Utopian Visions of Feminist Science Fiction: A Pathway to ‘Better’ Futures
Pritam Panda is a research scholar (Ph.D) in the Department of English and other Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow. The topic of his research is “Re–enactment of today’s myths and creation of tomorrow’s myths in Science Fiction and Cinema”. The author’s areas of interests include Victorian literature, Post\colonial studies and Speculative fiction.
Science Fiction over the years have achieved a significant place in the pantheon of literature. From being dismissed as pulp fiction in the 20th century, science fiction has come a long way to be recognised as a creative field of duty mainly due to the writings of H. G Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Clarke, etc. and the fact that the genre talks about things that belong to the ‘future’ in a language adhering to the technicalities followed by the cyber generation. As the progress of the society in material terms getting accentuated at a very rapid pace owing to prolific use of technology, the alternate societies presented by science fiction seems very relevant, plausible and thought provoking in the present times. Utopian writings belonging to the genre have achieved fame because they present themselves as a kind of ‘revolutionary literature’ by offering the prototype of ‘perfect’ worlds that are estranged from the disparities existing in the contemporary society. Feminist literature is also similar in ideation to the genre because both the genres talk about societies that are truly democratic and which provides equal opportunities to the ‘second sex’ to flourish. Feminist Utopian science fiction was propelled by the works of writers like Ursula Guin, Joanna Russ , Margaret Atwood who wrote about societies those were more benevolent to women and also deconstructed the notion of patriarchal hegemony. These utopias talked about the subverting the carefully designed stereotypical social practices that gave an upper hand to the male society while pushing the women to the periphery eternally. This paper looks at two texts namely The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Women on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and how these utopian texts brought about new concepts in social orientation and its cultural influence on the gender construct followed by the conventional society.
Keywords: alternate, revolutionary literature, democratic, subversion, hegemony, orientation.
Science Fiction over the years has found its own significant position in the pantheon of literature. With our society engaging with science more and more with each passing day, the importance of science fiction as a literary genre is exponentially on the rise. Science fiction due to its imaginative texture provides a lot of scope for the writers to include an array of topics and contexts. Since the time of its proliferation as a literary genre, science fiction has been used as a political, social and cultural tool. Science fiction has moved a long way from being escapist stories of adventures and fairy tales to being subjects of social and cultural reformation. Mainstream writers have also used Science Fiction to comment on the contemporary problems of the society. Basically the futuristic tenor of the genre allows the writers to extrapolate the present conditions of the society and visualise it in an upcoming world. Science and technology, as recognised by the great scientists like Einstein have always been democratic and progressive. They are meant to expedite tasks and assist in societal development. But the massive power dynamic associated with it often results in the misuse of science and technology. In fact, in the present context it has turned into a Frankensteinsque monster which has been exploited by the power hungry capitalist forces for commercial benefits. Over the years, science and technology has turned into a tool of social and cultural exploitation by the dominant forces in the society. Time and again science fiction writers have turned the genre into a way of resistance against these malicious forces who have misutilized power and technology. Feminist science fiction is such a genre in which these kind of narratives thrive. Science fiction until the 1960s and 1970s had been a very patriarchal genre due to the social construct that machines and devices are only dealt with by men and the women folk do not have much to do with it. And it was reiterated by the almost negligent participation of women science fiction writers, the marginalisation of women characters in science fiction narratives and the general presumption about science fiction being a masculine genre due to its ‘non artistic’ texture. With the advent of second wave feminism in the 1960s, the women writers started combining sensationalism with the technological critique narratives and that gave thrust to feministic science fiction. Three texts in this period stood out: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1970).The Star Trek show on T.V also attracted the female audience because more than the machines and devices, the socio –cultural dynamics of the show was much stronger which gave the female section a lot to ponder upon and engage with. The series was mostly about the interaction with aliens who were treated with a sense of alienation or ‘otherness’. This was also appealing to the woman psyche because in a male dominated society, the fairer sex was always treated as the ‘other’ to the ‘center’. Sarah Lefanu has commented on the relationship between science fiction and feminism in the following way:
‘Science Fiction is feminism-friendly. With its metaphors of space and time travel, of parallel universe, of contradictions co-existing, of black holes and event horizons, Science Fiction is ideally placed for interrogative functions. The unities of 'self', whether in terms of bourgeois individualism or biological reductionism, can be subverted.' (Lefanu, 95). The basic thing common between feminist writings and science fiction is that both are rebellious in nature towards the established social and cultural conventions of the society and there is a conscious and constant effort to disorientate the status quo by both of them. The existing paper looks at two texts: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Woman at the Edge of time by Marge Piercy and tries to explore the alternate worlds that they have portrayed and the social, cultural and political implications emanating out from it.
