Feminist Science Fiction

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Feminist Science Fiction
« on: March 28, 2017, 08:12:51 AM »

Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future

Margaret Atwood’s evergreen dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become a television drama. Published in 1985, it couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights, with the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States, with the demonisation of imagined, pantomime villain “Islamic fanatics”. But then, feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.

Where does the story of feminist science fiction begin? There are so many possible starting points: Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, about an empress of a utopian kingdom; one could point convincingly to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of how men could “give birth” and what might happen if they did; one could recall the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya, about a gender-reversed India in which it’s the men who are kept in purdah.

And perhaps one of the starting points was here: on 29 August 1911, a 50-year-old man, a member of the Yahi group of the Native American Yana people, walked out of the forest near Oroville, California, and was captured by the local sheriff. He was known at the time and popularised in the press as “the last wild Indian”.

He called himself “Ishi” – a word in the Yahi language that means simply “man”. He was the very last of his people, and had been living in the wilderness alone, travelling to places he remembered from the time when his tribe had flourished, in the hope of finding some remnant of those he’d grown up with. When he realised they were truly all gone, when a series of forest fires meant he was close to starvation, he allowed himself to be found and taken in.

Knowing that he was the last surviving Yahi, Ishi was desperate to communicate some of the culture that would be entirely lost when he was gone. He ended up living with the director of the museum of anthropology at the University of California, Alfred Kroeber. He taught Kroeber as much as he could: demonstrated the skills of flint-knapping, explained his language, told the stories of his people one last time so they could be written down and preserved. He was particularly fond of children, Kroeber recorded. Ishi died in 1916, of tuberculosis. After his death, Alfred’s wife, Theodora, wrote a remarkable book about him, Ishi in Two Worlds, which relays as much of the Yahi culture as the anthropologists were able to record, and talks about Ishi’s own accounts of his life. To read it is to touch an intricate and beautiful civilisation that is now entirely gone, a place that can only be momentarily resurrected by an imaginative act, as unreachable as an alien world.

And the link with feminist science fiction? Theodora and Alfred Kroeber’s daughter was Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction author. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, at the start of the revolutionary women’s movement, and was one of the earliest pieces of feminist SF. It is about a man from Earth who travels to the planet Gethen, where the people have no fixed gender. He is by turns fascinated, appalled and deeply, sickeningly lonely. Everyone’s “normality” is someone else’s wilderness.

The association between some writers of feminist science fiction and the wilderness is surprisingly strong, in fact. Atwood grew up spending a large portion of each year in the Quebec woods. Her father was an entomologist – an insect man with a specialism in the solitary bee – who worked on ways to protect the Canadian forest industry from insect damage. Atwood’s early life included springs, summers and early autumns in a log cabin in the woods with no electricity, paddling canoes across clear forest lakes and cooking on an open fire. Alice Sheldon – who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree Jr, and after whom the James Tiptree Jr award for science fiction or fantasy explorations of gender is named – travelled extensively as a child among African peoples including the Kikuyu. Her parents were Herbert, an explorer, and Mary, a travel writer and war correspondent.

What makes Atwood's novel so terrifying is that it's all plausible. In fact, everything has happened some­where before.

Of course, not every author of feminist science fiction was taught how to make a fire in the wilderness by her (or his) parents. But what interests me, and what links these stories, I think, is the sense of young people having been exposed early on to the idea that there are other ways of living which are equally valid, equally worthy of respect, equally troubling and equally beautiful. That other cultures and modes of existence make sense on their own terms. That however you’ve grown up, it would always be possible to do things differently. And having seen that, one can’t help reflecting on what the world would be like if we did decide to do things radically differently. Feminist – or let’s say gender-questioning – science fiction asks insistently, through careful construction of different societies, how much of what we think now, today, in generic western culture about men and women is innate in the human species and how much is just invented. And if we’ve invented it then could we, for better or worse, invent it differently?

The answers are often dystopian. The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the most famous work of feminist speculative fiction ever published; certainly it’s one with a huge and appreciative audience outside the borders of the “genre” science fiction and fantasy readership. It takes place in Gilead, a fundamentalist theocratic state in New England in which a Christian sect, “the Sons of Jacob”, has taken control. There’s been a precipitous decline in the birth rate, and the state has reverted to the biblical model of reproduction: powerful men have fertile young “handmaids” to bear children who will then belong to them and their wives. The novel follows one such handmaid, Offred – a name that sounds appealingly Anglo-Saxon until you realise it means “Of Fred”, Fred being the man who owns her. I read the novel as a teenager (a teenage Orthodox Jew, in fact) and realised very suddenly and certainly that if I were ever to get married I couldn’t possibly change my name, that I would never be able to hear it as anything but “Offred” from then on.

