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Yin and Yang Duke It Out

by Joan Gordon

There exist two kinds of feminist science fiction: overt and covert. Overt feminist science fiction always grapples with the definition of femaleness and at least implies the possibility of a world whose values support a feminist definition of female identity. Covert feminist science fiction ignores the definition, showing a sexually egalitarian world; furthermore, its values often ignore specifically feminist issues, making its morality a more generally applied one.

Overt feminist SF is in a rut. Femaleness is consistently defined in terms of the Zen principle of Yin - passive, gentle, nurturing, peaceful (see Le Guin's essay, "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be"). We females are in tune with nature, living in it, adapting to it: we're vegetarian, nonpolluting earth mothers, representatives of prepatriarchal nature religions. Males are, of course, competitive, aggressive, meat-eating polluters, members of the now-dominant patriarchy. One longs for the good old days not so much of nature religions, but just of Joanna Russ's "The Female Man" (1975).

Now, however, cyberpunk has appeared. At first glance it seems to be overt masculinist science fiction - men are men, waving guns and knives, competing like all get out and plugged up to the gills with pollutant technology. But look at the women in mirrorshades - Molly in Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984), Deadpan Allie in Cadigan's "Mindplayers" (1987), for instance - aren't they tougher than the rest? I would suggest that cyberpunk is covert feminist science fiction. On that night foray into the underworld which is the central experience of what we will conveniently call cyberpunk, men and women travel as equals. Furthermore, and potentially liberating for feminist science fiction, the cyberpunk vision is a radical departure from traditional feminist SF. This difference allows an escape from the present nostalgia for a distant and irrecoverable past.

Cyberpunk isn't exactly a direct line to feminist thought. It describes something quite separate from the concerns of feminism and acknowledges only one female author, Pat Cadigan. Bruce Sterling's discussion of cyberpunk's origins, in both "Mirrorshades" (1986a) introduction and in his preface to William Gibson's "Burning Chrome" (1986b), completely ignores the tremendous influence on SF, even on cyberpunk, of many women writers. One might think women science fiction writers had no part in the SF tradition, much less in cyberpunk. I would suggest the movement has been and continues to be strongly influenced by feminist SF writers. James Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973) prefigures cyberpunk, which William Gibson points out in his "Science Fiction Eye" interview with Takayuki Tatsumi (1988). As Cyberpunk matures away from the limitations of Gardner Dozois's label, its writers have shown the feminist influence more clearly. Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net" (1988) has a female protagonist who works for a company based on those nice Yin principles, and William Gibson's "

" (1988) has three female protagonists. In both novels, the women represent various instructive distances from the traditional female role. Despite the oversight in Sterling's introduction to "Mirrorshades", I doubt these writers would deny the debt.

It nevertheless seems oddly true that cyberpunk is a boy's club. In fact, science fiction by women, often characterized by soft rather than hard science, by emphasis on character and interpersonal relations, seems quite "humanist," while humanism and cyberpunk have been set up as opposites in some recent discussions in "Science Fiction Eye". It's time for women to break into the boys' club; cyberpunk may be feminism's SF salvation.

One reason has to do with the typical protagonists of such recent feminist science fiction as Joan Slonczewski's "A Door Into Ocean" (1986), where a good woman nurtures, shares, and shuns violence. Such a vision of good is philosophically admirable but has become, for me, too predictable. I long for blood thirsty Janet of Whileaway in "The Female Man". Listen to HER opening statement: "I love my daughter...I love my family...I love my wife...I've fought four duels. I've killed four times" (1975:2). It may not be moral, but it is energetic and surprising. It even allows women to lapse from moral perfection. Whileaway, Janet's all-female alternate world, is nurturing and pastoral, like virtually all SF worlds illustrating feminist principles, but it is also technologically well developed and far from pacifist. Thus, Russ's overtly feminist novel avoids some of what will become an entire set of cliche's about matriarchal worlds, and shows instead a tough woman who behaves unself-consciously like a human being, not like a representative of female principles.

