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The Woolfian Century: Modernism as Science Fiction, 1929–2029

In 2009, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson argued, drawing on the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Olaf Stapledon, that Between the Acts (1941) “ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf’s last pages were a kind of science fiction.”[1] At the time, this assertion seemed transgressive because of the way it linked perhaps the most revered modernist writer in the Anglophone literary sphere with a genre that formerly was considered to be little more than disposable pulp. Analyzing the “conventional high-cultural repudiation of SF” in 2005, Fredric Jameson, who had been the supervisor many years before of Robinson’s PhD on the novels of Philip K. Dick, ascribed it to “a kind of generic revulsion, in which this form and narrative discourse is the object of psychic resistance as a whole and the target of a kind of literary ‘reality principle.’”[2] It seems clear to me that such attitudes, while not unknown, are no more than residual in 2021 and probably already were by the time Jameson was writing. My recent confession at the 2019 MSA conference in Toronto that I was writing about Woolf as SF elicited only the mild inquiry as to which of her texts I was using. Admittedly, it would be more likely to find Orlando on the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” shelves of a bookshop than Mrs. Dalloway, although both might be found on the “LGBT+ Fiction” shelves. The point I am making is not just that generic categories have become fluid so that today’s readers no longer necessarily view Woolf through the lens of modernism, but that there is something more fundamental that is shared by these categories: a tendency to disrupt the traditional and normative significations of literary realism and search for the new meanings that would comprise a radical reconfiguration of society. It is this sense of possibility that animates the ending of Between the Acts: “It was the night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”[3]

Woolf’s use of theatrical metaphor conjures up a threshold that can be crossed to enter a transformed future rather in the manner of portals to alternate realities and parallel universes in SF and fantasy. Other modernist writers also depict such thresholds. In Katherine Mansfield’s “A Cup of Tea” (1922), for example, Rosemary Fell unexpectedly finds herself in a transformed world of adventurous possibility when she walks out of the door of a London antiques shop after looking at an enamel box and is accosted by a young woman for the price of a cup of tea. Rather than simply walking past, Rosemary decides to take the girl home with her. The shop door is a symbolic threshold leading from the old patriarchal order of Edwardian and Victorian respectability into a new world of desire. David Trotter reads “A Cup of Tea” as a case study of how modernist writers link linguistic norms with symbolic ones, before disrupting the linguistic norms in order to explode the symbolic ones. Trotter’s analysis focuses on the sentence describing the door of the antiques shop closing behind Rosemary, “The discreet door shut with a click.”[4] If the sentence simply read “The door shut with a discreet click,” it would not have an estranging effect on the reader. As it is, the reader is forced to pause momentarily after reading about “the discreet door” to process all the ways in which a door might be discreet. This “invites us to exercise our powers of inference: to access more remote contexts in search of other kinds of relevance. Modernism is another name for that invitation” (74).

I suggest that if we conceive of modernism primarily in the terms described above, as an invitation to step outside the normative mainstream confines of public discourse and representation into a transformed future, then it becomes indistinguishable from SF. SF writers also disrupt linguistic norms in order to explode symbolic ones. Robert Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of SF’s “cognitive estrangement,” which jolts the reader into the realization that they have left the norms of their own society and are now in a future world.[5] Equally estranging lines from other iconic writers, such as Ursula Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” and Ann Leckie’s “She was probably male,” illustrate how this transformed future has come to be characterized in more recent SF by the depiction of radically altered social conditions and gender identities.[6] In the remainder of this essay, I analyze the expression of optimism at the end of A Room of One’s Own (1929) that “if we live another century or so” society will be radically transformed to the extent that women will be free to write about themselves and their desires beyond the constraints placed by the structures of what we might now characterize as heteronormative, patriarchal society.[7] I then briefly outline an indicative trajectory of what I am calling “the Woolfian century” from Woolf’s own The Years (1937), through Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and on to Gwyneth Jones’s Life (2004), before speculating on what further developments might happen by 2029.

Narrative Forms and Social Possibilities

One way of trying to understand the relationship between modernism and SF in the first half of the twentieth century is to imagine Woolf in 1928, the year of the Equal Franchise Act, reading a novel containing a scene in which two women sit on a bench on Hampstead Heath watching the sun go down. They are discussing how, as a consequence of Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution, theological debates concerning the interpretation of the Bible no longer matter and the great question of the age has become the need to understand the relationship of the self to society. These women—Lilian, a biology student, and her sister, Rose Amber—are the protagonists of Love’s Creation by Marie Stopes, writing under the name of Marie Carmichael. It slowly occurs to Lilian that “her own little sister, whom she had always thought so delightfully simple and human, was really exploring into an Unknown even more subtle, more elusive than her own scientific fields of research.”[8] Rose explains that only a change to the whole social system can sort out the miserable tangled mess of people’s private lives. She doesn’t mean divorce reform, as scornfully suggested by Lilian, or even women getting the vote on equal terms to men. A more fundamental change is required: “Our whole social life is built up of the idea of an old-fashioned novel, in which people fall in love, marry and live happily ever after. Our happiness and our very ideas of what is decent and proper are built up on that, and it jolly well isn’t true” (34–5).

