Reviewed 2/15/2012

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
Justine Larbalestier
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, June 2002




ISBN 0-8195-6526-1 295pp. HC $65.00

The Secret War of Justine Larbalestier

Let me reemphasize at the outset that I don't think Justine Larbaliester's position is mistaken or that her research has major flaws. I merely think she overstates her case, and overlooks some authors and published works that weaken it. I think my position is clear: Science fiction published during its so-called golden age was a mostly male bastion, in which female characters were unfairly portrayed as limited in capability and secondary in importance. This suited the mostly male, mostly adolescent readership quite well. However, there always was a significant population of female readers, and women wrote SF throughout the period. If they did not always cater to readers of their gender, still sometimes they did. Also there were male writers who understood the female point of view to some degree and expressed it in at least some of their fiction.

Here, I aim to illustrate two faults in Larbalestier's book: excessively academic jargon, which is often unclear in meaning, and an overstatement of the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes in the science fiction she analyzes.

Instances of "academese" occur throughout the book. Here are just a few examples.

Jargon, Pard

I find this impossible to parse.

This may have some justification, as with the adage that every novel is autobiographical to some degree. It's still hard to parse. I might also throw Larbalestier's dismissive comment to P. Schuyler Miller (reproduced below) back at her: Is she talking about the sex act here, or about gender roles?

Equality is Slavery

When a man and a woman portrayed in one of these stories take up life together as sexual partners, is it ever by mutual consent and to their mutual benefit? Not according to Larbalestier, as far as I can discern her judgement. Rather, Larbalestier posits that the woman has willingly surrendered control over her body and her life; she ceases to be an agent capable of acting on her own initiative.

Thus, in "The Woman from Space" (Robert Vaughan, 1932), Earth has been devastated by the close passage of a rogue star, and few women have survived. On Arion, a planet farther from the Sun, men have destroyed themselves somehow. The women survived to develop a superior science, cleared the asteroid belt, and moved Arion inward. The tale involves Lella, an explorer from Arion, landing on Earth. She is described in contradictory terms as having "an effect of airy grace" while projecting "a sense of power and authority." In due course, she and Dirk Sarrazin, "Earth's most formidable scientist," agree to marry and work for the mutual benefit of their two worlds, declaring that things will improve because the numbers of men and women will be more nearly equal. In a synopsis, Sam Moskowitz notes that "So logical an attitude was not long to prevail in science fiction." (Larbalestier, 74)

Larbalestier, however, dismisses this accord because it fails to explicitly include the women of Earth. The key to this is that while Sarrazin enjoys greater status on Arion than its native men, Lella has no such distinction on Earth.

The same is true of the articles, editorials, and letters that form the larger part of her treatise. For example, on page 139 she reproduces a column by P. Schuyler Miller from the April 1961 issue of Analog. Here is part of it (I've corrected some of the punctuation):

"[M]ankind is by no means sexless, or he wouldn't be here, nor will he be in the future, unless certain science fiction becomes reality. So where does sex belong in science fiction?

In the first place, it can be treated maturely, casually, and incidentally to a story of the problems of real people in a real science-fictional situation, without 'lookit me' exhibitionism or slavering. The best of this kind that we've had in the last year was in two Pyramid books of Judith Merril's: Out of Bounds and The Tomorrow People. This is what I'm thinking of when I agree with the critics that sex isn't properly treated in science fiction—but I suspect some of the most outspoken critics are thinking more in terms of Tennessee Williams than Judith Merril."

And Larbalestier's response? It is this: "In many of these discussions 'sex' is a code word. Is Miller talking about the act of sex? About sex roles? It is never entirely clear." That is the last comment she makes about Miller's position, which seems to me an eminently reasonable one. And to me it's quite clear that Miller is talking about "doing it", about men and women "getting it on" — you know, the act of sex.

P. Schuyler Miller was right: the act of sex can be portrayed maturely in science fiction. Moreover, it has been, and by some of the writers Larbalestier would dismiss as sexist. One of them is the older Isaac Asimov; examples include The End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves. Theodore Sturgeon too is known for sensitive and understanding works, but Larbalestier gives him no credit for this. The roster could be extended. Also there are important writers missing: writers like Edgar Pangborn.

