Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Patricia Melzer. Alien Constructions Science Fiction and Feminist Thought.

The road from successfully defended dissertation to published book is proven yet again to be long and winding. Patricia Melzer’s dissertation Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Theories—defended in 2002—finally saw the light in 2006 under the eerily-similar sounding title: Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Both works share the same subjects of study: the Alien tetralogy (Alien vs. Predator is not included), Octavia Butler, and the Matrix movies. Being unfamiliar with Melzer’s work made me apprehensive as I did not know what type of “analysis” to expect from her, esspecially when applied to the films she chose to dissect. Furthermore, when it comes to Matrix-related criticism, I doubted anything could top William Irwin’s edited The Matrix and Philosophy (Open Court Publishing, 2003) and other studies I had read related to Matrix criticism. Nevertheless, Melzer’s feminist approach made me a believer of the adage I’ve just created: nothing is old under the sun.

Melzer is not alone in her field, and neither is The University of Texas Press unique in publishing her study. Said press is one of the few that constantly explore issues of speculative feminist science fiction by publishing academic studies from the likes of Melzer and Batya Weinbaum (whose Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations and Realities is out-of-print and whose second critical study for The University of Texas Press has gotten bogged down by unusual editorial politics). Perhaps, something else that Melzer, Weinbaum and others share is their affinity for Butler, a sci-fi author at the center of some of Melzer’s most profound analysis

The book itself is organized in a very geometrical fashion with three sections and two chapters each. In the first section, “Difference, Identity, and Colonial Experience in Feminist Science Fiction,” Melzer dedicates her analysis to Butler’s Survivor, Dawn, Wild Seed and Imago. The chapters that comprise this section allude inevitably to the fear of the other, to that which is different from our selves. While the “different body” may be of an alien in Butler’s work, it is a reference to the alienation that the author felt because of her race and gender. In the second section “Technologies and Gender in Science Fiction Film,” the critic concentrates her analytical talents to deconstructing—from a feminist point of view—two of the most beloved sci-fi franchises. Melzer resorts to the study of science fiction films in order to expound theories of female corporeality by way of the Alien franchise film products that refer—yet again—to “the Other.” The Wachowski Brothers Matrix films broke new ground in science fiction mythology and, as Melzer affirms, also explore issues of humanity and post-humanity, the appropriation of “the Other,” and the oppression of the individual. The third and final section, “Posthuman Embodiment: Deviant Bodies, Desires, and Feminist Politics” explores said topics in science fiction works from Richard Calder’s Dead Girls, Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man and Butler’s Wild Seed and Imago. This final section emphasizes, according to Melzer, “sexual difference and the process of regulating desires for ‘unfamiliar’ bodies by declaring them as perverse” (177).

After reading Melzer’s study, it is easy to see why it was nominated for the 2007 Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Studies category. It is an acute critical work and one that Melzer will be hard pressed to surpass, which is why it is all the more disconcerting to know that Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought lost the aforementioned literary award to Their Own Receive Them Not by Horace L. Griffin (Pilgrim Press). I am not familiar with Griffin’s work, but had I been able to, I would have voted for Melzer. The excellence of Alien Constructions makes me look forward to the work she is currently the editor for: I’ve been a woman I-don’t know-how-many-times: A Critical Tribute to the Work of Octavia E. Butler. It promises to be a thorough investigation into the work of Butler. In sum, Patricia Melzer’s Alien Constructions:Science Fiction and Feminist Thought is an incisive critical work that advances feminist critical approaches to science fiction that extol female-centric narratives. Melzer is an original critic with a unique style to organizing her discussion and thoughts. She could, very well become, the “go-to” literary critic of science fiction-centered feminist thought or “intergalactic feminism”.

Review of Alien Constructions by Gerardo T. Cummings printed in FEMSPEC 8.1/2

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