Did Our Women Sci-Fi Writers Dream of Android Lullabies?
They are starry insurgents, having challenged a masculine universe for eons. After all, we know that Science Fiction (SF) was always a "young man's" stomping ground. We recognize Mary Shelley as the first SF writer, with her famous work, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818); nevertheless, the fact remains that during the better part of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, women writers of this genre have been and continue to be the minority in Europe, the United States and in Latin America. Even in Shelley's case (and in those of her nineteenth century contemporaries), her protagonists were still men, and women, when they did appear, were relegated to supporting roles. Even though these early pioneers were unable to change the focus of centuries' worth of dominant literature, they did manage to insert a new, invisible strand into its DNA. Some women writers from the golden age of SF in the United States (1930-1960) addressed this enormous challenge by writing from a male perspective, dodging the prejudices of editors. They even wrote under masculine pseudonyms. This is significant per se; if SF authors seek to speculate about what changes the future might bring, they will do so as children of their times, reflecting their own respective presents. Since women have been relegated to a secondary social tier, giving them leading roles in their works is a task to which few authors have done justice.
The discrimination that we allege is deeply paradoxical, because it has become embedded in the very heart of literature. Literature, whose marginal character has allowed it to be profoundly critical of society, defines itself by presenting alternate notions that have opened our minds to infinite possibilities, beyond that which is known or widely accepted. Even so, it continues to prove itself conservative concerning the role of women, if not decidedly misogynist. It was normal that women only appear as the stereotypical mothers, wives and daughters of space travelers and colonists. They might well appear (as occurs in many examples of the Space Opera) transformed into erotically perverse enemies, or corrupted queens of a ferocious matriarchy, condescendingly and underhandedly poking fun at lesbians and fledgling feminism. It was not until the tumult of the sixties that a considerable number of women were granted access to the magazines and publishers dedicated to SF, being considered just as talented or even more so than their fellows; everyone sensed the coming winds of the New Age (1960-1980). British writer Pamela Sargent unveils the sort of inquiries that these new voices would bring to the genre in the prologue to her work, Mujeres y maravillas [Women of Wonder]: “…sólo la ciencia ficción y la literatura fantástica pueden mostrarnos a las mujeres en ambientes totalmente nuevos o extraños. Pueden aventurar lo que podemos llegar a ser cuando las restricciones presentes que pesan sobre nuestras vidas se desvanezcan, o mostrarnos nuevos problemas y nuevas limitaciones que puedan surgir (…) ¿Nos convertiremos en seres muy parecidos a los hombres, o idénticos a ellos (…) ¿O aportaremos nuevos intereses y valores a la sociedad, cambiando tal vez a los hombres en este proceso?” [Only science fiction and fantasy can show us women in totally new and strange settings. They can venture through what we will become when the current restrictions that weigh down our lives fade, or show us new problems and limitations that might arise (...) Will we become like men, or identical to them? (...) or will we bring new interests and values to society, perhaps even changing men in the process?]
Indeed, the massive eruption of female authors has, little by little, modified SF and Fantasy topics in an imperceptible but unarguably significant manner. We are now no longer able to read about weak little girls, silly princesses or woman-warriors without emotions, without asking ourselves if they might not be deformed caricatures, or the dying twitches of backward sexism. Authors like Úrsula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Suzette Haden Elgin, Vonda MacIntyre, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Connie Willis or the Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing clearly present opinions - some of which are purely feminist - that speculate about a rectified future, presenting alternatives to a patriarchal world, value system and institutionally sexualized order. Unsolved questions are demystified through dystopias and imaginary worlds; thus argues the Spanish critic Lola Robles, in the prologue to her Escritoras de ciencia ficción y fantasía [Female Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy] (2000). She sustains that they all describe future worlds in which the evils of our present have been taken to the extreme, such as in El cuento de la criada [The Handmaid's Tale] (1985) by Margaret Atwood or Lengua Materna [Native Tongue] (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin. She situates them in a future in which women have been reduced once more to a situation amounting to slavery. They become dismal mirrors that examine the present, seeking out new pathways to liberation. They might well show the development of a parallel history, such as Joanna Russ' El hombre hembra [The Female Man] (1975) or Octavia Butler's Ritos de madurez [Adulthood Rites] (1988). These latter two authors describe plausible worlds where men play only a secondary role. For the time being, a sign of palliative reality seeks to enthrone female protagonists that must become masculine in order to triumph, as takes place in juvenile fantasy. After all, energetic and intuitive female fighters jump out at us in every futuristic action film in order to show us how much we have evolved (sic). Just as Michael Moorcock, the father of the British New Age, warns in his prologue to Las 100 mejores novelas de CF [The 100 Best Sci Fi Novels] (1995), the scarce female representatives of SF have used their works to “expresar su propia y justificada cólera” [to express their own justifiable anger].
