Science Fiction and Feminism

The Telling

“The Telling” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a novel about a woman experiencing a different side of life, the Akan side of life.  Sutty, the protagonist, is an official observer from another planet and is sent to Aka to “observe”.  When Sutty arrives, she is astonished at the lack of a written history.  All books and forms of language seem to have been destroyed and there is mainly an oral history.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “The Telling” is that it challenges the idea of a traditional religious.

The Telling, is the rural Akan’s form of religion.  The Telling is a collective history of the peoples, and each person has their own story to contribute to The Telling.  Le Guin’s novel challenges if there can be a religion without a God or any form of a deity.  In The Telling, it seems as if there are no real strict boundaries to what it can and can’t be, and is compared to Daoism.  “But these stories weren’t gospel.  They weren’t Truth.  They were essays at the truth.  Glances, glimpses of sacredness.  One was not asked to believe, only to listen” (91).

The Telling challenges the traditional belief and constraints of a religious because it seems to exist without a God or a deity; it exists on a system of morals.  People treat each other the way they wish to be treated.  It exists on a system of karma and self-responsibility and Sutty’s host doesn’t even remember the last time there was some sort of person-on-person violence, such as rape.  Although Aka is not a utopian world, the religion practiced by the rural citizens is utopian.  The Telling is complicated but worth the effort in learning because it promotes self-love, respect of others, and equality for all.  The Telling is a reflection of a less-than-traditional religion that exists without a God.  It provides a complex look at humanity and the concept of a religion that can exist without a God or a set place of worship and really challenged my perception of how true religion can be practiced.


The Stone Gods

“The Stone Gods” by Jeanette Winterson is a novel about how we define a human, among other things.  Billie, the protagonist, is in charge of taking care of Spike, the Robo-sapien who is almost like a new breed of human.  Spike is a robot, but is programmed to evolve and eventually develops actual human emotions.  Spike and Billie are like the robot version of Thelma and Louise, and are lovers in the first section of the book, but a lot less attached physically and mentally in the third section.  Winterson’s novel brings up a very important point, and that is what are the characteristics we use to define someone/thing as human?

First off, is Spike human?  I do not believe that Spike is a human because to me, she is essentially a highly sophisticated robot.  Yes, she can evolve and learn but that does not qualify her as a human being.  Towards the very end of the first section, Spike is the most human to me because her love for Billie is starting to make her more human-like in the fact that she is starting to develop a heartbeat.  Part of me agrees with Pink; that if you were to cut her she bleeds and Spike does not do that, which does not qualify Spike as a human.  Spike simply counters with she evolves and learns like a human, but that is only because she is a highly sophisticated robot.  What makes something/one a person is very different than what makes something/one a human.   Do you need to have a soul to be a person or a human?  Do machines have souls?  I do not believe Spike is a person yet in this novel, but with further development I believe she could be.  Again in the first section, Spike was very close to developing into a person because she is starting to develop and understand actual emotions.  However, at this point in the novel she is not.  Spike, to me, does not have a soul because she was constructed by humans and being constructed by humans.  Now, one could argue that we, as people, are technically created by other humans via egg and sperm, but being constructed by biology is a lot different than being constructed with wires and other various mechanical devices.  Although Spike is not a person/human yet, I believe that on the developmental track she was on she could have evolved into something human-like.

Spike and Billie are very different in the biological aspect, but are similar in the mental and personhood aspect.  It is hard to distinguish the differences in what makes a person/human, especially with being like Spike, who look like humans, act like humans, feel like humans, and talk like humans.  It is hard for me to fully accept Spike as a person.  Despite all the unnecessary political messages that were in this book, I thought it was interesting how Winterson brought about the idea of what makes something/one a person/human.  It was also interesting to read about the idea of parallel universes.  Ultimately, it raised the question that if humans got another chance, would we make the same mistakes?


