Feminist Science Fiction Fans discussion

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message 1: by Shomeret (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments I am not starting this thread because I think I ought to propose the group's definition, but because I am wondering what group members are thinking about it. Based on what I've seen, my definition is much narrower than other participants.

So what do you think? Is all science fiction written by women feminist? Why or why not? What would make it a feminist science fiction book for you? Does feminism have to be the central theme of the book?

I think this is a valuable discussion for the group regardless of whether we have a list because it would provide more clarity and more focus.


message 2: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments The Wikipedia has a long article about feminist SF which ought to reflect current usage and, succintly, the definition is: "focused on theories that include but are not limited to gender inequality, sexuality, race, economics, and reproduction. Feminist SF is political"
The group's description (which is subject to change) features a similar definition : "that explores feminist issues such as women's roles in society. Feminist Sci-Fi poses questions about gender roles, sexuality, reproduction, and power structures between men and women"

I would generally agree with the gist of such definitions but they aren't specific enough to be used to discriminate between what can reasonably be called feminist SF and SF about some of the same themes written by some kind of reactionary. A stridently anti-feminist book would have feminism as its central theme and might well be written by a woman.
In other words, I think that feminist politics are required for fiction to qualify as feminist. But I'd rather not have to define what politics are and aren't feminist so some other approach would be handy...


message 3: by Shomeret (last edited Jan 28, 2017 09:07PM) (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Yes, there are simple minded matriarchal dystopias that take as their thesis that if women rule they will be evil tyrants over men. Their corollary is that such evil tyranny is the goal of feminism rather than equality. I think we could all agree that those books aren't feminist science fiction even though feminism is their theme.


message 4: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Are you kidding or are there actually people who write that kind of thing? I have only the vaguest notion of what most people read or write (like, all I could tell you about the Left Behind books is that they involve the rapture) so I wouldn't know. But all the stories I can think of right now which feature women ruling over men, even tyrannically, aren't anti-feminist. Maybe this is a case of repressed memories.


message 5: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments I had never heard of Pirincci but oddly enough that's exactly how I imagined my hypothetical anti-feminist writer would be like.
Moving away from caricatures, I'm trying to dredge up repressed memories and I can think of a much more mainstream book (no less than a Hugo, Nebula and Locus winner) which features feminism and feminist themes without being feminist: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... Apologies if the mention brought back bad memories!

The dystopian/utopian thing also features in the group description but I think it's too limiting (I remember whining about that way back).
An example: you all agree Ancillary Justice is feminist SF, right? It's fine if you don't agree of course (do explain!) but, at least the way I read it, it's got equality yet it's not utopian.


message 6: by Outis (last edited Jan 29, 2017 05:38AM) (new)

Outis | 301 comments Perhaps you could explain why you don't consider Stars in My Pocket to be feminist then. I haven't read it but I trust the problem isn't that the book has a reactionary facet (as with Forever War).
Ancillary has more than the pronoun thing going for it in the feminist department by the way. But it's not explicitely feminist in the way Le Guin can be.

In order to make clear what the issue is with Forever War and to spare me some typing, here's a random link I just found but which generally aligns with my views: https://deepspacewhine.wordpress.com/...


message 7: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Maybe the focus on females as opposed to males might be something worth including in a definition. The thing is, that would arguably rule out The Left Hand of Darkness which has a male main character and no important female character. Its feminist content is arguably secondary as well. Yet everybody agrees that book is feminist SF, right?
Perhaps there ought to be an exception for alien biology. Do you all think of Butler's Adulthood Rites as feminist SF for instance? The main character is nominally male.


message 8: by Shomeret (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Outis wrote: "Are you kidding or are there actually people who write that kind of thing? I have only the vaguest notion of what most people read or write (like, all I could tell you about the Left Behind books i..."

Most of these anti-feminist matriarchal dystopias are old and are from "the pulp era".

Certainly, a book can deal with feminist themes and actually be feminist if the central character is male, has a fluid gender or has a gender that is not readily defined.

Books where individuals can choose their gender or can change it at anytime tend to refute gender essentialism (e.g "all women are nurturing" or "all men are violent") There is a type of feminism that is essentialist. The idea that no traits should be associated with a particular gender is core to my approach to feminism, but not everyone agrees. There are many well-known feminists who are gender essentialists. This is one of the reasons why it can be difficult to decide the definition of feminist science fiction.


message 9: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Yes, I wouldn't want to try to disqualify Alice Sheldon as a feminist SF author simply because her essentialism rubs me the wrong way.
But I don't think fictional gender fluidity refutes anything. It can be worth considering counterfactuals and I doubt that most essentialists would object to entertaining the notion of fluidity. But if you take fluidity very far, wouldn't you end up losing all connections to feminism at some point? I don't think Left Hand goes that far since the basis for feminism remains very much alive in the main character's head (as well as the reader's).

