Tonya Browning
1993

A BRIEF HISTORICAL SURVEY OF WOMEN WRITERS OF SCIENCE FICTION

A FORAY INTO HISTORY

I crossed in the boat instead.
I paid the boatman with my father's gold;
he laughed and gave it back.

I like the country on the other side.
Ursula Le Guin[1]

The definitions of science fiction are long and varied, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary science fiction is an "imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environment." The term was in use as early as 1851, but in 1929 Hugo Gernsback's Science Wonder Stories started offering fifty dollars a month to the letter that best described, "What Science Fiction Means to Me." Not surprisingly, Gernsback's readers and writers in the late 1920s were primarily male, although the historical origin of the genre is often traced to a woman.

The evident irony of science fiction's claim that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, is the first example of a "science fiction" text (Aldiss 25) cannot be denied. Even worse, a significant number of women authors are not included within the science fiction canon until the 1970s, more than 150 years later.[2] Where are they and how is their absence accounted for in the map of the science fiction world dispersed today? The context must be determined first, in order to adequately determine and map female-authored distribution.

The history of science fiction can be summarized by chronologically listing the "movements" within the genre. Although this study is not an endorsement for such reductive methods, my historical rereading may serve as background for the subject under investigation, with cyberpunk foregrounding the current understanding of feminist science fiction. The beginning of this "movement" as identified by Aldiss and others is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In his text Trillion Year Spree, Aldiss makes a point of bringing Shelley into the science fiction tradition via her gothic roots. Although often his only mention of women authors in various chapters consists of this referencing, it is important for us to filter the original reading of Mary Shelley without literary generalities. For example, Aldiss credits Shelley and Bram Stoker with the creation of "new archetypal figures," but adds that "nobody would rank Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker with the great novelists, with Tolstoy or Scott or Melville" (145). This seems an easy way out for Aldiss, and history has followed his lead in declaring Mary Shelley to be of interest, if only in connection to her husband. However, Ellen Moers discusses the female role of Mary Shelley as other than "wife," instead explicitly positioning her as mother/writer. Moers attests: "Frankenstein brought a new sophistication to literary terror, and it did so without a heroine, without even an important female victim. Paradoxically, however, no other Gothic work by a woman writer, perhaps no literary work of any kind by a woman, better repays examination in light of the sex of its author" (115). Rosemary Jackson goes even farther in her claims, adding that Mary Shelley's writings

open an alternative 'tradition', of 'female Gothic'. They fantasize a violent attack upon the symbolic order and it is no accident that so many writers of a Gothic tradition are women: Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rosetti, Isak Dinesen, Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, all of whom have employed the fantastic to subvert patriarchal society--the symbolic order of modern culture. (118)

Proto-science fiction includes many gothic narrative examples as well as those written before "The Golden Age."[3] Before science fiction was classified as a separate genre, such authors as H. G. Wells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Aldous Huxley, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jules Verne were prime examples of writers creating a fiction considered speculative in nature. Women, however, are not always part of their created world, and those permitted to share it are often forced to conform to a sociological vision not unlike that of the contemporary century. Gilman's utopian vision as presented in Herland exemplifies a limited movement against such trends, although other authors of science fiction continued to condone stereotypes and sexism well into the twentieth century.[4] For example, H. G. Wells' novel A Modern Utopia [5] has the state paying women on the basis of the births of their children and how well those children perform on an intellectual scale. To give Wells some degree of credit, he is thereby attempting to free women's economic roles -- but not their vocational ones (Rabkin 14). Rabkin claims two such writers as Jules Verne were not anti-female; rather "women are just absent and absent not because, as in Defontenay's case, the author disparages them, but because the requirements of the form, as directed to a particular expectable audience, make women characters almost unnecessary" (21).[6] This justification is not appropriate, and calling the overtly feminist science fiction of the 1970s a "movement" is inappropriate for the same reasons. Elaine Showalter argues that these "absences" are important in understanding the history of women within literature (12). Disruptions leave gaps in literary history, and create a literary subculture of women promoted during their lifetimes, only to be abandoned historically. Thus the C. L. Moores from the "Golden Years" of science fiction are not remembered as readily as the Isaac Asimovs from the same era. Such examples evidence the importance of historical documentation that is inclusive of women and people of color.


EARLY YEARS

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
Anne Sexton[7]

In 1916 Hugo Gernsback[8] coined the term "scientifiction" and founded Amazing Stories, a short story magazine devoted to publishing this type of fictional material. Gernsback tended to emphasize scientific accuracy over literary worth, however, as Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and Gernsback's own Ralph 124C41+ attest. Gernsback's valorization of science over style is only one example of his impact on the field, for science fiction as a genre had much literary potential despite its patriarchal framework, as Andrew Ross explains:

Although the universal language of science and rationality popularized in pulp SF was tailored to a rather narrow, white-male constituency, it could still be construed as a populist refusal of the elitist vehicles of "literary" speech and "metaphysical" discourse that had traditionally dominated Western literate culture. Indeed, the belated recognition of SF as a literary genre by technophobic humanists was an effect of its perceived challenge to that tradition of human discourse. (111)

Gernsback's ideas regarding the nature of science do not really consider the impact of the prose, for as William Bainbridge clearly establishes, Gernsback's preoccupation was the "scientific authenticity and the romance of technological progress" (54). Gernsback's first concern was scientific education, and the physical sciences were privileged along with technology, clearly making hard sciences the priority for his magazines. Thirty-five years after he founded Amazing Stories, Gernsback evaluated all the science fiction writers he knew and named seven he considered "real science fiction authors": Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Heinlein, Simak, Sturgeon, and van Vogt (58). Excluding Theodore Sturgeon, they are all hard science writers, and they are all white males.