“Dawn” by Octavia Butler is about a woman, Lilith, who is selected to live in an alien ship with the other aliens, the Oankalis.  Lilith is chosen by the Oankali to lead an Awakened group of humans as they prepare to return to Earth.  “Dawn” reminded me a lot of the first story we read, Clare Winger Harris’ short story, “The Fate of the Poseidonia”.  Winger’s story contained a lot of anxiety about miscegenation, or the mixing of races, and I felt Butler’s story reflected a lot of that anxiety

It would seem ironic that a black woman would write a story that contains anxiety about racial mixing, but to me it was meant to be ironic.  The ooloi seemed much more sympathetic creatures to me versus vile and disgusting as some of the other humans saw them.  This viewpoint was partly due to the way Lilith saw them, and I feel this fits into the irony of the story.  Butler is showing that concern over racial mixing is silly, but on a much more extreme level; not only racial mixing, but mixing and mingling with the unknown.  Although it might be scary at first, who know what might be gained.  Lilith was initially hesitant, but she was improved for her benefit.  Even though it was not the ideal situation Lilith wished to be in, she ended up gaining more than anticipated.  However, it’s easy for me to say I felt sympathy for the ooloi and the Oankali because I am not in Lilith’s place.  If I was, perhaps I would be less than sympathetic.

Overall, I think Butler’s story was an ironic view about the anxiety over racial mixing.  Butler’s story served to show that this anxiety is silly.  Lilith forms bonds with these ooloi, and I would like to think these bonds were deeper than chemical.  Lilith is a brave heroine, and I don’t think that the Oankali were completely manipulating her.  Maybe my sympathy for the Oankali is unwarranted, but I felt that both parties in Butler’s story learned a lot more than they intended and made bonds that were unexpected.  “Dawn” is a different take on miscegenation that reveals silly prejudices against the alien and the unknown.

The Female Man

Joanna Russ’ novel The Female Man got me thinking about feminism at its core and what it truly means to be a feminist.  Russ’ book is about four women: Janet, Joanna, Jeannine, and Jael.  All four women are from different worlds and times, but eventually meet up.  Joanna was perhaps the most interesting character to me, because she kept referring to herself as the “female man”.  Joanna’s transition from a male to a female persona was for her to gain respect in the outside world, but it seemed to me that adopting a male persona was just the opposite of feminism.

“For a long time I had been a neuter…because when you walk into a gathering of me, professionally or otherwise you might as well be wearing a sandwich board that says: LOOK! I HAVE TITS” (Russ 133).  Joanna fights against the categorization of being just another woman by transitioning to a male persona.  However, it seemed to me that this was contradicting with feminism.  If feminists fight so hard against most males and their prejudices, it seems silly that to be accepted, one would have to become a man.  Joanna struck me as a feminist, but as a feminist who didn’t have her priorities in order.  Feminism should be about uplifting one’s gender and succeeding with that said gender.  Feminism shouldn’t be about turning into a man to be accepted in common society.

Feminism should be Joanna owning her sandwich board, as well as her “tits” and showing everyone that she can succeed with the men, not in spite of her anatomy, but because of it.  Joanna has the courage to acknowledge the flaws in not only society, but in the professional world, but doesn’t have the courage to stand up to her gender.  True feminism is more than just wanting to make a change with society; it’s about using your gender to succeed.  Joanna should have proudly flaunted her anatomy and given the finger to anyone who would have thought to question her ability to do things simply because she is a woman.  Joanna shouldn’t have needed to become the “female man” to be respected, she should be respected as a woman, and to me she was a very contradictory character.

“I read somewhere that their periods attract bears. The bears can smell the menstruation.”

When I first read Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” I was immediately struck by the philosophical and feminist debate that seemed to be raging within its contents.  “What I Didn’t See” is much more than a story about a disappeared woman, it is about the social hierarchy and the betterment of the community at the sacrifice of the other.  In the end, Fowler’s story poses very important questions about the quality of life as it relates to the individual.

