At the start of this year I made the tough decision to phase out my dissertation coaching services. While I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with clients—and I worked with and learned from some awesome people—it wasn’t sustainable for my business in the long-term, especially as my editing services have become more focused on projects that require longer periods of my attention. Although I will no longer be coaching, I still care about helping people finish their degrees so I want to share this useful planning exercise for any PhD student who is ABD: a Dissertation Audit.
Many of the requests I received for dissertation coaching came from PhD students who had been away from their program or project for several months or more due to illness, family, or work related issues. The majority of my clients found restarting the thesis process overwhelming and just weren’t sure how to get back into their work. Across the board, most PhD students severely underestimate the time it takes to write a thesis, which makes it stressful and disheartening when they miss their original anticipated deadline. Since everyone has different demands on their attention, energy and available work hours, I developed a series of questions (below) to assess the state of the existing project and identify all the resources they had available (and the ones they still needed) in order to create a reasonable and achievable timeline for completion.
The first and most important question to ask is: “Do I want to complete my dissertation (and why)?” If your answer is yes, then go through this list of questions to reaffirm your decision to proceed and figure out the kind of time and resource committment that will be required to meet your goal of completion. Keep in mind that these categories overlap (e.g., the time you have available to complete your dissertation may be dependent on when your funding runs out).
- How much of the thesis have you already drafted?
- How much of the existing writing can be kept?
- How much still needs to be written?
- Do you have feedback for revisions from your supervisor and committee? How long will it take to revise your existing chapters based on the feedback?
- Do you have a detailed outline for the entire thesis? If yes, is the outline still relevant and achievable? If no, then take the time to create an outline, start by listing (by paragraph or by subtopic) all the elements in each chapter of your current draft(s).
- Which texts have you read? Are they still relevant to your project?
- What texts still need to be read/consulted?
- If you still need to continue researching, make a list of all the books and articles you need from library. How long will it take for you to read the books? Are there materials that must be requested from another institution (and require additional time to process)?
- Is there a firm institutional deadline that you must meet (before funding ends or before you need to re-enroll and pay additional tuition)?
- How much time do you have available to research and write (by the day, by the week)? Be honest with your limits and add extra time for unexpected delays and life stuff (e.g., if you think it will take 10 days to update your research resources, give yourself 13 or more days when you make your timeline).
- Have you discussed a timeline for completion with your supervisor and committee? Are there dates when they will be unavailable (at a conference or on sabbatical)?
- How long does it take for your supervisor and/or committee members to read and give feedback on drafts? Make sure you set clear expectations with them. You need to have your supervisor and committee on board with your timeline!
Supervisor and Committee
- What kind of support and time is available from your supervisor? Set up an in-person meeting with them to discuss expectations and your proposed timeline for completion. Request (at minimum) monthly progress check-ins in person or over phone/email.
- What kind of support and time is available from your committee members? Discuss with your supervisor about when to contact your committee members for feedback on drafts. How long will committee members have to respond?
- What are the institutional deadlines for funding and tuition costs (per semester)? Figure out the cost to remain in your program for at least one year past your ideal date of completion.
- How much personal savings are available to you? What are your financial supports outside of PhD funding?
- How much are supplemental materials and services necessary for the completion of the dissertation (e.g., childcare, copyediting, coaching, cost of paper for printing of thesis, interlibrary loan charges, etc.)?
Other Supports and Commitments
- Do you have familial commitments that require accommodation while working on the thesis (childcare, eldercare, spousal support, etc.)? What are your arrangements for dealing with these commitments?
- Does your family support your thesis efforts? Do they give you the necessary time to focus on your project? Discuss boundaries and expectations for a quiet work space with the members of your household.
- Are you working part- or full-time as you complete your dissertation? Is your employer supportive of your efforts? Can they allow you time away (if requested) to focus on the completion of your project?
- Do you require academic coaching or editing services? Have you discussed these options with your supervisor? Determine the cost of those supplementary services and set aside the necessary time to accommodate them.
- Are there any other resources that you require to finish your dissertation? Remember that making time for self-care (physical and mental) is important!
It’s time for a project update! I’m always kind of surprised that I manage to get scholarship and creative stuff done, but apparently it happens.
