The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

Justine Larbalestier

Wesleyan University Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a history of women and feminism in American science fiction. It doesn't attempt to cover that topic comprehensively, but focuses on particular themes and threads: "battle-of-the-sexes" stories in early magazines; debates up to 1975 over a place for women, love, and sex in science fiction; the connection between the late 60s and 70s boom in feminist science fiction and earlier currents; the career of James Tiptree Jr; and the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award.

Solidly grounded in the primary sources, Battle of the Sexes takes a fundamentally historical approach rather than a philosophical or critical one: while it is clearly an academic work, providing scholarly citations and situating itself in relation to different fields, it is not really dependent on feminist or critical theory. Larbalestier occasionally references theorists who aren't particularly enlightening — one often feels she could have explained things better herself — there's a little detailed language analysis that doesn't really fit in with the rest of the work, and anyone who will freak out on encountering terms like "hegemony" or "heterosexual economy" should stay away. Otherwise, this is a work which should appeal to a fair number of science fiction readers, not just to gender studies and literature students. As well as learning something about the history of the genre, they may find new insights into familiar works and discover some new authors — and many of the stories Larbalestier tells are entertaining in their own right.

The opening chapter starts with Hugo Gernsback and the 1926 publication of Amazing Stories. Larbalestier looks not just at texts, however, but at the communities which evolved around them and which produced, read, and discussed them. Using extracts from letters columns, with illustrative facsimiles of magazine and fanzine pages, she touches on topics such as the presence of women fans and the status of science in scientifiction (and the iconic status of A.E. Van Vogt's 1940 Slan). The focus on fan communities and broad use of primary sources continues throughout The Battle of the Sexes.

Next comes a survey of early "battle of the sexes" stories, explicitly about the relations between men and women. Among those considered in detail are Wallace G. West's "The Last Man", Nelson S. Bond's "The Priestess Who Rebelled", and Edmund Cooper's Who Needs Men?. Common themes were the presentation of ideals of "real men" and "real women" and of contrasting not-men and not-women, with men and women needing one another to affirm their status as real men or women — and a special role for kisses and/or penetration in a real man making a real woman. If these stories affirmed "dominant male" paradigms, they nevertheless had to at least conceptualise alternatives. There were also parodies of sex-battle stories, such as Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's Search the Sky, Bruce McAllister's "Ecce Femina!", and James Tiptree Jr's "Mama Come Home".

A number of stories offer some kind of equality between the sexes: Larbalestier looks at Richard Vaughan's "The Woman from Space" (1932), Philip Wylie's The Disappearance (1951), and Mark Reynold's Amazon Planet (1966). Joanna Russ' "When It Changed" (1972) marks a crucial shift, depicting a world of women "outside the patriarchal heterosexual order, outside the discourse of romance", quite uninterested in "rescue" by a spaceship of men. Another alternative was some form of hermaphroditism, notable examples being English author Katherine Burdekin's Proud Man (1934, under the pseudonym Murray Constantine), Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960), and Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Alongside the stories, there were debates in fan communities over women, love, and sex — in which "women" were generally conflated with "sex" and "love". Larbalestier looks at early proponents of keeping science fiction "clean and unpolluted" and touches briefly on representations of women on magazine covers. Then comes a detailed account of a 1938/39 "love interest" debate in the letters column of Astounding, in which a young Isaac Asimov took centre stage, and a brief one of a controversy in 1955 when John Campbell suggested that prostitutes would need to be sent with any expedition to Mars. Debates in the mid-70s involving Poul Anderson, Joanna Russ, and Terry Carr show that some of these stereotypes persisted.

There are different stories about the presence or absence of women in early science fiction and about the timing and significance of the "Great Invasion" (or "Erosion", as some saw it). Larbalestier surveys critical writing on the subject as well as the backgrounds of women science fiction writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, and Connie Willis. Some of these were part of fan communities from childhood and were heavily influenced by early writers such as Judith Merril, while others discovered science fiction later or were influenced more by later writers. Larbalestier argues convincingly that feminist sf owes as much to the early "battle of the sexes" stories as it does to feminist models outside the genre.

Larbalestier then gives a brief account of the fascinating life of Alice James Raccoona Tiptree Davey Hastings Bradley Sheldon Jr. She was born Alice Hastings Bradley to parents who were explorers and travellers (her mother was also a writer) and much of her childhood was spent in Africa and India. An unsuitable first marriage (Davey) was followed by a loving second (Sheldon) and wartime work for the army by a stint with the CIA and a PhD in experimental psychology. She started publishing science fiction, and participating in the fan world, under the name James Tiptree Jr in 1967 and as Raccoona Sheldon in 1974. In 1976 came the revelation that James Tiptree and Raccoona Sheldon were Alice Sheldon, which "can be read as part of the battle of the sexes as it has been played out on the field of science fiction since the 1920s". (A full biography of Sheldon/Tiptree is now available, but wasn't when Battle of the Sexes first appeared.)

The final chapter of Battle of the Sexes is about the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award. Larbalestier is less interested in the works that have won the award, however, than in how it came into being and how it works, and in the community that supports it. It becomes a kind of "slice", a way of coherently sampling something of the diversity of contemporary feminist science fiction and fandom.

September 2002

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- books about women + feminism
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%T The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction
%A Larbalestier, Justine
%I Wesleyan University Press
%D 2002
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 081956527X
%P xv,295pp