In 1970 Joanna Russ published an essay, "The Image of Women in Science Fiction," which discussed the ways in which science fiction portrayed relations between the sexes: "In general, the authors who write reasonably sophisticated and literate science fiction (Clarke, Asimov, for choice) see the relations between the sexes as those of present-day, white, middle-class suburbia." Later in the same essay, Russ notes that science fiction at that point had begun "to attempt the serious presentation of men and women as equals, usually by showing them at work together," but that this was a "reflection of present reality, not genuine speculation." When Russ talks explicitly about science fiction written by women, she categorises it under four headings, including "ladies' magazine fiction" (which, famously, relies on "the sweet, gentle, intuitive little heroine" to solve "an interstellar crisis by mending her slip or doing something equally domestic after her big, heroic husband has failed") and "galactic suburbia," the latter explicitly linked to the earlier comment on work by the likes of Clarke and Asimov.
Russ's impatience with portrayals of women in science fiction, even when written by women, is evident in her casual dismissal of "galactic suburbia" stories. These writers, and their characters, were clearly not bold enough for her taste, and yet, as Lisa Yaszek's Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women's Science Fiction suggests, Russ is perhaps hasty in dismissing the work of post-war women SF writers, or rather, in using its deficiencies in order to foreground the emergent feminist sf. To do so, Yaszek argues, is to overlook the significance of women's SF in the development of feminist SF writing; her intention is to recover the work of this post-war generation of female writers and reaffirm its historical significance. Although many of these writers write about conservative sex and gender ideals, Yaszek argues that this doesn't necessarily mean that they support them. Instead, she suggests that many female writers are using the images and tropes of science fiction to provide a powerful and nuanced critique of the new world order.
If America's entry into World War 2 saw women being recruited to the general workforce, the end of hostilities saw them being told it was their patriotic duty to retreat to the domestic sphere, and to relinquish their jobs to returning solders. How best to make this loss of freedom seem more palatable? Developments in technology are reflected in the creation of better household appliances which will release women from the drudgery of housework in order to devote more time to raising their children to be good, compliant citizens, and satisfying their husbands' needs, while maintaining control on the domestic front. Rampant consumerism was represented (as it so often is now) as a patriotic duty. During the Cold War, women were represented by government as warriors on the domestic front; they were no longer civilians but vital in maintaining the security of hearth and home.
Post-war women SF writers addressed all these issues and more, Yaszek suggests. Their work is recognisably SF because of its use of, for example, extrapolated futures, and because it uses classic SF story forms and tropes. However, she points out that this style of SF differs from earlier material in that it focuses much more on the effects of science and technology on women and families, and on the domestic arena in general. Stories are told from the perspective of women who seek to define, or redefine, themselves through familiar roles. These writers are using SF to explore their hopes for and their fears about the emerging post-war world and their position in it, which necessarily involves considering sex and gender. One might term it "feminism by stealth" (and clearly it did not satisfy Joanna Russ's need for a more iconoclastic type of feminist writing), but Yaszek's readings of such stories as Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother" (1948) and Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" (1955) are persuasive so far as they go.
And yet, I am left with one huge inescapable problem. When Yaszek talks of "Recovering Women's Science Fiction," what is it that she's trying to recover, exactly? Early in the book, she observes that in her research she has discovered almost 300 women writing between the end of the war and the rise of feminist sf. In the discussion, she mentions something over a dozen writers, maybe as many as eighteen, by name. The likes of Shirley Jackson, Judith Merril, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Zenna Henderson are hardly strangers to regular SF readers, while Katherine MacLean, Margaret St. Clair and Mildred Clingerman are by no means unknown either. Some names—Rosel George Brown and Cornelia Jessey—I don't know, but what of the rest? Yaszek notes several times that women SF writers are publishing under "decidedly feminine names," but given the propensity for genre writers to use gender-neutral names or to hide behind pseudonyms, can we be sure that Yaszek and her researchers caught them all?
And what is it that she has caught? Early on, Yaszek comments that "few if any of the members of the early SF community treated these women writers as a unified group with overlapping thematic concerns or narrative techniques" (p. 21). The reason for this is surely not difficult to see. It is easier to identify such themes or techniques in a group of stories if you can actually see that the writers are working as part of an identifiable group or there is evidence that they are actively engaged in some sort of dialogue with one another. While some writers, such as Merril, are associated with groups of male SF writers, there is no sense from Yaszek's account that many of the women writers were in contact with one another at all (if they were, I would dearly like to hear more about it). Likewise, their reasons for turning to writing sf, where known, are so disparate it is difficult to establish any sense of immediate connection between them. For Merril, SF provided the perfect literary vehicle for political dissent, while for Alice Eleanor Jones, the SF market was perhaps somewhere to place the 'offbeat' stories she couldn't publish in the glossier ladies' magazines where she generally appeared. Shirley Jackson acknowledged a long-standing interest in magic and the supernatural as "a convenient shorthand statement about the possibilities of human adjustment to what seems at best to be an inhuman world," and to publish in receptive SF markets would make perfect sense (p. 54). The motives of other writers, alas, remain opaque, and there is not always that much biographical information available. All this suggests that a number of the women SF writers dropped out of sight as much because they were moving in ones and twos in the chinks of the SF writing machine as because they wrote about the increasingly unfashionable galactic suburbs. Without the support of fellow writers, and with markets shrinking, it would have made economic sense to turn to other genre markets.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty facing Lisa Yaszek in presenting "women's science fiction" is the phenomenon's very evanescence. It lasted perhaps 25 years, squeezed in between the end of the Second World War and the feminist revival of the early 1970s. I'm willing to believe that there is a discrete body of work that focuses specifically on the techno-cultural issues Yaszek describes, yet it is difficult to disentangle it from the broader sweep of women writing feminist SF throughout the twentieth century (for examples of which see Justine Larbalestier's Daughters of Earth) or indeed to raise it above Russ's scornful dismissal. Yaszek's chapter pointing out how the concerns of women's science fiction were taken up by the feminist writers that came later sits as an uncomfortable and somewhat out of place conclusion to her discussion. Is this a discrete phenomenon or not?
I don't think that this is by any means the last word on the matter. Lisa Yaszek has done the science fiction community a great service in recognising and describing this brief literary "movement," as well as providing a preliminary cultural and technological context for it. And yet, I crave more. I'd like more information about the other writers Yaszek has identified (an appendix listing them would have been wonderful), and some sense of their relationship (or not) to the science fiction community, fans and writers. I feel too there is a deeper discussion to be had as to what these women were doing when they wrote.
And I hope that in her next book Lisa Yaszek is more kindly served by her publisher than on this occasion. There is an odd choppiness about some of the chapters, with repetitions of arguments, sometimes of sentences and phrases, as well as a sense that some arguments are more sketchily made than others. These are problems that should have been ironed out in the editing process; for that matter, there are more proofreading errors than I consider seemly in an academic work.
However, despite my reservations about the book's argument and production, I think nonetheless that it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about the nature of women's sf, in all its forms.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.