Last year started off with a research bang with my Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. I am finally ready to start delving into the 100s of letters I scanned. While it is true that I have been preoccupied with other work, the delay in getting back into this research was more due to the need to have mental distance from it. I was unprepared for how emotionally overwhelming I would find the research—the letters I was reading (from Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Delany, and many more amazing SF writers) brim with the lives of the people who wrote them. Given that I am an “emotional sponge,” I soaked up everything I was reading. Apparently, I needed nine months for things to get quietly sorted in my head so that I can now focus on drawing out conversational threads most relevant to my research interests. While I intend to incorporate some of my findings in a chapter on feminist SF in my planned book (more on that at the end of this post), I’m excited to see what other projects will spring from it.
One of those projects, actually, is an upcoming chapter titled, “Becoming Adult, Becoming Other: Anomalous Embodiment in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.” I’ll post more details about that piece (and the edited collection by Sherryl Vint and Mathieu Donner that it will belong to) as the publishing details become finalized (as it is still in process). You can also read an interview I did with Alice Evans (of the CSWS) about the fellowship and my archival research.
In terms of notable scholarly publications in 2014, my “Disability Studies ‘101’” is in SF 101: A Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction. It’s available as an ebook for a few dollars. [I’m also considering republishing it here on my blog, for free for all to read, if it doesn’t end up in the next issue or two of the SFRA Review—that decision will be discussed in an upcoming blog post]. For 2015, I am eagerly awaiting the April publication of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media by awesome editors, David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. I’m honoured to be a contributor with my chapter, “Re-imagining Asian Women in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk” (make sure to check out the super cool cover at the link). And while not a scholarly essay, I’m proud of the blog post I wrote about Misha’s Red Spider White Web for tor.com’s “That was Awesome: Writers on Writing” column last fall.
In just a few weeks, I am off to my favourite conference ICFA. I had originally planned on presenting a paper on disability in feminist SF along with organizing a panel on archival research in the field of the fantastic. Due to scheduling issues, however, I withdrew my paper and will be focusing my energies on the archival research panel. It feels a bit strange to not be delivering a paper this year, but I have good reasons (which are, again, being written up in an upcoming post).
Of course, the biggest news is Accessing the Future! Co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, our disability-themed speculative fiction short story anthology is in the finishing stages. Accessing the Future will be published this summer (ah!) and it is amazing. While you wait for the summer publishing date to arrive, read one of the many blog posts Djibril and I wrote during our successful crowdfunding campaign. Working on this anthology has been life changing for me (and, yes, there will be posts coming about that too). Check out the awesome Table of Contents over at The Future Fire’s blog and look at the fabulous cover art by Robin Kaplan (below).
My next goal is to start, in earnest, writing a book on disability representation in science fiction once I am back from ICFA. I have set out two timelines for myself—one has me finishing a full draft by this time next year, and the other is accelerated, with a full draft come late fall. I do need to keep working (running Academic Editing Canada, which is work that I really enjoy, especially as I continue to receive more challenging and interesting client projects), so I’m keeping a flexible schedule of deadlines ahead of me. But still, a book! It’s hard to imagine such a huge undertaking coming together but since I also felt the same way about Accessing the Future (and Disability in Science Fiction), I know that it is possible.
I’m going to try to keep Bleeding Chrome blog better updated throughout this year. Writing leads to more writing, and it is helpful for me to keep engaged with other people and work out my thoughts in a more public space. So 2014, all things considered, was a darn good year, and 2015 is looking just as interesting and challenging. I’ll let you all know how it turns out!
It’s been far too long since I last updated the blog with a personal post (so long, in fact, that I’m not even going to look up the date of the last one I wrote). The motivation to write today has come from PhDisabled posting my piece, “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School.” Although I wrote it years ago, seeing it on the PhDisabled blog, and knowing that people are reading it, has dredged up a lot of the sadness and anger from that time. Not that those feelings were buried too far down; I’ve been wallowing in self-doubt and social anxiety for the past several weeks, unable to engage with anything beyond my immediate client work. Seeing my post published, despite the feelings it stirred up, was exactly the push I needed to start writing again. I’d like to thank @zaranosaur, of PhDisabled, for being unequivocally supportive and for understanding that rage can move us to great action. While I may often feel stuck in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion, I am able to move through/beyond it. Sometimes it is anger that pushes me, but, more frequently now, it is the support and encouraging words of like-minded people that impel me to speak.
