Daughters of Earth is made up of eleven pairs of stories and essays. Rather than picking the stories myself (too hard!) I asked eleven scholars to choose which story they’d like to write about. Below are the pairings and the essayist’s reasons for picking their story. There are links to those stories available online as well as two of the essays. To read all the stories and essays, though, you’ll have to get hold of the book.
“The Fate of the Poesidonia” by Clare Winger Harris (1927) and “Illicit Reproduction: Clare Winger Harris’s ‘The Fate of the Poiseidonia'” by Jane Donawerth.
I chose Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fate of the Poseidonia” because it was the first story by a woman to be published in the sf pulps, and because the female lead is heroic; I was further interested in Harris’s exploration of the possible uses of television.
Just as my definition of feminism is historically situated (I call arguments for women’s education feminist in the seventeenth century but not in the twentieth), so is my definition of feminist sf. For sf in the pulps. I would expect feminist sf to be fictions where science is crucial to plot or setting, and where women are involved in science or women’s social roles are reimagined, especially as resulting from changes in science. “The Fate of the Poseidonia” perfectly fits that bill.
“The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone (1931) and “The Conquest of Gernsback: Leslie F. Stone and the Subversion of Science Fiction Tropes” by Brian Attebery.
I have gotten rather addicted to reading early magazine science fiction, not in spite of the intrusive explanations and unsubtle storytelling but because of them. Everything that is smoothed over by the time of the Golden Age is right out in the open in the 20’s and 30’s. In many cases, the pleasure is simply the humorous effect of bad writing. However, a few writers, including Leslie F. Stone, C.L. Moore, and Stanley Weinbaum, managed to create memorable fiction using the same broad strokes and flat textures. Their work is like well-done Social Realist sculpture or WPA murals. In the case of Stone, the effect is all the more striking because the feminist viewpoint runs so strongly counter to much of the fiction that surrounded her work.
“Created He Them” by Alice Eleanor Jones (1955) and “From Ladies’ Home Journal to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 1950s SF, The Offbeat Romance Story, and the Case of Alice Eleanor Jones” by Lisa Yaszek
One of the most exciting aspects of my work at Georgia Tech has been developing and administering the Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection, which contains well over 9,000 science fiction novels, magazines, and monographs. Although I have been around feminists and science fiction enthusiasts all my life, it wasn’t until I began working with the Collection that I discovered how many women were writing aesthetically innovative and politically charged science fiction during “the long domestic decade” that preceded the feminist revival of the 1960s. To date I’ve recovered well over 250 women who did just that in the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s—women such as Alice Eleanor Jones who made the tropes of domesticity favored by earlier generations of progressive women writers central to the narrative scenarios of modern science fiction. As such, they created a unique body of speculative fiction that both anticipated and inspired later feminist science fiction—that is, storytelling that uses science fictional tropes and techniques to dramatize the biosocial construction of gender and its relations to science and society. To read Jones’s short story “Created He Them,” then, is to read a previously forgotten chapter of feminist literary history.
“No Light in the Window” by Kate Wilhelm (1963) and “Cold War Masculinity In The Early Work Of Kate Wilhelm” by Josh Lukin.
I have long been attracted to feminist science fiction thanks in part to its anger at The Way Things Are and its incredulity at the fact that anyone endorses that state of affairs. Looking for a feminist sf story which my skills, knowledge, and interests suited me for analyzing, I quickly narrowed the range of possibilities to writers active in the 1950s (knowledge) whose world-view celebrated discontent with the status quo (interests) the understanding of whose work would necessitate some exploration of cultural history, or the era’s structures of feeling (skills). I’d also feel I was participating in a Noble Human Endeavor if I were to choose a first-rate author of great accomplishment who’d attracted far too little critical commentary. Those considerations left me with Kate Wilhelm and Kit Reed. Knowing more of the former’s work, and finding tragedy easier to write about than satire, I settled on Wilhelm, an author whose science fiction offers a consistent and mature view of universal, realistic, objective despair. Her best fiction suggests that such alluring ideals as human community, individual freedom, and self-realization are infinitely precious and unattainable. “No Light in the Window” is perhaps the earliest of her sf stories to address the injustices of masculine domination, presenting in a manner that would become characteristic of Wilhelm’s work the heroic but futile protest of an individual with more autonomy than her society approves. Sometimes fighting a holding action against forces that would eliminate our last trace of agency is an act worth celebrating. When the large-scale societal improvements imagined in much feminist sf seem heartbreakingly distant, stories in which society’s internal exiles might find pride and hope in the maintenance of their own integrity can be heartening.
