Type Book
Date 2002
Pages 210
Tags science fiction, nonfiction, gender

Decoding Gender in Science Fiction

Chapter 1: Secret Decoder Ring

It is possible, Attebery claims, to interpret SF through a lens of gender, and doing so yields interesting insights.

Chapter 2: From Neat Idea to Trope

Genres like SF and Detective give readers a structure for understanding a narrative. Characters and events can be understood as embodying certain standard elements. A text exists independently of these genres--these 'codes'--and a reader might attempt to understand a text using the interpretive tools of any genre, but it might not prove fruitful.

Attebery attempts to analyze Rappaccini's Daughter as an example of a Detective story to show how things don't quite fit together. Then, he shows how it might be understood as Gothic, an interpretation which works much better, but still leaves some loose ends. This, he posits, is because the story is participating in the nascent genre of SF.

Having established SF as evolving from the Gothic, Attebery interprets several stories (including two more by Hawthorne, The Birth-Mark and The Artist of the Beautiful) through a lens of gender, with an eye toward the Gothic and its particular manifestation of gender.

Chapter 3: Animating the Inert: Gender and Science in the Pulps

A little, minimal history of SF in the pulps. Then it dives into the gender analysis: the scientific project and cultural representations of science are masculine, and the object of study is necessarily cast as feminine.

Attebery took on a project of reading all SF published in 1937--including reading the magazines cover to cove, ads and all--in order to understand the stories in their original context. From this, he describes the cliches of the genre, standard character types and plot developments, as well as departures from the norm.

As a symbol for masculinity, Attebery takes the eye: representative of power, knowledge, understanding, and the capacity for action.

It's difficult, indeed, to read the text quoted in this chapter without viewing it through a lens of gender. Whether that is a result of context (they're quoteted in a book about gender in sf, after all!) or a property of the text, I do not know.

Mentioned works

  • "Hoffman's Widow"
  • John Edwards' "The Planet of Perpetual Night"
  • C. L. Moore's "Tryst in Time"
  • Stapledon's Star Maker
  • Don A. Stuart (John W. Campbell)'s "Forgetfulness"

Chapter 4: Super Men

Supermen were common in SF around the forties. Such supermen may have been superior only physically, or else perhaps mentally, or they might even have possessed other powers, such as psychic abilities. The causes of their superiority, too, varied: the famous Superman himself was an alien, but other supermen might have gained their powers through mutations or, as in Shaw's Back to Methuselah, due to immortality, age begetting wisdom. The proliferation of stories of this type can be partly attributed to the efforts of John W. Campbell, Jr., who, as editor, directed many authors to write stories exploring the idea.

The superman story often draws on the idea of evolution: the superman not only is better than a normal man, but is a harbinger of the evolution of the human race; he may even personally be the literal forefather of an improved race that will replace humanity. So the superiority of the superman is framed in terms of the exaggeration of masculine traits: superior strength, superior intellect, superior ambition, superior sexual competition. As a stand-in for the male reader, the superman exhibits those traits that the reader admires and desires for himself, and the story promotes this identification.

Dick's "The Golden Man" presents a superman that is handsome, strong--and inhuman. A pinnacle of evolution, he might outcompete ordinary human sexually, but he does not represent a peak that we would strive to. I am reminded of the supernormal stimulus of the aliens in And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side.

Mentioned works

  • Food of the Gods / Wells
  • Back to Methuselah / Shaw
  • Methuselah's Children / Heinlein
  • The Hampdenshire Wonder / Beresford
  • Odd John / Stapledon
  • Gulf / Heinlein
  • The Man Who Evolved / Hamilton
  • Slan / Van Vogt
  • The Piper's Son / Kuttner
  • The New Adam / Weinbaum
  • The Golden Man / Dick
  • But without Horns / Page
  • The Power / Robinson -- "virtually a rewrite of Page's story"

Chapter 5: Wonder Women

In the beginning, there were few stories of Superwomen corresponding with the stories of Supermen. Women being defined by what they are not--not strong, not ambitious, not masculine--there was no obvious way to exaggerate these feminine traits in order to create a such a creature as a Superwoman. When women in early SF had extraordinary abilities, this was typically cause for concern or alarm. Such a woman might be viewed as a competitor for men, to be hated, or something generally inhuman, to be feared.