Let me be clear: At its inception in 1926, and for decades thereafter, published science fiction as a recognized genre of literature generally avoided female main characters. When females were present they were, again generally, there to serve the hero or to be saved by him. This is a matter of historical record; many scholars have described it. I do not question this. I also grant that such treatment was unfair to women. So Larbalestier is justified in pointing out the stories that demonstrate that unfairness, that misogynistic treatment of SF's female characters.

But "generally" is not universally. Larbalestier fails to mention the counter-examples that undercut her thesis. Where are works of Robert Heinlein such as "Delilah and the Space Rigger" (first published 1949)? Where are the works of Edgar Pangborn? Why is the work of Theodore Sturgeon, recognized as sympathetic to women, lumped in by Larbalestier with the rest? She discusses the cynical Who Needs Men (Edmund Cooper, 1972) but omits Cooper's more optimistic Five to Twelve (1968). The latter portrays a world which women dominate, but ends with this sentence: "...if we do not make any more mistakes, we can create a balanced world of men and women." Letters from the young Isaac Asimov demonstrate his delight that women don't appear in the SF of the day; but where are the works of the older Isaac Asimov, such as The End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves? She prints at one point an illustration of Kimball Kinnison from the October 1939 cover of Astounding, describing the muscular hero of E. E. "Doc" Smith's [Grey Lensman] as "The epitome of fascist chic." She's right about that particular illustration, I'd say. But she's wrong to leave the impression that this reflects the tenor of the Lensman novels. Even in the earliest of them, women are treated well by the good guys. (Consider Conway Costigan's reaction to his first taste of love.) In Children of the Lens, one of the children wearing the lens is Kinnison's daughter Jill, and she gets into her share of scrapes. (It is true she has to be rescued by her brothers at one point.)

All these are examples that Larbalestier never discusses. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that, by omitting them and other examples, she's stacking the deck in favor of her prejudice.

Another aspect to this is Larbalestier's over-critical reaction to scenes of sexual awakening. Below are excerpts from two passages she quotes. The passage on the left is from "The Priestess Who Rebelled," the other from "The Last Man." Both stories involve a matriarchy, and in both scenes an individual free of the matriarchy kisses an individual who subscribes to its dictates. The kiss triggers overwhelming new emotions and seals the recipient to a new perspective. I place them side by side to show their similarity.

Daiv/Meg Eve/M-1
"She struggled and tried to cry out, but his mouth bruised hers. Anger-thoughts swept through her like a flame. But it was not anger—it was something else—that gave life to that flame. Suddenly her veins were running with liquid fire. Her heart beat upon rising, panting breasts1 like something captive that would be free. [...] There was a body-hunger throbbing within her that hated his Manness . . . but cried for it!" "They stopped and looked at each other under the moon, which had just passed the zenith. A great wave of tenderness and admiration swept over him. Awkwardly he seized both her hands in his. [...] She smiled, and leaning forward, gently touched her lips to his. A shock, like that from a dynamo, passed through him. He leaped back as though she had struck him, then reapproached.
'What was that?' he asked stupidly.
'A kiss,' she answered."

To Larbalestier, it makes little difference who triggered the awakening. Both women, Eve and Meg, fall victim to a Real Man because they accept a sexual relationship with him as a part of their lives. To me it seems a plausible outcome that a young, active woman would make that choice on discovering the possibility, and that she would benefit thereby. Larbalestier sees it as virtual enslavement by the man. Even when the roles are reversed, as in "The Last Man", she finds evidence that its author subverts the equality it purports to portray because, after Eve convinces M-1 (whom she renames Adam) to reject the matriarchy and escape with her into the wilderness, there to make a fresh start, "[f]rom that moment on Adam begins to act like a real man and Eve ceases to initiate all the action." (Larbalestier, 66) It is a curious juxtaposition of conditions. Apparently, unless Eve "initiate[s] all the action," the heterosexual economy has triumphed.2 "The Priestess Who Rebelled" fits Larballestier's thesis better, because Meg, who as a priestess would normally have been celibate, takes Daiv as her mate: a profound adjustment. Still, having read the preceding story, I doubt that Meg will "cease to initiate all the actiion."