Fowler’s story is a tale about a group of scientists who travel into Africa to catch a glimpse of the elusive gorilla.  Archer, the leader of the group, believes that if he gets Beverly and the protagonist to shoot down a gorilla, then male big-game hunters will be put off of it because let’s face it, if a girl can do it, then what real challenge is it to a man?  Although Archer seems sincere in his motives of improving the quality of life for these gorillas, he is only going to do so if he can find that perfect specimen that is unmarred and glorious.  So while on the surface he seems intent on stopping the hunting of gorillas, he is only doing so if it can make him look better in the process.  Fowler’s story sparked an internal debate in me about not only the philosophical but feminist idea about hierarchy in the community.  In “What I Didn’t See”, the social order went male, then female, gorilla, then porter.  The porters, or Africans, were mere servants to the group and ranked lower than the gorillas because they could not improve the reputation of the group members in any way.  However, Eddie, the protagonist’s husband, was the only person who treated the porter’s like people.  “He worried about the porters, who didn’t have the blankets we had” (347).  Eddie is faced at the end with a moral dilemma that I believe is the crux of the novel; is it better to massacre hundreds of gorillas to save the porters?  If the porters were accused of harming Beverly, then surely they would go back into slavery and be whipped and beaten.  However, does killing the lives of hundreds of innocent animals justify that?  Fowler’s story causes the reader to question the hierarchy of people.  Should a man be higher up on the social ladder simply because he is a man?  Should a white person be higher up on the social ladder simply because of skin color?

Such questions have plagued feminists and women since the dawn of time, because for years women were on the lower rungs of the social ladder.  Fowler’s story begs the question of equal treatment for all, and many have struggled with this idea, just as Eddie does.  After killing those gorillas to save the porters, Eddie is so heartbroken it takes him two years to confess what has happened.  Eddie, just as the protagonist does, sees the humanity in these gorillas and has to make the decision to decide between gorillas and porters, who is higher on the social ladder.  Fowler’s story is more than just a feminist story, it is philosophical as well.

“If the pheremone was something only men had, you would do it”

When we grow up, we are all taught that what betters the community, betters the individual.  However, once we reach a certain age it’s pretty safe to say that most of us don’t really buy into that.  Although there is an emphasis on community, the individual is usually more important to said individual.  For example,  in the movie “Armageddon”, there was an emphasis on the community versus the individual.  Bruce Willis detonates the bomb at the end so Ben Affleck can return to earth and play with animal crackers on Liv Tyler’s stomach.  In Octavia Butler’s story “The Evening, the Morning, and the Night”, there is not only a focus on the individual versus community relationship, but a feminist approach to it as well that Andrea Hairston addresses in her critique of the novel.     Butler’s story is about two young people afflicted with the horrific Duryea-Gode Disease, or DGD, which causes those affected to self-mutilate themselves to the point of death.  Near the end of the story, the reader as well as the protagonist, Lynn, discovers that she has the scent that can help soothe DGD patients as well as stop their self-mutilation.  Throughout the story, Lynn is resentful of her DGD and is counting down the days until she dies, while trying to be the best student she can possibly be.  Lynn eventually agrees that she will one day help run a retreat center like the Dilg, because it is her higher calling.  Her boyfriend, Alan is not so happy with this but Lynn retorts with that if he had the opportunity to do such a thing, he would.  Lynn did not expect this type of life for herself, but is choosing the betterment of the community over the betterment of herself.  If you had a limited life span, would you choose to run a retreat center for people suffering from the same disease you are, or would you try to cram as much living into one life?  Most people would choose the latter, but Lynn is an extraordinary human being in this story.  There is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” which is very applicable to the community vs. the individual dynamic.  It’s all well and good to say that if put in Lynn’s position, we would take the job and try to improve the conditions of those around her, but in all actuality when put in Lynn’s position, we would probably run screaming in the opposite direction.     Hairston’s critique of this story made some very interesting points about the community vs. the individual, only this time from a feminist perspective.  “When a man, a captain, sacrifices himself to get the passengers and crew ashore, and goes down with his ship…this is a classic heroic gesture, a cornerstone of the celebrated warrior tradition.  A woman, who sacrifices herself so that the ship of life doesn’t go down…is not a glorious hero, but an average mom and suspect feminist” (Hairston 298).  Lynn in this story to me is more than average, what she is going to do takes a great deal of courage and although I agree with what Hairston said, believe that Lynn is extraordinary.  Hairston’s statement is very true, that women are expected to do maternal things purely because they are women, but Lynn is choosing to do something for the betterment of the community, not for the betterment of her, and that truly makes her a heroic character.

