Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Kaye Mitchell

Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body

This article sets out to consider the possible points of contact, the productive intersections of technocultural and gender theory over the last twenty years. In addition, in the final section—through a reading of selected works by Pat Cadigan and Justina Robson—it investigates the extent to which science fiction, which was a key genre for feminist writers of the second wave, can dramatize these encounters and explore the ramifications of recent radical thinking on the gendered and technologized body. Will technology render us posthuman in its blurring of the boundaries of human and machine? Will the practical and theoretical “fluidity” of sex and gender (from gender reassignment surgery to drag performance to theories of a “last sex”) bring about a world that is properly or positively post-gender? Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, in their measured and critical account of postmodern science and technology, state that:

A growing number of theorists contend that the age of humanism is over and that we are morphing into a new “posthumanist” condition.... With the eruption of new forms of media culture, the Internet and cyberspace, transgenic species, cloning, frozen embryos, in vitro fertilization, and nanomachines built from atoms, the reality principle of modernity and all Western culture has been irrevocably altered. Together, science and technology are undermining firm boundaries between reality/unreality, natural/artificial, organic/inorganic, biology/technology, human/machine, and the born/the made.... We’re becoming cyborgs and techno-bodies, while our machines are becoming “smart” and more human-like. (151)

I aim, here, to evince a necessary skepticism about the flightier claims of self-styled posthumanisms, while simultaneously acknowledging the very real impact of technological and philosophical developments upon our understanding of the gendered body. Best and Kellner go on to claim that problems arise in the postmodern age because, despite the changes enumerated above, “traditional sensibilities remain dominant” and “the old mentalities and the new technologies combine in a volatile mix” (151, 152). The premise of this article is that the body is, to a significant extent, a product of our understanding of it, a product of our thinking of  “body” and “matter,” a product of discourse. Therefore, if our thinking still lags behind, if we are still in thrall to “traditional sensibilities” and “old mentalities”—patriarchal mentalities, for example—then our bodies cannot be as posthuman or post-gender as some technophiliacs and radical gender theorists would like to claim. Yet this premise also assumes that a change in our thinking does constitute a change in our bodies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.                

In their analogous emphasis on constructionism—respectively, the construction of the human and the construction of gender—it can be seen that clear possibilities exist for a mutually beneficial encounter between technocultural and feminist theory. But this article will be concerned less with the utopian optimism of Donna Haraway’s cyborgs and Sadie Plant’s cyber-goddesses than with the nagging persistence of the question of matter and the materialization of sexed bodies—despite the promises of transcendence and/or virtuality held out by the new technologies (and those who theorize them). Both technocultural and feminist theories of the body precipitate an examination of the relationship between the material and the discursive and an acknowledgement that the body is not facilely reducible to either (and that both “matter” and “discourse” are subject to a further regress of interpretation that precludes the closure of such questions as these). Both have sought, in recent years, to problematize the notion of “matter” (and relatedly, the body)—to figure it as cultural rather than natural, and therefore as open to resignification, reinterpretation. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth assert that:

Virtual technologies further complicate the relationship between the material and the discursive by adding another dichotomy: the virtual and the real.... The questions of embodiment and construction become even more complicated at the human/machine interface where there is the potential for virtual and/or multiple bodies, as well as disembodiment. (457)

Sf is one of the discourses (along with, and informed by and informing in turn, technocultural and feminist theory) that can serve to reformulate the social and cultural meanings of the gendered body in the technological age, as well as imaginatively refashioning its very forms—molding its matter, as it were, in some hypothesized future world.

Technology and the Body: On Being Post-Gender. In The Body in the Text (1995), Anne Cranny-Francis comments that:

Late twentieth-century western (re)readings of the body constitute a “translation” that is simultaneously an analysis and a critique of both the material and discursive practices in which the body is implicated, and by which it is controlled and regulated. Furthermore, this translation is often utopian, working to open up ... new possibilities arising from the translator’s detection of contradictions and anomalies in the practices inscribing those bodies. These will become the grounds for (re)conceptualisations of the corporeal, and for the production of new and different bodies not limited by the regulatory practices of the past. (x-xi)

The most utopian “readings” and re-conceptualizations of the body in the last couple of decades have concerned themselves above all with the impact of new technologies on the body, figuring the outcome as, most optimistically, an escape from control and regulation. At the very least, they envisage these technologies (informational, medical, cybernetic and other) as offering new possibilities for self-transformation and empowerment, rarely acknowledging the more pessimistic, Foucauldian possibility that technology may be working to perpetuate and extend the complicated network of power relations and modes of self-regulation already in place. In this way they too eagerly hypothesize an “outside” to those discursive practices of which Cranny-Francis writes, underestimating the force of such practices, and they elide too the very material practices in which our engagement with and use of such technology is grounded. Virtuality, then, in the most naïve representations of it, becomes an absolute transcendence: the transcendence of materiality, of ideology, of the realm of discourse.                

Nevertheless, the rapid developments in technology in the second half of the twentieth century do undoubtedly amount to and bring about a shift in material and discursive practices, as Cranny-Francis adduces: “Working from the premise that bodies are socially constituted in and by material and discursive practices—and given that those practices are changing—it follows that bodies, too, are changing” (Body 2). This change, however, needs to be qualified and tempered by an awareness of those social and material conditions that militate against fundamental and irreversible transformation within the course of a generation. While the body has, unquestionably, been reconceptualized and reinscribed in the last few decades, it has not thereby surrendered wholesale its essential, troubling, and complex corporeality. Similarly, despite the welcome and apposite interrogation and critique of the supposedly “natural” and “biological” basis of sex by critics such as Judith Butler, whose work I will go on to discuss, it is not possible to claim that bodies have thereby become or could become radically unsexed. Neither sex/gender nor the body is so easily transcended; but this is not to claim that the relationship between sex and the body is either natural (although it has been effectively naturalized) or determinate. In fact, “the body” itself is subject to a certain indeterminacy and contingency—as Halberstam and Livingston emphasize: “‘the body’ has a history,” and our understanding of what is meant by “the body” is a product of this history (1).  