Two of the most studious people in the genre, and among the first in underscoring the contribution of Latin America's women writers to it, were Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell in Cosmos Latino [Latin Cosmos] (2003), where they established a relationship between SF and modern mythology. Their study of the ideology of Hispanic writing renders them even more distinguished in their ability to subvert the established order and create truly committed situations with regards to altering feminine and masculine rolls. Earlier, Yolanda Molina-Gavilán presented her monograph, Ciencia ficción en español: una mitología moderna ante el cambio [Science Fiction in Spanish: Modern Mythology Faced with Change] (2002), where she made it clear that women would be essential to shifting the gears of the first world. They conscientiously and bravely distance themselves from the genre's topics and clichés, like conquests in space and the subsequent war between worlds, all brought on by the colossal inventions of some mad scientists. Instead, they focus on the relationship between natural and artificial intelligence, space-time transgressions and brand new forms of intergalactic (in)communication. This is also the case for Juana Manuela Gorriti, the Argentine author who published the stories Quien escucha su mal oye [He Who Listens May Hear - To His Regret] (1865) and Yerbas y alfileres [Herbs and Pins] (1876). These include the use of a new scientific procedure to obtain an unreachable truth by "otros métodos" [other means]. Like the Colombian analyst Luis Carlos Cano says, these stories:
“exhiben evidentes vínculos con la escritura romántica, aún inquieta por la inestabilidad política de las naciones recientemente independizadas, pero a la vez profundamente fascinada por lo inexplicable, dicotomía que se expresa, a nivel textual, mediante la oposición entre la movilidad y la agitación del mundo exterior y la concentrada potencialidad de la vida interior.” [exhibit evident ties with romanticism, still upset because of the political instability of the newly independent nations, but simultaneously fascinated by the unexplainable. This dichotomy is expressed, on a textual level, through an opposition between the mobility and agitation of the outside world and the potentiality of internal life]. (A note: rereading the few turn of the century female SF writers without such a misogynist lens makes this point clear).
All those who love and study this genre will agree that the most distinguished figure of fantastical and SF writing is Angélica Gorodischer, from Rosario. Over the course of a lifetime dedicated to the genre, she has published such classics as Bajo las jubeas en flor [Under the Flowering Jubeas] (1973, Casta luna electrónica [Chaste Electric Moon] (1977) and Trafalgar (1979). She is also the author of the well-known novels, Opus dos [Opus Two] (1966), Kalpa Imperial I, II and III (1983, 1987 and 1988), Doquier [Wherever] (2002) and Tumba de jaguares [Tomb of Jaguars] (2005), amongst a dozen others. In all of her work, the author demonstrates great skill in introducing a unique brand of dystopia into the Argentine literary order, thereby setting off an inescapable debate about her original, critical discourse; she bursts forth with fiction that is not tied to any sort of realism or canon, such as fantasy or allegory. These, of course, proceed from a grand tradition in Argentina, and have ever since the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, they never dared to move beyond limits or careful correction, as she has done. Dr. Adrián Marcelo Ferrero, in his thesis which he dedicated in part to her - Poéticas de la hipérbole: Las obras de Angélica Gorodischer y Tununa Mercado [Hyperbolic Poetry: The Works of Angélica Gorodischer and Tununa Mercado] (2012) - posits:
“…que la proliferación de los significantes en parte de la obra de Gorodischer, además de configurar un tipo de texto altamente disruptivo desde el punto de vista de la lengua standard, al uso, se erige como una forma de contestación al silencio histórico de la mujer en sociedades patriarcales. Simultáneamente que un lenguaje poroso a los sentidos, una fuente erógena que transgredía los mandatos patriarcales para una mujer que escribe y eventualmente produce ficciones o las consume.” [that the partial proliferation of meaning in Gorodischer's work, aside from configuring a sort of text that is highly disruptive from the perspective of standard language, employs it to erect a response to the historical silence of women in patriarchal societies. It is a language simultaneously porous to the senses - an erogenous font that transgresses patriarchal commands for the writing woman - and one that eventually produces or consumes entire fictions].
A committed activist, Gorodischer founded Encuentros Internacionales de Escritoras [The International Woman Writer's Conference] in Rosario. She also participates in RELAT (Red de Escritoras Latinoamericanas [Latina Writer's Network] - RELATAR in Argentina), and is a contributor to Women's World. For her constant efforts on behalf of women writers, (whether they consider themselves writers or not) - an extensive campaign against the domination and invisibility which confront such women - she received the Premio "Dignidad" [Dignity Prize] from the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos [The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights] in 1996.
