf themes of aliens, cyborgs, and androgynous or single-sex worlds to revise myths of femininity. There have been fewer studies of speculative writers who radically revise both conventional narration and the structure of the book itself—page layouts, lettering, margins, and pictures—in their deconstruction of gender stereotypes.1 The 1992 offset text Otherspace: Martian Ty/opography is a brilliant example of this stylistic experimentation. A collaboration by two distinguished book artists, Johanna Drucker and Brad Freeman,2 Otherspace tells its story of a human woman’s first contact with alien life through poetic prose segments that are printed in different sizes across the pages and placed against a backdrop of photographs and early maps of Mars. The underlying purpose behind the authors’ metaphors of alien topography and typography is to rewrite gender stereotypes in past and present-day narratives of linguistic technology.

In doing so, they extend our sense of the formal possibilities of science fiction. For if Drucker and Freeman start with the common premise of a character exposed to something alien, a connection that helps her perceive the cultural discourses shaping her subjectivity, it is truly the collage format of Otherspace that demonstrates all the “[i]rony,” “humour,” and “serious play” of conflicting codes that Donna Haraway called for in her classic 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” (149).3 At the thematic level, Haraway’s manifesto celebrates sf narratives of “hybrid” humans (149) aware of their links to multiple political systems, information grids, and feedback devices, and thus able to move beyond binarisms such as a subordinated femininity versus an empowered patriarchy. They would value interrelation and “permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). “[M]y cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities,” she declares; it could produce new “myths for resistance and recoupling” (154). The question is what form those myths would take on the page space. Some of the examples Haraway cites include the heroine’s alien matings in Butler’s XENOGENESIS novels (1987-89), the cultural clashes of Russ’s shrewd warrior woman in The Adventures of Alyx (1976), and the technologically-enhanced humans in Vonda McIntyre’s Superluminal (1983); to this list, one might add more recent works such as Gwyneth Jones’s ALEUTIAN TRILOGY (1991-97), with its examination of the gender dynamics of inter-species communication.4 The elements of conventional characterization, dialogue, plot structure, and publication formats in these books try to bridge the gap between future visions and present writing strategies. At the same time, they spark our curiosity about further formal experimentation. What would an alien alphabet look like?5 Can we imagine a truly gender-neutral language?6 What kind of page format would suit the cyborg’s ability to process multiple, antithetical blocks of information? Taken to an extreme, some of these questions could inspire the creation of wholly unreadable texts, but they nevertheless make us wonder about the partial translations that a crossover heroine might offer to current sf readers.

What makes Drucker and Freeman’s Otherspace such a key transitional text is that it takes us through its own search for a relevant form to express gender relations in an alien encounter. Its different segments debate who gets to tell the story, what narrative tones to adopt, and what combination of media can best convey the experience. It exposes the limitations of its sources and generates images that do not always agree with each other. Within the verbal text alone, we encounter a rapid succession of sf icons of femininity (e.g., the woman menaced by monsters, the alluring medium who channels life-forms from other planets, the emotional rebel whose extraterrestrial discoveries may be exploited), all the while realizing that they fall humorously short of the protagonist’s own changing self-imagery. The book’s pictures, in turn, pay tribute to the history of attempts to visualize alien meetings in film. There is an almost cinematographic sweep to the photographs as they zoom in for close-ups of Jane or pan across the rough features of the Martian landscape, vistas that recall the slow, beautiful shots in Andrei Tarkovsky’s depiction of the sentient ocean in Solaris (1972), another text in which planetary exploration becomes a vehicle for investigating human conduct.7 But whereas the viewer can become wholly absorbed in Tarkovsky’s spectacles, the alternation between verbal and visual segments in Otherspace always turns our focus back to the act of representation itself, making us hyperconscious of the fact that definitions of self versus other are arbitrary distinctions that can be revised or subverted.8

For an example of the ironic twists in the book’s components as they scrutinize gender roles, we can look at one of the early pages where the Earth woman, Jane, is contacted by the mysterious presence from the planet Mars:

Mars made a bid for Jane’s attention. Her soul had been wandering through all the coordinates of the skies. Her receptive instruments spoke through air and ether, the deep space of as yet unreciprocated communication. Taking the measure of a distant phenomenon, Jane’s head felt light as her body heat filled the room. The receptive screen of the computer shifted toward red and the new technology went into overdrive. A slight buzz of dizzyness [sic] caused her to pause in her morning routine. (13; bold in original)

