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She's taken literature to new worlds

October 15, 2007|M.G. Lord | Special to The Times

The stories of Le Guin and Butler anticipate the gender theories popular among academics in the 1980s and early 1990s -- particularly those of Judith Butler (no relation), who argued that gender is a performed identity, a set of coded behaviors that are neither innate nor linked to biological function. One is tempted to suggest that Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Middlesex" owes a debt to Le Guin and Butler. He explores terrain they pioneered: the consciousness of a character between biological genders.

Ironically, just as the male custodians of highbrow culture once sneered at the idea of Lessing writing science fiction, so too did male sci-fi authors and readers curl their upper lips at women working in their genre.

This led to one of the saddest stories in contemporary literary history, that of Alice Sheldon, a brilliant, twice-married, unhappy bisexual, who, as James Tiptree Jr., channeled much of her frustration into fictions about dangerous, impossible, unconsummated love. Twenty years after her death, Sheldon -- or Tiptree -- has finally received the mainstream recognition she deserved. Last year, Julie Phillips' excellent biography "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

I teach writing at a university, and sometimes I envy my students. They have firsthand knowledge of Lessing's triumph and Sheldon's literary resurrection. They get to kvetch about postmodernist excesses, not modernist aridity. And they have no memory of 1979 -- the year "Shikasta" staggered, bloodied, into print and began, ever so slowly, to change the literary world.


M.G. Lord's latest book is "Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science."

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