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The Secret Feminist Cabal cover

One simple test of an effective review—perhaps even a prerequisite—is whether the reviewer tells the reader more about the work in question than about themself. Yet a work whose subject matter is feminism seems so unavoidably to provoke a personal connection and a personal response—it being axiomatic that the personal is political, and this arguably critical—that it seems essential to begin by establishing the terms of engagement. This is to some extent Helen Merrick's own approach in The Secret Feminist Cabal, which she begins by describing an inherent conflict perceived by many other feminists in the concept and purpose of feminist SF.

SF, some of our sisters apparently think, involves escapism; it is thus not relevant to the authentic struggles of feminism. Feminist SF is really a contradiction in terms, or any rate—as SF readers are so often told when we venture to discuss SF as literature in any context, feminist or otherwise—it is just not the sort of stuff anyone serious would want to read. To tackle this Merrick sets out at first to explain why and how she personally has not observed or experienced any such meaningful conflict between SF and feminism, and goes on to carefully define her terms: what is feminist SF; what indeed is SF; how the SF community has developed; popular (and learned) criticisms of SF itself; what characterises feminist fiction and feminist genre fictions; suspicions of feminist SF; and the focus of this book on feminisms within the SF community rather than the broader contributions and identifications of some SF, and some feminist SF, within the utopian field. Merrick is clear in her reasoning for referring to "SF feminisms" rather than simply feminist SF: it's about inclusion, both to avoid further definitional conflict about specific stories or secondary texts and to encompass the context of broad engagement with feminism by professionals and fans across the SF community.

And so, therefore, I briefly join with Merrick in setting out my own perspective: I am a feminist; I am a science fiction reader; I am an SF fan. To all of these statements I could append the affirmations "it's what I do; it's what I am." And in this context it thus stands to reason that I could add "it's what I bring to a reading of this book." But there my identifications divide, since I am not a feminist who participates in a community of feminism or could be called an activist; whereas I do participate, actively, in the SF community and particularly in SF fandom. And it seems from the outset that this book is pitched the other way: firmly locating feminism in science fiction in order to validate science fiction in feminism.

As the book ably shows, the former battle is over—although new fronts will continue to open up, including the risk of losing what went before. On the other hand, the motivating premise of Merrick's endeavour seems to be that the latter battle has not yet been won: that the literature, community and feminists themselves of science fiction still remain to be wholeheartedly accepted into the mainstream of feminism. To my reading, this book succeeds in its aim to effect membership; but I was convinced to start with. And in that respect I began instead with some questions about whether Merrick was establishing a straw woman—her opening quote from Carolyn Heilbrun refutes that (" . . . I think we must imagine, not a fantastic world, but how we might speak and act differently in this one . . . It is the utopian mode that separates science fiction from the other categories of popular feminist fiction . . . "), but dates from a generation ago in 1984—or, if anti-sf prejudice were indeed alive and well and flourishing in core feminist circles in this brave new world of the twenty-first century, how well a committed SF-reading fannish feminist would be able to judge the effectiveness of a rebuttal.

Personally, I tend to react against critiques of SF that tell me what it is, or what it doesn't do, in defiance of considerable contrary evidence including my own clear knowledge or experience. Sure, some SF can be criticised for its depictions (or absence) of women, for its attitudes, or for clumsy attempts to improve—and the same is true of pretty much every other field of literature or art in general. Critiques that accuse all SF of escapism, lack of practical engagement with real women's real problems or with the agendas and narrative flaws that it generally abandoned decades previously make me, as I get older and more impatient, simply less inclined to respect and engage with those opinions rather than passionately determined to convince the naysayers and reclaim all aspects of the argument.


Merrick's book does show how far we've come, how long the road has been, and thus very much why there's a lot to keep on fighting for as well as why some of that might be lost—but also why no feminist or reader should ever think that the feminists of science fiction aren't collectively part of the united front.

Is it comprehensive, at least the final answer for now? Merrick locates her work as part of the conversation, recognising many potential gaps and omissions. But she compiles and contextualises many strands of that conversation, acknowledging the work of writers and feminists before her while setting them in a broader landscape. The book mostly lives up to the promise of its subtitle, "A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms"—not least through including the arguments of those styling themselves, or claiming others as, "counter-feminists." This last demonstrated an aspect of the book I found particularly engaging, since it demanded pause for reflection: while accepting the challenge to some apparent narratives of early SF feminism (don't base your arguments on a denial of women who came before you) it rapidly brought me up against a different denial that I continue to challenge (don't use the "F" word because it puts people off, when what we're striving for is equality); I'm a feminist because I believe in equality. Yet as the history (other than the subtitle, Merrick mostly maintains usage of "herstory" throughout) comes more into the modern era I found myself strangely excluded. As told here, the story of fannish feminisms from the point at which feminist identification became possible is a story of North America in general, and Wiscon in particular; even as it broadens out again into online communities, so it leaves behind the parts of the SF community with which I identify. Maybe the political is not personal after all.