The narrative is less than straightforward here. Initially, the melodramatic descriptions of a “dizzy” heroine with overly “receptive instruments” and rising “body heat” whose “soul” is invaded by an alien mind deliberately recall all the gender and sexual stereotypes of late-night monster movies. One could easily imagine the half-conscious victim of an alien or prehistoric gill-man, or perhaps go further back to Victorian treatments, to one of Bram Stoker’s soulful heroines fainting under the influence of a vampire. But the closer one looks at the language, the more it eludes those clichés. It is unclear exactly how or where Jane’s vulnerable “soul had been wandering,” what specific “bid” Mars makes for her, and what “new technology” gives Jane access to its tempting advances, at first through the familiar format of her office printer and later in a kind of “holographic” imagery, a “T e l e p r e s e n c e,” as Jane expresses it (56, 61; boldface and emphasis in original). The format of this page repeatedly calls our own “attention” to the materiality of the language and imagery behind these stereotypes of menaced heroines, whether at the level of sound patterns (e.g., “dizzyness” and “buzz”) or the visual layout of the entire page—a girlishly pink background on which two information sources, several type styles, and an illustration of “Martian” letters compete to tell Jane’s story (Figure 1).9 This cluttered page, which nevertheless also conveys a sense of verbal and visual gaps, starts to open up new directions for rereading the narrative plots behind Jane’s attraction to Mars.

Figure 1. Page 13 of Otherspace

The challenge to older narratives of femininity begins with the mix of writing styles as the story rapidly shifts tone and diction. The reader, for example, might indeed hear Victorian echoes of a private feminine sphere in the emphasis on Jane’s being drawn by a “peculiar, personal, compulsion,” a “private concern, not a professional one,” to learn more about Mars (5). Phrases such as “Unbeknownst to her” (11; boldface in original) add gothic overtones of an unsuspecting heroine in danger of being “mesmerized” by a “hot rush of romantic infatuation” (13; emphasis in original). But we are never quite sure which narrative of feminine arousal to follow as the Victorian phrasing slips into the modern rhetoric of machines in “overdrive” (13). Whose words and technical authority, moreover, carry most weight in the book? The narrator’s lofty, suggestive images of Jane’s “usually quiescent imagination” (45) “becom[ing] the target of some aberrant energy” (36), as if she were a passive victim of Mars’s messages? Or Jane’s own log entries, where fantasies about a Martian love get interrupted by practical details about her work life and struggles with male colleagues? Should we trust the visual evidence instead, when the early photographs of a confidently poised young worker do not always seem to reflect the internal conflicts she mentions? The shifting private and public accounts of Jane are interlaced with remarks from scholars about the possibility of alien life, suggesting that definitions of feminine roles in Jane’s world are still something of an alien territory.

Drucker and Freeman play with different models of a feminized “otherspace” in their manipulation of the exterior and interior spaces of the codex as well. The codex form suggests a privileged knowledge to be accessed once a book’s outer cover is opened to reveal the pages inside; Stéphane Mallarmé famously described traditional reading practices in images of a “paper-knife” cutting the “virginal foldings of the book.”10 But what happens to eroticized tropes of entry with a book whose subject is outer space itself? Otherspace may draw in readers with Jane’s photograph on its cover, but, once opened, it offers no easy guide to its page formats or its heroine’s story. Neither, however, does it fall into what Drucker sees as a fallacy in one type of feminist theory: that of supporting only formats that are completely “outside” of “normative reading” (Figuring 249-50).11 Instead, the layout is what a cyborg reader interested in multiple discourses might appreciate: not only are there several messages in the narrative boxes and diagrams, but also various types of address or accessibility appear among the parts. The overviews and queries in large print or boldface function like dramatic taglines for film promotions. They offer to illuminate Jane’s experiences—e.g., “ALIEN PERCEPTION OF AN ORDINARY LIFE?” (5; emphasis in original), “Backing herself into the bright corner of the day” (16; boldface in original), “ECSTASY SMOULDERS IN COMMUNICATION” (34; emphasis in original). But the fine print “particulars” (43; emphasis in original) are often left out, whether these are physical descriptions and “calculations” in the lab, private images of Jane’s “dreams,” or even a “missing metaphysical” analysis to help us interpret a specific stage of her adventure (33). Other statements are deliberately enigmatic, as when “A gap between what was known and what was knowable opened its gaping maw in” Jane’s thoughts (45; boldface in original). At the visual level, too, certain pieces in the later narrative are slightly difficult to read against the gray flecks in background photos.

