How to Suppress #94

Back in the day I wrote a chapter on postmodernism and science fiction for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Space, as always, was tight, and as I recall, my focus was on the three key thinkers who characterise postmodern theory — for better or worse Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard. I certainly knew about Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (1988) and Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) but it looks like neither get a mention. It might have been I assume one or other would be in a chapter on gender or feminism, but that’s no excuse.

More problematic — and I’m not going to go and check — is that all my fictional examples were by male authors.

The editors did not notice, but someone did:

Butler fails to mention even one science fiction text author by a woman or even one female literary theorist. How to suppress women’s writing? Butler’s article supplies an egregious answer. (Barr 153)

Yes, bang to rights.

My major sin of omission was Marleen Barr’s Feminist Fabulation (1992), which I’m pretty sure I’d read at some point but probably didn’t have access to when I write the chapter. I am surprised that I don’t seem to have mentioned Jenny Wolmark’s Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (1994), which I had definitely read and have.

When Butler erases the name ‘feminist fabulation’ from his account of postmodernism and science fiction, women are erased from that account. […] Butler fractures my fairy tale, decapitates the crowned princess I imagined. He perpetuates a story about how the feminist generic frog remains in the backwaters and drowns in obscurity outside the eddies of the mainstream relationship between postmodernism and science fiction. (Barr 153)

What can I say?

When I came to write a chapter for the equivalent volume on fantasy literature, I tried to make sure I included female psychonanalytic critics and female writers — at the risk of making it seem sf=male, fantasy=female.

More interesting was when I wrote a chapter on Futurology and realised I had several Future Histories by men but none by women. I crowdsourced my blindspot and a list evolved, to which, alas, I often responded: “Yes, but that’s not really a Future History in the sense I meant.”

Codslap.

No, really.

Reaches for Andrea Dworkin:

[man has the power] to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate to each thing its realm and qualities, to determine what can and cannot be expressed. (Dworkin 17)

We see the same kind of thing in talking about sf by people of colour — no, there is none, oh yeah, maybe, but what there is isn’t really sf…

Codslap.

And so we note a long and rambling piece, by one “James Wallace Harris [who] maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten.” It seems to be at first about how sf should stay cutting edge and how now we know time travel and faster than light travel are impossible, you shouldn’t write stories involving them. Ignore that bit — don’t mention black holes or gravity waves or strange time-like curves or superstrings… The point is his list of AI texts, I presume an attempt to be a canon, with the aid of Dr Wikipedia.

Someone else has done the math and counted twenty-five writers. There’s two films, Her and Ex_Machina.

If this is the cutting edge of sf, it seems very white and male and straight. (I suspect there are a couple of Jewish writers on the list, and at least three gay writers.)

But a little bit of thinking should come up with Pat Cadigan and Gwyneth Jones and James Tiptree JR and Nalo Hopkinson …

“He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten.”

Perhaps someone will turn it into one of those classic sf lists — which always has fucking Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on it — “How many of these mind blowing A.I. novels have you read?”

People are, helpfully, suggesting the missing texts in the comments, that’s the way clickbait stories work — and others are saying, “Yes, Ann Leckie did write about A.I., but other people did it first.”

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is not an instruction manual.

I can’t go back and rewrite my Postmodernism chapter. I can’t reconstruct whatever brainfart that led me to miss the women men don’t see.

But if you come up with a list of ten or twenty or thirty mind blowing *anything* in sf and every writer is white and male and straight, then you are doing it wrong.

Bibliography

  • Barr, Marleen. Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
  • Butler, Andrew M. ‘Psychoanalysis and the Fantastic.’ Modern Fantasy Literature. Edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Butler, Andrew M. ‘Postmodernism and Science Fiction.’ The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Edited by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003: 137-148.
  • Butler, Andrew M. ‘Futurology.’ The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. Edited by Rob Latham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. London: The Women’s Press, 1981.
  • Morris, Meaghan. The Pirate’s Fiancee: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988.
  • Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Woman’s Writing. London: Women’s Press, 1984.
  • Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism. Brighton: HarvesterWheatsheaf.
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