A Sense of Wonder and Other Feminist Feelings

Elizabeth Lundberg |

Surveying feminist science fiction (SF) theory of the past decade-or-so, I am struck by work that falls into three broadly sketched and interrelated categories, all engaged with questions of genre itself. The first category encompasses recovery and expansion projects: theorists like Justine Larbalestier and Lisa Yaszek have been working to dismantle any remaining notions of SF as a boys’ club and to make room for the women authors, editors, and fans who have been explicitly or implicitly excluded from the conversation. The second feminist impulse in recent SF theory is a closely related one: rather than recovering forgotten stories and under-appreciated authors as Larbalestier does, or situating the gendered tensions in science fiction’s history within broader contexts of politics and popular culture as Yaszek does, this second strain of contemporary feminist science fiction theory shows us what has been feminist within the mainstream boys’ club of SF all along. I’m thinking of scholars like Brian Attebery, who argues in Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002) that gender is an “integral part of the genre’s intellectual and aesthetic structure” (10) – that “resistant,” gender-focused readings of science fiction do not resist the texts but rather reading practices “sanctioned by generations of critics” who assumed an exclusively male, heteronormative readership (24-5). Wendy Pearson, John Rieder, and Isiah Lavender make similar arguments about queerness, colonialism, and race respectively: these concerns have been crucial and central components of science fiction, not merely themes that the genre occasionally takes up. I see all of these reading as intertwined and interdependent, because they collectively paint a picture of SF as a genre fundamentally about gender, sexual, racial, and national alterity and not simply a genre that has taken that turn since the latter half of the twentieth century. Whereas the first camp of feminist SF theory I point to seeks broader representation and inclusiveness for feminist and women’s fiction and theory, this second camp shows us that feminism is also the alien who’s been hiding in plain sight in the fiction and theory we’ve been reading all along.

The third category of recent feminist science fiction theory is, of course, the fiction itself. As Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon argue in Edging Into the Future (2002), the fiction of science fiction frequently outpaces the theory (2); it is therefore always important to look to the science fiction stories we are currently telling for previews of the theory we will soon be writing. Much recent feminist science fiction exhibits a certain looseness, flexibility, or hybridity of genre elements—especially notable in authors such as Nalo Hopkinson, China Miéville, and Andrea Hairston, who blend science fictional tropes with fantasy, weird fiction, and mythology, and in authors such as Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler who stand with one foot in mainstream fiction even as they continue to expand our ideas of what science fiction might look like and do. The connection to be drawn from these hybrid fictions to the two prior categories of feminist SF theory I outlined is that they all work to pry open the genre, letting more in, revealing what’s been there all along, and forging alliances between what’s inside that box and what’s outside.

In that spirit of prying open the genre, I posit that some of the most exciting work happening in feminist science fiction theory right now is not connected to the label “science fiction” at all—it’s happening under the auspices of affect studies. Frequently tracing its flourishing as a theoretical “turn” to Eve Sedgwick’s work on Silvan Tomkins, but claiming a genealogy with roots in Deleuzian theory, British cultural studies, queer theory, and psychoanalysis, affect theory currently examines public cultures, trauma, sentimentalism, the everyday, theories of sensation and perception, and the politics of negative and positive emotions. Affect theorists use methods drawn from the humanities, the social sciences, and the physical sciences. In The Affect Theory Reader (2010), Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth itemize some of the concerns of affect theorists; I quote two of their list items at some length to highlight the crossovers between this work and science fiction:


Another [approach] is located… in … assemblages of the human/machine/inorganic such as cybernetics, the neurosciences (of matter, of distributed agency, of emotion/sensation, and so on), ongoing research in artificial intelligence, robotics, and bio-informatics/bio-engineering (where life technologies work increasingly to smudge the affectional line between the living and the non-living). …

The eighth approach is located in practices of science and science studies themselves, particularly work that embraces pluralist approaches to materialism…; hence, scientific practices that never act to eliminate the element of wonder or the sheer mangle of ontological relatedness…. Here affect is the hinge where mutable matter and wonder (ofttimes densely intermingled with world-weary dread too) perpetually tumble into each other. (6-8)


