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Interview with Alison Sperling - Part 2

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Feminist and eco SF

Can you explain your definition of feminist and eco SF for us and give us some examples of books or authors? How has feminist SF influenced feminism, and how feminism has influenced SF? Which would be your recommended starting point/books etc. for someone who is interested in these topics?

Great question. Big question [laughing]. Feminist science/speculative fiction (what I am denoting more broadly as SF to encompass both, a somewhat controversial distinction made by Margaret Atwood) varies widely and has been around a long time. Arguably the first science fiction novel was a feminist one by Mary Shelley, (daughter of pioneer of feminist thought, Mary Wollstonecraft), who wrote her still iconic novel Frankenstein (1818) at the dare of Lord Byron who, according to the narrative rehearsed about the story’s creation, didn’t believe that a woman could write a proper ghost story. And it’s quite a good example with which to begin to answer your question, because it explores still fundamental questions and assumptions about science and creation, as well as questions about what constitutes life itself.

"There continues to be a lot of scholarly and popular interest in Frankenstein"

It asks deeply feminist questions about care and responsibility (especially toward the “nonhuman”), the nature of family and the boundaries and possibilities of kinship, and arguably condemns masculinist projects of a blind pursuit of scientific progress without full consideration of social or political dimensions of those pursuits. There continues to be a lot of scholarly and popular interest in Frankenstein, and there’s still a lot more to say about it. But let me back up for a second.

"It still must become more inclusive of women and people of color"

In general, feminist SF is a subgenre of SF that explores, among other things, gender inequities in the sciences both in how science is practiced but just as importantly to what end scientific questions and research are pursued.. For example, the ways in which “Science” has historically been practiced largely by white men, with certain biases that have been violently oppressive and murderous, often in the last centuries in purely capitalist pursuits. The history of science therefore requires correctives and retellings from other cultural perspectives, and must be challenged. It still must become more inclusive of women and people of color, as well as of feminist methods of inquiry, and needs to better work toward gender inequality in the social sphere. Feminist SF works on these problems and many others.

For example, some authors challenge bio-essentialism by creating worlds that radically alter the terms and standards of processes typically attributed to women - like reproduction, or they might challenge standardized norms for child-rearing or for what constitutes familial kinship that suggest instead anti-capital, anti-individualist modes of care. Authors might imagine gender-less, matriarchal, or all-women worlds, reversing or upending gender norms and gendered, ableist, and racialized structures of power.
The best feminist SF does these things while also exploring how these question intersect with the legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and the destruction and exploitation of the planet.

"What will gender and desire look like in a climate-changed future?"

Eco-feminist SF is an even more specific (though not so niche, really!) subgenre of SF that attempts to think through all of these things together, that acknowledges that the best feminsit speculative fictions or feminist imaginaries (of a better, more just future, but also of ways to repare and heal past injustices) really must be thinking about race, ability, ecology, extractivism, and colonialism among other histories and ongoing oppressions. These are specific texts that have feminist approaches and methods for imagining things like climate change and the Anthropocene and the role of the sciences more broadly in adapting in gendered, sexual, racialized ways to catastrophic ecologies. What will gender and desire look like in a climate-changed future? What norms will persist and what will be overturned, and how? Thinking about these speculatively can empower us (readers, critics, fans) to be inspired to work towards achieving a more just present. One must imagine a better world in order to figure out how to actually make it so.

Even though feminist SF is a subgenre, a comprehesive list of literary feminst SF authors would be way too long to recount here, not to mention the variation of topics they cover depending on region of the world and the period in which they were written. I happen to have studied mostly 20th century American Literature in my own career, so I acknowledge that focus as definitely limiting - I couldn’t provide a comprehensive survey of global feminist SF even if I wanted to.

But I can say that early authors in the U.S. and Canadian feminst SF tradition include Charlotte Perkins Gilmore (“The Yellow Wallpaper” of 1892 is a deeply “weird” tale about the experience of certain women in the period), Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), Joanna Russ (e.g. The Female Man, 1970), and Marge Piercy (e.g. Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976) as a few “canonical” examples. I would also point you to Lisa Yaszek’s work which has done a lot to unearth women SF writers of the first half of the 20th century.

It’s hard though, especially in the U.S. tradition of SF to really create an inclusive geneology of feminist SF - Black writers, for example, were rarely included in the pulp magazines and had limited access to publishing resources, for example, and so I think a lot more work has to be done to find and read those texts written by non-white authors in earlier periods. In contemporary feminist SF, the list of authors is huge and more reflective of Black, Indigenous, and other narratives that center the experiences of people of color:

"Queer and feminist SF modes"

Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Vandana Singh, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Grace Dillon, N.K. Jemisin, Samuel Delany, Joan Slonczewski, Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, or Caitlin R. Kiernan are all writing in queer and feminist SF modes. Somewhat relatedly, Regina Kanyu Wang and Yu Chen have just published a collection of translated Chinese women SF authors that I’m excited to read.

Read on part 3



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