Lots of really cool and amazing things happened, and are happening, this year. As the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I researched the feminist SF archives at the University of Oregon for two weeks this spring! My head is still spinning from that experience--I have so much work ahead of me with that project, which is both overwhelming in scope and inspiring in content. I’ve made steady progress with my independent scholarship: a successful paper on disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes at ICFA; a published article on disability studies and SF in the SFRA’s SF 101: Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction; and, acceptance of a chapter on disability in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (in a forthcoming edited collection on anomalous embodiment in YA SF). And there is, of course, the project taking up most of my extra attention these past few months, my collaboration with Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire in co-editing a disability-themed, intersectional anthology of SF short stories, Accessing the Future.
My intent in listing my accomplishments is two-fold: one, to share with the people who are interested in my work (because, apparently, they are such people out there!); and two, as a reminder to myself that I am doing okay. It is easy to forget that I’m not merely lying about the house, feeling unwell, bothering the cat, and wishing for things to happen. Though at a slower pace than I’d prefer, I am making progress in realizing my ambitious goals. I need to tell myself this. I need to see the evidence of my intent in front of me, on the screen. I need this effort and hope to be shared in order to feel real to me. Because it is so damn easy to succumb to anxiety and depression and self-doubt, and then forget about everything I have done and, perhaps more importantly, everything that I can do.
I’ve a whole folder of half-finished blog posts and essays. I think it’s time that I revisit them and finish the ones that still feel relevant and pressing. Even if, after finishing my PhD 4 years ago, it may seem inappropriate or “too long,” I’m still upset about my experiences in graduate school. How can I not be? I spent 5 years pursuing my PhD, and most of that time sucked. I refuse to put on rose coloured glasses and write a revisionist history of my grad school years. A forced nostalgia would be easier, and would make many of the conversations I have with academics more pleasant, but that would only contribute to the silence that persists around the poor engagement with chronic illness and disability in higher education. The fact that a site like PhDisabled exists speaks to the necessity of anger and of fostering a community of acknowledgment and support.
There are so many issues and experiences that I still need to write about. Three years ago, in “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School,” I wrote: “as I move farther into my independent research, the scars I have from my time spent in grad school demand exploration and healing.” I’m still very much involved in this process. Despite everything I have accomplished in the years since then, I continue to hurt. Dealing with chronic illness is an every day challenge, which is certainly one kind of hurt, but I’m also talking about the hurt that comes with losing community, with necessary transitions and self-transformations. My independent scholarship is deeply rooted in my experience of illness, of being angry and having no outlet for it while I was in graduate school.
But I made it through and I’m no longer hemmed in by academic expectations of job performance. I plan on using every moment of that hard earned freedom (because having a PhD does afford me certain socio-economic privileges) to do what I love doing. I love freelance editing and coaching graduate students. I love science fiction and disability studies. I love thinking through the connections between all of these passions and figuring out ways to make all of this effort and excitement tangible. Because if I make my own life better, then I’ll have more tools to help other people. This is what my anger does now: it builds.
I came across this feminist science fiction fellowship the other week--it looks amazing! As soon as I saw it, I knew that I would have to apply for it. For any feminist science fiction scholar, this is simply not an opportunity to be missed:
The Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship
Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and the UO Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives.
As part of the Center for the Study of Women in Society’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, and as a way of honoring the role that Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) played in the founding of CSWS, we are collaborating with the University of Oregon Knight Library and the Robert D. Clark Honors College (CHC) to create the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. (Guidelines PDF)
Purpose: The intention of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship is to encourage research within collections in the area of feminist science fiction. The Knight Library houses the papers of authors Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Suzette Haden Elgin, Sally Miller Gearhart, Kate Elliot, Molly Gloss, Laurie Marks, and Jessica Salmonson, along with Damon Knight. SCUA is also in the process of acquiring the papers of James Tiptree, Jr. and other key feminist science fiction authors.
Fellowship description: This award supports travel for the purpose of research on, and work with, the papers of feminist science fiction authors housed in the Knight Library. These short-term research fellowships are open to undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students, postdoctoral scholars, college and university faculty at every rank, and independent scholars working in feminist science fiction. In 2013, $3,000 will be awarded to conduct research within these collections. The fellowship selection committee will include representatives from CSWS, CHC, and the UO Libraries.
- Complete their research at the University of Oregon within a year of award notification;
- Submit a 1,000-word (maximum) essay on their research topic to CSWS for possible inclusion in publications;
- Meet with representatives from CSWS, CHC, and SCUA during their visit to Eugene;
- Submit a separate paragraph to CSWS documenting the specific collections consulted during the fellowship;
- Submit a copy of their final project or publication to CSWS;
- Acknowledge the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship and its sponsors (Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and Knight Library Special Collections and University Archives) in all publications resulting from the research fellowship.