Since you said in your opening post that you have a narrow definition of feminist SF and that you're now saying that maleness or fluidity isn't the issue, what in your opinion would disqualify stories?
Is there a popular book generally thought of as feminist SF that you would define differently?

I'm not sure what you mean by "no traits should be associated with a particular gender" by the way. An essentialist might mean that one should associate no traits in addition to the ones which are naturally associated. But if you intend to remove every association, would you not end up an utterly empty and therefore useless notion?


As to highjacking the thread, if anyone feels someone (myself included) is doing so they may suggest moderation publically or privately.
If you don't speak up, don't expect me to moderate anything other than spam and Nazis.


message 10: by Shomeret (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Re no traits associated with gender- I am referring to character traits not biological traits. It's demonstrably true that women are born with wombs and men are not. It is not demonstrably true that all women are naturally good mothers. Aside from biological facts, general statements about women or men are oppressive to those to whom that general statement doesn't apply. My understanding of feminism is that it's about not oppressing people based on their gender. It's also about women having the freedom to choose. The assumption that all women are necessarily good mothers can be the basis of social policies that force all women to become mothers. There are a number of dystopias that proceed from this premise. If such a situation for women were to be portrayed rhapsodically as a utopia because all women are following their "true natures", I would not count that book as feminist. If there were a book that portrayed all women as warriors and considered that utopian, I would not count that book as feminist either.


message 11: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Some women were born without a womb for various reasons, none of which makes them unwomen.
As with character traits, generalities are not verified in every case and can be stated in an oppressive way.

I expect we'd all agree that the kind of coercion you're talking about has no part in any kind of utopia.


message 12: by Dan (last edited Feb 04, 2017 10:48AM) (new)

Dan | 5 comments Thanks for asking this question Shomeret!

(I have to admit, I first joined this group because I assumed the group name meant "Feminist Fans of SF&F" rather than "Fans of Feminist SF&F"...)

The discussion has been really interesting! I feel like I keep coming back to the idea of feminisms vs. feminism, particularly when y'all bring up whether writers like Alice Sheldon (gender essentialism), and/or Octavia Butler (I interpret the Xenogenesis books to be just as much about the experience of colonialism as a "straightforward... [exploration of] the differences and power imbalances between men and women" as Juniper puts it, if not more so), and/or Ursula K. LeGuin should be included. If a line needs to be drawn somewhere, I mostly agree with what Juniper says about "looking for stories that question the aforementioned gender roles and power structures". I think feminist science fiction uses science fiction tropes and characteristics to discuss kyriarchical status quos in a critical manner. The criticism of the status quo part is pretty key for me, though it does depend on what you believe the status quo to be. Ultimately, though, I am most interested in using a feminist critical lens to look at any and all science fiction.


message 13: by Shomeret (last edited Feb 04, 2017 02:24PM) (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Dan wrote: "Thanks for asking this question Shomeret!

(I have to admit, I first joined this group because I assumed the group name meant "Feminist Fans of SF&F" rather than "Fans of Feminist SF&F"...)

The di..."


I don't see feminism as a primary theme of Octavia Butler's work. I was completely bewildered by the choice of Fledgling by this group. I think it's a brilliant book about race, but I'm not sure I see gender roles or expectations as even a sub-theme there. I read it some time ago. I'd be happy to be proven wrong by this group's discussion.

This is why I said that I must have a narrower definition of feminism. Many of the books that I saw being nominated didn't fit my definition of feminist science fiction because they didn't seem to deal explicitly with feminist themes. I started the thread because I wanted to be clearer about the consensus of the group.


message 14: by Outis (last edited Feb 04, 2017 02:27PM) (new)

Outis | 301 comments This group has chosen off-topic material for group reads many times. So far as I know, no one made the argument that Fledgling was feminist SF.
If you'd like this group to discuss more topical material, I would suggest you lead by example and bring up for discussion whatever you think is truly feminist SF. Make a good case and I bet you'd convince even those who might tend to disagree with you when it comes to politics.

