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In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Sarah Lefanu, The Women's Press, 1988, 231 pp.

Appropriately enough, Lefanu's In the Chinks of the World Machine gets its title from a story by James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree had a habit of writing stories that sneak up on the unsuspecting reader, springing intellectual traps that linger in the mind. Lefanu is upfront about her thesis -- science fiction is a kind of natural home for feminist writers, despite the male-dominated history of the genre -- but she understands very well how writers like Tiptree and Russ operate. Lefanu herself is a good writer, and she knows the territory of which she speaks. Her discussion is erudite and wide-ranging, and it is essential to comprehension of her arguments that you know the books under discussion. Thus, one of the most crucial attributes of In the Chinks of the World Machine is the bibliography, which can be used to find the books for yourself, get your own opinion, and start arguing with Lefanu's interpretation. She makes a convincing argument that science fiction is the place to be for feminist writers, but there are a few strange stops along the way.

The first half of the book is made up of ten chapters, some quite brief, that discuss feminism and science fiction generally. The last four chapters examine four writers -- Tiptree, Le Guin, Charnas, and Russ -- in greater detail. Here is a brief overview of the book:

Chapter 1: Representation and Natural Woman

Lefanu introduces the problem of essentialism (each gender has "natural" attributes and every man or woman has those masculine or feminine attributes respectively) and talks about Women of Wonder and its sequels, which were edited by Pamela Sargent.

Chapter 2: Science Fiction Narratives

This is a very short chapter, in which Lefanu mentions some sf criticism.

Chapter 3: Travelling Heroinism

Lefanu looks at some of the roots of women's roles by examining the works of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. She finishes up the chapter with Josephine Saxton.

Chapter 4: Amazons: Feminist Heroines or Men in Disguise?

Another extremely brief chapter, Joanna Russ and Tanith Lee mentioned.

Chapter 5: When Women Write of Women's Rule

In this chapter Lefanu argues that a simple inversion of patriarchy is not good enough. She criticizes The Ruins of Isis by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Leviathan's Deep by Jayge Carr for this flaw. She goes on to praise The New Gulliver by Dodderidge and some books by Gwyneth Jones for taking a more nuanced approach.

Chapter 6: The Dream of Elsewhere: Feminist Utopias

A busy chapter. Lefanu begins with two classics: Herland and Mizora. She also talks about a controversial book by Shulamith Firestone called The Dialectic of Sex, and finishes up by discussing Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Sally Miller Gearheart's The Wanderground.

Chapter 7: The Reduction of Women: Dystopias

I was expecting this chapter to be longer, but Lefanu deals only briefly with Burdekin's Swastika Night, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, and some short works by Zoe Fairbairns.

Chapter 8: The Vicissitudes of Love

Are the narratives of romance as promulgated by mass culture a simple opiate? A way of encouraging consumerism? Can there be resistance within this framework? Lefanu only touches on these issues, in a discussion of Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains.

Chapter 9: Authority and Sentiment: Is There a Women's Sf?

Lefanu tries to wrap up a few strands of argument; Golden Witchbreed, Dreamsnake.

Chapter 10: Feminism and SF

Lefanu ends up wrestling with essentialism. She holds up Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe" as an example of feminist science fiction that succeeds on all levels. Brief mentions of Lerman and Wittig.

Chapter 11: Who is Tiptree, What is She?: James Tiptree Jr.

Chapter 12: Inner Space and the Outer Lands: Ursula K. Le Guin

Chapter 13: The Absent Heroine: Suzy McKee Charnas

Chapter 14: The Reader as Subject: Joanna Russ

The recurring struggle in In the Chinks of the World Machine is with essentialism. Some of the rhetoric of feminism relies on categories of gender that help rally the troops. Tearing down this binary seems to invalidate some of the props of the movement, even to such things as The Women's Press, which published this book. Lefanu tries to navigate a tricky course between these two impulses, and sometimes she appears a little defensive, as in this passage from Chapter 14:

"Throughout her work Russ is both constructing a space for women and at the same time deconstructing the 'death-dealing binary oppositions' of masculine and feminine. There is not necessarily a contradiction here: it is only when those 'ancient dualities' have been interrogated and revealed as 'specific, limited phenomena' that women can take responsibility as subjects, and as readers." (182)

I appreciate Lefanu's attempt to preserve some ambiguity here; were the problems less complex we wouldn't still be struggling with them. She does need to outline the contradictory impulses more clearly and put more faith in us to understand the situation. A monolithic movement might be convincing rhetorically, but we're all just humans, here at ground level -- give us room to breathe. No need to be defensive about that.

Lefanu is not above a few cheap shots along the way. She denigrates Lessing in passing on page 92, taking a point of view with which I happen to agree, but nonetheless it feels a bit unprofessional. She also tears a strip out of Donaldson, parenthetically: "(Many authors do not stop at the third book but carry on churning them out, like Stephen Donaldson with his immensely popular and lucrative Illearth books, creepy quasi-allegories in a sub-Tolkien style)" (149). There are also a few holes in Lefanu's rhetoric. She seems to disapprove of Le Guin (although I think she has misunderstood a key point about the use of pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness), and so, at one point, she writes: "The problematics of sexual desire are, quite simply, eliminated" (140). This might indeed be true in The Left Hand of Darkness, but Lefanu turns around to praise the same lack in some of Charnas' work in the next chapter.

In the Chinks of the World Machine is an excellent book, which profits from the same meticulous attention that Lefanu has paid to the primary works. In other words, Lefanu's criticism needs to engaged, argued, and brought to life by the reader's participation. Her optimism is refreshing, and if she were writing this book now, twelve years later, she would have a plenitude of new examples to consider. She has a high opinion of science fiction and its possibilities -- for example: "Indeed science fiction is positively elastic as regards rules of style, and encourages a playful self-reflectivity. In other words, it is ideally suited to the kinds of fractured consciousness and gleeful melees of fictions that mark Saxton's work" (31) -- and I think she is being continually proved right with every passing year.

Last modified: April 21, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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