Liberated Genders and Compossible Futures: Some Readings in Feminist Science Fiction

Posted: May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

“Feminism questions a given order in political terms, while science fiction questions it in imaginative terms….If science fiction demands our acceptance of a relativistic universe, then feminism demands, no less, our acceptance of a relativistic social order. Nothing, in these terms, is natural, least of all the cultural notions of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’
Sarah Lefanu. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction

Women have been engaged in the writing of the genre of science fiction since the beginnings of the novel in the western world.  The author above notes the concern of the general ideological structure of Science Fiction which means to explore the “technologies of gender.” from within the framework of contemporary post-structuralist feminism (which theorizes gender as social and discursive construction and which is skeptical of the twin-oppositional binary and essentialist definitions of “feminine” and “masculine”).  Lefanu’s contention here is that the plasticity of science fiction and its openness to incorporating into itself a variety of diverse literary genres allows a fluidity of narrative form which problematizes hetreo and masculine “normality.  This fluidity yields a  potentiality of enormous importance to contemporary women writers as it becomes the means (despite its colonization by male writers) for a inscription of women as subjects free from the constraints of  normalizing narratives (embedded in the masculinized “natural language” of the novel) while simultaneously offering up the possibilities of interrogating that very inscription of gendered language and becomes the beginnings of a through questioning the of basis of gendered subjectivity.

This questioning began in feminist science fiction with the publication of Shelly’s Frankenstein.  In this novel the “constructution “of the self (soul) is performed through education and defines the parameters of “humanness”.  For Shelly (as for her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft) construction of identity and the performance of humanity occurs only though the processes of education and socialization.  This rejection of the essentialist argument is mirrored most closely to Pablo Neruda’s statement that the living of life crafts the regimes of the soul.
If humanness is constructed in life how language constrains the development of subjectivity became a focal point for the feminist writers of the “golden age” of Feminist Science fiction (spanning the years 1960 through the 80’s).  A number of writers attempted to explore languages which escape the Lacanian credo of the male language which entailed that “We are all born into a language and there we remain”.  These novels, most pointedly detailed in LeGuin’ s “The Left hand of Darkness” , Joanne Russ’s “The Female Man”, and  Suzette Haden Elgin’s  “Native Tongue”, attempted an exploration of a alternative language to “write the female (or other) body”.

And what is currently happening in this field?  The performitivity of genders has shaped in current “other” Sf a reflection on the continuous deconstruction and elaboration of the self and the technologies of languages which define and delimit them. Since the 80’s an elaboration of the “novel of the other” has held sway. This includes the self as constantly and definitively virtual and is reflected in the cyberspace of the science fictions worlds.  Additionally the language of our own otherness has spawned a plethora of divergent Science Fictions which include gay, black, and a host of alternative voices.  The invisible “naturalness” of the world and the language that constructs it is taken to task in the virtual locals of these novels which deconstructs this language and positions itself in the fluid and questionable.

Here is an odd selection of highlights of the genre of Feminist SF ,  with links to help you choose what to look at! And if this isn’t enough?   Check out a Feminst Sci-Fi timeline here at the Female SciFi (FSF) wiki.

Frankenstein (1818), and The Last Man (1826), by Mary Shelly.  Get the entire novels at the Gutenburg Project here.

Sultana’s Dream (1905) by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. Read entire text here.

Herland (1915)by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Get the Entire Novel at Gutenburg Project here.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin writes about the Gendering of Pronouns of the title in this Afterword (1994) to this novel.

Les Guérillères (1969) by Monique Wittig. Website dedicated to the work of Wittig here. Interesting Essay ‘Those women who were fighting men’:Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères, a mythical re-vision” by Cathrine Burke (pdf)

The Female Man (1970) by Joanna Russ. Guardian newspapers obituary of RussRuss reviews the movie version of Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” (good fun).

Motherlines (1978) and Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas

Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993), by Octavia Butler. Remembering Butler at Jezebel here.

Native Tongue (1984), The Judas Rose (1987), and Earthsong (1993), by Suzette Haden Elgin.  Elgin writes on the Láadan  language developed in these three novels. Elgin’s Hompage here.

“The Judas Rose” book cover art

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003), and Year of the Flood (2009), by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood’s  homepage is here.

The Maerlande Chronicles, English: In the Mothers’ Land (1992) by Élisabeth Vonarburg. Vonarburg’s homepage here.

The Ship Who Searched (1992) by Mercedes Lackey. Hompage here.

The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.  Starhawk page here.

The Gate to Women’s Country (1998) by Sheri S. Tepper.  Website dedicated to Tepper’s work here.

Oy Pioneer! (2003) by Marleen S. Barr. Barr’s preface to her (editor) Afro-Future Females (pdf).

The Shore of Women (2004) by Pamela Sargent. Blog here.

The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins. Though considered a “young adult novel”, this novel has a female actor who is not primarily contained by male relations. Collins Homepage here. And from the angle of the movie, The Female Spectator.

Cover art for Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

Those who wish to further explore check out this link to the Feminist SF Blog Reading Recommendation list!  Lots of fun there, and amazing resource.


  1. […] Couverture de la revue “Future Science Fiction” de novembre 1950, trouvée sur le site Hap*Stance*Dep*Art, 31 mai 2012. […]

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