If We Wrote Men Like We Write Women
June 22, 2016 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Author Jim C. Hines (previously, previously, previously, previously) once again takes a look at sexism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, this time looking at the written word.

What if you swapped the genders in classic SF&F novels?
posted by happyroach (166 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fucking Heinlein. I threw that book across the room, but twenty years later I still recognize it.

The criticism will surely be made, and rightfully so, that these are dead horses. Heinlein and Asimov have been dead for years, and nobody respects Anthony. A sharper look at more recent authors would be better.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:12 PM on June 22, 2016 [20 favorites]


Anthony is 81, and were Asimov and Heinlein still alive, they would be 96 and 109. These are embarrassing gender politics but not entirely surprising for men of their generation. Heinlein's work in particular has always struck me as notably sexist but I don't know that you would have a hard time finding similarly retrograde stuff for other non-genre writers born during the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:20 PM on June 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


My life will be complete the day that I read in a high fantasy novel -- in place of, "She felt her breasts bouncing underneath her tunic as she hurried across the courtyard" or whatever, where a female character spends the whole walk thinking about her own boobs for no reason -- a male character walking across a courtyard thinking to himself, "He felt his testicles jostling in his codpiece as he hurried across the courtyard."

"It must be cooler weather than I realized," he thought to himself, "they're awfully small and high up today ..."

Actually I have a bunch of related male author beefs, like the number who think that CHILDBIRTH (as opposed to pregnancy) causes stretchmarks or the one who talked about "the round, high breasts of an untouched virgin" who appeared to believe that sex makes your boobs sag which is SADLY NOT THAT UNCOMMON A SENTIMENT in male-written high fantasy. It's just, like, how can you possible be so sadly ignorant of the process by which the species continues itself? If I stopped reading every fantasy novel that was biologically inaccurate about the female portions of sex and reproduction, well, it would have been a lot of years since I finished a fantasy novel written by a man, is all I'm saying. Once you start noticing it you can't stop noticing it and you look up some of these guys' author bios and THEY'RE MARRIED TO WOMEN AND HAVE KIDS BORN SINCE 1980 and still apparently have no idea how the process works, nor how to look it up, nor any women they can ask to read over their chapters to make sure they're not biological impossibilities. It makes you wonder.

(GRRM jumps to mind as a contemporary fantasy author with some real howlers about female anatomy and reproduction, but probably just because the show's in season right now. He's not nearly as bad as some others but they don't come as quickly to mind because they don't have currently-airing TV shows of their books.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 PM on June 22, 2016 [107 favorites]


As someone who hasn't read a whole lot of fantasy writing - wait, authors describe bouncing boobs? This is sadly eye-opening.
posted by teponaztli at 9:40 PM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Fucking Heinlein. I threw that book across the room, but twenty years later I still recognize it.

I didn't remember what it was from, but I immediately recognized it as creepy Heinlein. And Stranger in a Strange Land isn't even close to his grossest book.
posted by aubilenon at 9:44 PM on June 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm probably not the only bookish girl who had unreasonable expectations of her own body because of fantasy authors' authority on the subject. I kept waiting to be nubile and it never seemed to happen.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:45 PM on June 22, 2016 [86 favorites]


Nubile just means marriageable, right?
posted by aubilenon at 9:48 PM on June 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


My life will be complete the day that I read in a high fantasy novel -- in place of, "She felt her breasts bouncing underneath her tunic as she hurried across the courtyard" or whatever, where a female character spends the whole walk thinking about her own boobs for no reason -- a male character walking across a courtyard thinking to himself, "He felt his testicles jostling in his codpiece as he hurried across the courtyard."

I've always had a half a mind to write this, just a little high fantasy yarn with magic and adventure and ludicrously sexualized dudes. Hot dudes for miles with lovingly described backsides and skin and always so worried about their hair and all the women are given curt descriptions of their skill or education and military prowess as they go forth and defeat the evil old Wizard (who seeks to restore his youthful beauty and control the mind of the young warrior Queen you see) up in the mountains.

It's okay one of the guys is really spunky and butch and hints he's got a thing for the tavern boy but that doesn't him and the rugged older ex-knight turned mercenary lady with a heart of gold from forming an intimate bond.
posted by The Whelk at 9:55 PM on June 22, 2016 [154 favorites]


The Whelk, please please please make that happen. For science.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:59 PM on June 22, 2016 [35 favorites]


I'm probably not the only bookish girl who had unreasonable expectations of her own body because of fantasy authors' authority on the subject. I kept waiting to be nubile and it never seemed to happen.

I have a very sharp, pointy memory of a teen moment, reading a myth-fantasy book I loved... the lady protagonist was getting into bed with her thrilling love interest. The description of her was "softly curved and firmly flat in all the right places." (I swear MOST of the writing was better than the sexy parts, where there was a bit of a deficit.)

I remember going a bit chilly at that, as I was suddenly reminded that I wasn't worthy of what she had.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 10:00 PM on June 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm still mad that Mara Jade was consistently described as having "the body of a dancer." I wanted Timothy Zahn to be immune to that junk.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:06 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


A sharper look at more recent authors would be better

In other words: Hines, catch up.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:22 PM on June 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


Now do The Left Hand of Darkness!
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:23 PM on June 22, 2016 [28 favorites]


The criticism will surely be made, and rightfully so, that these are dead horses. Heinlein and Asimov have been dead for years, and nobody respects Anthony. A sharper look at more recent authors would be better.

This is true, and yet just a couple of weeks ago somebody recommended Piers Anthony in a book-related AskMe question.
posted by not that girl at 10:25 PM on June 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


I knew that Hines would have to start with Heinlein, and so I was braced for it and recognized that scene even before I got to "Jane C Hershaw." Anne, Miriam, and Dorcas, Jubal's Angels.

And OH! I read a lot of high untouched boobs and it never even occurred to me that the contrasting state was breasts that had lactated - I just thought all those breasts were High N Proud N Untouched because they were only barely postpubescent, but of course you are absolutely correct. (Heinlein did have one of his characters self-deprecatingly refer to her breasts as baby-chewed, so at least he had the physiology right.)
posted by gingerest at 10:28 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


If I stopped reading every fantasy novel that was biologically inaccurate about the female portions of sex and reproduction, well, it would have been a lot of years since I finished a fantasy novel written by a man, is all I'm saying.

