Sheri S. Tepper

By Robin Anne Reid:

NOTE: Spoilers for a number of Tepper’s novels occur throughout the essay.

WARNING: For references to rape and abuse of young women as an element of Tepper’s novels.

The Fan

I found my first Tepper novel in the early 1980s. I remember standing in the University of Washington bookstore reading the opening pages of King’s Blood Four, the first of what would become the nine-novel triple trilogy The True Game. Had Tepper’s work continued in that vein, interesting world-building with a male protagonist, I am not sure I would have become such a fervent fan.

However, even this early novel had threads of the feminist themes Tepper would develop in more detail in her later work. Peter starts out as a typical fantasy orphan hero. He is a young man, a foundling, raised in an all-male environment, who almost immediately embarks on a quest. The setting is the world of the True Game where characters have fantastic powers echoing medievalist fantasy conventions. But the initiating event is an attack on King Mertyn in which Peter is used and injured by his male lover, and the outcome of Peter’s journey is learning about the Immutables (those outside the Game who lack any of the powers valued in the Game) and meeting his mother (not his father!). Those differences were different enough to keep me reading the trilogy and keeping an eye out for her other work.[1] I was lucky since she published so many novels so quickly: her entry in Wikipedia lists ten novels published in 1983-1985.

The later trilogies in the True Game series, Mavin’s and Jinian’s, turn away from the male bildungsroman to twist fantasy conventions on multiple levels. Suddenly, as with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, I found myself in a science fiction narrative of sorts, a lost colony settled by humans. But even before I read the later trilogies in the True Game series, I found the Marianne Trilogy.

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Reading the first in this series put Tepper’s name immediately on my “buy as soon as they appear” list of authors, and that response never changed although some of her later works appeal to me much less than the earlier ones. I tend to be completist when I love an author’s works even if I do not love all of them.[2]

The opening paragraph of Marianne, The Magus, and the Manticore remains one of my favorites:

During the night, Marianne was awakened by a steady drumming of rain, a muffled tattoo as from a thousand drumsticks on the flat porch roof, a splash and gurgle from the rainspout at the corner of the house outside Mrs. Winesap’s window, babbling its music in vain to ears which did not hear. “I hear,” whispered Marianne, speaking to the night, the rain, the corner of the living room she could see from her bed. When she lay just so, the blanket drawn across her lips, the pillow crunched into an exact shape, she could see the amber glow of a lamp in the living room left on to light one corner of the reupholstered couch, the sheen of the carefully carpentered shelves above it, the responsive glow of the refinished table below, all in a kindly shine and haze of belonging there. “Mine,” said Marianne to the room.  The lamplight fell on the first corner of the apartment to be fully finished, and she left the light on so that she could see it if she woke, a reminder of what was possible, a promise that all the rooms would be reclaimed from dust and dilapidation. Soon the kitchen would be finished. Two more weeks at the extra work she was doing for the library and she’d have enough money for the bright Mexican tiles she had set her heart upon. (1).

This scene is vital, so present in its appeal to the senses (the sounds of the rain—a sound I often lie awake listening to—the light reflecting off bookshelves, a “refinished table,”), that I become immersed in the world immediately. Marianne’s achievement differs greatly from that of most fantasy novels: she is remodeling an old house and refinishing furniture primarily through her own labor in order to reclaim the color and feel of her childhood home, lost with her parents’ death. The fantasy worlds in this trilogy seem unique (even in the context of Tepper’s work), and I fell in love.

I love Marianne and her momegs, Marjorie and her horses, Mavin’s refusal to compromise, Jinian and her animals, Jinian’s Seven, and the Seven–Carolyn, Agnes, Bettiann, Ophelia, Jessy, Faye, and Sova—in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

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I love Tepper’s world-creation, the animism and ecological/environmentalist themes in her work, the creativity of her names for characters and animals, and, most of all, her descriptions of trees and forests. Tepper and Tolkien’s work seem so alike to me in their love for trees although I wonder how many readers would see any similarity.

I love the feminist elements (some of them!): my love for Grass is not only because of Marjorie and her horses but because of Marjorie’s quest to save her daughter. An additional feminist elements (which I had not thought of until the early drafts of this essay) are some of the male characters who do not fit the model of heroic (or toxic) masculinity: there are two of them in Grass (Rillibee Chime and Brother Mainoa).[3]

I also (and I’ve not seen many reviews talking about this element!) love the skewering of academia that Tepper does in some of her novels (notably in the True Game series and in Sideshow).

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The opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 of Grass are also very high on my list of favorite openings:

Grass!

Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses—some high, some low, some feathered, some straight—making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quite at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.

Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-colored highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy green trees which are grass again.  Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanted lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent (1-2).

Tepper’s books occupy a major part of my “favorites” bookshelves (the ones in my bedroom as opposed to the ones in the library or in my home office or in my office at school). I took this picture of her books stacked up on my bedroom chair the day after I heard of her death.

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Complications

I wrote Mike to ask if he would be interested in a tribute essay when I learned Sheri Tepper died (October 22, 2016). I began scribbling notes and re-reading some of her books immediately. I got (immediately!) sidetracked (academic habits now ingrained), looking at the scholarship and some critical discussions of her work online. I kept writing, and cutting, and cutting, and writing, until I realized there was a huge amount I wanted to say that I did not have time for and could not yet develop at this point.

My original impulse was to write a fan tribute, but apparently, I am a different kind of fan in 2016 than I was in 1986.[4] I still love (some) of Tepper’s work passionately (and find I am immediately grabbed/immersed in my favorites the moment I open them and read the first paragraphs) even though I can see the validity of many of the criticisms I’ve read. It’s nothing as simple as the suck fairy visiting loved books from my early years (I’ve been reading Tepper, like my other favorite writers, more or less continuously since I found her work thirty-four years ago).

