Upon their release at the turn of the twenty-first century, the Matrix films had an immediate impact on popular imagination in the United States. The Hollywood-produced science fiction trilogy triggered questions about reality, self-determination, and resistance while setting new standards for film technology. With its clever plotline and breathtaking special effects, the trilogy became both a blockbuster hit surrounded by the usual media hype and an inspiration for academic debates. The Matrix also introduced a new female character to our cultural imagination: the movie-going public fell hard for Trinity, a strong, smart, action-driven resistance fighter and the hero's romantic interest. Trinity joins the ranks of a number of extraordinary female science fiction heroes, such as Ripley from the Alien film series and Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies. These female characters share an unusual display of technological know-how, empowerment, and the habit of saving the world. They also have "unnatural" female bodies (often technologically enhanced or genetically engineered) and do "unfeminine" things. Significantly, it is within science fiction—film and literature—a genre usually understood to be predominantly male, that we seem to reimagine gender relations most radically. Here the controversial female cyborg challenges conventional ideas of gender, race, and nation, often at the same time as she reinforces them. Through figures like the female cyborg, Alien Constructions explores the relationship between science fiction and a feminist discourse that is attempting to conceptualize issues of difference, globalization, and technoscience.
Science fiction is valuable to feminists because of its particular narrative mode. Two textual aspects that define science fiction are the structures and/or narrative devices that constitute its mode, on one hand, and themes and approaches on the other. Several structures and narrative devices of science fiction have been identified in classical science fiction criticism, such as the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives, and the implication of new sets of norms that result in the factual reporting of fiction. Spatial and temporal displacement as well as absent paradigms that structure the reading process are typical for science fiction. Also characteristic for science fiction are "worlds," or systems of representation that create the freedom to voice assumptions otherwise restricted by a realist narrative frame, and the geographic displacement of identity formations.
All of these elements shape the reading process, which in turn defines the genre. In addition to structural and narrative devices, there are recurrent themes and approaches in science fiction: the exploration of socioeconomic relations, the conflicting elements of modernity and postmodernity played out in urban science fiction, the construction of nature and culture, and the implications of technology—one of the most recognizable heuristic markers of science fiction—on human relations and life in general. Science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ defines science fiction as "a mode rather than a form (a form would be something like the sonnet, the short story, etc.) It is, basically, anything that is about conditions of life or existence different from either what typically is, or what typically was, or whatever was or is. . . . Science fiction is about the possible-but-not-real" ("Reflections on Science Fiction" 243).
Science fiction stories can create "blueprints" of social theories. Only within genres of the fantastic is it possible to imagine completely new social orders and ways of being that differ radically from human existence as we know it. Alien Constructions is a recent intervention in the ongoing debate that examines the relationship of theory to science fiction. It explores how some science fiction engages with feminist thought in a way that enables us to understand oppression and to envision resistance beyond the limits set by much of feminist discourse. Alien Constructions is aimed at readers interested in feminist discourses as well as genre readers. While either audience at times might encounter familiar intellectual and narrative territories, some of the connections between science fiction and feminist thought made in the textual analyses within these pages will be new and hopefully will inspire further explorations.
Science Fiction as Cultural Text
The success of The Matrix and its status as one of the primary cultural points of reference in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century stands in the long tradition of science fiction texts that have provided blueprints for our imagination. Since the late 1970s, the success of films such as the Alien series, the Terminator trilogy, and, of course, the Star Wars saga, whose narrative continues to span several decades, is mirrored in the success of primetime television shows. Shows like the Star Trek series and its spin-offs Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, as well as Roswell, The X-Files, and, more recently, Battlestar Galactica, have reached millions of viewers every week. Although the public's fascination with popular genres extends to mystery and romance novels, TV sitcoms, and horror movies, there is something persistent and unique in our use of science fiction imagery, not only to speculate about the future, but to explain the present. The obsession of United States culture with futuristic explorations and alien life-forms also manifests itself in the popularity of science fiction literature, which is still one of the most pervasively read genres. Science fiction is a stage on which we imagine humanity's fate, and it is in its fantastic extrapolations that we develop the terminology to describe our future. To recognize the magnitude of the genre in the cultural imagination of United States society is to treat it as a space where the exchange between the text and the reader/viewer engages with political as well as social concepts.