A similar case that has been completely erased by national historiography is that of Elena Aldunate from Santiago. Her work has been uncovered by young editors, even though critics have looked down on her ever since the launch of her SF career. She is clearly part of a tradition of minorities and defenseless individuals who have taken on the pretentiousness of the local Parnassus with the pen. The daughter of Arturo Aldunate Phillips, recipient of the Premio Nacional de Literatura [The National Literature Prize], she is a typical representative of the Chilean upper class, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a new literary generation, with intimate writings, psychological and denunciatory of women's status in a socioeconomically feudal society. With a refined and metaphorical prose, her fantastical themes, anticipatory and surreal, shine from her classic short story, Juana y la cibernética [Juana and the Cybernetic] (1963), and from her longer works: El señor de las mariposas [The Lord of the Butterflies] (1967), Angélica y el delfín [Angélica and the Dolphin] (1976) and Del cosmos las quieren vírgenes [The Cosmos Wants Them to Be Virgins] (1977). These works make her the best and most oblique Chilean example that we have heretofore discussed; she is the very manifestation of a humanist, lucid, radical SF that, in the hands of determined women writers who will not be stopped by stereotypes or misconceptions about the future, waits unassumingly for all of us.
The current voice of change is that of Daína Chaviano, a Cuban that now resides in the United States; hers was once a lonely voice on the greatest of the Antilles. This is evident in the wonderful compilation by Yoss, Crónicas del mañana [Tomorrow's Chronicles] (2008), in which she appears alone among thirty-five men. Practically a teenager, she won the prestigious David prize in 1979, and, working in the Taller Oscar Hurtado [Oscar Hurtado workshop], she began a literary career that gained immense popularity and sales in her country (including an illustrated story and a television program). Her collections of short stories, Los mundos que amo [The Worlds that I Love] (1979), El abrevadero de los dinosaurios [Dinosaur Trough] (1980), Amoroso planeta [Loving Planet] (1983), Historias de hadas para adultos [Fairytales for Adults] (1986) as well as her novel Fábulas de una abuela extraterrestre [Fables from an Alien Grandmother] (1989), all published in Havana, are subjects of study and criticism. Of course, there are many more, such as the prize-winning El hombre, la hembra, y el hambre [Man, Woman, and Hunger] (1998) and País de dragones [Country of Dragons] (2001). She has also made a recent incursion into gothic fantasy with Extraños testimonios [Strange testimonies] (2017), stories that take us to a ghostly island. Antonio Mora Vélez, one of the founders of Colombian SF, praises her in his essay "Daína Chaviano y el humanismo de la CF latinoamericana" [Daína Chaviano and the humanism of Latin American SF] (1994), in which he provides us with an accurate description of both her literary and ideological work:
“Pero no se trata del ser humano como abstracción. El hombre de Daína es el hombre real del mundo contemporáneo, con sus conflictos y sus metas; es el cubano de hoy enfrentado a la crisis de un sistema y al despotismo de un régimen político que no le permite proponer alternativas.” [But it is not about abstract human beings. Daína's man is the man of the contemporary world, with his conflicts and goals; he is the Cuban confronted with the crisis of a system of the despotism of a political regime that does not allow him to propose alternatives].
We felt a similar shiver while reading about the disturbing dystopia in which neighborhoods are turned into ghettos in La muerte como efecto secundario [Death as a Secondary Effect] by the Argentine Ana María Shua.
Times are changing; "It was about time!", many of our well-read female friends will exclaim. Even though the truth is known, it is by way of slow movement, almost geological in nature - though without so much as a trace of stopping, as new generations and their brave editorial incisions demonstrate - that will continue to widen the breach. Let us begin with the current creators that contribute a great deal: Susan Sussmann, a scientist and narrator from Caracas, has directed a think tank for a decade, called Taller Forjadores [The Dreamer's Workshop], as well as the Concurso Venezolano de Literatura Fantástica [The Venezuelan Fantastical Literature Competition] and SF Solsticios [Solstices]. She stands alongside the indefatigable Laura Ponce, who carries out similar work with her magazine Próxima [Next], covering twenty-first century SF in Argentina. Let us continue on to the collections that measure the varying impacts of equality and inclusion: Alucinaciones.txt [Hallucinations.txt] (2007) brought together twenty budding Chilean narrators of fantasy and SF, including five women; Qubit (2011) an anthology of new Latin American SF writers, led by Raúl Aguiar, a Cuban, filtered in only three women amongst twenty men. A gratifying example is found in Lunas en vez de sombras [Moons Instead of Shadows] (2014), the third piece by a group of new Costa Rican storytellers that includes six writers, of whom three are women. The title of the volume is taken from one these women's works by the same name, a clear sign of equality and participation. Se vende marcianos [Martians for Sale] (2015), a sampling prepared by José Donayre, includes only five women amongst twenty-three writers of Peruvian SF. To close this brief but necessary survey of current women’s literature, we should consider Aluciandas I y II [Dazed I and II] (2014-2016), the most current SF anthology of short stories in Spanish written and edited by women. It brings together dozens of Spanish-language women writers (from Europe as well as America) in a growing, expanding project. Exponential and contagious, it permeates the symmetry, talent, and inventiveness of the entire globe. All that remains is to bid farewell to this handful of visionary, audacious and lethal heroines, all of other worlds but still right here in front of us.
Translated by Michael Redzich