Eventually, notably in the works of C. L. Moore, Superwomen began to appear that were not merely lesser versions of Supermen, and as the symbolic language expanded more appeared, such as in the works of Butler.

Mentioned works

  • The New Adam / Weinbaum
  • The Adaptive Ultimate / Weinbaum
  • She / Haggard
  • Star, Bright / Clifton
  • Shambleau / Moore
  • No Woman Born / Moore
  • The Children's Hour / Moore
  • This Sex Which Is Not One / Irigaray
  • That Only a Mother / Merril
  • Children of the Atom / Shiras
  • Sunburst / Gotlieb
  • Gilead / Henderson
  • Beggars in Spain series / Kress
  • Patternist series / Butler

Chapter 6: Women Alone, Men Alone

On separatist utopias. The chapter opens with a catalogue, with minimal commentary, of relevant works during the seventies.

An interesting idea: an intaglio effect, in which one utopia may be structurally like another, but interpreted with reversed values, casting that structure as either a eutopia or dystopia.

Most discussion is on a number of dystopias, with little time spent on the eutopias.

Mentioned works

  • And Chaos Died / Russ
  • The Witches of Karres / Schmitz
  • The Female Man / Russ
  • Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives
  • The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You / Bryant
  • "When It Changed" / Russ
  • When Women Rule / Moskowitz
  • "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction" / Russ
  • "Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction" / Friend
  • "Women in Utopia" / Lyman Tower Sargent
  • The Dispossessed / Le Guin
  • Walk to the End of the World / Charnas
  • "An Ambiguous Legacy: The Role and Position of Women in the English Eutopia" / Lyman Tower Sargent
  • Solution Three / Mitchison
  • Mizora / Lane
  • Woman on the Edge of Time / Piercy
  • "Your Faces, O My Sisters, Your Faces Filled of Light" / Tiptree as Racoona Sheldon
  • "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" / Tiptree
  • The Shattered Chain / MZB
  • "Women's Fantasies and Feminist Utopias" / Pearson

Chapter 7: Androgyny as Difference

Attebery distinguishes between androgyny on the one hand and gynandry on the other. The former represents an individual being fully both male and female at once, and the latter denotes an individual that is female plus male attributes, or male with something taken away, or some other arrangement of this nature--an individual constructed from our anxieties about sex and gender, rather than a complete being.

Androgyny, Attebery asserts, is a myth, a sign. It is not a real thing that is signified. So understanding it depends on the context in which we find the sign, the identity of its author and its reader. Its meaning cannot be pinned down, because it changes with each reading. Androgyny is a deictic term, meaningful only in relation to the speaker and listener.

Attebery spends time especially discussing The Left Hand of Darkness and Venus Plus X, then Darkover and Xenogenesis.

Chapter 8: "But Aren't Those Just . . . You Know, Metaphors?"

Extended discussion of Morrow's Towing Jehovah as taking a metaphor literally, forcing us to confront it. The literal body of God--a literal, physical, male body--falls to Earth, making real the metaphors of the church. Science, too, uses metaphors--often bodily metaphors--to describe the universe. For humans, sex is inseparable from the idea of the body, so such metaphors inevitably cast our ideas of gender onto the concepts they represent.

After this, extended discussion of Gwyneth Jones's White Queen.

Chapter 9: Who Farms the Future?

Who decides what the future will look like? Some sf, like Star Wars, has a decidedly retro-futuristic style; other sf (and reality!) follow on from cyberpunk works by e.g. William Gibson or Vernor Vinge. Star Trek is intended to be progressive, but its sexual diversity is limited. Commercial sf movies and TV lag behind the literature by decades.