On being (allegedly) post-gender in the technological age, Stacy Gillis comments, with appropriate wariness:

The great promise of the Internet has been that it would dissolve gender and sex boundaries, allowing for a free mingling of minds. There are three versions of this promise: (1) the consumer relationship has reduced the relevance of the demographic complication of sex; (2) we regard any form of technology as eliding sex; and (3) with the repudiation of the “body” in cyberspace, the phenomenological equation of “body equals woman” is erased. (189)

I am primarily concerned here with the third of these claims and want above all to consider the doubts that have emerged regarding the “repudiation” or transcendence of the body in cyberspace and, by extension, the doubts regarding the possibility of moving finally and conclusively beyond the long-standing identification of woman and body/biology. Tentatively, I would want to argue: first, that the body is not “transcended” in cyberspace encounters, transactions, and communications but remains a factor that cannot be disregarded; second, that such transactions/encounters/communications are always already gendered, as is the technology upon which they rely1; and third, that the recalcitrant although frequently ambivalent presence/persistence of the body precisely prevents this move “beyond” gender which is desired and/or posited by much recent technocultu­ral and gender theory.                

Among the more adventurous and enthusiastic theorists of bodily transformation and/or transcendence are Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, who plot a trajectory from the “age of Christianity” to the “age of capitalism” (where the body becomes commodified) to the “age of technology” (Armitage 69). They later refer to this last stage as “hypermodern (digital) times” (71). This is how they explain their idea of the “data body” in the “technological age”:

In the age of technology, the so-called autonomous body, this always doubled body of flesh and grace and use-value and exchange-value, shatters into a thousand digital mirrors. The data body. The android body. The mutant body. The designer body. The cloner body. The transsexual body. Digital flesh loop-cycling furiously within the limited space and time of a single (biological) life cycle: indeterminate, neutralised, floating.

The data body is the recombinant body: cloned by the bio-tech industry, spliced by artificial skin, digital nerves and networked intelligence, resequenced by the liquid signs of brand-name consumer advertising. Simultaneously the targeted axis of the interfacing of digital reality and bio-technology and the site of future political struggle where flesh rubs against the will to virtuality, the data body is, for better and for worse, the spearhead of technoculture. (69)

Significantly—and usefully—this description takes into account the discursive construction of the body, body politics, and the body as a “site of political struggle,” which indicates why and how the body is still a key topic for gender theorists and activists. It also touches upon the uneasy relationship between “flesh” and “virtuality.”2 In addition, the Krokers’s description of the “data body” posits the idea of the body as something fluid, changeable, not possessed of fixed boundaries, in this way reflecting the recent musings of both technocultural and gender theory. Both the implantation of devices (such as pacemakers) into the body and the body’s  recently acquired ability to “travel” beyond its material limits, whether through cyberspace or via global electronic communications, work to test and extend the boundaries (and, more importantly, our understanding of the boundaries) of the body. The Krokers’s “data body” also draws our attention to the intermingling of nature and culture, body and machine that is so important for science fiction and for theorists such as Donna Haraway.                

Furthermore, the very notion of the “data body” is interesting: have bodies ever been anything other than data bodies? Can we envisage a body stripped or independent of “data”? To argue so would be to assume, contentiously, a pre-theoretical or pre-discursive body. Has the body not always been producing and produced by data? This is the body viewed as locus of information and identity (identity being merely a particular configuration of information that is stored, ordered, communicated to others as the “self’); sex is frequently the first piece of information that we convey, via anatomical characteristics and/or conventions of self-presentation.3 Even before the advent of cyborgs and prostheses, the body bore the “data” of the discourses—e.g., of sex and death—with which it was habitually and conventionally clad. What new technologies have facilitated above all in the late twentieth century is the proliferation of information (and misinformation), so perhaps if any notable shift has occurred it is to a situation where the body is nothing more than a collection of increasingly arbitrary, confusing, and occasionally unintelligible data.                

The distinction between possessing the data and controlling the (data) body is too easily elided in the more technophilic pronouncements of the last decades. This reduction of the body to (merely) a collection of information is critiqued by N. Katherine Hayles, who contests the elision of materiality that occurs in the late-twentieth-century separation of information from the substance in which it is instantiated. She articulates the process whereby information “lost its body,” seeing this as leading to the particular conception of the “posthuman” subject as disembodied: “When information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy, for the materiality in which the thinking mind is instantiated appears incidental to its essential nature” (2; emphasis in original). This elision of the material also implies an elision of sex; as Hayles notes: “Embodiment has been systematically downplayed or erased in the cybernetic construction of the posthuman in ways that have not occurred in other critiques of the liberal humanist subject, especially in feminist and postcoloni­al theories” (4). Feminist theory has, in fact, repeatedly returned to the “matter” of the female body, seeing this as the “battleground” where struggles against patriarchy are fought but also, sometimes, as the locus of female identity; it has proved particularly difficult to reconcile the embodied identity politics of feminism with the disembodied and fluctuating subjectivity posited by postmodern­ism. (I’ll consider some recent feminist theories of embodiment later in this article.)                

Specifically within the field of technocultural theory, however, it is the figure of the cyborg that has had most impact on conceptions of the gendered body in recent years.4 Following the publication of Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs” in 1985, many theorists rushed to enumerate the posthuman and future-sex possibilities of the man-machine hybrid. As Chris Hables Gray enthuses:

In the future, many different sexes are likely to be produced, driven by desire (to create and live) and fear (of death and sterility).... Cyborgism could well be a bridge to different types of posthumans, some with male bodies, others clearly female, others yet who are hermaphrodites, and still more people who will be quite genderless. And there will be new sexes. (157, 159)

It was not only within the feminist community that Haraway’s manifesto occasioned an outbreak of emancipatory optimism: in general, the cyborg has been held up as facilitating a move beyond those nasty and confining “dualistic epistemologies” of the post-Enlightenment world (6), and the ideas of self-governance, boundary-crossing, and the breaking down of hierarchized opposi­tions are evidently of interest to feminist theorists. As far as this latter question of binarism is concerned, cyborgology is particularly appealing, for rather than attempting to reconcile opposites through the construction of some tenuous and poorly defined “equality” between separate and allegedly antithetical subject positions (male/female, for example)—something that second wave feminism arguably failed to bring about—the figure of the cyborg holds out the prospect of moving beyond such intractable oppositions and differences.                

