Book Review: To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction by Joanna Russ

I wasn’t quite certain what to expect when I chose To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Literary/Reference 181 pages) by Joanna Russ as my individual reading component assignment. I’ve never really considered myself to be a feminist before, but reading this book, in combination with my own individual studies regarding feminism because of recent events such as GamerGate and my own perceptions about the lack of female representation in science fiction, has helped to shape and provide substance to what writing science fiction as a woman means to me.

In my experiences in reading science fiction, I’ve found that I can usually tell the difference between male and female authors because of the focus of the story. Many of the science fiction novels I’ve read seem to have a clear distinction between the “hard” science fiction and the “softer” science fiction. From what I’ve seen out of my own readings, science fiction written by men seems to have a lot more technical jargon and a lot more detailed description as to the math, science, and engineering aspects of science fiction whereas the science fiction written by women seems to have more of a basis around humanity, human concepts, and character development.

In the article titled “Recent Feminist Utopias”, Joanna Russ speaks extensively about the differences between male utopias and female utopias, as seen throughout books she read. “In view of this general previous neglect, the works treated in this paper are remarkable not only for their explicit feminism but for the similar forms the feminism takes. They not only ask the same questions and point to the same abuses; they provide similar answers and remedies” (page 136). The feminist stories Russ discusses have many similar trends and one of the sections in the book that stuck out the most with me was on page 137: “Without exception the stories are ecology-minded. … However, many of the stories go beyond the problems of living in the world without disturbing its ecological balance into presenting their characters as feeling a strong emotional connection to the natural world.” This is exactly one of the points that I’ve seen in my own reading, how female science fiction authors are looking at the world through a lens of improving the world, or universe, around them and that the story isn’t just about the main character’s sexual desires or search for power. The science fiction I read such as Anne McCaffrey’s Decision at Doona and the Crystal Singer Trilogy, C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, and the Star Kingdom books by David Weber and Jane Lindskold all specifically deal with humanity’s ability to survive on planets or in a manner consistent with respect towards the ecology of a planet.

Later in the article, Russ discusses a little bit about how violence and war aren’t really prevalent in the female utopia stories and says, “One might argue that women’s usual experience of war is just that: social collapse and natural disaster. Certainly few women have experienced war as part of a military hierarchy and few expect to do so” (page 138). This is where I think this book lost me for a little bit and I had to force myself to remember that this book was published in 1995, which was a very different time in world history. In 2014, men and women both have served in over a decade of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe that over a decade of war has increased the perspective and writing of violence and war for women, and that has a trickle-down effect to recent publications in science fiction. For example, Rachel Bach’s Paradox Trilogy deals specifically with a woman who wants nothing more than to become a Devastator, which is the highest level of special operations mechanized combat operations her planet maintains.

The article about utopias then moves to the discussion regarding the battle of the sexes and this was the single paragraph that really made me sit down and look at our society and the way American society as a whole looks at feminism and the female role in society. Pages 143-144: “Briefly, the battle-of-the-sexes stories present all-female or female-dominated worlds (of which there are none among the feminist utopias) that are returned to the normalcy of male dominance by male visitors from our own society or male renegades from the world of the story. These men overthrow a gynocracy that is both awesomely repressive and completely inefficient. The method of overthrow is some form of phallic display: flashing, a kiss, rape. The books are badly written, apolitical, and present women as only potentially sexual; they also present rape as either impossible or desired by the woman. These stories are not only strikingly violent; they are violent without feeling, and in contrast to the all-female, feminist utopias, never propose an all-male world as a solution to their problem. Their authors are not, it seems, willing to do without women. However the books are surprisingly non-erotic, sex being a matter of power in them and not pleasure.”

Given the problems American society is having these days with rape culture and the back-and-forth on every media format about feminism and anti-feminism and how society seems to be working really hard to maintain outdated views on the roles of gender and gender equality, books like To Write Like a Woman are important to help all writers of science fiction to create stories and characters that are worth investment.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading this book, even though it really did take me longer to get through it than the fiction I’m used to reading. I would strongly recommend this book as a collection and resource for reference and would rate the book as a solid three on my rating scale. I’m glad I own it, and I suspect that I will reference the book in the future

Works cited:

Russ, Joanna. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1995.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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