Woman on the Edge of Reality

Connie Ramos is the protagonist in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.  Piercy’s story chronicles Connie’s ventures to and from the future in a brilliant way.  Although Connie is empathetic and strong character, I believe that Connie is indeed crazy.  Mattapoisett, the serene and encouraging future world Connie visits, is all a figment of her imagination.  Her history with drugs, alcohol, and emotional trauma didn’t make her a reliable narrator in my eyes.  Perhaps her psychotic episode was brought about by the violence Geraldo inflicted on her, or just the weight of all the disappointments she had endured as well as the barbiturates she abused finally crashing down on her.  Mattapoisett and Lucinente were both products of her need to escape her dismal life, also known as her own personal form of escapism.  Connie’s ultimate actions of poisoning the coffee pot were brought on by these delusions of an inter-galactic war in which she must save her beloved friends from the future.

            Luciente, in many ways, represented the woman Connie wanted to be.  Luciente was a strong woman who was sexually free and respected by the members of her community.  Luciente gave Connie the strength she needed to escape and defy the doctors, and there appear to be many parallels between Luciente’s life and Connie.  First off, Dawn, Bee, and Jackrabbit represent Angelina, Claude, and Martin.  Dawn and Claude are not only physically like their counterparts, they are also like them personality-wise.  Jackrabbit is Connie’s idealized version of Martin, both died for a cause and were full of life.  Luciente’s war is meant to parallel Connie’s ongoing battle with the doctors of her psych ward and the alternate futures are Connie’s fear of her future in the psychiatric ward as opposed to her future if she can escape said ward.  Connie’s visions of Mattapoisett only increase after she is hospitalized, perhaps brought upon by the extensive drug use the doctors used on Connie or her dire need to an alternate universe to escape too.  When Luciente is unreachable after the doctors plant the electrodes, it is because the electrodes have inadvertently ended the illusion of Mattapoisett.  Also, Luciente only comes to Connie twice, and both times are outside of the hospital.  Connie traveling to Luciente is further evidence that Mattapoisett is only a figment of her imagination.  Why travel to the future when Connie is as free as a bird in her apartment, or outside the confines of the hospital when she escapes?  Mattapoisett even becomes much more detailed when Connie is the hospital, because she is visiting more frequently.  As Connie’s situation in the hospital gets worse, she seeks out Mattapoisett as a way to get away from the dirty ward she resides in.  Luciente’s first appearance to Connie outside the hospital was a signal of Connie’s already diminishing mental state as well as her lack of a need to escape the world she was in. 

                Woman on the Edge of Time reminded me a lot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but with an interesting science-fiction twist.  Throughout the book I was itching for Connie to escape, but it was only after I finished it that I re-evaluated what I had read and decided that Luciente and Mattapoisett was just a figment of her imagination, either brought on by her mental state or just as a form of escapism.  Piercy’s book was extremely interesting and I loved it.  It has to be one of the best books I have ever read and was mentally stimulating as well as ambiguous, which is often times what the best books are.

Stepford “Wives”

