The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a history of women
and feminism in American science fiction. It doesn't attempt to
cover that topic comprehensively, but focuses on particular themes
and threads: "battle-of-the-sexes" stories in early magazines; debates
up to 1975 over a place for women, love, and sex in science fiction;
the connection between the late 60s and 70s boom in feminist science
fiction and earlier currents; the career of James Tiptree Jr; and the
James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award.
Solidly grounded in the primary sources, Battle of the Sexes takes a
fundamentally historical approach rather than a philosophical or critical
one: while it is clearly an academic work, providing scholarly citations
and situating itself in relation to different fields, it is not really
dependent on feminist or critical theory. Larbalestier occasionally
deploys pieces of theory that aren't particularly enlightening (one
often feels she could have explained things better herself), there's a
little detailed language analysis that doesn't really fit in with the
rest of the work, and anyone who will freak out on encountering terms
like "hegemony" or "heterosexual economy" should stay away. Otherwise,
this is a work which should appeal to a fair number of science fiction
readers, not just to gender studies and literature students. As well
as learning something about the history of the genre, they may find new
insights into familiar works and discover some new authors - and many
of the stories Larbalestier tells are entertaining in their own right.
The opening chapter starts with Hugo Gernsback and the 1926 publication
of Amazing Stories. Larbalestier looks not just at texts, however,
but at the communities which evolved around them and which produced,
read, and discussed them. Using extracts from letters columns, with
illustrative facsimiles of magazine and fanzine pages, she touches on
topics such as the presence of women fans and the status of science in
scientifiction (and the iconic status of A.E. Van Vogt's 1940 Slan).
The focus on fan communities and broad use of primary sources continues
throughout The Battle of the Sexes.
Next comes a survey of early "battle of the sexes" stories, explicitly
about the relations between men and women. Among those considered
in detail are Wallace G. West's "The Last Man", Nelson S. Bond's "The
Priestess Who Rebelled", and Edmund Cooper's Who Needs Men?. Common
themes were the presentation of ideals of "real men" and "real women"
and of contrasting not-men and not-women, with men and women needing one
another to affirm their status as real men or women - and a special
role for kisses and/or penetration in a real man making a real woman.
If these stories affirmed "dominant male" paradigms, they nevertheless
had to at least conceptualise alternatives. There were also parodies of
sex-battle stories, such as Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's Search
the Sky, Bruce McAllister's "Ecce Femina!", and James Tiptree Jr's
"Mama Come Home".
A number of stories offer some kind of equality between the sexes:
Larbalestier looks at Richard Vaughan's "The Woman from Space" (1932),
Philip Wylie's The Disappearance (1951), and Mark Reynold's Amazon
Planet (1966). Joanna Russ' "When It Changed" (1972) marks a crucial
shift, depicting a world of women "outside the patriarchal heterosexual
order, outside the discourse of romance", quite uninterested in
"rescue" by a spaceship of men. Another alternative was some form
of hermaphroditism, notable examples being English author Katherine
Burdekin's Proud Man (1934, under the pseudonym Murray Constantine),
Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960), and Ursula Le Guin's The
Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Alongside the stories, there were debates in fan communities over women,
love, and sex - in which "women" were generally conflated with "sex"
and "love". Larbalestier looks at early proponents of keeping science
fiction "clean and unpolluted" and touches briefly on representations of
women on magazine covers. Then comes a detailed account of a 1938/39 "love
interest" debate in the letters column of Astounding, in which a young
Isaac Asimov took centre stage, and a brief one of a controversy in 1955
when John Campbell suggested that prostitutes would need to be sent with
any expedition to Mars. Debates in the mid-70s involving Poul Anderson,
Joanna Russ, and Terry Carr show that some of these stereotypes persisted.
There are different stories about the presence or absence of women
in early science fiction and about the timing and significance of the
"Great Invasion" (or "Erosion", as some saw it). Larbalestier surveys
critical writing on the subject as well as the backgrounds of women
science fiction writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey,
and Connie Willis. Some of these were part of fan communities from
childhood and were heavily influenced by early writers such as Judith
Merril, while others discovered science fiction later or were influenced
more by later writers. Larbalestier argues convincingly that feminist
sf owes as much to the early "battle of the sexes" stories as it does
to feminist models outside the genre.
Larbalestier then gives a brief account of the fascinating life of Alice
James Raccoona Tiptree Davey Hastings Bradley Sheldon Jr. She was born
Alice Hastings Bradley to parents who were explorers and travellers
(her mother was also a writer) and much of her childhood was spent in
Africa and India. An unsuitable first marriage (Davey) was followed by
a loving second (Sheldon) and wartime work for the army by a stint with
the CIA and a PhD in experimental psychology. She started publishing
science fiction, and participating in the fan world, under the name
James Tiptree Jr in 1967 and as Raccoona Sheldon in 1974. In 1976
came the revelation that James Tiptree and Raccoona Sheldon were Alice
Sheldon, which "can be read as part of the battle of the sexes as it
has been played out on the field of science fiction since the 1920s".
A full biography is not yet available, so this chapter is one of the
best accounts of Sheldon/Tiptree's life available.
The final chapter of Battle of the Sexes is about the James
Tiptree Jr Memorial Award. Larbalestier is less interested in the works
that have won the award, however, than in how it came into being, how it
works, and the community that supports it. It becomes a kind of "slice",
a way of coherently sampling something of the diversity of contemporary
feminist science fiction and fandom.
%T The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction
%A Larbalestier, Justine
%I Wesleyan University Press
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0-8195-6527-X
If you prefer to read the science fiction
itself, two books I highly recommend are Her
Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of James Tiptree
Jr's short stories, and Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand
of Darkness. You might also want to check out my other science fiction
If you're in Sydney, the official book launch of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is on Wednesday September 25th at Gleebooks at 6pm. (And no, the author's not a friend of mine - I've met her once, when she gave a talk about this book.)