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5.0 out of 5 stars The Other World Of Feminist Science Fiction, 3 April 2013
This review is from: In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (Paperback)
The world of women's science fiction per se, never mind feminist science fiction, might as well be an extra-solar planet for most of us. This is partly why I decided to read Sarah LeFanu's book, 'In the Chinks of the World Machine', a literary criticism of women's and feminist science fiction. Although fairly academic in prose style, this is still suitable for a general readership. LeFanu has certainly widened my perceptions. I, for one, cringed as I read this and thought of some of the things I have read and enjoyed in the past when I was blissfully ignorant of the issues and problems that LeFanu adumbrates here, and the field of feminist literary criticism seems fascinating.

That said, I am not sure I agree with all of LeFanu's conjectures and conclusions, particularly her central thesis that science fiction is exceptional in allowing a radical or critical perspective, though admittedly this is the first time I have thought about the matter. In a sense, the analysis is self-defeating because this very book readily produces examples of radical perspectives in other genres, most especially fantasy fiction. I see no reason why a male or female writer could not produce interrogative or subversive fiction within any other genre. A good example of one such disruptive author who has written outside science fiction is China Mieville, though perhaps it is significant (and maybe a validation of LeFanu's thesis) that Mievelle is steeped in science fiction and close fantasy traditions.

I write a little myself and this book has sparked in me the idea of using female characters to interrogate the world, and that is something new for me, but really the same effect could be achieved by using other oppressed character tropes as the fictive voice, such as the worker or an animal, etc. What is interesting is how Lefanu and some of the writers she reviews here lapse into a kind of pro-female chauvinism in which women are ascribed various appealing attributes while men have all the 'bad' or negative, unappealing attributes. It is also interesting to note that the attributes that LeFanu and the reviewed authors select as appealing seem to be those that society most closely associates with femininity, something that seems to negate LeFanu's criticism of literary essentialism. It's only when we arrive at a discussion of Joanna Russ that we find any sense of this essentialism being transcended, but even then I think the achievement is limited. My overall impression of women's and feminist science fiction after reading this book is perhaps not what LeFanu might have hoped: my view is that radical, interrogative fiction-writers, both men and woman, are trapped in the essentialism that they try to assail.

I do think this is an excellent book that should be read by anyone wishing to understand science fiction generally. The only slight criticism is that the structure lacks coherence, partly because I think the author loses sight of the original critical question that she sets out to explore, i.e. the exceptionalism of science fiction, and in the end the resolution of this point is unsatisfying. Part of the problem is the inadequate comparative coverage of other literary genres. The most interesting chapters are those that delve into the work of a select few women science fiction writers. I particularly enjoyed the chapters dedicated to 'James James Tiptree, Jnr.' and 'Joanna Russ', the latter much more challenging than the rest and also very difficult to understand unless you are well-schooled in literary criticism. Tiptree and Russ are clearly two very interesting authors. I found LeFanu's review of 'With Delicate Mad Hands' very affecting, and that is certainly a story I would like to read. With this book, LeFanu has certainly increased my appreciation of a very rewarding niche in literature.
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