This is one reason I'm grateful that I encountered Lois McMaster Bujold's work at the tender age of 13 or so--not only realistic (if science-fictional) depictions of sex & reproduction, often from female POVs, but also stories in which those topics, and the possible technological transformations thereof, played key plot & thematic roles. In retrospect, they're pretty heteronormative and I have bones to pick with the depiction of queer/trans characters and issues, but I am so glad those books existed for me as a young reader, and I love them still.
posted by karayel at 10:39 PM on June 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


(Later on, I found Russ and LeGuin and Butler and Griffith and a wealth of other feminist SF, but I still look back on those books as the moment I realized I didn't have to feel subtly alienated by all the genre fiction that I wanted to love, but which seemed determined to tell me that it didn't love me back--or that it didn't even see me.)
posted by karayel at 10:44 PM on June 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


Well, Eyebrows, it's been awhile since I read the Lyonesse trilogy but, as I recall, Jack Vance, for all his questionable quirks, managed to avoid such crassness. And for high fantasy, he reached some exalted altitudes in those books.
posted by y2karl at 10:44 PM on June 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is true, and yet just a couple of weeks ago somebody recommended Piers Anthony in a book-related AskMe question.

Was the question, "What author do you most regret spending your allowance on as a child?"
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:51 PM on June 22, 2016 [88 favorites]


Books from the 50's and 60's are sexist! Shock! Horror! Film at 11.

The Piers Anthony swap is from the first book of the Xanth series, which started in 1977 and is still going on today. I mean, I see your point, but Countess Elena made it more accurately in the first comment.
posted by gingerest at 10:53 PM on June 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


the Xanth series, which started in 1977 and is still going on today

What.

[wikiwiki]

Oh, lord.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:11 PM on June 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


it's not like these cultural products go away and cease to have influence just because they get "old."

when i was in high school i don't think i read an assigned book written past 1980 or so. we did very rudimentary analyses - nothing that strayed outside of what is "safe" to question.

a lot of people never read much more than they're forced to. and me - i was really into sci-fi and fantasy and i read a lot of different stuff. most of it by men. most of it older than i was at the time.

did that mean it had no influence on me? did the fact that the publication date was 1977 instead of 1997 mean that i mentally negated all of the weird, fucked up messages about women in the work? did it mean that it didn't effect how i viewed myself, how i viewed women, how i viewed myself as a woman?

hell no.

call this shit out for as long as people are still reading it.

and especially keep doing that as long as people are still denying that there's a problem.

(and yeah do it for new works too. do it for everything. let girls know that this shit is not a given, that people are angry, that it's not wrong to be a woman and they aren't being women wrong either. make it a part of the general consciousness that this is bad shit, make it taught in schools, make the creepy comic book guy who thinks women are just T&A as weird and ostracized as he should be. whatever you do, don't just accept this shit. silence sends its own message.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:13 PM on June 22, 2016 [80 favorites]


And another person learns about the thorough shittiness that is Piers Anthony.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:20 PM on June 22, 2016 [10 favorites]


I remember reading the various paragraphs about a woman looking at herself. You know. One of them. I don't even need to be specific.

They always remind me of that potent John Berger quote: "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting 'Vanity', thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure."

She's written that way! No. This is important. He wrote her that way.
posted by E. Whitehall at 11:24 PM on June 22, 2016 [162 favorites]


It's been a couple years since I read Stranger in a Strange Land, but my interpretation of it was obviously different than the people in this thread.

Yes, the over the top, blatant misogyny of Jubal Harshaw bothered me. So much so that I almost stopped reading the book. But I was also confused, because it didn't fit in with how the rest of the story was told.

Jill is a heroine, a strong figure who is key to Mike's success. She doesn't free him because a man told her to, but because she felt it was the right thing to do. Her love interest (Ben) only "wins" her by completely adopting her rules and ideals. He conforms to her, not her to him.

Patty becomes the highest priestess in the church, and is the core of its founding (along with Jill and Mike). I believe at one point they mention that she is the next most powerful person after Mike. Her introduction of Mike to Fosterism is key to the development of his philosophy and understanding.

The Church of All Worlds is about as egalitarian as it gets. I remember parts where women seduced men. They seemed to have as much control over the inner circle as any member did.

In fact, I can't think of a man who embraced the church as quickly and completely as the women did. Mike says Jubal is the only one who groks Martian without knowing it, but Jubal resists the church until the very end.

IMHO, I think the offensive sexism of Jubal Harshaw is in the book to contrast with the free love and community of the Church of All Worlds. Jubal Harshaw's order is the old way, the way we are supposed to toss aside, in favor of the Martian way. You are not supposed to read Jubal's passages and think "That's how things should be!" You're supposed to read them and then prefer Mike's version.

That's how I reconciled the two very different views of women in the novel. Maybe I'm reading something into it that the author did not intend, but it makes the story work for me.
posted by sbutler at 11:30 PM on June 22, 2016 [21 favorites]


Also, IIRC, Martians don't have biological genders. That Jubal's world is so obsessed with biological gender (and roles) provides more contrast, and makes the Martian way that much more alien and revolutionary.
posted by sbutler at 11:37 PM on June 22, 2016


The criticism will surely be made, and rightfully so, that these are dead horses.

That are still found in every Barnes & Stable, looking for all the world like the live horses in their paper hides.
posted by Etrigan at 11:40 PM on June 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


You would think this is all in the past, but:
There came a soft knock on her door. “Come,” Danny said, turning away from the window. Illyria’s servants entered, bowed, and set about their business. They were slaves, a gift from one of the magister’s many Dothraki friends. There was no slavery in the free city of Pentos. Nonetheless, they were slaves. The old man, small and grey as a mouse, never said a word, but the young man made up for it. He was Illyria’s favorite, a fairhaired, blue-eyed lad of sixteen who chattered constantly as he worked.
They filled his bath with hot water brought up from the kitchen and scented it with fragrant oils. The boy pulled the rough cotton tunic over Danny’s head and helped him into the tub. The water was scalding hot, but Daenerys did not flinch or cry out. He liked the heat. It made him feel clean. Besides, his sister had often told him that it was never too hot for a Targaryen. “Ours is the house of the dragon,” she would say. “The fire is in our blood.”
The old man washed his long, silver-pale hair and gently combed out the snags, all in silence. The boy scrubbed his back and his feet and told him how lucky he was. “Droga is so rich that even her slaves wear golden collars. A hundred thousand women ride in her khalasar, and her palace in Vaes Dothrak has two hundred rooms and doors of solid silver.” There was more like that, so much more, what a handsome woman the khaleesi was, so tall and fierce, fearless in battle, the best rider ever to mount a horse, a demon archer. Daenerys said nothing.

