Tag Archives: science fiction

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“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

Everyone says this about every book, I know. By the end of the term it’s pretty cliché, but honestly and truly, if you want to experience this book – and that’s what it can be, an experience – you have to leave now, and read it first. Then you can see what I have to say about it. But seriously, no peeking! This book review is for the eyes of those who have read it already (and for those who do not care about twists and turns – because this book does have a lot of content to offer, not just a surprise inside).

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her newest book, written earlier this year. It’s a story – about a story – that starts in the middle – which, in a normal story, would be where the action happens. But, because it’s not the story about the story’s middle, this is where ‘setting the scene’ happens. Are you lost yet? It’s a little Memento at first, with things just happening and having no reason for any of it. Her middle isn’t quite as crazy, though – this isn’t science fiction in that sense.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is three-quarters autobiography and one-quarter desperation, depression, and, finally, hope. The scene is set when our narrator, Rosemary, is in college, meeting a woman named Harlow for the first time. Harlow, as Rosemary tells us about others in her tale, isn’t necessarily a part of the story we need to get attached to – her purpose is to make Rosemary open up, if only in her head. Almost all the storytelling is told through Rosemary’s retelling of events, her thoughts and feelings.

Rosemary gets sent to jail for the first time for a minor disturbance in a cafeteria Harlow started with her boyfriend.  Harlow is spitfire, wild and crazy – the opposite of Rosemary, but Rosemary hasn’t always been that way. As a child she was out there, talked all the time and did the crazy things kids her age usually did. But she lost a sister, Fern, after spending half a decade together, and it changed her life. They were two peas in a pod, closer than can be, and the two of them along with Rosemary’s brother, her father and mother made a really happy family. But she eventually lost her brother, too. They just disappeared – she has no idea where either of them went.

Rosemary went from exuberant and lively to a more reserved and withdrawn version of herself. Fern brought life to her life – it’s obvious from the pain she feels, even though Rosemary doesn’t explicitly express it. Rosemary’s family changed, too, when Fern left. They all became quiet, and they all withdrew into themselves. That’s why her brother, Lowell, left. He couldn’t take it anymore – he needed to get out the house, he needed to live again and do something. Their home was a place where everyone was standing still. Fern leaving, and everyone just looking past it, sent him over the edge.

Usually, a broken home and a broken family are normal after a child disappears. The tragedies we see when children are abducted or killed are received with grief and despair – all completely and absolutely normal, human reactions. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always said when a chimp leaves your life. A ‘pet’ some from the outside might even say. When a chimp leaves, you don’t get to shut down and stop everything – you just have to move on.

Wait a second, I’m sorry – I might have just Memento’d you. Did I forget to mention Fern was a chimpanzee, and that Rosemary’s father is a scientist? Of course I did, because Rosemary fails to mention it, too. You hear about the middle for a while, and then you get to hear the beginning – how Fern came to be a part of their lives. The prevalence of chimps in households was increasing, and her father wanted to expand the research available in the field. They raised Rosemary and Fern together, making them both part of the experiment – they wanted to know what would happen when they grew up together. Rosemary and Fern were attached at the hip, growing up as normally as you can when your sister is a chimp. They were studied by Rosemary’s father and the graduate students that he received to help as part of a special research grant, with Fern’s development the specific concern.

It’s unclear from Rosemary’s perspective if their family expected it, but Fern became a second daughter. Rosemary never considered her anything other than a sister – chimp or not. As Fern got older, however, the differences in their species became more and more apparent. Fern had more and more accidents, when a particular incident with a grad student sent things over the edge. They had to end the experiment before she got any stronger and uncontrollable, and they sent her away. The family, from then on, never talked about her and no one told Rosemary where Fern was. Fern was just gone from Rosemary’s life, forever.

Rosemary’s brother, Lowell (a human!), couldn’t take it. The family shut down, but not in grief – just in general. They stopped being a family, they stopped showing love the way they used to. He left, and Rosemary is just being reunited with him in the middle of her story – though not the middle of ours. The middle of our story is the beginning, and then there’s the end that Rosemary is experiencing as it happens. As I said before, those times are filled with sadness and happiness alike, with twists and turns of their own. I won’t spoil those, for that you’ll really have to read the story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an amazing testament of love and family, despite boundaries created by genus and species. In a feminist science fiction course, this book might seem almost out of place. But Fowler presents a take on feminism we don’t think of very often – one that takes feminism to literally mean people should be equal, one that redefines what ‘people’ should mean. Fowler presents a world where you can see the human in an animal, and where the animal in the human can be. A compelling read, it’s certainly worth taking the time – it will fly by, as it does for Rosemary, as you hear of her tale of loss, reunion, and discovery.

Star Trek: A Natural Continuation of McIntyre’s Feminist Works

In Changing Regimes: Vonda McIntyre’s Parody of Astrofuturism, De Witt Douglas Kilgore is responding to the claims of Frances Bonner that feminist SF authors whose works were published in the 1960’s and 1970’s have reverted to writing in a “masculine genre.” Instead, Kilgore argues, using Vonda McIntyre’s work as his primary focus, that it was rather a form of tactical feminism using the conventions of Cold War astrofuturism as a thoughtful reengagement in response to critics who sought to limit the impact of the feminist speculative fictions. “McIntyre’s recent work can be read not as the abandonment of her earlier feminist project bus as a refusal to accept its containment within a subgenre” (261). As I understand it, astrofuturism is the idea that humanity will reinvent itself when it achieves its destiny in space; which, in itself, could reflect any political mindset/values. However, it has often been associated with the reproduction of militaristic colonialism.