There have emerged, however, more critical and ambivalent responses to the figure of the cyborg and this figure’s significance for women.5 So Anne Cranny-Francis insists that “the human/machine interrelation configured through a female body is not mind/machine, but body/machine” (“Erotics” 155), suggesting that for women at least, the matter (in both senses of that word) of the female body is not so easily transcended, persisting as it does in what has to be overcome or negated, as what determines female (as distinct from male) humanity. She concludes, forcefully, that:

The cyborg or android image ... conveys a very ambiguous message for women. The female androids and cyborgs that appear in fiction reinforce the cultural production of femininity as accessible sexuality rather than invulnerable authority, as use/object rather than user/subject. In other words, the female cyborg (or android) may have deconstructive potential for women who read the figure resistantly. But the figure has not actually offered women a position within the debate at all. The human/machine anxiety enacted within the technological imaginary was about men, authority, power, and control—not about “the human.” In fact, ... it configures “the human” conventionally as “the masculine.” (156)

Such imaginative appropriations of technology do not necessarily permit us to transcend the dominant (patriarchal) ideologies of our everyday existence; rather they can serve to reinforce and perpetuate such ideologies. Cranny-Francis sees Haraway as claiming that “the cyborg is without history, without a narrative that leads back to a simple notion of origin” and  argues instead that the cyborg “is not without a cultural context or heritage, which both confers allusive power on that cyborg and also delimits its meaning potential.” Cyborgs cannot and should not be viewed outside “the narratives in which they are positioned,” because it is these very narratives that make those cyborgs meaningful or intelligible (“Erotics” 160). It is therefore erroneous to claim that the cyborg is, in itself and of necessity, either feminist or anti-feminist, ideologically sound or unsound; what must be attended to are the overarching context and the mode of its use or (re)presenta­tion. This is where contemporary feminist sf has a role in constructing narratives that accord the cyborg a more subversive or transgressive potential.

Corporeal Feminism: Bodies that Matter. Within feminist theory, the last decade or so has witnessed a return to questions of the body, leading to the development of what has become known as “corporeal feminism.” This is not, however, a return to the body in any naïve or essentialist sense, but rather an examination of the ways in which the “matter” of the body is socially and culturally constructed. In Volatile Bodies (1994), Elizabeth Grosz asks: “What, ontologically speaking, is the body? What is its ‘stuff,’ its matter? What of its form? Is that given or produced? Or is there some relation between givenness and the cultural order?” (189). She argues that sexual difference is not purely a question of “inscription and codification,” but neither does the body have a “determinate” form, because so-called “biological” factors “are amenable to wide historical vicissitudes and transformations” (190). The sexed body has a history. This is how she describes her aim at the outset of the book:

I hope to show that the body, or rather, bodies, cannot be adequately understood as ahistorical, precultural, or natural objects in any simple way; they are not only inscribed, marked, engraved, by social pressures external to them but are the products, the direct effects, of the very social constitution of nature itself. It is not simply that the body is represented in a variety of ways according to historical, social, and cultural exigencies while it remains basically the same; these factors actively produce the body as a body of a determinate type.
                I will deny that there is the “real,” material body on one hand and its various cultural and historical representations on the other. It is my claim throughout this book that these representations and cultural inscriptions quite literally constitute bodies and help to produce them as such. (x)

My suggestion here is that sf allows for the production of radical (gendered and un-gendered, hybrid, cyborgian) bodies that impel us to reflect upon our own understanding of “the body” and upon the ways in which bodies are viewed and regulated in the social world. The texts by Cadigan and Robson that I will go on to consider focus on the body’s relationship with technologies that augment and alter it, intervene in its workings, and so modify the subject’s perception of how the physical self is regulated.                

Judith Butler’s writings on the body and the “materialization” of sex are also pertinent here, and they comprise a development of the performativity thesis expounded in Gender Trouble (1990), where she writes that: “The body is not a ‘being,’ but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” (139). She returns to this idea of body/matter as “signifying practice” (not merely something produced by signifying practices) with greater vigor and clarity in Bodies That Matter (1993), where she argues for a “return to the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (9; emphasis in original). She adds that: “To return to matter requires that we return to matter as a sign which in its redoublings and contradictions enacts an inchoate drama of sexual difference” (49; emphasis in original). Her choice of words (enacts, drama) is instructive: matter is “performed” every time that it is posited; this is what she means by “materialization”—the continual, normative process of repetition/reiteration by which the “matter” of the sexed body comes into being.                

Like Grosz, Butler does not seek either to “presume” or to “negate” materiality; she is thus not saying that the materiality of bodies is merely discursive—“only a linguistic effect which is reducible to a set of signifiers”—because such an argument “overlooks the materiality of the signifier itself” (30).6 The subtle understanding of the mutually constitutive relationship of matter and discourse in the formation (or materialization) of the sexed body toward which Butler works would be a useful adjunct to contemporary theories of the technologized or posthuman body, not least in the ways in which Butler’s description points up the dissemination of power through these processes of materialization. The history of the body (as a normative, supposedly unified concept) is a history of competing ideologies.             

In the Krokers’ idea of the data body and in the discourse surrounding cyborgs, the boundaries of the body itself and, relatedly, the boundaries of the “human” are at stake. The suggestion of much technocultural theory is that contemporary technology has rendered these boundaries unstable, permeable, negotiable; the theorists differ in their apprehension of how positive or negative a development this is, whether it amounts to freedom or a threat. But Judith Butler recognizes that bodies are—and have always been—impossible to fix and delineate clearly: a  “movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies ‘are’” (Bodies ix).                

