Joanna Russ' essays written around the period of production and publication of The Female Man show a preoccupation with generic structure of science fiction. Russ wrote essays that explored the radical possibilities that existed in the genre, along with the very real limitations in its execution. Unlike most feminist writers focusing on the genre, Russ substantially engages with the formal analysis of the genre produced by Samuel Delaney, and perhaps more significantly, Darko Suvin. Her concept of the genre developed in these pieces draw on Suvin's emphasis on the didactic nature of the genre, as well as the central concept of Suvin's central concept of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, cognitive estrangement.
The concept comes out of Suvin's engagement with the formalist work of Viktor Shklovsky, who defines poetic speech by the term, Ostramie, or estrangement. For Shklovsky, art allows for us the break out of the forms of automatized perception that often define daily life, a process that allows us to take the complex nature of the world and our social relations for granted. Shklovsky notes, "And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been give the tool of art." (Shklovsky 6) Art accomplishes this function by making perception 'long and laborious' through its formal process. It demands the abandonment of rhetorical conventions that naturalize the world, and allows for the seeming simplicity of the language processes that Shklovsky places under the category, "prose."
In addition, Suvin also draws from a second tradition, that of the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht's writings don't have the academic coherence of the work of Shklovsky, but his collective writings introduce a different mode of thinking through the concept of estrangement in his 'Verfremdungseffeckt.' For Brecht, the project of 'estrangement' is linked to his radical political project. Art, in his view, should strip the ideological formations of their naturalized mystification, and leave the viewer with the recognition that the world that he lives in is both a social construction and a construction that can be transformed through collective social action. To put it crudely, Arturo Ui's rise is a resistable one.
Suvin draws on both these concepts in his formulation of science fiction as a form of 'cognitive estrangement.' The dimension of 'estrangement' for Suvin defines both science fiction and the fantastic. However, science fiction is defined by the additional term, 'cognitive.' This term refers to the genre's relationship to modern scientific knowledge, as well as an open and contingent concept of history. The genre is defined by the Novum, or an element of novelty that is taken as a pivot for the possible transformations of the society as a whole. Suvin distinguishes science fiction from the fantastic through the legitimization of this Novum through the scientific knowledge of the period. It must be possible within the scientific rules of its time. Therefore the Novum provides a critical tool in which, to recognize the contingency of our contemporary social formation, to estrange it. In its most radical forms, the genre allows for social critique, as well as the possibility of imagining a different political world.
This temporal aspect of Suvin's theory is taken on in The Female Man. Russ pushes the dimensions of multiplicity and play in the theory forward, reintroducing the playful dimension of Brecht's process of estrangement. This comes out most explicitly early in the novel.
“To carry this line of argument further, there must be an infinite number of possible universes (such is the fecundity of God) for there is no reason to imagine nature in favor of human action…. Thus the paradox of time travel never ceases to exist, for the Past one visits is never one’s own Past but always somebody else’s; or rather, one’s visit to the Past instantly creates another Present… and what you visit is the Past belonging to that Present—an entirely matter from your own Past. And with each decision you make (back there in the Past) that new probable universe itself branches, creating simultaneously a new Past and a new Present, or to put it plainly a new universe. And when you come back to your own Present, you alone know want the other Past was like and what you did there.
Thus it is probable what Whileaway—a name for the Earth ten centuries from now, but not our Earth, if you follow me—will find itself not at all affected by this sortie into somebody else's past. And vice versa, of course.
Whileaway, you may gather, is the future. But not our future." (Russ 7)
Transformation is broken away from the traditional concept of progress. Instead, we are offered a conceptualization of temporality that operates on the premise of potentiality. The infinite universe is represented by the figure of an infinitely productive god. It is a universe or rather, universes that are in constant expansion and multiplicity. To explore a past or to imagine a future becomes then an engagement that leads to something new. But that act of imagination can never become a form of prophecy in the way that Judith Merril wants to imagine the genre. Each act of prediction doubles back as a transformation of the present that produced it. This becomes a set of lines of flight, rather than a single path to some predetermined end. Science fiction then cannot predict the world to come, but it can only present a future that necessarily cannot come to fruition because of its engagement. But at the same time, the creation of that world creates effects, even though they cannot be predicted. The text further implicates the reader by placing them in the position of a knowing actor, one that can use the knowledge of another world for political ends or simply keep silent about it.
