Women in science fiction

Women in science fiction

Women in Science Fiction WOMEN Pamela IN SCIENCE 433 FICTION Sargent Science fiction reflects attitudes typical of this century; and the worlds ...

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Women in Science Fiction

WOMEN Pamela

IN SCIENCE

433

FICTION

Sargent

Science fiction reflects attitudes typical of this century; and the worlds that provide settings for the stories have therefore tended to be ones in which men provide the action, and women, when they are not ignored, are primarily cast in traditional roles of wife and mother. However, modern writers, many of whom are women, are increasingly exploring future situations with women in positive roles. The insights portrayed in this literature can therefore become increasingly important in providing relevant images for the future. SCIENCE fiction, or notions derived from it, can create the relevant myths of our age. Thus the literature contributes to the future as possibility even in the minds of those who do not read it. Any worthwhile literature reflects its times, and science fiction is no exception. Though science fiction writers have often prided themselves on being able to entertain an unlimited number of exotic possibilities, the fact is that the genre, which is so much a part of the 20th century, reflects its attitudes. Much of the science fiction written in the past has incorporated conservative and even reactionary attitudes. Writers such as A. E. van Vogt, in Empire of the Atom (Shasta, 1956) and Isaac Asimov in The Foundation Trilogy (Doubleday, 1951) consciously modelled their interstellar empires on past history, specifically the Roman Empire. American science fiction in particular has often reflected the attitudes of the white, technically oriented, middle-class male who made up much of its readership. Future societies were often seen as capitalist. In John W. Campbell’s The Black Star Passes (Fantasy Press, 1953), for example, the heroes are inventors and entrepreneurs who control much of the world’s industry. In The Space Merchants (Ballantine, 1953) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, the machinations of big business and advertising are satirised. Monarchies were often depicted in the works of A. E. van Vogt and others in spite of the fact that this form of government appears to be waning in the world today. A fascist future world was shown in A Torrent of Faces (Doubleday, 1967) by James Blish and Norman L. Knight, a world of slaves and slave-owners in A For Anything (Walker, 1970) by Damon Knight, a militaristic garrison-state Earth by Robert A. Heinlein in Starship Troopers (Putnam, 1959). Space exploration Pamela Sargent is a science-fiction author, and editor, PO Box 586, Johnson City, New York 13790, USA.