What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is that everything that happens in it is plausible. In fact, everything – like the stratagem of the handmaids – has happened somewhere before. Everything in it has been praised by someone as the right, the good, the best, the only way to live. And Atwood had a horrifyingly prescient eye for how a state like Gilead could come to exist: “… after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time … Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The road-blocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.” Eventually, women’s bank accounts are frozen, taken away from them, women are fired from their jobs. It happens step by step. How do you boil a frog? You turn the heat up slowly.

The politics of fear are always the same. They are easily recognisable in retrospect. They are easy to acquiesce in at the time. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one popular placard read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”. There’s no gain the women’s movement has made that can’t be taken away – a fact that will sound terrifying to some and a gleeful plan of action to others.

Writers of feminist dystopian fiction are alert to the realities that grind down women’s lives, that make the unthinkable suddenly thinkable. In Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man, four women from four parallel worlds meet, travelling from world to world to see how their lives could have been different under a different system. The most sexist of all the realities she explores is also the one that is most economically depressed. It’s Jeannine, the woman from the world where the Depression never ended, who is so ground down that she barely believes she can exist without finding a man to marry her. Economic downturns make vulnerable people more vulnerable – and societies in trouble tend to retreat to an imagined past of certainty and stability. To put it another way: justice feels affordable in times of plenty, and starts to feel like a luxury in times of want. But anarchy can lead to new opportunities. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, in which a young woman with “hyperempathy” founds a new religious order, people are hungry for change because the old ways haven’t worked, the US is plagued by deadly weather patterns that kill hundreds, and civilisation has collapsed to the point that it’s “crazy to live without a wall to protect you”. Feminist science fiction does have a way of finding resonances in the modern world.

Utopias and dystopias can exist side by side. Everyone’s shining city on a hill is someone else’s hell on earth.

Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time offers another two possible futures, one utopian, one dystopian. Connie Ramos has been released from a mental hospital; she’s seeing visions of the future, which might be real or might be delusional. In one future, the human race has somehow managed to come to its senses about all kinds of prejudice, learning how to value the rich diversity of life – gay and straight, male and female, all ethnicities and physical characteristics. As one character says, when discussing valuing one trait over another in reproduction: “It’s one choice to breed carrots for our uses – especially leaving wild and variant gene pools intact. Is another to breed ourselves for some uses or imagined uses! For all we know, a new ice age comes and we might better breed for furriness than mathematical ability!” It’s a pointed lesson when contrasted with Connie’s visions of a dystopian future, where women are “cosmetically fixed for sex use”, and people boast about which multinational corporation owns them. The astonishing thing about considering Woman on the Edge of Time now is how we’ve inched closer to both her worlds in the 40 years since the novel was published. Yes, you can get cosmetic “fillers” on any high street. Yes, corporations continue to grow in power as if they were living things, merging and combining abilities. And at the same time it also doesn’t feel astonishing to read a scene of two men flirting and dancing together as it might have done in 1976. Utopias and dystopias can exist side by side, even in the same moment. Which one you’re in depends entirely on your point of view.

My latest novel, The Power, has been described as a dystopian thriller. In it, almost all the women in the world suddenly develop the power to electrocute people at will (they can electrocute women as well as men; also animals and inanimate objects – I based it on what electric eels do). And they use their power, slowly but surely, just as men do in our world today. Some of them are kind and some cruel. Some rape and some just have a jolly good time in bed with willing participants. Nothing happens to men in the novel – I explain carefully to interviewers – that is not happening to a woman in our world today. So is it dystopian? Well. Only if you’re a man.

That answer’s too simple, of course. It’s pat, and gets a laugh from an audience, but the relationship between our world and utopias or dystopias of all stripes is a complicated one. Can we make a perfect state, where everyone is happy and agrees that things are being run in the best of all possible ways? Equally, could we create a place that everyone would agree is evil and morally bankrupt? We’re a diverse bunch, human beings. Which helps explain that thing you cannot do for all of the people all of the time.