When he was clean, the slaves helped him from the water and toweled him dry. The boy brushed his hair until it shone like molten silver, while the old man anointed him with the spiceflower perfume of the Dothraki plains, a dab on each wrist, behind his ears, on the tips of his nipples, and one last one, cool on his scrotum, down there between his legs. They dressed him in the wisps that Magistra Illyria had sent up, and then the tunic, a deep plum silk to bring out the violet in his eyes. The boy slid the gilded sandals onto his feet, while the old man fixed the diadem in his hair, and slid golden bracelets crusted with amethysts around his wrists. Last of all came the collar, a heavy golden torc emblazoned with ancient Valyrian glyphs.
“Now you look all a prince,” the boy said breathlessly when they were done. Danny glanced at his image in the silvered looking glass that Illyria had so thoughtfully provided. A prince, he thought, but he remembered what the boy had said, how Khaleesi Droga was so rich even her slaves wore golden collars. He felt a sudden chill, and gooseflesh pimpled his bare arms.
I'm not even going to look for the scene when Dany enjoys her freely bouncing tits under her brand new Dothraki vest while horse riding.
posted by sukeban at 11:41 PM on June 22, 2016 [25 favorites]


i'm going to suggest that reading these works as a man -- or a boy -- and being able to say:

"oh, this is internally consistent"

"oh, this is just old"

"oh, it's just the character"

"oh, i can explain the sexism by _____"

...is a very different experience than the one i had. that's the one where i could try to tell myself the same thing, but the cumulative effect of reading all these works with warped views about women was still there. and not just in sci-fi, but in the literary canon too.

in everything, really.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:42 PM on June 22, 2016 [49 favorites]


Heinlein and Asimov are still regularly recommended to people to read, without anyone noting how sexist they are, and are frequently incredibly high on recommended lists of Science Fiction everyone should read. Suddenly pretending their super old and unimportant seems really, really, really disingenuous.

"The Foundation Trilogy" is #8 on NPR's list of the Top 100 Science Fiction / Fantasy Books in 2011. Stranger in a Strange Land is #11. Foundation is #3 and Stranger is #6 on This List. Foundation is # 10 on this list of 25, and while Stranger doesn't show up, Heinlein's The Moon is a harsh Mistress does. Both are on NPR's list of 100 Favorite Science Fiction/Fantasy based on votes from over 60,000 people as well - #8 and #17 this time. #22 and #66 on This List (Moon is a Harsh Mistress is also on the list!). Both of them also showed up on a list compiled by comparing other lists for someone to read and review all of them at #14 and #57. Foundation is #1 on this list of the top 15 books and Heinlein shows up with a different series at #4. Foundation is also on this list of 50 Essential Science Fiction books, while Heinlein continues to split his book vote but both he and Azimov merit being mention in the opening paragraphs as "One book per author, so that was hard on the big three of science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke" [emphasis added].

Call me when these two aren't on pretty much every list of Sci Fi recommendations, when they're not named as major figures in Science Fiction, when their books aren't held up as exemplary on very short lists of science fiction books everyone should read, when the fact that it's sexist is mentioned when they're recommended, and then the argument that they are super old and have no influence might hold more water.

Right now, well... they're treated as pretty damn foundational - along with the sexism they espouse and endorse.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:44 PM on June 22, 2016 [67 favorites]


I have a favorite quote of Heinlein's and by favorite I mean the one I use most frequently to horrify people. It's from Time Enough For Love which I've heard claimed as a favorite book by more than one man, including a shitty roommate. A main thematic motif is the exploration of incest in all its myriad forms. Our hero goes around the universe and women beg to have his babies, quite literally. It's pretty much authorial insert masturbation fic. The quote occurs near the end of the book; our heroically competent protagonist finished impregnating his twin clone daughter-sisters after they begged him for it right before hopping back in time and banging his own mother (though he does not impregnate his own mother!). This quote is from his mother, talking to him in cheerful conversation; Brian is her husband aka his father.
“Size isn’t important, Theodore-Lazarus; a woman must fit any size. Father told me that long ago and taught me exercises for it—and I never told Brian; I let him think that was simply how I am—and accepted his compliments smugly. I still exercise regularly—because my birth canal has been stretched again and again and again by babies’ skulls and if I didn’t exercise those muscles I would be, in Father’s salty language, ‘loose as a goose.’ And I do so want to stay desirable to Brian as many years as possible.”
There are so many horrifying quotes from that book to chose one, but this one is my favorite to deploy. It has a perverted fractal quality to it: the incestuousness of the conversation participants to start with, the sexual expectations of women and what they should be doing for men, the fact that his mother's father instructed her in the operation of her ladybits (for the benefit of men), the leering descriptions of childbirth...

Anyway, my favorite thing is to watch people's faces as they read it.
posted by foxfirefey at 12:02 AM on June 23, 2016 [24 favorites]


Not to threadsit, but there's some context I left out of the original post. One of the major arguments of reactionary SF&F groups such as the Sad Puppies is that modern audiences are neglecting the classics of the field, such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Foundation. Some argue that these texts must be read in order to have a true foundation as a SF&F fan.

In response, there are authors who are finding it worthwhile to look at those texts and critique them in a modern context. In some cases this involves having millennials review these classics. In the case of Jim Hines, it involves putting the spotlight in the sexism implicit in the text.
posted by happyroach at 12:05 AM on June 23, 2016 [28 favorites]


Not to be cruel or to masquerade abuse as analysis, but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys. These were guys who didn't have a great deal of familiarity with girls or women, or with sex as a lived experience as opposed to a half-feared, half-desired imaginary state largely extrapolated from difficult-to-acquire pornography of one sort or another. Is it any wonder that it doesn't match modern preconceptions about gender equality? Imagine a romance novel written by a middling engineering student in a 95% male program, and you'll inevitably get the sort of stuff we're decrying.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 12:16 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

The New Wave is over there *waves around*. Ursula K LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, all of them. Please don't make as if women's SF/F had never happened, because if you do the ghost of Mary Shelley will be really pissed off.
posted by sukeban at 12:21 AM on June 23, 2016 [126 favorites]


Please note that this article James Davis Nicoll linked in his review of Kameron Hurley's The Geek Feminist Revolution a few days ago dates back from 1982, roughly the same time Joanna Russ studied how women's work has a mysterious tendency to be expurged from the historical narrative.
posted by sukeban at 12:27 AM on June 23, 2016 [30 favorites]


Andy was blond, Martin red-headed, and Dean dark; they ranged, respectively, from pleasantly plump to deliciously slender.

