Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century
by Justine Larbalestier
Review by Nancy Jane Moore
Wesleyan University Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0819566764
Date: May, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Science fiction in general, and feminist SF in particular, exists in relation to earlier works -- a "grand conversation," as L. Timmel Duchamp has described it. Understanding the culture and literature of the times in which these stories were written changes how we read them.
The volume opens with the first short story by a woman published in the SF pulp magazines -- "The Fate of the Poseidonia" by Clare Winger Harris, published in Amazing Stories in 1927 -- and ends with Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," published on Scifiction in 2002. But while most of the stories -- two Nebula winners among them -- are excellent, the heart and soul of this anthology are the essays. And there isn't a bad one in this book.
Josh Lukin's stunning essay, "Cold War Masculinity in the Early Work of Kate Wilhelm," affected me in a way I associate more with fiction and poetry than with essays: It blew me away. In defending Wilhelm's "No Light at the Window" as a feminist story, he says, "To appreciate the story's strengths, one may have to return to 1963." And he does, bringing 1963 to life for the 2006 reader.
Lukin nails the gender issues of the 1960s. I remember that time in my gut as well as in my brain, and this essay engaged both organs. It gave me physical pain to remember the snide attacks on women's competence coupled with the worship of that peculiar kind of male toughness Lukin so aptly names "cold war masculinity" -- and hurt me even more to recall how many women bought into those stereotypes. As he observes:
It is important to remember that being an active and intelligent woman did not enable many people to transcend near ubiquitous ideological pressures, or embolden them to speak out against the gender order.
That is, most women who aspired to be more than housewives defined themselves as "exceptional" and ignored or disparaged other women. Lukin's explanation of the time amplifies the our understanding of Wilhelm's story, in which virtues generally attributed to women (notably, resilience) trump the toughness ascribed to men. It's necessary to understand the strictures of 1963 to see just how radical the story is.
Lukin's essay is a standout, but the others also offer valuable insights. Lisa Yaszek's essay on Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" restores credibility to a sub-sub genre often labeled housewife heroine science fiction. Jones, Yaszek says, figured out ways to write subversive stories about women and get them published in the well-paying women's magazines as well as in the SF pulps during the 1950s, a time when the role of women was severely limited.
You would expect find a story by James Tiptree Jr. in any work on feminist science fiction. The story here -- "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side" -- is not the most obvious choice. But Wendy Pearson's analysis of the story applies the broader version of feminist analysis that is more common today, taking a story usually read as commentary on colonialism and bringing out its many subtle features. This broader analysis is particularly important in reading Tiptree, because it makes clear that "James Tiptree Jr." was more than a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon; it was, in Pearson's words, a performance.
Gwyneth Jones's story, "Balinese Dancer," is drawn from her novel, Life, which was unpublished when the story appeared in 1997. (Life was published in 2004 by Aqueduct Press.) I find I cannot read either the story or the essay without strong awareness of the novel, which is an outstanding example of modern feminist SF. That Asimov's published this story when no publisher would touch Life is a strong reminder that short fiction venues will takes risks that book publishers won't consider.
Veronica Hollinger considers the intersection of science and gender in this story very important. She says, "'Balinese Dancer' is one of an important body of feminist science fiction stories that directly addresses the tangled complexities of the sex/gender system." The story "invites readers to think of a human subject even more impossible than Russ's female man, a subject for whom sexual difference will have become irrelevant." If the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different, as Hollinger suggests, then we need to remember her last sentence: "And feminism is a politics of change."
In her essay on Fowler's "What I Didn't See," L. Timmel Duchamp reminds us of the controversy over whether it was "really" science fiction. Duchamp says the story "offers a superb example of the kind of subtle, sophisticated SF that thirty years of unbroken feminist consciousness has made possible, fiction that those lacking that consciousness often do not 'get.'" Unless you have read Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" -- clearly referenced by the title -- you may well miss the point of Fowler's story.
By supplying us with thought-provoking essays, editor Justine Larbalestier has given us a solid framework for viewing feminist science fiction. While this book would work well in the classroom, it is equally suitable for any reader who wants to put work into context.
I have one criticism: The book contains no story from the 1940s. Larbalestier explains that no essayist wanted to write on any stories from that era, but it would have served the book better if she had found a twelfth contributor. The jump between 1931 and 1955 leaves out a significant time in the Twentieth Century.
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