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?"

Chapter 9: Who Farms the Future?

Name Role
Brian Attebery Author
Routledge Publisher


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