I love this parody for its notion that, as a brunet, I might teamed up with a blond and a bluey with different BMIs - so as to by part of a female protagonist's harem of secretaries.
posted by rongorongo at 12:30 AM on June 23, 2016 [16 favorites]


I'm not pretending female-authored SF doesn't exist. We just seem to be mostly discussing male-authored pre-New Wave stuff, or authors (generally male) who ignore the changes rung in by the New Wave.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 12:31 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Then please don't say female fans and writers are a figment of our imagination. You know what predates Star Wars? Lieutenant Mary Sue.
posted by sukeban at 12:36 AM on June 23, 2016 [22 favorites]


If I have an argument, it's that science fiction is and was a vernacular literature. Its practitioners were writing to sell pulp magazines, generally writing in a hurry and (except for the odd rich kid like Larry Niven) for the money. If most male writers didn't rise above their times or their own personal fantasies, that shouldn't surprise anyone.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 12:48 AM on June 23, 2016


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

Look at all these socially marginalized, introverted boys!

1666 Margaret Cavendish publishes The Blazing World.
1765 Marie-Anne de Roumier-Robert publishes Voyage de Milord Céton dans les Sept Planètes (Journeys of Lord Seton in Seven Planets).
1818 Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein.
1826 Mary Shelley publishes The Last Man.
1827 Jane Webb Loudon publishes The Mummy!.
1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman publishes Herland.
1926 Thea von Harbou serializes the screenplay of the silent film Metropolis
1926 Charlotte Haldane publishes Man's World.
1929 Kay Burdekin publishes The Rebel Passion.
1944 C. L. Moore publishes the short story "No Woman Born".
1948 Judith Merril publishes the short story "That Only a Mother".
1950 Judith Merril publishes Shadow on the Hearth.
1961 Zenna Henderson publishes the collection of short stories entitled Pilgrimage: The Book of the People.
1962 Naomi Mitchison publishes Memoirs of a Spacewoman.
1968 Anne McCaffrey publishes Dragonflight.
1969 Ursula K. Le Guin publishes The Left Hand of Darkness.
1970 Marge Piercy publishes Dance the Eagle to Sleep.
1971 C. J. Cherryh begins publishing her books through DAW books.
1972 Joanna Russ publishes When It Changed.
1973 James Tiptree, Jr. publishes the collection of short stories Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home.
1974 Ursula K. Le Guin publishes The Dispossessed.
1976 Marge Piercy publishes Woman on the Edge of Time.
1976 James Tiptree, Jr. publishes the novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read?.
1977 Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, is released.

Also, Heinlein the ex-Navy person, member of a socialist party, married several times, marginalized and introverted man! Asimov, the public speaking, married, member of several social and dramatic groups marginalized and introverted man! Weird how these socially isolated, marginalized people seem to be part of so many groups and to be considered so influential even now. Weird how feminism was literally going on around them while they wrote, but it didn't occur to them to include it in the future.

In addition, Asimov and Heinlein are treated like major figures in science fiction - two of the Big Three even while they were writing. If their books are such pulp, written in a hurry and made up mostly of men's fantasies, then critique of it should be welcomed by this generation of people and they should be dropped from the canon, their sexism (and other problems) highlighted as a relief. "Oh thank goodness," we can all say to each other. "No one writes like those hacks Asimov and Heinlein anymore, putting their fantasies down in a rush then selling them to make a buck."

Weirdly, people don't seem to be reacting this way.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:02 AM on June 23, 2016 [181 favorites]


Not to be cruel or to masquerade abuse as analysis, but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys. These were guys who didn't have a great deal of familiarity with girls or women, or with sex as a lived experience as opposed to a half-feared, half-desired imaginary state largely extrapolated from difficult-to-acquire pornography of one sort or another.

Oh come on. Asimov, for example, was a man of incredibly broad expertise and experience. He wrote over 500 books, fiction and non fiction. He was married twice, so he definitely wasn't isolated from female contact or sex. But two of his books were pretty gross collections of pornographic limericks, and he had a reputation for being grabby with young women at cons. He wasn't scared or isolated or introverted. He was just sexist.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:08 AM on June 23, 2016 [66 favorites]


Asimov also wrote this.
posted by sukeban at 1:13 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I get pretty tired of hearing the "men will be men" excuses. It has no bearing on what I've experienced in my own life.

And as a tangent (I'll get back to the point in a sec), I still remember exchanging men for women in pieces on Kuro5hin back in the day (don't flame me) and being told "lol that doesn't mean a thing". Glad to see that perspectives are changing.

Now for this: ...at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys. These were guys who didn't have a great deal of familiarity with girls or women, or with sex as a lived experience as opposed to a half-feared, half-desired imaginary state largely extrapolated from difficult-to-acquire pornography of one sort or another. Is it any wonder that it doesn't match modern preconceptions about gender equality?

To add lived experience to the great facts Deoridhe listed – and I suppose there were no women on the early internet either, amirite. Yeah, sorry, I am one. One among many. I am a girl who grew up with science fiction. My best friends were and are socially marginal, introverted men AND WOMEN. They are men who have plenty of familiarity with women because we're just over half the planet, so it's not like we're a mysterious species that one never has contact with. I have never understood this hands-over-the-eyes excuse of "well yeah of course I know women, but what I mean is I don't know what women are like" –> this makes no sense whatsoever. Rational beings cannot use this as an excuse and call themselves rational. What is rational is recognizing that every single one of us is unique and also part of humanity. There are women who ride Harleys, road bikes, mountain bikes, city bikes, wheelchairs... there are men who pick flowers, write poetry, cook, and daydream. There are people who do not fit the gender binary, and who do all of that and more. And what on earth makes anyone think that men seeing sex as "half-feared, half-desired" wouldn't also be applicable to women? For pete's sake we grow up being taught that we could be raped. Seeing rape romanticized in stories. Or "just" seeing our gender objectified, set aside, minimized.

I was never able to read Asimov because of all this. Plenty of other science fiction, yeah. Interestingly, my guy friends found Asimov off-putting as well. But since they're individuals, I don't immediately assume that their example of cis manhood extends to all three billion men on the planet.

As for this nonsense about "modern preconceptions about gender equality", yeah actually it is a wonder. Plenty of men in earlier times saw through it.

