"A splendid feminist work" is Joanna Russ's book-jacket endorsement of Sarah Lefanu's Feminism and Science Fiction. But Russ has reason to praise: not only does Lefanu rely heavily on Russ's analyses of science fiction; she also proclaims Russ "the single most important woman writer of science fiction." Although Lefanu's enthusiasm for Russ helps her draft an interesting chapter on this author, it is not enough to sustain an entire critical interpretation of feminism and science fiction.
The issues Lefanu addresses seem timely: "I want to explore the question of whether science fiction, despite its preponderantly male bias, offers a freedom to women writers, in terms of style as well as content, that is not available in mainstream fiction." However, what initially looks like an intriguing research question quickly turns into a foregone conclusion as Lefanu takes the predictable feminist position that women, including women who write science fiction, write from the margin and subvert male texts/power structures.
Lefanu's Introduction leads the reader to expect a theoretically-grounded investigation of women's science fiction. But Lefanu does not deliver on this implied promise. Her study, awkwardly divided into two parts (an overview of issues and an in-depth analysis of four writers), reveals few theoretical underpinnings. The reader has to rely on her/his own definition of feminism. In fact, Lefanu's erratic use of feminists such as Firestone, Moers, Ellmann, and Kristeva muddles rather than clarifies her unarticulated assumptions.
In addition, the book lacks a clear frame of reference. Consequendy, interesting points about women science fiction writers' views of essentialism, their revisioning of the Amazon figure, and their creation of feminist utopias are ultimately lost. The reader is first puzzled by the unevenness of the material in the individual [End Page 311] chapters (inexplicably, some chapters are 16-18 pages, others 3-4) and finally deeply frustrated by the lack of connections not only between chapters but between paragraphs and even sentences. In the end nothing really holds this study together. Although closure might be a mainstream/male construct, this book, I think, would have benefitted from a conclusion that integrates Lefanu's points. Most troubling, however, is Lefanu's co-opting of women writers for the feminist cause. Although she emphatically states, "I am not trying to construct here a hierarchy of feminism," she does exactly that throughout her study. This is exemplified by the particularly disappointing chapter on LeGuin, a writer she dismisses as not feminist enough.
Despites its flaws, Feminism and Science Fiction does have its virtues. In her meanderings, Lefanu showcases a great variety of women science fiction writers. She provides vivid interpretive plot summaries that reflect her involvement with and excitement about the texts. Her enthusiasm for writers such as Piercy, Charnas, Russ, and Tiptree is contagious, and her book enables the reader to assemble an interesting reading list of science fiction novels and short stories that captures the multiplicity and versatility of the genre. Finally, however, because there are too many examples and too few substantiated analyses, this reader is eager to read more women's science fiction but feels that a solid, convincing analysis of feminism and science fiction has yet to be written.
Interestingly, Paulina Palmer's Contemporary Women's Fiction is built on the same premise as Lefanu's study of women science fiction writers as she, too, examines "the interaction between feminist theory and narrative practice" in the works of contemporary women fiction writers. Unlike Lefanu, however, Palmer clearly maps out her territory and undergirds her study with references to numerous theoretical texts. Focusing on such important feminist issues as sexual politics, patriarchal relations, mothering, and sisterhood, Palmer provides a good over-view of the major aspects that contribute to the social and cultural construction of femininity. The author also selects an interesting array of contemporary women's novels and stories to show theory at work in fiction. Thus, as an act of...