What exactly makes us turn to a fantastic genre to imagine not only social and political change but new understandings of who we are in the present and what our future will look like? Popular culture's fascination with science fiction is rooted in the combination of strangeness and familiarity that make up the particularities of the genre. This tension between the "known" and the "unknown" is at the heart of science fiction. It creates a reading process based on estrangement, which places familiar issues into strange territory: even when we are not familiar with a new planet and its corresponding new technology being described, the social and personal issues within the narrative speak to our experiences. This estrangement also creates spaces of abstraction for theorizing. In his classic essay on science fiction literature, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," published in 1972, Darko Suvin refers to the genre as a "literature of cognitive estrangement" (372). At the same time, science fiction creates personal narratives of identification: we grow to know the protagonists and their world intimately. Science fiction's concept of theorizing grows from both the strategy of estrangement and the power of storytelling. Different forms of storytelling—such as myths, legends, and spiritual and creation narratives, all of which are found in popular culture—are crucial tools for shaping cultural identities. As in other types of fiction, the "realness" of science fiction narratives enables individuals (and groups) to relate to and recognize the debates as relevant to their own lives.
As a genre defined by its relationship to technology as well as by its futuristic framework, science fiction is understood as a cultural arena that explores the anxieties of what Frederic Jameson termed the "postmodern condition." Moreover, in the past three decades it has received considerable attention for its potentially subversive depictions of alternative worlds. While science fiction criticism still inhabits a marginalized position within academic discourse—which mainly treats it as a pulp or popular genre outside of "serious" theoretical frameworks—in the past 20 years, works by critics such as Darko Suvin and Carl Freedman have placed the genre in relation to critical theory and literary theory. In Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) Freedman, instead of simply applying critical theory to science fiction, emphasizes "structural affinities between the two modes of discourse" (xix, emphasis his), such as their dialectical thinking.
Feminists in particular recognize the political implications of the genre and increasingly employ science fiction narratives to explore social relations. Donna Haraway was one of the first critics to emphasize feminist science fiction as a form of feminist theorizing (not simply as a reflection of feminist politics). In Terminal Identity (1993), Scott Bukatman observes the attraction the genre holds for feminist writers, readers, and viewers: "Given a thematics profoundly engaged with social structures and sexual difference and potentially heterotopic discursive practices, the relevance of SF to a feminist politics should not be mysterious" (21). Alien Constructions points to the dialogic relationship between science fiction and contemporary feminist thought. Both science fiction texts and feminist theories conceptualize issues of difference, globalization, and technoscience that increasingly affect women's lives, and both are concerned with contested boundaries and definitions of bodies and cultural/social territories. Thus feminist writings (and readings) of science fiction can be understood as part of a feminist criticism of existing power relations. In order to establish a shared context for genre readers as well as readers familiar with feminist thought, what follows is a brief summary of science fiction since the "New Wave," which introduced radically new literary elements to the genre, and a review of relevant concepts within science fiction and feminist thought.
Science Fiction since the New Wave
Science fiction's alien settings on distant planets, revolutionary technology, and futuristic time frame potentially allow the genre to explore power relations in ways different from realistic fiction—here we can credibly create completely novel societies and cultures. Yet the genre also has a tradition of conceptualizing themes of colonialism and social orders in conservative, and at times reactionary, ways. Beginning with the New Wave in the 1960s, Western science fiction texts and criticism have developed from a mainly white, male, heterosexual genre into a more diverse body of texts with the potential to radically reconceptualize power relations. This development coincided with radical feminist interventions into male-defined liberation movements and theories. Authors such as Samuel Delany, Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and Philip Dick transformed science fiction by dramatically improving literary quality through narrative experimentation and the crossing of genre lines inspired by a growing postmodern influence in mainstream literature.