Fans can imagine their own futures, even within the worlds of these commercial sf franchises. Trek fanfic and other fan endeavours represent the fans' unfulfilled desires for the media, and in some cases fan imaginings have influenced the canonical stories. Some fan authors have gone on the be authors or editors of pro sf. The commercialization of sf, making it palatable to a broader audience, involves compromises with what sf fans enjoy in the genre.

Ultimately, this is about what a canon of sf looks like. The commercial tv-and-movies stuff looks one way; the written stuff looks different. The history of sf looks different depending on who you ask. And if the history is different, it'll lead to a different future. Who decides where sf is going? Who contributes to the story of sf? Fans, editors, teachers in literature courses, movie executives, feminists, and, not least, sf authors themselves--everyone has a stake in what the future will look like, and sf is the battleground.

Discussion of (critical response to) "The Cold Equations".

Works Cited

Chapter 1

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction
  • Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us
  • Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction
  • Formula Fiction? An Anatomy of American Science Fiction, 1930-1940
  • Ellison, Harlan. Dangerous Visions. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.
  • Russ, Joanna. "Images of Women in Science Fiction." Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State UP, 1972. 79-94.
  • White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Balti­more: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
  • Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
  • Wolfe, Gary K. Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship. New York and Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

Chapter 2

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction
  • Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. Studies in Literary Themes and Genres No. 3. New York: Twayne, 1994.
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. The Novels of Jane Austen. Edinburgh: Grant, 1911.
  • Fetterly, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1978.
  • Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1995.
  • Gunn, James, (ed.). The Road to Science Fiction 1: From Gilgamesh to Wells. New York: Mentor, 1977.
  • The Artist of the Beautiful
  • Rappaccini's Daughter
  • Hoffmann, E. T. A. "The Sand-Man." Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin. 75-112.
  • Loudon, Jane Webb. The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Intro, and Abridgment by Alan Rauch. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.
  • Melville, Herman. "The Bell-Tower." Future Perfect. Edited by H. Bruce Franklin. 140-153.
  • Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
  • O'Brien, Fitz James. "The Diamond Lens." Future Perfect. Edited by H. Bruce Franklin. 285-306.
  • Philmus, Robert M. Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H. G. Wells. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1970.
  • Poe,Edgar Allan.
    • "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Future Perfect. Edited by H. Bruce Franklin. 106-114.
    • "How to Write a Blackwood Article. A Predicament." Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G. R. Thompson. New York: Harper, 1970. 193-215.
    • "Mesmeric Revelation." Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 3: Tale and Sketches 1843-1849. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. Cambridge, MS: Harvard UP, 1978. 1024-1042.
  • Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994.
  • Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New York: Yale UP, 1979.
  • Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Chapter 3

