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Women Destroy Science Fiction: Texts in Conversation

In reviewing Christie Yant’s editorial in Women Destroy Science Fiction, Ryan Holmes of Tangent Online imagines a fable in which Yant* “a bright, female scientist—a science-fiction fan—” builds a time machine in order to meet women writers of the past:

Her goal is not to alter history. She merely wishes to enlighten the ladies of the past about the amazing contributions women have achieved in both science and science fiction. She can’t bring much, so she brings the latest, the freshest examples of female authors in science-fiction. She brings the June 2014 issue of Lightspeed. She proudly pushes it into the feminine hands of great scientists and science fiction authors, women like: Margaret Cavendish (17th century philosopher and first woman to author a utopian novel, The Blazing World), Sarah Scott (18th century author of A Description of Millennium Hall), Mary Shelley (19th century author of arguably the first science fiction novel Frankenstein).

Leaving aside the bizarre confrontational smugness with which Holmes inexplicably imagines Yant his female scientist approaching these women — wishing to “enlighten” them instead of, I don’t know, delight in their company and thank them for their seminal, inspiring work — this is a beautiful conceit. I can easily imagine the awe on the faces of these exceptional women as they contemplate a time-travel device invented by a woman who, with all of time and space at her disposal, chose to visit them, to gather them all in one place, to share her work with them.

These amazing women take the periodical and rifle through imaginative and inspiring stories of women contributing to the future. Then they turn to the editorial by Christie Yant and read her opinions of how women have not succeeded in a male-dominated field of science and science-fiction.

Up until the egregious misreading of Yant’s editorial — nowhere does she claim that women “have not succeeded in a male-dominated field” — I was fine with this. But Holmes’ notion of what would occur later — that Cavendish, Scott, and Shelley would be in any way insulted by Yant’s editorial, seeing in it some kind of diminishment of their own work — is frankly repulsive. I find myself entirely incapable of reconciling it with my knowledge of the lives and works of the women he invokes.

Cavendish was constantly excusing and defending the fact that she, as a woman, dared to write. Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall imagines a Utopic all-woman society in which women love and support each other. Mary Shelley’s most famous work was initially attributed to her husband. The very notion of Holmes imagining these women would “chastise [the female scientist] for thinking men could keep the world from recognizing greatness regardless of gender” when they fought against this constantly and wrote about how exhausting it was is absurd. It is a failure of imagination and empathy.

It is also very telling. It speaks to Holmes’ investment. It’s always interesting to see a man address a woman’s anger by telling her she doesn’t know how good she has it; it’s even more interesting to see him use dead women’s voices to do so, to use them to tell her she doesn’t know how good she has it, to imagine women disdaining and belittling each other instead of supporting and sympathizing with each other.

Initially I thought I’d like to respond by writing an irreverent fiction in which these women deride the poor reading comprehension of male reviewers who think it politic to attempt to play them against each other. On reflection, however, I decided to place Yant’s text in conversation with the works of the women Holmes names. If I’m going to use their voices and authority to make a political point, after all, it’s probably best to use their actual words. The following is a mixture of quotes from Yant’s editorial, Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies (1653) and Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655), Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and the later introduction to it (1831).

* * *

YANT: The summer of 2013 was a rough one for women in science fiction. Every
few weeks there was a new reminder that to a certain subset of the field, we’re
not welcome here.

CAVENDISH: [W]e are shut out of all power and authority, by reason we are never employed either in civil or martial affairs, our counsels are despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the over-weening conceit, men have of themselves, and through a despisement of us.

SHELLEY: When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?

YANT:  I don’t know which is worse: the men who tell us we’re doing it wrong, or the  voice within ourselves that insists that we’ll fail if we try.

CAVENDISH: Indeed, I was so afraid to dishonour my friends and family by my indiscreet actions, that I rather chose to be accounted a fool, than to be thought rude or wanton.

SHELLEY: It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print.

YANT:  We got tired. We got angry. And then we came out the other side of exhaustion and anger deeply motivated to do something.

CAVENDISH: Women’s Tongues are as sharp as two-edged Swords, and wound as much, when they are anger’d.

SCOTT: My friends always insisted when they waited on the community, that not one of the sisterhood should discontinue whatever they found her engaged in.

SHELLEY: I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven, for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.

YANT: Women of all ages from all over the world sent us their stories. Many of them had never tried to write science fiction before.

SHELLEY: Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

YANT:  They pushed past their doubt and fear, finished their pieces and
clicked submit for the very first time just to be a part of this…My hope is that one or more of these stories will reach a reader who never realized that kind of story is science fiction, too, and will seek out more like it. And I hope that one or more will convince those writers—the fantasists, the poets…that they, too, can create science fiction stories and participate in the expansion of the field.

CAVENDISH:  Poetry, which is built upon Fancy, Women may claim as a worke belonging most properly to themselves: for I have observ’d, that their Braines work usually in a Fantasticall motion.

SHELLEY: Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

YANT:  All told, this issue is the work of 109 women.

SCOTT: God bless the Ladies!

YANT:  We took hurt and rage and turned it into something beautiful. And we did it together.

SCOTT:  I wish to make only these alterations, to change noise for real mirth, flutter for settled cheerfulness, affected wit for rational conversation.

YANT:  We need your voice—don’t let it be silenced.

* * *

It’s fascinating — in the way that colonies of bacteria are fascinating — that Holmes chooses to end his review as follows:

To summarize the effect of this editorial, imagine a crowded street party celebrating the great contributions of men and women in science fiction. Yant stands alone on the sidewalk and tries to outshout the jovial crowd by claiming foul at those who know better. Unfortunately, those who don’t, hear her rant and listen.

It’s a hilarious sort of irony. From where I’m sitting, Women Destroy Science Fiction is the party — the one that raised ten times what they requested on Kickstarter, the one full of women (myself included) succeeding in overcoming their fears and insecurities, standing tall, enjoying each other’s company and revelling in this incredible thing they’ve made. Holmes is the one standing on that sidewalk, muttering streams of incoherent nonsense at passersby while holding up a sign saying SEXISM IS OVER LADIES SHUT UP ALREADY.

But it’s to be expected, I suppose; as Mary Shelley’s mother once observed, “When any prevailing prejudice is attacked, the wise will consider, and leave the narrow-minded to rail with thoughtless vehemence at innovation.”

Rail on, dudes. Rail on.


*With special thanks to the commenter who called my own reading comprehension into question for assuming that Yant and the female scientist/science fiction fan were one and the same, because obviously that makes a massive difference and changes everything and I should be ashamed of myself.