"The Golden Age" of science fiction is generally typified by the editorship of Astounding Stories by John W. Campbell, a period extending from 1938-1950, when Campbell developed a "stable" of male writers such as Asimov, Del Rey, Heinlein, Sturgeon, etc. The technocratic[9] and patriarchal influences of this era are unmistakable in short fiction like "Helen O'Loy" by del Rey and "The Roads Must Roll" by Heinlein. As previously noted, two women also achieved prominence during this period: C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.[10] Prior to Brackett's first sale to Astounding Stories in 1940, "Moore stood virtually by herself" (Carter 180). However, Moore and Brackett's contributions are subject to inspection, and frequently claimed by different members of the critical community. Lester del Rey argued in Analog, "What difference can it really make that the Northwest Smith<[11] stories were written by a very feminine woman? Their vigorous masculinity grew out of the stories they were, just as the female-centered nature of 'No Woman Born' developed from the story it was" (181). Brackett herself once stated that "most of my own heroes are fairly hard boys, not above using their boot-heels in a scrap and giving a handsome wench one of those 40-second Bogart-type kisses" (Brackett 24). Carter goes on to acknowledge one of Moore's tales, "The Bright Illusion,"[12] as a "transcend[ence of] sexual chauvinism," though his next example is a work of Ursula Le Guin's, thirty-five years later (183).

THE FIFTIES AND SIXTIES

BUT the future is only dark from outside. Leap into it--and it EXPLODES with Light.
Mina Loy[13]

The 1950s marked the end of Campbell's editorial domination of the field,[14] and as his interest in Dianetics developed into a passion, many writers went elsewhere to sell their stories (del Rey 164). There was a proliferation of science fiction magazines at this time, and del Rey estimates that during 1953 alone, 36 American titles were published with a total of 174 issues (177). As far as writers are concerned, this was occasion for the flowering of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and others, for whom writing fiction was sometimes characterized by critics as gentle and subtle manipulations of vision. Bradbury uses his future visions presented in The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 to express his "deeply emotional reactions to a trauma of his generation: the loss or denial of intellectual freedom" (del Rey 57). Other writers directed their prose against the overwhelming sense of depersonalization found in the 50s, a phase Aldiss calls "The Dehumanization in the Face of Stars" theme (252). All critics, however, describe this post-World War II decade as a period of transition for the genre, and harbinger of the atomic era. One notable hard science example of this atomic-age fiction was a novel by female author Judith Merril called Shadow on the Hearth, published in 1950.

However, the 1960s actually hailed a new era for science fiction, a decade where the realization of many technological visions brought science fiction some measure of respect, as well as a greater concentration regarding literary "style" (Aldiss 287). This style was marked by excess of and an exploration of choice, and in 1961 Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land exemplified both. The British invasion of American science fiction shores via New Worlds was not to come until the midpoint of the decade, and new American writers were exploring the literary lands science fiction encompassed. Perhaps the most notable were Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny, storytellers writing with the underpinnings of myth and semiology in their work. Harlan Ellison was another, and the overall success of all three begat a new level of achievement in the field, though women as authors are still not figured equally in Aldiss's text at this point.

"The New Wave" was about to break in the science fiction community, but not without some opposition from hard science fiction writers responding to a backlash against scientific optimism. Lester del Rey commented, "The philosophy behind New Wave Writing was a general distrust of both science and mankind. Science and technology were usually treated as evils which could only make conditions worse in the long run. And mankind was essentially contemptible, or at least of no importance. There was an underlying theme of failure throughout. Against the universe, the significance of mankind was no greater than that of bedbugs--if as great" (del Rey 253). Manifesting this philosophy was a new fiction magazine called New Worlds, from Ladbroke Grove, London. Turning the science fiction world on its ear, New Worlds was founded in 1946 by British fans and published many early works of science fiction by British authors, including Arthur C. Clarke, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard. However, it was not until the editorial handiwork of Michael Moorcock in 1964 that the direction of the magazine significantly altered. One literary icon of New Worlds was William Burroughs and the impact of his work clearly manifests itself in the pages of New Worlds as shown by the literary experimentation and rejection of taboos its stories embraced (Aldiss 299). Always at the heart of controversy, Moorcock encouraged art without boundaries and published women as readily as men. In 1967 Moorcock published the work of a variety of authors, including Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe." Aldiss asserts: "In the States any writer with a freaky style became an honourable member of the New Wave--as Judith Merril publicized it--but the mistake was in assuming that style was all and meaning nothing. At the heart of New World's New Wave--never mind the froth at the edges--was a hard and unpalatable core of message, an attitude to life, a scepticism about the benefits of society or any future society" (307-38). However, despite Aldiss's assertions regarding Moorcock's New Worlds gender-free politicizing, it is ironic that the New Worlds anthology edited by Moorcock (1983) contains merely two women out of a total of twenty-nine authors (F&SF Lefanu 97).[15]

