Suppression and Transformation of the Maternal in Contemporary Women's Science Fiction

By Kornfeld, Susan | Extrapolation, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Suppression and Transformation of the Maternal in Contemporary Women's Science Fiction


Kornfeld, Susan, Extrapolation


Two years ago I was reading Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and Kathleen Ann Goonan's Queen City Jazz. For all the disjunction of time, place, and genre, they had an eerie resonance. Spenser populates Faerieland with monstrous mothers who are ultimately defeated by changelings and orphans such as Arthur and the Red Cross Knight. In Goonan's nanotech-enlivened Queen City, a monstrous mother periodically wipes out all the inhabitants. She is ultimately defeated by a young orphan woman and her synthesized clone daughter. Monstrous mothers have peopled mythologies, folk tales, and literatures from antiquity, but I wondered about this emergence in recent women's science fiction. After all, as author Suzy McKee Charnas notes, one of the attractions of science fiction is that authors do not have to "twist reality in order to create realistic free female characters, [but can] create the societies that will produce those characters" (Lefanu 158).

Jane Donawerth, perhaps following a similar train of thought, recently discussed fifteen feminist dystopias of the '90s where mothers are "dead, lost, or hostile" (51). (1) My own subsequent reading--including 31 science fiction novels written by women since 1990--confirmed her observations: recent works predominantly suppress or demonize mothers, and at times completely transform or displace maternal function. (2) Still, suppression of the mother in women's literature is nothing new. Elaine Showalter, for example, traces a literary tradition from the nineteenth century where in novels such as those by Jane Austen and the Brontes mothers are absent, trivialized, or dead. This drives the plot, as the protagonist is forced to find her own way through life. (3) Sheri Tepper follows this pattern in The Visitor, where the daughter protagonist must overcome the disappearance of her mother and the oppression of a wicked stepmother to find her true identity. Similarly, in Janine Ellen Young's The Bridge, the heroine's mother commits suicide just minutes after giving birth, leaving her infant to be raised by a former suitor. Another example is Nicola Griffith's Slow River, where the innocent daughter protagonist Lore is violently thrown into an underworld to struggle towards freedom. In the process she discovers that her powerful and aloof mother is a sexual predator. Why the resurgence of this mother/daughter antagonism, this demonization or trivialization of the mother, particularly when feminist science fiction had made a decided break from it in the utopias of the 1970s?

The answer seems to me, at least in part, that despite thirty years or more of feminist efforts, daughters are still disillusioned with the role of motherhood and with mothers themselves. Adrienne Rich suggested in 1976 that rejection of the mother represents "a desire to become purged once and for all of our mothers' bondage, to become individual and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr" (194). The same sentiment is expressed today. Third Wave Feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards sound the same note in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future: "Many daughters are scared of falling prey to the indignities we witnessed our mothers suffer [such as sacrifice, low pay, and entrapment to men's careers]" (208). Whatever advances feminism has made in the courts and in the workplace, motherhood, at least to the cultures represented by Baumgardner and Richards, is still viewed by daughters as a site of oppression. Marianne Hirsch, in her 1989 analysis of the mother/daughter plot, claims that the daughter's anger and disappointment as she discovers the discrepancy between the rhetoric of individual empowerment and the unempowered example of her mother spill over into feminist fiction (169). I believe that recent women's science fiction reflects that anger and disappointment.

The 1970s utopias of Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ, and Sally Gearhart reflect some of the same anger at the circumscription of mothers, yet respond by imagining societies where things are quite different. …

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