So imagine my bemusement this morning, when I read an article in the new issue of Foundation, "Biological Determinism, Masculine Politics and the Failure of Libertarianism in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," by Jason Bourget. (You may be wondering what "masculine politics" might be. I know I did, when I first read the title. But given the context in which he uses the expression, I believe that by "masculine politics" the author means "masculinist politics.") Why bemusement? Because while the article, drawing on an essay by Neil Easterbrook, argues that Heinlein's version of libertarianism is an elitist tyranny based on a masculinist ("masculine," in the author's words) biological determinism-- taking note chiefly of the inequality of the sexes in Heinlein's "libertarian utopias"-- the article begins with the (likely inadvertent) exclusion of political science fiction written by women (much of which is feminist sf), which is an irony too familiar to be anything but wearying. Here's the first sentence:
In his essay on "Politics and Science Fiction," Ken Macleod boldly declares that "the central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein" and that "the political strand in sf can be described as a dialogue with [him]."
Much as I've enjoyed reading some of Ken Macleod's novels, and much as I've enjoyed reading essays by many science fiction writers, I've pretty much dismissed Macleod's critical writings as worthy of my time and interest. And that's precisely because of his essay "Politics and Science Fiction" (a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction ed. James and Mendlesohn), which I read a few years ago and that pretty much convinced me the man's understanding of science fiction is of the mangled truncated variety that either does not see or cannot understand feminist sf. His essay mentions work by only three women writers: Le Guin, Russ, and Bujold, while at the same time generalizing wantonly about "feminist sf" without offering any examples other than Russ. Just about all the guys who talk or write about "political science fiction" routinely, probably unconsciously, exclude feminist sf from the category, but the fact that it's a widespread practice doesn't excuse it. (They did it at a WisCon panel a few years ago, by the way, and didn't get called on it there. Still doesn't excuse it.) In this case, Macleod actually devotes a whole paragraph out of his chapter to misrepresent feminist sf. In short, he bluntly dismisses feminist sf as "a more troubling exception to the generally progressive spirit of sf."
Each time I've read this statement, I've felt as though Macleod had turned the world on its head: since, as far as I'm concerned, most sf is ideologically conservative and most feminist sf is ideologically progressive. And each time I read it, I did a double take a few sentences later, when I realized that by "progressive" Macleod doesn't mean politically progressive, but instead means buying hook line and sinker into the full 19th-century liberal ideology of "progress." Here's what he has to say about feminist sf:
Some of [feminist sf] does indeed turn its back on progress and the conquest of the universe as a typically male power fantasy-- and to that extent, and perhaps for that reason, it has isolated itself from all but a few sf readers.
Are we to understand from this that women writers are ignored because they want to be? I guess Macleod doesn't think much of Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing.
But not all feminist sf, even of the most radical kind, takes that view. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) carries a militant message of progress in its title. That the English word for the human species and the word for the male sex is the same, with its implied exclusion of half the human race from the achievements ascribed to all of it-- "man's conquest of space," and so on -- is an old problem."Progress" is a loaded word with a truly terrible history of encouraging and accommodating simplistic thinking. Combine that with "man's conquest of space" and what do you get? It would seem that Macleod believes that we (feminists) feel excluded from the fruits and glories of imperialist conquest and thus repudiate "conquest" out of nothing more than sour grapes ressentiment, while Russ, by contrast, finds the grapes of imperialist conquest sweet and makes no bones about wanting them for herself, just like your typical 19th-century white feminist lording it over the inferior races, I guess. Can he really believe this about Russ? Does he actually thinks that's what Russ is complaining about? Reading on, it seems that he does:
While some feminist writers have responded by repudiating the achievements,
Not only has he thrown the ideologically loaded "progress" at us, but now he's conflating "achievements" with "conquest"? That's a slippery rhetorical move if I've ever seen one. And who, exactly, are these "feminists" who are repudiating human achievements (that women, contrary to general opinion, have had an important role in performing and for centuries have been being denied credit for)? I can believe there are such feminists, since "feminist" covers such a wide spectrum. But whoever these feminists are, they aren't anyone I read (or personally know). I do think Macleod needs desperately to read Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. (It will be out from Aqueduct in December, folks.)
Russ stakes a claim on all of them for women.Women can be Man, without being men. Russ makes a passionate claim for freedom and achievement.
By eliding conquest with achievements, he slickly covers over a significant theme in Russ's work. Who, after reading We Who Are About To... could see Russ as a propagandist for triumphal human chauvinism? And where does he get off thinking that most feminist sf doesn't "make a passionate claim for freedom and achievement"? Clearly, our panel yesterday would have been incomprehensible to him. (As would most WisCon panels, I suspect.)
What most frustrates me about Bourget's article is that while Bourget views "masculine" (masculinist?) politics as at the heart of Heinlein's political fiction, he fails to explore what that means for males who do not fit the masculinist ideal of masculinity. (Instead, he attends to an already well-worked vein, viz., the suppression of women's public agency and speech in Heinlein's ideal political systems.)
What most strikes me about Bourget's article is that if Macleod is correct that all political science fiction [by men, that is] is in dialogue with Heinlein, then Bourget would logically have to argue that most political science fiction is Tiptree Award material, for if masculinism is supposedly at the heart of all political science fiction, then all political science fiction is necessarily about definitions of masculinity-- either challenging or exploring said definitions. Stan Robinson's fiction often does this, occasionally incisively, and Chip Delany's Triton addresses the issue dialogically, but can we honestly say that most other political sf novels [by men] have provided fresh insight into the issue that Bourget describes?
I seriously hope that someone someday will make a thorough exploration of the topos of anarchy in, as well as its significance for, feminist sf. Because that's a piece of critical writing that I would love, love, love to read.