Size / / /

"When I was a child . . . I remember once I found an old book, full of old pictures. Of couples. In the pictures, the women were all shorter than the men. It looked very funny, to have all the women in all the pictures midgets. I said something about it to the tutor for my study-group aide. He told me that hundreds of years ago, on Earth, everybody used to think that women were shorter than men, because all the men would only go around with women who were shorter than they were and all the women would only go around with men who were taller than they were."

--Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton

I've always been fascinated by this particular passage in Triton, a passage which often passes unremarked amongst the novel's more obviously spectacular efflorescences of speculation about human gender and sexuality. Most readers notice that Triton recognizes 40 or 50 different genders and nine sexualities, but how many of us fully and consistently imagine a world in which the women are as big as the men? It's an interesting question, not least for the further conjecture that Bron, the dysfunctional protagonist of the novel, suggests to his counsellor, Brian, following the sex change intended to make him into his own ideal woman. Bron muses, "I've always wondered if perhaps, back then, women really weren't smaller; perhaps there's been some sort of evolutionary change in humanity that's increased women's size."

Deconstructing the Starships cover

Why the digression into Triton at the beginning of a review of Gwyneth Jones's Deconstructing the Starships, a first collection of critical writings by a highly acclaimed British SF writer? One of the essays in Jones' splendid collection, the rather eccentrically, if aptly, titled "Sex: The Brains of Female Hyena Twins," just happens to provide a brilliantly off-handed suggestion for why gender is associated with size differentiation in primates and thus why Bron's speculation about evolution is so beautifully ironic.

Contemplating the scientific study of sex, a topic remarkably rarely addressed by science fiction writers, Jones turns to a collection of scientific essays from the Eleventh International Conference on Comparative Physiology. In this somewhat dry sounding volume, The Differences Between the Sexes, Jones finds a great deal of information, including an article on primates which reveals that skeletal analysis indicates that at one time "female proto-gorillas, humans, chimps may have been as hunky as the males" and that size differentiation by sex may thus not be 'natural,' but the evolutionary effect of sexual selection. This information brings what may have seemed to some readers of Triton a tendentiously ideological speculation about gender politics firmly back into the realm of hard science. While Jones doesnt make the connection to Triton herself, she does demonstrate how an SF writer might extrapolate from the scientific analysis of sex; in fact, she finishes this chapter by noting that "we dont have two complementary sexes any more, each safe in its own niche. All there is left is gender: an us and them situation." It is the "us and them" of gender roles disconnected from biological sex that provides the basis for the aliens in Jones's White Queen and its sequels.

Bold as Love cover

This leads me, of course, to the comment that the essays collected in Deconstructing the Starships prove Jones to be not only a pre-eminent feminist SF writer, a novelist of considerable grace, style and intellect, but also a quite remarkable feminist critic of her chosen genre. Jones is the author of eight SF novels, including the just released Bold as Love. Two of her novels, Divine Endurance and Flower Dust, form a series set in a far future Malaysia and Indonesia. The Aleutian trilogy, which consists of White Queen, North Wind, and Phoenix Café, are First Contact novels situated on a near future Earth whose misadventures with the alien invaders highlight the fact that issues of language, communications and gender can be just as seriously science fictional as problems of physics or feats of engineering.

Jones also writes horror novels for juveniles under the pseudonym Ann Halam. Her SF work has netted her the British Science Fiction Award, the Tiptree Award, and two World Fantasy Awards, as well as numerous nominations for the Hugo, the Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards. The Tiptree nominations and the actual award (for White Queen, in 1991) are hardly surprising for a writer of intelligent, sophisticated, complex tales which find remarkably novel ways to address precisely those questions of gender that are the Tiptree's particular purview. Yet the other award nominations indicate that Jones' work has a broader appeal to sf readers who would not necessarily identify their own reading interests as feminist.

Gender naturally plays a significant role in these essays, but it does so in the context of a coherent feminist analysis of science fiction as a genre, an analysis which inevitably also touches on such issues as the definition of the SF genre, the rise of cyberpunk, the relationship of SF and postmodernism, the problems of feminist writing that reifies and essentializes the female, and the nature of science itself. Even when a chapter focuses on a specific issue, such as the discussion of cyberpunk in "Trouble (Living in the Machine)," Jones's context remains the prevailing themes of genre, gender and science. Jones thus provides the reader throughout the book with a remarkably clear and succinct discussion of the generic characteristics of SF, a discussion which, particularly in the introduction, shows a lucid familiarity with the major literary and critical theorists of the twentieth century and yet does so almost entirely without recourse to academic prose and vocabulary. The "deconstruction" of the title is virtually the only exception . . . and one that is neatly explained by Jones's comment that SF writers and readers habitually practice deconstruction, whether they know it or not:

The fictional text, radically reinterpreted, becomes a collection of signs, the study -- or deconstruction -- of which will produce an anatomy of the process of its production; the limits imposed by the ideological matrix which defines this process, and the transgressions by which these secret rules are revealed. The text thus becomes what science fiction always was -- a means, not an end: an experiment that can be examined, taken apart, even cannibalised by ruthless commentators, rather than a seamless work of art.