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and the settiement of other worlds were often seen as analogous to the American settlement of the West. As a result, science fiction has had, until recently> IittIe to say about the roie of women in future societies. This is hardly surprising, since many writers modelled their future worlds on past societies which had subordinated women.1 Science fiction also had little to say to women. Because of the relationship between science fiction and scientific or technical fields, and the fact that women have been traditionally discouraged from entering such fields, many women have found little of interest to themselves in the genre. This is paradoxical. It is doubtful that science,fiction writers consciously intended to keep women in their “place”. They were simply reflecting the deeply embedded attitudes of their times. AI1 of us now alive grew up with such attitudes to a greater or lesser degree and were undoubtedly influenced by them. Nevertheless, it is odd that the role of women was not explored more often and more fully by writers who pride themselves upon questioning all assumptions of society. Science fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson has eloquently stated this attitude : . . _the science fiction hard-core audience is interested in the investigation of all possible subjects, whether these happen to be palatable at the moment or not. Investigation, however, is the key word. Core science fiction does not investigate dark or hitherto unexplored territories simply for the sake of being called explorative . . . The explorations of science fiction are normally for the purpose of testing an idea, a question, or a possibility in the literary laboratory; as opposed to trying it out in the real world, where a botched experiment can mean famine, pestilence, or the bloody slaughter of one people by another. Science fiction is, in fact, essentially an unstructured think-tank in which authors of differing paints of view can paint differing solutions or eventuaiities suggested by present problems or situations. As a literature it is favourably designed to act as a vehicle for ideas or arguments-to be a seedbed for a philosophical fiction.8 ~~or~nateIy~ this ideaI is often ignored, American science fiction, instead of foflowing the path of H. G. Wells in speculating seriousIy about social and technological change, frequently chose instead to emulate Jules Verne, with his marvellous gadgets and 19th-century heroes and mores. When Hugo Gernsback founded Ama
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Dickson”s credo, then, did not apply until recently to fictional explorations of women’s roles. With few exceptions, it has only been recently that the science fiction community, under the influence of the women’s movement in the society at large, has concerned itself with the developing issue of women in the future. Perhaps this can be seen as a normal course of development in a genre that began by concentrating on remarkable inventions and romantic adventure, then moved toward a concern with realistic scientific ideas during the 194Os, to an interest in the workings of society in the 195Os, and to an exploration of psychological states, supplemented by more experimentation with style, during the 1960s. This development reflects to some extent the course of Western civilisation. It could be argued that in many science fiction stories, namely those that centre around a particular technical device or scientific idea, there is really no necessity for including women characters. The idea functions as the hero of such stories; the characters need not even be human (in the novels of such authors as Hal Clement, they are often very interesting aliens). But this sort of argument only betrays the attitude that women and scientific ideas do not go together in the way that men and such ideas do, that a woman would only interfere with the story.3 More importantly, however, ideas and technology do not exist in a vacuum, They will affect the people and societies around them. It is somewhat absurd to describe or imply an advanced technological society in a story, as so many writers do, and then go on to show the reader a world where the lives of women are still those of ~d-Z~th-~en~~ housewives or 19thcentury courtesans, as if this is the height of possible female progress. Among older or more traditional science fiction writers, one who has dealt with women in the future is Robert A. Heinlein. Recognising that women in an advanced society would be better educated and have a choice of ways in which to lead their lives, he wrote about women characters who were engineers (~~~~~~~ of Xsr~, Putnam, 1963), &diem (~~~~~~ ila tha S&V, Scribner’s, 1955; ~~~~~~~ Trot$ers, Putnam, 1959), doctors (23~ ~~~~~~~Stofzes, Scribner’s, 19X?), or mathematicians (G&en of the Gala3cy, Scribner’s, 1957). Yet these women, unlike the male characters, laboured under certain societal restrictions. There were no women combat troops in the militaristic Starship Troopers, although the women were considered better starship pilots than men (interestingly, the hero notes that women pilots, ahhough they, like the men, have to shave their heads, are nonetheless attractive with their bald pates). The doctor in 2% Rolling Stones no longer practices medicine, because her husband would not like it, and she feels it is more important to raise her family. The role of wife and mother is still most important to the women in Heinlein’s books. In spite of this, Heinlein recognised that women would be likely to achieve some degree of equality with men in a society which needs trained people. Although the women are subordinate to men, they are not that far behind them. Either Heinlein believed that women would naturally retain a predominant interest in roles as wives and mothers, or he was labouring under restrictions imposed by his publishers (many of his works were explicitly written for younger readers, though they may be enjoyed by people of all ages). At least he attempted,

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FURTHER

READING

Novels Charmis, Wa& to &e Et& of the World (214 pages, $1.25, New

Suzy McKee

York, Ballantine Books, 1974) Thomas M. Disch, 334 (201 pages, k2.25, London, Macgibbon & Kee, 1972; $1.65, New York> Avon Books, l974; 4Op, London, Sphere Books, 1974) Joe Haldeman, Th Forrrver War (236 pages, $7.95, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1974; L3.50, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1975) Ursufa I(* LeGuin, 7-&e &ft Ha?& #f ~~r~n#s (286 pages, 956, New York2 Ace Books, 1969; 30/--, London, Macdonald, 1969; $4.95, New York, Walker, 1969; 35p, London, Panther Books, 1973) Ursula K. LeGuin, The D~po~~es~ed (341 pages, $7.95, New York, Harper & Row, 1974; L2.75, London, Victor Gollancz, 1974) Fritz Leiber, Conjure W;fe (154 pages, $2.75, New York, Twayne, 1953; 25& New York, Lion Books, 1954; 50$, New York, Berkley Medalhon, 1962; 606, New York, Award Books, 1968; 5/-, London, Penguin Books, 1969) A. M. Lightner, The DQ~ of the Drones (255 pages, $4.50, New York, Norton, 1969; 75$, New York, Bantam Books, 1970) Naomi Mitchison, Ilfem0ir.s of a Spacewoman (160 pages, 15/-, London, Victor Gollancz, 1962; 316, London, Four Square Books, 1964) Alexei Panshin, Rife of Passzge (254 pages, f5#, New York, Ace Books, 1968; 22/-, London, Sidgwick &