@Dan: I don't think anyone was questioning whether Le Guin was a feminist author. But I don't think that everything she wrote is feminist. It's Left Hand in particular that was discussed above, not her whole output.
In the same way, I don't think anyone has claimed Sheldon or Butler were inherently un-feminist. FWIW, everything I can recall reading by Sheldon had a feminist angle but I wouldn't say the same thing about Butler.
In order to come up with robust definitions, I think edge borderline cases (such as Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand) would be useful. Do bring up some titles, especially if you can think of popular ones.

A problem with criticism of "the status quo" is that one can do that from a number of angles. To put it simply, it can also be done from the right. And in this day and age, where most of us live the momentum is on the right.


message 15: by Outis (last edited Feb 05, 2017 08:18AM) (new)

Outis | 301 comments Shomeret wrote about individual freedom in the face of gender norms and perhaps meant to allude to the abortion issue as well. These two items ought to consensual.
Perhaps less consensually, the whole notion of religion might be linked to gender norms and the whole notion of reverence for life as such might be linked to the abortion issue.
Would someone volunteer to spell out "how we want to see them discussed"?

Something a bit different which I see often in what I consider to be feminist SF is less normative and more playful counterfactual speculation about the bases for gendered social institutions such as marriage (that is institutions dealing with reproduction, property and the legitimation of coercion).
One way this can be done is by taking away gender (either through counterfactual biology or counterfactual socialization) or by positing something more complicated than a binary. But that can work just as well by positing gender equality and similar imbalances of power separate from gender or simply by imagining different ways in which the gendered stereotypes we are familiar with might fit into counterfactual institutions. Some works such as Ancillary Justice mix these approaches.
Butler's stories involving wholly separate species in reproduction don't quite fit into that mould but I can't remember anyone else doing that right now.
And again, I'm not sure how to skillfully exclude reactionary versions of the above. But maybe there's no such thing because reactionaries aren't interested in doing something more interesting than projecting patriarchy onto women?

Of course the problem with lists is the risk of omission. But that's a risk I'm more willing to take than the risk of overlooking loopholes which might allow stuff we'd like to exclude. Adding items to a list shouldn't create problems.


message 16: by Shomeret (last edited Feb 05, 2017 09:40AM) (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Oh I agree that alternative marriage and species with different types of gender or no gender can be feminist, but not necessarily.

It could be interesting to discuss such novels from the perspective of whether we think they are feminist.


message 17: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments So how would that kind of thing not be feminist in your opinion? Other than in the sense that the main focus of a novel (as opposed to a shorter work) might be elsewhere, I mean.
I guess someone might do something boorish with that stuff (kind of like Forever War's extraordinarily boorish take on the integration of women in the army) but whoever actually did that while engaging in more sophisticated worldbuilding than Sharknado's?


message 18: by Shomeret (new)

Shomeret | 37 comments Re is alternative marriage feminist--Is Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury feminist? It's a very controversial book. There are some great female characters, but is that the same thing as being feminist? How do we understand the sexual politics of that society?


message 19: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments So far as I know (which is next to nothing), there's nothing counterfactual going on with gender in Courtship Rite, only extreme resource constraints which translate into bizarre reproductive practices. Do tell if I'm missing something.
Since you wrote "I agree that alternative marriage and ..." I had assumed that phrase was a shorthand for what I had just written. If instead you were referring to variants of prevalent forms of marriage such as group marriages, obviously "alternative marriage" ain't especially feminist!


message 20: by Nick (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "In other words, I think that feminist politics are required for fiction to qualify as feminist. But I'd rather not have to define what politics are and aren't feminist so some other approach would be handy... ."

I think you hit the nail on the head here!

If we're defining 'feminist SF' as SF that promotes feminist politics then we're doomed because feminism is an extremely broad term and different branches of feminism disagree with each other.
This also seems like a mistake because fiction that is explicitly pushing a particular political viewpoint is usually quite bad, while good fiction is often very nuanced.

I think if we're trying to define what work we're going to read then it's more helpful to define 'feminist SF' as 'science fiction that promotes interesting or useful discussion from a feminist perspective'.

This definition would exclude most reactionary works, because the only response to that sort of ranting is just: 'Well, it's obviously wrong. It's so wrong it's fractally wrong.' You might have fun tearing it apart, but you're not really going to learn anything from it.
However, it does leave a gap for well-written reactionary works. If they're really good then you'd have to work to refute them, which would be a useful exercise.

It's leaves out a lot of the classics like Asimov or Philip K. Dick. PKD has nothing much to say about sex or gender, except that wives are shrews. Asimov barely even has any women at all.