These narrative shifts and page experiments anticipate one of the book’s central concerns: how to theorize the connection between women and language. Jane depicts her liberating encounter with Mars in terms of “Shock waves still and some full of pleasure, too interior to be verbalized with any precision…” (78; emphasis in original). On the surface, this might resemble Julia Kristeva’s descriptions of choric rhythms prior to the father’s symbolic order.12 But as much as Otherspace features disruptions and gaps, it also enthusiastically embraces the symbolic, especially in all its print incarnations. Against backgrounds of map place names in multiple languages, we follow Jane’s adventures through sentences in a range of font sizes in white, black, red, or silver. Some are slanted left or right, occasionally changing format in mid-sentence, while others curve across a page or leap over gutters to dramatize the way “The planet’s metaphoric hand reached across ... /… the distance which should have separated” the characters (62-63; emphasis in original). The division of labor in this collaboration is itself intriguing. While Drucker and Freeman designed the book together, Drucker was responsible for all the verbal narrative and typography.13 In Figuring the Word, a selection of essays on book art and women’s writing, she describes the ongoing project of both her creative and critical texts: to challenge the stereotype that language and the technologies of language transmission are innately “patriarchal” (308). Haraway echoes that concern in her manifesto, emphasizing that a cyborg cannot evoke “a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man,” but should rather “seiz[e] the tools to mark the world....” (175).

Toward that end, Otherspace revises a specific historical antecedent in which a woman’s language patterns are questioned by a male authority figure. The Martian messages sent to “Telepathic Jane” (5; boldface in original) recall the story of the Swiss medium Hélène Smith (birth name Catherine élise Müller, 1861-1929), who asserted that she could see Mars in her trances. Smith drew pictures not only of Martian scenery but also of letters from an alien alphabet, and it is this language that the Otherspace page reproduces in “THE MARTIAN CYCLE” of Figure 1. Smith’s reports and her enactment of different personalities, while excitedly received by many of her séance audiences, were discredited by a psychologist, Professor Théodore Flournoy, in his book From India to the Planet Mars (1899). In a judgment that almost conflates her case with the creation of speculative fiction, he described the visions as “romances” (14) produced by “somnambulism” (11) and an inventive but “infantile imagination” (161).14 After he had collected sufficient support for his theory, he found that the details of Smith’s Mars narratives grew “wearisome,” and he confronted her “to strike this strange conviction a telling blow, and demonstrate that the pretended Martian was only a chimera” (165), a mythological allusion that humorously portrays him as a modern-day hero combating monstrous errors.

While Drucker and Freeman cite material from Flournoy’s text, they quickly complicate his paradigm of a masculine investigator belittling the transmission of a woman’s sensational words. If Hélène Smith is the patient to Flournoy’s authoritative scientist, this Jane is a researcher in her own right, an “astrophysicist” (8; boldface in original) with a laboratory. This revision is reflected in the mutable sexual symbolism of the descriptions of Jane’s work. The vaginal imagery of a “slit in the dome” becomes the phallic “long shaft of” Jane’s “telescope out to probe the heavens” (40), and it is the lover’s form, not Jane’s body, that the suggestive curves and hollows of the Martian photographs metaphorize as an unknown landmass to be labeled. Jane herself, we learn, feels most comfortable with familiar definitions and is apt to dismiss any anomalous information as “noise on the machine” (20; emphasis in original). As Jane becomes convinced that she’s actually receiving extraterrestrial messages, the image of a romantic ingénue who “felt herself come undone. Seduced by a breath of wind and a taste of forbidden dreams” (40) clashes with earlier assertions that this “dedicated scientist” (5; boldface in original) has never been prone to “idle, indulgent introspection” (6). The narrator continues, “It is hard to imagine anyone less susceptible than Jane to become the object of alien interests” (6) since “[h]er intelligence is carefully groomed by formulas to adequate performance, and she works without apparent prejudice, without overt misconceptions, without deep convictions or blinding principles” (8). The book’s compactly square pages (6 ½” by 6 ½”) are a constant visual reminder of its heroine’s preference for packaged facts and precise measurements, even as the words “apparent” and “overt” suggest that this seeming objectivity might be covertly biased.