The only text by a female author widely praised during this period was the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. Published in 1967, it was lauded by Aldiss for its soft science psychological underpinnings and its brilliant presentation of a Kafkaesque soul (337). Again, his chapter on the 70s ends with a nod to Mary Shelley, for he claims Ice as her "progeny" without realizing the significance or sexism of that remark. Other authors argue the importance of such writers as André Norton during this time, and Joan Vinge[16] declares: "In the early mid-Sixties, well before the women's movement became widespread, I read her (André Norton's) Ordeal in Otherwhere, the first book I'd ever read with an honest-to-God liberated woman as the protagonist. Not only were female protagonists extremely unusual at the time but this character came from a world on which sexual equality was the norm. I never forgot that, and in the late Sixties, when I began to see articles on feminism, something fell in place for me in a very profound way" (115-116).

FEMINIST FICTION OF THE 70S

"Nothing that's born," she'd said,
"is born without pain."
And then in the dark
her face was barely visible.
Mary Swander

The seventies brought many new themes and areas of exploration for writers to pursue; new technology, ecology, psychoanalysis and feminism, were added to the genre's parameters (Aldiss 340). Eleanor Arnason declares of this time: "After I started writing about women, my fiction got a lot better, and I became a lot more prolific. I started to get published in the early 1970s. I belong to the Biodegradable Generation: the writers who appeared between 1969 and 1974. I pick these dates arbitrarily or, more accurately, for personal reasons. The Left Hand of Darkness came out in 1969. The Dispossessed came out in 1974. A lot of my writing in this period was done in the shadow of Ursula K. Le Guin" (104-105).

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is the daughter of Dr. Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, the former a famous anthropologist and the latter a writer most noted for Ishi in Two Worlds. Le Guin has garnered four Hugo and three Nebula Awards, and her particular thematic emphases include utopia, dystopia, androgyny and ecological issues. Much of her work is set in the Hainish universe, a setting where different planets were seeded with human life by the planet Hain. Her early novels Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusion (1967) all take place within the Hainish universe. Although they are early works, they incorporate many of the images and symbols integral to Le Guin's fiction. The idea of balance, ordered completeness and cyclical history is continually examined throughout her prose.

These concepts come to fruition in her Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). The dualities she examines encompass male/female, light/dark, war/peace, and the alien/human. Although Le Guin herself acknowledges the imperfect nature of writing androgynous characters still trapped within masculinized pronouns, The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerful tale of human contact with the alien. Genly Ai is a black male, an envoy from the Ekumen who forges a relationship with Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, a native of the planet Gethen. The dualistic imagery Le Guin employs works well against the backdrop of a winter world, although her presentation of other sexual lifestyles is a bit limited. Samuel Delany bemoans some of the clichés regarding homosexuals in the text although he acknowledges: "But more to the point, the book starts its younger readers thinking--as well as feeling. Young gay readers who come to this book are not wondering where in the world they can sneak off to find any novel about gay life at all, the way I had to when I was a kid" (Across The Wounded Galaxies 77).[17] Le Guin's concern with dualism is an interesting case in point regarding women and "soft" science fiction. On the world of Gethen, there is no heavy industry, no use of hard science. Is this because of androgyny (and the gendering that implies) or the harshness of the climate? In the text, a human investigator of Gethen muses:

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, here on Winter. (94)

Le Guin followed with The Word for World is Forest (1972), a veiled analogy of the Vietnam War, but her next major work (Hugo, Nebula and Jupiter award winner) was The Dispossessed (1974). A study of political dystopia, it was augmented by much of her short work, including the famous short pieces, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (1973) and "The Day Before the Revolution" (1974). Aldiss sums up her power well by commenting: "The Dispossessed forms a high water mark of modern science fiction, illuminating its medium. It is a novel of subtlety and power, and quintessentially science fiction: the story of the creation of an impossible device . . . . it derives its potency as a novel from its marriage of subject and object, the abstract and the personal" (350-351). The idea of synthesis, the merging of two disparate planets into a cooperative union is a crucial one for Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness is another example of this, for the Ekumen do not want to subsume Gethen, but persuade Gethenians to join them. Le Guin's emphasis foreshadows Pat Cadigan's strategies regarding oppositions, for synthesis and the idea of recombination are present in both, as Le Guin declares:
Our curse is alienation, the separation of the yang from yin [and the moralization of yang as good, yin as bad]. Instead of a search for balance and integration, there is a struggle for dominance. Divisions are insisted upon, interdependence is denied. The dualism of value that destroys us, the dualism of superior/inferior, ruler/ruled, owner/owned, user/used, might give way to what seems to me, from here, a much healthier, sounder, more promising modality of integration and integrity. (Dancing At The Edge of the World 16)

Le Guin is also known for her feminist perspectives in fiction and has edited two books of her essays that include feminism as a major topic. Her voice has generated much interest through her crafted images and metaphorically moving works, but she is arguably the leading example of what constitutes soft science fiction. Her power is not lessened by her visionary utopias, but lack of technology is problematic in transcending gender stereotypes. It is ironic to note that Ray Bradbury is not criticized for his own utopian/dystopian visions, but he is certainly not used as an example of female "shortcomings" in a literature as Le Guin and Russ often are, either.