Elizabeth Grosz, too, distinguishes between “the body”—as normative, unified, etc—and “bodies,” the definitions and boundaries of which are much less determinate: she argues that “the specificity of bodies must be understood in its historical rather than simply its biological concreteness”—i.e., in relation to questions of gender, ethnicity, body type and size, etc. (19). The difficulty of delineation arises at least in part from the fact that they are both material and discursive—or, to adopt Butler’s argument, their very materiality is a kind of construction. This construction serves to institute limits that “produce the domain of intelligible bodies, but produce as well a domain of unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies” (Butler, Bodies xi). So the questions underpinning Butler’s argument in Bodies That Matter are: “What are the constraints by which bodies are materialized as “sexed,” and how are we to understand the “matter” of sex, and of bodies more generally, as the repeated and violent circumscription of cultural intelligibility? Which bodies come to matter—and why?” (xi-xii).

These, evidently, are political questions, made more pressing by the advent of recombinant, adaptive, indeterminate, cyborgian bodies in the technological age. How do such bodies acquire their intelligibility? What are the consequences of their being denied the status of the intelligible? How do they serve to alter, radically, our very notion of bodily intelligibility—our convictions about which bodies “matter”? Justina Robson’s work is notably concerned with this idea of intelligible and unintelligible (even abject) bodies. Consider, for example, the flawed forms of the socially and politically excluded “Degenerates” and the stigmatizing force of terms such as “Unevolved” in her 2003 novel Natural History. Sf is able to shift the scope of the culturally intelligible, revealing the non-naturalness of our notion of intelligibility. The bodies of sf are not without constraints; rather they operate within constraints that may be quite different from those that shape us in the present, revealing how contingent and conventional our understanding of the body is—perhaps even pointing the way to new possibilities and modes of materialization.

The Body in the (SF) Text. While feminist sf of the 1970s and early 1980s tended to identify woman with an hypothesized and idealized pre-technological world, seeing much technology as in the service of the masculine, by the end of the twentieth century a properly pre- or post-technological age is increasingly hard to imagine.7 There is a grudging awareness that technology, whatever its troubling patriarchal origins, motivations, and connotations, offers women certain freedoms and opportunities. Furthermore, the assumption that these origins are definitively male has been decisively challenged by Sadie Plant and others who have sought to rewrite the history of technological progress as a “herstory” of female networks, metaphors, and agency (see Plant).                

Robson’s works depict both the harnessing of technology for the purposes of human advancement and the negative, potentially dehumanizing effects of technological “progress.” Technology, then, is neither homogenized (there are good and bad technologies, good and bad uses of technology)8 nor explicitly and reductively masculinized: her scientists and techno-buffs are sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometimes hybrid and/or non-human creatures. Neither demonizing nor venerating technology, Robson chooses to focus on the social and political hierarchies that dictate who controls the technologies of the future world she depicts—and therefore who benefits from them. These hierarchies are not determined by gender alone. Similarly, Pat Cadigan, in her 1998 novel Tea from an Empty Cup, concentrates on the real-world emplacement of technology in complex systems of social power. Specifically, she exposes the processes of commodification surrounding virtual reality—which she calls Artificial Reality, or “AR”: only elite classes can afford the most advanced specifications and online identities, since these are based on “billable time.” In real life (RL), power rests with those who trade, legally or illegally, in the drugs and hotsuits necessary for the “best” AR experience; in Tea this power is often expressed through violence both online and off. In addition, the range of technologies addressed by Robson and Cadigan—including cloning, biological warfare, AI, cyborgs, extra-solar travel, artificial reality, online gaming, and medical nanotechnology—indicates in itself a willingness to annex an arguably masculinist discourse of technological knowledge and progress for non-masculinist (although not necessarily explicitly feminist) ends.                

Robson’s Natural History is preoccupied with the ambivalences and effects of categorization and the ways that culturally instituted categories serve to reinforce and perpetuate inequalities within societies while also, consequently, giving rise to identity politics that can be both productive and destructive. The primary distinction at work in the text is not between male and female but between the “Forged” and the “Unevolved,” those who are made and those who are born (although what it means to be “born” or “made” is open to debate). This basic categorization gives rise, in turn, to many sub-categories, and those who are born, at least, are adaptable to greater and lesser degrees (becoming, therefore, cyborgs of sorts as they are implanted with “MekTek” technology—inbuilt AI systems). Gray areas and boundary crossings are legion; the uncertainty and indeterminability of the diverse beings is always foregrounded and reveals, by extension, the arbitrariness and reductiveness of conventional binary categories such as male/female.                

Nevertheless, Robson does choose to gender her characters. Isol, a “voyager,” is conceptualized as female and described throughout as “she,” despite being a “Forged” and part machine; she has “tailfins” and absorbs “fuel,” but retains the ability to “bleed” and thinks of herself as a person (2-5). What is it that makes Isol a “she”? In Robson’s text, neither feminine appearance nor an ability (or desire) to reproduce are necessary or sufficient conditions of femaleness. Sex here is very obviously a matter of construction rather than biology, because “biology” itself is a kind of construction. The unsympathetic Forged view of the Unevolved is that they are “products of an insentient and randomly mutating natural system,” with the emphasis on the system’s insentience and randomness (presumed to be inferior) rather than on nature per se (127). Zephyr Duquesne, professor of anthropology and “Unevolved” human, is also described as female, yet it is clear that she and Isol are utterly different entities, their bodies and minds formed by divergent processes of socialization. It may be that language is the issue here: Robson’s text points up  the problem of the gendered pronoun, suggesting that language cannot quite keep pace with the inventiveness of her imagination. Given the range and hybridity of beings in the text—and their ability to change shape or form through technological enhancement and virtual wandering—it is perhaps surprising that Robson persists in identifying these beings as “he” or “she” in each case. Her willingness to use neologisms elsewhere to describe entities for which no words currently exist doesn’t extend to the adoption of an ungendered pronoun such as Marge Piercy uses (“per”) in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).                

In Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup, gender boundaries are tested in RL by characters whose names and appearances conceal or confuse their gender identities—thus, female homicide detective Konstantin finds herself focusing on a fellow officer’s name tag so that “she wouldn’t stare at the woman’s neat ginger-colored mustache. At least it wasn’t as ostentatious as Celestine’s muttonchops, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to facial hair on women. Her ex would have called her a throwback. Perhaps she was” (44). And the real-life body is seen to be adaptable in other ways, as shown by a coroner who is “about the size of a husky ten-year old” and a lawyer Konstantin encounters, both of whom are part of a religious group, “the Church of Small-Is-Beautiful,” which actively inhibits the growth of their “faithful” in childhood (39). In AR, gender is even harder to establish. The kid logging on as “Shantih Love” answers the question about his sex by typing in “Any; all; why do you care?” (49), and when Yuki encounters an androgyne in AR and berates him/her for choosing this “stupid stereotype, being camped-up and bored,” s/he replies that “it would be as much a stereotype as a man or woman” (109). Such “stereotypes,” it seems, exist to be undermined and subverted, although the indeterminacy (in gender and in general) that results is productive of a certain amount of anxiety within the text. And within the reader: at the end we are faced with the possibility that Yuki’s search for Tom (Iguchi Tomoyuki) has been a search for herself. Has “she” been “he” all along?                

In Natural History, the hybrid forms and differing functions and capabilities of the inhabitants of Robson’s future world give rise to various instances when the boundaries of the subject in question are breached or transposed. When the Passenger Pigeon (described as a “cyborg hybrid”) comes to collect Zephyr from the university, the latter muses that:

She’d never seen a Forged human as beautiful as this one, and its beauty seemed incongruent with her revulsion-in-waiting, a knot in her gut that wouldn’t release. She’d never boarded a person before.
                It felt like it ought to be taboo, like a kind of strange sexual perversion, and she was ashamed of her feelings, so utterly Unevolved in their lack of sophistication and primitive fear. (79)

The Pigeon, then, is still a “person,” and getting onto/into it requires a kind of penetration, entry into the “bodily cavity” of another being. This makes Zephyr uncomfortable, because of what it suggests about the unstable boundaries of this—or any—body (82). The analogies with sex and with childbirth are clear and they are made more explicit later in the novel when Isol forms a “passenger-bearing cyst called a Hand out of what had hitherto been a perfectly healthy Voyager body” to carry Zephyr to a newly discovered planet (124). Zephyr muses that she “had never even contemplated bearing children, let alone making that kind of intimate concession for a stranger,” and she feels “privileged, but also faintly disgusted” by what Isol has done on her behalf (124). There is, then, a peculiarly female anxiety (which Zephyr knows is “backward”) associated with the penetrability and permeability of the body, its openness to invasion, violation, and mutation.                

The boundaries of the body are also rendered more unstable in the ability of certain creatures that send out projections or parts of themselves (“Hands” and “Fingers”) in order to be in several locations at once. One of the ways this occurs is through the use of avatars, holographic projections employed by those who cannot be physically present; the deployment of such avatars implies a need for some body/entity others can relate to and interact with, can identify as the locus of being—even if that being is actually elsewhere. So the Ironhorse Timespan Tatresi chooses to materialize in the form of a human, but a non-gendered one: “It was a very tall human the colour of blue slate, with no body hair at all, dressed in a white waist wrap somewhat like a toga. Its wrists were banded with silver and gold decoration and its bald head radiated a very faint white light—its nominal halo” (93). It is thought that such avatars—which are chosen—reveal the “personality and politics” of the creatures they represent (80), so Tatresi’s avatar suggests his wisdom and authority. The (holographic) body is here a communication of a desired self, but it also takes into account the desires and expectations of others. Thus, the (more or less) human form of Tatresi here is easier for Zephyr to relate to than some other more “alien” creature. In fact, “humanity,” as it is figured in Robson’s text, is largely a matter of appearance, at least as far as social and political hierarchies are concerned: “The Forged were all humans ... in the definition as it had been founded upon their creation. But the fact that many of them looked like other creatures, machines or monsters made many Unevolved incapable of treating them as such” (122-23).  

Appearance is taken as a key indicator of identity and helps determine how and with whom people interact. Natural History advances the idea that hybridity occurs at many levels and to many degrees, so Zephyr notes that “many people had benefited from the odd piggy gene here and there to help their otherwise defective skins, hearts or bones” (123). But when this intermingling of races, types and species is visible, it is experienced as troubling, precisely because it throws the unnaturalness of the human (and the whole history of this term, the fact that it has a history) into stark relief:

The Forged resentments of her [Zephyr’s] kind were often justified—the Old Monkeys didn’t like the reality of interaction with Forged, and explained away their bodily repulsion with chat about how difficult it was to really interact with people of such different appearance and experience. Underlying all of this was the acute embarrassment at Unevolved complicity in the destiny of every Forged citizen, designed by intellect and not evolution, made on demand, not born by grace. (124)

“Humanity” here is something agreed upon, it is neither “natural” nor certain, and it is relational—dependent upon an understanding of what makes something inhuman: a “machine,” a “monster,” an “alien.”               

Historically, women have been portrayed as all of these, and both Veronica Hollinger and Jenny Wolmark emphasize the significance of the monster and/or alien in sf by women (see also Braidotti). So Hollinger invokes the figure of the monster, whether hybrid, vampire, or Frankenstein creature, as a means of elucidating the potential for a kind of feminist theoretical bricolage “of whichever theories and methodologies prove efficacious to our own ongoing political engagement” (“Introduction: Women” 133). The significance of these sf “monsters” is that they “represent the breakdown of conventional ways of being-in-the-world; they raise questions about what it means to be both female and human” (133). On the importance of the alien, Wolmark writes that “[t]o be different, or alien, is a significant if familiar cultural metaphor which marks the boundaries and limits of social identity. It allows difference to be marginalised and any dissonance to be smoothed away, thus confirming the dominance of the centre over the margins” (27). Woman, therefore, is an “unpredictable alien” in a patriarchal world, threatening in her visible difference, but easy to exclude from power on the basis of this difference (see Wolmark 27ff). In this way, “alien” is an ideological term used to position someone or something at the margins or on the outside, to indicate that they are, paradoxically, both (politically) powerless and a threat. Wolmark continues: “The science fiction convention of the alien attempts to present otherness in unitary terms, so that ‘humanity’ is uncomplicatedly opposed to the ‘alien’,” but feminist sf is able to undermine such clearcut oppositions (46).                