I haven’t yet figured out what has happened although I am beginning to think that the flaws in her work are representative (for me) of some of my own flaws, and some of the flaws in some feminist discourses, and even in the broader American culture. To figure that out, I have to write more, but that has to come later. It’s all connected to my life and experiences, and to the development of Anglo-American feminist speculative fiction and to the current political situation in the U.S.

I wrote the first draft of this piece Wednesday, November 9, nearly twelve hours after it became clear that Donald Trump would win the presidency. The weeks since then have featured events that I think go well beyond what Tepper in even her most “heavy-handed”[5] message fiction thought of writing even though her focus on the dangers of patriarchal authoritarianism, particularly that flavored by a certain flavor of American evangelical fundamentalism (similar to that of the Quiverfull Movement) seems prescient to me.

For some years, I have thought that Tepper, among all the sff writers whose work I know, was the most focused on detailing the threats to women’s rights, especially the right to reproductive choice, that have been the focus of the GOP/Tea Party/social conservative movement the past few decades and which are reading unprecedented heights.[6] These attacks are not the only threats from the social conservatives/GOP who are exulting in the chance to dismantle the legislation and overcome court rulings that addressed systemic sexism, racism, homophobia, and poverty in this country, but I do not see much contemporary sff addressing this particular issue.[7] Tepper’s work is informed by the feminist discourses that are labelled “Second Wave Feminism,” a focus I see as connected to the strengths of her work as well as its flaws.[8]

One of the quotes from her 2008 interview at Strange Horizons is very much reflective of what I’ve been feeling since the election:

SST: Post-apocalyptic, post- or mid-holocaust? You say that’s a grim place to go on a daily basis, yet we both do it every day, don’t we? We’re living in it, Neal. Did you think it was still in the future? Read the daily paper. How do I hold myself there? I read the daily paper. How do I recover? I don’t. Do you?

I discovered Tepper, as I found so many other women writers, after I left academia in 1982 because of sexism in a graduate theatre program where I was doing a Master’s in playwriting (some of my experiences in that graduate program, and others, are why I do not see Tepper’s male antagonists as “straw-men” or unrealistically flat). I spent several years working in low-level clerical jobs and adjunct teaching while reading nothing but feminist theory and women writers. I started by finding and reading all the writers discussed in Joanna Russ’ brilliant How to Supress Women’s Writing, but I also pursued a longtime strategy of mine that predated becoming a feminist: read the bookshelves at libraries and bookstores. If a title or a cover caught my attention, I’d read the first page and see what if it grabbed me.

That’s how I found Tepper.

At the time, I was happy to see the feminist ideas in her work and did not see some of the more problematic aspects relating to Second Wave feminism, particularly in regard to the whiteness of her characters and a view of sex / gender / sexual orientation that defaults to straightness and erases or condemns queerness, flaws that are typical in most cultural productions, of course, as the debates in sff fandom the past few years have highlighted.

I returned to academia in the late 1980s because I could do feminist work in a doctoral program; I did not realize how much intersectional feminist work had been done during the 1970s/1980s until I took my first theory course. That course, and the ones following, changed everything for me. Among other things, critical theory freed me from the limitations of the training I received in my undergraduate days (which excluded popular genres by fiat): Foucault was the one whose work gave me my first tools for writing about science fiction in an academic context (though I had to sort of sneak it into my dissertation­). The work by intersectional feminists gave me an entirely different perspective on the sff I loved.

The Academic

As a lifelong fan turned academic who got a Ph.D. in English in part so I could teach sff, I have always been aware of how literary canons are built to exclude. The exclusionary nature of canon-building did not disappear when the 1970s led to so many challenges to the Anglo-American canon of literature: what came about was more an “explosion” of canons.

Thus, there is a feminist sf canon that developed over time, with scholars focusing until recently on the relatively small body of text known as the “seventies feminist utopias” (or the lesbian separatist utopias). Feminist sf scholarship has grown and developed in recent years, and I think the early focus on utopias/dystopias was inevitable given that utopias/dystopias were the only “science fiction” allowed in literary studies at the time.[9] I love some of the novels (particularly those by Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy), but never felt that I had much of anything to say about them as opposed to work by other women sff writers.

My love for Tepper’s work was one of the main reasons that I became interested in the ways in which (some) women writers publishing in the 1980s integrated feminist ideas into their sff in ways that differed from the 1970s feminist utopias (a genre which has nearly disappeared, as Peter Fitting discusses in his excellent essay, “Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist Science Fiction,” published in Science Fiction Studies in 1992).

The Marianne trilogy, along with Mavin’s and Jinian’s, and the Arbai Trilogy (Grass, Raising the Stones, and Sideshow are my favorite Teppers.[10] My first major academic presentation in 1991 was on Grass as feminist epic revision of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I have published one article on Tepper’s work in which I talk about the trilogies in the context of feminist utopias, arguing that Tepper’s work explores feminist themes through the concept of “momentary utopias” or “momutes.”[11] The paragraphs below echo some of what I discussed in that essay.

The early trilogies (Marianne’s, Mavin’s, and Jinian’s) are all stories about young women who resist the expectations of their male-dominated families and cultures in ways that differ from the 1970s feminist utopias (with the exception of Woman on the Edge of Time). Since more women began publishing in the 1980s, a greater range of feminist ideas began to appear along with a greater range in genres. Tepper did write one book that can arguably be considered a feminist utopia or dystopia (The Gate to Women’s Country) but I consider most of her work to be feminist speculative fiction with strong fantastic/fantasy elements.

The blend of fantastic worldbuilding and systems of magical powers existing with stories of male family members raping girls, restricting their education, and forcing them into marriages inform these novels. The protagonists resist/escape family pressures but focus on individual resistance for the most part. All the protagonists escape their families but only one is involved in an attempt to change the dominant culture.

