Women writers, readers, and critics have exercised a powerful influence on the
development of SF over the last three decades; and SF by women, whether or not it defines
itself as feminist, has contributed both to the growing sophistication of the genre and to
its increasing heterogeneity. The publication in recent years of several full-length
studies devoted to the subject1 suggests that SF by women, in spite of an
initialand in some cases continuingresistance from within an already
well-established field, has itself become an established presence, redefining the field in
the process and, concurrently, becoming itself redefined.
As the following essays demonstrate, SF by women has by now become a
pluralistic enterprise composed of many different and differing voices and
ideological positions, not all of which are obviously feminist. The objective of
this issue, however, is a feminist one, as we highlight the work of women SF
writers and focus attention on their imaginative re-visions of lived reality.
For these women, writing SF has provided a means for "telling new stories so as
to inscribe into the picture of reality characters and events and resolutions
that were previously invisible, untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable,
unimaginable, 'impossible')" (de Lauretis: 11). As readers, all of us have
gained from these re-visions, re-definitions, and re-solutions.
When SFS, a full ten years ago, published its previous special issue on "Science
Fiction on WomenScience Fiction by Women" (March 1980), the introduction called
attention to a recent and significant rise in contributions by women/about women in SF. A
(more or less) random glance through the issues of this journal since then suggests that
in the intervening decade feminist studies have likewise achieved an established position
in the field of SF criticism, although perhaps the range of critical positions reflected
in SFS has not yet attained the multiplexity of the fiction we most often "read."
The fact that some of these studies have been contributed by male scholars also implies a
growing interest in feminism and its expanding influence on the critical community in
This aforementioned random glance would take in Margaret Miller's "The Ideal Woman
in Two Feminist Science-Fiction Utopias" (July 1983), Nancy Steffen-Fluhr on the roles of
women in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (July 1984), Peter Fitting on
"New Roles for Men in Recent Utopian Fiction" (July 1985), Marleen Barr's study of
"female fathering" in the works of James Tiptree, Jr (March 1986), Susan Gubar's
review-article on "Feminism and Utopia" (in the same issue), Jean Pfaelzer's
"The Changing of the Avant-Garde: The Feminist Utopia" (November 1988), and Patrick
Murphy's feminist reading, in "Reducing the Dystopian Distance" (March 1990), of the
framing devices in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
While a comparison of this present issue of SFS with our previous special issue on the
interrelationships of women and SF can support only very tentative conclusions, it is
tempting to suggest some nevertheless. For example, single-author studieson Ursula
K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr (Alice Sheldon), Doris Lessing, and Octavia
Butleraccount for an even larger proportion of the essays here than they did in our
March 1980 issue, which included essays on C.L. Moore, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Le Guin
as well as a wry critique of "The Battle of the Sexes in SF" by Joanna Russ. This no
doubt indicates a welcome rise in the number of "significant" women writers in SF;
but at the same time it suggests a certain homogeneity in the delimiting of our critical
Since both special issues also include essays by or about Russ and Le Guin, we might
pause for a moment to consider that pervasive temptation to indulge in "canon
formation" which is one of the pitfalls of the critical enterprise, resulting as it
occasionally does in the neglect of rewarding authors whose works are nevertheless not
(yet) considered "canonical." Writers like Pat Cadigan and Connie Willis come to
(my) mind here. On the other hand, the importance of a "tradition" with which women
writers can identify has been argued by many feminist scholarsfor which reason, it
is gratifying to read, in Meri-Jane Rochelson's review-article, of no less than three new
book-length studies on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (we might also add to these
"progeny" of Mary Shelley the excellent new biography by Emily W. Sunstein, Mary
Shelley: Romance and Reality [Boston: Little, Brown, 1989]). In this same regard, Jane
Donawerth's note on the brief SF career of Lilith Lorraine (Mary Maude Wright) in the
1920s provides us with information about one more precursor of the women who began
emerging as (utopian) SF writers three decades later.
In the opening essay, on "Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction," Robin
Roberts argues, from within a framework of post-structuralist theory, that "feminist
SF writers use both SF concepts and recent cultural theory to challenge patriarchal
assumptions." She analyzes the interactions of feminism and post-modernism, with
particular stress on the functions of language and representation; and in the course of
her argument, she makes a case for popular culture as a productive site of feminist
intervention. Her discussion takes into account texts by lesser-known writers Joan Slonczewski and Sheila Finch as well as by Atwood and Le Guin.
Elizabeth Cummins then takes up Le Guin's development as a "Land-Lady"a
retrospective which culminates, like Roberts' essay, in a reading of Always Coming Home.
