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Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture

Edited by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth
2002, MIT Press, Cambridge MA USA
581 pp., paperback, $29.95
ISBN 0-262-56150

Reviewed by Michael R. Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University,
University Center MI 48710 USA


Many computer technologists are female, like interface designers Kristee Rosendahl, Joy Mountford and Annette Wagner, hired guns passing through various Silicon Valley concerns. Even more digital document designers, artists and educators are female. Yet both industrial and literary arenas of cyberspace usually remain characterized as boys' clubs. Feminism and cyberculture--the latter a contemporary realm incorporating both science fiction and real computers--have often been seen as mutually isolated and exclusive. Stereotypically, male computer software engineers internalize their stresses by neglecting the body, living on junk food and bad habits: 'man, if my brain were hooked up to my computer, I could program all day and night' For women, to ignore a body where pregnancy and childbirth is possible, and menstruation cycles for many decades, is more obviously foolish or impossible. Film theorist Vivian Sobchak once skewered the magazine MONDO 2000's laddish elation at disembodied jacking in to a post-'meat' existence by noting that her recent car accident had caused her significant, lingering pain and discomfort, resulting in a body that could not be denied.

In Reload, editors Flanagan and Booth have assembled a counter-canon to the hegemonic male cybersphere. The collection pairs science fiction concerned with interface of female human and machine with critical essays that examine that fiction or artworks embodying similar concerns. This book would be welcome in a college course on the cultures of cyberspace.

Essays and fictions are grouped together into three sections. The section Women Using Technology includes Sharon Cumberland's appreciation off fan-generated fiction starring actor Antonio Banderas' on several women's websites. In the section called The Visual/Visible/Virtual Subject, Julie Doyle and Kate O' Riordan discuss the Stanford Visible Female Project, a digitized information database which proves to be merely the female pelvis; the authors situate this omission in a long tradition of sexist medical illustrations and representations. Mary Flanagan's essay 'Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in Games, Women in Cyberpunk and Strategies of Resistance' cites players' varying relationships to game avatars like tomb raider Lara Croft. It serves as a good bridge to the third and final section, Bodies, which zeroes in on issues of sexual difference.

Visual artists are discussed in Reload along with fiction authors. Char Davies' VRML-and-SoftImage worlds 'Osmose' and 'Ephemere' appear to the viewer to have grown organically in their powerful workstations. Rosalind Brodsky inserts herself and her parents digitally in various provocative historical and mass-media moments. Orlan sculpts her face with plastic surgery into quotes of iconic women--Leonardo's Mona Lisa, Botticelli's Venus--from western art history. Though all the essays are worthwhile counterpoint to the fictional worlds among them, some creak a bit. They investigate gender and identity, determined and indeterminate sexualities, even issues of race, yet at moments they feel affectless, as if the citation of oppressive constructions is sufficient to dismantle them. Creative cyberworks may be crying out more for their fiery John Berger than for their zero-degree Roland Barthes. Where is the bell hooks of cyberspace?

The science fiction in Reload , all by female authors, is not all contemporary writing. Included are germane works by C.L. Moore (1944), Ann McCaffrey (1961), James Tiptree Jr. (pen name of Alice Sheldon, 1973) and Octavia E. Butler (1983). Some of the 1990s stories feel predictable, conveying images already seen from popular dystopian fictions peopled with resistant, inventive tank girls. Yet among several memorable S F visions here, the book's most powerful story for this reviewer was 'Entrada', by Mary Rosenbloom, from 1993. This story of a domestic servant's personal triumph within a not-necessarily-distant oppressive economic system shows the classic power of science fiction to memorably paint both desirable and undesirable futures. The genre carries fiction's ability to illuminate the daily and extreme lives of individuals, and this specific genre's ability to create alternative worlds based upon the continuation of certain societal trends and tendencies. A century ago discussion groups for Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward supposedly energized the U.S. Labor movement and the ensuing Progressive era. May feminist theory and science fiction together fuel contemporary demands for the equitable, the just and the surprisingly possible.



Updated 20th February 2003

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