In 1972, science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ criticized the conservative content of mainstream science fiction in the United States and Great Britain, which she referred to as "Intergalactic Suburbia." The term criticizes not only gender but also class and race structures that Russ saw as perpetuated within the science fiction genre, which described "white, middle-class suburbia. Mummy and Daddy may live inside a huge amoeba and Daddy's job may be to test psychedelic drugs or cultivate yeast-vats, but the world inside their heads is the world of [suburban] Westport and Rahway and that world is never questioned" ("Image of Women" 81, emphasis hers). Science fiction—both literature and film—produced since Russ's criticism that reflects the influence of New Wave literary inventions is of the greatest interest to this study.
The new literary styles in science fiction were accompanied by shifts in narrative content as well. For example, the extrapolation of the classical space opera, with its formulaic focus on human outer space expansion and technology, was countered by the psychological dimension of "inner" space and cultural identities as well as complex character formations. The introduction of formerly taboo subjects, such as depictions of sexuality, violence, and race relations, accompanied a growing appreciation of the "soft" sciences (social sciences such as anthropology and linguistics), formerly positioned as either irrelevant, ineffective, or dangerous in contrast to the traditional "hard" sciences (chemistry, physics, and biology). Both literary innovations and narrative explorations beyond the traditional science fiction adventure story, which had dominated popular science fiction, added a complexity to science fiction that transformed the boundaries of the genre. These changes were also reflected in technological, stylistic, and narrative innovations in science fiction films, such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), while technological special effects in films such as Star Wars (1977) revolutionized the genre on the silver screen.
The growing literary quality and narrative complexity of New Wave science fiction literature resulted in an expansion in readership from mainly young, white, technologically inclined men to include readers interested in mainstream literature. Although changes in the genre were mainly stylistic, there was also increasingly more emphasis on sex and violence, as reflected in publications such as Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), collections of short stories formerly rejected by mainstream science fiction magazines because of their new, controversial focus. Yet it was the influence of writers of color and female authors that expanded the New Wave's innovations. Social criticism, including criticism of racism and class exploitation in a neocolonial framework, enriched the narratives and became one of the central features of contemporary science fiction. Thomas Moylan observed the connections between the growing number of women and authors of color who were writing science fiction and the increased literary and intellectual quality of the genre when he stated in 1980 that "the most aesthetically interesting and socially significant contemporary science fiction is being produced by women and non-white writers, as well as by a few alienated and critical white males" ("Beyond Negation," 237-38). Even though science fiction since the 1960s has increasingly engaged with issues of race and class, many narratives insist on employing non-Western cultures as representing the ultimate "other." This practice perpetuates existing racist ideologies at the same time as it makes them visible.
In the late 1980s, science fiction experienced further fundamental innovations through the influence of cyberpunk fiction, with its focus on communication technology and consumer culture. In Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson set the stylistic markers of cyberpunk's narrative conventions, which are dominated by the interface of computers and humans. Gibson's exploration of technology's influence on subjectivity and its potential for alienation is also seen in Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner (1982), where it manifests in a film noir quality, and culminates in the special effects of the Matrix film trilogy twenty years later. In much of cyberpunk literature, the narrow focus on the angst-ridden subjectivity of the technologically savvy antihero grew from a synthesis of cross-media influences of punk music, street anarchy, and hacker culture. This aspect has been further developed by women and writers of color who have (again) complicated the stylistic novelties with more substantial social and political elements.