Marianne changes her life by changing the time-line (with the help of the momentary gods which she learns how to use by watching her aunt, the villain of the narrative) rather than by changing social expectations or cultural systems. Her power comes from her birth as a Kavi, a member of the hereditary ruling class in Alpenlicht. This trilogy stands out as one of the few of Tepper’s stories in which heterosexual marriage is presented as a positive relationship. I loved it for its worldbuilding, the momegs, the beautiful descriptive prose of the natural world, and the secondary worlds.

Mavin is born into an oppressive extended family, a group of Shapeshifters in the Land of the True Game. Mavin escapes by leaving the Shifter compound, rescuing her younger brother, and, much later, her older sister, and others along the way. Not only does she face rape as she as she is deemed adult (is able to Shift), but the ongoing rape and abuse of her older sister is revealed. Mavin’s trilogy is very much a quest narrative covering twenty years of her life, but she never marries. She loves Himaggery, a wizard she meets in the first novel, but does not stay with him. One of her quests is to rescue him, and shows that they were happy only when shifted into magical beasts (singlehorns described as very similar to unicorns).  Mavin gives their son, Peter, to her brother to raise. Mavin does not change the cultures or communities she passes through, but she goes beyond what Marianne does by rescuing women and girls. The extent of the world beyond the Land of the True Game is shown in Mavin’s journeys—and the environmentalism/ecological elements are very strong.

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Jinian’s trilogy moves from the focus on the individual to that of the groups attempting to change the dominant culture before the world dies. On her quest, Jinian learns about the origin and history of human settlement on Lom. Humans colonized the planet, not realizing that Lom (embodying the Gaia hypothesis) was sentient and able to communicate with all its native creatures. Lom tries to bring humanity into the web, but humans resist; then, Lom grants humans magical Talents. But their increased power leads to more violence against each other and the destruction of the environment.  The groups working to try to change human society, the Wizards and Dervishes specifically, are mostly (but not exclusively) women.[12]

Jinian is raised in an abusive family (who turns out not to be her birth family), but is helped from the start by a group of older women, called a Seven, who are Wizards /Wize arts. She is a Wizard and a beast-talker, able to communicate with animals and the other sentient beings of Lom. She is the one who discovers that the spirit is trying to commit suicide. As a result of the efforts Jinian leads, Lom decides to live but takes away the humans’ Talents. Jinian becomes involved with and marries Peter during the course of her quest, but also has strong relationships with other women, not only with her Seven, but with Silkhands the Healer.

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Over time, as I read Tepper’s late work in the context of my graduate courses and first attempts to write feminist scholarship on science fiction, I became aware of the problematic aspects relating to race and heteronormativity. Those patterns are not unique in sff either at the time or today. Additionally, I saw the tendency in her narratives to construct sexism as institutionalized by authoritarian religions and regimes as a genetic component of humanity.[13]

Thus, her novels showed that only a change in the human genome could change human nature, leading to eugenics/breeding programs (explored in detail in The Gate to Women’s Country but also central to The Waters Rising and Fish Tails. Some novels show groups of humans running the breeding programs while others feature external agents causing the change, at times with the cooperation of some humans (the Goddess in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, the Arbai device in the Arbai trilogy, the Pistach in The Fresco).[14]

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The Question for the Future

I am ending this piece by noting the question that I keep coming to as I’ve been working on the drafts: the extent to which Tepper’s gender/genetic essentialism is representative of popular ideas in feminism specifically and more broadly in U.S. culture.

The entry on Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender shows that some feminist theories are essentialist (meaning the assumption that sex or gender differences are “natural,” or genetically created).

P. Z. Myers noted in a recent post in his blog, the idea that “male” and “female” DNA exists is so widespread that even a Young Earth creationist cites “science” (incorrectly, but still tying the claim to “scientific knowledge”) to support his claim of the essential differences between men and women: There’s no such things as male and female DNA by P. Z. Myers.

This genetic essentialism is heavily implicated in concepts of “race.” This conversation between two anthropologists, (which Myers linked to in another blog post) covers the widespread and common understanding that DNA is “race”: New Articulations of Biological Difference in the 21st Century: A Conversation, Agustin Fuentes and Carolyn Rouse, at Anthropology Now.

Agusti?n: The core problem here remains that biology courses in high school and college are taught by individuals who, at least subconsciously, buy into the “race as biology” and “genetics as deterministic” perspectives. There are very, very few high schools in the United States where accurate information on human biological diversity is offered. There are few courses even at the college level where such information is provided or where contemporary evolutionary theory and biology are the norm. Inside and outside the classroom, students are mired in implicit “race talk” related to issues of biology and an overemphasis on genetic control of behavior. Think about discussions of professional sports, testosterone, violence, sexuality.

The history of deterministic genetics is tied to the history of genetics, with the impact on popular understanding of sex, race, and sexual orientation being documented fairly extensively.[15] The tendency to assume a “natural” (aka genetic) cause for differences is widespread.

Tepper’s work definitely assumes a genetic component, but stories/novels are sneaky. They twine around and bite their own tails. As I was re-reading Tepper’s work for this essay, I kept thinking about how Fish Tails, unlike some of the earlier novels, seems to critique the common trope of breeding programs as solutions in the two plot lines: Lillis and Needly’s life in Hench Valley, one of Tepper’s most clearly delineated (and yes, heavy-handed!) portrayals of patriarchal authoritarianism, and Xulai’s story (which began in The Waters Rising. I agree with the various critical reviews I’ve seen that this trilogy has a number of problems in narrative technique, characterization, and themes, but it also contains some criticism of the attempt to improve the human race through breeding programs that did not exist in the earlier works.