Does it shed new light? To take another personal example, it told me things I didn't know about some activities and even attitudes in British fandom in a period where I've read the fanzines and also quite a lot of well-researched fan history (of which much that was then available is also cited here); and in doing so it effectively challenged both my own assumptions and those I had accepted from others. It doesn't always help itself, though. Noting a reference on the cover to Femizine, the 1950s British "all-female" fanzine, and indeed an indication that it was an ancient UK scandal—which isn't quite how I'd have put it—I looked it up in the index so that I could jump straight to it. There was no reference. I checked the bibliography under "Joan Carr" (pseudonym of the one not-actually-female editor of Femizine) and saw a specific citation for a Femizine editorial; so back to the index and Joan Carr. There are two references, neither appearing to lead to any relevant text. So, the perpetrator's own name: Sandy Sanderson? Four references: one that also misfires, one that's correct but not about the fanzine, and two that finally plunge me into the right section. Finding similar omissions and wild goose chases for other searches, as the early sections of the book made me wonder whether specific topics of particular interest would be more developed later—as they did mostly prove to be—I eventually gave up on the index. Let us not under-estimate the time, effort and resource required to do indexing right; and let us encourage publishers to recognise and invest in that.

Does it collect and establish a coherent timeline for the diverse and lively history of feminist activity and empowered female achievement in SF and SF fandom? It maps a lot of the territory—although, alongside my points about the US focus, there are to my perspective some further omissions and slightly curious views of fandom. Again, as a British reader I looked for more references to Foundation—not least because it's the critical journal which stands out in recent years as having been edited by a woman (Farah Mendlesohn). Merrick's perspective here on fandom, not to discount her extensive engagement with British and US sources, may simply reflect an Australian sensibility—or perhaps instead a contemporary one, given her focus for much of the book on periods when many professional writers had first been fans and many fans also wrote fiction and hoped to get a break for their hobby to become even more of a way of life. Nonetheless, references to the relative prominence and success of US and British fans based on who "made the transition" to professional status doesn't chime with my own idea of the purpose or point of SF fandom.

But the map is not the territory, and the dualisms we create (male and female, feminist and non-feminist, cultured and popular, art and science, national and foreign, fan and professional—or academic) can too easily be about denoting the other (here be dragons) rather than exploring the potential of the differences and similarities. Merrick's acceptance of gaps and omissions is self-aware and constructive rather than defensive. None of what I looked for and did not find should be taken to significantly undermine the way in which this volume understands and represents the SF community as a whole.


And does Merrick, then, succeed in her apparent goal of confirming the contribution of SF feminisms to feminist thinking and achievement? The final third of the volume focuses on how SF feminisms have informed and engaged with broader science and technological writing and thought, whether overtly through story or through critical approaches that enable and encourage feminist readings. Thus, having established the golden threads of feminist thought and action through the traditional ages of SF's owned literature and culture, Merrick expands her gaze to confirming SF feminism as a living, breathing and wholly relevant participant in contemporary feminist endeavour. Thus a chapter on the interactions between feminist cyborg studies and critical engagement with cyberpunk in the 1980s and '90s is followed by one detailing the contemporaneous struggle for a feminist science and the mutual contribution sought by scientists from science fiction. Simplistically, the human body might seem central to both fields of work; one key point of congruence is the role scoped by feminists in identifying and challenging the tendency in each to disappear the body and to denote success as transcension. Merrick draws parallels in both these explorations with fellow travellers in other critical environments, and in her final chapter she builds on the emerging connection to sketch the crossovers between feminism, gender studies and linked critical theories of the other including race and colonialism, class and sexuality.

Reading as a fan, initially the chapter on fannish feminisms in the middle of the book begins to feel like a false crescendo, particularly given its narrowing focus to Wiscon; the overviews that follow of what SF feminisms did next, whatever passion they ignited for the protagonists (and, it seems, for Merrick herself), created less personal connection and engagement for me. Yet the argument is built in stages, and Merrick's expansion of the focus situates SF feminisms not just in literary studies but in the dynamics of feminist contribution to a much broader arena of comprehension and challenge. I began this book with a concern that it was simply arguing for SF feminisms to have a place at the table of feminist literary culture; in practice it posits that SF feminisms, changing all the while, are already enriching the discourse in a number of other rooms. The argument has thus already moved beyond the validity of SF as a genre or whether feminists in the SF community are doing feminism right. And it's the understanding of the community and the roles and engagement of women and feminists within it, which necessarily comes before the more forensic literary and cultural analysis, that secures the foundation on which that house can be set in order.

This book is not only written for the SF community—indeed arguably we are not even the primary audience—but it is firmly positioned within it. In describing and re-establishing the struggles of women to create their own space within the community, and reminding us of the ways in which they were hiding in plain sight long before that, Merrick points the way to many paths that SF feminism could, and probably should, explore in the future. And for readers from virtually any standpoint she underscores our inalienable right to stand up and be counted as feminists—and thus, to me at least, reaffirms our responsibility to do so.

Claire Brialey is a former judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and administrator for the BSFA Awards, a persistent fan writer and editor, and a nearly life-long reader and viewer of science fiction.



Claire Brialey is a former judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and administrator for the BSFA Awards, a persistent fan writer and editor, and a nearly life-long reader and viewer of science fiction.
One comment on “The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms by Helen Merrick”

Interesting response Claire.
The challenge, it seems to me, with this type of piece lies in disentangling the various modes of being.
It's easy to focus upon specialist journals, presses, conventions, even cliques but to do so is to ignore the fact that we all wear multiple identities at the same time. When you write Claire, you do so as an SF fan AND as a feminist but to what extent do these different modes of being sculpt any particular piece you write or bear any causal relationship to your involvement in the community.
For example, does your involvement in the selection of the ACCA count towards the increased influence of feminist thought upon British SF, or is it just that you are 'a persistent fan writer and editor'?
To write a cultural history is almost to chart the history of an idea as it flows through a body politic. The body politic of the community and the body politic of the individual. That strikes me as very nearly impossible. Doubly so once you start allowing for the fact that feminism is not a monolithic school of thought.

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