A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Helen Merrick

Aqueduct Press (2009)

ISBN 978-1-933500-33-1

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

“… what kind of self-respecting cabal would openly advertise its ‘secret’ existence through websites and conventions, identify its members through the wearing of garish temporary tattoos, and fund itself by the sale of home-baked chocolate chip cookies?” (p1)

I did not grow up considering myself a feminist; I have no idea whether my mother would identify as a feminist or not. That said, I grew up in the ’80s with a younger brother and there was never a time when I felt that I could not do exactly the same things as my brother, if I wanted to, so I know (now) that I benefited from second-wave feminism – and from liberal, caring parents. I was regarded as a feminist by at least some people by the time I was in my late teens (looking at you, high school teachers), probably because I was loud and everyone loves a stereotype. It’s only been over the last decade (my twenties) that I have consciously thought of myself as a feminist. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out feminist books, feminist perspectives on historical issues, and really come to grips with the idea that feminism is not a singularity.

All of this self-aggrandising is by way of contextualising my reading of The Secret Feminist Cabal, a marvellous book that has challenged the way I think about science fiction, fandom, and feminism. Merrick had me from her Preface, where she describes her journey towards writing the book in ways that resonated deeply with me, from the nerdy adolescent to the discovery of feminism and the dismay that many female acquaintances not only do not share our love of science fiction, they are completely mystified by it. Having only recently discovered the niche community that is sf fandom, the fact that so much of this book is concerned with expressions of feminism within that community – and how they impacted on sf broadly – was the icing on the cake.

Merrick begins by examining the very idea “feminist sf”, defining which – much like attempting to define sf by itself – is like the proverbial attempt by blind women at describing an elephant. She approaches it by discussing the multiplicities that are the reality of the genre, which is indicative of the approach she takes in the book overall and an incredible relief for those of us who are sick of being told THIS IS THIS and if you don’t fit, get lost. She also gives some space to justifying the use of literary criticism on science fiction, tackling that persistent and derogatory argument that science fiction doesn’t count as literature. While accepting that sf and popular fiction generally have an ambivalent position, as far as literary critics – including feminists – are concerned, Merrick makes no apology for using their tools. The rest of the introduction lays the groundwork for the book: what feminist fiction is or can be, the potentially problematic nature of feminist genre writing, and the ongoing divide that exists between mainstream criticism and feminist sf criticism. I particularly enjoyed that while Merrick engaged with these issues, at no point does her discussion become a polemic against those who have disagreed. Rather, she situates her investigation within the “grand conversation” of feminist sf, and demonstrates constructive ways in which that can be extended to mainstream criticism – to the advantage of both.

I was forced to stare into space for some minutes when I read the opening to Chapter 2. Merrick quotes from a letter written in 1938 wherein an sf reader opines that: “[a] woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found” (p34). If nothing else, this book has made me grateful for the changes that have occurred over the last century, such that I have never been personally confronted with such a statement. This chapter provides an overview of the “invasion” of women, sex, and feminism into sf, with a fascinating if horrifying look at the arguments of the 1920s and 30s for and against women being allowed into the genre. (She makes the point that of course women were already there, both as authors and readers, and that it’s hugely problematic when those foremothers are written out of history, as happens too often.) The 1960s and ’70s saw some changes to the field, and the disputes that attended this period of “sexual revolution” make for fascinating – if, again, horrifying – reading. My favourite section is that on Joanna Russ writing letters and criticism and the way such respected names as Philip K. Dick and Poul Anderson responded to her and her comments. I love the fact that what now generally appears on blogs as a long and convoluted comment-thread then featured in magazines, albeit at the mercy of the editor. This chapter alone is worth its weight in cookies for outlining the milieu in which both male and female sf writers and fans existed for so much of the twentieth century – an invaluable resource for a newbie like myself.

The third chapter takes up one strand mentioned in the second and runs with it: the idea of “femmefans”. The fact that female fans were distinguished by a separate moniker goes some way to revealing how they were regarded, at least by some males of the community. It’s almost heartbreaking to read of the letters written to pulps such as Amazing Stories by women who imagine themselves as the only female readers of such stories – another reason I love the future that is blogdom. What I particularly love about this chapter is its uncovering of specific women involved with sf fandom, in many and varied ways. Instead of making generalisations about readers and contributors to zines, Merrick goes out of her way to trace named individuals and outline their experience within the scene. Appropriately, there is a section on Australian women, who seem to be even more hidden from view than their American or British sisters.

The development of specifically feminist criticism of sf is discussed in Chapter 4, with a fair amount of space given to Joanna Russ, as one of the progenitrices of formal feminist criticism and the name to which many others felt themselves to be responding. Merrick chronicles the rise of feminist fanzines in the 1970s, and the impact these had on writers and fans, as well as the increasing numbers of feminist anthologies being produced. The chapter moves through to the 1980s and ’90s, noting trends and struggles as feminists of those times attempted to define themselves as well as understand their histories. As with the previous chapter, Merrick provides copious accounts of individuals here, and an extensive reading list of both criticism and fiction.

Bouncing back to fandom, Chapter 5 examines the development of feminist fandom concurrent with the development of feminist criticism of Chapter 4. Again going for the intensely personal stories to illustrate a broad, diverse narrative, Merrick weaves a story of female fans and their involvement in the fannish community from the 1960s to the 2000s. The feminist fanzines sound like an amazing community to have been involved in. Her discussion of the place of Marion Zimmer Bradley in this community – beginning as a fan, becoming a well-known writer, and causing all sorts of controversy over her (at least early) non-identification as a feminist – is enthralling, and beautifully illustrates the axiom that the personal is always already political. The chapter ends with a discussion of how WisCon (a feminist sf convention) and the Tiptree Awards were established.

The last two chapters of Cabal “examine how recognition of the cultural work of sf feminisms filters out into other critical communities,” and as a consequence have a heavier, more literary-critical, feel, which may make them more opaque to some readers than the first five chapters. Chapter 6 deals with sf feminim’s response to cyberpunk, a 1980s sf movement that some saw as eclipsing or superseding the feminist sf fiction of the 1970s. Merrick connects this with theorist Donna Haraway’s call for feminists to consider the cyborg as a way of considering the fundamental issue of what it means to be human. The movement also connects with a growing sub-genre of cultural studies, that examining techno-science and cyberculture. A feminist take on these issues is an intriguing one, especially in its observation that much cyberpunk is opposed to the material, the body – and how problematic that can be.

Interestingly, Merrick takes her discussion in what feels like quite a different, although still relevant, direction for her last chapter: the connection of feminist sf with science itself, and how feminism is and can be in dialogue with that discipline. She suggests very strongly that sf feminisms can and should play a vital role in dialogues negotiating the interplay of science, nature, and culture, and gives examples of a number of ways in which this has already occurred productively.

Finally, Merrick has a provocative conclusion. She addresses new challenges such as those posed by queer theory and postcolonialism, and where or how feminism might still fit in. Along with a consideration, appropriately enough, of what the Tiptree Award has taught us since its inception, Merrick considers the question of whether the science fiction field is “beyond” questions of gender. She argues that feminism – as long as it remains the challenging and diverse field it has been until now – still has a great deal to offer science fiction writers and readers.

A critical work based in a deep-seated love of the genre, Cabal is a testament to the enduring impact of women, feminism, and fandom on the fractured behemoth that is science fiction. 2010 saw it shortlisted on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work, and win the fan-voted William Atheling award for best critical work. These are well-deserved honours. It is to be hoped that coming generations of both writers and fans will make use of the cornucopia of references Merrick has gathered, both to understand the history of the field and because most of them make for wonderful reading.