Displaying items by tag: feministSF

If there was a novel that I regretted not taking up during my time in graduate school, it is Misha's Red Spider White Web. It is a book that has haunted me since I read it two summers ago. Not only is the cover art amazing, the narrative itself is just chock-full of thought-provoking material. I was really happy to come across the new SF Mistressworks blog that aims to gather together reviews of feminist SF in order to better advertise the fact that, yes, women write awesome SF. Seeing an open call for submissions, I finally had my chance to write about Red Spider White Web. My review follows:

There is something profoundly disturbing – and, as equally, compelling – about Misha’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world in Red Spider White Web (1990). The novel is unrelenting in its bleak characterization of future humanity, but fascinating in its direct interrogation of race, technology, and the value of art. Whereas non-white characters are often assigned the supporting roles in conventional cyberpunk, Misha places her Aboriginal-others at the centre of the narrative. Red Spider White Web is a tale of the future told from the point of view of people whose history lives only in museums and on genetically-engineered farming colonies.

In his “Pseudo-Introduction” to the 1999 reprint of Red Spider White Web, John Shirley argues that Misha’s name should appear next to his on any list of seminal cyberpunk writers. He writes: “Misha’s particular interfacing of the artist-character with the streetscene with the cyborgian meat-transcendence revelation, her operatic evocation, her bold juxtapositions, her strangely feminine toughness, her barbed-wire poetic content, and most of the all the sense of an underlying metaphysical reality in Red Spider White Web – well shit, it was just plain ahead of its time.” The novel draws on the sub-genres of horror, cyberpunk, and feminist SF, but it is more frenetic, more darkly prophetic, and stranger than any clear-cut genre designation allows.

Two intertwining narratives in Red Spider White Web tell a story of desperate survival in a world fallen apart and the longing for beauty and real human contact. The primary character in the novel is Kumo, a holo-artist who scrapes out a living working in the artists’ market, waiting among the other discarded people for a “rich suit” to buy her work. The other narrative is that of Tommy, a mad ex-agent/preacher/junk collector, whose disjointed musings open the book and set up its dark visual imagery: “His circuit is a skull juggler. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out!” From the book’s first sentences, Misha’s writing warns the reader that this is no breezy Sunday reading. While the prose verges on being poetically unintelligible at times – a reflection of the disarray and insanity of the world it describes – the majority of Red Spider White Web is captivating slang-thrown dialogue and keen images of a rotting city and its disenfranchised citizens.

The plot revolves around Kumo, as she navigates a cityscape full of gangs, cannibals, “zombies,” and groups of well-armed rich kids who prey on the poor and vulnerable for fun. Someone is killing the artists in her community, but with dogged determination, Kumo survives her surroundings and keeps making her holo-art. Misha’s world-building does not leave much room for hope: people must shield themselves from UV radiation, they eat synthetic food, contract 15-minute viruses, slap on drug patches, and wallow in perversion. Misha does not give into transhumanist nostalgia or the typical cyberpunk trope of transcendence. Kumo and Tommy are ultimately alone and all too human beneath their masks of metal and cloned-leather.

While Red Spider White Web might not make for ideal bedtime-reading, it is a novel worth attention from anyone who reads SF and understands the inherently critical nature of the genre. Misha’s savage world speaks to fears of those already left behind – the rich get richer and the poor get eaten. It is a vision of a world that must not come to be. I’ve wanted to write about Red Spider White Web for a long time. It has taken two years for me to revisit it. A good story stays with you and Misha’s Red Spider White Web refuses to leave easily.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Monday, 20 June 2011 12:24

Marginalization of SF in the Academy

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.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Wednesday, 15 June 2011 23:53

Disability Studies and SF

An excerpt from the Conclusion of my thesis that explains why I want to study representations of disability in SF:

In addition to advocating for more attention to be devoted to reading race in SF, I feel that addressing issues of disability and the suffering body as depicted in SF narratives (feminist or otherwise) is also pressing. As the pace of advancements in prosthetic and other computerized assisted-living technologies quickens, we, as a culture, find ourselves faced with new possibilities for disabled bodies and embodiments. As I have always been interested in disability studies, it is a regret that I did not better engage with theories of disability and the technologically enabled body in this thesis. My own experience with chronic illness and pain has deepened my interest in this line of inquiry, but I also believe that there is a need within the SF community itself to engage with more images of disability.

