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The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction

Author(s): Raffaella Baccolini

Source: PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next
Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 518-521
Published by: Modern Language Association
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correspondents abroad

The Persistence of
Hope inDystopian
Science Fiction
that such location influences how we theorize about and read the world.
Because I am an Italian trained in the United (specializing in States
American modernism) in the 1980s, my reading of science fiction has
been shaped by my cultural and biographical circumstances as well as by
my geography. It is a hybrid approach, combining these circumstances
primarily with an interest in feminist theory and in writing by women.
From the very beginning I have foregrounded issues of genre writing as
they intersect with gender and the deconstruction of high and low cul
ture. Such an approach, however, must also come to terms with the polit

ical and cultural circumstances that characterize this turn of the century.
I consider myself a "child of conflict," to borrow the words the Eku
menical Envoy uses to describe the Terran Observer Sutty in Ursula K.
Le Guin's The Telling (26). Born in 1960,1 have no direct recollection
of 1968; rather, I belong to the generation of the 1970s, which like the
rest of Italy was marked by the "years of lead" (anni di piombo) of ter
rorism?the attacks by the Red Brigades that between 1976 and 1980
killed almost a hundred people as well as the bombings by extreme-right
terrorists together with state apparatuses that, from 1969 on, killed many
more This is perhaps one of the reasons the recent produc
people. why
tion of dystopian science fiction speaks to me more than do the Utopias
of the 1960s and early 1970s. And, to a certain extent, the years of lead
also have shaped my approach to science fiction. I find in the recent
Raffaella Baccolini is professor of En works of the genre, in their themes and in their formal features, a new
glish at the University of Bologna, Fori). oppositional and resisting form of writing, one that maintains a Utopian
She is the author of Tradition, Identity, horizon in the pages of dystopian science fiction and in these anti
Desire: Revisionist Strategies in H.D.'s
utopian times.
Late Poetry (Patron, 1995) and coeditor,
reaction of the 1980s and the triumph of free
Since the conservative
with Tom Moylan, of Dark Horizons:
market liberalism of the 1990s, Utopia has been both attacked and co-opted.
Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagi
She is cur
It has been conflated with materialist satisfaction and thus commodified
nation (Routledge, 2003).
on memory, and devalued. In a society where consumerism has come to represent the
rently working nostalgia,
and deferral in utopia. of happiness, has become an outmoded
contemporary modality Utopia


i 19-3 Raffaella Baccolini 519

value. The pursuit of individual happiness, which with their set

Genres, rules, conventions, 0
is none other thanmaterial success, corresponds -,
and expectations, have been traditionally one of -!
to what Darko Suvin has called the "Disneyfica the measures tt
against which to judge a work's,
tion strategy" (194)?a notion and a practice our and a writer's, greatness. Genres are "essen 0
Italian prime minister has fully embraced. Inmy tially literary institutions, or social contracts be a
approach to science fiction I try to find ways to tween a writer and a whose 2
specific public,
highlight the transgressive and radical nature of function is to specify the proper use of a partic
some of its works being written today, because &
ular cultural artifact" (Jameson 106; emphasis 0"
we need to develop a critical perspective that can
added). Far from being mere aesthetic markers, 0
point us toward action and change. however, genres are "drenched
in ideologies" a
I need stories that speak tome. We are, in a (Schenck 282), and an analysis of a single work
sense, what we write. There's a statement
by in relation to the genre it belongs to also allows
Marge Piercy that I find striking for its simplic us to understand that work as a product of the
ity and lucidity at once: historical and literary times in which it was
written. Genres are then constructed
When Iwas a child, I first noticed that neither
and rest on the binary between what is normal
history as I was taught it nor the stories I was
and what is deviant?a notion that feminist criti
told seemed to lead to me. I began to fix them. I
have been at it ever since. To me it is an
cism has deconstructed as it consigns feminine
tant task to situate ourselves in the time line so practice to the pole of deviation and inferiority.
that we may be active in history. We require a Feminist reappropriations of generic fiction can
past that leads to us. After any revolution, his therefore become a radical and oppositional
tory is rewritten, not just out of partisan zeal, The use of generic fiction as a form of
but because the past has changed. Similarly, political resistance by women has been studied,
what we we are working toward does a
imagine Anne and
among others, by Cranny-Francis,
lot to define what we will consider doable ac
much science fiction research by women schol
tion aimed at producing the future we want and
ars (Joanna Russ, Marleen Barr, Sarah Lefanu,
preventing the future we fear. 1-2)
Lee Cullen Khanna, Carol Farley Kessler, to

Women's science fiction to our

cite only a few) has investigated the ways in
today speaks
concerns and a series of and
which gender informs science fiction.
through strategies
features has renovated the traditionally The intersection of gender and genre has
tional nature of the genre. opened up the creation of new, subversive, and

In particular, I am interested in the dis oppositional literary forms. Science fiction is al

course of genre and its deconstruction and ap ready regarded as a potentially subversive genre,
An of women's take on as it "occupies the space outside the literary en
propriation. analysis
science fiction allows us to recognize a subver closure, as a forbidden, taboo, and de
sive and oppositional graded product?held at bay, and yet rich in
strategy against hege
monic ideology. As feminist scholars, we may themes and obsessions which are
repressed in

want to question the notion of genre, boundaries, high culture" (Marc Angenot qtd. in Parrinder
and exclusionary politics?notions and prac 46). In its developments, it has come to repre
tices that have proved detrimental for women? sent a form of counternarrative to hegemonic