Among this generation of feminist writers, names such as Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, C. J. Cherryh, Kate Wilhelm, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, and Joan Vinge were attracting notice, praise and awards. Russ's groundbreaking novel The Female Man (1975)[18] brought many of her feminist sensibilities to the science fiction mainstream, and lent weight to her earlier arguments regarding the lack of women in the genre. Her short story "When It Changed" (1972) is an excellent example of fictional applications of her critical approach. However, Aldiss characterizes Russ as "angry," and he almost absently-mindedly mentions, "there's precious little high-tech gloss" in The Female Man, so the moonwalk of 1969 must therefore be irrelevant to Russ in terms of other social changes she was observing (Aldiss 364). Such comments hardly seem a fair assessment of Russ's abilities to write science fiction, but again, hard science fiction prejudices intrude in critical endeavors.

It can be argued that these feminist writers also provided worlds and futures without gender, or with gender alternatives. Nicola Nixon posits the juxtaposition as opposition:

Characteristically yoking the genres of fantasy and SF, or positioning themselves on the border between the two, the feminists of the '70s exposed gender as a crucial political lacuna in mainstream popular fiction and emphasized the urgency to change gender assumptions. If Russ, in The Female Man (1975), constructs the war of the sexes as a literal turf war, complete with bunkers and shell-pocked borders between Manland and Womanland, she also suggests that the presence of a literary turf war as "soft" female fantasy encroaches on "hard" male SF. (219)

One of the most interesting writers during this period was James Tiptree, Jr. This name was the pseudonym for Dr. Alice Sheldon, who forged a new identity for herself when she began writing science fiction. Co-founder of the Central Intelligence Agency after World War II, well-traveled and with a doctorate in experimental psychology, she fooled the science fiction community for years regarding her true gender. It was not until 1977 and several Nebula and Hugo Awards later that her identity was revealed by the investigation of a fan named Jeffery D. Smith.[19] What is important to note is the debate Tiptree's questions of identity raised, for Robert Silverberg's declarations of the male gender of Tiptree in his introduction to Tiptree's anthology Warm Worlds and Otherwise provides interesting insights into the gendering of societal roles. Such roles are not limited to the polarization of science and nature, but also incorporate stereotypes about human skills and desires. Silverberg writes:
It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing. I don't think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male . . . And there is, too, that prevailing masculinity about both of them--that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss.
(xii, xv)

The irony of his statements is obvious, for Tiptree was the pen name for Alice Sheldon. However, Silverberg makes telling observations, for as late as 1975, authorial gender was still viewed as what determined material and work. Silverberg argues that only an author with "a prevailing masculinity" would be preoccupied with questions of courage, absolute values and the mystery and passions of life and death (though he seems to have forgotten Mary Shelley). Silverberg's attitude further separates and denigrates women writing science fiction. Women are constantly being pigeonholed in these ways, and cases such as Tiptree's become all the more important in refuting such stereotypes. Alice Sheldon has been examined at length in many other texts, but for my purposes here, her short story "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," foregrounds the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s.

Sheldon uses hard science elements coupled with a desperate woman to examine the consequences of technological abuses in her Hugo Award-winning tale. The female character P. Burke mentally powers a waldo unit[20] for a society ruled by corporations and limited by constraints on advertising. They have "stars" do their advertising for them, and use a grotesque, humpbacked woman to serve as the controller for a "perfect" female body that sells products by using them. When the waldo unit Delphi falls in love with a corporate executive's son named Paul, he eventually discovers her true nature, accidentally killing P. Burke in the process.

Not only is "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" a dark picture regarding technology, but the story addresses the questions of responsibility in a future of "matrices," as well as placing a woman in a nebulous position. P. Burke is thus prodigy and monster, a prodigy for her skill with the electronic devices (which she is "plugged in") interfacing with Delphi, and a monster by lack of education and "beauty." Such is the world of cyberpunk, where the women on the whole are not treated much better than P. Burke, and console-cowboys seek to thwart conventional rules, much as Paul does in Sheldon's story. However, the loner in this tale is a female, P. Burke, who is ostracized by poverty and ugliness, and ultimately dies because she is provided no real control over her "body." These body politics are examined at length by Donna Haraway, for the ultimate fear in hard science is the ability of the unknown to circumvent its usefulness. P. Burke is the realization of such fears, for she forces the waldo body to live, after her "real" body has died, without the aid of mechanical devices, and once again female as the "unknown" is placed in a crucial juxtaposition to science and the "known."

