In the Chinks of the World Machine provides a committed but very readable picture of the achievements of serious science fiction by women at the time of its publication in 1988. Sarah Lefanu was in a privileged position to write such a book, as an editor who’d created new opportunities for women’s SF through the unique SF list she managed at the Women’s Press.
The book comprises two parts. The first presents an overview of the depiction of women in SF and the ways in which women writers, mainly from the 1970s onwards, have revolutionised the possibilities on that score. Part 2 studies in detail the work of four key writers: James Tiptree, Jr (aka Alice Sheldon), Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ.
Russ is the presiding spirit of the book. Lefanu rates her significance very highly, both as novelist and as critic, and explains how her writing aims to shock, to provoke, to wake people up from their assumptions – and to leave them, not with answers, but fretting about what they’ve read. At the opposite pole, among the many writers discussed in Part 1, is Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose attempts to tackle feminist themes miss the point, Lefanu argues, and leave women where they already are.
Lefanu’s terms of evaluation are largely political; she mentions points of aesthetics as and when they’re instrumental to political effect. But I was pleased to see her bracket Tanith Lee with Angela Carter as a writer doing a similar kind of work and just as good, despite the one being branded a genre writer while the other is lauded as a major literary figure. There’s good discussion of the theme of feminist utopia, e.g. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground, and the rather scarier societies in Charnas’s Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World.
Lefanu’s book concerns a conversation among women, whether they be novelists or critics. The short shrift she gives to male writers’ reactions to Russ’s seminal essay ‘The Image of Women in Science Fiction’ (1971) give fair warning of the moral risk of making any critical comment in this context if you happen to be a man. If I were to hazard any criticism it would be to challenge the treatment of Le Guin. Lefanu critiques her work more harshly than that of the other major writers examined, because of her tendencies to use male protagonists and to sustain the sensibilities of the bourgeois novel. For sure, it makes good thought experiments, to imagine more severely alternative societies, such as Charnas’s, say, in which there’s no place for men, but I think Le Guin deserves a bit more praise than she gets in this book for her commitment to the possibilities of transformation of existing society, and for the humane sense of compassion engendered by the sensitivity of her prose.