In terms of print technology, the repeated verbal and visual emphasis on Jane as she runs machines and records data “with all the dedication of a skilled technician” (6) has additional contemporary resonance. The “otherspace” of Jane’s story might be a metaphor for the growing number of women artists who have become adept in letterpress printing, offset, or other technologies in order to control more parts of a text’s production.15 The photographs of Jane in the lab always foreground her hands on keyboards, dials, knobs, and pens to reinforce the point that she decodes and transmits her own information (Figure 2). We are reminded of this every time her log entries clash with the narrator’s pronouncements. The narrative voice, for example, opens tantalizingly with the remark that “There was something unusual in the air, a charge, a hint of electric energy” (14; boldface in original). Jane contradicts this on the next page with her report of “News bad as usual” in her work schedule, as she reasserts control and checks the machines for malfunctions (15; emphasis in original). The dialogue between narrative perspectives offers a reversal of the structure of Flournoy’s book, where Smith’s handwritten Martian appears only when it is bracketed and explained by his condescending commentary.

Figure 2. Detail from Page 11 of Otherspace

What kind of linguistic or social “otherspace” might the new women media-workers and collaborators produce? We are told that Jane’s dialogue with Mars, who remains an “it” throughout the book, might break down her ideas of subjectivity if “[s]he let[s] herself slip beyond the norms of consensual and social forms of knowledge” (58). At places in the book’s “dazzling travelogue” (72) “of confusion” and “considerable expectation” (71; emphasis in original), the distinction between self and other does seem weakened. The images of Jane’s face on pages 72-73 shrink and darken until they are difficult to distinguish from the blurry features of the “FACE ON MARS” that “IS TRYING TO TALK” to her (Figure 3). Instead of the gendered power struggles, moreover, that take place in Jane’s previous relationship over which partner is providing information or which one is waiting for a phone message, the “infatuation” between Jane and Mars is “mutual,” a “desire to lose the boundaries of distinction” (48). Readers share in the lovers’ “curiosity” and in the sensory “overload” of exchanged data (29, 80; emphases in original). Against vibrant, red-tinted backgrounds, we follow Martian landscapes that often sprawl into double-page spreads, and we examine the maps, negatives, and inscriptions layered in the book’s illustrations, which become more surreal as the text progresses.16


Figure 3. detail from Page 70 of Otherspace

And yet, despite the innovative formats, the book also suggests that the breakdown of gendered subjectivity remains more at the level of promise than realization. Drucker and Freeman have warned readers that Otherspace “is a study of the ways in which technology, communication, and representation cross historical and cultural boundaries to produce new forms of (mis)information” rather than revolutionary truths (“techno.seduction”). The real threat that the book explores is not the invasion of the alien but the pull of the too-familiar—and Jane is not completely exempt just because she is a woman at the machines who is reversing clichés about patriarchal language and scientific methods. “‘You are bounded form,’” Mars criticizes her (59). The fact that she feels “humbled a little by having been the object, not the subject, of an observation” (82; emphasis in original) implies that she is still thinking in terms of an active investigator versus a passive “object” of study, nor do we ever fully lose a parodic language of seduction in which loss of control is associated with a feminized role.

This sense of being trapped in the familiar is played out at the visual level in motifs of mirroring: diagrams and images reproduced on multiple pages and the mirror-like silver print on numerous pages in the second half of the book. Even in the metaphoric plot of mapping the alien landscapes, most of what Jane receives from Mars is not new data but simply reflections of earlier human models of the planet—from Viking photographs to tabloid references—all of which her alien correspondent finds equally flawed. Readers may be reminded of Lem’s scientist in Solaris who complains that even human pioneers do not really wish to learn about the alien: “We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors” (72). The trope of reflected errors in Drucker and Freeman’s text raises the question of how trustworthy any of our sign systems would be if confronted with a narrative that is truly an “otherspace.” When Mars’s challenges to her sense of subjectivity stop, Jane finds that “So much of what had been transmitted remained unreadable, untranslatable, and she was finally resigned to mere recognition of many of the forms—unable to grasp the full extent of their original, irrecoverable, and impossible meaning” (82).

Figure 4. Page 85 of Otherspace

This admission at the plot level accompanies our return to the book’s early debates over dichotomous definitions of femininity. The penultimate picture is the same photograph as in the opening—Jane walking by a fruit store outside her university—a shot seen with only the faintest overlay of a Martian map superimposed on it, as if the fruits of her previous training have already overwhelmed her Martian experience (Figure 4). Jane’s short dark coat and confident stride are juxtaposed with part of a Martian place name on the facing page: “AMAZONIS” (84), but the implications of the Amazonian pun seem erased by the book’s next picture. In this still from the 1953 movie Invaders from Mars, a woman in a long pale robe moves toward a deserted path (Figure 5).17 She gathers up a fold of the fabric that impedes her progress, and her stance is tentative, as if uncertain whether or not to advance. She will be taken later along this same path to Martian mutants waiting underground and will be subjected to their ruler’s thought control. The book’s two pictures together suggest how easy it might be to fall back on narrative stereotypes to fit our heroine, whether of an unswerving career woman or a gothic lady in peril. Jane is indeed object rather than subject at this stage of the book; her own language in the form of log entries does not intrude in the pages of these two illustrations.

