MLN 117.5 (2002) 1139-1143
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Justine Larbalestier, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002, xv + 295 pages.
In recent years, the discipline of cultural studies in the U.S. has at times been subjected to accusations of ahistoricism. The likes of Eugene Goodheart and Thomas Frank have found errors and omissions in the field's approach to history, and even Michael Bérubé, in his otherwise celebratory review of Grossberg et al.'s 1992 Cultural Studies anthology, expressed sympathy with one contributor's complaint that "there's an enormous neglect of history within cultural studies" (Bérubé, Public Access [London, 1994]). An aspect of the problem is the fact that, with its emphasis on reception and consumption, cultural studies demands a focus upon microhistorical knowledge that can be very difficult to attain. It takes substantial resources and ingenuity to infer who consumed what and how in eras for which one lacks contemporary ethnographic data. Consequently, when confronting milieux in which there was no Hoggart or Bourdieu collecting such data, scholars may be reduced to relying upon their own reactions to the object of consumption or their own theoretical predispositions, creating works that analyze the world of artifacts or document the world of people, but that do not effectively address the interactions between the two. [End Page 1139]
Nevertheless, the number of recent works that succeed at incorporating history into cultural studies projects in the face of such obstacles is heartening. In this area and in many others, Justine Larbalestier's Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is an exemplary book. The Australian scholar Larbalestier draws from the disciplines of literary study, linguistics, feminism, biography, and sociology as well as cultural studies to trace the history of gender conflict in U.S. science fiction from the time when science fiction was first reified as a genre—1926—through the first ten years of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, established in 1991 to honor works of science fiction that explore and expand the concept of gender. She structures her history by devoting each chapter to recounting, distinguishing, and connecting the competing paradigms that have been used to address a specific theme in science fiction—matriarchal societies, women in fandom, hermaphroditism, the personae of James Tiptree Jr.—and identifying the ideologies that each paradigm tends to support.
Central to the volume is Larbalestier's archival research, evident from her 530 bibliographic entries. Because she seeks "to present science fiction as a series of social activities" (16), distinguishing her project from those that "construct the genre as a collection of books having almost no interaction with the social context in which they were produced" (34), editorial columns, letter columns, fan publications, magazine covers, and conventions -many of them reproduced in her book—are subject to her scrutiny as much as are individual authors, stories, and critical essays. Hence her work is not only a historical project in the realm of cultural studies but a culturalist intervention into literary history, one that asks science-fiction critics in particular to think in new ways about the history of the genre by addressing the range of practices that constitute "science fiction" and its production.
Larbalestier's commitment to reading the science fiction community democratically, in the populist tradition of cultural studies, is evident from such assertions as "Fans are not passive consumers. Many of the letters I have read in prozines and fanzines constitute reading as creation, compulsion, consumption, and belonging" (27). To be a fan is to manifest a passionate engagement with texts, not a submissive and reverent attitude toward them. A corollary to this realization is that to be a metafan, or a commentator on the fan community, one must also eschew indiscriminate praise and engage critically with one's object of study. For Larbalestier, this critical engagement necessitates meticulous close readings of the various "battle-of-the-sexes texts" that fall within her purview. Using tools such as the semiological writings of Samuel Delany and the linguistic analysis of M.A.K. Halliday, she spends the...