CYBERPUNK: A POST-FEMINIST RESPONSE

You can't get away from feminist rhetoric in modern SF, so there's a lot of commentary on feminism in Islands. Feminism is a tricky thing to get into because it's difficult to find the proper party line. I read a lot of feminist work before I wrote Islands, and I approach feminism in the book as a technological artifact, a product of postindustrialism based on breakthroughs in contraceptive technologies.[21]
Bruce Sterling[22]

At last we come to cyberpunk, and though one could argue science fiction is finally in a postcyberpunk phase, it is evident that the rest of the world is still coming to terms with the cyberpunk generation.[23] In a positive light, cyberpunk can be regarded as harbinger fiction, a response to a world in electronic flux, and the radical extrapolation of humankind's reaction to change. But does the Bruce Sterling version of cyberpunk represent humankind, or mankind? Nicola Nixon provides an enlightening critique of Sterling's ready labels in her article "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?" She argues cyberpunk disregards its predecessors, the feminist writers of the 1970s, and hearkens back to the masculinized world of the loner figure in detective fiction, hence the "Chandleresque" nature of narrative. Revisionary practices such as these can be a dangerous precedent for writers, because selective memory of this type is inevitably gendered. The only woman in Sterling's self-proclaimed anthology of cyberpunk fiction is Pat Cadigan, a woman with a androgynous first name. Unlike other cyberpunk writers however, Cadigan uses strong "loner figures," but hers are female rather than male:

Rain woke me. I thought, shit, here I am, Lady Rain-in-the-Face, because that's where it was hitting, right in the old face. Sat up and saw I was still on Newbury Street. See beautiful downtown Boston. Was Newbury Street downtown? In the middle of the night, did it matter? No, it did not. And not a soul in sight. Like everybody said, let's get Gina drunk and while she's passed out, we'll all move to Vermont. Do I love New England? A great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit here.

I smeared my hair out of my eyes and wondered if anyone was looking for me now. Hey, anybody shy a forty-year old rock'n'roll sinner? [24]

As one of the few women writers in the science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan's characters are usually women, but other male writers have female protagonists as well. The difference is that their construction of women is problematic because women's roles are not fully realized within the context of the literature. The context is for cyberpunk is technological (hard science oriented to some degree) and, as such, women are disallowed as equals. Because of the issues raised by Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" to Andrew Ross and Joan Gordon's own interpretations of the role of women in cyberpunk, the question of gender and feminism in this popular fiction merits further examination. Using critical examinations in conjunction with these texts, [where women are included as characters] by William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, basis for later comparison with Cadigan can be found.

The term cyber, from the Greek word kubernetes meaning pilot or helmsman, has many meanings that have all been appropriated to meet certain agendas. It has been called postmodernist, deconstructionist, and feminist, among other terms. But in juxtaposition with the word punk, it is a term designating both a progressive and a reactionary response to a world in flux and a fiction of stagnation:[25] "What unites all of these artists [punks to cyberpunkers] is what might be termed a shared 'attitude'-- an attitude of defiance towards cultural and aesthetic norms; an attitude of distrust towards rationalist language and all other forms of discourse required by legal, political and consumer capitalism" (McCaffery 288). Is cyberpunk a product of popular culture or a revolt against science fiction placidity? The technological emphasis of the "movement" is undeniable and owes much to the computer revolution and virtual reality techniques, but what does this mean in terms of the feminist science fiction movement that precedes it and the potentiality of a "cyborg integration"[26] of women? Ideally, feminist theory provides "other" perspectives and then filters them through an affective framework, for cyberpunk is a literature of potential and negativity and, also, after careful examination, one that proves to have anti-feminist tendencies. The console-cowboys[27] of this generation produce both poetry and futility, with the rapidity and collagelike constructions of MTV as well as its shallow disempowerment of women implicit in their cyberpunk creations.

To facilitate understanding of the problem, the male construction of the cyberpunk mythos must be reviewed. Bruce Sterling, the foremost spokesman for the movement and editor of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, vehemently argues:

Cyberpunk work is marked by its visionary intensity. Its writers prize the bizarre, the surreal, the formerly unthinkable. They are willing - eager, even - to take an idea and unflinchingly push it past its limits. Like J. G. Ballard, an idolized role model to many cyberpunks, they often use an unblinking, almost clinical objectivity. It is a coldly objective analysis, a technique borrowed from science, then put to literary use for classically punk shock value . . . Cyberpunk is a natural extension of elements already present in science fiction, elements sometimes buried but always seething with potential. Cyberpunk has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion, but a modern reform. Because of this, its effect within the genre has been rapid and powerful. (xv)[28]

Sterling, as editor and writer, is intimately associated with the movement, perhaps sacrificing objectivity for the revolution without considering the male-oriented sources of the literature. To prevent oversimplification, of course, it should be pointed out that cyberpunk does have varied fields of interest; William Gibson, for example, is one instance of devotion to the technological sublime (Ross 156).[29] However, this devotion is still male-centered in Gibson's texts, for the world of the electronic matrix is open primarily to renegade males. Most writers in this field,[30] particularly Gibson, widely recognized as the premier writer of this group, credit their influences as detective novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as well as filmmaker Howard Hawks.[31] Gibson elaborates: "I'm starting to think that Howard Hawks programmed a whole lot of my first two books, especially in terms of the strong woman who can't really relate to any of the other men in the narrative except for the one guy who might possibly be as strong as she is, but usually turns out not to be."[32] In a reading list compiled by Larry McCaffery and Richard Kadrey, Hammett's Red Harvest[33] is included for its motifs of "the tough-guy loner confronting a vast system of corruption with his own private code of ethics, [and] the vividly drawn underworld populated by sleazy criminal types" as well as Chandler's The Big Sleep,34 characterized as a "smooth, polychromatic prose style and vision of the detective as knight-errant" (McCaffery 17).