It includes Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice, because even though they're not pushing any particular feminist opinions, they do make the reader think about sex and gender.


message 21: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments That may be the most workable definition proposed so far. But the only way it can be applied in an objective way is to admit ANY feminist perspective as "a feminist perspective", which would make your definition quite broad.
While I have never thought of PKD as a writer of feminist SF for instance, it's definitely not the case that he had "nothing much to say about sex or gender, except that wives are shrews". While dated, some of his stories deal with sexism and he did try to write from the perspective of women dissatisfied with the prevailing gender norms of his culture. For people interested in the history and pitfalls of the progressive male gaze, I think there is stuff worth discussing in his work. Not that it's groundbreaking in this respect but its popularity makes it significant.

I'm not sure what's bad about pushing politics in fiction. I'm more often annoyed by political views which are implicitely taken for granted.
Le Guin for instance has a political angle which gets noticed because it's so distinctive. And she often pushed her views overtly. Yet people still love her work.
One heavy-handed author I remember people complaining about from your perspective is Robinson. But you like his work!


message 22: by Nick (last edited Mar 11, 2017 02:36AM) (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "The only way it can be applied in an objective way is to admit ANY feminist perspective as "a feminist perspective", which would make your definition quite broad"

Yes, but the number of topics that provoke feminist perspectives is smaller than the number of feminist perspectives, and easier to agree on. For example, people in the group might disagree vehemently about the politics of reproduction: one might think that women will never be free until gestation is done by machines, one might think that motherhood is the sacred source of women's power; each might denounce the other as un-feminist. But they will both agree (hopefully) that a book which touches on the potential future of reproduction is useful to read from a feminist perspective. The key is to have the disagreement about the book, not before the book.

Outis wrote: "While dated, some of his stories deal with sexism and he did try to write from the perspective of women dissatisfied with the prevailing gender norms of his culture. "

I am happy to be wrong on this one because I haven't read all his work. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a while back, and Time Out of Joint more recently. I remembered the lead having a nagging wife that he disagreed with in the former, and in the latter there is one nice wife (supportive, but in no way driving the plot) and one awful one (stupid and self-involved) but its the men who take all the action and do all the thinking.

Outis wrote: "I'm not sure what's bad about pushing politics in fiction. I'm more often annoyed by political views which are implicitely taken for granted."

Then I think we agree and I'm just expressing myself badly. I always think that books with taken-for-granted political views are pushing politics because it's effectively saying that this politics is reality.
I would count LeGuin as political, but definitely not pushing politics. In The Dispossessed her communist and her capitalist planets are both flawed, they're both bad for certain personality types, they both encourage some forms of suffering and avoid others.
Robinson, I think isn't pushing his politics because he's happy to show it going wrong. Most of the revolutionaries end up with a bullet in the back of their head!

And both Robinson and LeGuin put character first and politics second (although LeGuin does it much better!). Robinson has his characters designing their future utopia, but he doesn't hesitate to show some characters as motivated entirely by narcissism and power-hunger, others are ineffectual etc.

The only book that springs to mind as very bad at this is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein presents his libertarian utopia as literally perfect, which obviously requires him to engage in some serious distortions of human nature, reducing his characters to charicatures. But it's not a great example, because I enjoy Heinlein's optimism so much that I don't mind how ridiculous it is!


message 23: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments It's a rare bird who has read everything by PKD (I certainly did not). He was often writing very fast for a specific market.
And while I think you're selling both of the books you mentionned short, they're certainly not the ones with the most developped female characters. Among his most famous books, try Martian Time-Slip for instance. Again, definitely not a feminist masterpiece but in this one he did try to paint a fuller picture of his culture instead of focusing on the SF aspect of the story (which I assume was only included so that the book would sell).

Maybe I would have understood what you meant about politics straight away if I had read any Heinlein (or Ayn Rand).
By my standards, The Dispossessed is quite preachy when it comes to politics. If UKL wanted to be even handed, why is the subtitle/tagline "an ambiguous utopia"? Did the publisher make that up without consulting her? Of course the communist utopia has fundamental problems (else it would be a boring utopia) but in her capitalist society most people are oppressed regardless of personality. As far as I can tell, even the right wingers who happen to like the anti-authoritarian aspect of the book are very much aware that the author isn't one of them. Indeed, one of the points of contention is how she made the capitalist state responsible for the utopia's worst problems.


message 24: by Nick (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "If UKL wanted to be even handed, why is the subtitle/tagline "an ambiguous utopia"?"

