"Gender & Science Fiction": The Novels

I previously discussed how I used The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction in the "Gender & Science Fiction" course I taught this past term, and promised to discuss the novels in another post. Well, here we are!

The students had to read five novels: four that we all read together, and one of their choice from a list I gave them.

The four we read together were:
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Shadow Man by Melissa Scott
The list of novels they needed to choose one from was:
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden-Elgin
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Life by Gwyneth Jones
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Air by Geoff Ryman
City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
I chose these texts for a variety of reasons -- the four we read together are all books I thought offered a good variety of approaches to gender, with two (Babel-17 and Wild Seed) where gender is not really at the forefront and two (Left Hand of Darkness and Shadow Man) where it very much is. The length of the books was also important -- none of them are particularly long, and because I was trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into a fairly limited amount of time, this was a major limiting factor when I chose texts. Length isn't everything, though -- complexity is just as important: the books had to be complex enough to offer us something to talk about through a few class sessions, but couldn't be so complex that we couldn't cover them in a few class sessions. Much as I would have loved to have used Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, that book would require at least half a semester of its own.

Just before reading Babel-17, we made our way through Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr., reading the stories in chronological order, skipping a couple of the longer ones for the sake of time. By the end of this Tiptree intensive, most of the students, I discovered, found her work really depressing, and a few of them were openly hostile to it because of that. Babel-17 was, then, a nice change of pace -- of of the students, a linguistics major, said she thought it would make a perfect "beach read".

Babel-17 really was a good choice as our first novel, because it fit perfectly within my complexity/difficulty matrix -- complex enough to give us lots to talk about, but not so complex as to be overwhelming. I played the students the first 20 minutes of The Polymath to give them some sense of Delany during the time he wrote the novel (they'd also previously read "Aye, and Gomorrah" in The Wesleyan Anthology), and we were able to have productive discussions of class structures, the social construction of perversity and obscenity, assumptions about body modification, etc. Gender and sexuality, of course, are present in all of this, and one of the reasons it worked out well to have our first novel be one that is not primarily "about" gender was that it gave the students the opportunity to put some of the methods of analysis they honed through discussion of all the short stories to work in more subtle and complex ways. They had gotten good at questioning and analyzing ideas of "normal" when such ideas attached themselves to gender in the short stories, but Babel-17 helped them see that normative forces are present in all sorts of different aspects of society and culture.

The Left Hand of Darkness
I included this novel because so many people said it had been an important part of their growing understanding of both gender and science fiction, so I went against using something else by Le Guin that I personally like more (e.g. Four Ways to Forgiveness), and I think this was a good decision, but I'm also utterly indebted to Will Alexander for suggesting the idea of following the novel with a read og Le Guin's essay "Is Gender Necessary? Redux" and her story "Coming of Age in Karhide". These gave us a great way to see one person's ideas about gender and language develop, and I think that was helpful to the students, who often wanted a writer to be either a hero or a villain (this was a disastrous element of their study of gender theories, about which more in a moment). Left Hand of Darkness was also a really vivid example of how powerful pronouns are -- if you think "he" is a gender-free neutral, reading that novel ought to cure you of such a delusion if you actually reflect on your reading experience. I know of few novels that provide a more vivid experience of how ordinary language can unconsciously shape assumptions (Stars in My Pocket would be another), and it provided us lots of good fodder for discussion.

I don't think, though, that most of the students liked the book very much, and this surprised me. I know plenty of folks, habitual SF readers and not, who cite reading that book as a life-changing experience. I think using it in a non-SF-specific course, and particularly a course not focused on gender, might have produced different results, but these students seemed generally indifferent to the book, and at least one quite passionately hated it for its masculine and heterosexual bias; indeed, she seemed only vaguely mollified by "Coming of Age in Karhide", which presents, it seems to me, a pretty radical view at least of sexuality, if not gender.