Robson undoubtedly does this in her representation of a world where difference, dissonance, and heterogeneity are foregrounded, so that it is no longer clear what makes someone either human or alien, where both terms are revealed as the constructions that they are; and she does this without resorting either to utopian predictions of absolute harmony or to dystopian warnings of social and cultural meltdown. Cadigan addresses the breaching of the boundaries of the body in a different way: in Tea from an Empty Cup, her characters confront ethical dilemmas about the “use” of the bodies of others in Artificial Reality (AR). The novel makes clear the permeability of the boundaries dividing artificial reality and real life, their continuity as far as the body is concerned; so AR is not a “safe” space, nor does it allow the body to be absolutely transcended. The case that homicide detective Konstantin is investigating concerns a boy apparently murdered in AR; his dead body is found in the video parlor booth where he was playing, and the deaths in AR and RL appear to have occurred simultaneously. In a stark metaphor of the technologization of the body, Konstantin watches as the hotsuit is peeled off the dead boy’s body—it is “like seeing an animal get skinned”—and observes that:

Underneath, his naked flesh was imprinted with a dense pattern of lines and shapes, Byzantine in complexity, from the wires and sensors in the suit.
                They’ll start calling that the latest thing in nervous systems, Konstantin thought, mesmerized. They’ll give it a jumped up name, like neo-exo-nervous system, and they’ll say it’s generated by hotsuit wear, every line and shape having a counterpart on the opposite side of the skin barrier. (36; emphasis in original)

The hotsuit suggests the irreducibility of the body, which becomes here a receptive surface through which information is transmitted in both directions. Rather than being left behind, the body is the point of transfer and contact between AR and RL, between the “human” and the machine/computer—it is through the body, the senses, that AR is experienced by the user.

When an experience of disembodiment is described by Cadigan, it is not  pleasurable, but is rather figured as a loss of control;  Yuki becomes powerless as she lies in her hotsuit, drugged and manipulated by Joy Flower:

She tried to feel her body and couldn’t.... Her drowsiness receded a little as she tried to spread her awareness out to where her fingers and toes might be. Start by wiggling a finger, trace the feeling back. Try to remember what it felt like to decide to move your foot.
                Nothing happened. No sense of her body would come to her in any way.
                Breathe, she commanded herself. Breathe in. Breathe out.
                If her chest was rising and falling, if her lungs were filling and emptying somewhere, she had somehow been cut off from the feeling. (172; emphasis in original)

She finds herself up near the ceiling, looking down at her body spread out below: “She felt a surge of affection for it, for all the pleasure she had taken for granted and recognized now as being part of corporeal existence” (172). So she experiences a nostalgia for a fully embodied existence; it is in embodiment that her agency lies and now that her captors “have her body,” torturing her by repeatedly throwing her out of an airplane in AR, she must struggle to “elude” them in cyberspace and somehow send a message to the “outside” world where her body still resides (215).                

AR also permits a slippage of identity that is radically destabilizing rather than liberating. As Jenny Wolmark asserts:

The “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace blurs the boundaries between reality and simulation, self and other, thereby calling identity into question. It has the potential to be a new and heterogeneous space of desire, but because it remains dominated by the masculine, albeit in a sometimes contradictory relation to it, cyberspace becomes a place in which loss of identity is to be feared. (119).

This is borne out by Cadigan’s novel, where characters move between AR and RL (suggesting an absence of fixed boundaries between the two), shifting identities and presenting themselves as other than they “really” are. As one interviewee tells Konstantin, “netgaming” allows for “complete anonymity” and, rather than this being portrayed as emancipatory, it is shown as having perilous consequences for truth and liability: “It’s artificial reality—all you can do is lie, no matter what you say, and the believers are the ones at fault” (77; emphasis in original). This is most shockingly illustrated in Konstantin’s online encounter with the “little girl” who turns out to be something or someone quite different, luring the detective back to her apartment and morphing into a pedophile’s fantasy, before attempting to blackmail her; the girl’s suggestion that in AR “there’s no such thing as an unthinkable thought, and it’s okay to contemplate anything” (193) is chilling in the possibilities it holds out—and offers a different slant on that optimistic view of cyberspace as (in Wolmark’s words) “a heterogeneous space of desire.”                

The permutations of a virtual or non-embodied existence are explored by Robson in her depiction of “Virtua” or “Uluru-consciousness,” a virtual world where the emphasis is on personal agency and choice—and particularly on pleasure (sexual or otherwise). “Uluru” is “a virtual reality prepared for Forged children to live in before they were connected to the bodies that would one day be their only physical existence” (Natural 130). They live the virtual existence first, before becoming embodied, and their memories (and therefore their identities) are largely a product of this virtual “past”; Isol, for example, “remembers” herself as a little girl in a pink ballet dress (a perfect paradigm—or parody, perhaps—of femininity), but it transpires that this is in fact a “personal memory ident,” which has been implanted as part of the process of constructing her adult psychology (8). It’s possible to read this as a comment on the construction of a gendered identity but an identity (and a gender) that Isol, with her combination of vulnerability and aggression, is always going to surpass and subvert. On meeting her, Corvax describes Isol’s presence as “a curious mix of voluptuous, desiring neediness, and the cold teeth of emotional absolute zero” (32) The paradox, then, concerns how a machine could express desire or be “voluptuous,” but also how a “woman” (who is just as much a construction as a machine is) could display the coldness of “emotional absolute zero.” The implication is that our conventional understanding of both “woman” and “machine” is inadequate.