So this piece seems to be the start of something longer trying to figure out what I see going on in Tepper’s work, and how people (including but not only me) have responded to it over the years. I don’t really need any more projects added to the mountain, but I don’t think this one is going to go away anytime soon.

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[1] One of my favorite parts of Raising the Stones is the way in which the narrative deconstructs the “father quest” in Samasnier (Sam) Girat’s arc. Sam, having been brought up on Hobbs Land after his mother Maire escaped from Ahabar, misses the legends and religion, or his idealization of them, and embodies those ideals in his father.

[2] My least favorite work is Beauty (so much so that I don’t think I have ever re-read it), and others that I rarely reread are The Awakeners duology North Shore and South Shore), The Companions, and Shadow’s End).

[3] The major male characters who are antagonists can be described as flat characters/stereotypical villains (and there are many of them) although I keep thinking of the behaviors Tepper must have observed over her years working at CARE and Planned Parenthood, and of behaviors I growing up in the 1950s/1960s. This reviewer’s comment struck me as revealing: criticizing the characterization of Rigo (especially the sections in which he is the point of view character) in Grass as stereotypical, they also say: Sadly, I’m sure this isn’t too far afield from some real battered spouse situations, but it’s not anything I wanted to read about. Real life may be like this, but if any author is going to put it into a book, I want the catharsis of Marjorie kicking his ass by the end of the novel. I’m left wondering what they would define as “kicking ass” because Marjorie saves her daughter, saves her horses, convinces the Foxen to intervene, helps solve the mystery of the plague, rejects the handsome younger male who is trying to restrict her to his romantic ideal, walks away from Rigo and her religion, and then leaves for her own quest (bits and pieces of which we get in the other novels in the trilogy) with First.

[4] In 1986, I was just starting my doctoral work which focused on which focused on gender, queer, and critical race theories and was years away from learning how to be a fan of problematic things.

[5] “Heavy-handed” is in quotes because I tend to think one person’s heavy-handed message fic can be another person’s incisive description of reality. Tepper is pretty up-front about preaching in her fiction (and rejecting “literary fiction” as she notes in this 2008 interview. And after two decades of reading (and enjoying but aware of) the “heavy-handed” message science fiction by men about men written for a (perceived to be) male audience, I was pretty happy to find a feminist message back then.

[6] Politics USA details various legislative attempts to restrict women’s rights to reproductive care, especially abortion services. It’s worth remembering that there’s a major push to define most contraceptive methods as “abortion.”

[7] I have been recommending Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife to everyone I talk to: it’s a brilliant post-apocalyptic dystopian evocation of the fundamental importance of reproductive rights: and one that speaks directly to current circumstances in the wake of the Zika virus.

[8] I’d imagine the majority of feminist readers can identify the Second Wave elements in her work; a very good review of Tepper’s dystopias by The Rejectionist can be found at Tor.com.

[9] Given the dominance of feminist utopias in the feminist sf canon, it’s not surprising the more articles have been written on The Gate to Women’s Country than on Tepper’s other novels.  When I checked the Modern Languages Association International Bibliography, I found 23 articles or book chapters listed: not all of them are peer-reviewed because the MLA currently includes popular criticism (such as reviews from the New York Review of Science Fiction) and dissertations. Nine of the articles are on Gate; six of those focus on the topic of feminist utopias. Beauty is the second most popular (three articles), and there are single articles on Raising the Stones and Six Moon Dance. I’m the only one who has written on her earlier novels, or the trilogies.

[10] My favorite stand-alone novels are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, The Family Tree, The Fresco and, in other genres, her horror duology about Mahlia and Roger Ettison. I enjoy her two mystery series, published under the open pseudonyms of Orde and Oliphant, but they do not do the kind of work her sf does.

[11] “Momutes”: Momentary Utopias in Tepper’s Trilogies.” The Utopian Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twentieth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Edited by Martha Bartter. Praeger, 2004. 101-108.

Thesis paragraph:  First, to explain the origins of my invented word, “momutes.”  In Marianne, The Madame and The Momentary Gods, Tepper’s second novel of the Marianne trilogy, Tepper introduces creatures/creations called momentary gods, or “momegs.”  Momegs are “basically a wave form with particular aspects,” beings who “give material space its reality by giving time its duration” (53-4).  An infinite number of momegs exist, each with its own locus, and the momegs describe themselves as both a wave and a particle.  I argue that Tepper’s trilogies are feminist science fiction and include “momutes,” or momentary visions of utopian possibilities. However, a reading of the trilogies in order of publication reveals that the momutes change over the course of the novels and that the changes in the nature of these momutes correlates with the development of a more complicated narrative structure and with a decreasing trust in human beings’ ability to create feminist/utopian societies.  The correlation between the nature of the momutes and narrative structures reveal a change in emphasis from Tepper’s focus (perhaps also reflecting differences in feminist theory) upon the feminist empowerment of an individual woman within a patriarchal and oppressive culture, to the problem of how cultural change on a larger level occur.  Cultures are rarely if ever changed by the actions of single individuals who call for such change.  Instead, systemic changes beyond the agency of any single individual, involving demographics, technology, and economics, are what lead to cultural changes.  Considering the change in culture, the subject of feminist utopias, is a more complex task than the changes in a single individual.

[12] The Plague of Angels trilogy, completed in 2014 with Tepper’s last published work, Fish Tails, crosses over into the True Game World. As a fan of the earlier trilogies, I enjoyed this attempt which I consider equal to if not superior to the similar attempts by Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov to link up all their earlier works as well.

[13] Octavia Butler explores similar themes, notably in the Xenogenesis series in which the Oankali ‘diagnose’ human’s flaws as our intelligence and hierarchical natures and begin a breeding program, and in her Patternmaster series, from a very different perspective and with different results. The difference in their respective handling of this idea—and I think it’s a very important one—is that Butler complicates/explores the negative results of such attempts while Tepper does not (though I think there are some attempts at such complication in her later work).