I wonder if the ability of Left Hand of Darkness to blow your mind depends at least to some extent on your generation -- for people who grew up in the 1990s and later, does it seem a bit ... well ... dusty? It certainly did to my students, but they're not a representative lot: they had self-selected to take a course called "Gender & Science Fiction". Given some of the discussions in one of my other classes this term -- where a student seriously and quite innocently told me that doing a research project on female serial killers had made him see that maybe it would be okay for a woman to be President one day -- I expect that certainly had something to do with it, but I do wonder if people under, say, age 30 find Left Hand to be as affecting as did folks who are older.

Wild Seed
I knew I wanted to include a book by Octavia Butler in the course -- not only because I think she's goshdarn amazing, but because she had a pretty complex approach to various kinds of determinism (cf. some of the essays in Science Fiction Studies 112, among others), and I think in any course looking at gender, determinism and essentialism are important topics. But which book? I was close to choosing Parable of the Sower, but then went with my gut instinct and chose Wild Seed, a book I just unreservedly love (the Parable books are marvelous in many ways, but I don't much like the poems in them). I had no idea what the students would make of it.

Thankfully, my love of the book was shared by at least some of the students, and nobody seemed to dislike the novel -- a rare occurrence in any class! I was worried that they would find the setting or history remote, but they fascinated by it, and they found the characters truly compelling: a few students finished the book well ahead of schedule because they didn't want to stop reading it.

Wild Seed also let us look more closely than we'd been able to before at the interplay of race and gender. One of the things I think Wild Seed does brilliantly is dramatize what scholars have been discovering for a while now: that the rise of race-based slavery shifted the discourse of race from one that was pretty much always exoticizing but not always dehumanizing or objectifying to one that was fundamentally dehumanizing and objectifying -- the discourse must become one promoting the assumption that these people aren't just "different" or "weird", but are potential property. But this isn't all, because, as Butler also quite vividly shows, gender has its own systems of regulation, privilege, and knowledge that intersect with those of race, with the discourses sometimes singing in harmony and sometimes in atonal cacophony. Butler brings this all together through her portrayal of embodiment -- the ways the bodily changes of Doro and Anyanwu affect so much else in their social lives.

It's a rich, wondrous book, and we could have easily spent twice as much time discussing it as we did.

Shadow Man
I have previously said I think Shadow Man is "one of the great science fiction novels of the past 25 years", but I also think it is one of the best introductions to some of the ideas of folks like Judith Butler, because what the book gives us is a world in which there are two quite distinct ways of interpreting the meaning of bodies, and those different interpretations have consequences for the characters.

The novel seems clearly influenced by Ann Fausto-Sterling's 1993 essay, "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough", first published in The Sciences. It gives us a future world where intersex conditions seem to have become more common because of interstellar travel, and one planet where the old two-sexes model is still held as the norm. (In addition to the five sexes in Shadow Man there are also nine sexual orientations.) Thus, we have a science fiction novel informed by an article published in The Sciences, but it's not exactly what you might expect from your average "hard sf" tale. (See also Fausto-Sterling's 2000 follow-up, "The Five Sexes, Revisited", and, of course, her book Sexing the Body.)

One of the things I particularly appreciate about Shadow Man is that it doesn't present the Concord Worlds -- the group that categorizes with five sexes -- as a utopia of enlightened and liberated gender gods. It is clear that both ways of interpreting anatomy have their benefits and drawbacks -- the many choices of identities (5 sexes, 9 sexual orientations) can themselves be limiting when people decide that those identities are more important than their desires.

It's an extraordinarily complex book, rich with details. I'm glad we did it last, because the students really needed to work up to it. We are really just thrown into the world, and it takes a while to get any bearings. Also, the characters are deeply involved in all sorts of political and economic negotiations, and though the details really aren't very important to readers, they're hugely important to the characters, so readers who try too hard to understand the ins and out of the politics and economics get bogged down. The effect, though, is breathtaking in the second half, as we become accustomed to this world and begin to be able to think in new ways. It was an enlightening experience for the students -- they realized how much the book had rewired their brains.