Figure 5. Page 85 of Otherspace

But I would like to propose another reading of Jane’s frustration over the opacity of the new Martian and over her inability to “prevent” a more familiar cultural “past from surfacing” (78) with the same old gender stereotypes. This alternative reading is directly tied to the bookmaking technology that generates this text from a kind of “otherspace,” a technology anticipated at the narrative level in the transition from Jane’s receiving rough maps in an “antique style” (20; emphasis in original) to her exploration of more sophisticated visual reproductions of Mars. The book is not only a possible allegory for women at the presses but, as Drucker and Freeman acknowledge, for new advances in electronic publication specifically, changes they portray in erotic terms: the “techno-flirtation” between Jane and Mars via computer mirrors “the seduction of the artists by the computer’s capacity to transform and manipulate the very information ‘base’ in which the images were coded in the electronic darkroom” (“techno.seduction”). As Otherspace’s colophon informs us: “The pages of this book were created electronically making use of all manner of source materials in labor-intensive manipulations. The images do not exist in any other form but were created here as originals” (89).

What does “original” mean here? Scholars of artists’ books as multiples have often noted that these texts undermine the distinction between an artwork and a reproduction; unlike a “unique” piece of art, such as a painted canvas, for example, each copy of an artist’s book can be considered equally original (Kostelanetz 28).18 Here Drucker and Freeman suggest that the computer work on Otherspace further blurs the difference between originals and copies, since every individual source text, under the artists’ “labor-intensive manipulations,” is simply a temporary surface to be distorted, reframed, or superimposed on something else in the transformable collage space of the page files.19 “Surface” is in fact one of the most commonly repeated words in the book’s prose-poetic narratives of a “rough surface” (78; emphasis in original), an “OTHERWORLDLY (DIS)PLAY OF (SUR)FACES” (50; emphasis in original), “differences in surface features” (51; emphasis in original), or “the planet / whose being surfaced” before Jane’s eyes (52-53; emphasis in original). These transportable surfaces offer another perspective on “the patent image[s] of sameness” (6) that hinder Jane’s investigations.

Just as the “glyphs” that Jane receives in the opening Martian data get “turned, twisted and reformed” to different effect in later “communications” (24; boldface in original), so too, the authors suggest, the images or words that fed specific gender stereotypes in the past may be drastically recontextualized and reinterpreted.20 Drucker and Freeman repeat Hélène Smith’s letters in new settings, for example, to give this discredited medium the last words, literally. Her writing is superimposed on photographs of the Martian landscapes that Flournoy scoffed at her ever truly perceiving; in one segment, it is even suggested as the basis for a new religion, as a robed, possibly female, figure against the Martian backdrop seems to be praying to a tablet inscribed with one of Smith’s letters (Figure 6). The implication that her alphabet now emanates from Mars is either a validation of Smith’s visions or another one of Mars’s reflections of human errors, which would at least place Smith in the company of the established male scholars that the book cites. In either case, her letters take on cosmic size as part of the “MESSAGES” that “BIT MAPPED THE SKIES” (12; emphases in original)—and they appear directly on Jane’s computer screen (Figure 7), a visual homage that is also a self-reflexive reminder of the electronic manipulations that produced Otherspace.

Figure 7. Section from page 12 of Otherspace.                      Figure 6. Detail from page 66 of Otherspace.

The page layouts themselves lead us to question any fixed interpretation of a particular image. Despite Jane’s initial fondness for orderly data, this is a book of broken frames and cropped pictures, hinting at missing information. A close-up, for instance, reveals only half of Jane’s face; the accompanying quotation urges us to reexamine the alien data—and our heroine—with an imaginative “‘mind’s eye’” rather than “‘the bodily eye’” (32; emphases in original). Other diagrams are duplicated across a page with growing distortion (16-17), or are paired with log entries such as “Getting it wrong” (35; emphasis in original) that make the reader suspicious of the accuracy of any of the information. By the time we reach the end of the text, when Jane’s street scenes are overlaid with faint red grid lines, the effect is not that we have achieved a precise map of her potential but rather the reverse: an awareness that any single notation or theory will fail to describe her fully.