Feminist utopian narratives basically examine the inter-play of the dynamics of power between the various sections of the society and re-orientate it with a more egalitarian approach (in most of the cases). As Frances Bartkowski states, “The feminist utopian novel is a place where theories of power can be addressed through the construction of narratives that test and stretch the boundaries of power in its operational details” (5). These narratives establish themselves as the critique of the present conventions and try to redesign the working mechanism of the society. Ann Keinhorst argues that ‘critical utopias’ are different from ‘traditional utopias’ in more ways than one. Critical utopian narratives take the reader to an altogether new world. They “offer possible historical alternatives to the present” (91) that are rooted in a “flexible and alterable” now rather than a “predetermined” future (96). The critical utopia differs from the traditional utopia in that it is “the vision of a future way of life… which presently carries the seed of potential historical reality” (98). Secondly, she opines that critical utopias such as Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, unlike conventional utopias, have a specifically feminist rather than humanist “emancipatory orientation” (97), one that is firmly rooted in interrogating both the present and the place of women in it. “Feminist utopia,” she states, “will not be replaced by ‘humanistic’ utopias –as long as the full humanity of women remains a utopian goal” (98). The utopian narratives are instrumental in highlighting the concerns, aspirations and fears of the common persons especially the women community who have been pushed to the periphery with respect to social control from time immemorial. Feminist utopian narratives take the readers to alternate physical worlds which not only are different to the existing social conditions but also inform the readers about the future repercussions or reverse situations of the present disparities that exist. The feminist utopian narratives are usually used by the writers to deconstruct the gender binaries in our prevalent system and explore them with new approaches. That gender is a social construct and its present conventions needs to re-examined is well known to the sane individual and these utopian narratives assist in that kind of analysis. In the essay “Feminist theory and science fiction”, Veronica Hollinger maintains that although science fiction “has often been called ‘the literature of change’, for the most part it has been slow to recognize the historical contingency and cultural conventionality of many of our ideas about sexual identity and desire, about gendered behaviour and about the ‘natural’ roles of women and men” (126). Feminist utopian writings are a welcome change because they are more accommodating in terms of gender and sexuality which the conservative male science fiction writers are circumspect of trying. It would not be wrong to ascertain science fiction as a form of revolutionary or resentment literature because it tries to deconstruct the accepted and coded forms of gender roles and notions. Thus science fiction can be seen as a collaborative field to feministic writings which creates opportunities women to inhabit in a world which is free from gender bias thus ensuring scope for optimum realisation of the fairer sex’s potential.