But let's use the same experiment on that comment.
...at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted girls. These were young women who didn't have a great deal of familiarity with boys or men, or with sex as a lived experience as opposed to a half-feared, half-desired imaginary state largely extrapolated from difficult-to-acquire pornographywidely-disseminated stories of one sort or anotherall sorts.
posted by fraula at 1:18 AM on June 23, 2016 [38 favorites]


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

Setting aside the fact that this is demonstrably not true -- your argument is that all the tiresome objectification and othering is OK because the authors were alienating half their potential audience on purpose?
posted by KathrynT at 1:41 AM on June 23, 2016 [36 favorites]


As regrettable as Piers Anthony's gender politics are (and they are intensely regrettable, we are after all talking about a guy who wrote a fantasy novel called The Color of Her Panties), the constant subtext of pedophilia in his writing really takes it over the top. Asimov and especially Heinlein were both pigs a lot of the time, but Piers Anthony is some next level fucked-up, and the idea that people intentionally give children his books to read even to this day is just baffling.

I was not a discerning judge of quality writing when I was a kid, but even then I remember feeling like the Xanth books were some greasy literary junk food. Picking his stuff up now is just disturbing, though.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:22 AM on June 23, 2016 [14 favorites]


Some argue that these texts must be read in order to have a true foundation as a SF&F fan

That's... probably true... but I note that it's all second-generation authors... nobody (as far as I know) thinks reading proto-SF or early-20th-century pulps is necessary. That kinda suggests we might be seeing "these are the authors I read as a child" elevated to canon rather than serious thought about how our tropes evolved.

Idle musing: could you even do a SIASL without the background of the 60s counter-revolution, and all the gender politics implicit in that? It would be an interesting exercise. In the 80s Smith would be bringing the cult of individualism back from Mars, in the 90s, maybe apathy and detachment... I don't have a clue what he'd bring back today, but I'm not exactly of the zeitgeist.
posted by Leon at 2:40 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am not a big fan of "gender-swapping," partly because it doesn't really make the problem more noticeable than the original passages and it encourages the noxious internet debating technique of, well, gender- and race-swapping. I'll give Hines a pass for his hilarious cover reenactments, because that's more "actual physical body swapping" and the male gaze critique emerges from that when you start asking "why was she so contorted?"

As for classic SF, I will accept the argument that, to be really conversant with the genre, you should read "the Big Three." You also should read people like Smith, Smith, Piper, Anderson, etc. However, and this is where the "SF You Ought to Read" lists fall down, you should also be reading CL Moore, LeGuin, even Bradley (as much as she creeps me out these days) and all of the other women getting mentioned upthread. Because they all had noticeable impacts on themes and styles in the development of SF. It's not so much the presentation of men in the history of SF that's the problem, it's the wilful exclusion of women. The syllabus needs to be heavily pruned and then expanded (not only for gender, either; the exclusion of people of color from the SF canon is also pernicious.) If you aren't reading for a deep understanding of the history and development of SF tropes, you don't have to read Heinlein or Asimov or those other old guys because they are old fashioned and out of date and, honestly, not very good prose stylists or developers of characters or scene-setters or any of that other stuff that we like in stories.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:56 AM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


Andre Norton wrote the most formulaic, pulpiest SF/fantasy novels for "introverted and marginalized boys," and while I cannot claim to have read all her canon with an eye towards sexism, she was pretty successful without bouncing breasts under tunics or Set decks of women throwing themselves at a hero before he finally beds the plucky but curvaceous heroine with flashing eyes.
posted by muddgirl at 3:31 AM on June 23, 2016 [17 favorites]


(Deoridhe, if I could fave a comment multiple times, I totally would.)
posted by XtinaS at 3:36 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


My favourite is when writers describe women's arms in relation to their breasts, as typified by the Jordanesque "she folded her arms under her breasts". It's so... unnecessary. Where the fuck else would you fold your arms!?!?! When people fold their arms, there is the default position used by both genders 99.99999999% of the time, and then weird shit people doing yoga or whatever.

It's like writing "He puts his hands in his pockets adjacent to his balls." No one would think if you wrote "He put his hands in his pockets" that some dude was walking around with both hands in his own back pockets like some kind of strange self-ass-grabber. People know how other people cross their arms - women are not thinking of their breasts in relation to all other objects at all times - "She walked under the steeple that towered over her breasts"; "Her breasts were covered by the jacket quite handily"; "She fed the horse an apple, holding it parallel to her breasts" IT'S FUCKING WEIRD WHY DOES ARM CROSSING GET A FREE PASS?
posted by smoke at 4:02 AM on June 23, 2016 [115 favorites]


I picked up Foundation from the library the other day, because I thought I should give it a try after seeing it at the top of so many Sci-Fi book lists for so long. I enjoyed it at first, because there was no dumb stuff about women to distract me from the story. But now that I'm halfway through it, I've noticed that there is no dumb stuff about women in the book because there are no female characters. It's not that the female characters only exist in the background or as minor characters. They just don't exist at all. I'm on page 120 and we've only met a single woman, and she was a receptionist with two lines. The complete absence of women is much spookier to me than Hari Seldon's ability to predict the future, but I don't think that is what Asimov intended.
posted by colfax at 4:18 AM on June 23, 2016 [37 favorites]


Nubile just means marriageable, right?
I think 'nubile' meant they wanted to have sex with the author, and 'wizened' meant they wanted to have sex with other people instead.
posted by haileris23 at 4:39 AM on June 23, 2016 [36 favorites]


Yeah, I get so tired of the "it's not the AUTHOR who's sexist, it's the NARRATOR" (or the character). You can tell the difference! Like, nobody reads Nabokov's Lolita and thinks Nabokov is supporting or endorsing Humbert Humbert's life choices. (You may come away a little uncomfortable that Nabokov did such a good job getting inside the head of a pedophile and taking you with him, but you don't come away convinced he endorsed it.) You read Piers Anthony and you rapidly become uncomfortably aware that the author is sharing his sexual kink with you, over and over again, and it's not just the character. Let's have modern examples! You read Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles and the fan refrain is "Kvothe is sexist and clueless, that's why the books are so sexist." Well, okay, but then we might get some indications through Kvothe's own narration that he's a unreliable narrator when it comes to women -- which we do not get. It's not the narrator who's sexist in a complex world where women have personalities and agency and we see hints that he's missing things or ways in which his own thoughts self-contradict or condemn him; it's the author who's sexist and too lazy to give the women personalities and agency and Kvothe is just straight-up in the world the author intended to write. There's no second layer there where there's anything for the narrator to be unreliable about. (Or, thanks to the magic of the internet, we can go read Rothfuss's personal blog and discover that, yeah, no, this dude is crazy sexist and everything Kvothe thinks about women is basically what Rothfuss, 2016-existing dude, is willing to publicly say about 2016-existing real-life women with whom he interacts.)