This is also the power of such female cyberpunk characters as Molly in "Neuromancer" and Deadpan Allie in "Mindplayers". They're both good at their jobs, mayhem and pathosfinding, and they're both very tough. In his interview with Tatsumi, Gibson talks about how film director Howard Hawks influenced him:

"I'm starting to think that Howard Hawks programmed a whole lot of my first two books, especially in terms of the strong woman who can't really relate to any of the other men in the narrative except for the one guy who might possibly be as strong as she is, but usually turns out not to be."

That sounds like Molly of the implanted mirrorshades and knife-blade fingernails. To some extent she's a man in women's clothing (see that line about "OTHER men" above), the most facile and least thoughtful representation of the liberated woman. But to some extent, also, she is simply a human being in women's clothing, one of the two standard issue uniforms for the species. It seems to me that for a woman to enter the human army as an average soldier with no distinction in rank, privilege, or job position is, on the covert level, a feminist act.

Deadpan Allie of Pat Cadigan's "Mindplayers" is another tough soldier. Cadigan's book, with little casual violence and no mirrorshades, has less of the feel of cyberpunk than "Neuromancer", but shares much of the common vision. Deadpan Allie, pathosfinder, takes hallucinatory trips into the underworld of her clients' subconscious, and withstands more psychic violence than anyone else, male or female, never revealing her own emotional state. Yes, like Molly, she is tougher than the rest. Her job, delving into the unconscious, is less a departure from the female role than Molly's contract killing, but it is just as dangerous in its own way. Like Molly, Allie handles the risk without showing emotion: hence her nickname, Deadpan Allie. Blunt affect seems an important component of cyberpunk toughness. Allie's toughness, like Molly's, represents no female principle, just a human coping mechanism. Less violent than Molly, there is less danger of her being taken for the man in woman's clothing. But like Molly, she performs the covert feminist act of entering the human army combat-ready and on equal footing.

Egalitarian toughness makes the women of male-dominated cyberpunk politically appealing to feminists, but cyberpunk has something more important and less direct to offer as well: a vision of the world which is both a logical extension of the 1980s and a radical departure from the essentially nostalgic view of feminist science fiction. Virtually every feminist SF utopia dreams of a pastoral world, fueled by organic structures rather than mechanical ones, inspired by versions of the archetypal Great Mother. And virtually every feminist SF novel, utopian or not, incorporates a longing to go forward into the idealized past of earth's earlier matriarchal nature religions. Because cyberpunk extrapolates from the 1980s - not a sterling time for feminism in the world at large - it's no wonder few women are presently involved in the movement. Nevertheless, cyberpunk does much that could enrich overt feminist SF by directing it away from nostalgia. Cyberpunk embraces technology, revels in the complexities of an imperfect world, and grapples with the journey to the underworld. Feminist science fiction has veered away from these activities, all of which allow us to shape and manage our futures rather than escape them.

The artificial kids of cyberpunk are more than enthusiastic about the latest technology; they plug it into their skulls, pop it in their eye sockets, and embed it into their fingertips. Feminist SF consistently avoids the kind of intrusive technology cyberpunk embraces. In "The Female Man," inhabitants have the "possibility" of teleportation but prefer to walk. "Whileaway is so pastoral that at times one wonders whether the ultimate sophistication may not take us all back to a kind of prepaleolithic dawn age." The Shorans of "A Door Into Ocean" skillfully employ genetic engineering to control their environment but are sharply distrustful of any form of mechanical, nonorganic engineering. Although I share the latter work's discomfort with technology that disrupts the environment and the former work's preference to walk, and although I can launch a full-scale Jungian sort of explanation for this feminist vision, I need a change. It isn't likely that the earth will pull back from its movement toward high technology and the Sprawl for a long time, if ever. Cyberpunk, with all its cynicism, shows a future we might reasonably expect, and shows people successfully coping, surviving, and manipulating it. Feminist SF needs to acknowledge that if we can control technology even as it increases its potential to control us, we will have a better chance for survival in the imperfect future which we can reasonably expect.