Ken Worpole discusses the narrative vehicle for cyberpunk in his book, Dockers and Detectives, claiming that

Its [the detective style] material basis is to be found in the relative autonomy which men possess within the culture of work and social relationships compared with women.
. . . It is not surprising, therefore, that many women, including working-class women, feel estranged from popular vernacular writing, perhaps because it so clearly emanates from a world from which they have been historically and culturally excluded. (47)

Ross maintains that this style is indicative of the genre, with the clipped prose and cynical beat of the words in the texts. He claims it signifies "certain defensive characteristics of masculinity in retreat" (Ross 153), for cyberpunk is the white male world of the eighties, "a pulp narrative that was unable to accommodate the full range of socially critical perspectives on the future that had been present in, say, the feminist utopian SF novel of the seventies" (153). In Gibson's novel Burning Chrome, the hard-boiled style of such writers is apparent, especially when a character muses the following:
I missed her. Missing her reminded me of my one night in the House of Blue Lights, because I'd gone there out of missing someone else. I'd gotten drunk to begin with, then I'd started hitting Vasopressin inhalers. If your main squeeze has just decided to walk out on you, booze and Vasopressin are the ultimate in masochistic pharmacology; the juice makes you maudlin and the Vasopressin makes you remember, I mean really remember. Clinically they use the stuff to counter sterile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things. So I'd bought myself an ultraintense replay of a bad affair; trouble is, you get the bad with the good. Go gunning for transports of animal ecstasy and you get what you said too, and what she said to that, how she walked away and never looked back. (195)

This is primarily the rhetoric of white, male, upper middle-class authors, for their characters are represented as rugged individualists, streetwise and incapable of sustained and fulfilling relationships. The bent of their fiction is decidedly influenced by this perspective. As Ross observes, "Bad white boys, unlike their female counterparts, can draw upon a long history of benign tolerance for their rebel roles, while their male and female counterparts of color are marked as a pathological criminal class. The values of the white male outlaw are often those of the creative maverick universally prized by entrepreneurial or libertarian individualism" (162).

But what of women in this fiction? If the narrative style is already biased, how can any female writers and characters surmount this obstacle? In an article regarding women and their divided roles in science fiction,[35] Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" peripherally discusses the association of female with the organic, and male with the scientific or technological. This tendency is reflected in a society where women are not part of the technological elite, a problem reinforced by a past when women's roles were articulated as being within the domestic sphere alone.

Haraway remakes women's roles via a comparison of machine and self, reclaiming a cyborg identification for women, typically alienated from such technological metamorphoses: "She proposes cyborgism as an imaginative resource or myth for women who are traditionally socialized away from technology and yet who are most often the primary victims of technology in the workplace, the home and the hospital" (Ross 161). Haraway also proposes that science fiction provides many examples regarding her political argument; the examples she selects, however, are not completely pertinent to this goal of identification.[36] Although she does not address cyberpunk, a weakness unexplained in light of Gibson's publications two years previous to her article, she does mention the film Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, where female cyborgs are present within the story. Her only comment enumerates the replicant Rachel as "the image of a cyborg culture's fear, love, and confusion" (201) without examining the other female cyborgs in the film or even Rachel within the emotional relationship with the human detective. However, Haraway does attempt to address female science fiction in the context of her cyborg interests. The examples she cites includes Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, but Haraway's interpretation of feminism in science fiction is clearly delineated into yin/yang roles, and cyberpunk thus ends up merely reinforcing such essentialist positions. Haraway denies the cyborg, because she only examines such authors as Joanna Russ, McCaffrey and Vonda McIntyre, who do not fully incorporate technology into their conceptualizations of woman in their texts. Woman as cyborg frightens them, unless it is dysfunctional woman as cyborg.[37] This mechanized imagery is a problem in cyberpunk novels as well, although Joan Gordon in her article "Yin and Yang Duke It Out" argues that cyberpunk at least creates space for such feminine interpolation, as Ross contends:

This is not to say, however, that Haraway's technocultural call for women to resist, transgress, and appropriate goes out on the same wavelength as the cyberpunk call for "using technology before it is used on you." Feminist insistence on the difference of bodily relations to technology places limits everywhere on the white-masculinist embrace of the cyborg, however countercultural, that is to be found at the core of the cyberpunk sensibility. (161)