As a graduate student, I worked as a research assistant for Professor Darko Suvin, author of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre and several other seminal studies of science fiction. Through him, I was introduced to the genre and read a wide range of works, including early feminist and socialist science fiction. In the early 1980’s, I became very interested in—or, to put it more bluntly, incensed by—the absence of women writers in courses and studies of postmodernism, and so I began reading experimental writing by women, including extrapolative fiction that some critics continue to call science fiction. What is feminist science fiction? Well, a work that seriously addresses issues of gender, sex, race, class, equal rights and respect would fit the bill. I am particularly drawn to works by Pamela Zoline, one of the most innovative of the early postmodern extrapolative writers, and also the novels and short stories of Angela Carter, whose too early death I still mourn, Carol De Chellis Hill, and Samuel R. Delany. Works by these authors continue to speak deeply to students of literature and aficionados of science fiction alike.
“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side” by James Tiptree, Jr. (1972) and “(Re)Reading James Tiptree Jr.’s ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side'” by Wendy Pearson.
Why did I choose “And I Awoke on a Cold Hill’s Side” instead of any of the better (or lesser) known stories by Tiptree? Well, some of the other stories I might have chosen were too long. I also thought that there had been plenty of work done already on stories like “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” On top of that, I’ve always found Tiptree’s work speaks to me as a queer reader. Their feminism is an interesting conundrum, but it is one that has attracted a lot of academic (and non-academic) discussion already. But there have been relatively few queer readings of Tiptree’s work. And I have noticed that most discussions of “And I Awoke…” ride blithely over the narrator’s statement that he was sexually attracted to male, as well as female, aliens. Indeed, the sex of the alien was irrelevant in the face of the strength of that attraction. That’s a statement that flies powerfully in the face of culturally instilled beliefs that everyone must be either gay or straight (making bisexuality a bit problematic not just for bisexuals but for many people’s beliefs about the nature of sexuality). In any case, I don’t think there’s much call to read the narrator’s statement as a declaration of bisexuality: he’s not attracted to male humans (but then, he’s not much attracted to female humans, either). But it is very queer and I like that and wanted to think about it. Writing this article gave me an opportunity to work through some of the issues I’ve been thinking about in relation to Tiptree’s work in general and to this story in particular.
“Wives” by Lisa Tuttle (1976) and “The Universal Wife: Exploring 1970s Feminism with Lisa Tuttle’s ‘Wives'” by Cathy Hawkins.
My earliest memories of reading involved tales of the fantastic: science fiction, ghost stories, legends and extraordinary adventures. My fascination was for things unseeable and marvellous, and I treasured the possibility of living beyond the rules of the ordinary world. As I got older, it was science fiction that continued to fire my imagination (supported by a love of 1950s science fiction movies). From my teens, I was particularly drawn to the genre’s short stories, seeking what I can only describe as that frisson of delight created by the engagement of both intellect and emotion; that rational, sensual ‘wow’ when a writer reveals a punch-line or unfolds a spectacular circle of science fictional reasoning. The climax and tag at the end of Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” is a wonderful example of this ‘wow’. In the late 1990s, I took part in an informal feminist reading group. When asked to contribute a text for discussion, I wanted to introduce the women (none of whom read science fiction) to such delights, and choose “Wives”. They were stunned not only by its power, but by the potential of the genre to pose and interrogate ideas of gender. How did I know that “Wives” was feminist science fiction? For me, feminist science fiction engages with feminist discourse and jeopardises the normality—the taken-for-grantedness—of patriarchal ‘reality’. Tuttle’s story challenges the ideologies of patriarchy and militarism, as well as the kinds of cultural institutions that support them. Feminist science fiction is a self-conscious, political endeavour. It helps me to perceive and to disobey the gendered boundaries of the world.