This is a rather neat trick, explaining the apparently frightening terminology of postmodernism by pointing out that "every writer and reader [of SF] has to practice this modern art habitually, technically, intuitively" in the process of unravelling and comprehending the thought experiment that underlies the creation of any truly science fictional world. In the second essay, "Gettting Rid of Brand Names,"Jones ties her own insight into the deconstructive nature of the thought experiments that are the real science of science fiction (that is, scientific method, rather than the exploration of any specific scientific discipline) to two other fundamental observations about SF. The first is Delany's dictum that the language of SF must never admit to knowledge of any world other than the one constructed for the story. This practice, if writers do not abandon it in favor of chunks of exposition, explicitly requires the reader to "deconstruct" the unstated premises of difference from our own world. The second is the observation, made by such disparate writers as William Gibson and Ursula Le Guin, that SF is not about the future, but the present. "Science fiction is a confusing phenomenon. As even an acute mainstream critic may observe, it pretends to describe the future, yet more than any other literary genre it reflects the exact preoccupations of the present." Again, it is the reader's habitual deconstruction of the thought-experiment that reveals the present-disguised-as-future.

"Deconstructing the Starships," then, is a process of examining the genre, represented in the title of the book by one of its most lasting and iconic clichés, the starship. We pull it apart, cannibalize it, in order to understand how both its generic conventions and its ability to transgress generic limits and expectations most clearly reveal the unspoken ideologies of SF. In so doing, it becomes apparent that certain conventions of SF -- e.g. that it is about specific sciences, that it is about the future -- bear little relation to the reality of the genre today. Jones carries this process through in several of the novel's essays and some of the book reviews to a consideration of specific areas of SF writing, most notably cyberpunk and feminist SF. Applying the same critical intelligence with which she addresses the genre as a whole, Jones points to some of the more egregious problems of both types of SF writing.

To see how this works, let's look at Jones's discussion of feminist SF. One of the dilemmas Jones, a self-proclaimed feminist, sees in certain schools of feminist SF is the recourse to essentialism (women are women and what is most quintessential in all women is their femaleness) as a strategy for validating the lives of women in the face of a hostile patriarchal world. With devastating accuracy and wit, Jones refers to this style of biologically determinate fiction as "the rise of the dark-female-womb-good vs. light-male-phallus-bad story." Jones makes the apt but somewhat dismal point that "this is the only version of feminism that has broken through to permeate the genre-as-we-know-it." Jones concludes that she sees two types of SF writers: the Dinosaurs, which includes most writers regardless of gender, race, and popularity, and the Birds. The Dinosaurs know that you "can break the laws of physics any time, but human nature can never change." The Birds "claim that they do not know what 'bird nature' is, or ever was . . ." It's a neat allegorical distinction for a very real problem that has plagued SF, including feminist SF, for several decades now: even the most radical end-of-patriarchy novels end up reproducing the same old gender divides that have bedevilled us since Western society invented the idea of binarism and applied it to every aspect of human life.

If Deconstructing the Starships comes back again and again to issues of feminist SF and the problems of gender -- and by extension sexuality -- in science fiction, it merely reaffirms Jones's point that the genre reflects contemporary preoccupations. In a world divided by the twin preoccupations of obsessively examining issues of sex and gender or of obsessively denying that sex and gender are or could be issues at all, it is scarcely surprising to find these particular fixations of the late 20th century played out in contemporary SF writing. It is a question that Jones returns to consistently throughout the course of the book, in both essays and book reviews.

White Queen cover

Perhaps the most fascinating of all of the essays in the collection, "Aliens in the Fourth Dimension" describes the process by which Jones went about constructing her aliens in the Aleutian trilogy in order to conduct a thought experiment about the nature of the 'other' and the problem of communication. In White Queen, the first novel of the trilogy, a mildly disreputable band of aliens, whose notion of sexual dimorphism is purely arbitrary, arrive on earth only to discover that they have accidentally fulfilled our own fears and myths of alien invasion. Sexless, but not gender-less, the Aleutians are some of SF's more notably alien aliens, which makes it that much more of a shock to the reader of "Aliens in the Fourth Dimension" who discovers for the first time that the aliens are modelled not only on the colonized others of Europe's imperial past, but also on women. As Jones says, there are "obvious parallels between my culture's colonial adventure and the battle of the sexes." Additionally, as Jones herself, points out, it is an SF cliché that all aliens speak English. The Aleutians do not. They are telepaths -- or they may be telepaths. It's not clear to humans. And while some of them learn English and other Earth languages, many refuse to use speech at all.

