Judith Merril and Rachel Carson: Reflections on Their "Potent Fictions" of Science

By Newell, Dianne | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 15, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Judith Merril and Rachel Carson: Reflections on Their "Potent Fictions" of Science


Newell, Dianne, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

Donna Haraway has argued that women's engagement with the masculine domain of science and modern culture usually occurs at the peripheries and from the depths, not from the platform of the powerful. This paper considers the popular culture fields of science fiction and nature writing, exploring the contributions of two American women writers who both operated at the peripheries of science and landed on the 'platform of the powerful': Judith Merril and Rachel Carson. Their domestic Cold War envisioning and conflation of literature and science and their insights into the inherently political nature of science anticipated the foundational feminist discussions on the intersections of feminism, literature, and science that followed in the 1970s and 1980s. Merril's postwar, literary avant-garde ideas together with the stories of the later American feminist science fiction writers prompted Haraway's challenging suggestion in her transformative study, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989) that we might read natural science as a narrative--potent fictions of science--and listen to scientists as storytellers. Rachel Carson, considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement and the author of the famous polemic Silent Spring (1962), had advocated the idea of natural science as narrative decades earlier. The paper traces how Carson links to Merril indirectly and Haraway to Merril directly. In the Cold War decades, both Merril and Carson struggled successfully from and within the margins of science to reshape literatures dealing with possible futures and alternative presents.

Key Words: science fiction, nature writing, Judith Merril, Rachel Carson

Introduction

Women's engagement with the masculine domain of science and modern culture usually occurs at the peripheries and from the depths, not from the platform of the powerful, suggests a leading feminist theorist and historian of science, Donna Haraway. (1) Historians and philosophers of women in science, such as Pnina Abir-am, Evelyn Fox-Keller, and Londa Schienbinger, have taken a long look at women in the past who actually 'do' science. My interest here, however, is in developing a political reading of women science writers' engagement with science at the peripheries of scientific thought and developments in a 'pre-feminist' era: the decades after the Second World War. I consider the popular culture fields of science fiction and nature writing, adjusting the focus on two American women science writers who both operated at the peripheries of science and landed on the 'platform of the powerful': Judith Merril and Rachel Carson. Their domestic Cold War envisioning and conflation of literature and science and their insights into the inherently political nature of science anticipated the foundational feminist discussions on the intersections of feminism, literature, and science that followed in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, Haraway's own revolutionary studies of the historical, social construction of Western scientific knowledge discovered, borrowed, and adapted science fictional approaches and incorporated Merril's imaginative concept, 'SF.'

Judith Merril (1928-1997) in her Cold War science fiction and nonfiction writings effectively challenged the prevailing science-adventure ('hard') mode of science fiction and promoted novel approaches to fiction about possible futures that struggled to put a human face on the abstract problems of new, seductive and terrifying, sciences and technologies. In her words, 'the industrial, political, and technological space age meant the beginning of a new period of exploration in "the human factor," as opposed to the "hardware," for both science and science fiction.' (2) Her novels and short works of speculative fiction of the late 1940s and the 1950s advanced an overtly woman's point of view on critical issues of the day. By the early 1960s, even before the blossoming of feminist science fiction, Merril had become the foremost female editor-critic and experimentist, and perhaps most political individual in North American science fiction circles.

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