During my participation at The 67th World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in August 2009, I attended a panel discussion of disability in SF: the room was absolutely packed with people, most of whom identified as disabled. Throughout the hour, people shared their stories of identifying with specific disabled (or bodily limited) characters and insightfully critiqued the technologies imagined within these SF scenarios. I found the communal desire to discuss disability, as it is represented in SF, overwhelming. I would encourage academics working in the field of SF criticism to pay closer attention to the representation of disability in SF narratives (particularly in terms of reimagining the possibility of transcendence from the suffering body), as the SF community has demonstrated its eagerness to engage with the material and it offers a rich site of investigation into questions of embodiment and identity.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 14 June 2011 14:23

WorldCon Newbie

Two years ago, I was able to attend the World Science Conference (WorldCon) in Montreal. It was my first experience being part of a SF gathering and I was completely overwhelmed. My time in academia was quite lonely as SF scholars are few and far between, so it was truly exciting to be amongst people who like SF as much as I do. I only wish I had made contact with more individuals one-on-one, but I kind of floated through the five days in a SF-culture-shock induced daze.

It also didn’t help that I was in the middle of my “angry with the PhD” phase and ended up doing a not-so-great job presenting my academic-track paper (to all 6 people who were in the room, my belated apologies). Still, I had a blast and I knew that I wanted to do more SF conferences when health, time, and money allowed.

This year, I am going to Reno for Renovation, the 69th WorldCon in August. My partner and I have been planning on attending for over a year now, so when my paper was accepted in Renovation’s Academic Track (Speculative Frontiers: Reading, Seeing, Being, Going), I booked the hotel and started thinking costumes. This time around, I intend to mingle up a storm!

Here is the abstract for my paper:

Technology as Cure? Virtuality, Proxies, and the Vulnerable Human Body

While technology is often considered a “silver bullet” for the multitude of deformities and ailments of the vulnerable human body, feminist post-cyberpunk fiction, as exemplified by Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Laura Mixon’s Proxies (1999), cautions against technophilia and “technology as cure.” Sullivan and Mixon position the idea of a virtual “body-free universe” as one that both parallels and conflicts with the reality of the lived bodies that populate and enable it. Drawing on posthumanist and feminist theories, this paper interrogates the relationship between the body and technology, expressing anxieties about physical boundary dissolution and psychic disruption. While technology is often used to disavow the inherent vulnerability of the body, the resulting forms of embodiment are frequently monstrous. This paper focuses on the ways in which gendered, raced, and disabled bodies are simultaneously enhanced and exploited through virtual reality and telepresence technologies. Ultimately, I argue that these texts insist on recognizing the vulnerability of the flesh as a defining trait of what constitutes human being.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 14 June 2011 14:14

Independent Academic

In the past month, I’ve taken to thinking of myself an “independent academic,” a designation that somehow is both laughable and admirable. Regardless of my many complaints and concerns about the academy, I still love the process of researching and writing. The highlights of my graduate education were those times of investigation and analysis. I miss seminar discussions of theory and literature. I even feel nostalgic for the long days spent searching through journals in the library. It took me the last half year to realize that I still wanted to be an academic. Not an academic in the sense of a university professor, but as someone who still pursues knowledge and shares it with like-minded people. I might not want to be a university faculty member anymore, but I still want to keep doing the same kind of work.

Being a science fiction (SF) scholar, I have a unique base of knowledge to start me off. The SF community is well-established and I am hoping that there is room in there for me. Part of the motivation for this blog – aside from a cathartic unburdening of my grad school trauma – is that I want to make connections with people who love SF as much as I do. My dream job would be to do editing work in the morning and write/talk/create SF in the afternoon. I believe that I have something worthwhile to contribute to the field of SF studies and I don’t see why I should stop my research just because I’m not employed by an institution of higher education.

My doctoral research was in the areas of feminist post-cyberpunk SF (a genre term of my own making!), post-humanism, technology, and the body. You can read my dissertation, Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminsist Post-Cyberpunk Science Fiction, online if you like. My current area of research interest (when I find the time) is the representation of disabled bodies and disability in SF. I’m particularly keen on notions of the prosthetic at the moment. I hope to document and discuss my on-going research through this site, so please feel free to join me in conversation.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
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