Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"...a particular, awkward kind of SF feminism"

The new issue of the SFRA Review arrived in my mailbox today, and it has the text of Gwyneth Jones's acceptance speech for the 2008 Pilgrim Award, which was read at the SFRA's awards ceremony in her absence. It's fairly long, so I'll quote only a couple of chunks. It opens:

First, let me say how sorry I am that I can't be with you in the home of the Apocalypse (as Mark Bould reminded me, temptingly), and that I'm missing my only chance-- on the return trip-- to use one of my favourite iconic sayings in its original context. I'm not in Kansas, and it's a real shame, but I've given up flying, until further notice-- and it'd be a sad thing, after my rash, intransigent pilgrimage through SF criticism, if I dumped a rash, quixotic vow to come and collect the Pilgrim award.

I'm honoured, I'm astonished, I'm very proud to be a recipient of the Pilgrim Award. Despite Adam's kind protestations (I think I initially responded to his phone call by saying, are you sure this isn't a joke?) I still feel bemused. What did I do to deserve this? Caused a little trouble, maybe, occasionally, once upon a time (which seems, according to previous Pilgrims' accounts of themselves, to be something of a trend...) But I'm both glad, and sorry, to feel that this is an honour for a particular, awkward kind of SF feminism. Not the "girls get to be guys" type of feminism. Nor the equally anodyne "women are morally superior" variety-- but the deeply offensive contention that our whole global culture (and specifically, the future of our culture) could stand to be a little less masculine. Could stand a strong infusion of the values designated as "weak," and "feminine"--negotiation above conflict, empathy above self-interest, and all the rest of that repertoire. So, I'm glad I'm getting this award as a feminist, and I'm sorry-- because I'd much rather that my ideas and opinions were *individual* but mainstream, and didn't merit a special label.


I'm not sure exactly when I got started in SF critical venues. I wrote a book called Divine Endurance. As soon as it was publisehd I was hailed, by a community which I hadn't known existed (I'd read a lot of SF, but never been to a convention, never been a "fan" in the technical sense of the term). Someone must have sent me one of those alluring free gifts, and off I went, reviewing for Vector, for Foundation, having a troubled, on-and-off relationship with Interzone-- and later, maybe most significantly, writing regularly for David Hartwell's New York Review of Science Fiction. Things became a little heated, from time to time. There was a correspondence with Brian Stableford, in Foundation, on the subject of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale... I remember contacting the then editor, Edward James, and asking him, is this Stableford chap okay in a scrap? He understands about play-fighting? I won't make him cry or anything? Edward duly assured me that I ened have no fear. Mr. Stableford was bulletproof.

What I chiefly recall about those gunslinging years is that I never, or very rarely, chose the books that I reviewed. (The exceptions that spring to mind our Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty and Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire.) I would tell the reviews editor, don't worry, just send me whatever you like. I'm not primarily interested in giving people tips on what to buy, and I don't want to have advance guidance on what I'm supposed to think. It doesn't matter to me if the novel is obscure. I want to see what's happening in science ficiton, I want to take books apart, find out how they work. How they relate to popular culture, sexual politics, global politics. How SF writers are using the constructive or destructive interferences between technology, science, human life... I didn't realise, way back then, that I had crossed the line: I was no longer reviewing books, I'd become a critic. I didn't even realise how different, in practice and in purpose, those two activities are-- and this blissful ignorance could get me into trouble. I remember the look of hurt astonishment in the eyes of a certain illustrious cyberpunk, when he'd read my review of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in the New York Review of Science Fiction. But Bruce (no, I didn't say this, but I thought it)-- surely you noticed that this book positively licks the boots of mindless violence? You're a decent human being, surely you were repelled by Hiro Protagonist's smug, shallow, machismo...?

Those were the days. I wouldn't dream of behaving in the same way now. For one thing, thanks to the internet explosion, it's become almost impossible not to know what the community thinks you should think, about any given SF novel... For another, I'm older and a little wiser. I no longer think it's such a great idea to stand alone, and shoot the bad guy full of holes in the middle of Main Street...

The issue also has a lengthy review by Ritch Calvin of Stretto. I'll quote its last paragraph:

From the very beginning of the series, Duchamp makes it clear that one of her interests in the series is to examine how revolutions take place. Too often, the narrative conceit is that a revolution had already taken place in the past and a new society has emerged. For Duchamp, the interest is in the very messy process of working through the changes, the personalities, the conflicts, the contradictions. Too often a novel will show individuals and scoeities that are united, at times over generations, by a single cause-- terraforming a planet, for example. However, the case of 9/11 demonstrates clearly that such unanimity and momentum are impossible to create and sustain. Duchamp and the Marq'ssan series demonstrate this beautifully. Perhaps it does not create the sort of narrative arc to which we are accustomed; perhaps it does not create the sort of resolution and closure we would like to see, but just as she resists the marketing strategies, she resists such easy narrative devices.
Practically speaking, the books and the series would be difficult to teach, at least in most classroom settings. However, they do raise interesting and important thematic issues as they challenge contemporary conventions of narrative and plotting.

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