But surely 'ambiguous' suggests an attempt at even-handedness? If it were to be one-sided would it not just be 'a utopia'?

Yes, she's not an right-wing libertarian (in the american style) but it's hard to see that she's promoting communism when you see how Shevek suffers there, and how much his mother suffered. And the whole famine thing!

Yes, the capitalists did try to undermine the communists - that may be a point of contention for some pro-capitalist readers. I guess we can each judge for ourselves whether that seems realistic. :)


message 25: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments It would be a boring utopia, which means that the main story would have been about something else entierly.
There are many other communist societies in SF settings (including UKL's Hainish setting) but people usually don't read them as politically polemic because their unambiguously utopian nature imply that there is no motivation for any character to dissent and draw the reader's attention to the fact that nobody is spending any money and so forth.

Even-handed would be a pair of complementary and ambiguous utopias perhaps? People might even move from one to the other according to their inclination.
As it is, the book has an arid "mining colony" (effectively a prison planet thanks to the embargo) turned into an semi-utopia by communism and a paradisiac planet turned into "hell" by capitalism (a most comfortable hell for the rich, granted). This penned by a anarchist-leaning writer who was reading and corresponding with communist theoreticians... but maybe she was also corresponding with Milton Friedman at the same time? :-)
So yeah, I'd say she was promoting communism in many of her books. It's just more obvious in this one.


message 26: by Nick (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "Maybe she was also corresponding with Milton Friedman at the same time?"

Haha! Yeah, I'm not seeing a lot of his influence here! But on the other hand, I wouldn't ever want to live on Arras. I don't think any of the worlds she presents in this book are particularly appealing.


message 27: by M.H. (new)

M.H. Davidson | 1 comments Outis hit the nail on the head quoting the Wikipedia definition of Feminist SF "... Feminist SF is Political". Also in Wikipedia '... politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community ... "

If I were to qualify a work of fiction as being Feminist SF, one of the central themes of the book would have to take a look at gender politics as it impacts women.

Based on that, I don't believe the gender of the writer is a determining factor.

I have a very literal mind (to a fault at times) so this definition may be a little too rigid for others.


message 28: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments Trouble is, the trans plot to attack women in bathrooms would for instance arguably fit your definition.
Hopefully no one is trying to pass transphobia as "a feminist perspective" anymore and therefore my hypothetical bit of Dixie fiction wouldn't fit Nick's definition.

Nick wrote: "I wouldn't ever want to live on Arras. I don't think any of the worlds she presents in this book are particularly appealing."
Sure, there are other places in that galaxy where I'd rather live.
But consider who most of the book's readers likely are. If we had been shown one of these great places, we might have thought "wouldn't it be nice to live there? A pity we don't have the same technological and cultural resources. Maybe some day in a distant future..." That kind of SF communism is barely political.
The book instead shows us some of the shit Shevek and his acquaintances had to put up with... and yet our hero would rather have that than to live comfortably in the moral bankruptcy that is capitalism. Both Urras and Anarres are broken in such obvious ways that any of us can figure out how either might be improved, just like improving our society needn't involve any great intellectual feat if we had the resolve. That I think is what the take away was supposed to be, not that some magical ideology can solve every problem.


message 29: by Nick (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "Trouble is, the trans plot to attack women in bathrooms would for instance arguably fit your definition.
Hopefully no one is trying to pass transphobia as "a feminist perspective" anymore"


Well, radical feminism obviously does still exist. But I don't know if it needs to concern us, because I don't think I've ever seen it in SF. All the SF I can think of that concerns changing sex or gender looks forward to a future where it will be much easier and more commonplace (I'm thinking mostly of Iain Banks The Culture here).

Outis wrote: "any of us can figure out how either might be improved, just like improving our society needn't involve any great intellectual feat if we had the resolve. That I think is what the take away was supposed to be, not that some magical ideology can solve every problem."

I am actually not sure if we're disagreeing on anything, then? Maybe the definition of Utopia? It seems to me that LeGuin portrays all her worlds as flawed, so she's not pushing an particular political angle and none of them is a true utopia (i.e. a perfect society). She certainly was a leftie herself, but the communist planet just isn't attractive enough to count as propaganda for communism.


message 30: by Outis (new)

Outis | 301 comments We very much do disagree! In fairness though, we probably disagree even more about other books (such as Robinson's).


message 31: by Nick (new)

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Outis wrote: "We very much do disagree! In fairness though, we probably disagree even more about other books (such as Robinson's)."

Fair enough, we could do it as a group read at some point and really hash it out! :)


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