Sunday, September 14, 2008

Feminism and Science Fiction part 1

Chapter 10: Feminism and Science Fiction part 1
from In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu

I would like to look now at some of those writers who speak neither from a position of (transformed) authority nor from a position of (newly validated) sentiment but who deconstruct notions of essentialism from a relativistic position: Pamela Zoline, Rhoda Lerman, Monique Wittig, Angela Carter, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr.

Unlike many of the women mentioned so far, Tiptree is a prolific short story writer, favouring that form above all others. Her story 'The Women Men Don't See' exemplifies the notion of woman constructed as 'other', with its play on ideas of visibility and invisibility, alienness and non-alienness. It is written in a convincing pastiche of the Hemingway/Heinlein school, which further dislocates a straightforward reading. Tiptree uses the alien and human paradigm to powerful effect in her treatment of sexual difference. As Susan Wood said: 'As is common in much contemporary SF, the fictional situation serves as a metaphor for the author's vision of contemporary society, in which the cultural differences between men and women seem insurmoutable.'

Joanna Russ's novels and short stories show a similar playfulness of form. They are all in different ways, 'about' the oppression of women in a patriarchal world: in perhaps her best-known novel, The Female Man, she uses the metaphor of parallel universes, with a concomitantly fragmented narrator, to question the status quo of women and men not just in the contemporary western world but in the various other worlds that might or might not exist.

Where writers like McIntyre and Le Guin bring the tradition of the mainstream 'bourgeois' novel - with its emphasis on characterisation, its notion of a coherent self - into science fiction, with far-reaching, positive consequences; where more avowedly feminist writers like Sally Miller Gearhart, while eschewing the individualism inherent in the 'bourgeois' tradition, nonetheless subscribe to its essentialism, albeit a female one; the writers mentioned above use the metaphors of science fiction to subvert it from within, without making compromises with another literary tradition - that of the 'bourgeois' novel - that, too, glosses over the construction of sexual difference.

I am not trying to construct here a hierarchy of feminism, to measure one writer against another and find one lacking. I want to show the ways in which science fiction is feminism-friendly. With its metaphors of space and time travel, of parallel universes, of contradictions co-existing, of black holes and event horizons, science fiction is ideally placed for interrogative functions. The unities of 'self', whether in terms of bourgeois individualism or biological reductionism, can be subverted.

to be continued in the next post

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