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Helen Merrick

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Volume 1, May 1996

She's Fantastical (1994)

Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich (eds), She's Fantastical (Melbourne: Sybylla Feminist Press, 1994)

According to the editors, She's Fantastical is "the first anthology of Australian women's speculative fiction, magical realism and fantasy." Another presence lurks within the book, however, unacknowledged by the title - the dreaded spectre 'SF'. Despite postmodern tendencies to blur the boundaries between 'high' and 'low' cultural forms, science fiction continues to he perceived as a rather debased genre. Indeed many feminists are more prepared to rehabilitate the Harlequin romance than engage with SF, which has been the site of some of the most innovative feminist writing in recent decades. Unfortunately this body of writing receives little attention from feminist literary critics.

Announcing that your research area is 'feminist science fiction' usually provokes either disbelief ('Is there any'?' or dismissal ('I never read that stuff'). Generally, SF is characterised as being primarily an adolescent male genre, little more than androcentric escapist fantasies of technological gadgetry that 'obviously' would hold no interest for most women, let alone feminists.

There are a number of problems for feminists in such assumptions. The assertion of SF's masculinity obscures a long history of female struggle as writers, readers and editors of SF, and denies the significance of the feminist intervention into a predominantly masculinist field. Additionally, feminists are realising that women should not participate in their own exclusion from techno-scientific discourse but on the contrary fight its patriarchal excesses from within "the belly of the monster".1 Rejecting SF as a masculine. genre reifies the traditional fallacy that women and science (even in fictional form are incompatible - a very destructive move for feminists in the late twentieth century. Indeed it is theorists of science such as Donna Haraway who have begun to illustrate the significance of feminist SF acknowledging it as an important site of feminist re-visions of the social relations of science and technology.2

Thc foreword to She's Fantastical is by Ursula Le Guin, one of the few SF writers to receive some acclaim from the mainstream. She argues that "[f]antasy has always been a rebel's mode, a means of sneakily saying unwelcome or disturbing things about one's society, or of offering a more or less plausible alternative to it" [11]. Le Guin discusses the revolutionary nature of women's contemporary fiction, differentiated by the fact that "men aren't at the centre of it" [7]. In feminist SF not only men, but also patriarchal notions of 'women' are similarly sidelined, allowing room for the unconstrained realisation of feminist characters.3

The editor's introduction provides a number of literary ancestors for this hidden tradition of women's writing. The title of the collection was inspired by the seventeenth-century author Margaret Cavendish, whose Description of a Blazing New World (1668) was a forerunner of feminist SF utopias. An Australian heritage is acknowledged by the inclusion of extracts from Henrietta Dugdale and M. Barnard Eldershaw.4 Lucy Sussex's claim that SF ignores the frontiers between genres is matched by the array of forms and styles in She's Fantastical. Alongside extracts from novels, there is poetry from Aboriginal author Daisy Utemorrah, experimental writing by Ania Walwicz and Berni M Janssen, and short stories which traverse every aspect of anti-realism. from well known SF authors Lucy Sussex and Rosaleen Love, to newer writers such as Tess Williams.

A number of stories combine feminist concerns with a science-fictional setting to good effect. "The Goddess Wakes" by Jane Routley ironically deconstructs the Cinderella Myth, religion , and the Goddess in her Hollywood movie star form, in a savage critique of the physical and psychological violence upon women propagated by patriarchal notions of femininity. The juxtaposition of narrative with 'verses' from a mythical religion indicate the fictional nature of the authoritative stories of religion, myth and history. Routley's story resonates with another feminist SF text - Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, recasting the meeting of Tristessa and Eve/lyn in a happier mode more suited to a feminist fairytale.

Lucy Sussex's wonderfully humorous and insightful tale draws on the tradition of SF utopias and time travel in an examination of the social and cultural temporality of feminist ideologies. The narrator of "A Tour Guide in Utopia" meets the time travelling 'Future' and realises that she is the future guide in a nineteenth century utopian tale. Our notions of utopia and feminism are jarred, as contemporary society, with all its ills, is shown to have been the utopia of the past, while the narrator is shocked by the class and racial prejudice of the 'feminist' time traveller.

Leanne Frahm's quite horrific "Entropy" demonstrates the scope of contemporary SF. A law of physics is used as a metaphor for the relentless and soul-destroying life of the stereotypical 'housewife'. Rather than enforcing the female's proper' role, here the 'laws of nature' serve to overwhelm the protagonist to the point where her societal conditioning is demolished at horrific cost.

In "The Padwan Affair", Tess Williams draws on the SF tropes of space travel and spacemen to examine gendered identity and sexuality and comment on the plight of the single mother in our society. Along with the stereotypical masculinist 'hero' we are forced to view gendered stereotypes from an estranged position, as we realise that the 'spacejock' is pregnant. The humour of this delightful role-reversal serves only to highlight its serious intent and bleakly depressing ending.

All manner of feminist themes are explored in these stories, which examine gender stereotypes, subvert and rewrite traditional myths and fairytales, question the meaning of utopia, and provide alternative constructions of women's desire and sexuality. She's Fantastical is an excellent collection which should dispel the common-place rejection of SF, and demonstrate the range and quality of Australian women's writing in the field of 'anti-realism'.


Notes

1. Constance Penley & Andrew Ross, "Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway," in Technoculture, eds. Penley & Ross (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1991), p.6.

2. Donna Haraway discusses a number of feminist SF works in "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," in Feminism/Postmodernisms, ed Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp.220-5. The African-American SF writer, Octavia Butler, is the subject of a chapter in Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989).

3. Le Guin observes that writers may choose to work in 'outcast' forms such as genre fiction because of the freedom it provides from the literary establishment and all its preconceptions: "I think one reason highly respected women writers such as Atwood and Lessing write science fiction is that they delight in the freedom of not being responsible to the Canon of Literature," p.9.

4. Henrietta Dugdale's A Few Hours in a Far-off Age was first published in 1883 (this is the first time it has been reprinted) and is a polemical future utopia. M. Barnard Eldershaw (a writing partnership between 2 women), Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947).


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