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.


A few interesting-sounding stories:

  • "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.


  • 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

Chapter 6: Women Alone, Men Alone

Chapter 7: Androgyny as Difference

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

Chapter 9: Who Farms the Future?

Name Role
Brian Attebery Author
Routledge Publisher


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