The world of Virtua also facilitates a much more fluid and flexible sexuality than conventional relationships between conventional (limited, non-adaptable) bodies would permit, making relationships between Forged and Unevolved possible, despite incompatibilities in form/body. There is even a special kind of pornography involving Forged and Unevolved—“Forno,” described as “a sickeningly infinite array of penetration and interpenetration potentials, of violence, tenderness, lust and revulsion” (189). Zephyr is disturbed by her desire for Kalu, described as “a Bathyform—a jellyfish”; this “love of an ‘alien’ thing” is “fraught with terrors in its insatiable desire for the otherness” (187, 190). This desire for and fear of the other could, of course, be read as a coded expression of anxiety about heterosexuality, and the suggestion of “queerness” is reinforced in the depiction of a more functional and positive virtual encounter that occurs between the Forged Tatresi and a “Heavy Angel”:

He located a Heavy Angel with no discernible political ambitions very quickly, who agreed to meet in an ancient Atlantean bathhouse; they became two Tritons, two mermaids, two octopi … then disassembled into shoals of fish and other forms, part human and part machine, able to tickle every nerve and channel, every synapse and dream across the quantum-coded stream. The Angel became an angelfish and Tatresi a shark who ate him. Tatresi became the bathwater and the Angel, mostly human, swam and urinated in him. It was a refreshingly anonymous venture, and they parted without the pretence of making any future plans to meet again. (229)                

Veronica Hollinger finds a kind of queer potentiality in the “technobodies” of sf and connects this with Butler’s theory of the performative nature of gender identity:

The technobody reiterates itself through replication, not through reproduction, and it does not require the heterosexual matrix as the space within which to duplicate itself. Given the emphasis in theories of performativity on reiteration and citation, the technobody as replicated body points us toward the utopian space of queer excess. Perhaps all technobodies are, at least potentially, queer bodies.­ (“(Re)Read­ing” 310)

This “replication” (rather than reproduction) is evident in the way that Isol, Bara, and Kincaid grow the “Hands,” “Arms,” and “Fingers” that exist separately from them. Hollinger relates “queerness” to Haraway’s cyborgology, claiming that “[q]ueer marks a utopian space, which is, perhaps, also an ironic space, inhabited by subjects-in-process who are not bound by reifying definitions and expectations, and in which bodies, desires, and sex/gender behaviors are free-floating and in constant play” (“(Re)Reading” 312). With the proliferation of forms and bodies comes the proliferation of desires and possibilities—and a greater possibility for “play,” sexual or subjective. It is no longer clear what counts as active/passive, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, penetrating/penetrated in encounters of this (virtual, willed, improvisational) nature. The encounter described above, then, is “queer” not in the specific sense of homosexuality (despite the “bathhouse” context), but rather in the more general sense of the term (now common) as indicating a rejection of fixed categorization—what Eve Sedgwick describes as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8; emphasis in original).

Virtua is also on offer to Forged in later life, as a means of escape from a dissatisfying or frustrating physical existence. Some Forged become so attached to their dream world, however, that they fail to return from this “life in the imagination” and end up “wasting to death in sanatoria as their minds roamed wild in the measureless dominions of Uluru, calmly slipping the last moorings to their bodies without the slightest trace of loss or care” (125). Evidently, this wasting away of the body is not to be desired: Robson’s depiction of cyberspace living is, at least, ambivalent; her protagonists do not wish to shed their bodies too readily and memories are not only contained in consciousness, as Corvax muses:

Meat had a memory that accreted over generations. All the marvellous forms of living meat are memories. Within those architectures our basic behaviours are rooted in the foundations of the nervous and endocrine systems; we are walking, talking, screaming and running articulations of an almighty living mnemonic. The things we run from in night-terrors emerge from a past written in our spinal cord: things barely glimpsed by the waking mind’s relentless temporal-lobe rationalization. (131)

This is reminiscent of the idea of the “data body” discussed earlier, but indicates also that meat with memory is not just meat.9 Similarly, in Tea from an Empty Cup, Yuki considers the rumors about Joy Flower’s “Boyz” which suggest that some are “shut away in secret clinics and hospitals, braindead but maintained on life support as their bodies were parted out to rich and powerful invalids who needed new hearts, livers, lungs” (29). In fact this is not so far from the truth: Konstantin muses, towards the end of the story, that somewhere “on-line, clients of a certain very bent madam [Joy Flower] waited until the drug took effect and activated a special sort of hotsuit, one that enabled them to wear, in effect, other people” (244); thus, the bodies of the “boyz” are being used and inhabited by others, and the body has become a commodity to be traded for the pleasure of the powerful.                

The question of matter, however, is explored in a more speculative way in Natural History through the depiction of the “Stuff,” the alien technology that Isol discovers and that she believes will finally bring freedom and self-determination to the Forged. “Stuff” facilitates an absorption of the subject into a greater whole, a mass consciousness. Having allowed himself to blend with it, the character Corvax explains that:

Stuff is a technology and it is also people, indivisibly fused. You could not define it, one way or another, at any particular moment. It has no consciousness as you assume individuals must, nor does it have the insensible responses of a tool—but properties of both and also neither. It is intelligent, responsive, compassionate, but it does not have an identity of its own, although it contains the fragments of many identities and is capable of creating individuals who could act and exist as ordinary people. (351)

After he has blended with it, he can take any (bodily) form he likes and his individual identity is surrendered as the “Stuff” speaks through him. He says:

I am Tom Corvax. And there is no “I”—there is a greater mind, a superposition of all minds that have ever entered this state of being Stuff. These two states exist simultaneously because the mind that is Tom is here, made of this body, but the matter of this body is a part of the greater ocean of matter interpenetrated by the minds of the others who live within imaginary time, volumeless and occupying the whole universe. (347)

This transformation involves, then, a blurring of the boundaries between “technology” and “people” more complex than cyborgism; it also challenges the binaries of individual/mass and human/alien. Robson’s text, however, is at pains to consider both the positive (emancipatory) and negative (loss of self) ramifications of this process; the alien “Stuff” can be viewed as either welcoming, offering the possibility of an immeasurably enhanced understanding and experience, or voracious in the way that it “[sucks] everything up together”: Isol struggles against incorporation into the alien element (“They want me to change into them, and them into me. But I want to be alone” [369]), while Zephyr decides to forsake her life on earth and her human form to merge with the alien matter (in a chapter entitled “Homecoming”).

