Monday, October 29, 2007

(Re) Reading Feminist SF: An Annotated Book List

(Re) Reading For A Chapter On Feminist SF: An Annotated Book List.

I was asked to write a chapter on Feminist SF, for “The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction”. The chapter is something different, a fair, informative round-up & overview for the general reader; at least I hope so. The assignment drew me on, above and beyond common sense use of my time, through the back pages of the seventies and eighties, one title suggesting another; and this is my reading list. It’s not so much the big names, or titles that have remained visible, continually discussed, established. It’s more of a miscellany, some well-known texts, some hidden gems, and some. . . Well, a mixed bag, anyway.

Native Tongue: Suzette Haden Elgin.

No use, not for me. I feel the same now as I did then. The concept sounds fascinating. There’ve been secret feminine languages and writings for millenia, in Asia eg —but a language devised by women linguists, that cuts up the world in subtle new ways unknown to man: that’s something else. Sadly, the execution is narrow and prosaic. Every science fiction is about the making of the present, and classic feminist sf is (typically) a satire and a rebellion against a very particular place and time, namely the fifties, post-WWII USA. But this is just too transparent. Middle class US professional women surely did, and do, get treated with contempt by their male colleagues —a prosy, paper-thin scifi top-dressing doesn’t help to illuminate their plight.

Venus Rising: Carol Emshwiller.

Space man. Sea woman. . . . A fable about our foremothers, the Aquatic Apes, written after reading Elaine Morgan’s The Descent Of Woman. I like the Aquatic Ape hypothesis. We’re naked, we’re fat, we have voluntary breath control, we weep. Sure, I’ll buy it. We were driven from the savannah in a period of global overheating, and became human on the ocean shore, frolicking like sea-otters in the waves.

I liked the fable when I first read it, at first I wasn’t so sure second time around. Emshwiller’s sweet style can charm you, or irritate you. Venus, the proto-human narrator, is so careless in her oceanic, happy innocence, she could seem vapid. Zeus (the non-aquatic hominid, whose people have already invented patriarchal society, violence, paranoia and banishment) is very much the regulation bad guy. But there’s a subversive twist.Gentle Venus gets nasty to deal with Zeus, and saves her people. But in the process she has become tough, progressive and ambitious (Adam tempted her to eat his apple?); and we leave her setting off in search of new worlds to conquer.

The Wanderground: Sally Miller Gearhart

Generally held to be the most embarrassing “seventies feminist” sf text in the world, ever. ‘Who can read The Wanderground now?’, a highly sympathetic male respondent demanded, rhetorically, on a mailing list I belong to, a few months ago. So naturally I had to check it out. Actually, it’s not that bad. Along with Despatches From The Frontiers Of The Female Mind, this is the book that brought back the flavour of those strange days of The Women’s Press SF imprint. Like listening to Leonard Cohen again, first time since circa 1973. What you have to realise, first of all, is the tiny scale of the operation. This isn’t Wimmin For World Domination. This is the yoga class that meets above the wholefood store, Bay Area, West Coast USA, daydreaming about getting back to nature, rejecting the cruel city & all its works, and developing their psychic potential. Let’s everybody curl up in a ball, arms around your knees. Now imagine that you’re lifting off the floor, imaging that you’re floating, floating. . .

Can you buy it? In certain moods, I can wish it might be so. David Saxton, reviewing for the Guardian around 1987, called the Wanderground women “something between robins and hobbits”; sounds about right. Take over? Kick ass? No, no, we’re pacifists! Gaia Herself is going to do the dirty work. Can the boys play too? Yes, if they promise not to spoil everything. But they have to build their own treehouse.

The Female Man: Joanna Russ

Most of the canonical texts got displaced: I felt I could wing it on prior knowledge and received wisdom, introducing eg U.K.LeGuin or Suzy Charnas titles to the readers. But I had to read The Female Man again. What did I notice? (Apart from the fact that I still found the four-ply story gripping, the elliptical style sharp and compelling). The Probability Mechanics, the “braided possibilities” that also turn up in this year’s In War Time, Kathleen Ann Goonan; for a different satirical purpose. And the theatre of operations. Once more, it’s not about the human world, as I assumed in my salad days: it’s about the good old USA. The planet Whileaway has two continents, North and South. Little girls cast out to do their spirit journey in the far north (aka Canada I surmise) kill wolves & bring back the paws as proof. . .

A feminist, separatist Utopia where children are treated rough, leave their mothers at five and grow up shooting straight & taking no shit. . . The longings of a person deprived of not just any set of “male coded” freedoms, but of a specific, temporally and culturally defined set of “male coded freedoms”; almost a Robert Mitchum part, a Hollywood Golden Age version of what it means to be human (as in, the defining human being, to whom woman is the yielding, supporting complement). I’m reading these texts historically, should I apologise? I’m seeing them in context, and I don’t think any the less of them for being more personal, less universal, than I imagined.

more later. . .

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