Kilgore then breaks down McIntyre’s subversiveness in the Star Trek and Star Farer series citing as one example amongst many, her Star Trek novel The Entropy Effect in which “a security chief, a starship captain, a defense attorney, and a brilliantly inventive engineer represent the types of women who make up McIntyre’s future” (261). Why would Star Trek be a worthwhile site of feminist discourse if anchored in patriarchal narratives? Kilgore argues that “while the feminist/anti-racist politics of the 1960s and 1970s made it possible to talk seriously about racism, sexism, class bias and other antagonisms, they did not negate the imaginative power of these regimes within sf’s mainstream” (260). I find myself easily convinced that McIntyre did try to bring in a certain amount of subversiveness in these texts as she herself expressed in class last week. “Poor Kirk, he always gets turned down in my novels.” (Vonda McIntyre, UO – Nov 7th.)

Kilgore, De Witt D. “Changing Regimes: Vonda McIntyre’s Parody of Astrofuturism.”Science Fiction Studies 27.2 (2000): 256-77. Print.

Tiptree, what’s with all the hate?

Dear Mr. Tiptree,

You seem like an awesome person: you write rationally, you like to make jokes, you are self-critical, and you have a particular interest in politics.  To me, that seems like we would have gotten along quite well and would have had many great conversations.  I should confess right away that I’ve taken to reading some of your private correspondence with Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ.  So sorry about that!

That being said, I’ve got one question in particular to ask you about the contents of those letters, and I think that you’d appreciate it if I was just blunt about it:

What’s with all the hate?

How can you go around calling people “Ay-rabs,” single out some people because of their race, or others because of their religion?  Were you raised this way or did some people from these groups do something to offend you?  Did you support the Civil Rights movement?

I suppose I’m having a difficult time reconciling the hateful things you say with some of the other messages you champion.  You fiercely deplore male dominance but admit that you feel that some types of people should be oppressed.  I think that you even know these things are contradictory, but you persist in doing it in your private letters.  Do you think that you’re being irrational?  Do you think your feelings about these kinds of people have affected your feminist beliefs?

I think that I can understand many of your other thoughts, about feeling oppressed, fearing government corruption, even your blatant bellicose attitudes (to an extent).  Because of this, I wish that I could sit down and talk to you in depth about your time in D.C. during the McCarthy Years or even during the Watergate Scandal.  You seem to have paid close attention to politics and those things appear to have shaped your attitudes in life.  All in all, it’s been a lot of fun reading your take on events as they transpired!

I hope you don’t mind if I call you Tip.



Questions for everyone!

My format of contact with the authors would probably be an interview or discussion more so than a direct letter. The questions I want to ask span across the wealth of feminist science-fiction authors we have discussed in class.

–       What biologic and technologic devices have helped you challenge gender and sexuality across your works?

–       Do you deliberately set out to challenge preconceptions of gender when you write your works, or does it come out naturally as a result of your personality/values/beliefs?

–       What relationships have you had with your fans? With fanfiction?

And then the questions pertaining to my personal projects would be directed to Ursula K. Le Guin, Pamela Sargent & Kate Wilhelm:

–       Why cloning?

–       How does cloning shift the power dynamics of society in your works?

–       What are the gendered implications do your cloning narratives?

Finally, because of the absence of Pamela Sargent correspondences in the archives, I would ask:

–       What was/is your relationship to other authors of the science-fiction community?

Dearest Vonda

Dearest Vonda,

This weekend I attended a party for the first time in months.  I hardly knew anyone there, and no one talked to me except one guy who walked up, exposed his abs, and asked me about their sex appeal.  My response of “all bodies are good bodies” did not deter him, and I ended up leaving early.  A while ago, you said that you hoped things would be different by now (see Quintin’s last blog post).  We’ve come a long way thanks to awesome ladies like you, but I feel I still struggle against sexism on the daily.  Does that disappoint you?  Or, since you’ve lived the years in-between, seen the challenges women have faced, do you know why we seem stuck?  It’s an uphill battle, of course, that will not be easily won.

I have many other questions for you, about everything from your favorite color, to why you left genetics, to what you think about Doctor Who, to your favorite breakfast food, to your childhood in the Netherlands.  My research through your letters and books and Internet comments has led me to believe all your answers would be witty and eccentric.  I can save those for later, but I’d love it if you answered just this one: what are you reading right now?  I’m always looking for suggestions.

Watching you learn and grow through your letters has been fascinating, as I’m in a similar period of growth and tumult.  It’s partially comforting, to know most people experience something like this.  It’s also eerie, to read over your words regarding isolation from my empty studio apartment, experiencing the joys of introversion, tainted by the sting of unexpected loneliness, that I imagine you may have felt.

Like a bridge across time, your words to Joanna Russ have connected me to a person I have never met – Vonda of 1972.  While I regret not getting the chance to meet her, I can’t imagine how freaking cool Vonda N. McIntyre of 2013 will be.  Thank you for everything you’ve done for sci-fi, for women, and for this class.

Warm regards,


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James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award

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"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