Conclusions. Robson and Cadigan ask us to reflect on the processes and ideologies of subject-formation, matters of hybridity, and the relationship between the human and technology and between body and consciousness. These are all issues of importance in contemporary gender theory. Sf still has a role—whe­ther we see that role as explicitly “feminist” or not—in exploring the ramifications of our evolving understanding of sex, gender, and the body, as well as the material and social conditions under which sexed identities are lived out. Rather than attempting to posit ideal future worlds, sf can help us to grapple with some of the conundrums of our present world by working through their possible conclusions and outcomes; but then sf has always been more concerned with critiquing the present than with constructing the future. It is a (valid) truism that a science-fictional reality demands an expanded and revitalized science fiction writing to represent it; it does not render that writing/genre redundant. Similarly, the ideas of gender theorists such as Grosz and Butler warrant consideration outside the rather arcane and inaccessible field of a philosophically-inflected gender studies. Sex, too, has become “science-fictional,” in theory and in practice, with the advent of gender reassignment surgery and an increasing awareness of the varieties and possibilities of intersexuality and transsexuality. Sf might be just one way of moving these new theories and practices into the mainstream and exploring their possible ramifications.                

There is, then, a kind of untapped potential here for dialogue between a number of discourses that could benefit each other: feminism, by bringing a kind of social conscience to the wilder and more individualistic excesses of technophilia and by challenging the (still) masculinist foibles of mainstream sf; technocultural theory, by helping to situate feminism in relation to postmodern technology and theories of the post-human, thus bringing it up to date; and sf, by helping to test and shift the boundaries of the intelligible, the imaginable, and, therefore, the possible—with regard to technology and gender. This more or less interdisciplinary work has already been begun by critics such as Hayles, Hollinger, and Wolmark, in their attention to poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. This article, then, has merely sought to open up a space for future dialogue by considering the following points: first, the significance of the relationship between the material and the discursive in the “production” of the body; second, the parallel (if not exactly analogous) re-conceptualizations of “matter” and “the body” in the discourses of technocultural and feminist theory (as constructed rather than natural and therefore ripe for reconstruction); third, the potential within contemporary sf—as seen in the work of Robson and Cadigan—to reformulate the social and cultural meanings of the gendered body through the representation of indeterminate, identity-shifting, and radically other bodies, and so to contribute to this work of de- and re-construction. The science fiction narratives considered here assert, in their different ways, that bodies really do (and are) matter—but the meaning(s) of “matter” may be endlessly deferred and re-negotiated.

                1. For an example of this, consider the way that gender demarcations and stereotypes proliferate in the world of gaming. In a special issue of Edge magazine—“The girl issue,” the front cover of which comprises a still from a beach volleyball video-game (a close up of a female crotch in bikini bottoms)—Helen Kennedy comments on the representation of women in video games: “The association between female sexualized bodies and masculine forms of technology is a dominant one and has a long history. Games are no exception. The games business is very male-dominated and the marketing/advertising often draws from particularly adolescent fantasies of femininity” (qtd in “Digital Women” 56). Another article on massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMRPGs) explains their appeal to women as follows: “women like chat, women like shopping, women like meeting people and making friends,” and goes on to acknowledge the existence of sexual harassment even in cyberspace (“Girl Online” 72-73). So, despite the empowering potential of these games—which allow women to take on new, heroic, and possibly non-gendered identities—they still tend to reify the stereotypes and inequalities of the world in which they are used.
                2. The nature of this relationship is not clearly theorized by the Krokers, either in the interview from which the above extract is taken or in the introduction to their edited collection, The Last Sex.
                3. According to Freud, “[w]hen you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is “male or female?” and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty,” although he immediately proceeds to question quite how “certain” a judgment this can be (146).
                4. I am taking “cyborg” here in its broadest definition, as any “self-regulating organism that combines the natural and artificial together in one system”—and “natural” here need not mean “human,” since a cyborg can be “any organism/system that mixes the evolved and the made, the living and the inanimate” (Gray 2).
                5. For nuanced and critical writing on technology, cyborgs, and the female body, see Kirkup et al., Stabile, and the various works by Balsamo.
                6. Butler’s understanding of “materiality” does appear to go beyond Grosz’s in its stress upon the body as “signifying practice” and the “materiality” of the signifier.
                7. For an example of this identification of technology as masculine, see Sally Miller Gearhart’s novel Wanderground (1979).
                8. Robson’s 2001 novel Mappa Mundi, for example, is primarily concerned with the ethics of “memetic” or mind-control/mind-altering technology, which can be used for good (improving mental health, curing depression, expanding consciousness) or for ill (inducing otherwise “sane” people to commit violent acts).
                9. The relationship between body/meat and consciousness is explored elsewhere in Robson’s work: in her 1999 novel Silver Screen, Roy Croft fails in his attempt to live a life beyond the body by committing suicide and “uploading” his consciousness into cyberspace. The plot of the novel centers on the efforts of his friend, Anjuli O’Connor, to ascertain how and why he has done this, and is primarily concerned with questions of Artificial Intelligence and the fraught relationship between humans and computers. Pat Cadigan addresses a similar dilemma in her story “Pretty Boy Crossover” (1986), where the protagonist is invited to become “pure information” (137), as his friend Bobby has—what the experts call “SAD” or “self-aware data” (136). Ultimately, he refuses, discovering a kind of power in this refusal and taking pleasure in holding on to his “flesh,” despite the experts’ claims that living as “sentient information” is the most “exalted” form of existence possible (134). For an analysis and critique of the cyborg logic in Cadigan’s story, consult Latham (237-41), who also discusses Tea from an Empty Cup (243-47).

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