In addition, Russ made an argument that the forms of symbolic contingency found in the genre provided a productive space for the critique of patriarchal heterosexuality. This critique is explored in the novel, but the generic argument is stated more explicitly in her critical writings. The strongest example of this argument can be found in Russ’ essay, “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write.” The essay starts of with a similar argument to her book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. It argues that stories “are pretty much restricted to the attitudes, beliefs, and above all, the plots that are “in the air.” (Russ 81) These narrative are linked to a cultural symbolic that operates through a logic of gender, and more specifically, patriarchy. Women can only exist in relation to men, and in fairly proscribed forms. She goes on to explore the ways that this operates, and more significantly, the difficulties in escaping those narratives. She contrasts a long tradition of male narratives that is occasionally punctuated by alternative forms of narration, attempts on the part of women to operate within lyrical forms, rather than epic forms. The lyric allows for the “unspeakable and unembodiable as its thematic center.” At the same time, the lyric has two serious problems. The first is the ease of which the narratives are dismissed. The second is the inability or disinterest on the part of many authors to operate within this mode.
She then turns to a set of genre fictions, such as detective fiction, supernatural fiction and science fiction. Science fiction plays a privileged role within these alternatives. She argues,
“The myths of science fiction run along the lines of exploring a new world conceptually… creating needed physical or social machinery, assessing the consequences of technological or other changes, and so on. These are not stories about men qua Man and women qua Woman; they are myths of human intelligence and human adaptability. They not only ignore gender roles but—at least theoretically—are not culture bound." (Russ 91)
Science fiction’s possibility exists because of its novum or novelty in conceptual exploration of ‘a new world’. The creation of this new world allows for the exploration of other symbolic systems. These ‘myths of human intelligence and human adaptability” allow for a possible escape from the logic of the social symbolic of gender. These can be focused on social machinery, technology, etc. These point to a set of didactic collective problems that must be confronted by society collectively. This didactic aspect removes the action of the narrative from individual psychology and places it in the context of collective projects, which may or may not have any relation to gender. Science fiction then becomes the generic space in which a potential political project can be launched. It can point to a future with a society with no gender or thousands of genders and these projects allow the reader to reflect critically on her world.
Russ distances herself from this effusive praise in her later preface to the essay, noting the genre "can be just as bad as anything and just as timid, cliched, and dull.” (Russ 79) But at the same time, she notes that she was, “getting ready to write her own science fiction and was—without being explicitly aware of it—looking for a way out of the cultural deprivation described in the essay.” (Russ 79) So, within this context the effusive celebration of science fiction serves two functions. The first is two construct a medium in which to produce literature that would live up to the transformative expectations of Russ. Science fiction is taken up in this context in order to estrange or critique the patriarchal social order that she lived in, and indeed, that is still in existence. It points us to a reading that approaches the critical writings and the literature as two parts of the same radical aesthetic project, one that has a foot both in the popular as well as the avant-garde.
To conclude, Russ' engagement with science fiction can also be read as part of the long critical engagement with Lacan's notion of sexual difference, encapsulated in the symbolic. As it has been noted earlier, the symbolic is linked to the incest taboo and the Oedipal complex, creating a border between nature and the human. In addition, the symbolic is constituted by the exchange of women by men. Women are transformed into object of trad and exchange in order to produced the patriarchal social order. There have been two rough responses to this theory. The first approach is probably best characterized by the work of Gayle Rubin. Rubin argues that Lacan accurately describes the patriarchal system that we live in, but that Lacan mystifies it as structural, rather than recognizing it as a form of political domination. The second set of responses looks to the Imaginary, the pre-Oedipal imaginary that places the mother at the center of the universe, rather than the father. The most sophisticated formulation of this can be found in the work of Luce Irigaray, but it also has a sort of formulation in the work of Mary Daly. Russ' work fits into that second camp, although somewhat uneasily. The estrangement of science fiction then becomes a way of critiquing our contemporary social symbolic, pointing to a futurity that will not come into being, but nonetheless acts on the present. This formulation is crude and extremely tentative, and I probably will need to return to it to both correct and rethink it.
(As a post-script, its interesting to see how much this parallels some of the notions of science fiction that enter into Merril's text, "Daughters of Earth." We'll get to that mess of referents at another time.)