In the process, Cummins provides a critical "geography" of the worlds of Le Guin's
fiction discussed in the context of her recent non-fiction collection, Dancing at the
Edge of the World, as well as in the context of Le Guin's own life-experiences.
Kathleen Spencer's study, which focuses on "the rescue of the female child" as a
central narrative motif in Joanna Russ's writing from 1967 to 1982, develops within a
framework of psychoanalytic theory, specifically that of Carol Gilligan's In a
Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982; Le Guin also
cites this work with appreciation in Dancing...). Spencer draws attention to
"the prominence of the rescue motif in feminist utopias" generally, and in Russ's
fiction in particular, as an important thematic pattern which has generated stories
analogous to, but also very different from, narratives of adolescent male rites of
passage. At the heart of this feminist thematics of rescue, Spencer suggests, is
the fantasy of "rescuing the self."
In "The Case of the Haploid Heart," Nancy Steffen-Fluhr offers a movingand
timely retrospective of the SF career of James Tiptree, Jr. This she reads in the
(psychoanalytic) light of Tiptree's life as Alice Sheldon, laying particular emphasis on
Tiptree's formative relationship with her mother, Alice Hastings Bradley. While also
providing a useful overview of much of the critical material written to date about her
author, she pursues the idea that Tiptree's fictions constitute a
"psychomachiaa dialogue between various parts of the Self." "From the
very first," according to Steffen-Fluhr, her "stories ring out with rage,
frustration, fear, and pain and, most of all, with an unsparing empathy for all
creatures being squeezed and hurt by life."
Doris Lessing's SF is represented here in Phyllis Perrakis's essay on "The
Marriage of Inner and Outer Space" in Shikasta, the first book of Lessing's
"Canopus in Argos" series. Perrakis defends Shikasta from the critical charge
that "the whole work is a depressing vision of the inadequacies of human nature" by focusing on the interplay between "inner space" and "outer space" visions,
the "double vision" which acts as a structuring principle throughout the novel. In
the course of her analysis, Perrakis also examines the various deconstructionsof
inside/ outside, self/other, mind/body, and science/spiritual realitywhich readers
are invited to activate in their reading of Lessing's fiction.
Our final essay, on the work of Afro-American writer Octavia Butler, calls attention to
the tendency in many SF texts by women to essentialize human nature in various ways, a
tendency from which Butler's work is by no means exempt. However, as Hoda Zaki also
demonstrates, "Butler's novels contain an implicit and internal critique of and
rebuke to one aspect of liberal feminist ideology: its claim to speak for all women,
regardless of class or colora claim founded upon the assumption of the
transhistorical and transcultural, engendered unity of all women." Moving away
from psychoanalytical criticism, Zaki builds her discussion around issues of
socio-political import, examining the utopian and anti-utopian elements in Butler's recent
SF within the context of potential feminist political intervention.
A comparison of these essays with those in our 1980 special issue and with my sample of
studies published by SFS during the '80s suggests an ongoing, perhaps increasing,
socio-political emphasis in feminist SF and SF by women. It is true that Zaki's study of
Butler's work is the only one in this present issue whose title announces its specific
focus on utopia/dystopia; but the essays by Cummins, Spencer, Steffen-Fluhr, and Perrakis
all draw attention, in different ways, to various kinds of utopian (and dystopian)
affinities and interests in the works of their subject-writers, ranging from the personal
utopian yearnings delineated in Russ's fiction to the imaginative re-creation of an entire
culture by Le Guin in Coming Home. Given that feminism is itself a profoundly
utopian enterprise, and given also the steadfast grounding of feminist politics in the
realm of the personal, the extent of utopian (and dystopian) positions demonstrated in the
works of these writers is exemplary.
Three of the present essaysCummins' on Le Guin, Spencer's on Russ, and
Steffen-Fluhr's on Tiptreeamount to virtual retrospectives of the careers of their
subject-authors, attesting to the prolific output of these writers and to their by now
long-standing interactions with the SF field. At the same time, each of these critics, in
adopting an approach which in one sense or another qualifies as psychoanalytical, presents
the fiction of her author as embodying an instructive tension: a vision which is at once
idiosyncratici.e., uniquely personaland paradigmatically feminist.
Although only Roberts' essay directly involves itself in the critical debate about the
relationship(s) of feminism to post-modernism generally, it is worth noting that
deconstructive theory underlies much of the thinking in these pages. Feminist studies tend
to function at a far remove from the cool philosophical territory marked out by Derrida,
but feminist scholars have usefully appropriated the strategies of deconstruction to
undertake the breakdown of long-standing binary oppositions which have supported the
oppression of women.