The Final Novel
With the novel chosen from the list, the students had to do a few activities. They first had to choose one of the gender theories outlined in the little book Gender and Anthropology to study in more depth and to apply to their novel. This proved much, much harder than I had expected. First, I assigned pairs of students to the various gender approaches the book outlines (evolutionary, materialist, structuralist, etc.) and asked them to create a short presentation to help educate their peers. These were mostly awful, and a lot of it was my fault. I had assumed the book was pretty comprehensible to the average undergraduate; I was wrong, at least for these undergraduates. I think part of the problem was that they didn't read carefully -- we'd been reading lots of fun stories, and they were pretty good at reading those, but when it came time to read an informational text, they let their eyes drift over the pages. If I had given them more direction in how to make sense of such things, they might have been better off, but this was an upper-level course and I didn't figure I needed to do the sort of reading instruction I do in lower-level courses, where I expect students to be unable to read informational texts.

So the presentations weren't very informative, and in most cases the students misinterpreted the book's section on critiques of the theory to be a conclusion. Thus, many of the presentations were, "Why this theory is stupid," rather than a description of the theory's basic principals, the major theorists, and how it approaches gender.

I did my best to try to fix this as we went on, but it was difficult because I hadn't scheduled enough time to work through the theories, since I'd assumed the Gender and Anthropology book would be more comprehensible than it was, and I'd wanted the students to use it as a resource for themselves.

I'm a member of the University's Women's Studies Council, and one of the things we've discussed is that we want Women's Studies minors to be able to demonstrate more of an understanding of the coneptual bases of Women's Studies than they've been able to demonstrate until now. We certainly expose them to a lot of different approaches, but we haven't yet done a good job of getting them to understand how those approaches differ, what their various arguments are, etc. So I thought I'd try to do that a bit with this course, since the stories and novels we read offered such a wide variety of ideas about gender, society, culture, and biology.

By the time the students had done some research and written their papers, they were better at understanding at least one gender theory, but it was still by far the weakest part of the course.

There were, by the end, nine students in the class, and the books they chose to read were The Wind-Up Girl (1), The Female Man (2), Starship Troopers (1), Life (1), Who Fears Death (1), and Ammonite (3).

Despite the students' struggles to understand the gender theories, some of the papers were really excellent, and only one didn't work out at all (alas, the student who wrote about The Wind-Up Girl had a bit of a senior-year-final-term meltdown, but at least she really loved the novel). When we discussed the papers, everyone said they loved their novel and would recommend it to other readers, which was not what I had expected, but I was certainly pleased that everybody ended up with a book they enjoyed, and in some cases utterly fell in love with. (The Female Man's readers were especially passionate. I was pleasantly surprised that a book as old as I am was able to win the hearts of the youth of today!)

The students had investigated the books themselves, reading reviews and online descriptions mostly. I gave them a brief overview of each novel, as well. And then they were on their own. The linguist read Who Fears Death and did an insightful analysis of the importance of language in the novel (an interest of mine, as well, though she didn't seem to know I'd written about the book or interviewed the writer). The student who wrote about Life looked at the book with a post-structuralist lens and compared the novel to Frederik Pohl's story "Day Million". The student who wrote about Starship Troopers had a lot of fun with it -- she really enjoyed reading it, and then had to work through how she could enjoy reading a book she found profoundly disagreeable from a political point of view (a great experience for anybody, I think). The three students who read Ammonite all looked at it in different ways, but I was pleased that they all at least understood that it complicates and, as we academics sometimes are wont to say, problematizes the idea of utopia and undermines any monolithic understanding of women and men.

All in all, the books worked out very well. Certainly, there are things I would change and tweak in the future, but my primary changes would be to how I used Gender & Anthropology, which, though far from perfect, is a useful book for introducing the idea of different approaches to understanding gender.

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