Marginalization of SF in the Academy

Monday, 20 June 2011 12:24

When I changed my PhD project to feminist SF, I knew that I was effectively saying "I'm not planning on getting hired in a tenure-track job any time in the near future." This is not to say that everyone who studies feminist SF cannot find a university position, but it is a pretty hard sell.  When we discussed the attractiveness of my project to a potential hiring committee, my supervisor did mention that it was "probably a good thing" that I was leaving the academy. From dismissive conversations with male colleagues who wondered why I wasn't reading Asimov to failed grant proposals, it was always obvious to me that I was engaged with literature of a questionable nature.

In the "Introduction" of my thesis, I addressed the issue of the marginalization of SF in the academy [excerpt follows]:

Working in the field of science fiction, I have discovered, is often an isolating and lonely task. When considering my interests in (post-)cyberpunk and feminist SF, the critical community to which I belong is notably small. When I explain to my peers that I am working with current feminist SF writers – Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan, and Laura Mixon – I usually lose their attention as these names are largely unfamiliar. I try to recapture their interest by mentioning the cyberpunk angle of my project, but, unfortunately, many people have never heard of William Gibson either! Many critics within the SF community have taken up the issue of the marginalization of science fiction in the academy, and Gary Westfahl, in his book, Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy, does an admirable job of identifying the field’s major hurdles. Westfahl argues that science fiction, unlike other “once-neglected” literature, still attracts the “most academic resistance” (2) and that:  "Within the field of science fiction criticism, there are debates about the canon of science fiction that run parallel to larger disputes about the canon of literature. Some prefer to focus attention on a few writers of undeniable talents, like Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, and [William] Gibson, but others have publicly protested about the over attention to these writers and have called for more study of “neglected” authors" (2). Westfahl, observing that SF is unlike other fields of academic study, notes that SF is “subject to another strong influence: the industrious science fiction community consisting of dedicated readers who embody and maintain the traditions of the genre, carry on their own painstaking research, and express their own views concerning the quality and stature of its authors” (2). From my own academic research and experience with the SF community at large, I wholeheartedly agree with Westfahl’s explanations of its marginalization. SF is fun to read and watch as a fan, but making an academic career out of it is risky at best.

In her excellent study of the cyberpunk movement and postmodernism, Virtual Geographies, Sabine Heuser adds another difficulty facing SF scholars to Westfahl’s list. Heuser argues that “science fiction takes place in a double field of tension: between high and low culture, as well as between the ‘two cultures’ of the natural sciences and the humanities” (xii). This tension creates further problems for defining science fiction: how much science is necessary for a novel to be considered science fiction and not something else? In Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery notes that “hard” SF is written for the largest audience possible and that it often iterates conservative gender values, whereas “soft” SF, written for “experienced and venturesome SF readers,” is more likely to “challenge rather than to uphold gender norms” (5). With Attebery’s tentative distinction in mind then, the feminist post-cyberpunk texts of my project fall (unfairly so in my opinion) into the further marginalized genre of “soft SF,” long deemed unworthy of sustained academic attention. Also contributing to the difficulty of working with SF are the myriad distinctions among its subgenres. As Heuser correctly observes: “One problem with science fiction criticism has been the lack of attention paid to genre science fiction, which accounts for the vast majority of works published in the field” (xvii). This lack of attention to “genre science fiction,” a category in which the texts of my study are arguably situated, is a definite loss for both the particular field of SF criticism and for literary studies in general. I firmly believe that one of the strengths of SF lies in its multitude of subgenres, which exemplify the culturally-intuitive creativity of its writers and the enthusiastic critical engagement of its readers.

Despite its continued marginalization in the academy, SF criticism manages to attract some excellent scholars who are eager to spread their enthusiasm for the field. Veteran SF critic Jenny Wolmark argues that “SF is increasingly recognized for its ability to articulate complex and multifaceted responses to contemporary uncertainties and anxieties, and metaphors drawn from SF have acquired considerable cultural resonance” (“Time and Identity” 156). Austin Booth and Mary Flanagan, editors of the comprehensive collection Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture, simply state: “Science fiction is a vital source of narratives through which we understand and represent our relationships to technology” (2). In my opinion, no other literary genre comes close to articulating the anxieties and preoccupations of the present day as clearly and critically as SF, as it is a vital source for understanding newly emerging embodiments and subjectivities.

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