Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction

Wednesday, 12 March 2014 14:09

As the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I am busy finalizing the travel plans for my research trip to the University of Oregon's feminist science fiction special collections. I am going to spend 10 days in the archives, pouring over the letters, papers, and research notes of some of my favourite feminist SF authors. To say that I am excited is an understatement--receiving the fellowship is a huge honour and marks a major milestone in my scholarly life. This will be my first time performing this kind of archival research, so I've been making sure to read up on the archive's holdings and narrow down my research goals as much as possible.

I would like to thank the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship and its sponsors (Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and Knight Library Special Collections and University Archives) for providing me with this amazing opportunity.

What follows is an excerpt from my research proposal to give everyone an idea of my project and what I hope to discover in the archives.

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“The Other Lives”—Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction

It’s a crip promise that we will always comprehend disability otherwise and that we will, collectively, somehow access other worlds and futures.
—Robert McRuer, Crip Theory

Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

 

My research at the Knight Library’s feminist science fiction (SF) special collection will form a central chapter on utopian feminist SF in my upcoming planned monograph on disability and temporality in SF. Starting with the so-called Golden Age of SF in the 1950s and extending into today, I want to trace the ways the genre has reflected the Western cultural attitude towards disability and people with disabilities, a vision that, while often well-intentioned, is condescending and ableist. Disability studies theorist Tobin Siebers notes the temporal tension inherent in discourses of disability: “the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them. It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future” (Disability Theory 9). I believe that the utopian feminist SF of the 1970s (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s) helped shape the conversation of disability in SF, either through the problematic “defeat” of disability (seen in the genetic engineering of the Whileaway women in Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) or through an insistence on recognizing shared vulnerabilities while celebrating bodily difference (as exemplified by the Gethenians in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness).

Alison Kafer importantly asks in Feminist, Queer, Crip, “Why is disability in the present constantly deferred, such that disability often enters critical discourse only as the marker of what must be eliminated in our futures or what was unquestionably eliminated in our pasts?” (10). My research project arises out of my growing curiosity to explore this question through the critical study of disability in SF (with a special focus on feminist SF). I am interested in the Knight Library archive’s holdings—in particular, the research notes, essays, and personal correspondence dating from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s—for Suzette Haden Elgin, Sally Miller Gearhart, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Active during and after the civil rights movement, these four prolific authors created utopian feminist SF that theorized and advocated new ways of being for women and the LGTB community. My proposed archival research will focus on the (self-identified) politics that inform their work throughout the 1970s and 1980s, seeking out lines of inquiry or attention in the differently abled body. To date, most discussions of these feminist SF writers address their engagement with the sexed and gendered body (and, to a lesser extent, the raced and classed body), but I am keen to discover if there are threads of disability awareness, or even overt advocacy, in their personal correspondence and research materials. To my knowledge, my proposed project will be among the first to investigate the archives with a disability studies framework in mind.

Given their progressive engagement with “deviant” bodies in their works (both fiction and non-fiction), the archives of Elgin, Gearhart, Russ, and Le Guin are ideal sites for this line of inquiry and will significantly inform my proposed book’s chapter on feminist SF, “Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction.” From her early novels such as Communipaths to her celebrated Native Tongue trilogy, Elgin’s oeuvre shows a sustained interest in the way language shapes our perception of people with different abilities. Well-known as an activist, Sally Miller Gearhart also explored the construction of cognitive and physical difference, most notably in The Wanderground, where an open narrative follows the telepathic (and flying!) “hill women.” Russ’s The Female Man, with its contrasting worlds of dystopian suffering and utopian genetically-engineered perfection, directly raises a conversation about the role of technology in shaping humanity. I am particularly interested in Russ’ correspondence with fellow SF writers—such as Samuel Delany, Marge Piercy, James Tiptree Jr., Vonda McIntyre, and Suzy McKee Charnas—where I hope to find mention of disability rights among the passionate debates about SF, minority rights, and feminism. In her Earthsea series, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, to name only a few titles from her large body of fiction, Le Guin takes special care in giving non-normative bodies agency and self-direction by placing them at the centre of the text. Through examination of her newly archived papers—along with the holdings for Elgin, Gearhart, and Russ—I would like to identify material to support my reading of these feminist utopian SF texts as foundational in creating a space to openly discuss dis/ability in a genre that often elides positive recognition of people with disabilities.

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