Ritch Calvin, Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology: Four Modes

Ritch Calvin, Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology: Four Modes (London: Palgrave 2016) £52.99 EPUB, PDF, £66.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-32469-2

In Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology: Four Modes, Ritch Calvin identifies epistemology as ‘the foundation of, and central to, the question of feminist analysis’ (2), and more specifically, as it pertains to feminist science fiction. According to Calvin, the long history of cultural debates around epistemology, from Plato to Descartes and Locke, which have consequently shaped the face of Western thought and science, have led to the exclusion of marginalised groups from conversations around what constitutes knowledge and who possesses it. Women are one of those marginalised groups, alongside slaves, the uneducated and working classes. In order to break away from the existing patriarchal, anglocentric, heteronormative culture, Calvin argues that we cannot rely on the same epistemological beliefs that shaped such a society, thereby creating the need to establish a new, feminist epistemology; one in which women demonstrate their capability to produce, validate, and even redefine what is constituted as knowledge.

Calvin begins by examining the terms he is working with, ‘feminist’, ‘science fiction’, ‘feminist epistemology’, in order to offer working definitions to consider within the context of this study. He bases his definitions on writing and reading practices wherein the ‘otherness’ coded with science fiction is used by authors and readers of feminist science fiction to challenge social structures that serve to oppress or otherwise marginalise individuals on the basis of sex, gender, race, class or sexuality. In doing so, he highlights the inherently political nature of feminism, and by extension, feminist science fiction. The irony of a genre concerned with exploring the alternative and unknown dismissing the participation of women as authors, readers and artists is not lost on Calvin or other academics concerned with the genre as Pamela Sargent notes in the introduction to Women of Wonder (1974). Sargent’s anthology is one of many that is highlighted for its work in rediscovering female contributions to science fiction which had heretofore been overlooked or expunged from the canon.

Around the same time as anthologies were recovering lost feminist science fiction, the question of whether gender was a significant epistemological factor was being posed, challenging the value of traditional epistemology. The texts examined by Calvin are what he calls ‘feminist epistemological science fiction’ (FESF). These texts ask the same questions feminist epistemologists do through the four modes of plot, narrative and structural elements, the relationship with science, and attitudes and approaches to language. These four modes are designed to demonstrate how the themes of a mind/body divide, the focus on rationality over intuition, and mechanics over environment, which are pertinent to establishing a feminist epistemology, are actively reconstructed and challenged in feminist science fiction.

Chapters Two and Three see Calvin examining the relationship between epistemology in relation to the plot and structural elements respectively. He suggests that ‘certain kinds of plots foreground epistemological questions and concerns’ (48), comparing modern science fiction to the detective novels of Poe and Doyle, where both detective and reader are kept in a state of ontological suspense until the very end. Similarly, the FESF texts have protagonists that are denied knowledge by virtue of their minority status, which in turn leaves the reader in a constant state of suspense. Multiple points of focalisation, uneven timelines and autodiegetic narrators are some of the factors Calvin examines which put in question the veracity of the narrative, leading to a sense of epistemological uncertainty in the reader. By questioning who defines and controls knowledge, knowledge becomes something that can be manipulated and tampered with, and is no longer omnipotent, opening the existing epistemology to feminist opposition. Even in their failure to subvert the existing epistemology, Calvin notes that they have nevertheless succeeded in introducing the reader to a possible alternative, feminist epistemology.

The third mode of Calvin’s study is science; more specifically, the representation of the scientific method, scientists and technology in FESF. Calvin traces the rebellion in feminist science fiction, particularly in the 1960s, against the foundations of the contemporary scientific method, which have, in the past been used to rationalise all manner of evils including slavery, colonialism, sexism and racism to name a few. Central to Calvin’s argument are an investigation of notions of empirical detachment, the shift from rationality to philosophy in the twentieth century and the introduction of standpoint theory. The notion of feminine intuition and the dismissal of implicit knowledge are concerns for Calvin and the authors he examines, the acknowledgement that ‘knowledge production is never neutral, that it rests on faulty assumptions and practices, and that it must always have a political aim’ (133). Texts like Rokeya Sakhawant Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream and Amy Thomson’s The Colour of Distance offer postcolonial and indigenous analyses of science and epistemology that perhaps do not fit into the Western framework of feminism but are nevertheless integral parts of the global feminist canon.

Language, the final mode of epistemology that Calvin examines, is also the one he feels is frequently under-acknowledged. It is true that access to language allows us to comprehend, express and articulate our desires and grievances, and the inability to do so limits our understanding of the world. Using the theory of linguistic determinism, Calvin argues that language is not neutral and transparent, and knowledge, or lack thereof, of a language may hinder one’s understanding of certain concepts. When science fiction creates a new language, which does not happen as often as it perhaps should, it brings with it new concepts and a new epistemology. This section is the most extensive as it examines four texts, each drastically different in their approach to altering and creating language, from Ursula LeGuin’s relatively tame The Left Hand of Darkness to the extremely radical Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig. The texts in this section are intended to demonstrate the importance of language in creating and understanding epistemology; by taking control of their language women change the ways in which they absorb and disseminate knowledge, either by manipulating or recreating language entirely. In doing so FESF demonstrates a way by which a marginalised group may use language to successfully shift existing societal structures.

Calvin engages with science fiction texts as old as 1905 and as recent as 2011, showcasing authors and protagonists of various races, ethnicities and nationalities, providing the sense of universality that science fiction prides itself on but often lacks. Though there is a great deal of critical engagement in the text, it is for the most part succinctly put and always brought back to its relation to science fiction and feminist epistemology. Furthermore, Calvin roots his arguments within a more practical, social context, making the relationship between feminist science fiction and feminist epistemology appear to be a very natural association. He rightly views feminism as a social, cultural and political movement, particularly in the positiion where society find itself right now. By bringing together feminism with the rather abstract study of epistemology and the popular genre of science fiction, Calvin showcases the academic and cultural relevance of these three fields, and the importance of what he calls feminist epistemological science fiction.

Huzan Bharucha, University of Edinburgh