Science Fiction Studies

#51 = Volume 17, Part 2 = July 1990


Critical Misconceptions

1. Reducing the Dialogic in The Handmaid's Tale? In ``Reducing the Dystopian Distance: Pseudo-Documentary Framing in Near-Future Fiction'' (SFS 17 [March 1990]: 25-40), Patrick Murphy positions his reading of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in opposition to mine. Fair enough. There is no question that Murphy's interpretation is politically correct from many, if not most, feminist viewpoints and that mine is not. What I wish to counter is the implication that the former is right and the latter is wrong. It is my position that what is most interesting about Atwood's recent work is what might be seen as its feminist political incorrectness, something that seems to have particularly disturbed some readers of Cat's Eye (1988), her latest novel. In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, while I do stress the discontinuity between Gilead and the post-Gilead world of the frame, Murphy is mistaken in supposing that I do ``not recognize the continuity'' (p. 32)—i.e., the element of sexism—that connects the two realms. At the same time Murphy would agree that the frame world ``still qualifies as a better world'' (p. 33) than Gilead, and perhaps a better world than our own. At least three possibilities follow from this: (1) post-Gilead may be viewed as the object of attack to the extent that it falls short of an ideal world that transcends sexual discrimination and sexual difference; (2) post-Gilead may be viewed with guarded approval to the extent that it improves on Gilead and given what appears to be Atwood's disbelief in the achievement of perfection; (3) post-Gilead may be viewed with guarded approval to the extent that, rather than another Gilead, or something equally bad or worse, it may pave the way for subsequent more nearly perfect societies, albeit each will fall short of the ideal. Handmaid's Tale allows for all these possibilities; and while Murphy chooses the first (and seemingly inconsistently excludes possibilities two and three), I choose to emphasize the second and third possibilities.                

The point is—to invoke the Bakhtinian terminology that Murphy alludes to with his use of ``chronotope'' (p. 35)—that Handmaid's Tale is a novel, and thus a work of the dialogic imagination. What Murphy provides strikes me as an essentially monologic reading. His reading of my phrase ``muted feminist polemics'' (p. 31) is similarly monologic. He seizes on what is often the de rigeur ``correct'' feminist interpretation: ``muted'' means external suppression and silencing. But the word also conveys the notion of a personal, voluntary toning down or qualifying—and that (clearly?) was the sense that I intended. In a dialogic, novelistic context (and in Atwood's words, ``Context is all''), both meanings, however contradictory, must be allowed to operate.

2. Textual Authority. In the same issue of SFS, Robert Philmus makes his point about textual unreliability rather more effectively than he intended. Although a reader can probably figure out the statement, ``Six of WH's sentences do not appear in WH'' (p. 65), he or she may not be in a position to correct the ``soiled fish'' example. This derives from Melville's White-Jacket, not Moby Dick, and the correct phrase is ``coiled fish'' not ``coiled rope'' (vide Philmus: 64). ``[S]oiled fish'' is a compositorial error that entered the record with the White-Jacket text in the 1922-24 Constable edition of The Works of Herman Melville. Furthermore, there is no extant manuscript of Moby Dick, or—for that matter—of White-Jacket (except for a revised fair copy of the latter's Preface). -- David Ketterer, Concordia University


Concerning the Pilgrim Award

In the March 1990 SFS, Joan Gordon begins her review of Ursula Le Guin's Dancing at the Edge of the World with some comments on the 1988 SFRA Convention and the Pilgrim Award to Joanna Russ. Obviously, perspectives differ, and readers of SFS may be interested in another view of those events as they pertain to the Pilgrim Awards to Russ and Le Guin.               

Gordon is right about the indignation provoked by Russ's receiving the award: the description of the award committee's decision as ``blatant politicizing'' is consonant with the complaints I heard, although I heard them from women as well as from men. When the award was presented, the speaker for the committee said that the committee started with the observation that since the Pilgrim had never been given to a woman, it was time to correct that imbalance. I personally was struck by this comment because I chaired the committee the year that the Pilgrim Award was presented to Samuel R. Delany; we did not begin by observing that the award had never been presented to a black and then set out to redress that situation.                

Other SFRA members may also differ about why Le Guin's award the following year was non-controversial. Gordon sees the two writers' particular brands of feminism as the reason for the different reactions, asserting that Russ ``is certainly as perceptive a critic as Le Guin, with as great a body of criticism...'' (118). This comment, especially the confident ``certainly,'' begs the question. The equality of Russ's and Le Guin's merit as critics does not yet have the status of natural law; to assume that everybody agrees to that equality is to assume more than we know; and to attribute the difference in reaction to the awards to whether the writer's critical style is kind or combative is to assume more than we can know.                

One final comment: a writer of SF writes criticism under the same conditions as everyone else does, and, to my mind at least, occupies no position of privilege because of his or her status as author. One wonders who the ``nieces and nephews'' are in the final clause of Gordon's review: ``our great aunt might consider being a bit more stern with her nieces and nephews in SF.'' If these junior relations are the critics of SF, and particularly, the critics who are members of the SFRA, the clause implies a hierarchy between SF authors and SF critics which, if it were true, would be an excellent reason for dismissing SF criticism completely. -- Walter E. Meyers, North Carolina State University

Walter Meyers' response to my review prompts a few points of my own. First, the issue of ``blatant politicism:'' of course, choosing Russ in 1988 was to an extent a political act, but so surely had been the selection of Julius Kagarlitski in 1972 and H. Bruce Franklin in 1983, though degree and kind of politics may have varied. By the way, Russ was not the first woman to win the Pilgrim Award; that honor went to the second winner, Marjorie Hope Nicholson, in 1971. I didn't mean to deny the politicism of Russ's award, though, merely to wonder over indignation at its presence.

Second, I admit to the use of persuasive inclusion in placing Russ in Le Guin's company: in a review, such rhetoric expresses an opinion.                

Third, in referring to Le Guin's audience in her SFRA acceptance speech as ``nieces and nephews,'' I was following through on the metaphorical relationship she had established with the audience in calling herself our ``mad great-aunt Ursula in Oregon.'' It seems unlikely to me that Le Guin wished to ``dismiss... science fiction criticism completely'' by employing this persona. Perhaps, though, I underestimated her stand. She may be more stern than I thought.                

Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Meyers for keeping the debate alive. Feminist criticism is both political and aesthetic and thrives on discourse such as this. -- Joan Gordon, Commack, NY


A Feminist Forum

We would like to draw our readers' attention to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Feminist Forum (SF4), a feminist caucus which was established at the 1989 SFRA meeting in Oxford, Ohio, and which includes members from both SFRA and IAFA (as well as other interested parties). Members have planned to meet at this year's SFRA conference in Long Beach, California, and a newsletter should be forthcoming in the near future. Anyone wanting further information about SF4 should contact either Joan Gordon (1 Tulip Lane/Commack, NY 11725) or Partrick Murphy (English Dept./110 Leonard Hall/Indiana University of Pennsylvania/Indiana, PA 15705).


Upcoming Conferences and Other News of Note

The 1990 conference of the Society for Literature and Science will take place on October 4-7th at the Hilton Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Of particular interest will be the sessions on ``Science Fictions of National Security,'' ``Social Constructions of Gender,'' ``Calvino and Postmodernism,'' ``Science in Fiction,'' ``Theoretical Approaches to Frankenstein,'' ``Science Fiction and Difference,'' and ``Stanislaw Lem.'' The University of California's Bruno Latour (UC Berkeley) and John L. Heilbron (UC San Diego) will be the plenary speakers. The registration fee for the conference is US$85 before September 4th and US$95 thereafter. For further information, apply to Professor Laurie Fink/English Dept./Lewis & Clark College/Portland, OR 97219.

We have received word from Igor Toloconnicov that Soviet authorities have given the go-ahead for a plan to hold an international SF convention in Volgograd in September of 1991. While this seems to be conceived primarily as a fan gathering, it will include sessions dealing with ``Cyperpunks on the Volga'' and ``The Young Wave in Soviet SF.'' For further information, write to: Boris A. Zavgorodny/Poste restante/Volgograd-66/USSR.                

Also on the Soviet front, Vladimir Borisov has obligingly informed us of the results of the latest poll of fan opinion as to the best SF published in the USSR in 1988. First place in the short-story category went to Andrei Stolyarov for a work whose title Englishes as ``A Banishment of the Demon.'' The Strugatskys again took the top (two) spots for book-length works, with Olga Larionova's Star-in-Forehead coming in third and Zamiatin's We sixth (!).

Richard E. Geis, having retired from the Science Fiction Review and Quantum (formerly Thrust) and finding himself ``bored stiff since,'' is now putting out The Geis Letter. The first of these is an 8-page affair; and future numbers, to be ``published whenever an issue is completed,'' will presumably run to about the same length. Consisting of pithy reviews of fiction and anything else that might prompt Mr Geis's pungent comments, this publication can apparently be had for the asking (though no doubt monetary donations would be appreciated). The person to ask is, of course, Mr Geis himself, whom you can reach at PO Box 11408/Portland, OR 97211.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home