“The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Octavia Butler (1987) and “Octavia Butler–Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist” by Andrea Hairston.
I only occasionally write essays. Doing art in these plague years, in wartimes, in the face of soul-stunning media assaults is a mighty challenge. I usually save my writing energy for plays and novels. But I make an exception for Octavia Butler. She writes fiction that disturbs as it entertains. Reading her novels and short stories, all page-turners, she makes you enjoy thinking about issues you might want to avoid. In “The Evening And The Morning And The Night,” Butler takes on individuality and community in these plague years. Reading this story, I find that I question myself and consider a radical restructuring of society. Her work is about nightmares and dreams.
Butler writes about a redefinition of community, about beings who do not glory in living only for themselves—perhaps this is why she is called a utopianist by some critics—but contemplating this impulse in “The Evening And The Morning And The Night” got me to pause from maniacal, artistic flurry to write an essay.
“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy (1987) and “Simians, Cyborgs and Women in ‘Rachel in Love’ by Joan Haran.
There are just so many reasons why I think “Rachel in Love” is a wonderful work of feminist science fiction that it is hard to produce a single coherent narrative. Politically, I think this is greatly to be desired; as an essayist it is something of a challenge. I think that my difficulty is a reflection of Pat Murphy’s skill in layering upon each other a myriad of tropes and conventions from coming-of-age stories, Westerns, true romances – the selection is not exhaustive – and in the process destabilising the conventional meanings of each of these genres. The absence of sentimentality in the narrative and the pragmatic resourcefulness of its central character who pieces together her own story gives the reader all that is necessary to imagine Rachel’s stories continuing beyond “the end”. I use the plural, because imagining just one ending would work against the grain of Murphy’s writing.
To use genre fiction to expand the imagination, socially, politically and thoughtfully, and not just to satisfy a readerly craving for the familiar unfamiliar, the spectacular elsewhere, is for me a mark of the best science fiction. “Rachel in Love” reminds us to ask important feminist questions about gender identity, sexuality, power and the control of science and technology. It is also a skilful exploration of the power of story to shape our relationships to the world(s) we live in. I return once again to Donna Haraway who exhorts feminists to address theory and practice to ‘the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imagination’. In “Rachel in Love”, Pat Murphy has done just that.
“Balinese Dancer” by Gwyneth Jones (1997) and “‘Prefutural Tension': Gwyneth Jones’s Gradual Apocalypse” by Veronica Hollinger.
I love the subtlety of Gwyneth Jones’s “Balinese Dancer.” On first reading, it doesn’t seem to be about very much: there’s little obvious conflict, the characters don’t achieve those flashes of recognition/perception that we like to see as resolutions to fictional conflicts, and nothing seems to have changed at all by the end of the story. In fact, everything of significance has already occurred before the story opens (Anna’s discovery has resulted in the loss of her job) or is quietly taking place in the background once the story begins (slowly increasing environmental degradation and social disruption). And even these backgrounded events are unfolding against the broader background—invisible but inevitable—of humanity’s slow evolution away from sexual difference. As Jones implies in the hysterical response to Anna’s discovery, human beings are more than ready to focus upon all sorts of irrelevancies while ignoring the truly radical threat posed by the rapid decline of the planet upon which we depend for our very lives. Like all other expressions of the feminist project, feminist science fiction is not just fiction about women; it’s fiction for women, fiction that’s written in the interests of women. “Balinese Dancer” offers us a deeply thoughtful meditation on gender difference, as well as an equally thoughtful portrait of environmental decline.
I think of feminist sf as an intertextual conversation carried on by feminist sf authors, readers, and fans. I chose to write about Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” because it is a powerful, brilliantly conceived story that emblematizes that conversation. I’ve long understood that a work is identifiable as science fiction not because of its subject matter but by virtue of its intertextuality with other science fiction texts, and “What I Didn’t See” shows this same principle of identification at work in feminist sf. Readers unfamiliar with feminist sf are free to read Fowler’s story as literary fiction, but “What I Didn’t See” has the most to offer its readers when read in the context of thirty years of feminist sf, that is to say, as a contribution to the grand conversation of feminist sf.