[14] James Davis Nicoll noted Tepper’s tendency towards eugenics in one of his reviews, and Wendy Gay Pearson wrote an excellent critical analysis in “After the (Homo)sexual: Queer Readings of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country,” <em>Science Fiction Studies</em>. Vol. 23 Iss. 2 (1996).  The Abstract for Pearson’s work is here; I am not able to find a version online, though SFS used to have it available.

[15] A Short History of Scientific Racism

 

Pixel Scroll 11/27 The Pixel Scrolled Back from Nothing at All

I’m off to Loscon for the day — so a very early Scroll.

(1) ARTISTS AND NEW WFA. Several tweets of interest about the call for submissions of World Fantasy Award designs.

The first three of nine tweets by John Picacio responding to discussion of his blog post “Artists Beware”.

(2) FAN CRITICS OF TOLKIEN. Robin Anne Reid’s “The question of Tolkien Criticism” answers Norbert Schürer’s “Tolkien Criticism Today” (LA Review of Books).

Fans can and do write critical commentary of Tolkien’s work, and not all critics/academics distance ourselves from being fans, a distancing stance that was perhaps once required to support the myth of academic objectivity. I suspect, given Schürer’s commentary on Tolkien’s work and style as well as his conclusion, that he would not identify as a fan. But his idea that the primary audience for Tolkien scholars is only fans (instead of other Tolkien scholars) strikes me as bizarre as does the idea that fan demands would affect what a critic would say:

Just as importantly, Tolkien should not be treated with kid gloves because he is a fan favorite with legions to be placated, but as the serious and major author he is (para.22).

Since the quote above is Schürer’s conclusion, he provides no evidence for this claim that critics treat Tolkien “with kid gloves” for fear of these legions of fans.

(3) REACHER. Andy Martin observed Lee Child writing the Jack Reacher novel Make Me from start to finish. Martin, a University of Cambridge lecturer, and the author have a dialog in about their experience in “The Professor on Lee Child’s Shoulder” at the New York  Times Sunday Review.

MARTIN I was sitting about two yards behind you while you tapped away. Trying to keep quiet. I could actually make out a few of the words. “Nothingness” I remember for some obscure reason. And “waterbed.” And then I kept asking questions. I couldn’t help myself. How? Why? What the…? Oh surely not! A lot of people thought I would destroy the book.

CHILD Here is the fundamental reality about the writing business. It’s lonely. You spend all your time writing and then wondering whether what you just wrote is any good. You gave me instant feedback. If I write a nicely balanced four-word sentence with good rhythm and cadence, most critics will skip right over it. You not only notice it, you go and write a couple of chapters about it. I liked the chance to discuss stuff that most people never think about. It’s weird and picayune, but obviously of burning interest to me.

MARTIN And the way you care about commas — almost Flaubertian! I tried to be a kind of white-coated detached observer. But every observer impinges on the thing he is observing. Which would be you in this case. And I noticed that everything around you gets into your texts. You are an opportunistic writer. For example, one day the maid was bumping around in the kitchen and in the next line you used the word “bucket.” Another time there was some construction work going on nearby and the next verb you used was “nail.” We go to a bookstore and suddenly there is Reacher, in a bookstore.

(4) ACCESSIBLE CONS. Rose Lemberg adopts a unified approach to “#accessiblecons and Geek Social Fallacies”.

“Geek Social Fallacies” are in themselves a fallacy. There are many people – not just the disabled -pushed away from fandom.

It’s not expensive to get a ramp in the US with pre-planning. Most hotels have them ready because they are ADA-compliant. If you invite a person in a wheelchair to speak at a con, and there is no ramp, you ostracized them. Own it.

It’s not because it’s too difficult, too expensive, it’s not because the fan did not ask nicely or loudly or politely enough. It’s because you did NOT accept them as they are. It’s because you ostracized them. Will you own it?

Year after year, I see defensiveness. I see the same arguments repeat. It’s too pricey. It’s the disabled person’s fault. Where are our Geek Social Fallacies when it comes to access? Can we as a community stop ostracizing disabled fans already?

(5) LON CHANEY. Not As A Stranger (1955) will air on Turner Classic Movies this Thursday December 3 at 10:00 a.m. Eastern; Lon Chaney cast as Job Marsh, father of Robert Mitchum, a moving portrayal that ranks among his very best.

(6) SF SCREENPLAYS. Nick Ransome, “Writing Science Fiction Screenplays” at Industrial Scripts.

Sci-Fi is the only genre, apart from the Western, still to resist the post-modern impulse. This could be due to the fact that Sci-Fi is not a genre at all, but the actual reason that Sci-Fi so completely resists the post-modern relativity of time and meaning is because that is what it was always about in the first place. There are no realities or meanings more relative than those revealed by Science Fiction.

In its purest form, the Sci-Fi narrative presents a polarity of moral choices and asks the most difficult of existential questions. This polarity is encapsulated by the utopian (ordered, no conflict, boring) and the dystopian (messy, intriguing, human).

LOGAN’S RUN is the best example in terms of story theory because although the action begins in a utopia, we soon realise that in fact we are in a dystopian nightmare (the Act One reversal). Films like BRAZIL, DARK CITY and THE MATRIX may start with a semblance of reality (the world as you just about know it) but then fairly swiftly make us aware that we are actually in a version of hell (or rather an allegory of the world as it really is).

(7) CIXIN LIU. A Cixin Liu interview about “The future of Chinese sci-fi” at Global Times was posted August 30, however, I believe this is the first time it’s been linked here.

