Chapter 10: Feminism and Science Fiction part 3
from In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu
The housewife’s struggle for order is renewed each day. Dust creeps in and settles on all surfaces. As with dust, so with death. With the resigned irony with which she accepts the arbitrariness of signs, Sarah Boyle allows death and dust into her fantasies. ‘The plants would grow wild and wind into a jungle around the house, splitting plaster, tearing shingles, the garden would enter in at the door. The goldfish would die, the birds would die, we’d have them stuffed; the dog would die from lack of care, and probably the children – all stuffed and sitting around the house, covered with dust.’ As the conventions that join signifiers to signified are shattered, so the conventions of sentimentatility are broken apart. Children are the ‘too often disappointing vegetables of one’s own womb’, or, in a reversion to a time of pre-culture, apparently edible.
Sarah herself is a construct, she ‘muses or is mused’. Here is no quest for wholeness, rather a doomed struggle against the slipping of self into other, a struggle to set up difference in the face of undifferentiation. Chaos is kept at bay and the elements of dissolution are separated out, paragraph by paragraph, until there is no available energy left. The turtle is dead. The floor is covered with smashed eggs and broken shards of bunny bowls. The stove bleeds, the particles in the universe attain complete disorder, time runs backwards and Sarah Boyle opens her mouth again and again and repeatedly begins to cry.
‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ was first published in the magazine New Worlds in 1967 and is one of those SF stories that has achieved a small cult status, reappearing every so often in anthologies. It reappears in a New Worlds anthology edited by Michael Moorcock (Flamingo, 1983) where it is one of two stories by women (the other is Hilary Bailey’s ‘Dr Gelabius’) out of a total of 29. I mention this merely to point out the rarity of women participants in the ‘progressive’ New Wave. While ‘Heat Death’ is obviously a part of the entropy-orientation of New Worlds, its meditation on entropy is grounded in the organisation of a woman’s life.
‘Heat Death’ achieves two apparently contradictory goals: it deconstructs the notion of woman as a stable centre of family life, subverting the conventional values that are attached to that concept; while at the same time it also subverts accepted notion of what is a suitable ‘subject’ for a story by focusing on a housewife and housework. It at once centralises and deconstructs ‘woman’. This, I think, exemplifies a problem that structuralist and post-structuralist criticism poses for feminists: the radical, or transgressive aspects of the structuralist subversion of the subject do not allow for an analysis that shows ‘woman’ never to have been the subject in the first place. ‘Heat Death’ is one of my favourite of all science fiction stories, expressing as it does with such elegance and wit the vistas of emptiness hidden behind the slogan ‘a woman’s work is never done’.
Interestingly enough, Pamela Zoline’s most recent SF story, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building In Case of Fire’, also centralises the experience of women and children, although again, not in any conventional way, as it is about breaking or undermining, the ties that hold together familes and nations. I say interestingly as Zoline does not, I think, consider herself particularly feminist; where some writers, as I have mentioned’, centralise women and questions of reproductions as a way of challenging the male-dominated concerns of SF, Zoline, it seems, finds the metaphors of science fiction speak to the fragmentation of a woman’s life. Male writers do not, on the whole, write about female experience, but women writers, like Judith Merril and Pamela Zoline, use that experience to remarkable effect, within a science fictional framework. So we have motherhood and nuclear radiation; and housework and entropy.