Lisa Tuttle’s short story “Wives” is about a group of alien women who are forced to live as human women.  They have to bind their three breasts into two, put on a sheath of skin, wear sexy dresses, and essentially paint their bodies, all for the pleasures of men.  The group of men that inhabit the planet full of alien women are from Earth and are engaged in an inter-galactic war.  Tuttle’s story is making a statement based on heteropatriarchy, a system ruled by heterosexual men that attempt to control and conform the women based on their standards of what is “normal”, wishing them to fulfill all the duties of a typical housewife.  I believe that Tuttle provides this alien world as a parallel for the repressed housewife, lesbian, woman, etc.
Tuttle’s story is a mirror for the death of individuality a woman may face after becoming domesticated.  The protagonist, Susie, begins to remember her name and gains some individuality, but she is eventually killed by the other women for fear of Susie starting a riot among the human men and causing the death of the remaining alien women.  Susie is not only a repressed lesbian, but a renegade.  She takes care of her husband’s household but one day remembers her original name and decides that it is time to make a difference and that the other alien women should be allowed to retain their identities.  Some may say that ignorance is bliss, but in Tuttle’s story  discovering the truth is an empowering experience.  Another example of fear of losing your individuality comes from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.  The novel is named after the protagonist, Clarissa, but gives her married name, her husband’s name.  By naming the novel Mrs. Dalloway instead of Clarissa, Woolf is removing any sort of identity for the main character.
Not only is Susie’s individuality is repressed, her lesbianism is repressed as well.  In a society that practices heteropatriarchy, those thought to be gay or different are marginalized.  Susie is marginalized by her skin tights, make-up, dresses, and bras.  Susie is perhaps the first intergalactic ‘bra-burner’ so to speak.  Even if Susie did keep on all the human trappings, she would have still been persecuted for mating and loving her neighbor, Doris.  Heteropatriarchy seeks to eliminate anything that may be different or foreign, as determined by the heterosexual male, and these alien women are a threat to the heterosexual male because they have a mind of their own.  The men only want them to serve the duties of what they think a wife should, both in the kitchen and the bedroom and conform the women to the standards of the men.  I felt great empathy for Susie, but I was also quite happy for her. Just as Susie is beginning to discover her true identity, she is destroyed.  Although her death was tragic, it was bittersweet because she finally realized her true self.  “Wives” alludes to the idea that perhaps these alien women were brainwashed of their previous lives, but with Susie remembering there is not only hope that these alien women will soon reclaim their identities, but it is also a sign that no matter how hard men may try to oppress a group of people, that the truth is always revealed.  “Wives” is truly a proverbial egg in the face of heteropatriarcy.

The Year of the Ford

There is the old statement that “behind every good man is a woman”. However, in science fiction, this is sometimes not true. Many women characters in science fiction are weak and almost useless beings. For example, in Aldous Huxley’s renowned novel, Brave New World, the female character Lenina is a rather naïve woman who is not only often manipulated by her friends, but is influenced by everyone around her and has no real personality. In Claire Winger Harris’ short story “Illicit Reproduction”, the female character Margaret Landon is a pivotal character-but the real question is, is Margaret a strong female character?

Margaret is dating the narrator George at the beginning of the story, but eventually dates the Martian Martell which leads to her inevitable downfall. When George first discovers her affair with Martell, he is quite jealous and doesn’t understand why someone so beautiful would date someone as physically repulsive as Martell. Not only are George’s words motivated by jealousy, they also have an underlying tone of miscegenation. Margaret stands up for Martell, despite George’s racial slurs. However, just because Margaret is turned off by George’s racism and stands up to him, this does not make her a strong woman. She can have morals, yet still be spineless and weak. Margaret’s morality has no bearings on her inner strength.

Another reason that Margaret is not a strong character, in my opinion, is her fate. She gets tricked by Martell and he eventually captures her and takes Margaret to Mars. Many may think that her parting words which vow to protect Earth, are the words of a strong woman but that is not the case. Margaret is instead resigned to her fate, and realizes the repercussions of her naiveté. Margaret is on a strange planet, with strange people, and realizes that the only way for her to survive is to go along with the other Martians and their plans for her. I do not feel this portrays her as a strong woman. Yes, she is trying to protect Earth, but I feel as though she is only putting on a brave face because she has no other choice. Margaret even says herself that she decided to date Martell because George was so jealous, and she wanted to teach George a lesson. Margaret’s reasons for dating Martell show her shallow thoughts, and this led to her eventual fate. I do not feel that Margaret portrays a strong female character for the simple fact that she is used almost by a prop by George and especially Martell, and she does not try to do anything to change her situation. Perhaps she is interested in protecting Earth, but perhaps she is trying to only save herself. I feel Margaret is very self-involved, silly, and not a good representation of a strong female character.

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