Jackson, 1969; 6f-, London, Sphere Books, 1970) Joanna Russ,’ The F.b &I&Z (214 pages, $1.25, New York, Bantam Books, 1975) Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (157 pages, SO$, New York, Ace Books, f968; 2I/-, London, Macdonafd, 1969) Wiimar Shims, Children of the Atom (216 pages, $2.75, New York, Gnome Press, 1953; Q/6, London, Boardman & Boardman, 1954; 35$, New York, Avon Books, 1958) Theodore Sturgeon, F&z~ P&s X’ (I66 pages, 35fE, New York, Pyramid Books, 1960; 25/-, London, Victor Gollancz, 1969; 25p, London, Corgi Books, 1972) Philip Wylie, Thtl ~~s~ppe~raac~ (405 pages, $3.50, New York, Holt Rinehart, 1951; EZ,f6, London, Victor Goliancz, 1951; 356, New York, Cardinal, 1953; 75$, New York, Pocket Books, 1966; 75p, London, Panther Books, 1974)

Carol Emshwiller, Joy in Our Cause (170 pages, $6.95, New York, Harper & Row, 1974) Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson, eds, Aurora: Beyond [email protected] (New York, Gold Medal Books, 1975 [to be published]) Pamela Sargent, ed, Women of Wonder (355 pages, $1.95; New York, Vintage, 1975) Kate Wilhelm, 7% r~~~~~ Box (318 pages, $8.95, New York, Harper & Row, 1975)

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Shortfiction Sonya Dorman, When I Was Miss Dow, reprinted in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, eds, .Nebula Award Stories Two (Garden City, Doubleday, 1967; London, Victor Gollancz, 1967) Ursula K. LeGuin, Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, in Robert Silverberg, ed, .New Dimensions One (Garden City, Doubleday, 1971) Ursula K. LeGuin, The Day Before the Revolution, reprinted in James Gunn, ed, Nebula Award Stories Ten (New York, Harper & Row, 1975; London, Victor Gollancz, 1975) Vonda N. McIntyre, Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, reprinted in Kate Wilhelm, ed, Nebula Award Stories Victor Gollancz, Ovine (London, 1974; New York, Harper & Row, 1975) Vonda N. McIntyre, The Genius Freaks, in Damon Knight, ed, Orbit 12 (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973) C. L. Moore, .hfo Woman Born, reprinted in Thomas N. Scortia and George Human-Machines Zebrowski, eds, (New York, Vintage, 1975) Joanna Russ, Jvobody’s Home, in Robert Silverberg, ed, .Xew Dimensions Two (Garden City, Doubleday, 1972) Joanna Russ, The Second Inquisition, in Damon Knight, ed, Orbit 6 (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970; London, Rapp & Whiting, 1972) Joanna Russ, When it Changed, in Harlan Ellison, ed, Again, Dangerous Visions (Garden City, Doubleday, 1972; London, Orbit Books, 1975) Josephine Saxton, The Power of Time, in Robert Silverberg, ed, .%w Dimen-

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sions One (Garden City, Doubleday, 1971) James Tiptree, Jr, The Women Men Don’t See, reprinted in James Tiptree, Jr, Warm Worlds and Otherwise (New York, Ballantine Books, 1975) Kate Wilhelm, The Encounter, reprinted in Lloyd Biggle, Jr, ed, Nebula Award Stories Seven (London, Victor Gollancz, 1972 ; New York, Harper & Row, 1972) Kate Wilhelm, The Funeral, in Harlan Ellison, ed, Again, Dangerous Visions (Garden City, Doubleday, 1972 ; London, Orbit Book, 1975) Kate Wilhelm, Baby, You Were Great, in Damon Knight, ed, Orbit 2 (New York, Berkley Books, 1967; London, Rapp & Whiting, 1968) Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, False Dawn, in Thomas M. Scortia, ed, Strange Bedfellows (New York, Random House, 1972) Pamela Zoline, 77re Heat Death of the Universe, reprinted in Robert Silverberg, ed, The Mirror of Injnity (New 1970; York, Harper & Row, London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971) Essays Beverly Friend, “Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction”, Extrapolation, Vol 14, No 1, December 1972 Sam Moskowitz, “When Women Rule”, in Sam Moskowitz, ed, When Women Rule (New York, Walker, 1972) Joanna Russ, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”, Vertex, Vol 1, No 6, February 1974

