Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Resurgence of Feminist Science Fiction

By Nancy Jane Moore

In January 2006 I gave a talk at the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C., on what I see as a resurgence in feminist science fiction. My thoughts on that subject seemed an appropriate way to start out my contributions to Ambling Along the Aqueduct, so here is a slightly edited version of my speech:

To talk about the current situation in feminist science fiction, I think it's necessary to look briefly at a history of feminism. One thing we frequently forget about feminism is how very recent it is. It dates loosely back to the late 18th Century and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women -- a little over two hundred years. Given that the human race has been around for several hundred thousand years, a couple of hundred years is virtually nothing. And in the reality of science fiction -- where we often extrapolate futures hundreds, even thousands, of years from now and frequently speculate on increased human life span -- a couple of hundred years is a mere blip.

Modern feminism started as a movement in the mid-19th Century. That first blitz of activity in the US ended with women getting the right to vote in 1920. To put that in perspective: When my father -- who is still hale and hearty at 88 -- was born, his mother didn't have the right to vote. The automobile is older than that -- both my grandmothers owned automobiles and drove everywhere before they were allowed to vote.

While women made some progress over the first half of the 20th Century -- changes in divorce and property rights law -- the next real wave of feminism was in the 1960s and 70s. That's all within the last 30 to 40 years -- not long at all.

There are lots of reasons for the rise of feminism in the 60s and 70s. It was a time of great social ferment, including the Civil Rights Movement. And, in fact, the 19th Century movement was tied into major social change, too, with the abolitionists. But one key element of the new feminism of the 60s was scientific in nature: The Pill. That advance was tied in with activism, because most of the legal decisions that gave people the right to contraception came in the 1960s themselves, culminating in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Feminism is connected to science – particularly to biology.

And science fiction has always had a feminist connection -- the boys of the Golden Age notwithstanding. You can find a significant number of science fiction stories by 19th Century women authors, often about inventions that reduce the backbreaking work of pre-industrial housekeeping or about the relationship between men and women. Many of these fiction writers were also activists -- abolitionists and suffragists.

The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s produced an amazing amount of excellent feminist science fiction -- many consider the feminist work of that era the defining science fiction of the time. Obviously there's Joanna Russ's The Female Man, which is arguably the finest angry feminist novel in any genre of that time. But there are also Russ's other novels and stories, Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue trilogy, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness (and also her short story "Winter's King," set in that same time and place, but playing with pronouns), Suzy McKee Charnas's work and --obviously -- James Tiptree, particularly in "The Women Men Don't See."

I was hungry for women authors back then and I read a lot of the mainstream feminist fiction. Most of it was so angry as to be unreadable. Only in science fiction were people able to channel that anger into good fiction. I suspect that may be partly the effect of the science -- or maybe it's just the quality of science fiction writers.

But that was 30 odd years ago. We've spent those years integrating the social change brought by feminism and other social change movements, and while things are far from perfect -- witness the U.S. Supreme Court's recent abortion decision -- things are considerably different. Women have options today that we only dreamed of in 1965.

So a lot of people want to tell us that feminism did its job, that we've achieved social equality, and that there's no need for any kind of feminist movement, much less feminist science fiction.

But if that's the case, why are we seeing so much feminist science fiction? And even some feminist fantasy -- especially urban fantasy? There are several reasons:
  1. As I said before: These changes are really new. We've have a sea change in the legal rights of women in the last half century and we're only now beginning to figure out what it all means. That confusion is working itself out in fiction.
  2. We've made equally mind-altering progress in biology and, based on that, in medicine. The human genome project, cloning, genetic modification, sex change operations as a regular medical practice -- all of these things have the capacity to raise fundamental questions about the real meaning of gender and they're just the things that are already going on. (I've commented before -- and I'm far from alone -- that we're actually living in the future predicted by the Golden Age of SF.) Science fiction is the most obvious place to work out those issues, because you can take the facts just a few steps beyond what we can do now and open up a brand new can of worms. And there's the potential of taking this a few hundred years into the future and coming up with some very different conceptions of gender.
  3. Religious fundamentalists -- from many different religions -- are attacking women's freedoms. This ranges from the Christian right here in the US attacking birth control and abortion to the fundamentalist Muslims who require women to wear the burqa and otherwise limit their actions. Certainly there have been some major changes in religion brought by feminism, but those changes have energized the fundamentalist opposition.

The feminist science fiction being published these days is not nearly as angry as The Female Man. It's also not as focused on some old ideas of the differences between men and women -- with an assumption that women are superior (though there certainly are scientific discussions these days on our differences). And it's not just being written by women.