Margaret Atwood: ‘All dystopias are telling you is to make sure you’ve got a lot of canned goods and a gun’
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Le Guin has a beautiful long short story that I’d encourage anyone to read. It’s called “The Matter of Seggri” and it draws – as so much of her work does – on her deep sympathy with the position of the anthropologist, there to observe and understand, not judge and solve. Seggri is an alien world; it’s so much easier to do thought experiments about an alien world, it’s clean and isolates precisely the problem you want to talk about. Human beings on Seggri are born physically just like human beings are here, with only one significant difference: “there are 16 adult women for every adult man. One conception in six or so is male, but a lot of non-viable male foetuses and defective male births bring it down to one in 16 by puberty.” And this tweak changes everything. Women on Seggri marry each other – you can’t hoard the men for just one woman. Instead the men live in a “fuckery” and do athletics to show off their muscles. “All they’re allowed to do … is compete at games and sports … Nothing else. No options. No trades. No skills of making. They aren’t allowed into the colleges to gain any kind of freedom of mind.” People on Seggri say: “Men have to be sheltered from education for their own good.” Meanwhile, women set up home together, pursue their interests and hire a man occasionally for fun or to father a child. As one anthropologist character observes of Seggri: “Men have all the privilege and women have all the power.”

What I love about this story is how clear-eyed it is that all societies – at least all thus far constructed – leave something out. At a certain point in the story, one woman grieves over the curious behaviour of a fuckery boy who had fallen in love with her and wanted to be free to live only with her. “She thought, ‘My life is wrong.’ But she did not know how to make it right.” It’s a heartbreaking moment. So often when one’s life seems wrong, it’s the world that is wrong. But we do not know how to make it right.

Which brings us back to Ishi. He knew in 1911 that all his people were dead, that he would starve if he did not surrender himself to the alien force that had destroyed his family and laid waste his land. But 1911 was not a terrible year for everyone. The New York Public Library was opened that year, Orville Wright set a new world record for glider flight, and Ronald Reagan was born – that was probably nice for his parents at least.

Reagan famously described his vision of an America that would be a “shining city upon a hill” – a beacon of light and hope, a place that could show the world how to be better, an inspiration to all. A utopia. So let’s put those two things side by side and regard them for a moment. Reagan is a baby in the cradle, Ishi is in the forest, accepting that the Yahi people are gone for ever, wiped out by the settlers. Everyone’s shining city on a hill is someone else’s hell on earth.

Every utopia contains a dystopia. Every dystopia contains a utopia. The conclusion I’ve come to through extensive speculative fiction voyaging is that the best we can hope for, probably, is to create a society that tries hard not to leave people out. And to be vigilantly alert to the people we are leaving out, whoever they are. To listen. To try to make it right as often as we can. To imagine how it could be different. And as to whether The Power is a dystopia? Well, as nothing happens to a man in it that’s not happening to a woman right now, if my novel is a dystopia, we’re living in a dystopia today.

• The Handmaid’s Tale will be broadcast in April. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is published by Viking. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


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Re: Feminist Science Fiction
« Reply #1 on: March 28, 2017, 08:25:30 AM »

Longing for Tomorrow

Science fiction blockbusters should comprise the future of emotions as well as technologies

In her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag argues that science fiction cinema is an example of pure spectacle: The core of the film lies not in the feelings of the characters but “the aesthetics of destruction” — the real protagonists are the machines, not the people. This impulse might explain why narratives that take place lightyears away can contain romantic values that seem stuck in the Jane Austen era.

This year’s Passengers was described as a romantic comedy in space; really it’s a story about a sexual predator whose victim is stuck with him on a basically unmanned spaceship. Chris Pratt’s character, Jim, is one of the 5,000 passengers on board who are headed for a human colony. The passengers have been put in hibernation to survive the long journey, but due to a technical error, Jim wakes up 90 years too early. Like an Adam seeking a companion, Jim wakes up Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, effectively killing her chances of arriving at her destination alive. Yet, as if by Stockholm syndrome, Aurora falls for the man who trapped her; the only man she’ll see for the rest of her life. In a particularly eerie scene, after finding out the truth, Aurora jogs through the ship to release her anger. Suddenly, Jim’s voice resounds through the entire vessel, begging her to forgive him. He sits in the master control room, watching her every movement on the stack of security cameras, pleading mercy through the sound system. No matter how fast she runs, she cannot escape his almighty voice.