Overt feminist science fiction has explored its mythic past and its utopian ideals in a number of fine works, but it could gain much by turning to an exploration of women's role in the imperfect world that we will continue to inhabit. Bruce Sterling praises William Gibson's short stories for "their brilliant self-consistent evocation of a credible future," an effort which he claims "many SF writers have been ducking for years." It's a bit narrow to claim, as Sterling does here, that writing SF about something other than a "credible future" is an "intellectual failing." However, it is true that the feminist movement in SF has neglected this particular subgenre of SF. Women are acculturated to be GOOD; boys will be boys but girls can't misbehave. Is that one reason we keep looking to idealized worlds rather than our sure-to-be flawed future in feminist science fiction? Let's try exploring the female presence in a likely and imperfect near future so we can survive and even enjoy a world where neither we nor it is perfect. What definition of female identity might arise out of an unapologetic acknowledgement of our imperfection? I for one am not convinced that I am an earth mother. What else might I be? If science fiction can show what it means to be female in the world toward which we hurtle, I want to read it.

So the cyberpunk vision would allow feminist science fiction writers to consider the possibilities of a less antagonistic relationship with technology and to examine women's identity in the "credible future," but cyberpunk has more to offer. Another characteristic which has not been exploited by feminist science fiction is cyberpunk's extensive and gritty handling of the motif of the journey to the underworld. In each pathosfinder episode of "Mindplayers," Allie dives into her own subconscious or that of a client, making one version of the journey. Each trip into some chaotic, lawless Sprawl constitutes another version of the trip. Elsewhere are drug-induced trips into other varieties of the heart of darkness. In every case, the trip reveals the underside of the human condition; hence, the "hard-edged, gloomy passion" with which Sterling characterizes Gibson's literary tone.

Feminist SF has investigated movingly and convincingly the underside of the male power structure, but only rarely has it explored the underside of female identity. It has been necessary to explore what is good and strong about female identity, and what is dangerous about an inimicable male-dominated society. But since every human being has a dark side, for us to acknowledge our full female identity requires that we undertake the journey. In our willingness to admit our imperfection, we may be sacrificing our completeness. A version of the mythic journey to the underworld will help us capture our own dark side. Maybe we're not too eager to reveal that side of our nature; socially, women are still in the position of proving equality by being a credit to our sex. It is perhaps dangerous yet to admit our real dark side to a world still deeply interested in women's imagined sinful nature. But the risk may well be worth it in both psychological and literary terms.

And not just because it makes you a better person to admit your faults. Katabasis, the mythic journey to the underworld, does more. As Joseph Campbell shows in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), it makes us heroes, and the journey is not just to our own dark side, but to the dark side of the human condition. Moreover, its power lies not so much in what we learn on the journey as it does on the fact of our learning and in our subsequent transformation.

As Campbell says: "The the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one's visions, ideas, and inspirations, come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought. Hence they are eloquent, not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man - he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed [after the journey itself] to return to us transfigured and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed."

Some feminist SF writers have allowed their characters to take this journey - notably Ursula Le Guin - but never under any circumstances available to us in any foreseeable future. To imagine the journey in a possible and seemingly attainable future, to allow the learning and subsequent transformation to take place without the attainment of perfection of utopia, might be very valuable. At the end of "Mindplayers", Allie finds not utopia or perfection but what her psyche has dubbed "alerted snakes of consequences." And they tell her, "you will go down into darkness before you die - but you won't go alone." On her journey she has learned to choose "a whole self" rather than just "an accumulation of elements." She has moved from the personal to the universal.

In the grim future of most cyberpunk, the message taken back from the night journey is seldom cheering, but it does move beyond the "disintegrating society" to a realization that has the potential for renewal in both the individual and society. Overt feminist science fiction, the kind which directly confronts issues of meaning anddirection for the condition of women, needs to risk such a journey, starting near enough the present to find its way back to us with a coherent lesson. If that lesson teaches us less about perfection and more about coping with and enjoying the gritty future to which we are likely heirs, so much the better.


Graphics: (top) Frank Miller's Ronin. (bottom) Robocop


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