I see four types of feminist SF and fantasy out there:

  1. There are a lot of stories that fall into the "Sword and Sorceress" format – meaning they are similar to the short stories Marion Zimmer Bradley bought for that series. Sword & Sorceress was fantasy, but similar stories exist in space opera: essentially adventure stories in which women have the major adventures. As someone who loves adventure stories, and who grew very tired of having to identify with the male characters, I love these stories. Women wrote a lot of them in the 80s and 90s, and now a lot of men are writing them as well. Many of these stories don't exactly provide thoughtful feminism, though; I recently tried to read one of the Honor Harrington books and gave up in frustration. Here we had this future society in which women supposedly had full equality, coming up against a throwback sexist society, and Honor reacts with all the issues and concerns of a modern day female government official dealing with Saudi Arabia. I'd like to think that after a few hundred years of gender equality, both women and men would be confused and puzzled by such a throwback, that their reactions would be something completely new and different.
  2. There are a lot of more complex works that tell the stories of women acting in the world in a much broader scope than the roles allowed them in the past. I'd put my book Changeling in that category. It's a coming of age story, but the coming of age aspect involves learning to deal with power -- that of others and that of oneself.
  3. There are many stories by male authors, and about male characters, that are looking at gender issues as well. It's no accident that several recent Tiptree winners, John Kessell, M. John Harrison, Matt Ruff, Joe Haldeman, and Geoff Ryman are male. These issues are no longer of interest only to women.
  4. And finally, there is some very sophisticated science fiction that takes up the possibilities that are opening up from biology -- and artificial intelligence as well -- and makes us re-think everything we've ever thought we understood about gender. We no longer need to come up with aliens who have different genders -- one or three or half a dozen or none; we can create all these variations for ourselves out of human beings.

All of these types of stories are important, because all of them are helping us figure out what our social changes mean. But it is the last type that really use science and fiction to help us work out what gender will mean in the future. I've played in this area myself -- in fact I have become very fond of creating humans who are both male and female. But my favorite example of this type of SF is Gwyneth Jones's book Life (pictured above). This book is set in the future of the day after tomorrow, so the characters are struggling with the integration of the changes brought by the feminist movement. The main character, Anna, a biologist, is also studying what she calls "transferred Y" -- a chunk of bases from the y chromosome moving over to the X. The book is ultimately about what such changes on the genetic level mean for human beings, as well as being about the life of Anna and some of the people she knows in a complicated world just a few years from now.

A new heyday of feminist SF is upon us -- not just because of movements for social equality, but because science is raising the same questions. Coupled with the rise in the small presses and the better online publishing experiments, we're going to see more and more fiction that challenges us to think about what it really means to be human -- and what, if anything, -- gender has to do with it.


Ide Cyan said...

One thing we frequently forget about feminism is how much of it we've forgotten.

And how many advances in women's rights were deliberately crushed by men over the centuries.

And speaking of Joanna Russ -- have you read her essay, "SF and Technology as Mystification"?

The Pill is not science. It is technology. Its value for women is indissociable from the socio-economic factors that regulate its use. Even science, which is a fancy word for knowledge, is bounded by politics, not only in its application but in its acquisition. In what what we can conceive of as areas of knowledge.

We no longer need to come up with aliens who have different genders -- one or three or half a dozen or none; we can create all these variations for ourselves out of human beings.

And it is certainly not a new thing to root the concept of gender in biology.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

As a species we seem to be very bad at remembering history of any kind. I suspect this is partly due to our short life span. This is particularly obvious in the U.S., where we seem to always want to put everything behind us and move forward as if the world is new everyday. And when we do remember it, it ritualized in some way: for example, my great-great uncles fought for the South and therefore I am supposed to remain loyal to the Confederacy, despite such obvious evils as slavery. We want the tie to our ancestry, but we don't want to understand what really happened back then.
As you say, the Pill is technology -- though technology that would not have been possible without underlying scientific research. You make an important point about control of the technology -- in fact, that is the core of the whole debate over birth control, of which the abortion question is only the most visible.

A.R.Yngve said...

I've been thinking about these issues lately - and not just because of the SF literature I've read, but because of changes in the real world.

I believe that science and technology drive social progress. There was the birth-control pill of course, and technology freed women from the daily drudgery of fetching water.

The biggest agent of social change in the foreseeable future will be cloning. SF writers must take seriously the possibility that societies might emerge where women can reproduce without men.

(Get this: scientists are about to try and create artificial sperm from women's stem-cells. If this works -- and so far, it doesn't seem impossible -- it would mean, in effect, all-female reproduction.)

Here SF literature has a unique historical opportunity: to speculate in advance about a social revolution that would dwarf everything we've seen before.

With such prospects for the future, it becomes virtually impossible NOT to deal with feminist issues in science fiction.

Ide Cyan said...

I've just come across something interesting regarding the connection between the birth control pill, politics and economics...