We Are Completely Besides Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Over the last year or so, I had been steadily building a niche for myself when it came to the kind of science fiction I most enjoyed, and almost every one of these stories dealt either with animals, or aliens who could easily pass for animals. I am reminded, for instance, of Molly Gloss’s Lambing Season, or James Tiptree Jr.’s famous Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death. The former is a study of the alien through that very different lens of a shepherd, used to loneliness, dogs, sheep and the rolling, green hills. The latter is a stream of consciousness take on spider like beings who live, mate, die, but in Tiptree’s unique style, the matter of living — crude bodily functions, the visceral nature of the beast — is brought home in spectacular fashion. The mind-body duality is absent. Tiptree’s creature is one, cohesive, whole.

This latter aspect us humans are quite jealous of, I imagine. It’s a lost paradise for us – one at the expense of the other. So even when we live, we don’t really feel the sun on our skin, and the breath in our lungs like, say, a tiger would. Or even a dog for that matter. We can only write about it, imagine it into full being, but the true fullness of being, the living-with-every-molecule-in-your-body is not for us.

I think Fowler’s novel is an attempt at bridging that gap by having a truly unique protagonist narrate the tale, a woman brought up like very few. Revealing anything more about the story would be doing a grave disservice to how, for once, the twist actually is an essential part of the telling, much like in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. Fowler’s novel, like Banks’s, is about slow revelation as well, and as, if not more, disturbing. Especially so because all of the crimes against animals written about in the book is unfortunately true.

In the telling of this rather special tale, we get a glimpse at a kind of life that could have been, that just might be possible, and of a relationship that speaks volumes more about who we are as a species than any one tome on psychology.

I loved it.

Women and Science Fiction

I don’t know the next thing about beginning an article that talks about women, leave alone how women write, or how they write science fiction. Do women write differently? I have no idea. Unless I answer this question, I cannot get around to answering whether they write science fiction differently.

Let’s take for starters the following belief: women favor individual experience over collective experience when it comes to writing. Women prefer characterization over outright scientific, or sociological speculation. Women would much rather take us through what a single person faces over the period of a story than what a single person thinks is wrong with the establishment, or a method, or a technique, and what that person goes on to do or say about it in a story.

I might be very wrong in suggesting that that is an actual belief. Again, I’m at a loss, because I don’t know whether generalization is bad, or good. I don’t know whether there is any truth to stereotypes. From personal experience, I will say that I have seen women veer both ways, but admittedly, more so in the direction favoring outright emotion over rigorous extrapolation.

But then again, I have known too few women, and too many of those few came from similar financial and social backgrounds.

When it comes to science fiction, you can either choose to blur the distinction between experience and the conceit, or not. If you blur it too much, some people would cease calling it science fiction, because structurally it chooses to betray the genre’s strength, that is, an explicit working through of an argument. Most of the women writers I have come across seek to do the former.

Let’s create an example. Here’s the skeleton of a possible science fiction story.

1. Alien A crash lands on Earth.

2. Alien A decides to befriend woman.

3. Since Alien A befriends a white Caucasian woman, Alien A has decided to shape shift into white Caucasian Man, someone whom the woman presumably might find attractive.

4. Alien A spends a long time with her at a local carnival, trying out the rides and candy floss and popcorn.

5. Alien A sees the woman having a good time, and is pleased to elicit a response in her. He decides he is having a good time too.

6. Alien A sees woman home, and since he has no idea of what a good night kiss means, he doesn’t bother. Neither does the woman.

7. Alien A walks down road on cold winter night, hoping to see her again.

8. Woman heads to bed, but as she does, she changes into a different form, that of Alien B. Unbeknownst to her, she has hung out with a member of her own species. Unbeknownst to Alien A, he has done the same.

So, this could be a typical ‘Golden Age’ SF plot. How would Male Writer Stereotype (we’ll call him Maws) handle this story?

Well, he would handle the story in much the same way that it’s laid out up there. He would take us through the motions, and have the Big Reveal hit us like a brick in the end. Presumably with a reveal of how the alien looks (gills, tentacles, webbed hands, tails, etc.)

How would Female Writer Stereotype (we’ll call her Faws) deal with this plot?

Well, she might approach it either from the perspective of the man or the woman, but get this: she might not be too interested in how alien the Aliens really are. The way she might begin the story could be read as any other story that deals with how someone alien to White Caucasian Culture tries to date a White Caucasian Woman. Him looking like a White Caucasian Male could simultaneously be real (within the confines of the story), but also a metaphor for a foreigner trying very hard to act like a local.

In approaching the story from such an angle, she would be steering the science fiction conceit of something that isn’t human adapting to human life towards something different entirely: instead of speculating upon what makes us human, she would transform the time-worn plot of the culture-clash into something new, namely, how a conflict of cultures gain a fresh resonance when seen through the angle of gender politics. She might also provide enough hints for the reader to assume that both people are Aliens, and not resort to a surprise ending.

What this achieves is essentially transfusing what could otherwise be considered ‘literary’ with a strength that is very much science fiction’s, only having shed the 12 year old’s fascination for how the alien might actually look. Whether he has blue skin, or gills, or tentacles.

Therefore, what this would achieve is twofold. One, the pleasure to be had is not in the twist ending, it is in the actual interactions between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And two, if she is passionate about science fiction, and has pulled the story off successfully, it can also be read as a story about someone who is not human trying to be human.

But this begs the question: what is wrong with a literary fascination for the imaginative and the colorful? Is such detail escapism?

I will try to answer that question in a second blog post.

For actual stories with similar treatments, check out: Standing Room Only, by Karen Joy Fowler; Lambing Season, by Molly Gloss; Seven American Nights, by Gene Wolfe; Passengers, by Robert Silverberg; Frankenstein’s Daughter, by Maureen McHugh; Sur, by Ursula LeGuin; Beam Me Home, by James Tiptree Jr.