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during the 1940s and 1950s, to deal with women characters in possible future worlds and tried to offer some alternatives. Ris work is a fascinating example of the science-fiction writer% struggle-the conflict between innovation and the past. To find an even more innovative attitude toward women within science fiction, we have to go back to H. G. Wells. While writing his screenplay for the futuristic film Ihing.s to Come (1935), Wells feared that he would be forced to include a “love interest”. To cloud his screenplay with a “normal” love interest would have been most distasteful to Wells. Instead, he injected a “symbolic” love affair, tracing Cabal’s (the central figure) various relationships with women and illustrating the evolution of malefemale sociological interplay. a

Four different women were characterised in the script: a meek wife; an aggressive woman who derives power from men; a woman who seeks independence; and a woman who is an equal and becomes one ofthe first two space explorers. Much of this, unfortunately, was eliminated from the film that now exists. Present-day writers have an advantage over those of the past. They are aware of the problem, having had it brought to their attention, and can deal with it. In addition, many more w~rn~n are writing science fiction now and can therefore bring more of their perspective to the field. This of course does not ensure that the genre will be more progressive. Many writers and readers are still used to action-adventure with strong male protagonists, and such works are still popular. Female writers, two of the best examples being Leigh Brackett and Marion Zimmer Bradley, have written such stories as well or better than male writers. Other women, most notably during the 1950s, often wrote stories with future housewife-heroines. But writers such as Kate ~~ilhelm, Ursula IX. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Joanna Russ, among many others, are serious writers now influencing science fiction. Examples of the new wave Four recent science-fiction novels are of particular interest here. They reveal some of the ways in which the role of women is being explored within the genre. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Harper and Row, 1974) is a critical utopian novel which explores the differences and the conflicts between two human societies in another planetary system. One planet, Urras, is dominated by a capitalistic, wealthy, and techuolo~cally advanced society, The moon of Urras, Anarres, has been settled by members of an anarchistic revolutiona~ movement. Both societies, and the problems that result from the political philosophies of each, are seen through the eyes of a physicist, Shevek. He has grown up on Anarres and is the first member of his society to visit Urras in 200 years. The novel, among others things, contrasts the role of women in both worlds. On Urras, women arc wives, mothers, and sex objects. On Anarres, no distinction is made between the sexes; as a result, women and men are equally represented in every area of life. The reader also learns that the political philosophy which resulted in the society of Anarres was that of a woman, Ode. Joe Kaldeman’s ?%e Forever JKzr (St Martin’s, 1974) is modelled on traditional science-action works. The plot is traditional also. We see a future inter-

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stellar war through the eyes of one soldier, William Mandella. Unlike many science fiction novels about the future of warfare, this book does not glorify an ultimately purposeless venture. The combat troops depicted are draftees, not volunteers. Both men and women are seen in combat, and homosexuals of both sexes are present as characters, though Mandella himself is heterosexual. The even-handedness of the author’s treatment of both sexes is remarkable, and a poignant element is added to the war story as Mandella falls in love with a fellow soldier, Marygay Potter. Regardless of one’s attitudes toward war, the realistic portrayal of female combat troops and the psychological acceptance of such a future possibility by readers will no doubt help alter the image of women. Le Guin’s novel shows us men and women becoming more like each other, each having characteristics of both sexes, while Haldeman’s depicts women who have become as tough as any male soldier. Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (Bantam, 1975) is an explicitly feminist novel which utilises innovative writing techniques in telling of four women, each a version of the same character, from four alternative worlds. Here science fiction elements are used in order to show various female-oriented fantasies: a woman from a world in which there are no men calmly disarms a boorish man at a cocktail party in our world; another character, genetically altered (she has, among other characteristics, retractable claws) kills a man of her world, where the sexes are openly at war. There is an undercurrent of rage throughout the novel. The women here are angry, mostly at men. The Female Man is a flawed work with interesting elements, one of them being the description of an all-female world and the type of society it might develop : On Whileaway they have a saying: When the mother and child are separated, they both howl, the child because she is separated from the mother, the mother because she has to go back to work . . . At the age of four or five these independent, blooming, pampered, extremely intelligent little girls are torn weeping and arguing from their thirty relatives and sent to the regional school, where they scheme and fight for weeks before giving in . . . Whileawayan psychology locates the basis of Whileawayan character in the early indulgence, pleasure, and flowering which is drastically curtailed by the separation from the mothers. This (it says) gives Whileawayan life its characteristic independence, its dissatisfaction, its suspicion, and its tendency toward a rather irritable solipsism.6