Another highlight for me is the trope that childbirth has to hurt, which stands out particularly in television and movie sci-fi. It's amazing how in a well-considered sci-fi world like Star Trek where economics and medicine and so on have all been considered in their possible future iterations and how that would underlie the world, we get entire plots about pregnancy and childbirth and somehow it's not even 1970s childbirth; we're back to before Queen Victoria was given ether. Nobody has developed reliable birth control that prevents aliens from impregnating you, which seems like it'd be a Federation top priority when they're putting women on starships. There are plots where they cure someone of some pernicious illness by beaming back only their DNA pattern with the virus removed ... yet nobody's figured out how to BEAM BABIES OUT OF UTERUSES for easier childbirth. In fact nobody gives anybody any fucking painkillers for childbirth and despite the magic of the tricorder, pregnancy diagnostics are stuck pre-ultrasound. The entire reboot series kicks off with poor Jennifer Morrison laboring flat on her back in a hospital bed (a very historically contingent way to labor belonging to about 1940 to 2000) screaming in pain with no fucking painkillers! Your opening shots of the reboot of the entire future is "childbirth, lacking state of the art painkillers from 1847." (I give my sole pass to the Worf-helps-Keiko-give-birth episode because there the natural birth is played for both character development and laughs, and has at least a tenuous reason in that the starship is disabled and there are no actual medical people available, although there's some big holes there too.) It's so great to know there's been tons of progress in all aspects of human life in the future, EXCEPT women's reproductive health, where we've regressed to a pre-1900s state, because *handwave* that stuff's not important!

Going to fantasy, you'll hear the excuse that it's "historically accurate" that in a world with magic and dragons, women would be marginalized, objectified, frequently raped, etc. Which, okay, sure, writing about the patriarchy is a totally fine topic to write about, and I myself often enjoy stories that explore a society with tightly-restricted social roles (whether by class, gender, whatever) and such a book does not have to involve the author endorsing those roles. But when it comes time for those pregnant characters to drink excessive quantities of ale? THAT'S WHERE THE AUTHOR'S PRUDERY KICKS IN. Highly-sexualized turbo-rape played for reader titillation? "That's just how history was, man!" Pregnant women drinking alcohol as virtually all pregnant women did up through the 1950s? "Um ... I don't think pregnant ladies should be drinking alcohol, that seems immoral."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:47 AM on June 23, 2016 [145 favorites]


I know we're discussing science fiction in particular, but it's not like other genres were any different. It's not like the world was any different - pick up a vintage magazine or a newspaper and browse through it. Look at the advertisements. The sexism in SF and westerns and thrillers was nothing more or less than the water that all us fish were swimming in. Heck, I'm not that old, and when I was married the bank required my husband to countersign my application for a credit card, even though I made substantially more money than he did; my signature wasn't required for him to get credit though.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:03 AM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Don't get me started on Rothfuss. Sweet sassy molassy don't get me started on that stuff....
posted by smoke at 5:05 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


I understand the impulse to desire childhood favorites, but guys—I feel okay with using "guys" here—you really don't have to justify Asimov's sexism! Look, I loooooove Asimov. He taught me about how to be a writer and thinker at a younger age than anybody else did. He was a brilliant man and a delightful writer! He was also a pretty gross sexist!

Think about the bit in Second Foundation where Arkady uses her feminine wiles to screw a shy, introverted boy out of his prize invention. It's fucked up! And then he shrugs and goes "all women are like that, though, LOL!!" And then there's that plot later on where the one woman compulsively has sex with everybody or something? I don't even read the last Foundation novels and I was a kid when I read them last and even at the tender, pubertic age of 12-odd I could tell something real weird was going on.

Asimov's still great! But also really damn sexist, and that really does matter.

Now, this is sadly not a significant reverse-objectification of men, but I can't help thinking of the bit in Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock—still in many ways my favorite work of fantasy—where her thirteen-year-old protagonist is writing a fantasy story for her older male friend/love interest/it's complicated, and gets way too into the purpleness of her prose:
Some parts were really good. The part, in particular, where Tan Coul is wounded in the shoulder and Hero has to dress the wound. She strips off Tan Coul’s armour and sees “the smooth, powerful muscles rippling under the silken skin of his back”. Wonderful! Polly went round whispering it admiringly to herself. “The silken skin of his back!”
Then she sends her novel to Tom, and receives a postcard back which reads: "Sentimental drival." So she's furious and calls him and leaves a voice message asking, what the hell do you mean by that, asshole?

A few weeks or months go by. Then, suddenly, she receives this letter, from a fellow member of Tom's string quartet:
Dear Polly,

Tom wishes you, for some reason I can’t understand, to consider the human back. He says there are many other matters you should consider too, but that was a particularly glaring example. He invites you, he says, to walk along a beach this summer and watch the male citizens there sunning themselves. There you will see backs — backs stringy, backs bulging, and backs with ingrained dirt. You will find, he says, yellow skin, blackheads, pimples, enlarged pores and tufts of hair.

This is making me ill, but Tom says to go on. Peeling sunburn, warts, boils, moles and midge bites and floppy rolls of skin. Even a back without these blemishes, he claims, seldom or never ripples, unless with gooseflesh. In fact, he defies you to find an inch of silk or a single powerful muscle in any hundred yards of average sunbathers. I hope you know what all this is about, because I don’t. I think you should stay away from the seaside if you can.

Yours ever, Sam.
(Then there's the Jones novel in which wizards open a portal to another dimension and an 80s businessman comes out, kidnaps a demon, and forces the world to playact fantasy tropes for offworld tourists. That one's got some delightful barbs about how women in fantasy are treated too.)
posted by rorgy at 5:05 AM on June 23, 2016 [24 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: First class rant.

Star Trek technology never reaches its logical conclusions in any area - it's deliberately nerfed so the authors can tell the stories they want to tell (why aren't computers handling the firefights?). From which I can only conclude that they actively want childbirth to be painful because it's part of the story they're trying to tell.

It might be related to the whole "Wagon Train to the Stars" American frontier in space thing, but I don't think that idea stands up to close inspection.
posted by Leon at 5:14 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's just, like, how can you possible be so sadly ignorant of the process by which the species continues itself?

I, too, am constantly surprised at author bios that mention wives and children, because a lot of genre fiction reads like the author is still living in his parents' basement and hasn't had many conversations with women, much less sexual experience.

Nubile just means marriageable, right?

Usually it means "underaged-but-hot is legal in my fantasy world, so let me go on to describe her breasts" as far as I can tell. The amount of semi-pedophilia in current fantasy novels is kind of grotesque, like the goal is to find and describe the exact moment when a girl becomes sexually accessible.

I remember reading the various paragraphs about a woman looking at herself. You know. One of them. I don't even need to be specific.