Feminist Science Fiction
Even though science fiction has the reputation of being a male-dominated genre, it has always included women writers, and as a narrative style it is open to feminist appropriation. In In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988), Sarah Lefanu writes: "[Science fiction literature] makes possible, and encourages (despite its colonisation by male writers), the inscription of women as subjects free from the constraints of mundane fiction; and it also offers the possibility of interrogating that very inscription, questioning the basis of gendered subjectivity" (Lefanu 9). In early science fiction, women often wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms (such as C.L. Moore, who wrote pulp science fiction in the 1940s), and in general the number of women writers was considerably lower than that of their male counterparts. Since the early 1970s, the number of women who write science fiction has increased dramatically, with popular authors such as Octavia E. Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Kathleen Goonan, Suzette Haden Elgin, Anne McCaffrey, Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Joan Vinge, Kate Wilhelm, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and, in a new generation of writers, Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, Severna Park, and Melissa Scott. Feminist science fiction irreversibly shaped the genre, first in the 1970s with its criticism of gender roles, racism, and class exploitation, and later in the 1980s with a growing use of postmodern elements such as the exploration of linguistics and disrupted narrative structures. The presence and influence of women writers were made visible in the 1970s with publications like Pamela Sargent's edited Women of Wonder series, which were collections of stories by women science fiction writers. While feminist science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s explored feminist resistance to women's oppression mainly through separatist societies (e.g., lesbian utopias) and/or reversal of gender roles (e.g., matriarchal societies), later feminist science fiction understands a disruption of gendered power less as a question of a simple role reversal (even though some narratives explore the ramifications of this) than of undermining and subverting that power (e.g., through the use of technology) and linking it to material relations.
One central narrative theme is the effect of science and technology on our future, the fictitious manifestations of which have become the major metaphors in science fiction. Feminist science fiction, especially in the early 1970s, undermined the ideological separation of "soft" and "hard" sciences within traditional science fiction, which portrayed technology as good and the sciences as progressive, rational, and predictable (i.e. masculine), pitched against alien "sciences" such as telepathy and telekinesis that were considered witchcraft, evil, manipulative, obscure, and subjective (i.e. feminine). Feminist science fiction has instead emphasized cultural and social ("soft") sciences, such as anthropology, linguistics, and social theories. At the same time, authors have explored the ambiguous relationship of women and technology. On one hand, feminist writers reclaim the figures of witch and healer within a science fiction setting and develop alternative sciences. On the other, feminist science fiction writers explore the liberating potential of the hard sciences (in particular, reproductive technologies) that promise elimination of traditional gender roles that link women to maternity. The growing identification with the alien/other in many texts is accompanied by a shift in narrative perspective as more and more texts relate the experiences of those colonized by traditional science fiction heroes.
Postmodern science fiction mirrors ideas of fragmented cultural experiences and new linguistic forms of expression as they question the ontological basis for realities and offer subversive point of views. This trend especially resonates in feminist appropriations of cyberpunk, in which texts explore implications of new media and biotechnologies. The metaphor of the cyborg, a concept that becomes central to both feminist fiction and feminist criticism, emerges from explorations of the interface of technology and humans and the boundary dissolutions that accompany biotechnologies and global capitalism's consumerism.
Unlike the growing body of literary texts classified as feminist science fiction, there is not (yet) a genre of feminist science fiction film. One example of a feminist science fiction film is Born in Flames (1983), which explores possible future political developments of fractions of the feminist movement. In "Feminist Futures: A Generic Study" (1990), Anne Cranny-Francis suggests that a hypothetical contemporary feminist science fiction cinema would be based in an intertextual relationship between "science fiction writing and its generic conventions; feminist cultural practice; and cinema itself—particularly science fiction film and feminist film—as a set of discursive and signifying practices" (219).
Science Fiction and Feminist Theory
In the past thirty-five years, feminist science fiction and feminist readings of science fiction have challenged existing gender relations and have explored theoretical and political debates of the time. Critics such as Marleen Barr in Alien to Femininity (1987), Sarah Lefanu in In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), and Jenny Wolmark in Aliens and Others (1994) discuss feminist science fiction in the context of feminist theories. Women's increased involvement in science fiction has proven to be crucial both for the development of the subgenre of feminist science fiction and for feminist theorizing outside the science fiction community. If we view the contemporary author as sharing a cultural climate with feminist political and theoretical debates, it becomes necessary to read science fiction texts as contributions to feminist debates as well as reflections of them.