  • Arnason, Eleanor. Letter. New York Review of Science Fiction 81 (May 1995): 21-22.
  • Barnes, Arthur K. "Green Hell." Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1937: 91-100.
  • Beynon, John [John Beynon Harris]. "The Perfect Creature." Tales of Wonder 1 [undated— June 1937]: 116-27.
  • Binder, Eando [Otto Binder and Earl Binder].
    • "The Chemical Murder." Amazing Stories April 1937: 91-114.
    • "Strange Vision." Astounding Stories May 1937: 46-56.
  • Cramer, Kathryn. "On Science and Science Fiction." The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction. Edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. New York: Tor, 1994. 23-28.
  • del Rey, Lestet. "Introduction: The Three Careers of John W. Campbell." The Best of John W. Campbell. Edited by Lester del Rey. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976. 1-6.
  • Edwards, John. "The Planet of Perpetual Night." Amazing Stories February 1937: 15-57.
  • Farley, Ralph Milne [Roger Sherman Hoar]. "A Month a Minute." Thrilling Wonder Stories December 1937: 14-26.
  • Fearn, John Russell.
    • "Menace from the Microcosm." Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1937: 14—30.
    • "Metamorphosis." Astounding Stories January 1937: 90-114.
    • "Seeds from Space." Tales of Wonder 1 [June 1937]: 17-39.
  • Godwin, Tom. "The Cold Equations." Astounding Science Fiction 1954. Reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. Edited Robert Silverberg. New York: Avon, 1970. 543-69.
  • Hamilton, Edmond. "A Million Years Ahead." Thrilling Wonder Stories April 1937: 92-97.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel.
    • "The Birth-Mark." Mosses from an Old Manse. Vol. 10 of The Centenary Edi­tion of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edited by William Charvat et al.Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962-1988.36-56. 22 vols.
    • "The Man of Adamant." The Snow Image and Uncollected Tales. Vol. 11 of The Centenary Edition. 161-169.
  • Keller, Evelyn Fox. Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985.
  • Kuttner, Henry. "When the Earth Lived." Thrilling Wonder Stories October 1937: 90-100.
  • Larbalestier, Justine. "The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction: From the Pulps to the James Tip-tree, Jr. Memorial Award." Diss. University of Sydney, 1996.
  • Lemkin, William. "Cupid of the Laboratory." Amazing Stories August 1937: 79-112.
  • Long, A. R. [Amelia Reynolds], "The Mind Master." Astounding Stories December 1937: 41—45.
  • Macfadyen, A., Jr. "The Endless Chain." Astounding Stories April 1937: 56—72.
  • Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen Autumn 1975; Reprinted in Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Maiden, MS: Blackwell, 1998. 585-95.
  • Poe, Edgar Allan.
    • "The Colloquy of Monos and Una." Tales Volume III. Vol. 4 in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe.Edited by James A. Harrison. New York: AMS, 1965. 200-212. 17 vols.
    • "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion." Tales Volume III. Vol. 4 in The Complete Works. 1-8.
    • Eureka. Marginalia—Eureka. Vol. 16 in The Complete Works. 179-354.
    • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Tales Volume II. Vol. 3 in The Complete Works. 5—245.
    • "Some Words with a Mummy." Tales Volume V. Vol. 6 in The Complete Works. 116-38.
  • Pragnell, Festus. "Man of the Future." Tales of Wonder 1 [June 1937]: 57—65.
  • Raymond, K. [Kaye]. "The Comet." Astounding Stories February 1937: 98—105.
  • Rose, Walter. "By Jove." Amazing Stories February 1937: 75—106.
  • Schachner, Nat. "City of the Rocket Horde." Astounding Stories December 1937: 112-35.
  • Scheer, George H.
    • "The Crystalline Salvation." Amazing Stories June 1937: 92-119.
    • "The Last Ice." Amazing Stories October 1937: 71—96.
  • Skldmore, Joseph Wm. "Murder by Atom. " Amazing Stories June 1937: 13—15.
  • Smith, E. E. "Doc."
    • First Lensman. 1950; Reprint, New York: Pyramid, 1964.
    • Galactic Patrol. Astounding Stories, 1937—38. Revised 1950 and reprinted, New York: Pyramid, 1964.
  • Stableford, Brian. "The Last Chocolate Bar and the Majesty of Truth: Reflections on the Concept of 'Hardness'in Science Fiction (Parti)". The New York Review of Science Fiction. 71 (July 1994): 1,8-12.
  • Stone, Leslie F. "The Great Ones." Astounding Stories July 1937: 52-71.
  • Stuart, DonA. [John W. Campbell, Jr.]. "Forgetfulness." Astounding Stories ]une 1937: 52-71.
  • Williamson, Jack. "Released Entropy." Astounding Stories August 1937: 8-30.
  • Willey, Robert [Willey Ley]. "At the Perihelion." Astounding Stories February 1937: 41-76.
  • Winterbotham, R. R. "Specialization." Astounding Stories August 1937: 31-36.
Name Role
Brian Attebery Author
Routledge Publisher


Chapter 1: Secret Decoder Ring 1
Chapter 2: From Neat Idea to Trope 17
Chapter 3: Animating the Inert: Gender and Science in the Pulps 39
Chapter 4: Super Men 62
Chapter 5: Wonder Women 82
Chapter 6: Women Alone, Men Alone 106
Chapter 7: Androgyny as Difference 129
Chapter 8: "But Aren't Those Just . . . You Know, Metaphors?" 151
Chapter 9: Who Farms the Future? 170
Works Cited 193
Index 205


Relation Sources