Gordon opens her article claiming the existence of two kinds of feminist science fiction: "overt and covert" (196). Overt, by her interpretation, incorporates the female and "at least implies the possibility of a world whose values support a feminist definition of female identity." Covert "ignores the definition" and shows the "sexually egalitarian world" making "its morality a more generally applied one" (196). Gordon argues that the zen "Yin" concept of passivity is indelibly associated with the organic and constructs the "femaleness" in the science fiction novels of writers like Ursula Le Guin. "Yang" would therefore embody the polar opposite, the aggressive orientation represented by the cyberpunk writers. After citing such female examples as Deadpan Allie in Mindplayers and Molly in Neuromancer, Gordon suggests that "cyberpunk is covert feminist science fiction . . . where men and women travel as equals" (196). She does admit that cyberpunk is a boys' club, but sees cyberpunk as feminism's SF salvation, although her argument in that regard is ineffectual at best, and ridiculous at worst. Moreover Gordon further delineates the conflict between hard and soft science fiction, for soft science fiction often promotes humanism, a practice in direct opposition to much of what cyberpunk espouses (197). In terms of cyberpunk's origins in relationship to feminism she finds that:
Because cyberpunk extrapolates from the 1980s -- not a sterling time for feminism in the world at large -- it's no wonder few women are presently involved in the movement . . . . Cyberpunk embraces technology, revels in the complexities of an imperfect world, and grapples with the journey to the underworld. Feminist science fiction has veered away from all these activities, all which allow us to shape and manage our futures rather than escape them. (199)

In some aspects of her argument, Gordon agrees with Haraway's assessment of the organic angle of "accepted" feminist science fiction, as limiting and self-defeating. Gordon wants cyborgism to take place but within the context of cyberpunk; it may, however, be too late for this integration to occur. The manner of the narrative and form of cyberpunk, as previously discussed, works against this aspiration. Can cyberpunk embrace women on their own terms, or will women be reconfigured to fit within the narrative style of a Raymond Chandler?

Andrew Ross argues the latter in his book Strange Weather. He examines two female characters from Lewis Shiner's Deserted Cities of the Heart and Gibson's Neuromancer. In both stories, the women are not completely independent of external forces, and "they make their 'intuitive-feminine' peace with these forces through some personal transformation." These women are in direct contrast to the other archetype in cyberpunk, the Molly Millions razorgirl character,[38] "a hardened techno-altered moll, highly skilled in martial arts and capable of outmatching all her competitors on traditionally masculine terrain" (158). Ross goes on to critique Kathy Acker's female characters as "bad cyborg girls" in terms of the habits of power, for they do not possess any merit in this regard, succumbing to patriarchal conceptions of women in power relationships.

However, many authors agree to the limiting nature of the organic feminist concept of science fiction. Ross and Haraway do not disparage this ideal, for they recognize the importance of the contextual gender relationships in such feminist texts. They do, however, stress the need to incorporate both the technological and the natural for women's roles in science fiction.[39] Yet Gordon's call to reinvent the woman as technological protagonist is not a clear one,[40] and charging writers to do so "in the grim future of most cyberpunk" is not particularly encouraging. What does remain is a reexamination of some cyberpunk characters in the context of these critical approaches. If we juxtapose these characters (primarily female) against actual texts by Sterling and Cadigan, with Sterling as the "typical" cyberpunk author writing under the influence of a Gibsonesque world, and Cadigan as the sole female writer classed in the genre, seeking to subvert anti-feminist stereotypes, the prevalent archetypes in cyberpunk will be clear. This assessment is intended as an introduction to Cadigan, whose work will be examined in greater detail later in the paper.

Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix serves as an introduction to the polarization of differing areas of science. He cites Schismatrix as "bare bones, like a Ramones three-minute pop song: we're not going to have any pretentious lighter shades of pale guitar noodling here, it's going to be 'Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,' blam blam blam, let's move on" (Mirrorshades 228) and he blatantly manipulates the narrative by the juxtaposing of shapers and mechanists. Opening with the Shaper/Mechanist world on a collision course Schismatrix has as its protagonist a male Shaper named Lindsay, who goes "sundog," a term that approximates mercenary. The Shapers "had seized control of their own genetics, abandoning mankind in a burst of artificial evolution. Their rivals, the Mechanists, had replaced flesh with advanced prosthetics" (90). The novel follows Lindsay from his aristocratic prison on an artificial habitat orbiting Earth's moon to various other mini-worlds, as the two factions fight for control. Lindsay is characterized as a strong figure, with female characters constantly interposed within his life experiences. But their presentation seems limited and marginalized, for the first woman he loves, Vera, martyrs herself for him and the Shaper cause in the first chapter of the book. Sterling's description of the character Kitsune, a former prostitute now controlling the Geisha Bank, where currency consists of hours (as with a prostitute), is tactile and objectified:

He knew at once that she was feigning nothing, because her look was beyond pretense. It was not human . . . . "They gave me to the surgeons," she said. "They took my womb out, and they put in brain tissue. Grafts from the pleasure center, darling. I'm wired to the ass and the spine and the throat, and it's better than being God. When I'm hot, I sweat perfume. I'm cleaner than a fresh needle, and nothing leaves my body that you can't drink like wine or eat like candy. And they left me bright, so that I would know what submission was. Do you know what submission is, darling?" (Schismatrix 43)

The next time Lindsay meets Kitsune, she is neither human, nor Shaper, but something else: "The room was full of flesh. It was made of it: Satiny brown skin, broken here and there by rugs of lustrous black hair and mauve flashes of mucus membrane" (187). She has taken over Dembowska Cartel as a disembodied Chief of Police and been empowered through her own machinations, for "the control is what matters darling, not the front" (188). But Lindsay "shudder[s] at the sensual warmth of the fleshly armchair" (187) that is part of Kitsune.

