She-Trek: Women & Science Fiction

The first science fiction novel was written by a woman. In the more than a century and a half since the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her drama of the clash between science and humanity have both earned their rightful places in literature. So why do women as a sex and sci-fi as a genre still frequently find themselves lost in space when it comes to getting literary respect? In books and stories, we've traveled through time and to distant galaxies, but somehow we haven't gone very far.Yet the science fiction that women create is of tremendous significance, to both sexes. In it, we can leave ourselves and our preconceived notions behind, in a realm where anything can happen. And fortunately for science fiction fans of either sex, at perhaps no other time in the history of the genre have women writers had as vocal, varied, or challenging presence, as a number of recent releases bear out.The two new Women of Wonder anthologies are vivid proof that the role of the female in science fiction isn't strictly limited to evil queen or frail damsel. Novelist Joanna Russ' To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, meanwhile, gives us twenty years of the author's feisty reports from the front lines of literature.Russ, simply by titling her collection To Write Like a Woman begs the questions, how does one write like a woman? And what makes it different? As she and her fellow Wonder Women demonstrate, there's no one answer. There are females who write traditional, heavy-on-the-science sci-fi, ones whose tales cross over into the realm of fantasy, even a few who've managed to kick down the men's room door of cyberpunk. Taken together, all three of these books serve as interlocking companion pieces for each other, intriguing studies in the way that women and women's issues have changed throughout the past century, reflected through the metaphors of fiction.Women of Wonder: The Classic Years stretches between the 1940's and 1970's -- from Cold War atomic peril to the dawn of feminism to the first rumblings of the conservatism and isolation that would characterize the '80s. In her introduction, editor Pamela Sargent explains the origins of the first Women of Wonder collection twenty years ago -- the doubts of publishers that there was enough interest in the subject, the incredulity that there would be sufficient material to fill such a book. But there was. In fact, during the '70s, three Women of Wonder anthologies were published. This best of the best is crammed with some of the finest sci-fi to exist either side of the gender line -- from writers like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ann McCaffrey.With its chronological presentation, Classic Years demonstrates the growing confidence and boldness both in the authors and their characters through the years. In early sci-fi, women were often portrayed in supporting and less challenging roles. As Sargent explains it, these were stories of women who were "passive or addle-brained and who solved problems inadvertently, through ineptitude, or in the course of fulfilling their assigned roles in society.""You can only move into futures that you can imagine," suggests novelist Pat Murphy. "Sci-fi in the forties and fifties still had housewives and secretaries. The tendency was not to question basic social conventions."But as both feminism and sci-fi took off, so did authors, no longer content to relegate women to being backseat drivers in the spaceships. The results were stories like James Tiptree's (aka Alice Sheldon) "The Women Men Don't See," in which the mystery and power of two ordinary-seeming female tourists is revealed to the male narrator only when visitors from quite far away point it out.Simultaneously, the women's movement produced a backlash from certain male sci-fi author of the '60s and '70s, as Joanna Russ examines in a chapter entitled "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction." Here she looks at novels and stories dealing with the age-old theme of role-reversal, often with absurd results. These were tales with bleak titles like Gender Genocide and Regiment of Women. In them, the women take over society, but their feminine urges -- their maternal instincts, their dependence on the almighty penis -- lead to their undoing and the natural order is inevitably be restored. Yeah, right.Russ finds this all highly entertaining. She can shoot down every bogus assumption with stunning clarity, then throw her head back and laugh, "Yet how unintentionally funny these stories are!" Her authoritative tut-tutting of sexist prose is more damning than a thousand stern condemnations.Russ can't be confined to one tightly constrained genre, even if it is her beloved sci-fi. She writes with awe of H.P. Lovecraft and the horror novel, she dissects the problems of being a fictional heroine. She delivers a study of modern gothic novels that suggests she's given these books more thought than their authors have, distilling their essence into the chapter title, "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband."Gothic segues into an essay on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, which leads us full circle and back to sci-fi. Shelley may not be, in Russ's opinion, the greatest of her time, but Russ acknowledges her significance as a ground-breaker and as the creator of "the single greatest myth of the industrial age."Russ states that "Culture is male.... Our literature is not about women. It is not about women and men equally. It is by and about men." For that reason, women's sci-fi often feels radical, simply by virtue of the issues to which its authors are sensitive. Both Women of Wonder books bear this out in stories like Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild", a tale so infinitely obsessed with the viscera and pain and horror of maternity, it envisions both human males and females as hosts to the parasitic embryos of their alien masters. Kit Reed's "Food Farm," written nearly thirty years ago, is a dead-on and masterfully topical take on fame, power, and the lengths to which women will go to achieve someone else's ideal of beauty.The second volume of Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, covers roughly the last two decades and shows the genre as it goes into warp speed with a fresh and remarkable crop of women. The volume includes stories by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, two of the sharpest and most humane voices in sci-fi today. Murphy's "Rachel in Love" is a gentle coming-of-age-story about a bright adolescent girl who also happens to occupy the body of a chimpanzee. In "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," Fowler sends a lonely, pregnant woman into an alternate universe, where everything, even Elvis, is just a little different. Both display wit and originality that knock the pulpy notion of sci-fi as the domain of phaser guns and little green men right on its ear.Murphy and Fowler are also significant in sci-fi circles as the founders of an award for writing that busts the norms and finds new ways of looking at sex roles in literature. It's winkingly called the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, after the woman who wrote for most of her career as a man.Former Tiptree winner, Nicola Griffith, has followed up with the noirish, mesmerizing Slow River. Griffith writes of a near future society and an heiress heroine forced to go underground to recreate her identity. What makes the story remarkable is that the protagonist and almost all the supporting characters are lesbians. This information is presented as paradoxically pivotal yet trivial as the sexuality of the heroes of any conventional story. Romantic entanglements push the plot, yet the fact that they are same-sex isn't unusual, because Griffith creates a world in which they aren't marginalized.For fiction by females to have any impact, it must move from the outer provinces of the women's studies shelf to the best-seller rack, where it can be measured not by the anatomy of its authors but by the merit of its words. So it's encouraging to see such a refreshingly co-ed table of contents in the latest edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction. There are two Ursula Le Guin stories, including 1995's Tiptree winner, "The Matter of Seggri." Le Guin shows us a place in which, as one critic put it, "men have all the privilege and the women have all the power." It questions the implications of nonconformity to gender roles, in a world where even though the rules are different than our own they're just as strict. There's also a story by Pat Cadigan, one of the few acknowledged female cyberpunks. Her Paris in June is a tale far darker and deadlier than its romantic title implies.The breadth of works by women writing science fiction is as diverse and vast as planets in the Milky Way. What the best of them share, however, are the way they open the genre in completely new and unexpected ways. They ask us to look at the world with fresh eyes, and invite us to explore the possibilities. They go to the furthest reaches of the imagination, and they bring back a mirror of who we are today, and of what we have in us to become.BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction; by Joanna Russ. Indiana University Press; 1995. $27.95 hardcover 13.95 paperback; 181 pages.Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years - Science Fiction by Women from the 1970s to the 1990s; edited by Pamela Sargent. A Harvest Original, Harcourt Brace & Company; 1995. $15.00; 420 pages.Women of Wonder: The Classic Years - Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s; edited by Pamela Sargent. A Harvest Original; Harcourt Brace & Company; 1995. $15.00; 438 pages.Slow River: by Nicola Griffith. Del Ray, $18.00.The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twelfth Annual Collection; edited by Gardner Dozois. St. Martin's Griffin; 1995. $16.95; 590 pages.


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