Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century
Justine Larbalestier, ed.

Wesleyan University Press, 2006.
$ 65.00 (Cloth), xix + 397 pp. ISBN 0819566756.


Reviewed by Jamil Khader



Writing Against the Grain: The Third Wave of Anglophone Feminist Science Fiction

Justine Larbalestier has put together an extraordinary dialogic introduction to the Anglophone feminist science fiction (SF) tradition of the twentieth century and to the evolving feminist criticism of the genre. Designed for and “aimed squarely at newcomers to feminist science fiction” [xvi], this collection matches eleven classical and less-known science fiction stories by American and British women writers with eleven critical essays by leading as well as “relatively newbie” American, British, Canadian, and Australian feminist critics in the field. This collection contains real gems from the evolving Anglophone feminist SF canon, some of which have been unavailable in either print form or online and some have not received appropriate critical attention. The stories, spanning the twentieth and the early twenty-first century, are organized chronologically, including “The Fate of Poseidonia” (1927) by Clare Winger Harris; “The Conquest of Gola” (1931) by Leslie F. Stone; “Created He Them” (1955) by Alice Eleanor Jones; “No Light in the Window” (1963) by Kate Wilhelm; “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967) by Pamela Zoline; “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972) by James Tiptree, Jr.; “Wives” (1976) by Lisa Tuttle; “Rachel in Love” (1987) by Pat Murphy; “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) by Octavia Butler; “Balinese Dancer” (1997) by Gwyneth Jones; and “What I Didn’t See” (2002) by Karen Joy Fowler.

Despite the range in the content and the forms of this amazing collection of stories, not all of these stories are admittedly feminist, nor do they seamlessly qualify as SF. Moreover, the collection glosses over some foundational Anglophone feminist SF texts by female and male feminist SF writers alike such as, among others, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sam Delaney, John Varley, and Kim Staley Robinson, an understandable move that Larbalestier deems inevitable in the process of editing such a project [xvii]. This, however, is not the only omission in this anthology: First, although it makes a nod towards representing the multicultural diversity of this Anglophone feminist SF canon, by including the magnificent work of the recently departed African-American writer Octavia Butler, this collection is lacking in the international breadth and scope not only of Anglophone feminist SF other than British and American, in particular, but also of international feminist SF, in general. Second, this anthology omits the 1940s from the formation of this canon, although as she says in an endnote, “several were suggested” [xix]. Since Larbalestier gave the contributors the liberty to choose the stories they wished to comment on, however, the collection ended up reproducing the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s, and projecting the collection forward into the twenty-first century. Obviously, the former can be accounted for by the boom in women’s writings during the 1960s and 1970s and the latter by the desire to demonstrate the continuity in the content and form between twentieth and twenty-first century feminist SF. It is regrettable, however, that Larbalestier has not taken the time to address these issues in the introduction. While she discusses the general outlines of the criteria she applied in collecting these stories, Larbalestier only scratches the surface of thorny problems concerning the definition of feminism, SF, and the twentieth century. Her intended audience, lacking a working knowledge of the evolving history of the feminist movement and the SF genre, will need more than just a sketchy, impressionistic overview of these topics.

Nonetheless, the essays that Larbalestier includes in this collection manage to fill in some of the aforementioned gaps and omissions. For example, Jane Donawerth’s essay on Harris’s “The Fate of Poseidonia” shows the ambiguity of Harris’s feminism as evident in her contradictory representation of the female character, Margaret Langdon, who anticipates the protection of the male narrator but who also vies to prevent any further Martian attack of earth. As Lisa Yaszek’s argues, moreover, in her discussion of Alice Jones’s “Created He Them,” an author may not explicitly identify herself as feminist but her story can be, nonetheless, considered as a proto-feminist text; in Jones’s narrative this proto-feminism is evident in the text’s demystification of romantic and domestic relations that “do not necessarily have simple, happy endings” [79]. As for the definition of SF, Mary Papke’s discussion of the science fictionality of Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe,” for instance, tackles the problem of defining a work as SF, concluding that Zoline’s story can qualify as SF not on the basis of traditional tropes that have typified the SF genre (which Larbalestier enumerates in her introduction) but on the basis of its investment in “science fiction thinking” [149]. Likewise, L. Timmel Duchamp’s analysis of Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” addresses the debate about the appropriateness of this story as SF: although the story was published on, many readers and fans viewed it as “literary fiction” not as SF [379].