What does the speechlessness of the Aleutians have to do with gender or with the relations between coloniser and colonised? One of the basic insights of both post-colonial and feminist criticism is that those who are neither white nor male tend to be silenced by the dominant culture, while at the same time being seen by their masters as essentially speechless. Moreover, colonised races are treated by the colonisers as if they were -- or were equivalent to -- female. In bringing these insights into her SF, Jones is proposing not an exact correspondence between the Aleutians and the subjugated colonial races nor between the Aleutians and women, but rather an "an alternative" representation. Jones says that:

I planned to give my alien conquerors the characteristics, all the supposed deficiencies, that Europeans came to see in their subject races in darkest Africa and the mystic East -- 'animal' nature, irrationality, intuition; mechanical incompetence, indifference to time, helpless aversion to theory and measurement: and I planned to have them win the territorial battle this time.

There is a nice irony in the turnabout of colonial stereotype that the Aleutians come to represent in the novel, a point that disappears seamlessly into the science fictional scenario of the books. The lovely, yet rather gently satirical quality of the Aleutians as aliens is only underscored for the reader when Jones quotes one US critic as hailing the Aleutians "as 'the most convincingly alien beings to grace science fiction in years.'" Jones's humanoid sexless telepathic aliens make for a particularly satisfying science fictional thought experiment, one with as much importance to the consideration of gender in feminist SF as Le Guin's Gethenians, yet without the many critical problems of language and representation that have been engendered by The Left Hand of Darkness. "Aliens in the Fourth Dimension" is just as satisfying, not only for its consideration of the problems of colonialism and gender politics, but also for its insight into the writer's process of creation.

All in all this is an invaluable collection of essays, some of which are masquerading as book reviews -- "masquerading" because, in every case, Jones's approach goes beyond the mere basics of a review to a contemplation of the nature and purpose of SF. Deconstructing the Starships does, however, appear to be rather arbitrarily divided into three parts: a set of essays combined under the heading "All Science is Description," followed by a second set entitled "Science, Fiction and Reality," and finished up with a collection of Jones's book reviews that runs the gamut from Sarah Lefanu's In the Chinks of the World Machine to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash to an extended meditation on Le Guin's utopian fictions. According to the acknowledgments, all of the essays were written between 1987 and 1997. Although they are thematically linked, they are not arranged in chronological order, which might perhaps have given more coherence to what is already a very strong piece of work.

Of course, Deconstructing the Starships is roughly modelled on collections of essays by other SF writers, most notably Ursula Le Guin's Language of the Night and Dancing at the Edge of the World and Samuel Delany's earlier critical works. In some ways, however, the casualness with which the essays and reviews have been arranged does the work a disservice, since it is clear that there is a consistent and remarkable vision informing a work that is, in its own right, every bit as important to the genre as Lefanu's groundbreaking study of feminist SF. In fact, Liverpool University Press seem to have had no idea of the value of Jones' book, which is rather shabbily treated both in the matter of proofreading and in the cover art, which is a thoroughly uninspired and entirely too obvious beige diagram of an exploded starship model, à la Revell, over a starfield.

Anyone who is interested in SF, in what it is and how it works and in how sf writers think and write about their own field, will find Deconstructing the Starships an invaluable addition to their collection. It is a book which combines the best traditions of informed critical thought and engagement with the ideas of academic criticism, especially post-modernism, with a readable, trenchant and witty style. Indeed, Jones writes with a kind of British understatement that depends on her ability to say what she means with precision, while at the same time exhibiting a nice sense of humour, a penchant for irony and, occasionally, a touch of outrage. This is the work of a writer who is passionate about her genre, and that passion informs and enhances all of the essays in the collection. There is much to think about here -- no reader is going to come away from this collection without finding some new insight into the genre or some particular provocation to thought. In the end, whether one agrees or disagrees with what Jones has to say about SF and about gender in SF, in particular, is irrelevant in comparison to the work's ability to stimulate the reader to deconstruct the ideas and ideologies of the genre. And ideas are what it's all about.


Reader Comments

Wendy Pearson is a Ph.D. student with a particular interest in SF. Her article "Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer" won the SFRA's Pioneer Award for the best critical article in 2000. She has published a number of articles on sexuality and gender issues in science fiction. Her most recent article deals with the figure of the hermaphrodite in SF novels by Melissa Scott, Stephen Leigh, and Ursula Le Guin.

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