At the verbal level, the playful repetition and variation of sound patterns also help to redefine Jane’s roles. Her fascination with “Mars” and its “marks” (26; emphasis in original) leads her to realize how deeply she has “repressed all marks of herself” (16) in her previous research and may have “marred” (6) her own self-image. References to manipulating external “surfaces” slip into discussions of changing personal “faces” as well, as if one’s identity could be recreated as easily as collaging together selected source texts. It is phonetic play, too, that structures the book’s subplot about the tension between Jane and J., her uncommunicative male colleague and former lover, a character who seems fondest of Jane when he is hoping to steal some of her discoveries. As the recurrent “j” sounds suggest, this seeming opposition between feminine and masculine stereotypes—Jane’s desire for affection and privacy versus J.’s emotional constraint and careerist “publicity”-mongering—may simply be different patterns of “behavior” that Jane is testing out for herself (29; emphases in original).21 The fact that these “j”’s evoke Drucker’s first name strengthens the possibility of seeing Jane as the conscious author of her own transformations—unlike Professor Flournoy’s medium, whom he portrays more as the victim of her unconscious imagination (Flournoy 50).

The very last line in Jane’s log remains open to these readings of a self-transforming subject: “Maybe there will be a way to understand more than I do, after all” (84; emphasis in original). It returns us to the purpose of these language games and alien encounters. Haraway, significantly, saw her own cyborg essay as “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (150; emphases in original). If Otherspace’s Jane cannot quite sustain the vision of a brave new world of liminal subjectivities and telepathic information exchange, at least she and her creators can report that their social “sense of the possibilities” has been “unloosed, a little, from their previous constraints” (82; emphases in original) as they rework the implications of the book’s surface ty/opographic experiments. More than just memorializing the now “scarred and damaged body” (80) of a fantasy space beyond gender, the authors’ revisionary use of found texts prompts readers to try out their own verbal or visual subversions by recontextualizing the current media stereotypes that they find most constraining. Instead of Jane’s recurring “anxiety” over losing control of her data in a press “leak” (29; emphases in original), this strategy would move mass culture images “from cliche [sic] to real effectiveness” (80) by exploring the artfulness of each vision and revision of a feminine identity. If we are still confined by an “imaginary universe” of gendered codes, as Mars suggests, then what better tool to expose its “sci-fi language” (33) than these kaleidoscopic pages and disjunctive paragraphs that refuse to be easily glossed or codified, that constantly adjust the technologies by which its heroine frames narratives of familiarity, otherness, and desire?


1. Among the exceptions, see Hayles’s Writing Machines. This book, which is itself written as a blend of fiction and criticism, and in a mix of typographic formats, looks at a range of experimental print and electronic texts in its call for a new discipline of “Media-Specific Analysis” (6). Although the texts’ interrogation of gender stereotypes is not the main focus of Hayles’s study, she does mention the formal innovations of Otherspace (65). See, too, her excellent discussion in Chapter 8 of the “multi-layered inscriptions” of the page formats in Mark Z. Danielewski’s supernatural “palimpsest” novel House of Leaves (110).

Readers interested in other print texts that combine innovative verbal and visual formats to present speculative fiction themes might also examine Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002), whose narrative strands are arranged in various type styles and sizes and intercut with elaborate tables and pictures. A response to Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 novel, VAS uses these devices to scrutinize modern reproductive and gender roles against a history of eugenics movements and speculation about the language games used to justify them. The artists’ book Your Co-worker Could Be a Space Alien (1985) by Tana Kellner and Ann Kalmbach is another example, a study of homophobia and other prejudices masquerading as an illustrated science fiction handbook for discovering alien intruders (see Drucker, Century 87). “An alien,” one page warns, “won’t discuss domestic details or talk about what it does at night or on weekends” (Kellner and Kalmbach n.p.).

William S. Burroughs mixes sf themes with visual texts in his verbal “cut-up” procedure, which he ties to artistic collage (29) in The Third Mind (1978); this collaborative text (with Brion Gysin) ponders a “new mythology…in the space age” (97). There are also the glyphs and sketches interspersed with Burroughs’s references to the occult “curse of King Tut” and a pictographic “virus” (n.p.) in The Book of Breeething (1975), and the blend of pirate-story segments, details of surreal pandemics, mock scholarly footnotes, and abstract visuals in Ghost of Chance (1991). Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973; trans. 1977), which rearranges Tarot card pictures to generate different narratives of witches, vampires, and knights, might also be included in this list of visual/verbal experiments, not to mention the growing number of creative graphic novels with disjunctive panels and narrative segments in the style of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989-96) or Frank Miller’s dystopian Dark Knight series (1986-2002).