Furthermore, these essays represent the considerable range and plethora of the theoretical approaches and styles that dominate current SF criticism, be it contextual-historical, new critical, postmodern, postcolonial, queer, or reflective, and testify to the evolving dialogue between and among critics and writers. Although they vary in their quality, their difficulty for their intended audience, and the degree of their persuasiveness, what is most appealing about these essays is that they frame and analyze these stories within the prism of third-wave feminist theory. As cutting-edge third wave feminist studies, these essays go beyond the traditional feminist focus on gender and, instead, examine the ways in which gender and other identity narratives and power structures such as race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ecology, religion, colonialism, technology, and (dis)ability, among many others, are articulated in interlocking, intersectional, and relational ways through each other. As Brian Attebery notes in his meta-critical observation about this anthology, “the range of SF by women is broad enough that stories can be seen as expressing more than simple discontent about gender roles” [64].

As such, these essays transcend the theme of the patriarchal oppression of women and encompass emerging trends in feminist studies namely, masculinity studies, critical race studies, queer theory, cyborg and post-human discourses, and international/ postcolonial feminism (subaltern women). Thus, Attenbery reads Leslie Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” as an articulation of feminist concerns about and linkages among gender roles, body images, race, colonial invasion, and ecology [64], while Josh Lukin interrogates Kate Wilhelm’s “No Light in the Window” as a critique of the hegemonic American narratives of Cold War masculinity and normative heterosexuality, although Wilhelm occupies a position best described as a reluctant feminist, one “at odds with feminism” but one adamant about offering a scathing critique of masculine domination [123]. Third wave feminism achieves a very sophisticated articulation in essays by Wendy Pearson and L. Timmel Duchamp. In Pearson’s analysis of James Tiptree’s (nom de plume of Alice Sheldon) alien encounter narrative, Tiptree, as Pearson argues, interweaves “science fiction’s woman-as-alien with queer theory’s denaturalization of heteronormativity with postcolonialism’s revelation of the postcolonial condition” [183]. And in Duchamp’s interpretation of Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” the subtle operations of racist and, what she refers to as, simian orientalist dualisms allow the white woman, both narrator and author, to displace the subaltern African woman that the narrator invokes early on in the story [364]. Similarly, Cathy Hawkins reads Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” as an “allegory about unchecked patriarchy, war, and imperialistic oppression” [212], and Andrea Hairston reads Octavia Butler’s re-presentation of (dis)ablity, race, and the body as a way to “reinvent family and redefine community” [293].

By reading these stories in their historical and literary contexts, moreover, these essays unravel not only the multiple identities and shifting positionalities of the characters as well as the authors but also the extent to which their discursive formations waver between  progressive and regressive ideological stances, in regards to important political, social, cultural, and economic issues of their times. For example, in her essay on Harris, Donawerth argues that while Harris offers images of female strength, her gender representations are intertwined with her anxieties about illicit technological reproduction, which are in turn “amplified by its association with the other” [33]. Donawerth, however, seems to downplay the gothic or post-gothic subtext of SF, as evident in Harris’s clear representation of the Martian Martell as the homme fatal of traditional gothic literature. Such a post-gothic subtext provides an obvious linkage between the dominant racial ideology in 1920’s America and Harris’s intolerance of racial Otherness [29]. On the other hand, Joan Haran, in a sophisticated reading of Murphy’s “Rachel in Love,” examines the author’s feminist ambivalence about the pleasures and dangers of cybernetic technologies to transcend human corporeality. While Murphy believes in the power of cyborg and posthuman narratives to deconstruct the boundaries between human and animal, the physical and the nonphysical, she still seems suspicious of their radical potential to liberate humans from their flesh [250-51].

In its fine narrative selections and its sophisticated theoretical and critical essays, this anthology is a welcome addition to the expanding feminist SF tradition. Larbalestier redresses the imbalance in the historiography and criticism of the SF genre that have erased women’s contribution to this genre, successfully demonstrating that “Feminism is as much a way of reading as it is a way of writing” [xvi]. By grouping classic and barely known feminist SF stories and re-reading them through third-wave feminist theory, the contributors to this anthology manage to revaluate the whole SF canon, clearing a space for these stories, as Brian Attebery states, to “acquire new contexts that can shift their perceived meaning” [60]. SF is no longer a boy’s club and SF fiction by women can no longer be trivialized, ignored, or suppressed by resentful male critics as disguised fantasy, “diaper and housewife SF” [76] or as “tears and Tampax SF” [170]. Rather, feminist SF is here to stay as legitimate SF and to make a difference, by envisioning alternative power structures and egalitarian worlds. Those who are new to the genre will definitely be tempted to look for and relish more feminist SF writers not only in the Anglophone world but also, hopefully, in international SF markets.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.