At a time when real life is stranger than fiction — when narratives in books seem more real than events unfolding in real life, when reality TV has begotten a real presidency — storytelling assumes an extra responsibility. The same week that Kellyanne Conway concocted the term “alternative facts” to describe White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s blatant lie, George Orwell’s 1984 sold out on Amazon. We do not have the luxury of differentiating what we see on our screens from the forces that shape our daily lives; we can no longer afford to ignore the societies that science fiction blockbusters portray.

Of all film genres, sci-fi is the one most suitable for reimagining the future, not least because its blockbusters have a much broader mainstream appeal than other elements in our polarized and fragmented media landscape. At a time when even family members of different political convictions can no longer speak to each other, the outlandish worlds of sci-fi can still facilitate table conversation in which politics are merely touched upon metaphorically. In his “Metamorphosis of Science Fiction” (1979), theorist Darko Suvin wrote, “The aliens — utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers — are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror to his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.” The best examples of blockbuster sci-fi films — Blade Runner, The Matrix — have often, famously, imagined the future precisely as a way to understand the present.

As Suvin wrote, the genre as a whole has the ability to present us with new possibilities for remaking society, showing us utopias in which “relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community.” In Mary Shelley’s foundational Frankenstein, the “machine” — Frankenstein’s monster — is equipped with more complex emotional responses than many of the human characters in the novel: the technology was a vehicle through which the characters’ personal connections were exposed and tested. Star Wars is more about questions of morality than the technological possibilities of space travel.

Amid the divisiveness of the current political climate, a subcategory of sci-fi cinema becomes newly relevant. Romantic science fiction films — ones that explicitly explore human relationships through technology, or offer new paradigms for intimacy — shift the genre’s focus to the future of human connection. The emotional worlds we create together, and the way we provide care within them have everything to do with justice and quality of life; why shouldn’t science fiction, in addition to imagining new paradigms for social and political life, offer new paradigms for how to treat each other? Recent examples like The Lobster and Never Let Me Go use the successes and failures of their technologies to test the successes and failures of their characters’ romantic relationships. In these films, monogamous romance is society simplified: the protagonist is literally negotiating a life together with the other. The dynamic, as in Passengers, can be regressive; but at best it can serve a purpose, as a basic unit with which to build new possibilities for interpersonal equality.

In the first scenes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we meet Joel, played by Jim Carrey, on a cold February morning. Coincidentally, it’s Valentine’s Day. He decides to skip work and hop on the train to Montauk. He’s the kind of guy who’s always drawing something in his notebook, and midway through a sketch he meets Kate Winslet’s Clementine, a blue-haired girl who doesn’t care about touching up her roots, or doing anything too strictly. They talk, they drink, and later on, they end up on Clementine’s sofa. “I’m gonna marry you,” Clementine tells him. “I know it.”

Those who have seen the movie will know that Joel and Clementine have met before. In fact, they used to be in a romantic relationship together, which ended so badly that both decided to employ the services of a company to erase their memories of each other. Eternal Sunshine has been praised much and often, but its acclaim is due to its innovative narrative arc as much to its defiance of what a reasonably mainstream sci-fi film can be. Eternal Sunshine uses a machine — a clunky mind-eraser that looks like a hood for hair perms — to explore the limits of human love.

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel finds out that Clementine erased him first. The doctor who treats them both tells Joel that Clementine was too upset by the memories, after which Joel decides to do the same. The film was released in 2004, before the ubiquity of social media popularized a sense that our memories are most vivid when externalized, and that deleting an unpleasant experience from a timeline is equivalent to deleting it from our lives. Eternal Sunshine foreshadowed a reality that would soon follow: Social media would enable us to curate our memories by erasing the photos — and people — we no longer like.

The film’s technology poses two questions: Should we escape or confront our painful memories? And do these painful memories separate or unite us? Halfway through Joel’s forgetting process, he starts to resist, as he realizes he does not want to forget about Clementine after all. In the end, the wiped-out Joel and Clementine find a way to re-unite and listen back to the tapes of the memories they’d lost (the clinic had recorded them on cassettes — the film was made before all sci-fi sets were designed to look like Apple interfaces). They get back together, not despite, but because of the upsetting details they remember.