Despite this insight, however, Love’s Creation is a conventional novel that upholds the social norm of heterosexual romance. Woolf’s pastiche of “Mary Carmichael’s Life’s Adventure” in A Room of One’s Own (1929) is considerably more radical: “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together” (75). But her analysis of the novel is, nonetheless, generous. Carmichael “did not do so badly”: “Give her another hundred years . . . give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book” (85). Woolf’s description of the final chapter of Life’s Adventure, as “people’s noses and bare shoulders showed naked against a starry sky, for someone had twitched the curtain in the drawing room” (85), anticipates the lines quoted above from Between the Acts and suggests that she responded to the proleptic element in Stopes’s novel. This is the sense that new social possibilities might be opened up in the same manner that telescopes and microscopes were opening up new scientific possibilities.

In Modernism and Mass Politics (1995), Michael Tratner argues that modernism opens up new social possibilities by making the unconscious visible to the reader through an increase in the representation of working-class women. Tratner notes that the central passage of Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), concerning how human character changed on or about December 1910, takes as its real life example the transformation of the lives of working-class women and links that to her own life: “The same change in human relations releases the cook into the drawing room and allows a woman of genius to write books instead of scouring saucepans.”[9] It is Woolf’s understanding that her freedom to write is related to a wider social and gender equality that underpins the argument in A Room Of One’s Own, despite the title’s apparent endorsement of individualism: “If we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the courage to write exactly what we think” (102). Here, Woolf is outlining the changes to society necessary for the emergence of “Shakespeare’s sister”; an occurrence that would be significant not only because it would indicate that society was sufficiently egalitarian for an ordinary woman to become central to its literary life but also because of the implication that the writing of this woman would then shape literature for hundreds of years to come. It’s a vision of a radically transfigured future society that is simultaneously modernist and science fictional.

Intersubjective Communications

Woolf predicts that a transfigured society can be achieved if it is worked for over the course of a hundred years; this timespan stated at the end of A Room of One’s Own repeats her specific evaluation of how long it would take to produce a version of Carmichael’s Life’s Adventure that would finally transcend the limit—moral, social, and formal—of the old-fashioned novel. Woolf’s output during the rest of her life following the publication of A Room of One’s Own may be seen as both a continuation of her earlier experiments in narrative temporality and a direct attempt to work for this science-fictional future. It is well known that she originally wanted to write “a sequel to A Room of One’s Own—about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions for Women perhaps.”[10] Among the draft versions of this, which would eventually lead—via the unpublished novel-essay The Pargiters—to The Years (1937) and Three Guineas (1938), is a key sentence: “The future of fiction depends very much upon what extent men can be educated to stand free speech in women” (xl). This free speech would include the truth about women’s bodies, but Woolf had reservations about whether men would stand for such disclosure from a woman at that time given the difficulties experienced even by D. H. Lawrence. She was right to be concerned. When Naomi Mitchison wrote about sex, contraception, abortion, and rape in We Have Been Warned (1935), she couldn’t get the novel published uncut, and even when it did appear with revisions, it destroyed her literary reputation.[11] It wasn’t until Doris Lessing published The Golden Notebook (1962), in the aftermath of Penguin’s successful defense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover against charges of obscenity, that such “truths” became printable and their author could be praised for their honesty. Therefore, while The Years was originally intended to encompass a historical span from 1880 to 2012, Woolf chose in practice to end the novel in the “Present Day” of mid-1930s London. This was sufficient for her to be able to show how technology—especially in the form of the telephone—was in the process of transforming the social relationships of the nineteenth century. In The Years, Woolf eschewed first-person narration in favor of an approach that held open intersubjective possibilities, but she was not in a position at that time to portray those possibilities in full; they would have to continue developing “with private means in private” for the meanwhile (Woolf, Three Guineas, 239).

