Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (review)
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Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. By Lisa Yaszek. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. Pp. xii+234. $71.95/$22.95.

Lisa Yaszek, a literary- and cultural-studies professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explores speculative fiction by and about women from the latter 1940s until the rise of feminist science fiction in the 1960s. Galactic Suburbia documents women’s active participation in the development of the genre. While this literary form remains male-dominated (and male-dominant), it nonetheless has had a few dents punched into its masculine hull by women authors, their women characters, and futuristic (but not necessarily transmuted) societies.

Yaszek illustrates how women’s roles at home or at work and in relationships were influenced but not transformed by innovation. At least in the middle-classed suburbia often depicted in these stories, feminine mystique inextricably links women to home. While Yaszek’s expertise in the genre can inform even the best-read sci-fi addict, her failure to question the fundamental assumptions of gender difference is disappointing.

Following a straightforward introduction, Yaszek’s first chapter centers on the authors as socially situated—culturally, economically, and politically—through case studies of Judith Merril, Alice Eleanor Jones, and Shirley Jackson. In their 1940s and 1950s imaginings, these authors gently critiqued women’s suburban sex roles and exposed the restrictions they faced as women sci-fi writers. For instance, Jones used romantic/domestic tropes from women’s magazine fiction to consider how technological advancements might impact women’s relationships and home life in her near-future stories.

In the immediate postwar years, middle-class women’s suburban homes were performance spaces for traditional roles and places where—as advertising constantly reminded readers—they implemented emerging technologies. Despite these so-called advancements, women craved more than the familial and consumer tasks assigned to them. In her second chapter Yaszek focuses on sci-fi’s relation to cold war homemaking, specifically [End Page 959] women’s responsibilities as consumers and their desires to transform traditional relations. She chose Zenna Henderson’s 1950s People stories to illustrate the performative nature of gender in this period: femininity was something you did to survive socially, but there was an underlying hope for a time and place where human potential (or in Henderson’s case, alien potential) could be a central part of public life.

In chapter 3, Yaszek argues that women writing sci-fi in the postwar era cunningly forecast changes on the horizon, drawing from their experiences as “natural” wives and mothers to promote peace in the face of nuclear war and to challenge existing race relations “for the sake of the children.” Through antiwar or post-nuclear-holocaust narratives and stories featuring encounters with the alien (feminine) Other, these writers were engaged in political and social activism. In chapter 4, Yaszek discusses the ways writers exemplified and portrayed women as scientific experts with the capacity to meld domestic and professional realms. Still, women activists rarely took the radical stance taken by feminist authors in subsequent decades, and for this they were severely criticized by their feminist sisters.

In her conclusion, Yaszek points to the women sci-fi authors of the 1960s and 1970s, who pushed the boundaries of political and social norms to consider the plausibility of egalitarianism, separatist colonial planets, or women warriors breaking through postwar barriers. Although many explicitly feminist authors rejected the domestic tropes of writers from the 1940s and 1950s for not being radical enough, Yaszek shows how the themes and literary techniques of postwar women’s sci-fi were expressed. While differences emerged between generations of women’s sci-fi, they were “less a matter of kind than degree” (p. 200).

Even though Yaszek is quite right about intergenerational themes of restrictive gender roles in postwar and feminist sci-fi, she fails to interrogate the feminine mystique that structures the times in which they lived in the works they portrayed. In addition, after hinting at how gender itself can be reconfigured or eliminated through technology—as in the specter of the cyborg—she leaves her reader hanging on the precipice of hope that underlies women’s (and some...