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Female and fantasy worlds

The SF future is female

Women's science fiction can provide a more positive alternative to the general doom and gloom, argues Pat Wheeler

At the end of the millennium the most significant trend in science fiction is the pre-eminence of dystopian futures and the disappearance of utopian fiction. However, novels by women science fiction writers can often be more optimistic. They contemplate possible future worlds in highly creative ways, often seeking a negation of social and political boundaries.

In Passing for Human Jodie Scott creates a future visited by a race of alien sociologists and scientists, served by hundreds of Richard Nixon androids. They are determining whether the Earth should be allowed to survive, and quickly grasp the basics of Earth life: 'defending self loudly; keeping the finger of blame pointed at others; selling out to the highest bidder while in the very act of boasting own loyalty.' A female sociologist of the species wishes to save Earth from annihilation. 'They're improving', she says, 'soon they'll have abandoned the profit system'. Obviously worth saving then!

Maureen F McHugh's China Mountain Zhang explores diversely imagined future cultures, in a world where the People's Republic of China is the domin-ant power. McHugh draws on a clutch of creative ideas ranging from organic engineering to architects who 'imagine' biotic, natural houses. She gives the reader an illicit computer game capable of giving orgasmic pleasure, and the ability to modify one's looks to fit in. In her future there is still racism and sexism, but McHugh extrapolates positive elements from the end of the twentieth century to take them further into the future.

In contrast, Rock'N'Roll Babes from Outer Space by Linda Jaivin offers a satirical examination of popular culture at the end of the twentieth century. Planet-hopping aliens Baby, Doll and Lati touch down in Australia, 'shapeshift' into beautiful babes and set about experiencing sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Acquiring the art of shapeshifting is not easy, as all they can manage at first is to change into Keith Richards. While advocating diverse gender, race and sexual roles the alien babes secure an acceptance of 'difference' from the people with whom they come into contact. On the way to hedonistic pleasures they manage to change the world by accidentally causing the meteorite Eros to explode, showering fragments of love all over the globe. One of the final scenes shows Australian MPs in Canberra, throwing off their clothes and 'doing to each other what they have been doing to the elect-orate for years'.

Lise Leroux has produced a strange, evocative book, One Hand Clapping. In a series of interlinking stories she imagines a future where genetic engineering dominates and body parts can be replaced. This is prophetic, as we have just seen the first limb transplant with a man having an arm grafted on to his body. In this novel the grafting of buds on to humans to grow spare body parts is paid work. Clinics advertise on television for clients. The main protagonist enjoys the sensation of body parts growing all over her body. Unfortunately she falls in love with the hand implanted on her shoulder, but that's another story. Once again, greed and exploitation are shown to be the prime motivations behind medical and genetic experimentation.

Concern with issues such as genetic engineering, cybernetics, the 'family' unit, pollution and capitalism feature strongly in women's science fiction. The dystopian element is certainly evident, but far from being concerned with militaristic tropes of quest and conquest, women are looking forward to the twenty-first century with optimism, humour and, most of all, with imagination.

Women writers are speculating on diverse futures, responding to the gloomy predictions for the millennium by pursuing knowledge and truth in more positive ways. If women have a more symbiotic approach to mach- ines, as Sadie Plant recently argued, then the future, where machine, artificial intelligence and human are integral, is most definitely female.

Pat Wheeler is a lecturer in contemporary fiction

Fantasy worlds

There is a scene in an Iain M Banks' science fiction story where the hero is imprisoned in an underground room connected up to the sewage pipes of his captor's immense house. The idea is that, after a vast, rich banquet upstairs, the guests' visits to the toilet will see him off. Most of science fiction (SF) and its successor, fantasy fiction (FF), makes you feel an empathy with Banks' hero.

Readers of SF might disagree as to who the great names are, but all will accept that most SF is rubbish; Cold War claptrap, or the rankest soap opera, seeped through with fear and hatred of all things alien. Those of worth shine like diamonds in the dung heap.

Even worse is FF, all about kings, princesses, wizards, witches and dragons. The wizard's apprentice, or youngest son of the smallholder, seeks the hand of the princess; the middle class dream of upward mobility (don't hold your breath!). Where SF has demonstrated man's ability to foresee a future free from the confines of nature, FF demonstrates only a fearful retreat from the future. These are modern fairy stories for today's adults/children.

SF has always been my light reading. Librarians today attach little stickers with pictures to the backs of books so that borrowers can see what type of book it is (well, we wouldn't know otherwise!). SF has a little rocket, FF a little dragon. The ratio of FF to SF in my local libraries is now over 80:20.

When the bulk of your favourite reading matter now competes in its awfulness with Sky movies (don't mention the dreaded Sci-Fi Channel) it can get pretty depressing. At least Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) and Ken MacLeod (The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division) are holding the line against the nerds and the wankers.

Dave Hallsworth

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999

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