Applicants must submit by September 1, 2013:
- A 1,000-word (maximum) proposal that describes the project for which these collections will be consulted, as well as the role that the applicant expects these collections will play in the project;
- An anticipated budget for the research visit;
- A two-page curriculum vitae or resume;
- Full contact information;
- Two letters of recommendation.
Applications (as PDF attachments) and questions should be emailed to Jenée Wilde, CSWS Development GTF (jenee[at]uoregon[dot]edu).
As part of CSWS’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship recipient for 2013-14 will be announced at the Sally Miller Gearhart “Worlds Beyond World” Symposium, University of Oregon, November 8-9, 2013, with honored guest speaker Ursula K. Le Guin.
My time at the Eaton/SFRA conference last week was well spent. After almost cancelling my trip (due to a heavy workload), I am so glad that I stuck to my plans and made the journey to Riverside, California. As an Independent Scholar, I was in good company: there were many inspiring papers by non-traditional scholars that held their ground with those by senior academics. My own presentation, “Reading Disability in Star Trek” (focusing on the last TNG movie, Nemesis) was an overall success. I am extremely pleased that I was able to demonstrate the productive possibilities of bringing Disability Studies (DS) together with science fiction. Genre studies in general can really benefit from a framework that interrogates the dis/abled body. Every time I had a conversation about addressing disability in SF with someone who had not previously thought about it in any depth, we both came away with new ideas to flesh out and texts to read. I only hope that I continue being a worthy ambassador of DS in the academic SF community.
I also have a renewed motivation to seriously start the research process for my planned monograph (which is, of course, fancy talk for “book”). From my plane ride down to the late night hours after the closing banquet, I was challenged by insightful questions and pushed to think about temporality and disability (the broad topic of my interest) in ways that I hadn’t yet considered. Between ICFA last month and Eaton/SFRA this one, I’ve truly had the full conference experience. I am already looking forward to the SF: The Interdisciplinary Genre at McMaster in September (fingers crossed my paper is accepted, but I will attending either way).
Without a doubt, I am on the right path. Do I know where that path leads yet? No. But I am so happy to find myself in a community of people who are supportive and excited about my scholarship. And I have made new friendships over the past year that have helped fill a gap in my life that has been there for too long. When I was ill during my graduate studies, it felt as if my peer community disappeared. The loss that I experienced at that time was incredibly painful and I have been searching for a place to belong since then. SF has become that home for me.
Since I can’t afford to go to WisCon or WorldCon this year (sniffle), I’m going to make an extra effort to keep in contact with my new SF community on line (through guest blogging—give me a shout if you want me on your blog—and Twitter and emails). I’ll use this extended period of time at home to keep writing about SF as I grow my academic coaching and copyediting business. For the first time since I finished my PhD, I feel like I have a productive and positive direction in my career life. There are actual things to do (that I love doing)! There are clients to help and book reviews to be written. There are deadlines to meet and book launches to throw and films to see (looking at you Star Trek: Into Darkness). This year is off to a great start. Next project please!
In the next two months, I will be delivering two papers on disability in Star Trek. I am officially living the geek dream! I have wanted to present on Star Trek for many, many years now, but always felt like I should choose more literary or "high-culture" examples to discuss at academic conferences. Then I remembered: I'm an independent scholar! I can talk about whatever I want. Enter: Star Trek. Since a few people have expressed interest in my papers, I am posting the abstracts for them here. If I have the time and inclination, I also would like to post the completed full papers once I have delivered them.