My current rule is to avoid books that have that cheesy scene where a woman looks at herself in the mirror and describes her naked body, often in pornaliscious language. There are so many better (and much more erotic, if that is the goal) ways to describe people, so I've started using it as an easy signifier of lazy writing.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:21 AM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "Highly-sexualized turbo-rape played for reader titillation? "That's just how history was, man!" Pregnant women drinking alcohol as virtually all pregnant women did up through the 1950s? "Um ... I don't think pregnant ladies should be drinking alcohol, that seems immoral."

Beautiful.
posted by E. Whitehall at 5:23 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


oh man, colfax, that was my exact experience reading Foundation... and just wait till you get to the one-and-only female character in the first book who DOES affect the plot!
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:41 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


(Not to mention the fact that it's blatantly imperialist white-man's-burden propaganda but w/e)
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:42 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


My favourite such thing is when a male fantasy author refers to a woman's genitalia as her 'mound'. It's such an offputting and alien term. I guess it sounds more genuinely oldtimey to them? I think if US abstinence education had integrated the word into its programs, then it would have had a higher success rate of dampening the sexual curiosity of young men.
posted by picea at 5:45 AM on June 23, 2016


Eyebrows Mcgee currently, in the US, we are running as fast as we can backwards to destroy any and all modern aids to women's health, but there's no war on women, we're all just traditionalists.
"Epidural? Not for my little honey bun, she's an all natural girl!" insists Congressmonster Shitheel.
It is not surprising to me that our art reflects our reality, it does sadden me.
posted by evilDoug at 5:56 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


There are plots where they cure someone of some pernicious illness by beaming back only their DNA pattern with the virus removed ... yet nobody's figured out how to BEAM BABIES OUT OF UTERUSES for easier childbirth.

Voyager, despite its many other flaws, did have a fetal transport due to delivery complications.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:57 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's not like the world was any different - pick up a vintage magazine or a newspaper and browse through it.

This is basically the same as telling a judge "Yeah, sure, I killed that guy, but lots of other people died that day too, and I had nothing to do with those."
posted by Etrigan at 6:05 AM on June 23, 2016 [18 favorites]


I didn't want to bring it up, but I had to digitally throw my copy of Peter F Hamilton's The Reality Disfunction against the wall after our heroic starship captain lies to, rapes, and impregnates the teenage daughter of his business partner. I just looked at the Wikipedia plot summary and the two end up together at the end (of course) but no mention is made of what happens to the baby as she carries on gallivanting around the galaxy fighting ghosts.

She comes from a world specifically trying to recreate Victorian England culture (complete with the inherent sexism and bigotry), but the book specifically says medicine is one area where their strict anti-technology laws are relaxed. I guess in this interstellar culture of living starships and medical nanotechnology a fucking birth control pill or a condom is too fucking fancy for 1800s theme park planet.

So please don't say sexist fiction is limited to authors born before WWII. As long as they're touted as The Greats with no further discussion people like Hamilton (born 1960) will continue to emulate them and groups like the puppies will fight to encourage more of the same.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:08 AM on June 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


It's not like the world was any different - pick up a vintage magazine or a newspaper and browse through it.

But few people are holding up those stories and ads and stuff as the bestest versions of their kind, ever, which they definitely do with Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:25 AM on June 23, 2016 [19 favorites]


I was a big fan of Asimov and an even bigger fan of Heinlein, and read Anthony voraciously in my early teens, all without noting any of the things that today would make my nose wrinkle as though I smelled cat poop (probably in my shoes again, the little bastard, but I digress).

Much of the growth / change of perspective I've had in the last ten years or so (on a this and a whole host of issues) can be pretty firmly laid at MeFi's door, and while I'm pretty grateful for the free education, I also realize that absent that education, I'd probably be a Ron Paul Libertarian.

All of which is by way of saying I have a little bit of sympathy for the sexist schmucks, 'cause there but for the grace of MeFi go I.
posted by Mooski at 6:26 AM on June 23, 2016 [21 favorites]


When I was in my early teens, my first hint that some sci-fi authors could get pretty gross was when the main motivations for the female character in Harry Harrison 's The Stainless Steel Rat was to steal enough to be able to afford plastic surgery (because ladies is soooo vain, amirite?). Followed up by the "happy" ending of the book being that she was imprisoned and had her brain reprogrammed to make her want to bang the male protagonist. Somehow multiple people read this story and thought "Perfect! Print it!"
posted by haileris23 at 6:28 AM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's like writing "He puts his hands in his pockets adjacent to his balls."

It seems very possible that Delany has written a sentence a lot like this, though I don't have a specific cite.

Anyhow, I agree with the general critical sentiments in this thread and sympathize with those frustrated with old-school sexism. As someone who was an introverted and nerdy boy and started reading sf in the late 60s and early 70s, it wasn't long before I found myself generally bored or alienated by the "golden age" authors like Heinlein and Asimov -- I mean, never have read beyond the first 100 pages of the Foundation books, and have never understood the love, or even like for the majority of his work, for Heinlein.

I feel lucky that more interesting and progressive writers came along for me to read, like LeGuin, Delany, Disch, Russ, Zelazny, Brunner. I do wonder, when people complain about the old farts, if those writers really have much influence or staying power these days, outside a small but aggressive subset of the fandom who are disproportionately represented in online forums like reddit or whatever, and figure out ways how to cheat online best-of polls, of which the Sad and Rabids at the Hugo are now the most famous and tiresome example.

But then I don't buy books in big box stores anymore, and tend only to get recommendations from places I know have tastes similar to my own, so maybe I live in a bubble.

And it seems to me the blatant examples like the drooly descriptions of nubile women that people are complaining about up-thread are only superficial symptoms of more awful and insidious attitudes in both sf books and society in general. When I do occasionally go back and do a quick read of some "classic" from the 50s or 60s that I missed as a kid, for historical context of some more recent book usually, it's the stilted male-female social dynamics that really stand out to me. (It's a lot like watching old movies, where Kate Hepburn goes all gooey and romantic at the end of a movie where she has been giving the assholes hell for the last hour.) Pathetically posturing men smoking cigarettes and deferential women in secretarial clothes is what I remember, seems like an example of this which stands out in my memory is Algis Budris' Rogue Moon.

(And holy shit, Piers Anthony. He has always been repulsive to me in a way that makes me instantly distrust anyone who recommends his work. His "In the Barn" from one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies remains for me an excellent example -- of course there are many -- of how science fiction tropes can be used for evil in the wrong hands. Even at the age of 14, or however old I was when the SF Book Club sent me the anthology in the mail, sheltered and naive as I was, I understood that.)
posted by aught at 6:40 AM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

Obviously others have taken this up, but:

1. You might find The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms of interest.

2. "There were no women in SF" narratives are very tricky, because they are partially true. It depends on what you mean by science fiction and what you mean by "being in SF", of course.