GT: Some Chinese fans have said they want to band together to vote on the World Science Fiction website next year. What’s your opinion on this? Liu: That’s the best way to destroy The Three-Body Trilogy. And not just this sci-fi work, but also the reputation of Chinese sci-fi fans. The entire number of voters for the Hugo Awards is only around 5,000. That means it is easily influenced by malicious voting. Organizing 2,000 people to each spend $14 is not hard, but I am strongly against such misbehavior. If that really does happen, I will follow the example of Marko Kloos, who withdrew from the shortlist after discovering the “Rabid Puppies” had asked voters to support him.

GT: Many fans believe that even if The Three-Body Problem had benefited from the “puppies,” it still was deserving of a Hugo Award. Do you agree? Liu: Deserving is one thing, getting the award is another thing. Many votes went to The Three-Body Problem after Marko Kloos withdrew. That’s something I didn’t want to see. But The Three-Body Problem still would have had a chance to win by a slim margin of a few votes [without the “puppies”]. After the awards, some critics used this – the support right-wing organizations like the “puppies” gave The Three-Body Problem – as an excuse to criticize the win. That frustrated me. The “puppies” severely harmed the credibility of the Hugo Awards. I feel both happy and “unfortunate” to have won this year. The second volume was translated by an American translator, while the first and third were translated by Liu Yukun (Ken Liu). Most Chinese readers think the second and the third books are better than the first, but American readers won’t necessarily feel the same way. So I’m not sure about the Hugo Awards next year. I’m just going to take things in stride.

GT: It’s not easy for foreign literature to break into the English language market. What do you think of Liu Yukun’s translation? Liu: Although only my name is on the trophy, it actually belongs to both myself and Liu Yukun. He gets half the credit. He has a profound mastery of both Oriental and Western literature. He is important to me and Chinese sci-fi. He has also introduced books from other countries to the West. A Japanese author once told me that the quality of Japanese sci-fi is much better than China’s, but its influence in the US is much weaker. That’s because they lack a bridge like Liu Yukun.

(8) RETRO COLLECTION. Bradley W. Schenck is pleased with the latest use of his Pulp-O-Mizer.

I ran across a post at File770.com featuring the third volume of a collection of stories eligible for the 1941 Retro Hugo Awards at next year’s Worldcon. The collection is an ongoing project by File770 user von Dimpleheimer.

Since the third volume is a big batch of stories by Henry Kuttner and Ray Cummings I followed the link and grabbed a copy, only to discover that von Dimpleheimer had made the eBook cover with my very own Pulp-O-Mizer. This put a smile all over my face. Like, actually, all over my face.

So I went back and downloaded the first two volumes and, sure enough, they had also been Pulp-O-Mized. This may be my very favorite use of the Pulp-O-Mizer to date.

(9) TEASER. A new Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser was posted on Thanksgiving. I’m leery of viewing these TV spots because I’m already sold on the movie and don’t want to dilute the experience of watching it. YMMV.

The minute-long teaser, dubbed “All The Way,” debuted on Facebook, but will also appear as a TV spot. IT finds Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke character telling Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, “Even you have never faced such a test.”

[Thanks to Francis Hamit, Will R., and John King Tarpinian for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Jonathan Edelstein.]

Praising or Burying Tolkien

Editor’s Introduction: These thoughts, left this morning as a comment, struck me as so substantial they ought to be shared in a guest post as well. (The author chose the byline, I made up the title.) Author Reid would like to note: “I did not realize on first writing it that it was a reprint of an earlier Le Guin piece.” Although Le Guin’s essay appeared online November 2, it was originally given as a talk in 2000.

By Robin Anne Reid:

Le Guin: American critics and academics have been trying for forty years to bury one of the great works of twentieth-century fiction, The Lord of the Rings. They ignore it, they condescend to it, they stand in large groups with their backs to it, because they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid of dragons. They know if they acknowledge Tolkien they’ll have to admit that fantasy can be literature, and that therefore they’ll have to redefine what literature is.

Do some “American critics and academics” try to bury Tolkien?

Sure!

I’m defining “critics” as a huge group of writers who publish reviews and commentary in a range of periodicals from the New York Times Review of Science Fiction (ahem started by Gerald Jonas who strikes me as an American critics to the sff magazines to internet commentary at blogs (Natalie Luhrs being one of my FAVORITE bloggers).

Note that forty years ago, “critics” would have been a much smaller, much maler, much straighter, much whiter, much more “professional” (in the sense of gatekeeping) group that now.

That is, “critics” means everybody who publishes commentary on Tolkien and sff (I’m extending my points to sff because I think that it’s all part of one major paradigm shift in U.S. culture and academia) who isn’t an academic publishing in a peer-reviewed journal or through a university press. Thus, academics are a sub-set of “critics.”

News flash: they failed.

Secondary news flash: critics and academics tried even harder in the United Kingdom to bury Tolkien but even there, they failed.

It didn’t matter how AWFUL Edmund Wilson found Tolkien’s Orcs.

They failed in every possible way.

Not only is Tolkien’s popularity greater than ever (and we’re talking a global popularity fueled by translations in numerous languages and by Peter Jackson’s live-action film adaptation (no matter how horrendous some critics and academics find the films — and a lot of their language ironically mirrors the anti-Tolkien criticism of the 1950s in dismissing them as “boys’ adventure/action stories”), the films have expanded Tolkien’s readership, led directly to Tolkien’s work being taught in more schools and universities, and to more scholarship being written on Tolkien by academics.

The numbers I’m going to give below are from the Modern Languages International Bibliography. The Modern Languages Association is the oldest and largest professional organization of literature and languages academics in the English-speaking world (I suspect world-wide, but I don’t know for sure!).

It is certainly a good example, overall, to support LeGuin’s claims about academic marginalizing of genre literature (science fiction, Tolkien, romance, westerns, mysteries, etc.). But the Bibliography is one of the most comprehensive of scholarship published in academic journals (and in recent years non-academic journals are included as well), so it’s a good place to mine for data showing changes.

