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Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century

by Justine Larbalestier, Editor
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2006
424 pp., 6 illus. b/w. Trade, $65.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6675-6; ISBN: 0-8195-6676-4.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Casual readers of science fiction may have the impression that women don’t make a significant contribution to the genre. The first authors that spring to mind are indeed male, and the readership itself is also predominantly male. Sociologists of literature and women’s studies scholars have developed theories to explain why SF doesn’t seem to have an equal appeal for both audiences, but that doesn’t mean that women are absent form the field, neither as authors nor as fans. Quite on the contrary, anyone who is anywhere acquainted with the recent new wave of highly successful British Sci-Fi, will know that it has been and is led by female and male authors alike. Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan, to name only two of them, are certainly no minor names and they have infused SF with a new sound — even if I wouldn’t presume to have the right to call it ‘female’ or feminist.

As long as SF exists and has been perceived as a proper genre — roughly from the beginning of last century — female authors have contributed short stories, novels and film scenarios. To circumvent the prejudice of male editors, they sometimes chose to use ambiguous first names like e.g. Leslie, or to use just their initials; at other times they adopted an outright male-sounding name. James Tiptree Jr., whose 1972 story ‘And I Awoke and Found Me there on the Cold Hill Side’ is included in this collection, was the pseudonym of Alice Hastings Sheldon née Bradley, strategically adopted to get her mark more easily published. In fact, the case of Tiptree/Sheldon is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of women writers of SF. Under his male alias, he published a widely acclaimed and prize-winning Hemingwayesque story with an appropriate macho hero, only to find it negatively criticised and its qualities downplayed when (male) readers found out the author was a woman. Wendy Pearson wrote an intelligent and illuminating essay on the Tiptree/Sheldon case and analyses the story from the two obvious angles: is it science fiction, and why is it feminist? Similarly, Daughters of Earth presents ten more stories with an accompanying essay. Practically one for each decade, from "The Fate of the Poseidonia" by Clare Winger Harris (1927) to "What I Didn’t See" by Karen Joy Fowler (2002), with essays by Jane Donawerth and L. Timmel Duchamp respectively. The choice is open to debate, as Justine Larbalestier gracefully admits, and some of the stories are of a lesser quality indeed, but her point was not to offer a top ten of female SF writing but rather to illustrate the very scope of what could sail under the flag of feminist SF and to advance our understanding of what makes SF stories written by women sometimes feminist. Most of the essays indeed clarify the issue, and some of them will quite certainly become classics in their own right, like the one by Timmel Duchamp I mentioned before because of its clarity at discussing the point of ‘being SF’. Some of them, but fortunately only a few, have been infected by a lethal strain of deconstructivitis that blocks logical argument and reconnects neural pathways randomly. But of course, that doesn’t lessen the quality and the necessity of the whole collection in the least. Certainly not, because most authors excellently frame their subject story in the context of the historical development of (American) feminism. Lt. Uhura couldn’t have done it better.

For a scholarly book, this is a real page-turner and for the fans of SF who haven’t looked at the feminist side of the field, it is a refreshing and accessible introduction. I am looking forward to an analysis of Tricia Sullivan’s ‘Maul’ by Larbalestier or Joan Haran. Maybe an idea for a future book?



Updated 1st September 2006

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