Patricia T. Clough and Jean Halley, in the introduction to The Affective Turn (2007), provide a similar overview of the field. Two guiding themes emerge again and again: affect theory’s rigorous and constant attention to the body – how it experiences and interprets affect, how our models of the body shape our understanding of its capacities, how the body merges with technology, and how certain bodies are made to carry the burden of affective work for other bodies – and affect theory’s blend of physical science, social science, and humanities methodologies. As I read these expansive, open-ended descriptions of affect studies’ concerns and methods, I am reminded not only of science-minded theorists fully claimed by affect studies such as Brian Massumi, Isabelle Stengers, and Mel Y. Chen, but also of scholars such as Donna Haraway and Steven Shaviro, whom Gregg and Seigworth mention but situate as more tangentially connected to affect, and of those like N. Katherine Hayles and Sherryl Vint, who are science fiction scholars but whose work takes up the same concerns and questions listed above.

The Seven Beauties of Science FictionWith this hybrid pantheon in mind, I argue that these two fields should consider each other to be family. First, both fields trace long, fractured, somewhat contentious histories, and have vested interests in establishing their origin stories and networked locations within academia. So why not pool resources? Second, both science fiction and affect theory occupy liminal, sometimes uncomfortable spaces between the humanities and the sciences. Massumi claims that one of the things he models in Parables for the Virtual (2002) is a method for “shameless poaching” from the sciences (19); for more such models I would also point to science fiction, which has had a gleeful and productive poaching habit since time immemorial. Third, as I suggested above, both fields have similar thematic concerns: bodies. Otherness, communication, the pre- or extra-linguistic, and the interrelationships between bio- and neurosciences on the one hand, and cultural constructions on the other. Even feelings or affects themselves – and even in the supposedly ‘hard’ stuff – just look at the ‘sense of wonder’ science fiction has long cultivated and celebrated, and the related various forms of the SF sublime. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008), describes the science fictional sublime and grotesque as “modes involv[ing] affects that are represented in distinct rhetorical and poetic effects” (147). He reads “the Harawayan cyborg” as a grotesque novum that claims freedom from patriarchal biopower through its networked subjectivity and connections with other beings (265) – a reading that would be perfectly at home within affect studies. Consider, from the other camp, Teresa Brennan’s argument in The Transmission of Affect (2004) that affects are transmitted to us from other people and from general moods or atmospheres of places, and that affects often precede thought – so we might feel guilty before we attach that guilt to something specific we’ve done or not done. Brennan further contends that affects have physiological effects on our bodies, altering our neurology and biochemistry, so that in a very physical way, the people with whom we come into contact transform us by affecting us. Brennan’s argument already sounds science fictional, calling to mind stories of telepaths, empaths, and neurological experimentation. Science fiction theory – in particular, feminist science fiction theory – can find much to borrow and glean from affect theory, it seems, and vice-versa.

Ultimately, the genre-expanding and destabilizing efforts of feminist science fiction theorists such as Attebery, Larbalestier, and Yaszek would be strengthened by opening the field up to affect studies – opening up to the “other inside,” in an act “very much like love,” to steal a phrase from Colin Milburn (301). In Parabolas of Science Fiction (2013), Attebery argues that SF should be understood not as a formulaic genre like other popular forms but as a set of parabolas extending into any number of genres and leading in infinite directions. In addition to doing feminist theory within science fiction, let’s extend those parabolas into the other places feminist theory is happening as well.



Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

—-. “Science Fictional Parabolas: Jazz, Geometry, and Generation Starships.” Parabolas of Science Fiction. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger, eds. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013. 3-23. Print.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Clough, Patricia Ticineto. and Jean Halley. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Hollinger, Veronica and Joan Gordon, eds. Edging Into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

—-. Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Lavender, Isiah, III. Race in American Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Milburn, Colin. “Nano/Splatter: Disintegrating the Postbiological Body.” Essays Probing the Boundaries of the Human in Science. Spec. issue of New Literary History 36.2 (2005): 283-311.

Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Alien Cryptographies: The View From Queer.” Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, ed. David Seed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008. 14-38.

Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008.


Bio: Elizabeth Lundberg is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Iowa. Her research focuses on contemporary American literature, science fiction, and gender, queer, and affect theories. Lundberg’s  dissertation examines narrative strategies that cultivate and complicate readerly empathy, specifically surrounding representations of feminized embodiment and interpenetration. She has previously written about posthumanism, agency, communal perception, and pedagogy. Her article on Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling is forthcoming in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies.