Science Fiction Studies

#48 = Volume 16, Part 2 = July 1989

Veronica Hollinger

Feminist Science Fiction: Construction and Deconstruction

Sarah Lefanu. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women's Press, 1988. 231pp. 5.95; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. $29.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)

To the best of my knowledge, the only currently available edition of Joanna Russ's The Female Man is the one published as part of The Women's Press SF series. This series also includes reprints of Jody Scott's Passing for Human and I, Vampire, Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, and original material such as Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind (1985), a collection of short fiction co-edited by Sarah Lefanu. As an editor at The Women's Press and a former teacher of courses on feminism and SF at the City Lit Centre for Adult Studies in London, Lefanu is in a good position to offer readers a study which is at once an overview of SF written by women over the last 30 years or so and a survey of the intersections between this extremely heterogeneous body of texts and the often overlapping but by no means always compatible series of theoretical positions which, for the sake of convenience, we subsume under the terminological umbrella of "feminism."

Lefanu has accomplished this complex critical project with clarity, wit, and relative evenhandedness. In the Chinks of the World Machine is detailed and wide-ranging, frequently incisive, and always entertaining. In short, it really is required reading for anyone interested in the intersections of SF and feminism, an area which has not always been well served (when it has been served at all) by Anglo-American SF criticism. It seems to me that too often we confine ourselves to New Critical or humanist readings which are limited in the ways that they can produce meanings from texts. Such readings often separate form from content and privilege the latter. One result has been the neglect of texts which do not easily lend themselves to character or plot analysis; another has been the reduction of quite disparate textual positions to one overarching position termed "feminist SF."

Lefanu herself is concerned with what Teresa de Lauretis (building on Foucault's analyses of the "technology of sex") has aptly labeled "technologies of gender." She writes from within the framework of contemporary post-structuralist feminism which theorizes gender as social and discursive construction and which is skeptical of essentialist definitions of "feminine" and "masculine." Lefanu's contention is that the plasticity of science fiction and its openness to other literary genres allow an apparent contradiction, but one that is potentially of enormous importance to contemporary women writers: it makes possible, and encourages (despite its colonization by male writers), the inscription of women as subjects free from the constraints of mundane fiction; and it also offers the possibilities of interrogating that very inscription, questioning the basis of gendered subjectivity. (p. 9)

Lefanu develops her own readings in conjunction with theoretical and critical texts such as Mary Ellman's Thinking About Women, Ellen Moer's Literary Women, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, and Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing. In addition, she makes frequent reference to essays on feminism and SF by writers like Russ and Susan Wood. As early as 1971, as she points out, Russ called attention to the almost total absence in SF of speculation about "the innate personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles" ("The Image of Women in Science Fiction," quoted in Lefanu, p. 13). Lefanu has taken her title from James Tiptree, Jr's now-classic story, "The Women Men Don't See," a bleak commentary on the position of women under patriarchy, who "live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine." The range of authors and works discussed here, however, indicates that the situation, at least within the SF community and at least for the present time, has changed dramatically.

In the Chinks of the World Machine is divided into two sections, the first of which is an overview organized around a series of issues and areas of concern which include considerations of representation in the SF text, examinations of varieties of utopia and dystopia, an all-too-brief study of the treatment of romantic love in feminist SF, and analyses of the ideologies of sex-role reversal narratives and of the tensions between authority and sentiment in SF texts by women. During the course of these investigations, Lefanu includes fairly detailed readings of works such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Ruins of Isis, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains, and Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe"--readings which are almost always fresh and insightful. For many reasons, not the least of which is the impressive range of Lefanu's coverage, this first section is (at least from my point of view) the most interesting and rewarding of the two.

The second half of the book is comprised of four chapters devoted to close readings of the works of James Tiptree, Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ. I have mixed feelings about Lefanu's choices in this section, not least because they are all American writers. One of the real strengths of her first section is the familiarity which she brings to the works of British writers like Zo Fairbairns and Naomi Mitchison, who are frequently overlooked by North American critics. Admittedly, there is simply more American than British SF, but the cultural differences between the two bodies of work would seem to make it appropriate to devote at least one chapter to a writer like Angela Carter or Tanith Lee.

