Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction Revisited

Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction Revisited (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) vii, 181 pp. £34.99 eBook. £99.99 Hb. ISBN: 9783031251702

In Women, Science and Fiction Revisited,Debra Benita Shaw provides a contemporary feminist analysis of women writers of science fiction, in which she explores how these writers re-imagine the role of women through this literary genre. Acknowledged as a leading expert in this area, Shaw has now expanded her initial research which formed the basis for her first book, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance (2000). The aim of her research, however remains the same, which is to explore science fiction as 'an enabling form' which allows these women writers 'to challenge the way that gender is assumed in the practice and application of science' (3). Shaw offers us a thoughtful textual analysis of these science fiction works, contextualising them within contemporaneous scientific developments and ideologies in the real world, such as Eugenics, advocated by the Nazis.

Shaw demonstrates in Women, Science and Fiction Revisited, a refreshing willingness to reconsider and reappraise the opinions expressed in her first book. Thus, in the introductory chapter, she challenges the argument that the division between the genres of science fiction and the fantasy novel must remain and illustrates this by including Margaret Atwood's dystopian contemporary novel, The Handmaid's Tale. What follows in the succeeding chapters in Women, Science and Fiction Revisited, is Shaw's selection of science fiction prose written by women between 2018 and 2022.  

Shaw's first science fiction choice is a lesser-known novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1918) and Shaw uses the fact that Gilman was better known as an economist, than as a novelist, to reinforce her argument that Herland should be read as science fiction and not as a dated adventure story. In Gilman's non-fiction work, Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued for the economic emancipation of women and Shaw suggests that this underlies Gilman's message to the reader in Herland, where three chauvinistic male protagonists seek out a land populated by women, only to discover that men are subjugated in this new world.  The world in Herland has evolved into a society with a non-patriarchal social order and Shaw correctly identifies in this, Gilman's interest in evolution and that this was due to the influence of Darwin's prescient Theory of Evolution. Shaw also flags Gilman's desire to challenge patriarchal social structures by adopting Gilman's phrase 'the literature of the beehive' for the chapter's title, 'Herland: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Literature of the Beehive.' Gilman herself wrote:

             'If the beehive produced literature, the bee’s fiction would be rich and broad, full of         the complex tasks of comb-building and filling, the care and feeding of the young, the           guardian-service of the queen …..  It would treat of the vast fecundity of motherhood,      the educative and selective processes of the group-mothers, and the passion of loyalty,            of social service, which holds the hive together.

            (The Man-Made World: Or, Our Androcentric Culture, 1911).

This flagging of the titles for each chapter is a prudent one by Shaw, as it negates any suggestion that her choices are merely arbitrary and instead provides a fascinating series of ideas to explore, which include the psychology of ‘scapegoating’, the politics of choice and such science fiction emblematic signifiers as the cyborg. What Shaw excels at in this book is the fluency and ease with which she conveys and combines her knowledge of this field, making Women, Science and Fiction Revisited, an accessible and thought provoking read for both literary scholars and non-scholars.

In Swastika Night (1937) by Katherine Burdekin, Shaw has chosen a work which presents a nightmare world, where women are caged and subrogated for sexual reproduction; women have become non-human and the act of sex exists merely as a biological process. In examining the psychology of such brutal treatment, Shaw extends her analysis beyond that of the then contemporary Nazi ideologies, to present-day treatment of women, thus demonstrating both the prescient and timelessness of Burdekin's Swastika Night. Shaw's choice of No Woman Born by C. L. Moore, published in the 1940s, foregrounds the portrayal of the female cyborg in science fiction literature. Insightfully, Shaw provides background information as to its origins in literature and cites the Czech dramatist, Karel Capek's stage play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot into the English language. Yet what concerns Shaw, 'is how far a body may be "prosthetically" changed before it is considered to have exceeded the boundaries of what is acceptable as human,' (86) and how women have allowed themselves to be scientifically altered through the application of technology.

In Ursula Le Guin's, The Left Hand of Darkness, Shaw presents the extreme, a novel which portrays a world in which women do not ostensibly exist and where, therefore, the female narrator must adopt the persona of a man to tell 'her' story of scientific exploration. Shaw therefore cites The Left Hand of Darkness, as 'a reflection on the masculine bias of the so-called human sciences,' (5). The inclusion of The Handmaid's Tale (1985), by Margaret Atwood, demonstrates Shaw's reconsideration of her views expressed in her first book: that there is a clear distinction between the genres of science fiction and fantasy. With Naomi Alderman's The Power (2016), Shaw presents us with a novel where women have through science developed superhuman powers, resulting in their domination of the world over men. Roles have been reversed in this world, but little else has changed and Shaw therefore cites this contemporary science fiction novel, 'as an emphatic demonstration of [her] claim that the time of science fiction is over,' (152). To demonstrate this point, Shaw includes a discussion of N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became (2020) and Margaret Atwood's, The Handmaid's Tale, both of which she describes as fantasy novels rather than science fiction novels. Shaw's rationale for this is that women writers of science in fiction have now switched their focus away from portraying other worlds and other possibilities. They are now creating a new hybrid genre of science in fiction in which they question, 'what counts as human in the context of imagined worlds where scientific epistemology is also questioned,' (10). What Shaw therefore ultimately offers us in, Women, Science and Fiction Revisited, is an illuminating new approach to reading such fiction and the realisation that fiction which explores the impact of science on women is 'as vital as ever,' (10).

Caroline Summerfield, Manchester Metropolitan University