The first text in consideration is Women on the Edge of Time, a classic feminist novel by Marge Piercy. The novel is said to have created a special place for feministic science fiction writing. The novel is widely revered because it is one of the most famous representations of female dominated ‘utopias’. It endeavours to reclaim artificial gestation as a potential means of achieving gender equality. The book is a strong radical attack against patriarchal norms. Plot wise, it tells the story of a poor Hispanic woman named Connie who is transported to her dreams to Mattapoiset , an ideal future society where the sexes enjoy total equality. Her acquaintance in this dreamland is Luciente, a resident of Mattapoisett. The fictional world of Mattapoisett acts as a kind of utopian world in which there is complete sexual freedom for ladies. It is an extension of the idea propagated by the feminist movement of the 1960s where there was strong advocation for elimination or estrangement of women from procreation responsibilities as a means to achieve gender equality. The novel takes the help of the process of ‘ectogenesis’ in which women are freed from the task of breeding a child within their womb for months. This process was a topic of debate between feminists as one section believed that the ability to procreate preserves the individuality, uniqueness and unrivalled ‘capacity’ in the hands of the female sex. This was not merely a physical activity but a carrier of feministic aspirations and ideals. That men could not replicate the process, neither could challenge it but were dependent on it for their off-springs was a means of subverting patriarchal hegemony. In Piercy’s utopian society, cultivating a brooder society for artificial gestation is always a pre-determined decision. The character of Luciente introduces Connie to this process of ectogenosis and thus presents a paradigm shift in gender politics which leads to an ‘equal status for women’. It is termed as a ‘necessary evil’ for achieving the goal of sovereignty for women’. Piercy depicts a world in which a feminist form of social anarchism exists as exemplified by the process of total sexual license and complete autonomy to the women folks in terms of gender roles. Pregnancy and child birth are carried through artificial wombs and there is absolutely no need of women being subjected to excruciating pain arising out of this processes. Set in the 1970s the book follows a fairly decade old ideation of gender equality and more or less depicts a world that is devoid of ‘manly interference’. It is a completely subversive attitude to look at the current problems and there is no effort on the part of the author to opt for a mediating path. There is no absolutely no scope of having a mutually inclusive kind of society where there is space for the male section of the society. Thus this novel comes together as a book which eliminates male activity. This outlook remains a bone of contention for many female scholars who believed that this is a kind of escapist vision which is temporal and will not fulfil the basic underlying aim of achieving women equality in a society that accommodates both men and women.
In an important scene of the text Connie who is from the traditional world disapproves of the existing social rituals of the Mattapoisett world. At one point she tells “She felt angry. Yes, how dare any man share that pleasure? These women thought they had won, but they had abandoned to men the last refuge of women. What was special about being a woman here? They had given it all up, they had let men steal from them the last remnants of ancient power, those sealed in blood and milk” (Piercy, 134). Thus the author contradicts her own theory of the utopian world being unsure of its extreme feminine anarchy. This also vindicates the ambiguity of Utopia which is often a story of ‘no-where’ written by those who have not been to that no-where land. Connie’s lack of freedom has been aptly captured in the beginning of the novel when she is subjected to brain surgery without her permission. The physical act of subjecting an individual under the knife without her consent and no valid reason is used as a process akin to ‘rape’. Not only it is forceful but it dehumanises the person and subjects the individual to grave psychological scars and results in lack of self- esteem and also facilitates the growth of schizophrenic tendencies. This act of scissoring thus acts as a metaphor for rape in the novel. The state in the novel has been unkind on her, it has taken away her daughter, killed her love and she is left alone to survive on welfare. She is already subjected to a lot of tribulations in her life mainly due to her coloured origin and being a ‘female’. But still the society is hell-bent on thrusting more bad experiences on her in order to glorify the status quo of the society in which females are the ‘second sex’ and thus should be given an appropriate treatment in order to maintain the orientation. The character of Connie is financially dependent on others.
Economics is of paramount importance in Connie’s life. In a capitalist society, it is financial power that gives the person a sense of dignity and relevance. “Usually a sensation of repetition upon waking was a waking to: again bills, again hunger, again pain, again loss, again trouble. Again, no Claud, again no Angelina, again the rent due, again no job, no hope” (Piercy 33). After the death of her pick –pocket companion Claud she is completely helpless moneywise and hence she needs other avenues of income for which she does not have proper skills neither resources. This is a demonstration of complete failure of social machinery which has been aptly demonstrated by the treatment of Connie by the society. That the society is in a constant impulsive endeavour of exerting its ideological functions on the individual through violent means is reiterated repeatedly in the text. The society in which Connie lives does not believe in equanimity but applies the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle. This surely has effect on persons who do not have adequate resources at their disposal. This kind of mismatch is being critiqued upon by the author who takes a strong stand against it by creating a complete female centric world in ‘Mattapoiset’ which seems to be more of a gender reversed reconfiguration of the unjust regulations carried out in the male dominated society. That a completely normal lady is taken forcefully to the mental hospital and the mental health experts are hell-bent on making her feel sick about herself speaks about the debasement of institutions by the capitalist forces who want everything to be ‘fall in line’ with their ideology. “As long as that ethos includes the sexist and racist attitudes of the larger society, female and non-white male patients will be treated differently (less ethically) than the white male patients.” (Piercy 172). Although the novel has been accused of reducing women’s capacity of self-determination, the text acts as a mirror to contemporary problems of the society whose treatment of coloured women is severely questionable. The very existence of such a society is questionable where the foundations do not adhere to social equality and the distribution of economic and cultural resources is not uniform and democratic. The quest for finding a utopian respite prompts the author to create a land like Mattapoisset. Perhaps the author through this point of radicalism points out to the fact that in the near future the dynamics of the society would subvert and there will be complete female dominance. Thus an egalitarian society is a figment of imagination which is almost impossible to achieve. Thus, this text serves as a very important component of utopian fiction where a new society is constructed by completely minimising the influence of the male intervention on social dynamics.