Even though direct connections exist between feminist writing and feminist politics, the question of who produces theoretical models within these texts is less framed in terms of the "intentionality" of the author (especially when considering science fiction films) than in relation to systems of representation that are created in an active exchange process between reader/viewer, context, and text, thereby producing connections and links between groups of texts and political moments. One context for a reading of these science fiction narratives, for example, is feminist discourse; another is postcolonial studies. So theories and texts do not necessarily inform each other directly but are based in a shared "climate of opinion" (Hayles, Cosmic Web 22) that makes certain ideas worth pursuing in different disciplines. Production of meaning does not take place in a dualistic relationship of either reader and text (interpretation), or text and social context (social construction). Instead, meaning is produced in complex constellations where texts and theories are situated, in the treatment of the text as both a semiotic and a material structure:
The text must be . . . understood as a term in a process, that is to say a chain reaction encompassing a web of power relations. What is at stake in the textual practice, therefore, is less the activity of interpretation than of decoding the network of connections and effects that link the text to an entire sociosymbolic system. In other words, we are faced here with a new materialist theory of the text and of textual practice. (Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects 154)
The reader, therefore, becomes just as important as the author or director in the production of feminist theory within/through a given text. In addition, the meaning of the symbolic manifestations in the text changes with each new theoretical context of analysis brought to the text. A crucial part of this process is that this production of theory is closely related to the identity of the theorist (writer? reader? viewer?). Since subjectivity here is understood to be a discursive, constantly changing process, cultural texts and their systems of representations are as significant as interactions with the social world and its institutions: "The acquisition of subjectivity is therefore a process of material (institutional) and discursive (symbolic) practices, the aim of which is both positive—because the process allows for forms of empowerment—and regulative—because the forms of empowerment are the site of limitations and disciplining" (Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects 157).
Thus creative explorations of cultural anxieties in science fiction often involve theoretical investigations as well as theory production through complex interactions of reader, writer, and text. As feminist biologist and theorist Donna Haraway observes in How Like a Leaf, "science fiction is political theory" (120). The intersections of theory, politics, and pleasures of imagination enable creative and complex theorizing. Alien Constructions is informed by Haraway's idea that some science fiction texts not only incorporate feminist theory but actually produce it. Locating feminist theory in cultural texts contests the separations of cognitive realms, such as creativity and abstract thought, on which the Western-defined concept of theorizing rests. It shifts discourses away from a hierarchical structure of theory building toward a more open, multileveled production of theory and toward interdisciplinary approaches within feminist inquiry.
Science fiction's fantastic aliens and distant planets can thus become the imaginative testing grounds for feminist critical thought. These texts create a link between cultural imagination and political positions: they function as "case studies" of how feminist theories "work." For many readers, consuming feminist science fiction serves as an introduction to feminist politics and theories and offers concrete manifestations of the complex theories at hand. Within the narratives, these readers encounter "alien constructions"—metaphors and concepts specific to the genre, such as the cyborg, human/alien hybrids, and aliens—that provide unfamiliar images for familiar identities and concepts and explore the implications of theories within a (pleasurable) narrative framework. These alien constructions, embedded within a narrative context that enables identifications, can provide us with empowering metaphors that allow critical evaluations of the theories we rely on to explain our social realities. To read science fiction in conjunction with feminist theories can therefore foster a new and more intimate understanding of the theories, their limits, and their co-optation by dominant culture.