I feel I'm belaboring the obvious to say this, but sometimes the recipient of a spontaneous kiss experiences pleasure, even if predisposed to find such casual intimacy — or the initiator of it — repugnant. The capacity to feel pleasure in such activities is a part of the biological makeup of men and women. This does not mean biology is destiny, either for men or women. Sometimes, as with Sylva Koscina in The Secret War of Harry Frigg, the stolen kiss does not bring pleasure. Even if it brings extreme pleasure, that does not automatically override free will. If the recipient of it is a woman, and she then chooses to continue the relationship, this does not necessarily mean she has become subservient. A new perspective should result in new actions.

As a side note, consider that in every genre of literature, including science fiction, there are portrayals of women dominating men by means of sexual prowess, or merely by beauty and charm — if only on a temporary basis. In mainstream fiction there is w. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage; in fantasy there is H. Rider Haggard's She; in science fiction there are the somewhat cruder portrayals in Ringworld and A World out of Time, both by Larry Niven. I don't say they are equal in number to portrayals of men dominating women, but surely they are plentiful enough in science fiction that, together with stories in which women act with strength and independence, they seriously weaken Larbalestier's case if not demolish it. The latter type are also plentiful; examples include The Witches of Karres (1967) and The Demon Breed (1971), both by James H. Schmitz, as well as later tales by him.

In addition, as I show in some entries on my Errata page, Larbalestier misinterprets a number of passages in the texts she cites, and sometimes contradicts herself.

I can't help but feel Justine Larbalestier is carrying on a secret war of her own in this book. Even when the stories she presents look to me like they treat their female characters with substantial respect, she condemns them as proving the persistence of "the heterosexual economy" and "the hegemony of the discourse of romance." If a man introduces a woman to sex, whether roughly or gently, this to Larbalestier is a Real Man turning her into a Real Woman, and by her definition a Real Woman will inevitably accept the subservient role. "The hegemony of the discourse of romance is irresistible," she writes. Women will be assimilated. The same thing happens when the woman starts things, as Eve does in "The Last Man."

And I am not alone in feeling that Larbalestier overuses jargon and overstates her case. Here is a review from Publisher's Weekly, a trade magazine that usually talks up the books it reviews:

"In Australian academic Larbalestier's first book, a critical study of American SF's formative years, 1926 to 1973, some gobbets of original and entertaining insight glitter through the viscous prose, but glimpsing them requires slogging through thickets of abstractions bristling with parenthetical documentation, feminist jargon and such unhappily strident images as "white heterosexual male insecurity" in the face of women "as walking sex organs." Inspired by a Joanna Russ article on this theme, the author buttresses her thesis, that male SF writers saw keeping women subservient as the only solution to eternal male-female conflict, by examining many more texts than Russ did, from out-of-print magazines and fanzines to correspondence. Larbalestier also explores semiotics, American studies and histories of sexuality, especially trying to connect battle-of-the-sexes texts with later, overtly feminist SF texts. She sees the James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Raccoona Sheldon) Award, which celebrates feminism, as a continuing battleground where sexual warfare is "reworked and transformed." Despite amusing jacket art, some period illustrations and a formidable scholarly apparatus, including a 26-page bibliography, this dense study needs far more than its sporadic dashes of the playfulness with which the Tiptree Award — occasionally given in the form of a typewriter cast in milk chocolate — attempts to leaven a sometimes sententious genre. (June) FYI: This title is part of Wesleyan's recently launched Early Classics of Science Fiction series."

– Publishers Weekly Copyright © 2002 Cahners Business Information.

1 To paraphrase Bernie Zilbergeld's wry comment in The New Male Sexuality, a book of advice for young men, "If her breasts start panting, you know you're doing it right."
2 And, presumably, the terrorists — or the hegemony of the discourse of romance — will have won again.
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