In fact, Lefanu herself points out that Carter "is a writer that science fiction fans can boast of for taking SF out of the ghetto and revealing its seriousness to a sceptical world" (p. 79). She is also a writer who has been sadly neglected by the American SF community. While Natalie M. Rosinsky includes a rare discussion of Carter's The Passion of New Eve in her Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985), she barely mentions Carter's wonderfully baroque post-apocalyptic novel, Heroes and Villains. Lefanu's absorbing analysis of Heroes and Villains in her chapter on "The Vicissitudes of Love" is, therefore, particularly welcome.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the four in-depth studies included in Lefanu's volume is that they develop as dialogues with the writers she is reading. She makes frequent and cogent use of their own commentaries so that, for example, we are treated to details of Tiptree's commentary-in-disguise written for the 1975 symposium on "Women and Science Fiction," which was subsequently published as the double issue Khatru 3 & 4. The success with which Tiptree sustained her masquerade (a term which perhaps too easily implies a division of "reality" from "appearance") led to her eventual withdrawal from the symposium: "the women found her male persona too irritating to deal with" (p. 106). Excerpts from Le Guin's essays in The Language of the Night, from Charnas's "A Woman Appeared" (collected in Marleen S. Barr's Future Females: A Critical Anthology [1981]), and from various essays and stories by Russ provide a fascinating counterpoint to Lefanu's own analyses of the SF works of these writers.

As Lefanu demonstrates, SF can offer feminist writers a particularly useful narrative form through which to construct imaginative resistances to the limitations of gender representation which seem to constrain realist fiction. She relates this to the ability of SF to estrange aspects of the "real" in ways which indicate its contingent and arbitrary nature, and which, at the same time, can both challenge and criticize the structures of the "real." For feminist writers, then, SF provides a space in which to construct female subjectivity while providing as well a space from which to deconstruct that same subjectivity.

As Lefanu observes, this is one of the most paradoxical facets of the various projects of feminism, one which has given rise to a fair amount of conflict and contradiction. In her discussion of "The Heat Death of the Universe," she indicates the particular problem posed for feminists by structuralist and post-structuralist theory: "the radical, or transgressive aspects of the structuralist subversion of the subject do not allow for an analysis that shows 'woman' never to have been the subject in the first place" (p. 98). Thus, while her own position assumes that gender is constructed rather than innate--i.e., that it is the production of legal, religious, literary, commercial, and political representations--Lefanu also recognizes the value of works which establish strong unified subject positions for their female protagonists--works like Woman on the Edge of Time and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for instance.

Lefanu herself, however, is strongly anti-essentialist; and for this reason some of her best readings focus on texts which work against essentialist representations. This position also leads her to differentiate among novels which are sometimes approached as part of the same critical project, e.g., Russ's The Adventures of Alyx and Bradley's The Shattered Chain, which both fall into the category of sword-and-sorcery; or Carter's Heroes and Villains and Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake, both of which are post-apocalyptic narratives; or Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women and Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères, both of which can be read as feminist utopias. In each case, Lefanu's theoretical skepticism towards essentialization activates significant ideological differences between these paired texts, differences which more humanist theoretical discourses are sometimes unable to take into account.

This leads Lefanu to distinguish feminist SF from what she refers to as "feminised" SF. According to her, feminist SF is marked by a lack of sentimentality and a "profound scepticism: of the 'naturalness' of the patriarchal world and the belief in male superiority upon which it is founded" (p. 93). She argues that when women writers replace the "masculine" world with "feminine" worlds, "there is a danger...that this SF might slip too much into sentiment, and become ghettoised precisely as 'women's SF'" (p. 92)--i.e., as works that reverse but fail to deconstruct the oppositional hierarchies organizing the phallogocentric universe.

Lefanu concludes her first section by observing that:

Feminism questions a given order in political terms, while science fiction questions it in imaginative terms....If science fiction demands our acceptance of a relativistic universe, then feminism demands, no less, our acceptance of a relativistic social order. Nothing, in these terms, is natural, least of all the cultural notions of 'woman' and 'man.' (p. 100)

In its awareness of the paradoxical inscription of the concept of subjectivity in feminist writing--as something which must be both constructed and deconstructed--Lefanu's study invites some inevitable reflections on the nature of its own enterprise, which is, after all, the construction of what has been more of an absence than a presence in the critical scene: the "subject" of feminist SF. Her theoretical position invites the reader to conclude that asimultaneous deconstruction of exactly that subject may also be in order. And in its recognition of the many and various manifestations of feminism in SF, In the Chinks of the World Machine effectively demonstrates the potential critical rewards of just such a deconstruction.

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