Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction

Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction - Carlen LavigneFair warning, people, this is an academic book. You can tell by the title: Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction : A Critical Study. Yes, there is a colon in the title. There are also colons in all of the chapter titles. Academics, eh?

Some of you will find the book tedious. I, however, like this sort of thing. Besides, Carlen Lavigne has chosen to look at several writers I am very fond of — Lyda Morehouse, Raphael Carter, Pat Cadigan, Melissa Scott, Amy Thomson and Kathleen Ann Goonan — I’m delighted to see them getting some critical attention. Goonan in particular is long overdue such study. Another advantage of such books is that they introduce you to interesting writers whose work you might not have heard of before, or at least not read. I’m now keen to get hold of books by Laura J. Mixon and Edith Forbes, because both appear to have interesting things to say about gender.

Side note: Raphael Carter is given a place in the book by virtue of being not male. Lavigne acknowledges that Carter does not identify as female either.

Of course one of the interesting effects of reading a book on feminism is that you can find yourself spending more time pondering what the author means by that word than about the argument in the book itself. That was certainly the case here. Lavigne’s purpose in writing the book appears to be to establish that cyberpunk is not a boy’s club into which Pat has graciously been allowed as an honorary bloke (which is the impression you might get from reading Bruce Sterling’s comments on the movement), but rather is a subgenre bursting with interesting women writers with fascinating things to say. From that point of view she has done a fine job.

This is, of course, an exercise in her-story. It goes back to the points I made in one of my most-read posts, Female Invisibility Bingo. Doubtless there will be some fanboys who are furious with Lavigne for daring to suggest that what some of the above authors write is actually cyberpunk. Perhaps they’ll note that the movement had been declared dead long before many of these women got started. However, the central themes of cyberpunk are still widely used in SF today. Lavigne isn’t interested in the history of a movement, she’s interested in fiction that addresses those themes.

My concerns with the book are somewhat different. In reading the book I found myself struggling to understand what Lavigne meant by “feminist cyberpunk”. It seemed at times that she meant “cyberpunk books written by women”, and that she justifies this by illustrating that the books in question all address issues that male cyberpunk writers ignore, or address poorly. Against this she places “masculinist” cyberpunk, which appears to be any cyberpunk written by a man. I’m sure that there are people whom one could describe as “masculinists”, but there’s actually a difference between a male author who simply swims along in the dominant current of the patriarchy and one who actively sets out to promote patriarchy. There are also women whose fiction is decidedly not feminist.

I’m a big fan of intersectionality myself, but it does have drawbacks, and one of those is the tendency to assume that, because it covers such a range of issues, it effectively defines political morality. That is, someone who is an intersectionalist feminist is a “good person”, and someone who doesn’t support those ideas is “bad”. And if you are already conflating “feminist” with “female” and “male” with “masculinist” then it is a very short step from there to believing that women are good people and men are bad people. I can see how people get there, but it is not a generalization that I can support.

I’ll illustrate that point shortly, but first I need to explain the structure of the book. Most of the chapters are given over to individual themes: Community, Virtual Reality, Cyborgs & AIs, Ecology, Religion, Reproduction and Queer. Lavigne demonstrates how these areas are all addressed by women cyberpunk writers, and in many cases are addressed more deeply than they are by men. It was the Queer chapter, in particular, that gave me pause for thought. One of the reasons that women cyberpunk writers are less well known is that women, in general, get published less, reviewed less and so on. However, the same is true for gay men. I think it is entirely likely that straight women write more about queer issues than straight men do, but an absence of work by gay men might be a result of the difficulty they have getting published, not a result of a lack of interest of men in queer issues. I’m sure it is out there but, like cyberpunk by women, it tends to get omitted from histories of the field.

A section of the book that I was pleased to see there was the one titled “Fictions in Context: Audiences and Authors”. In this Lavigne looks at how the works she discusses have been received by the SF community. There appears to be a reference to me in there in that, if Lyda only got fan email from one transsexual, it has to be me. I don’t think Lavgine has a very good understanding of the community, in particular as she seems to think that the Nebulas and the PKD are voted on by fans, but it is good to see an academic study come out of the ivory tower and see how the works being studied have worked in the wild.

I would have liked to see more discussion of gender in cyberpunk, in particular how Virtual Reality affects our ability to perform gender. However, I was struck by a comment, attributed to another academic, Samantha Holland, that suggests that the reason gender persists in so many futuristic narratives where it has no need to it is because the existence of gender is necessary to maintain male privilege. I suspect I’ll be citing that myself in future.

If there is a serious point to Lavigne’s book beyond mere academic curiosity it is that the absence of women from cyberpunk is symptomatic of the absence of women from the tech arena altogether. If women don’t program, and don’t play computer games, then clearly they have no place in cyberpunk. Conversely, if they do appear in cyberpunk (beyond having roles as booth babes) then they have a place in those real world activities as well. That makes it important for women to be seen to be involved in cyberpunk, which in turn makes Lavigne’s book very welcome.

In view of that requirement, however, I was disappointed by the absence from the book of Chris Moriarty. I guess you can claim that her books are not set on Earth and therefore don’t class as cyberpunk, but she’s one of the best hard SF writers we have and her treatment of the AI, Cohen, surely deserved mention. Which reminds me, Ghost Spin is finally due out in April. I’m looking forward to it.

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