Thomas M. Disch’s 334 (Avon, 1974) takes place in the decaying New York City of the early 21st century. It could be called a futuristic novel of manners; the story concerns itself with the day-to-day problems and lives of several citizens in a drab welfare state which seems to be breaking down, yet somehow goes on. Among the women shown in this novel are Shrimp, a lesbian whose sexual fantasies focus on bearing children by artificial insemination, and Milly, a high-school sex demonstrator whose husband Boz desperately wants a child. He finally has one with the aid of an artificial womb and an operation giving him breasts. Disch’s novel is not a “feminist” work in any sense, but it is seriously concerned with the future. Subtly and skilfully, Disch shows us one sort of future we might be creating for ourselves. Both his male and female characters are carefully developed. They are people of their world rather than our own.

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Science fiction’s failure The ultimate failure of much science fiction lies in the fact that it has not been seriously concerned with the future. Australian novelist and critic George Turner has said: The realities of the myths and the limitations of the sf writers can be brought home very strongly by reading the popularisations of science written by such people as Gordon Rattray Taylor . . . you’ll discover that the things the scientists are talking about in their common laboratory talk from day to day are far beyond anything that sf writers have dreamed up yet . . . . . . . sf couldn’t care less about tomorrow. I don’t think the fans (readers of science fiction) do either; the fans want to be amused.6 This has been science fiction’s failure as far as women are concerned also. It was easier to write tales of scientific problems which had no bearing on the society at large. It was more fun to write wish-fulfilling fantasies or even satires on aspects of modern life. This is not to say that there is no place for these other works. They have their virtues and might be improved if their authors directed themselves to the experience of women. But science fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas. Alone among our present literary genres, it can show us a world which does not exist, has not existed, but could come into being. It can show us alternatives, many of which might be antithetical to our presuppositions. It can mirror our thoughts, fears, and hopes about the future in terms of literary experience. It might even be able to show us possible alternative roles both for women and for men without using either the role-reversal idea where women and men simply change places, or the models of past societies. Science fiction, then, has often mirrored the past in its treatment of women. It has frequently either ignored them, uncertain about where they would fit in, or has assumed a future world where it was necessary that women be primarily wives and mothers. This is not altogether surprising. However, 100 years of science fiction shows us a literature becoming more conscious of its possibilities and aims, naturally reflecting the same development in the society around it. With more women writers entering science fiction, and a growing interest in serious scientific ideas, social concerns, and future prospects, it is possible that the literature will be of more interest to women. The images and characters of science-fiction stories may affect women’s notions about themselves and their role in the future. Women may have shown great good sense in the past by often being uninterested in science fiction. Why read a literature in which the future was often made by men for men ? Why be interested in a world which excluded women from any meaningful participation in its activities? But in serious future-oriented science fiction, where women are represented both as writers and as thoughtfully portrayed characters, we may find an art that life can imitate. Notes and references 1. Stories of monarchies might be an exception here. A. E. van Vogt wrote about a strong woman character, the Empress Innelda, in The Weapon Shops of Isher. But the character of an empress, however entertaining to the reader as an escape and

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a psychological wish-fulfilment, can hardly be taken seriously as a realistic future possibility for women. Gordon R. Dickson, Introduction to Gordon R. Dickson, ed, Combat SF (New York, Doubleday, 1975), page viii. It will come as no surprise that women characters rarely appear in stories of future warfare. There are some fine examples of science fiction that do in fact use female characters in stories where ideas are the primary concern. I shall mention only two: Isaac Asimov’s “robot” stories, collected in I, Robot (Gnome Press, 1950), in which the sternly intellectual Dr Susan Calvin plays a major role, and H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual (1958) in which female characters, the most important one being Martha Dane, are working as archaeologists on Mars. Allan Asherman, Introduction to H. G. Wells, Things to Come (Boston, Gregg Press, 1975), page xi. Joanna Russ, The Female Man (New York, Bantam, 1975), pages 49-52. in Bruce Gillespie, ed, SF Commentary George Turner, “Back to the Mainstream”, 41142, 1975, page 60. This was a speech given in Melbourne, Australia in the spring of 1973 and was transcribed by Tony Thomas for SF Commentary.