Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Marginalization of Women in Science Fiction Short Stories from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

I need to begin with a disclaimer: I am not an accomplished feminism scholar. I haven’t studied the theory at any great length, nor can I name drop like it’s yesterday’s business. However, having read the four short stories for today’s class, I find it almost impossible not to comment on the positioning, treatment, and absence of women in Campbell’s ”Twilight,” del Ray’s “Helen O’Loy,” Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” and Moore’s “No Woman Born.”

Let’s break down the initial situations: in “Twilight,” we’ve got a situation of female absence. The narrator (Bart) is male, the storyteller (Bendell) is male, and Ares (the “hitchhiker”) is male. The human representatives Ares finds seven million years in the future are predominately male—and the only future human to be named is male. “Twilight” is the easiest story to position, gender-wise: there are only men. I admit that women are mentioned in passing, as the humans seven million years from now continue to procreate (sexually, I assume), but at a much slower rate.

In “Helen O’Loy,” there is no shortage of women. Strike that: there is no shortage of robotic women. There is Helen, the titular character, and Lena, a less-advanced robot. Granted, there is Mrs. van Syler and the servant girl her son is infatuated with, but they do little more than occupy a topic of conversation.

“No Woman Born” is somewhat akin to “Helen O’Loy,” as Deirdre is a cyborg created to give continued life to a relatively recently deceased woman. The human Deirdre’s brain is given new life in the android Deirdre’s body.

“The Cold Equations” has Marilyn Lee Cross, the eighteen year old stowaway on board the EDS. Marilyn is a fully functional, natural human.

Now let’s break each down a little further: Lena and Helen in “Helen O’Loy” are complete objects. Lena, as a less functional robot, doesn’t cut the order for her “masters.” As such, and probably because of this, she is essentially sold (as property) to pay off the debts accrued in acquiring Helen. Lena is chattel—she’s a slave. She’s also a robot, with much less humanity than Helen. But still.

Helen, on the other hand, is so much a human that she loves Dave entirely. In fact, both Dave and Phil love her back—Dave marries her and Phil pines for her silently until she and Dave are dead. In this instance, although Helen functions as a full member of society as Dave’s wife, she owes her existence to Dave and Phil: they changed her initial intention and programming, bringing her “to life.” This is, of course, reminiscent of patriarchal control—Helen never makes her own decisions, nor is she ever really allowed to.

Deirdre also owes her continued existence to a man: Maltzer. However, unlike Helen, Deirdre has not been created to mimic a docile, servant-of-a-wife. As a visually un-human cyborg, she does not look like a woman: her face is a blank mask devoid of mouth, nose, eyes, ears. However, where Helen and Lena are forced to live under the whims of men, Deirdre rises beyond her creative parameters and becomes, as she states, “superhuman.” In this instance, Deirdre overcomes the patriarchy to assert her new-found strength. Maltzer cannot even commit suicide in her presence. She denies him the action. Where Deirdre goes as a “free” woman, we aren’t told: the story ends with open possibility.

Marilyn Lee Cross does not have nearly as hopeful an end as Deirdre. In many ways, Marilyn is dehumanized beyond Deirdre, Helen, or even Lena. It is interesting that Marilyn’s position as a “girl” ensures her prolonged existence—Barton would have forced her into the space lock or shot her for resisting had she been a male. So in one sense, her being a woman saved her, but only temporarily. Regardless of this pity (based mostly on sex, although her youth plays a part—also linked to sex, I’m sure), she still falls subject to the rules of space and is jettisoned. In one way, the hesitation to kill her creates terror within her (a situation worse than a quick end), although Barton hopes she will come to accept her end.  Barton does what he “can” for her, except choose to jettison himself and allow her to ride the EDS to safety. (I had hoped for this to happen, but alas . . . oh, ethical dilemmas . . .) This possibility is never considered, at least not for the reader to see. It may be that it was impossible to teach her to land the EDS, but I should think there would be an auto-pilot? (Maybe I’m just reaching here . . .).

In the end, Marilyn is as marginalized as Helen, Lena, and the women seven million years in Earth’s future. I won’t get into whether or not the authors were men (I’m assuming three of the four were, at least). I’ll just leave with this position of being a woman in a science fiction short story: you won’t have much agency, if any at all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eugenics as Techno-Topia in Gilman’s Herland

I figured the technological advances of Gilman’s Herland utopia would go relatively under-utilized in the blog posts this week—so I figured I’d tackle it as best I could.

I would venture that all of the technological advancements in Herland stem from one area of science: genetic manipulation. To point to the second most obvious example, let’s look at the cultivation of the fruit bearing trees. All of the trees in Herland bear some kind of edible fruit or nut, even the single “beautiful” tree kept only for its aesthetic merits. This tree did not initially bear any fruit, but after 900 years of genetic cross-breeding, it now bears “nutritious seeds” (104).

The most obvious sign of genetic manipulation comes from the women themselves; once it was determined that population quantity needed controlled, population quality became something to strive for. Jennings tells us that for 1500 “uninterrupted” years the inhabitants of Herland quite deliberately controlled whose genetic material (and thus traits and temperament) got passed onto the next generation (97). This “weeding the genetic gene pool” resulted in such health that “the science of medicine” was hardly needed (97). In addition, the stronger gene pool resulted in significant advances in all areas, including education, psychology, ecology, public safety (no criminals for 600 years) (107), mathematics, distribution of labor, religion. All advancements easily explained by a perfected temperament, work ethic, and belief in the collected motherhood of the community.

We now come to the ultimate question: so what? What’s the big deal about Herland’s genetic manipulation, and what does it have to say about utopia?

My cop-out answer is: I’m not sure. Let’s explore it for a bit, though.

Utilizing genetic manipulation to achieve utopia challenges or calls into question our modern understanding of human rights. What right do we have to tell another person that he or she does not have enough genetic worth to reproduce? What about China’s recent one-child policy? (Now, in honor of Dr. Thompson, let’s try to avoid being anachronistic in our answer, shall we?) Thanks to the pdf of the review copy of Herland, we’ve at least two separate pieces of background material giving information on eugenics in Gilman’s time. Eugenics comes as a branch of Darwinism, (in one sense), as one of the conclusions of natural human evolution. Population growth has always been a problem, if only as an intellectual one to be tackled in the not-so-distant future.  (It calls to mind Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” of the 1700s).

But then again, do the Herlanders achieve utopia through eugenics, or was it in place before they began weeding out the genetically “inferior?” I think it went hand-in-hand. Although Herland had their religious beliefs about Motherhood, solidarity, and community before they needed to address population size/quality, they couldn’t reach their pinnacle without choosing which traits to pass on.
At the same time, however, the “modern” Herlanders are willing to re-introduce men into their world as they believe bi-sexuality to be superior to parthenogenesis (16). This is the missing picture of Herland: even this utopian society sees a need it cannot fulfill on its own—and that is enough to keep it from “full-utopian status.”

As I end my rant, I’ll leave you with this trailer for Gattaca, ca 1997.