On Thursday, January 22, several students gathered in Stetson Lounge to witness a panel discussion on Science Fiction and Gender Politics. The panel consisted of three of the more prominent writers in the field of science fiction, who have used the genre to explore gender roles in society.
Melissa Scott, one of the panelists, is the author of seven science fiction novels, including “Shadowman,” which won the Lambda Literary award, an award given to the best lesbian science fiction. Paul Park, a resident of North Adams, is the author of “Celestis,” which was nominated for the James Tiptree award. This award is named after one of the pioneers in feminist science fiction. The third panelist, Rachel Pollack dealt with gender roles in her novel “Godmother Night,” and her novel “Unquenchable Fire” won the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction.
After a brief welcome by professor Alison Case who organized the event in conjunction with the Winter Study course she is teaching on Feminist Science Fiction, the panelists were asked to give brief opening remarks regarding how gender is explored in their science fiction.
Scott began, describing her writing as an experience of personal growth. Not only do her novels reflect her opinions about gender roles, but they also help her discover what those opinions are. As a lesbian, science fiction allows her to explore her sexuality beyond modern society’s narrow constraints.
Park opened his remarks with a story about his growth as a writer. He claimed that after finishing his first book, he was disappointed with the “lack of female characters [who] acted as engines for the plot.” Therefore in his very next novel he consciously constructed female characters who played leading roles. This novel however was attacked as misogynistic. This experience led him to realize how important it was to create believable female characters. He also learned that no matter what he writes, there will always be someone to criticize him for not conforming to his or her particular view of gender.
Pollack concentrated her opening remarks on her novel “Godmother Night,” describing what she hoped to accomplish with the novel, which was patterned after Grimms’s fairy tales. She described an early scene in the novel, in which the main character does not exist, because her name of Jacqueline does not seem to fit. Only when someone calls her the masculine sounding Jaqe, does she finally realize her identity as a lesbian woman and begin existing. Pollack, a transsexual, described this experience as being similar to her own experience, but the genre of science fiction/fantasy allowed her to make literal the sort of limbo one is in when one does not comprehend one’s sexual identity.
After these opening statements, Professor Case opened the discussion to questions from members of her class and others in attendance. The first few questions dealt specifically with aspects of gender in Melissa Scott’s novel “Shadowman.” The novel is about a federation of planets that recognizes five different sexes. One planet that has not yet joined this federation, forces those five different sexes to conform to only two gender roles, either male or female. Scott explained how this imagined universe reveals the limitations of forcing people to accept either a masculine or feminine role in a society. “It is important to be seen as people, rather than male or female,” she said. Even the federation of planets was guilty of categorizing people, for Scott revealed that the universe consisted of more than five sexes, but the federation forced people into the category that they most closely resembled. She promised that more would be revealed in the sequel she is currently working on.
Next the current of the discussion flowed towards Park’s Celestis, when he was asked about transsexual undertones in the novel. Celestis tells of the colonization of a planet by humans. The natives are forced to undergo surgery that makes them more human. Since the natives are single sex, they also have surgery to make them either male or female. This is where aspects of transsexualism come into play. Park explained that his main goal was to make literal the way that colonizers force change on those they colonize. But, he conceded, he understood how one could see transsexual undertones in the novel.
In response to a question about the butch/fem relationship between the two lesbian lovers in “Godmother Night,” Rachel Pollack explained that one was definitely supposed to recognize those aspects of the relationship, but Pollack wished to draw a more complicated picture of the relationship, as well. For, Lauren, the character who played the so-called butch, or masculine role, in the relationship, faces an identity crisis when her partner dies. She is left with a child and must now be a single mother, a role she is not used to at all. Once again, Pollack explained, her goal was to move beyond categorizing the characters into certain roles.
One of the most interesting dialogues evolved from a question about self-censorship. All three admitted that sometimes the characters they have created spin out of control so that the novel seems to end up giving a message that the author never intended. This they explained is something that one has to live with as an author. Also, they pointed out, as science fiction writers, they have the luxury of creating a world and making all the rules themselves. This puts them in a very precarious situation. It is easy to assume that a science fiction author is advocating the kind of world that he has created.
The discussion was not without it’s moments of humor. In describing the extreme outlook of some feminists, Pollack told a story about her former partner writing a play. Her partner wished to create a mystery that revolved around an all-female cast. When she sent it to one theater company, the company responded by asking her to add a male character to be the murderer.
All three authors made it clear that their goals were to expand beyond categorizing people into certain roles based on gender. Science fiction works well as a medium for this, because it allows them to create worlds where categorization can either be exaggerated or limited, allowing readers to see present day’s gender politics in a whole new light.