Chapter 10: Feminism and Science Fiction part 4
from In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu
Rhoda Lerman (and Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, as mentioned earlier) is concerned with the body’s interchangeability. In Lerman’s Call Me Ishtar the movement is between goddess and mortal, the queen of the heavens and a middle-class American woman. In The Book of the Night a girl child, Celeste, is brought up as a boy and accepted into the monastery on Iona where she subsequently lives. At puberty she is transformed into a cow. While some of the tenth-century monks are attracted by the increasing power of Rome, for others ancient Seth still roars from the chaos. The forces of disorder and entropy are marshalled against the order of language, progress and rationalism.
As in the Zoline story, language takes on a logic of its own that is unrelated to the objects to which it was formerly tied. From this follows a breakdown, not just of women’s role in the order of human society, but of the very nature of femaleness. As with Zoline, it is not only culture that is interrogated but nature. But the pivot in Lerman’s work is the powerful awakening of sexuality, which transgresses linguistic and cultural codes.
So, too, with Angela Carter, who takes the anodyne out of fairy tales and re-euips her young girls with claws, teeth and a powerful desire. There is an element of violence in Lerman’s work which is traditionally not a quality of ‘feminine’ writing: such an element appears in the work of other women, for example Octavia Butler and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, as well as Carter, Lee and Tuttle. It too is transgressive; the construction of the inviolable body is a corollary of the construction of the coherent self. Woman as ‘woman’ is interrogated as well as woman as self.
Perhaps it is the position of science fiction on the periphery of mainstream fiction that makes it so open to borrowing from elsewhere, from physics and fairy tales, from philosophy, folklore and myth. And perhaps it is the position of women on the periphery of mainstream (patriarchal) culture that makes SF so suitable a genre for them to work in. For women have not had to bear the awful weight of the Great Tradition, and so have been free to experiment, to riffle through, stopping here and there to work in odd corners, as Tiptree’s Ruth describes to Don how women live, ‘by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine’.”
Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres is often included in discussions of feminist utopias of the 1970s (see for example Joanna Russ, ‘Recent Feminist Utopias’), but I think it is more fruitful to read it in the context of the ‘disintegrationist’ writers. Like Carter, Lerman and Russ, Wittig questions the laws of language and difference that govern our place in the world. Les Guerilleres gets included under the ‘utopian’ label because it shows a future, separatist, almost women-only world. But the guerrilla fighters of the title are not simply waging a war against men (who appear only peripherally anyway) but a war against the language that constructs them as women and then contains, or encloses them. They are trying to get back to point zero, denying even the names that women have given to themselves in defiance of men, and questioning in particular the metaphors that bind women to the processes of Nature.
Les Guerilleres does share a certain dream-like quality with Gerhart’s The Wanderground: a similar circular structure with the story unfolding through many different voices; but its aims are quite different. Where Gearhart seeks harmony and synthesis with nature, Wittig questions the possibility of such a notion.
Monique Wittig’s most recent novel, Across the Acheron is a fierce and witty re-enactment of Dante’s journeyings through the circles of Hell. Wittig herself is the vengeful voyager, her anger, passion and contempt for sexual slavery held in check, not always successfully, by her guide Manastabal, and resting from her labours every so often in the lesbian bars of limbo.
None of these writers is concerned with the conventions of the ‘feminine’ in terms of construction, imagery or language, yet all of them, I think, are powerfully feminist. If we want to see what women writers of science fiction have to offer the reader, then we shouldn’t be sidetracked by essentialist, and finally moralistic notions of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, although the appearance of such a dichotomy is understandable, given the received view of science fiction as a male bastion. We should be looking instead at how science fiction, true to its tradition (not always exploited) of political as well as scientific speculation, can be grasped and used by women writers whose ideas are rooted in a feminist analysis of the world.
Different writers of course hold very different ideas of what feminist SF is. Unlike other forms of genre writing, such as detective stories and romances, which demand the reinstatement of order and thus can be described as ‘closed’ texts, science fiction is by its nature interrogative, open. Feminism questions a given order in political terms, while science fiction questions it in imaginative terms. I have tried to show the many ways in which contemporary women writers express this, and I hope that I have shown the political and aesthetic vitality of science fiction. 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’.