The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms
by Helen Merrick
Review by Cathy Green
Aqueduct Press Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781933500331
Date: 01 December 2009
Before beginning my review proper of Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal – A Cultural History Of Science Fiction Feminisms, I thought if might be useful to those reading the review and trying to decide whether it is helpful if I described what I believe to be relevant background information about myself. Since graduating from college and law school more years ago than I care to think about, I have not had a great deal of contact with scholarly works or book length literary criticism, although I think some of the work I read in college as an art history major and more especially the work I read in the legal theory class I was required to take as a 1L (particularly the writing of scholars such as Martha Fineman, Patricia Williams and Kimberlee Crenshaw) gave me a background comfort level when reading Merrick's book. This is not to say that the work is particularly opaque to those without graduate degrees, but that I think it gave me a certain comfort level when it came to some of the more scholarly/academic sections of The Secret Feminist Cabal. Of course, my post-secondary school education was long enough ago and most of my non work-relating reading limited to popular fiction, that I can fairly be described as approaching the subject matter of the book in a state of some ignorance other than my personal experiences as a reader of science fiction and an attendee of both literary and media SF conventions.
Merrick divides her book into eight chapters: (1) Introduction: The Genre Feminism Doesn't See; (2) Resistance is Useless? The Sex/Woman/Feminist "Invasion"; (3) Mother of the Revolution: Femmefans Unite!; (4) Birth of a Subgenre: Feminist SF and its Criticism; (5) FIAWOL: The Making of Fannish Feminisms; (6) Cyborg Theorists: Feminist SF Criticism Meets Cultural Studies; (7) Another Science "Fiction?" Feminist Stories of Science; and (8) Beyond Gender? 21st Century SF Feminisms.
As indicated by the chapter headings, Merrick examines the development and history of feminist SF from a number of perspectives. Because the book is focused of the question of what is feminist science fiction and more specifically, the criticism/analysis/treatment thereof, what is being provided is not an analysis of specific SF stories. Rather, Merrick is in dialog with other criticisms and analyses of SF, particularly those she deems to be feminist or to be responding to feminist criticism. As a result, the focus of the book is not "why that story and that time"; instead Merrick seeks to address the issue of "why that particular interpretation/reaction to that story at that particular time". This is of course, a bit of an oversimplification of what Merrick is doing, especially since she is working with more than half a century of science fiction and science fiction fandom.
What should especially interest fannish SF readers who read this book is that Merrick does not stay within the groves of academe. In addition to more scholarly works, Merrick devotes extensive space to analysis of what was going on in APAs, fanzine, and at conventions. For instance, the evolution of Wiscon and the development of the Tiptree Award receive close attention. The fannish and more scholarly chapters balance each other out to some degree. So readers who blanch at the thought of ploughing through "academic speak" such as "....my analysis necessarily becomes more synchronic and dialogic...." will feel more comfortable in chapters such as "FIAWOL: The Making of Fannish Feminisms" where Merrick's language is less academic and more mundane (in the non-fannish sense of the word).
Merrick also addresses the not insignificant problem of the tendency of literary and academic criticism to neglect and/or be dismissive of genre fiction. This probably contributed to her looking outside academe to genre magazine letter columns, APAs, zines and introductions to books and story collections for source material in developing her history of the evolution of feminist science fiction communities. And given the nature of science fiction fannish activity and non-media SF conventions, science fiction as a genre is probably more actively involved with its readers and fans than any other. Of particular interest to me was Merrick's analysis of the evolution of various female science fiction writers' critical views of their own novels and those of their fellow pros, such as the reaction to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall by writers such as Vonda McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, and Joanna Russ. Merrick's analysis of Bradley's shifting views on her own life and writing in the larger context of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s was fascinating. And while the Sixties and Seventies were certainly an exciting time for feminism, Merrick does not neglect the First Fandom era either and addresses how the difference in societal expectations for boys and girls, men and women in the 1930s to 1950s would have affected how girls and women would have participated in fandom, and on the pro side, Connie Willis's editorial "The Women SF Doesn't See" in the October 1992 issue of Asimov's receives attention from Merrick as well.
There should be no concern about not having enough background information to appreciate fully the points Merrick is making – Merrick has heavily footnoted her text and supplied an extensive (approximately 40 pages) bibliography. Similarly, if you managed to miss the cyberpunk movement while it was happening Merrick makes mention of numerous significant titles in the subgenre such as Pat Cadigan's Synners and William Gibson's Neuromancer. In sum, The Secret Feminist Cabal has something for everyone. Genre critics, academics and fen will all find the book worth adding to their libraries.