The next text in consideration is ‘The Female Man by Joanna Russ. It is a critically acclaimed book which includes four worlds in different times and spaces. The four major characters belonging to these four worlds are: Jeanine, who is a librarian who still thinks that nothing happened in USA or the world, neither the second world war took place and no great depression occurred. Joanna is a college professor of the late 60s America who is also the narrator, protagonist and authorial voice. Janet is the lady from the utopian world of Whileaway. The fourth character is Jael, an assassin who is violent and she comes from a polarised space where there are clear demarcations between ‘manland’ and ‘womenland’. The novel is a landmark text with the book advocating for a classless society without government with strong affiliations towards the natural world. “Along the 1960s and 1970s, Russ and her contemporaries introduced a profound change, positioning the female protagonist as a complete individual capable of all constructive and destructive activities entirely outside of any relationship with the male identity of western myths” (Albinsky 160). The author through the plot intellectualises the concept of women’s rights and tries to analyse it from a ‘male-less’ perspective by making the land of Whileaway free from males who have all died in a plague.
The world of Whileaway is very much different to the world of Jeanine and Joanna who live in ‘our Earth’. Joanna wants to become a ‘female man’, only through which she believes she can live her life to her fullest. By being influenced by Janet and the envisioned utopian world of ‘Whileaway’, she wants to earn the epithet ‘Female Man’ because she wants to deconstruct the contradictions based on gender in her society by the process of unification of these contraries. As the narrative progresses in part ix of the book, she beautifully encapsulates the well designed, systematic curbing of the potential of the women community by the society whose patriarchal dominant intentions are ubiquitously present in the working mechanism of the social institutions and in the form of moral and public policing. That Janet liberates them from this kind of oppression is difficult to accept for them initially but later on they get attached to the radical contours of Whileaway. As Joanna describes in the novel
In college, educated women (I found out) were frigid; active women (I knew) were neurotic; women (we all knew) were timid, incapable, dependent, nurturing, passive, intuitive, emotional, unintelligent, obedient, and beautiful. You can always get dressed up and go to a party. Woman is the gateway to another world; Woman is the earth-mother; Woman, is the eternal siren; Woman is purity; Woman is carnality; Woman has intuition; Woman is the life-force; Woman is selfless love. (Russ 107).
Through the use of the four central characters, Joanna Russ questions gendered identities and their relevance in settings different from earth and also varied in time durations. The techniques of time travel and different worlds are intertwined and the plot is constructed on multiple layers of meaning in order to add a new dimension to the concurrent differences that we find in our eco system which are driven by social factors like education, race and gender. In the male dominated genre of sf it has been repeatedly found that women have been purposefully pushed to the fringes thus mirroring their peripheral existence in the society. The roles played by women characters as depicted in science fiction texts are in no means emancipatory and thus act as a reminder and reiteration of ‘naturalistic’ stereotyped roles meant for women. All the four female characters in the novel present a unified picture of womanhood. The different configurations available in the different portrayed worlds and the interlinking of characters and contradictions point out to a conscious endeavour on the part of the author to bring about a change in cultural awareness in the contemporary patriarchal society and also to inculcate holistic consciousness in the future generations. Janet represents a very completely different woman in comparison to the more traditional Jeanine and Joanna. According to Joanna, Janet is “whom we [Joanna and her contemporaries] don’t believe in and whom we deride but who is in secret our saviour from utter despair” (Russ, 212-13).