If Eternal Sunshine is about the perils of shutting ourselves off from that which makes us uncomfortable, then Her takes a leap into isolation. The 2014 film is shot in Instagram-worthy pastels, and set in a near future in which the outside world looks pleasant because everyone can retreat into chat-boxes and video-games to express their anger and loneliness. People on the streets are speaking, but only into their headsets, retreating into a world that’s comfortable not only because it’s tailored to their individual wishes, but because it allows them to ignore the wishes of others.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who writes handwritten letters to strangers for a living and yet is unable to connect emotionally to those in his own life. He develops a romantic relationship with his OS, who is called Samantha and is brought to life by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. Throughout the film, we see Samantha’s intelligence developing, though it’s unclear whether that’s because the AI is getting smarter or because the OS is learning how to behave according to Theodore’s emotional preferences. Compared to the smoothness of his romance with Samantha, real-life dates seem messy and ugly. The one blind date he has turns awry quickly, and a mix of alcohol and awkwardness drives the woman to lash out and walk away. Theodore’s ex-wife makes an apt observation about him while they sign their divorce papers: “You always wanted a wife without the confrontation of dealing with anything real.”

Theodore and Samantha’s romance doesn’t last. In the end, the OS leaves him because her intelligence has grown too fast — she’s moving on after her software update. There seems to be a word of warning to men: women who are too perfect always leave. Both Clementine and Samantha are manic-pixie-dream girls, attractive women with otherworldly features that support the male characters’ quests in life. Viewers experience both through the male point of view, as fantasies that are only acceptable when they fulfill the man’s needs and desires.

Eternal Sunshine and Her present the same question: Should we escape into ourselves, or do we choose to confront, and therefore connect with others? Social technologies can offer us ways of isolating ourselves, turning away from the pain and ugliness of humanity, if we choose to use them that way. The contradiction embedded in our growing digital connectivity is that human connection seems to increase and decrease at the same time. A swipe-left or a Google search for a certain kink can connect us with an online community, and yet, it also allows us to close ourselves off from people whose experiences do not align with ours.

An episode of the speculative TV series Black Mirror provides a more expansive worldview. The first half of “San Junipero” tells the story of girl meets girl in a bar: one is shy and naive, the other outgoing and full of experience. After a courtship that takes place in the vicinity of a dance floor, they end up in bed. Yorkie, a shy girl played by Mackenzie Davis, reveals that she’s never done it before, asking Kelly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to guide her. The next scene cuts to a shot of smashing waves.

The reason for Yorkie’s inexperience turns out to be the fact that she got into a car accident at 21 years old and ended up paralyzed. San Junipero, where the girls met, is not a real place but a virtual reality the dead and nearly-dead can upload their consciousnesses into. “This is a party town,” Kelly says, a place where life can be led without real world consequences and its inhabitants can choose whether they want to live in 1987 or 2002. Kelly can smash her hand into glass without hurting herself, and people sleep with each other as if living in a hedonistic paradise.

The timelessness and limitlessness of San Junipero creates a space that is literally and metaphorically without bounds, a space in which non-normative relationships are possible. In San Junipero, a quadriplegic who has been in a coma for decades finds love with a cancer patient who has outlived her husband and daughter. It is because of San Junipero that Yorkie pursue a life and a love not influenced by her conservative parents, who could not accept her sexuality. Kelly, on the other hand, learns to choose life even though her husband and daughter were not able to do so. Kelly and Yorkie face a choice to escape their earthly lives or to remain; both choose to escape into the technological device, leaving their physical bodies behind, their souls forever uploaded into San Junipero’s database. In this case, choosing to escape the real world is not choosing to disconnect: it is exactly because these two individuals were able to escape their real-life limitations that they could connect sincerely.

At a time in which national borders are tightened and social gaps are growing, popular science-fiction can expand the boundaries of what we think is possible, and provide a middle ground in abstract for a divided public to consider its future — not only as a collective, but interpersonally. Romance, in symbolic context, involves literally putting yourself into the other: it is connection and empathy practiced in microcosm. The choices these characters face are a cases study in one of the most crucial questions of our time: How willing are we to be connected — whether technologically or politically — to those who are not like us?

Mary Wang is a Chinese-Dutch writer based in New York. Follow more of her work on Twitter or Instagram.