So. “Tolkien” subject search done November 4, 2015.

Results: 2,419 (meaning books, anthology chapters, articles, and dissertations).

The first three articles published in 1952 and 1953 talk about his work on Beowulf. Tolkien’s essay “The Monsters and the Critics” was the foundation of entire literary sub-field of Beowulf studies, as opposed to it being solely a focus for philological scholarship on Anglo Saxon language issues. (And I would argue as well from a lot of years hanging out with medievalists, who were the majority of academics to write about Tolkien’s novels, his arguments about the poem as a LITERARY work are also strongly connected to the foundation of Tolkien studies).

But of course that was before LotR was published. Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit covers a lot of the celebratory critical commentary and articles when the book was first published.

Arguably, TH was less controversial than LotR because it was presented as a “children’s story” which fit the cultural stereotypes of the time, i.e. “fantasy” was OK for children, because children. Tolkien tackled those stereotypes in his essay “On Fairy Stories” which has been much studies and used by (wait for it) academics writing on Tolkien’s work. The negative criticisms of LotR, exemplified by Wilson, seemed mostly incensed by the idea that actual adults, including people like C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden were taking this “childish” story by this weird Oxford don *seriously* as adult literature. Le Guin isn’t wrong that a lot of critics and academics want to dismiss Tolkien: what leaves me frustrated by her comments is that she completely glosses over and ignores the forty or more years during which *some* academics and critics have been resisting that tendency.

The first article published on Tolkien’s work is not necessarily a positive one. thus it is part of the “let’s bury him” strategy.

Although I will note that publishing essays on an author is not exactly the best way to “bury” his work not in academia which has a lot of people who read an essay they disagree with and voila WRITE an essay arguing with it!

The text below is copied from the MLA Bibliography and is in the format they give (true for all the entries taken from that source):

Ethical Pattern in The Lord of the Rings By: Spacks, Patricia Meyer; Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 1959; 3 (1): 30-42. (journal article)

The most recent publication indexed in the MLA Bibliography is: A Song for J. R. R. Tolkien Full Text Available By: Parman, Sue; Antioch Review, 2015 Winter; 73 (1): 34-44. (journal article) Subjects: letters; memoir

Let’s do a quick chronological breakdown, speaking of “40 years” of ignoring Tolkien.

If I limit the search for publications on Tolkien’s work to only those publications appearing during the years 1950-1975 (the final date being chosen because it was 40 years ago) on Tolkien, I get:

177 publications during those in 25 years

I’ve read quite a few of them, and there are some interesting patterns to discuss, including the fact that the earliest academic anthologies on Tolkien’s work tended to try to “dismiss the fans,” and explain how Tolkien’s work was really GOOD despite its popularity, and to hope that the popularity diminished so “real” scholarship could be done.

So clearly those early academics’ hopes that popularity would diminish have failed miserably!

A subject search on Tolkien criticism and scholarship from 1976-2015:

2,242 results (these include periodical articles, peer-reviewed articles, anthology chapters, books by single authors, and dissertations in the United States at least).

I’d say the last forty years shows a spirited attempt by scholars and critics in multiple disciplinary areas to *bring Tolkien into the canon of literary works.*

By canon, I mean those works that are discussed by academics and critics, in a variety of cultural spaces, including peer-reviewed journals, and those works that are taught in schools.

And my focus here excludes the immense amount of fan scholarship that exists on Tolkien, a fan scholarship that is still pretty much ignored by academic scholars.

However, since a number of the “second generation” of Tolkien scholars, including myself identify as fans, at least we’re not all still routinely dissing fans. I say “second generation” because the “first generation” consists of those academics that created Tolkien Studies by publishing, teaching, and organizing sessions at conferences.

The biggest names of the first generation are: Jane Chance, Verlyn Flieger, and Tom Shippey, all academics. All still alive (though all recently retired). And the fact that two of the three biggest academic names in the field are women is fairly unique (outside fields such as feminist studies and women’s literature!)

And collections of scholarship in honor of their work on Tolkien are published/being published.

And the teaching issue (often ignored by many who aren’t, well, teachers) is important as well. Tolkien’s work was first taught in U. S. colleges as part of the changes during the 1970s (not because of a great sea-change in which everyone realized that omg it’s LITERATURE, but because it attracted students into classes). The process of canonization includes teaching of the works, especialkly at the college and graduate level (and warning: the “canon” changes constantly).

[There was a huge drop-off of students majoring in humanities courses during the 1970s which has been debated for years. George Will and Harold Bloom and Allen Bloom and all their Puppy Ilk have attributed this drop-off to the fact that the hippies and marxists who failed during the 1960s to overthrow the white Amerikan Western Civilization took over the universities to indoctrinate the young by throwing out Shakespeare and teaching Alice Walker, aka THEORY and SJWs. In fact, recent intriguing research shows that one reason that the numbers changed was the impact of the feminist movement that opened up degrees in male-dominated programs to women in the United States: The changing majors of women. Certainly it’s true that the progressive and activist movements had an impact on academia during the 1970s, with the growth of women’s studies, Afro-American studies, multicultural and ethnic studies, etc., that continued to the present day. In any case, the first courses on Tolkien were taught during the 1970s, though some research I was doing in the Marquette Tolkien Archive indicates there were some earlier English faculty in the U.S. involved in a variety of Tolkien courses and publications that aren’t always known about today.]

Tolkien still won’t be found routinely in most “canonical” courses such as “British surveys” necessarily, or in “Modern British Literature” necessarily, and is still often taught under special topic rubrics (meaning not official courses), but even that is changing.

The Modern Languages Association itself has just published (about eight years in the making, sigh) a book on teaching Tolkien in its “Approaches to Teaching World Literature: edited by Leslie Donovan.

