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    Speculative fiction: looking at class, race and gender

    The Portland Alliance, July 2002

    In the spirit of the yearly tradition known as "light summer reading," I decided I would put down my usual political nonfiction and read same fiction. Sometimes it's good to pull away from the blood-boiling polemics of my progressive peers for the sake of my sanity, but I enjoy pondering issues of social importance so brainless pulp novels were out of the question. Fortunately, there's a little known category of genre fiction which invites readers to critique pressing political questions while offering a radical break from the world we know - speculative fiction. Living in the shadowy place between sci­ence fiction and literature, warring literati factions endlessly debate the value of speculative fiction when determining why Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is shelved with science fiction but Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale goes in fiction. To see what speculative fiction can provoke culturally and intellectually, look no further than the uncountable references to George Orwell's 1984 in recent years. As a literature of possible alternative societies based on extrapolated modern ideas, speculative fictions have been particularly effective at questioning the interworkings of class, race and gender. Most speculative fiction by men has paid little attention to the role gender plays in society, focusing instead on making their male anti-heroes the archetypal Everyman exploring some exaggerated aspect of the human condition. But the human condition is also women's condition, and fiction fantastically illustrating questions of sexual politics has produced classics of modern literature like the Le Guin and Atwood works mentioned above. For help with the reading list I consulted the website of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual prize for science fiction that explores gender, and discovered some forgotten feminist fictions from the 70s. When the Tiptrees were created in1991, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World (1974) and its sequel Motherlines (1978) were honored with retrospective awards. These installments of the Holdfast Chronicles take place in an indeterminately distant future after the world's ecosystem has been destroyed by the pursuit of wealth and war. In Walk To the End of the World, the all-white residents of Holdfast are descendants of the few who emerged after the ecological disaster of "the Wasting" to found a new society, and the same toxic philosophies of the men whose errors killed the world's animals and minorities construct this future as the ultimate expression of masculinity. Violence, rivalry between older and younger men and the utter hatred or women are the most salient features of Holdfast, where there are no families and "fems" are considered subhuman beasts or burden.

    Charnas presents a dystopian world where traditionally male characteristics of violence, hierarchy and aggression form the central basis of society and women are valued only as workers, breeders, and objects that either add to a man's display of power or serve as easy targets. The strength of Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale is how easily readers can see the current philosophies about women's roles taken to their logical nightmarish conclusion, and Charnas's Holdfast is remarkable in this same regard as the slave fem Alldera reveals what life is like for women under this ideology that is too similar to modern reality for comfort.

    Having given us her opinion on what a world run even more on male principles than our current one might look like, Charnas wrote a sequel detailing what she thinks a world based primarily on women's ideals would look like. The result is Motherlines. Alldera meets the Riding-Women, a female-only grassland society modeled on tribal plains Indians. Descendants of an experiment in parthenogenesis, these women are able to conceive cloned daughters using horse semen to trigger the process (a population of horses was preserved for the experiment). Riding Women are brave and skilled horsewomen living in harmony with nature and have no hierarchical leaders or classist divisions of labor.

    Some anthropologists have pointed to the division of labor as a main cause of sexism, where public activities are seen to belong to men while private, domestic duties are women’s and inequality is based less on biology than on the irrational devaluation of women's work. Many feminist utopias posit that if child rearing, education and cooperation were raised to the highest place in the social order, women's status would rise with it. The lack of men in Motherlines is not a call for radical separatism but for a society where traditionally feminine qualities are valued more than traditionally masculine ones insofar as they are positive goals for all humans; removing men is the literary method to demonstrate a culture where masculine values are sublimated to feminine ones.

    Marge Piercy's 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time follows a similar gender philosophy but Piercy's future includes men who have learned to change their destructive ways. The story follows Connie Camacho Ramos, a 37-year-old Chicana from Manhattan whose reality is one of constant pain at the hands of the male-dominated, Anglo world. After being raped, beaten and given an unnecessary hysterectomy, Connie gets unfairly committed to a psychiatric institution when she attacks her niece's pimp. While there she is visited telepathically from the future by Luciente, a time traveler excited about visiting "The Age of Greed and Waste."

    When Connie is brought to the future it starkly juxtapose the sexist and racist culture of Connie's Manhattan with the idyllic culture of Mattapoisett, a self-sustaining community in Massachusetts, year 2137. In Mattapoisett, ecological soundness and equality are the prevailing societal values. Traditional categories of gender, sexuality, race and class have been eradicated but Piercy maintains diversity while avoiding hierarchical arrangements.

    As we saw in Motherlines, there is no division between the public sphere of remorseless commerce and the private sphere of nurturing homestead because there are no labor specializations. Childbirth is equalized in this future where each baby is incubated in a bottle for ten months until emerging to be loved, educated and even breast fed by the three male and female "mothers" each child gets assigned. As a warning that we must make our future more equal or else, Piercy included a short but jolting passage where an alternate future has taken a Holdfastish turn and women are purely sexual commodity slaves. The hope of Women On the Edge of Time is that humans will someday arrive at something resembling the peaceful future of Mattapoisett and never know what a sort of world hypermasculine values out of control may produce in the future. That's not to say hyperfeminized values automatically produce utopian societies, for that would be putting women on a pedestal of moral perfection no human being can claim. The Riding Women and Mattapoisett still have conflicts, jealousies and violence to contend with, but their methods of dealing with these problems rely more on instructive punishment with redemption and less on humiliating vengeance. Once again the values associated with domestic life are applied to public life and the result is something akin to relatives settling a dispute within the family.

    Such conceptualizations of a public life modeled on the home is something feminist writers needed to address because the more famous male speculative writers of the past ignored questions central to women's daily lives. For example, Orwell's Oceania has women working the same menial jobs they have always worked in industrialized societies in addition to doing all the child-rearing and household tasks. In relaying his fear of socialism eliminating privacy, Orwell presumes that socialist totalitarianism or not, women will be expected to hold jobs outside the home in addition to providing all domestic duties. An alluring aspect of socialism for women is the communalization of homemaking drudgery that would essentially make men do an equal share of meal preparation, laundry, bathroom cleaning, daycare, and other chores that have fallen disproportionately on women's shoulders.
    I can understand why Orwell might find the idea of doing some share of women's work unnatural and repugnant (I understand why modern men feel the same way), but Orwell never bothers to raise the question of how the publicization of private tasks unduly foisted on women could potentially benefit humanity by promoting positive values of cooperation and gender equity. Male speculists like Orwell have presented male characters whose individualism is considered the pinnacle of humanity, and feminist speculists continue to question if that particular value is truly higher on women's charts than achieving a less violent, more harmonious society. 1984 is not a feminist novel, but seeing Winston Smith yearn for a world where mother's love and traditional domesticity provide blissful comfort is proof that when men envision a utopia it's often built on values currently considered, and hence currently denigrated, as feminine. Feminist speculative writers have taken this unspoken longing for wider acceptance of traditional female values and asked why they can't be applied more often in public affairs to the greater benefit of all. In a world where more money is spent on prisons and weapons than on schools and healthcare, it is unfortunate that Charnas and Piercy's holistic societies remain further from reality than the dangerously close dystopian society of Orwell.

    S.M. Berg is an activist with the Pacific Green Party and The Portland Alliance.

    Copyright © by genderberg.com All Right Reserved.

    Published on: 2005-02-23 (2407 reads)

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