2. Drucker in particular has used sf motifs in several of her other artist’s books in order to reexamine contemporary gender roles, including Simulant Portrait (1990), Narratology (1994), and Night Crawlers on the Web (2000). Freeman, who produced the visual images for Otherspace, is the editor of The Journal of Artists’ Books and has curated an exhibit of offset book art (1993). A sample of his artist’s books includes Overrun (1990), Long Slow Screw Alpha-Sex Book (1990), SimWar (1991), and MzLk: The Tours (1997). He has also collaborated with Drucker on other texts such as Emerging Sentience (2001). The quoted or reproduced material from Otherspace is included here by the authors’ permission. Because it was not always possible to duplicate the range of typographic play in the quotations, readers may wish to refer back to the book.

3. Kirschenbaum notes in his interview with Drucker that Simulant Portrait, with its fractured account of the composed “memory” of a female cyborg, seems an especially close analogue to ideas in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” even though it was written before Drucker had read Haraway’s essay; she subsequently gave Simulant Portrait to Haraway (see Drucker, Figuring 25). Kirschenbaum develops this connection in the discussion of Simulant Portrait (section 5) in “Machine Visions,” an online essay that also analyzes other sf texts about “artificial subjectivities” and with visual formats “demonstrating the materiality of their environments” (section 1). 4. Vint analyzes the way that “Jones uses her trilogy to effect a series of deconstructions of the boundaries between self and alien” (399). Referencing Haraway’s cyborg theory, Vint contends that the seemingly “natural” Aleutian biotechnology might “as easily be read as cultural” (423).

5. Even without the need to invent a wholly new alphabet or sign system, many sf writers, as Walter E. Meyers notes, avoid crafting an alien language or fully representing the difficulty of inter-species dialogue. His book Aliens and Linguists (1980) is a thoughtful overview of fantastic works that incorporate this linguistic aspect, from Tolkien’s Elvish to the machine language hypothesized by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson in Starchild (1965). In line with Otherspace’s own interest in alien encounters as a lens for examining gender relations, one might add texts such as Suzette Haden Elgin’s NATIVE TONGUE trilogy (1984-93), set in a world where the challenge of learning to communicate with aliens provides a backdrop against which disempowered women create the language of “Láadan” to relate their own experiences. Elgin, a linguist, published A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan in 1985, and an extended second edition three years later. Entries include “eshon,” a word for “peace-science” (80), and the term “rarilh,” which means “to deliberately refrain from recording; for example, the failure throughout history to record the accomplishments of women” (117).

6. Consider the difficulty Le Guin identifies regarding the third-person-singular pronoun alone: “Many feminists have been grieved or aggrieved by The Left Hand of Darkness because the androgynes in it are called ‘he’ throughout,” an objection that led the author to rewrite a story about the same world depicted in that 1969 novel by “us[ing] the feminine pronoun for all Gethenians—while preserving certain masculine titles such as King and Lord, just to remind one of the ambiguity” (“Winter’s King” 85; emphases in original). See her fuller discussion of the issues involved in her 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?”

7. Lem’s original novel (1961; trans. 1970) has become something of a critical touchstone for studies of the complexities of alien contact. See, for example, Balcerzan and Geier. Geier in particular echoes some of the queries I raise about the nature and limits of experimental textual forms; he analyzes the passages depicting Solaris’s ocean as a model of the sf dilemma of trying to evoke a truly alien environment while still making “intelligible sense” (193) and maintaining “readable connectedness” (199).

8. I follow Bernstein here in contrasting “absorptive” texts that “engross” or “engulf” the viewer/reader with “antiabsorptive” texts that “flaunt” the “artifice” of their composition (29-30). See Drucker’s own nuanced consideration of how “‘impermeable,’” in Bernstein’s sense, her literary style might appear (Figuring 18-20). 9. Bury (22-23), Perloff (63), and Kirschenbaum (“Machine Visions,” section 5) have all commented on the hypertext-like nature of the visual and verbal sources on the pages of other Drucker texts. See, as well, the discussion of “minitexts” in Drucker’s Narratology by Hubert and Hubert (181-82). Readers of hypertext science fiction might also compare Drucker’s narrative pieces and collaborations to Shelley Jackson’s reworking of Frankenstein in Patchwork Girl: or, a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley & Herself (1995), although Patchwork’s visuals are not always as complexly structured as in Freeman’s frames in Otherspace or Drucker’s sets of found texts. In other electronic projects, Kirschenbaum discusses insightfully how Lucid Mapping and Codex Transformissions in the Z-Buffer (1998), his own “interactive computer work” with words appearing three-dimensionally (“Lucid Mapping” 261-62), extends the “t[y/o]pographic” techniques of “superimposed layers of material form” inspired by Otherspace (267; emphasis in original).