While Woolf sadly never lived to see the postwar period, Mitchison was eventually able to recast her similar 1930s concerns by writing an SF novel, Memoirs of a Space Woman (1962). Mitchison’s heroine, Mary, is an interplanetary communications expert who, following a period spent in close contact with asymmetrically radial aliens, becomes unwilling to return to a binary relationship with her former lover. Released from the constraints of an old-fashioned novel, she wanders from planet to planet as part of different scientific missions while undergoing a series of pregnancies. In this manner she fulfils the desire of Mitchison’s alter-ego in We Have Been Warned, Dione Galton, to live independently while having children with different men. The humiliation Mitchison herself must have felt following the reception of that earlier novel becomes transfigured in Memoirs of a Spacewoman into a willingness to abandon the constructed, moral, and intellectual self in favor of total openness to others. By the end of the novel, Mary realizes that at times she has been “somebody else,” and there is no doubt that she has changed significantly not just from the individual she was but also from an individual approach to living.[12]

The Future of Fiction

In a brief survey of feminist SF, Jones reflects on Memoirs of a Spacewoman that “Mitchison, upper-caste maverick, has no fear . . . no pleas for equal rights—she just takes them. Writes about women doing science, a feminized science that has become the mainstream, not a soft option or an inferior version.”[13] While Mitchison had perhaps been liberated by reaching a point beyond caring due both to her social status and her long experience of the ups and downs of a writing career, Jones’s own extensive career, which has seen her the most shortlisted writer for the annual Clarke Award for best SF novel published in Britain, indicates both how far women’s writing has come since 1929 in terms of being able to write freely about women’s bodies and desires on the whole without fear of critical opprobrium—although her problems with getting published indicate that there are still consequences for writing against the norms of patriarchal society.[14] Life’s protagonist, Anna Senoz, from a Manchester housing estate, trains as a scientist and, despite a career hindered by rape, male superiors, and endless low-paying fixed-term laboratory jobs, discovers a phenomenon called “Transferred Y”: the tendency of sections of the Y chromosome to crossover to the X chromosome, which might potentially mean the redundancy of the former (and, by implication, of men). When the press find out about Anna’s research, she becomes notorious as the “Sex Scientist” and experiences a breakdown. In an intertextual reference to Woolf and “New Women” such as Stopes’s Lilian and Rose Amber, Anna finds herself haunted by an Edwardian ghost: “She was a state of hope, a woman trying to be free and equal, a woman at the beginning of the great project . . . Never thinking where will it all lead?”[15]

For Woolf, the answer to this question was that it would lead, hopefully, to the possibility of a radically transfigured future society that would satisfy her modernist desire for equality and enable women to write freely about their bodies and desires. Mitchison and Jones are just two examples of women writers who have continued this trajectory up until the early years of the twenty-first century. By the end of Jones’s Life, her equivalent of Woolf’s Chloe is free both to “like Olivia” and to run her own major laboratory research project, but the novel envisages further developments: “In time, TY may create a situation where there are no genetic traits exclusive to ‘men’ or ‘women’: when sexual difference is in the individual, not a case of belonging to one half of the species or the other” (362). In 2021, many of us would no longer frame this outcome in terms of biological sex but rather as an infinite gender spectrum, now clearly emergent within society. The consequent disruption of the hierarchies and binaries of the Victorian symbolic order has implications for the literary sphere: there will no longer be a norm against which to define transgressive genres, such as SF and modernism. When the curtain rises on the imminent successor to the Woolfian century, we’re all going to find ourselves on the other side of the threshold, within the transformed future, and the old distinctions between modernism and SF will no longer be relevant.


[1] Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Fiction of Now,” New Scientist 2726 (19 September 2009): 46–49, 46.

[2] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction (London: Verso, 2005), xiv.

[3] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (Hammersmith: Grafton, 1978), 160.

[4] Katherine Mansfield quoted in David Trotter, The English Novel in History, 1895–1920 (New York: Routledge, 1993), 71.

[5] Quoted in Edward James, Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 115.

[6] Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (London: Futura, 1981), 89; Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (London: Orbit, 2013), 3.

[7] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000), 102.

[8] Marie Carmichael Stopes, Love’s Creation (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2012), 34.

[9] Michael Tratner, Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yates (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 54.

[10] Woolf quoted by Mitchell A. Leaska, “Introduction” in Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters (London: The Hogarth Press, 1978), xv.

[11] See Kristin Bluemel, “Exemplary Intermodernists: Stevie Smith, Inez Holden, Betty Miller, and Naomi Mitchison,” in The History of British Women’s Writing, 1920–1945, ed. Maroula Joannou (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 40–56, 49–51.

[12] Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (London: New English Library, 1976), 79.

[13] Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics (Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2009), 137.

[14] Life was not published in the UK and Jones was without a UK publisher at all between 2006 and 2017.

[15] Gwyneth Jones, Life (Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2004), 338.