Blink Once for Yes: Remaking Disability in Star Trek
From reproduction technologies that seek to eradicate and limit the reproduction of disabled people, to prostheses that replace missing limbs and extend the function of the body, technology is an essential component of cure narratives in many science fiction scenarios. We can see an evolution of the representations of “cures” or “fixes” for disability on the SF screen, for instance, through the figure of Star Trek’s Captain Christopher Pike. In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “The Menagerie” (1966) Captain Pike (played by Jeffery Hunter) is severely injured during battle, leaving him confined and dependent on a wheel-chair unit (operated by his brain waves) that encases his body, leaving only his badly burn-scarred face visible. To communicate, Pike’s chair is equipped with one large light which blinks once for yes and twice for no. This Original Series Captain Pike is pitiable, and Captain Kirk – the very embodiment of masculine health and vitality as played by William Shatner – struggles to gaze upon his old mentor. Fast forward to 2009 when director J. J. Abram’s glinting reboot of the Star Trek franchise hit the screens and reimagines the iconic disabled figure of Pike (now played by Bruce Greenwood). While still injured in battle, Pike clearly earns his wounds as a hero, and is shown in the final scenes of the movie in a low-key wheel-chair, smiling, and fully functioning aside from his inability to walk. 2009’s Captain Pike is a far cry from 1966’s – the representation of his character’s disability demonstrates the change in cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities (i.e. less monstrous, more heroic), as well as highlighting the advancement of the technological “fixes” for disability. Despite the gains we see through the figure of Captain Pike, the desire to cure his injuries and return him to – or get him closest to – the idealized vision of the perfect/normal body remains. In a wheel-chair, he is a deviant body and portrayed as being no longer in a position to be the active leader of a starship (and therefore must pass off his role to the able-bodied Kirk).
In a utopian vision, like that played out in the Star Trek universe, when integrated into the able body, technology makes the human body better, an idealized version of itself. When technology is applied to the disabled body, however, all too often it is in an attempt to cure or normalize what is deemed “wrong” with the body. Take the technology away and the disabled body’s supposed lack remains. In this paper, I will analyze the ways that the two representations of Captain Pike speak to a shift in our (Western) cultural understanding and acceptance of the disabled body and its relationship to the technologies that attempt to cure and contain it.
Shadow of the Man: Reading Disability in the Star Trek Universe
From Star Trek: The Original Series to J.J. Abrams’ filmic reboot, Star Trek in 2009, the Star Trek universe is rich in its representations of disability. Throughout its forty-six year history, the space opera franchise has reflected the Western cultural attitude towards disability and people with disabilities, a vision that, while well-intentioned, is often contradictory and ableist. As Tobin Siebers argues, “the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them. It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future” (Disability Theory 9). While I will touch on examples from across the series, for the purposes of this paper, I will focus my main analysis on the last Star Trek: The Next Generation motion picture, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis (2002). This film is an excellent example of the two main disability narratives prominent in Star Trek: first, the positioning of disabled peoples as exploitable bodies, and second, the potential of disability to be a positive, transformative experience once it is eliminated or “cured.” I will draw on key Disability Studies theorists to frame my analysis, notably Siebers, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell.
In their foundational work, Cultural Locations of Disability, Snyder and Mitchell state: "In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own “primitive” instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without 'deviancy'” (32).
These two parallel disability narratives play out in Nemesis within the dominant storyline of Shinzon, Picard’s ailing clone, and the subplot of B-4, an early prototype of the sentient android (and as “good as human”) Data. Reading the film through the lens of disability studies, I am interested in examining the ways the audience reads both the fleshy Shinzon and the synthetic B-4 as inauthentic, primitive versions of the “real” Picard and Data. Each “copy” carries out different responses to living with their deviant bodies: the unevolved B-4 is unaware of his limitations and is therefore exploitable, while Shinzon, on the other hand, is fully aware of his status as other (he says, “I am the shadow of the man. The echo of the voice”) and chooses to enact his limited agency through violence and redirected repression. I am particularly interested in how the divergence between the two representations (B-4 is pitiable, yet expendable, while Shinzon is offensive and deserving of death) speak to our current cultural anxieties about expanding rights and visibility for people with disabilities. Star Trek explores not only what it means to be human, but who gets to be counted as human.
With ICFA now behind me, I'm already looking forward to attending WisCon at the end of May. I will be presenting a paper as part of WisCon's academic track and I am hoping to get a conversation started about vulnerability in feminist SF. This paper actually heralds in the first stage of my next major research project. Even though I'm still putting together Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction, I'm already starting to plan out a solo, book-length exploration of vulnerability (in science/science fiction). I have been thinking critically about vulnerability - in all contexts of the word - since I first picked up Margrit Shildrick's Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2002) during my doctoral research. Shildrick's evocation of the vulnerable self - and the measures we take to cover it up - became a guiding theoretical framework for my thesis.
But even after writing my dissertation, the complexity of vulnerability - in terms of ontology, epistemology, and corporeality - has persisted in my imagination. It bleeds into all of my academic thinking. I encounter it, suddenly and unexpectedly, in my daily life. Vulnerability refuses to be ignored. No theory, word, or concept has ever taken such deep root in my conscious before. I find it - both the word and its presence in my awareness - unsettling and inspiring. And like with most things we find troubling, I'm eager to examine and contain it. I can't say yet what the book will look like or how fast I will write it, but I know that it is coming.