10. As Drucker notes, “Mallarmé’s view of the physical violation invited by a book, posed in terms of a gendered metaphor of phallic knife and virginal folds, is in sharp contrast to the process of intellectual engagement which extended his discussion” and his valorization of innovative typography (Century 36). I thank my colleague Craig Dworkin as well for his queries about the play with outer/other space in Drucker and Freeman’s title.

11. See Drucker’s comments on “Otherness,” unconventional page formats, and gender roles, where she questions the poststructuralist strategy of trying to isolate an écriture féminine, arguing that “The place for women is not as the Other but as the one who shows that the Other has always been present” in any “dominant” linguistic system (Figuring 250-52).

12. See Kristeva’s account: “The semiotic is articulated by flow and marks: facilitation, energy transfers, the cutting up of the corporeal and social continuum as well as that of signifying material, the establishment of a distinctiveness and its ordering in a pulsating chora, in a rhythmic but nonexpressive totality” (40; emphasis in original).

13. Drucker, personal e-mail communication, January 31, 2005.

14. As Cifali emphasizes, Flournoy’s often intrusive comments significantly influenced Smith’s language “performance[s]” in the séances (285, 287). In Lunatic Lovers of Language, Yaguello discusses Flournoy’s reference to Smith’s visions as romances, observing that science fiction was becoming a popular genre during the period (82). “With Hélène Smith,” she elaborates, “dreams of previous lives coexist quite naturally with dreams of other planets, just as in science fiction journeys into space compete with journeys into time.” The most compelling part of her fiction, for Yaguello, is the construction of the Martian language (84).

15. See Bury’s overview of women and the genre of artists’ books (22-23) or Russo’s history of women’s printing presses and mimeograph publications in the United States since the 1970s (243-284, 708-710). Rifkin opens her discussion of the importance of the “first major woman-run institution” of “the postwar avant-garde”—i.e., the St. Mark’s Poetry Project—with the excited line from a text by author-editor Anne Waldman: “‘I know how to work the machines!’” (136).

16. Drucker and Freeman write that the reader’s sense of “intensifying color and narrative confusion” is designed to reflect the stages of the heroine’s “seduction” by Mars (“techno.seduction”).

17. I thank Brad Freeman for identifying the movie source. Though the roles of the female characters in the film range from housewife to doctor, the women tend to join the ranks of easy victims of the Martians. The enemy is finally defeated by male soldiers and scientists. Both Hendershot and Hardin note the movie’s fascination with feminine and masculine roles in the family, although Hardin sees the film as reinscribing 1950s domestic ideology, while Hendershot states that the film’s ambiguous conclusion undercuts the hero’s effort to reaffirm stereotypes of tender, vulnerable mothers and vigorous fathers (46-47, 49). Similarly, Latham offers a reading of the film as an implicit critique of 1950s suburban life.

18. Drucker, book-art critics such as Clive Phillpot and Lucy R. Lippard, and many others have commented on this characteristic of book-art multiples, sometimes in the context of offset printing specifically. Freeman, in an e-mail response to my questions about the colophon (September 3, 2006), noted that the creative texts in his “Offset” exhibition also challenged facile distinctions between “reproduction” and “production.”

19. Drucker has written often on the effects of extreme textual “mutability” (Figuring 221) and the “loss of material memory” in electronic composition (234). More generally, the confusion between originals and revisions in Otherspace suggests another parallel with Haraway’s insistence that cyborg discourse eschew nostalgia for lost originals and legendary beginnings (Haraway 150-51) in favor of a celebration of “copies without originals” (165).

20. See, too, Perloff’s analysis of the “metonymic” and “paragrammatic” quality of recontextualized images and words in Drucker’s The History of the/my Wor(l)d (58).

21. Similarly, Hélène Smith’s presentation of the personalities of both men and women in her trances may explain the authors’ interest in her history. See Shamdasani’s overview of experimentation with gender codes in mediumship (particularly xi, xl, xlv-xlvi).


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