To this end, Alien Constructions examines a selection of popular science fiction texts from a feminist perspective and points to connections between these cultural texts and feminist debates in academic and political arenas. The texts discussed here are all post-New Wave, and their literary and cinematic explorations offer theoretical interventions that stand in complicated relationship to postmodern feminist thought. In my critical readings, I take an interdisciplinary approach to political and theoretical concepts by combining analyses of science fiction literature and film. While science fiction film and literature share a preoccupation with futuristic technology and alien/fantastic bodies, their respective media create different forms of representation. As Annette Kuhn points out in the introduction to Alien Zone, there is a significant difference between science fiction literature and science fiction film: "[T]he most obvious difference . . . lies in the latter's mobilization of the visible, the spectacle. If cinema is one among a number of narrative media, it also has its own language, its own codes, through which it makes meaning and tells stories" (6). Thus mainstream science fiction film caters to identification mechanisms very much based on the pleasure of the visual and acoustic spectacle (special effects therefore are the backbone of successful science fiction cinema), while feminist science fiction literature often creates characters that embody complex intersections of political and social ideas and uses stylistic devices to create gripping narratives. The female cyborgs, aliens, and species-hybrids that populate mainstream science fiction film are further complicated in feminist science fiction literature, which offers potentially more progressive and subversive feminist characters and settings. Both media offer representations of displaced cultural anxieties and hopes around the relationship of the gendered body to technology and the identities that grow out of this relationship. Much of the literature explored in this book has been created and is consumed within an explicitly feminist context; other works, especially the Hollywood films discussed here, are not, and demand a different interpretative approach.
The science fiction texts I discuss include literature by Octavia E. Butler, Richard Calder, and Melissa Scott and the mainstream movies of the Matrix and Alien series. The alien constructions of these texts—of the deviant bodies and subjectivities that populate their worlds—envision utopian as well as dystopian ways of being. The readings in Alien Constructions do not focus on just one aspect of the narratives (such as technology or alternative sciences). Instead, they examine how the texts engage with important concepts within feminist thought (such as identity versus difference, racism, economic relations, sexuality, and gender identities) and with theories rarely placed in connection with science fiction (especially feminist postcolonial and critical race theory).
Alien Constructions examines how contemporary science fiction literature and films explore multinational corporations' reordering of world relations in the aftermath of colonialism, and how these works represent implications of new technologies such as genetic engineering, virtual reality, and nanotechnology. Science fiction addresses issues of subjectivity (the interface of individual and technology) as well as of social organization (discourses of groups and technology). Reconfigurations of gender roles and gender identities, as well as sexual desires, are central to the challenging of existing social orders—and the body becomes the main contested territory.
Alien Constructions explores how the science fiction texts in question represent debates and concepts in three areas of feminist thought: identity and difference; feminist critiques of science and technology; and the relationship between gender identity, body, and desire. Key political elements that shape these debates are global capitalism and exploitative class relations within a growing international system (relationship between First and Third Worlds, postcolonial relations); the impact of technologies on women's lives (Internet, global industries, medical establishment, reproductive technologies); and posthuman embodiment (biotechnologies, body/machine interface, the commodification of desire). From the intersections of feminist discourses exploring these issues emerge science fiction's alien constructions and their posthuman bodies, such as cyborgs, clones, androids, aliens, and hybrids. They reflect the crisis the human/machine interface induces within the Western concept of subjectivity, thereby destabilizing cultural and ideological boundaries of nature/culture (or race or ethnicity) and human/machine.
The decentered bodies that grow from new technologies and populate postmodern science fiction are both troubling and potentially empowering. The appropriation of these constructed bodies as signs of resistance and the reconstruction of their designated subject positions as those signifying agency are the theoretical aims of feminist theories of representation. As semiotic tools, these bodies foreground issues of representation and the constructions of cultural meaning, drawing science, economic theories, and their representation in cultural texts into the analysis of power relations. They become symbols of technology's ambivalent relationship to the body and function in at least two conflicting ways: first, they constitute elements of political empowerment and resistance; and second, they embody the contradictions and potentials of feminist and queer theory and point to the limits of some of these theories.
Science fiction narratives relate to feminist concerns as unique cultural texts; the issues of meaning production and construction of reality in the reading/viewing process are related to inscriptions of identity and subjectivity that are envisioned in the strange Alien Constructions found within the texts. It is in the creative synthesis of these two topics—questions of subjectivity, and technology as a social force—that the contemporary science fiction texts in Alien Constructions engage the reader in theoretical exchanges.