Another female sexual figure in this text is an advocate of "Zen Serotonin," a philosophy of nonmovement, with its adherents in a permanent alpha state.[41] A tough and competent figure, she mirrors the stock cyberpunk female character created by William Gibson in Neuromancer, named Molly. When Molly is introduced to Case as a "razor-girl," or assassin, she tells him:

"If I put this dartgun away, will you be easy, Case? You look like you like to take stupid chances."

"Hey, I'm very easy. I'm a pushover, no problem."

"That's fine, man." The fletcher vanished into the black jacket. "Because you try to fuck around with me, you'll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life."

She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, fourteen centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.

She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew. (25)


In contrast to such a female stereotype, Nora, Lindsay's other wife, is a Shaper who is first his enemy, then his wife. But after a long, successful marriage, he abandons her to her ideals, in order to go "sundog" once again (at least she doesn't try to follow him). Lindsay's first wife, Alexandrina, fifty years older than he is, remarries him, but she is noted only for her aristocratic airs and "teflon" knees.

Does Sterling give a purely organic vision to women? Within the realm of the Superbrights and Shapers, the organic is positive but limited. The mechanists are similarly constrained by the machine. Women, however, are still victims of destiny, rather than effectors of change. Although Sterling vaunts their strength, he limits their control over actual events.

Deadpan Allie, however, is not interested in Sterling's curbed alternatives for women. The protagonist in Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, she is an independent woman struggling through life as a "pathosfinder," a sort of mental (literally in one's mind) psychiatrist. Jailed for unauthorized psychosis (via a "madcap"), she is given the option to try mindplaying professionally, and she succeeds. Her relationships with men are problematic, however, with shady characters such as Jerry Wirerammer constantly approaching her for help. She meets, on a mental level of existence, a man named McFloy who was mindsucked (his entire personality/memories/soul stolen) and forms a relationship with him. He dies from some unexplained trauma (something that happens to those without memory) before she can meet him on a physical level, but he continues to serve as a focal point for her work, and it is he who truly explains the "alerted snakes of consequence."[42] McFloy gives her his artificial eye (a biogem that resembles a cats-eye) in their mutual dream, and she carries it with her, as he helps her establish herself, both psychologically and physically:

I should have been afraid, but somehow I never was, not in the dreams. He [McFloy] was just there, taking it all in. If he got in my way, I simply moved him aside and went on with the dream. He might have been watching a play of a holo program. Near the end of the dream he sometimes offered a comment, but not always. Eventually, I started taking his presence for granted even while I worked around him, never allowing him to change anything or participate. My way and no one else's. (91)

Allie's other major relationship is with Jascha, her dream counselor, who becomes her husband. They are divorced but they still remain close, and the novel ends with their resuming the relationship. But Jascha is not given a primary role and Allie is left to work things out with the help of her boss, Nelson Nelson, a demanding figure who challenges her development as a pathosfinder. She completes a series of "repair" jobs for NN on different types of people, including an empty actor, a dead poet, a mindswiped composer, and two "joined" composers. Although endangered in every instance, she has her ability and own sense of self-discovery, which serve her well. Through these difficult assignments and self-questioning, Allie finds the "light" she's been seeking, where "sometimes things happen that make people start resonating with each other" (Mindplayers 276). Gordon argues that the novel fits within her scheme, wherein "Allie's toughness, like Molly's, represents no female principle, just a human coping mechanism. Less violent than Molly, there is less danger of her being taken for the man in woman's clothing. But like Molly, she performs the covert feminist act of entering the human army combat-ready and on equal footing" (Gordon 199).

Cadigan's Deadpan Allie sets up and uses her technological equipment, but ultimately she must rely on her own strength of mind to determine her life's course. Cadigan's foundation is the cyberpunk's emptied, frenzied world, but she deliberately builds a structure that can support her characters without collapsing the edifice of narrative. This innovation is revolutionary, for she uses the language and scenarios but chooses not to succumb to the stereotype within cyberpunk.

Allie is not a "techno-altered moll," nor does she seek the personal enlightenment imposed by a patriarchal system. The only problem is that she is alone, as a character and as a competent woman in a cyberpunk milieu comprised of men. Has this move changed cyberpunk? It does not appear likely, but it does operate as a vehicle for change. The time has come to subvert the established pattern and reclaim women as characters of power and equality, without the limitations of style and patriarchy that usually operate within science fiction. Until then, feminist authors must infiltrate the system covertly, for as long as science fiction continues to serve as a barometer of popular patriarchal culture, women's roles must be hacked from the circuitry of the male matrix.

Link to the Bibliography

[ Index | Personal | CV | Teaching | Writing | Links | Misc ]