Leslie has also set up an online journal for teachers (at all grade levels and in all disciplines) to post about how they teach Tolkien.

Short message: there’s a whole lot of people teaching Tolkien all over the U. S. educational system from grade school to graduate school. And the more we teach it, the more it will be taught. (I teach Tolkien under the special topics number in my department, though I can occasionally sneak his work in, or Pratchett’s in a couple of memorable summer terms under a regular course titled “Major British Writers” that allows for a wide range of topics to be taught.)

And “Tolkien Studies” is growing as an academic sub-field: it’s still challenged by many, still controversial, but it’s growing.

I wish that Le Guin could acknowledge that because her points, while absolutely accurate when The Language of the Night was published in 1978, are part of the change I’m talking about here.

Doing subject searches on “Le Guin” in the MLA Bibliography shows 521 results (articles, peer-reviewed articles, books, anthologies, and dissertations).

The earliest one appeared in 1972:

‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ and the Charge of Escapism Detail Only Available By: Jago, Wendy; Children’s Literature in Education: An International Quarterly, 1972 July; 3 (2): 21-29. (journal article) Subjects: children; naming; choice; morality

Yes, it was in the children’s literature area (but let’s think a moment about how people still dismiss “children’s literature” — and nowadays “YA literature” as not real literature even though both these areas are ones that have been most welcoming to sff related works — probably because of their own marginal status — and it’s not completely coincidental that these academic fields are dominated by women and have been since the start — since women (primarily white because of institutional racism in the U. S. academy) don’t have any major cultural capital or status, what the hell, we can do all the weird stuff if we want), but it was there.

And the newest publications: the most recent three, all appearing in 2015, are dissertations. The fact that they’re dissertations is a major thing: one usually publishes from one’s dissertation in the first few years of academic employment, and if these topics are approved, it means that graduate academics are “approving” topics in the marginalized areas. Also note the topics related to the dissertations and the universities:

Spectacles of Faith: Technology, Religion, and Modern American Fictions Detail Only Available By: Hamner, Everett Lance; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Nov; 76 (5). U of Iowa, 2008 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: Ellison, Ralph; Percy, Walker; Le Guin, Ursula K.; film; technology; religion

Let’s Just Steal the Rockets: 1970s Feminist Science Fiction as Radical Rhetorical Revisioning Detail Only Available By: Belk, Patrick Nolan; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Aug; 76 (2). U of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2014 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: 1970-1979; utopia; social justice; feminism

Balancing Flux and Stability: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed Detail Only Available By: Jones, Hillary A.; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Feb; 75 (8). Pennsylvania State U, 2011 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: paradox; rhetoric; anarchism

Besides the work on Le Guin’s fiction, there are 30 articles by Le Guin herself as a critic and author and editor!

Just as Tolkien wrote fiction AND criticism AND theory, so too does Le Guin.

That’s why I say she’s part of the solution to the problem she is writing about!

And as I noted above, I also strongly associated the status of Tolkien’s work in criticism and the academy with “science fiction” (though arguably at the start, during the 1970s, there was a bit more credibility given to “hard” science fiction over fantasy — but of course the field of “science fiction,” or “speculative fiction” as I prefer has changed as well!). Certainly when I was in fandom during the 1970s, we didn’t distinguish that much between the genres.

(And when I was active in fandom, I was also an English major in a department where there was ONE “Science Fiction as Literature course,” and then going on to my graduate work, and eventually getting my doctorate with a dissertation that incorporated feminist theory and Foucault and science fiction — I was an SF fan before I became an English major, and I got a Ph.D. so I could bring sf — by women! — into the academy. A lot of us did. THINGS CHANGED.)

“Science fiction” subject search in MLA: 11,673 hits

Lunar Characters in Science and Fiction By: Parsons, Coleman O.; Notes and Queries, 1933; 164: 346-348. (journal article)

  1. *ahem*

Remembering and Restoring the Republic: Star Wars and Rome Full Text Available By: Charles, Michael B.; Classical World, 2015 Winter; 108 (2): 281-298. (journal article) Subjects: science fiction film; Star Wars film series; freedom; oppression; Roman Empire

What a lot of book fans/academics didn’t predict was the growth of “science fiction” as a mainstream cultural product through films and games (and having hung out at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts where some of the founders of science fiction literary studies do, I’m say to say a lot of them are grumpy about it and complain about young people these days not reading the classics….)

It’s a bit harder to track “fantasy” scholarship because the term “fantasy” refers to a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with “genre fantasy” (darn psychology!). But a few searches of related terms:

Genre fantasy 605 Fantastic literature 261 Dystopias 1,016 Utopia 5,707

A lot of “fantasy” might get subsumed under “science fiction” tags in databases. There are entire academic journals dedicated entirely to science fiction and fantasy:

And, finally, TWO journals dedicated to Tolkien’s work alone:

And, finally, one of the reasons that Le Guin’s ongoing dismissal of “academics and critics” bugs me the most is because it wipes out all the work done by women sff fans, critics, and academics (of which she is one! And she knows about WisCon, and Broad Universe, and The Tiptree Award, who are all full of critics and academics working to build awareness of sff.

Laura Quilter has been doing amazing work on the internet for years, and there are so many others, writing criticism in many different internet publications and spaces.

There’s even an Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy!

And let’s not forget three major intellectual/cultural histories on women and sff that I have to recommend All. The. Time.

It’s good to keep calling out the sad dinosaurs that are resisting the changes of the past fifty plus years, but it would be nice if Le Guin, with the size of her audience, spent a little time focusing on all the critics and academics, especially the women, who are creating the changes she is calling for.

Her ongoing unawareness of the critical and academic efforts (if she has spent time writing about these efforts, I apologize for not having seen it and would love the links doing) is getting increasingly frustrating.