The sexual independence that Janet enjoys in the land of Whileaway, the utopian land is very much different from what is practised in the land of Jeanine and Joanna and even Jael who comes from a very volatile setting. As a character she is way too liberal and has much more affinity towards violence. She has more propensity towards radical feministic activities which seem intriguing and disgusting to Jeanine and Joanna at the same time. While the process of sex converts the women folks to weak objects of pleasure often playing second fiddle, Janet portrays them new avenues of self- pleasure like masturbation and homosexual relationships. While it is not utopian at all to have this distinctly different modes of self -pleasure but to have ways which could free women from ‘sexual slavery’ was completely novel and in a sense’ utopian for the female folks. Even if we look at the process of motherhood in the novel we will find that the process of parthogenesis was followed thus liberating women from the traditional modes of motherhood. It destabilised the conventional modes of parenting. It was a means of liberating women from heterosexual oppression. For the ladies at Whileaway , parenting was a ‘leisure’ activity they generally undertook at around thirty years of age. Joanna acknowledged the pressures of maternity being a patriarchal stigma created by the traditional society when she says in the text “Besides what about the children? Mothers have to sacrifice themselves to their children, both male and female, so that the children
Disapprove all you like. Pedant! Let me give you something to carry away with you, friend: that “plague” you talk of is a lie. I know. . . . It is I who gave you your “plague,” my dear, about which you can now poetize and moralize to your hearts content; I, I, I, I am the plague, Janet Evason. I and the war I fought built your world for you, I and those like me, we gave you 1000 years of peace and love and the Whileawayan flowers nourish themselves on the bones of the men we have slain. (Russ 211).
Utopias are recurrent in literature due to the continuous dissatisfaction with the present social conventions. As the world is moving rapidly towards a post human age, utopian literature is gathering new dynamics. Utopias are escapist modes of literature that not only give the readers some respite from the hard realities of life, it is instrumental in creating alternate worlds. Dystopias are very much straight in depicting debilitating milieus and spaces over imagined periods of time, but utopias are ironical attempts that try to glorify a very contradictory situation with respect to the corresponding times. The feminist utopias have a dual responsibility...they need to find a balanced world which is equally sensitive to the demands of the women folk as well as establishing a sense of equanimity with respect to caste, creed, gender and language. With the present times full of disturbing developments including apocalyptic changes in environment, the uncertainty over future has gripped humanity and there is a great affinity for speculative literature that speaks about alternate futures. Although there has been blatant criticism about these ‘feel good’ literature being too good to be true, factual analysis reveals that most of the scientific developments that have taken place in the contemporary society has been found to be inspired by these speculative fiction.
The two above mentioned novels present variable views of a more inclusive, liberal and egalitarian society for women. But there seems to be an eagerness to disrupt or eliminate male activity as something ‘contagious’ which seems ‘too hard to be gullible’ in these contemporary times where ‘female inclusivity’ in society has improved by leaps and bounds. In contemporary literature, sci-fi concepts and tropes have been used extensively to portray future societies which are much more liberating for women. But as time has passed the significance of these two texts prolifically increase due to the fact that they were written in the era of ‘second wave feminism’ which was instrumental in reconfiguring the patriarchy based codes of social regulation to a large context. All in all, they presented theoretical frameworks in which present age writers could construct new women-centric narratives and try to add some semblance of balance in the ‘monkey-balancing’ of power equations that co-exist between ‘male’ and ‘female’ in today’s times. The four world involving the four women have been carefully constructed so as to ensure that a sense of didactism emanates from the text that the revolution for women’s rights is not a monolithic movement but the prerogative of women from all sections and part of the world. This heterogenic discourse between the four women serves as an inspiration for the future women generations to dismantle the imposed chains of patriarchal stigmas and collaborate beyond the barriers of nationality, language, caste, race and ethnicity. As Bammer observes this novel reinvigorates women sensitivity against the prevalent imbalance of power equations and motivates them for “a movement towards utopia in a journey of changes we ourselves create day by day in the process of living” (Bammer 100). Thus these utopias go a long way to establishing new modes of critical thinking as well as providing researchers and social scientists remedial measures to fix emerging problems in the present world.
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