While currently surrounded by books of a feminist nature, I would revisit from time to time my old books from salad days, and think about how much (or little) I’ve matured in my reading taste. As a teenager approaching early adulthood, I had an affinity to books that tackled love and sexuality in the most unconventional way possible. Some were written (drawn?) in the manga format in all its seamless exuberance, some were quirky classics, and others half-forgotten naughty oddities. You could say that I embraced prurience if it was of the literary kind, snobbish even. But like I said, this was only in the past…
The height of my manga-reading days were spent poring over Kayoko Shigeta’s worryingly haphazard romantic quest in Moyocco Anno’s Happy Mania (1996-2001, 11 volumes). Kayoko: young, thin, and blonde-haired, would do anything in her search for true love – even fucking her workmate’s fiance, and sharing with another a woman a man who refuses to commit. While she comes across as completely self-absorbed and desperate right from the first page of volume one, she’s still a likeable and funny character with nuggets like “What constitutes a girlfriend anyway? Is it someone you have sex with? Or someone who cooks you dinner?” (Volume 1, pg 139).
Though re-reading that today is not quite as epiphanic as when I was at the cusp of learning about what relationships were all about. I know more or less what the answer to that is by now, thanks to a strange phenomenon called “growing up”.
My current obsession with feminist science fiction led me to brilliant reviews of Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet at both The F-Word and Ultrabrown. In my earlier post on Islam and feminism in SF I mentioned a few times about how the genre is used to critique some grand narratives of our times. But in lieu of feminist utopias, Singh’s anthology of short stories explores the more intimate worlds of emotional and mental isolation to great effect in what she calls speculative fiction:
So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe…
…I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?
I’ve been reading a lot about feminist science fiction lately, mostly of out fascination for its philosophical what-ifs and fantastic plots and situations. And as a casual reader of the genre rather than a fan, I am intrigued by the questions raised by feminist science fiction writers about culture and heteronormativity (guest contributor Gareth shares my views on these issues in his excellent review of the feminist SF classic, The Left Hand of Darkness).
The philosophical potential in science fiction got me interested in the depiction of Islam and Muslim women in science fiction writing – I wanted to know whether science fiction has some clues as to how different cultures and religions can live peacefully in utopic bliss, or not.
With popular media culture and media already full of negative portrayals of Muslims, it’s perhaps a little unsurprising then that science fiction has its fair share of ‘Arab baddies’. A number of novels depict a world taken over by extremist Muslims either far in the distant future or a world where Islam is presented in the seat of global power following a near extinction of the Europeans in the Black Death. Either way, the formula is the same: what if the anti-thesis of Western hegemony came into power?
The eponymous eye in Philip K. Dick’s novel, Eye in the Sky, directly refers to the all-seeing eye of God in a world where Muslim extremists rule and plagues are instantly willed by a divine presence. It’s interesting that Islamic extremism in the novel is made a convenient stand in for all that was bad about the United States in the 1950’s: from the paranoia of the McCarthy era to the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianity – perhaps Muslims in 50’s America were as little understood as extra-terrestrials that often constituted The Other in SF. The cover I thought, was pretty offensive as well – the ominous eye of God is illustrated as fearsome, tyrannical, malevolent. Allah = bad.
A few months ago, Alicia asked me why science fiction was such a boy thing and what is the point of the genre. I cobbled together an answer about science fiction being used to create a narrative space removed from the here and now into which pertinent questions and ideas can be tried out. Science fiction might not be science, but it does have an experimental edge. As for the boyish enchantment of the genre, I imagine that it has something to do with love of grand ideas and machines rather than human relationships and emotions. Then I remembered reading somewhere about women’s science fiction, and yet still feminist science fiction. A quick web search led us to Feminist SF, and I recommend a browse.
I have long been a fan of Ursula LeGuin, since reading her Wizard of Earthsea at primary school. I was enrapt by her bringing imagined cultures and worlds to life through her writing: a skill, I later learned, was informed by her understanding of anthropology. Quite apart from Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a cornerstone of feminist science fiction: not only does LeGuin conjure up a fascinating world in which to immerse the reader, she also asks us to think deeply about sex and gender.
The Left Hand of Darkness is about Genly Ai, a man sent as an envoy of a collectivity of human-inhabited planets called the Ekumen to an arctic world they know as Winter, and known to its inhabitants as Gethen. The book is an account of Ai’s mission to Gethen to begin interplanetary dialogue. Interleaved in Ai’s account are logs from a previous investigative mission, collected folk tales and the excerpts from the diary of a Gethenian friend. These help to give the reader a number of points of views in parallel. This is not Flash Gordon territory: Ai has no ray gun, his ‘ship’ is impounded in a Gethenian warehouse, he’s black, and the Gethenians, while fairer skinned, are not white.