and investigate instead the intersection of discourse. In its extrapolation of the present, it
gender and generic fiction. The ways in which has the potential to envision different worlds
gender enters into and is constructed by the that can work as a purely imaginative (at worst)
form of genre have some bearing on, in turn, the or a critical (at best) exploration of our
creation of new critical texts. Science fiction has then the potential, through
520 The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction PMLA

estrangement and cognitive mapping, to move sure, allow readers and protagonists to hope: the
0 its reader to see the differences of an elsewhere
k ambiguous, open endings maintain the Utopian
?s and thus think critically about the reader's own impulse within the work. In fact, by rejecting
tt world and possibly act on and change that world. the traditional subjugation of the individual at
e Women's science fiction novels have contributed the end of the novel, the critical dystopia opens
to the exploration and subsequent breakdown of a space of contestation and opposition for those
0 certainties and universalist and other ex-centric
a assumptions?those groups?women subjects
tt damaging stereotypes?about gendered identi whose subject position is not contemplated by
ties by addressing, in a dialectical engagement hegemonic discourse?for whom subject status
w with tradition, themes such as the representation has yet to be attained.
of women and their bodies, reproduction and sex Another factor thatmakes these novels sites
uality, and language and its relation to identity. of resistance and oppositional texts is their
But genres change in relation to the times, blending of different genre conventions. Draw
and our times, characterized by a general shift to ing on the feminist criticism of universalist as
the right in the 1980s and 1990s, have produced sumptions, singularity, and neutral and objective
what a series of scholars have addressed as a
knowledge and acknowledging the importance
"dystopian turn" inAnglo-American science fic of difference,multiplicity, complexity, situated
tion (see Baccolini and Moylan). After the re knowledges, and hybridity, recent dystopian fic
vival of Utopia in the 1960s and 1970s, the early tion by women resists genre purity in favor of a
1980s saw the appearance of the cyberpunk hybrid text that renovates dystopian science fic
movement, whose somewhat self-indulgent cyn tion by making it politically and formally oppo
icism foreclosed any real subversive critique of sitional. In Kindred, for example, Butler revises
the conservative society. Science fiction's op the conventions of the time travel story and cre
positional and critical potential was instead re ates a novel that is both science fiction and neo
covered and renovated in the production of a slave narrative. Similarly, by fragmenting her
number of writers such as Octavia E. Butler, a
account of future society with a tale (itself the
Piercy, Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson, record of oral storytelling) of sixteenth-century
who turned to dystopian strategies to come to in He, She, and It, Piercy creates an al
terms with the decade's
silencing and co-opting most historical science fiction novel. While At
of Utopia. This kind of writing, critical and am wood employs the conventions of the diary and
biguous and mainly produced by feminist writ the epistolary novel in The Handmaid's Tale, Le
ers, has become the preferred form for an Guin combines a political fable with storytelling
expression of struggle and resistance. for her most recent novel of cultural contact.

Utopia is maintained in dystopia, tradition The notion of an

impure genre, one with perme

ally a bleak, depressing genre with no space for able borders that allow contamination from
hope in the story, only outside the story: only by other genres, represents resistance to a hege

as a can we as monic and renovates the na

considering dystopia warning ideology resisting
readers hope to escape such a dark future. Both ture of science fiction.
Winston Smith and Julia, the main characters of Inmost of these novels
the recovery of his
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, are tory and literacy, together with the recovery of
crushed by the totalitarian society; there is no individual and collective memory, becomes an
no escape for them. But recent novels instrumental tool of resistance for their protago
such as Atwood's The Handmaid's nists. Because it is authoritarian, dis
Margaret hegemonic
Tale, Le Guin's The Telling, and Butler's Kin course shapes the narrative about the past and

dred and Parable of the Sower, by resisting clo collective memory to the point that individual
i i 9 3 Raffaella Baccolini 521

memory has been erased; individual recollec need to pass through the critical dystopias of 0
tion therefore becomes the first, necessary step today tomove toward a horizon of hope. "1
for a collective action. In classical dystopia,
memory remains too often trapped in an indi 0
vidual and regressive nostalgia, but critical a.
dystopias show that a culture of memory?one 2
that moves from the individual to the collec
Works Cited
The Handmaid's
part of a social project of hope. But the
tive?is Atwood, Margaret. Tale. Boston: Hough CP
ton, 1985. -?
presence of Utopian hope does not necessarily 0
Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan, eds. Dark Horizons: &
mean a happy Rather, awareness and re a
ending. Science Fiction and the Dystopian New
sponsibility are the conditions of the critical York: Routledge, 2003.
citizens. A sense of sadness accom Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. 1979. London: Women's, 1995.
the awareness and knowledge that the -. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 1993.
Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses
protagonist has attained. Instead of providing Cranny-Francis, of
Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.
some compensatory and conclusion,
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a
the critical dystopia's open ending leaves its Act. Ithaca: Cornell 1981.
Socially Symbolic UP,
characters to deal with their choices and respon Le Guin, Ursula K. The Telling. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
sibilities. It is in the acceptance of responsibility Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Harcourt,

and accountability, often worked through mem 1949.

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teach

ory and the recovery of the past, that we bring
ing. London: Methuen, 1980.
the past into a living relation with the present
Piercy, Marge. He, She, and It. New York: Fawcett, 1991.
and may thus begin to lay the foundations for -. Stories about Stories."
"Telling Utopian Studies 5
Utopian change. (1994): 1-3.
It is important to engage with the critical Schenck, Celeste. "All of a Piece: Women's Poetry and Au

of recent decades, as they are the prod tobiography." Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiog
raphy. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell
uct of our dark times. By looking at the formal
UP, 1993.281-305.
and political features of science fiction, we can Suvin, Darko. "Theses on Dystopia 2001." Baccolini and
see how these works point us toward change. We Moylan 187-201.