This breaking down of hierarchical oppositions through the deconstruction of binary
thinking is certainly one of the most valuable critical methods available to feminist
critics today; and its underlying presence in these essays suggests to me the necessity
for feminist criticsof whatever schoolto participate in the theoretical
debates which are currently swirling all around us, to clarify our own positions as
rigorously as possible, and to take advantagein a movement of feminist bricolageof
whichever theories and methodologies prove efficacious to our own ongoing political
If we get it right, the productions of our theoretical bricolage may be truly
monstrous, comparable to those monstrous creations which have long been a central presence
in SF by women and in feminist SF (we might read them too as Mary Shelley's progeny). The
last 30 years have seen the introduction of numerous such creations into women's SF,
although earlier examplessuch as the woman/robot, Deirdre, of C.L. Moore's classic
early story, "No Woman Born" (1944)are also part of this "tradition." We
can include here: the androgynes of Le Guin's planet Winter (1969); Tanith Lee's SF
vampire, Sabella, of Sabella; or, The Bloodstone (1980); the women/clones who
populate the future in Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976); the
"constructs" of Butler's XENOGENESIS series (1987-89), genetic hybrids produced through the
inter-breeding of humans and aliens; and of course, Russ's female man (1975). In every
case, these "monsters" represent the breakdown of conventional ways of
being-in-the-world; they raise questions about what it means to be both female
and human; and they suggest definitions which "were previously invisible,
untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable, unimaginable, 'impossible')."
Inasmuch as feminist SF and cyberpunk have more in common than might immediately meet
the eye,2 it is worth recalling Bruce Sterling's description of the characters
populating the cyberpunk landscapeproducts of the breakdown of borders between the
human and the machineas "hopeful monsters" (p. 4). If we take our cue from
those SF writers whose monstrous creations have compelled our admiring attention, then we
as critics may also produce hopeful monsters, through the collapse of boundaries between
the imaginative and the critical, between the theoretical and the practical, between the
political and the personal.
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most exciting pieces of feminist theory
I have read latelyDonna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science,
Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s"is also very much concerned with
the creation of monsters. Haraway's essay, "an argument for pleasure in the
confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction" (p. 174),
might well be a case of feminist cyberpunk theory, and is thus itself, perhaps, a kind of
monstrous hybrid. Haraway uses the image of the cyborg, an entity which is at once human
and machine, as the central metaphor upon which to base her agenda for post-modern
feminism. "Cyborg unities," she contends, "are monstrous and illegitimate; in
our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for
resistance and recoupling" (p. 179).3 Through a piece of fortuitous timing, this issue of SFS also contains Charles Elkins' review of Haraway's new book, Primate Visions, an
interdisciplinary work of feminist politics, primatology, and anthropology which
privileges SF for its ability to re-conceptualize potential changes in society and human
When SFS published its first issue on women and SF, feminist theory and scholarship
were just beginning to enjoy the academic acceptance which many of us have by now taken
for granted. Our present number likewise appears at a crucial juncture in the history of
feminism and feminist studies. The '80s have not been a comforting decade; they have seen
the problematic rise of post-feminism (so chillingly extrapolated in The Handmaid's
Tale) as well as the renewal of the debate over abortion; and their backlash against
feminism has frequently taken the form of increased violence against women. For these and
many other reasons, we should recognize, even as we celebrate the growing influence of
feminism and the proliferation of feminist SF and SF by women, that there remains much
work for the women/monsters in SF to do if the hope which they promise is to be realized.
1. See, for example, the works by Natalie Rosinsky, Marleen Barr, and Sarah Lefanu
2. Samuel R. Delany and Joan Gordon, for instance, have made strong cases for linking
feminism and cyberpunk.
3. For another use ofand perspective onthis metaphor within a feminist
context, see Robin Morgan's poem "Monster" (1972), which concludes:
May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped.
May I learn how to survive until my part is finished.
May I realize that I
monster. I am
I am a monster.
And I am proud.
Barr, Marleen S. Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory. Westport,
CT: Greenwood, 1987.
Delany, Samuel R. "Some Real Mothers: An Interview" [by Takayuki Tatsumi], Science-Fiction
Eye, 1 (Mar. 1988):5-11.
De Lauretis, Teresa. "Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms, and
Contexts," in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. de Lauretis (Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1986), pp. 1-19.
Gordon, Joan. "Yin and Yang Duke It Out," Science-Fiction Eye, 2 (Feb.
Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist
Feminism in the 1980s" , in Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, ed.
Elizabeth Weed (NY: Routledge, 1989), pp. 173-204.
Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London:
The Women's Press, 1988.
Morgan, Robin. Monster. NY: Random House, 1972.
Rosinsky, Natalie. Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction. Ann
Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.
Sterling, Bruce. "Letter from Bruce Sterling," REM, no. 7 (Apr. 1987), pp.
Back to Home