Helen Merrick is an academic who uses science fiction as a way of exploring various cultural and scientific concerns. She is particularly interested in intersections between science fiction and feminist science studies, and her book ‘The Secret Feminist Cabal: A cultural history of science fiction feminisms’, was published by the Aqueduct Press last year.
1. ‘The Secret Feminist Cabal: A cultural history of science fiction feminisms’ has received some great reviews, and been described as ‘SF convention girl-gossip channeled by a university scholar’. Having explored the intersection of feminist theory and science fiction for your PhD, was it a natural step to then investigate fan culture? How do you research a book about a ‘secret history’?
Well, the ‘secret’ history of the actual book is that it is mostly based on my Phd, with a great deal of re-writing, editing and addition of new material. And in fact fandom and the sf community were part of my interest almost from the very beginning. As I go on at length about in the book, I ‘discovered’ feminist sf through reading the feminist science theorist Donna Haraway, who draws on writers such as Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy in her theorising. Just after starting my PhD I somehow got wind of Swancon (I think through other fans also at UWA doing their PhDs – there is an astounding number of women in perth fandom with higher degrees!). So the fan stuff and study came together pretty early on. Around this time I was in contact with Justine Larbalestier and Sylvia Kelso as we were all doing PhDs on sf and somehow (with another friend Tess Williams) we all ended up going to WisCon, the US feminist sf convention. As luck would have it, this was the 20th anniversary, so pretty much everyone involved in feminist sf was there. It was astounding. Through Justine’s work, and going to WisCon it became obvious to me how important (and fascinating) the community conversations around women and feminism were. I’d also realised how much feminist sf criticism already existed, so I felt I didn’t want to do yet another lit crit study of sf texts themselves. Instead I got interested in how various critical and fan communities constructed this thing called ‘feminist sf’ and what uses they put it to. Also, I was trained as a historian, not a literary critic, so doing a kind of cultural history came more naturally.
As to how you research a ‘secret history’ – well of course the joke of the title is that all this feminist activity is not secret at all. But often it has been unacknowledged, or forgotten at various times. The phrase ‘secret feminist cabal’ arose from various responses to the James Tiptree Jr award, and has become a kind of in-joke to refer to feminist activity and writing within the genre. The awards “motherboard’ kindly gave me permission to use it for my book, which I was very grateful for!
2. You’ve acted as a Judge for the Aurealis Awards on a number of occasions and you will also be the 2009 judge for the Peter McNamara Lifetime achievement award, What do you enjoy about the process and what keeps you going back for more?
Being sent lots of great Aus sf to read! I spent a couple of years judging the sf short stories, which was a wonderful way of keeping up with the field and newer writers. I tend to gravitate towards novels in my own reading, although I do enjoy short stories – I’m just bad at keeping up with collections and magazines when left to my own devices. However last year I felt pressed for time, so I offered to do the sf novels instead. Despite being busy with work, I read a great deal, so it is always good to have more fuel for the reading machine. It is a very different experience to read for an award – you have to become much more self reflective about what you enjoy and why, what kind of reading experience you are looking for, and how much that matches with other people. In the last few years the awards organisers have been really successful at making sure each panel has 4 or 5 judges, which makes the process much more interesting. At times we judges find it really easy to agree, at other times there are enormous differences in what kinds of stories we value and why. I actually find those experiences affirming, as it means we really are representing a variety of tastes and different kinds of readers.
As for the Peter McNamara award, I am still reeling from being asked to do it, and feel very honoured. I’m the only person to decide, with some consultation with Mariann (McNamara), so a very different kind of ‘judging’ – I’m going to have to do a lot of talking to people in the community, and of course lots more reading.
3. Looking towards Aussiecon 4, you’re putting together the academic programming stream for the con. What’s your vision for the stream – do you have a particular theme in mind? Will you be calling for submissions or do you expect the content to all be invited?
We’re doing it like a normal academic conference so there is a call for papers, which does loosely have a theme – ‘the many uses of sf’ (it should be up on the ausseicon4 website soon). Truth be told, despite conference themes, most academic conferences tend to be pretty broad, as people just bend their current research to try and fit in. I’m wanting the academic track to be as wide-ranging as possible, so we can really showcase the increasing amount of critical work being done on genre in Australia. Certainly there seem to be a growing number of postgraduates out there working in the area, and I hope we can attract as many of them as possible. And of course, you don’t have to be an academic or studying to offer a paper!
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? What have you enjoyed reading?
Lots! I’ve seen most of the names I have enjoyed listed already, but I would add that looking at the Aurealis shortlists for each category gives a pretty good range of work to choose from that has already been judged to be excellent. I’d also like to see plenty of women, which given the names others have mentioned so far, seems like a good possibility!
5. Aside from the Academic Program, what are you most looking forward to about Aussiecon 4?
Like everyone else, catching up with people, hanging in the bar, and meeting some new people! This will be an interesting comparison with Aussiecon 3 – that con was a real holiday for me, as I was on my own and my 5 year old was being babysat by grandparents. This time I will again have a 5 year old, but she and partner will be with me, so not quite so many late night parties, methinks. I’m also hoping to do an Australian launch of Secret Feminist Cabal there, so along with keeping the academic track running it should be busy.