Below is the abstract for the paper (still to be written) I will be presenting at WisCon. A (tiny) sneak peek into my on-going obsession with vulnerability:
Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist Science Fiction
As the pace of advancements in prosthetic and other computerized assisted-living technologies quickens, we, as a culture, find ourselves faced with new possibilities for (dis)abled bodies and embodiments. In this paper, I want to explore the concept of vulnerability in feminist SF and begin articulating the ways that vulnerability of the body can open up new ways of understanding human being (both materially and ontologically). Drawing on both disability studies and feminist theory, I want to expand on the notion of vulnerability as theorized by Margrit Shildrick in Embodying the Monster (2002). Shildrick proposes that while “we are already without boundaries, already vulnerable” (6), normative subjectivity elides its own vulnerability by repositioning it as a quality of the monstrous other (68). Much traditionally masculine oriented SF (from the books of Isaac Asimov to Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series) rejects vulnerability in favour of the technologically-fortified posthuman. Technology is positioned as a way in which to overcome the physical or mental limitations of the human body, but the quest to transcend the body ignores the lived realities of labouring, feeling, and suffering bodies.
I suggest that, regardless of the distractions and promises offered by technology, the body matters. Elizabeth Grosz reminds us that: “If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency” (Volatile Bodies, 1994, xi). It is those unquantifiable qualities – perspective, insight, reflection, desire, and agency – that uniquely define embodied vulnerable being. They are qualities that technology cannot reproduce or replace. By taking examples from feminist SF works (from writers such as Octavia Butler, Misha, Larissa Lai, and Nalo Hopkinson), I want create an open discussion about the ways that the genre stresses the importance of the body (both abled and disabled), asking us to recognize the shared vulnerability that defines human being.
After several recent conversations with the science fiction uninitiated, I thought it would be a good idea to delve into my dissertation again and share an edited except – this time, I want to address the question: “what is feminist SF and how is it different from the ‘regular’ SF?” The following discussion has been taken from the "Introduction" to Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF (2010).
Feminist SF – from the feminist utopias of the 1970s to the feminist dystopias of the 1980s – has a long-established relationship of pushing corporeal-technological relationships beyond “man uses machine” into territories wherein technology is both socially productive and regulating. The body is often a site of critical engagement with established feminist SF writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy, Pat Cadigan, and James Triptree Jr., (as well as in my own research, which focuses on the latest generation of feminist SF writers, such as Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan, and Laura Mixon).
In their introduction to Reload, Austin and Booth explain that “Women’s science fiction came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s. Science fiction was a form in which women writers could tease out the implications of second-wave feminism, with a particular focus on manipulating cultural structures and hierarchies” (4). Feminist SF became an identifiable subgenre that afforded women writers the space to explore not only ideas of second-wave feminism, but also to imagine new concepts of gendered and racialized identity. Referring to the wave of feminist science fiction (which was often utopian) of the 1970s, Jenny Wolmark contends that:
Despite their ambiguous and sometimes embattled position within a genre that still appears to have a preponderance of white male authors and readers, these narratives have not only been able to make significant inroads into the dominant representations of gender, but they have also stretched the limits and definitions of the genre. (“Postmodern Romances” 231)
Indeed, the contribution of women writers from James Triptree Jr. (who challenged gendered identity in the 1960s and 1970s male-dominated world of SF) through Ursula Le Guin and Monique Wittig (writing the feminist utopias of the 1970s) to Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy (bringing feminist SF into the SF mainstream throughout the 1980s and 1990s) have left an indelible mark on SF for both writers and readers.
In all its evocations, feminist SF opened up a space for those who may have felt previously excluded from the hard SF of the “foundational fathers” such as Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. Wolmark also points out that feminist SF continued to evolve from its original inception: “A shift in emphasis, however, can be discerned in feminist SF written from the 1980s on, as it confronts the questions of gendered subjectivity more explicitly within the context of the masculinist hegemony of technology” (“Postmodern Romances” 232). By focusing on issues of technology, feminist SF began to pose difficult questions about what it means “to be human” and sketch out the cultural limitations of gendered bodies. For example, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (published in 1976) presents a scathing commentary on the forced medicalization of racialized women without sustained attention to the role of technology. Two decades later, however, her novel, He, She, and It (1991), specifically investigates issues of technologized embodiment and gender through the figure of a cyborg.
In much feminist SF, the primary site of boundary-crossing is gender, with technology being the prime motivator. Wolmark goes on to argue that “feminist science fiction crosses the boundaries of both gender and genre in two ways: firstly, by drawing on the narrative fantasies of popular romance fiction to offer fantasies of female pleasure and power, and secondly by using the ‘hard science’ metaphor of the cyborg to redefine definitions of female subjectivity” (230). While many feminist SF novels do not contain literal cyborgs – the half-machine, half-flesh beings immortalized in the Terminator and RoboCop movies – they do bring to life a reworking of the cliché through other alternative embodiments, such as clones, virtual reality avatars, and proxy-bodies. By introducing new forms of embodiment beyond the female cyborg, feminist SF (and, in particular, feminist post-cyberpunk) addresses the notions of female pleasure and power and the ways in which they diverge, corporeally and psychically, from traditional masculine oriented SF.
Booth and Flanagan underscore the centrality of gender in feminist SF, noting that “feminist science fiction, like feminist theory, pays special attention to the cultural construction of gender, the gendering of the Cartesian divide between mind and body, the maintenance of social and sexual hierarchies under patriarchy, and multiple challenges to notions of unified, stable subjectivity” (3). Feminist SF is not merely a rejection of patriarchal hierarchies, but a deep exploration of how those gendered power constructions have influenced our cultural and personal conceptions of corporeality and identity. Baccolini notes that feminist SF writers over the past forty years have contributed to the questioning of
masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction. Their novels have contributed to the breakdown of certainties and universalist assumptions about gendered identities: Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers in dialectical engagement with tradition. (16)
In addition to Baccolini’s observations of feminist SF’s contributions, Wolmark contends that it “explores the possibilities for alternative and non-hierarchal definitions of gender and identity within which the difference of aliens and others can be accommodated rather than repressed” (Aliens and Others 2). Perhaps out of all the various facets of feminist SF, its ability to delve into and articulate the experiences of aliens and human others is paramount in its revisioning of what it means to be gendered and to embody difference.
Speaking of the alien, feminist SF does approach often terrifying others with a critical eye towards our own human constructions of gendered and racial difference. Booth and Flanagan propose that:
Science fiction has long used the figure of the alien to invoke anxieties about cultural differences such as man/woman, white/black, upper class/lower class; however, much science fiction invokes these anxieties precisely to bolster these differences, rather than break them down. Women’s science fiction, in contrast, uses the figure of the alien to expose the ways in which racial and gendered boundaries are constructed and the ways in which those boundaries maintain hierarchies of domination and power (indeed to expose the very anxiety over boundary collapse itself as xenophobic and sexist). (6)
The alien in feminist SF, then, is not simply they-who-are-not-us, but a reflection of what-we-are and what-we-could-be. Octavia Butler is perhaps most well known for her innovative explorations of the alien in her Lilith’s Brood and Seed to Harvest trilogies. In Butler’s narratives, she displaces the human with the alien, allowing neither the privilege of claiming moral or ontological superiority. By incorporating such a postcolonial approach, feminist SF makes scathing cultural commentary on our own unspoken definitions of who gets defined as human. Not to be left out of commenting on any aspect of feminist SF, Wolmark addresses the potential for feminist SF to make acute postcolonial critiques: “There is also a spatial dimension to the indeterminate futures that are imagined in feminist SF, for such futures are at once multiple and collective, global and inescapably postcolonial” (“Time and Identity” 169). Alongside an inherent concern with gendered bodies, the feminist SF of today challenges the reader to consider the current and future fates of racialized others and those whose bodies alternatively marked by class, disability, and sexual otherness.
I was wanting to post something SF-related before I head off to Renovations (WorldCon) in Reno on Tuesday, but I didn't know exactly what to do since my ideas are many and time too short. Karen Burnham, at Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory, posted her SF crit list recently (lots of great reads there) and that motivated me to put up my own list. My "Read List" is substantially longer than my "To Read" list at the moment because I've been spending most of my time over the past year working through disability studies criticism and reading "for fun" SF novels. My lists only contain books, but I have also read a good deal of articles relating to SF (usually on the works of specific writers). I will cover academic journal sources for SF/F in another post once I get back home. Please feel free to leave recommendations of other SF crit lit texts in the comments!
Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture. Eds. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth. Cambridge (2002)
Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. Brian Attebery (2002)
Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Ed. Marleen S. Barr (2000)
Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery (1994)
Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. Eds. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (1996)
Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Mark Dery (1996)
Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs and Cyberspace. Ed. Jenny Wolmark (1999)
Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Marlene Barr (1993)
Learning From Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia. Ed. Patrick Parrinder (2001)
Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic. Ed. Elisabeth Anne Leonard (1997)
Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. Eds. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom (1991)
Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium. Ed. Marleen Barr (2003)
Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations. Ed. Andy Sawyer and David Seed (2000)
Social and Virtual Space: Science Fiction, Transnationalism, and the American New Right. Laura Cherniak (2005)
To Seek Out New Worlds: Science Fiction and World Politics. Ed. Jutta Weldes (2003)
Storming the Reality Studio: A Case Book of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Ed. Larry McCafferty (1991)
Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Eds. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon (2002)
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Ed. Sheree R. Thomas (2000)
The Subject of Race in American Science Fiction Sharon De Graw (2007)
Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Daniel Dinello (2005)
Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr (2008)
The Souls of Cyberfolks: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Thomas Foster (2005)
Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture. Elaine Graham (2002)
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Donna Haraway (1991)
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. N. Katherine Hayles (1999)
Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy. Eds. Gary Westfahl and George Slusser (2002)
Virtual Geographies: Cyberpunk at the Intersection of the Postmodern and Science Fiction. Sabine Heuser (2003)
Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. De Witt Douglas Kilgore (2003)
The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Gill, Linda Janes, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden (2000)
The Cybercultures Reader. Eds. David Bell and Barbara Kennedy (2000)
Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology. Pramod Nayar (2004)
Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Claudia Springer (1996)
Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine. Susan Squier (2004)
Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Sherryl Vint (2007)
Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Priscilla Wald (2008)
Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism. Jenny Wolmark (1994)
A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed (2005) .
The Self Wired: Technology and Subjectivity in Contemporary Narrative. Lisa Yaszek (2002)
Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature. Gary K. Wolfe (2011)
The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Eds. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (2006)
To Read List:
The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Justine Larbalestier (2002)
World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution. Eds. Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl, and Amy Kitsze Chan (2005)
Biotechnology and Culture. Paul Brodwin (2000)
Bodies in Technology. Don Ihde (2002)
My Mother was a Computer. N. Katherine Hayles (2005)
Feminist Narrative and the Supernatural. Eds. Katherine Weese, Donald Palumbo, C. W. Sullivan, III (2008)
A few weeks back, Adriel Luis’ article, “The Ultimate 21st Century People of Color Sci-Fi List” caught my eye (scroll through the comments for many more suggestions of works to read/watch). While a short list of fiction and film, Luis’ article draws attention the fact that people of colour do in fact create excellent SF. Unfortunately, the SF community still has much work to do in creating a more inclusive space for non-white writers and fans. Academic readings of race in SF are relatively rare as well, as the bulk of SF criticism is directed towards the identity issues of gender and sexuality and notions of posthumanity and technophilia/phobia.
I addressed the gap in scholarship in the “Conclusion” to my thesis [brief excerpt]:
In terms of the academic study of SF, in particular emerging genres of feminist SF (including feminist post-cyberpunk), the issue of race still remains on the sidelines. While there is a growing interest in post-colonial readings of SF, much discussion of race and the racialized body remains regulated to asides in larger works that focus on gender and sexuality. If I had been fully aware of the extent of this gap in SF critical literature, I would have deepened my research into postcolonial readings of feminist SF and taken my thesis in another direction at the outset. As it was, I did continue to search for postcolonial readings of SF throughout my writing process, but still was only able to discover a handful of relevant critical texts. I would strongly encourage existing and future academics working in the field of SF to consider rectifying this lack in the scholarship. More works by non-white SF writers are being published, but academic attention to their contributions to the discussion of technology, the body, and the future of the human still lags behind.
If you are interested in doing some research into race in SF yourself, here are some academic books (most are essay collections) on race in SF to consider (not an exhaustive list):
- Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic (1997) Edited by Elisabeth Anne Leonard
- Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) Edited by Sheree R. Thomas
- The Subject of Race in American Science Fiction (2007) by Sharon DeGraw
- Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory (2008) Edited by Marleen S. Barr
- Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy (2002) Edited by Gary Westfahl and George Slusser.
- Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003) by Kilgore De Witt Douglas
- Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002) by Lisa Nakamura