First, where do you begin your SF? Wonder tales? Frankenstein? Gothics? Penny dreadfuls? Fairy tales? Ghost stories? Pulps? Depending on your understanding of where science fiction begins, you'll identify more or less women within it. If you were to say "Science fiction begins with Frankenstein and continues through the gothic and the kind of ghost stories that take ghosts, telepathy and so on as real scientific human capacities", you could create a geneology of SF which contains many women writers. If you say, as Samuel Delany does, that science fiction begins with the pulps because that's when the idea of "science fiction" and a particular "science fictional" use of language develops, you get fewer. Although we don't know how many of the pulp writers may have been women (or POC for that matter) since you could easily write under a nom de plume back then.

Second, what is meant by "being in science fiction"? As the book linked above (and even as other SF fandom histories) reveals, women have always been big players in fandom, zine production and the social life of SF. By the early seventies, women were starting to produce actual women's fanzines and so on, some of which are archived online but I can't find the damn links right now.

Third, the history of science fiction after about 1950 is contested. You see women making inroads and producing explicitly feminist or explicitly woman-centering work and getting a huge amount of pushback, for one thing. You also see really, really big names like Judith Merrill as editors - the influence of editors on SF is totally underrated. (A similarly neglected woman SF editor is Sheree Renee Thomas, who put together the Dark Matter anthology and its sequels - those have been amazingly important in making visible Black science fiction writers.)

There are a number of proto- or crypto-feminist books that came out in the fifties and sixties - Zenna Henderson's People stories, Anna Kavan's novella Ice, the very schlocky )and I really, really do not recommend you read them except for historical interest) Jane Gaskell novels. There's also straight up women-as-heroes stuff like Jirel of Joiry.

The seventies, as outlined above, was a time when there was a flowering of women's SF writing (and when there was at least a little space for writers of color - there are a few who have been forgotten now).

But there's a narrative of the seventies that starts in the eighties WITH THOSE FUCKING CYBERPUNK ASSHOLES that goes "we are the new thing, seventies SF was stultifying and boring and dead, no one was doing anything new" - there is literally a famous essay by either Bruce Sterling or one of the other boring big cyberpunk names (all you can really say for the first wave of cyberpunk IMO is that William Gibson had read and paid attention to feminist SF, which is why his work from that period is the most interesting). And there was a tremendous revanchism in SF - a resurgence of space opera and hard SF, a return of aggressive misogyny in novels and movies. A number of women writers and several writers of color saw their careers basically permanently derailed, as did some soft SF/sorta-not-unfeminist dude writers like John Varley (although he kind of derailed himself with that Gaia trilogy, I guess.)

And at the same time, counternarratives that describe women's writing - which persists through the eighties! - get shouted down and written out. There's tons of interesting novels by women from about 1980 - 1995 that are substantially forgotten now, and there are in particular novels by queer and/or POC writers from the same period which have also disappeared. So much gets lost! Sometimes because it was small press stuff, but sometimes just because it...got forgotten, because it was only by women, after all.

On another note: people like to write and talk as if SF and fantasy are totally separate. Maybe they'll admit that there are lots of women fantasy writers, maybe, but they act as though SF and fantasy fandoms and writers have always been these totally different things. Not only is this politically suspect (if you have the chance, China Mieville's afterward to Red Planets has a very persuasive analysis of the class politics embedded in the SF/fantasy divide) but it does not adequately explain quite a lot of really-existing SF - the New Weird, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, the Dying Earth books - tons and tons of important stuff! And it doesn't explain writers who write in both genres (like Delany or Russ) or the fact that SF and fantasy writers and fans tend to socialize together and influence each other that way. Nor does it talk about the schlock-fantasy embedded in much SF movie culture. Star Wars might as well be Wizard Wars for all the need that it has for actual SF.

And once you start saying that fantasy and science fiction go together, you suddenly have a geneology that might actually be woman-dominated!!! Gothics, literary fairy tales, Angela Carter - holy crap, the list is too long to type out!

As Joanna Russ puts it in her famous essay "How to Suppress Women's Writing", the invisible-izing of women writers is a political process and a narrative process, not an indication that there weren't any. And that goes triple for fans.
posted by Frowner at 6:53 AM on June 23, 2016 [88 favorites]


throw my copy of Peter F Hamilton's The Reality Disfunction against the wall

Not only a writer with troublingly old-fashioned social attitudes but a startlingly bad writer on the sentence level as well. I wanted to get a red pencil and mark up the pages of the book in hand for egregious grammar and punctuation problems. I actually considered throwing his books away rather than donating them to the local friends of the library sale, so that some other person wouldn't have to suffer them.
posted by aught at 6:54 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


"I know we're discussing science fiction in particular, but it's not like other genres were any different. It's not like the world was any different - pick up a vintage magazine or a newspaper and browse through it."

I expect more from people writing utopias than I do people trying to sell me a hatchback.
posted by Jilder at 6:59 AM on June 23, 2016 [18 favorites]


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

I was a socially marginal, introverted boy in the seventies and remember a lot of male written sci-fi being pretty cringe-inducing even then, Heinlein especially.
posted by octothorpe at 7:03 AM on June 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


I read tons of SF/F in the 80s when I was a teenager, and almost none since then, except for Octavia Butler and John Scalzi, neither of whom have these problems. But I realize now that the Heinlein and Anthony paperbacks I have stored away aren't anything I'm ever going to want to re-read, and I don't particularly want to encourage my kids to read them, so it's probably time to donate them somewhere when I stumble across them again. I ditched the horrifyingly racist Edgar Rice Burroughs stuff a decade ago for the same reasons.

Anne McCaffrey can stay though. The Pern stuff dragged on too long, but I still think fondly of the Harper Hall trilogy.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:15 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


but science fiction, at least in the pre-Star Wars age, was for both readers and writers almost entirely the province of socially marginal, introverted boys

Also, this does no justice even to important, interesting work by men.

Basically everything Samuel Delany ever wrote, for instance - and he started writing in 1962. Even bad old Harlan Ellison is pretty accomplished if you like that sort of thing.

Avran Davidson!
Theodore Sturgeon! The Strugatsky brothers, whose work started being translated in the sixties and was very influential. LEM!!!

There's just so much interesting and important science fiction, but we always get stuck with this narrative of "science fiction is this schlocky genre occasionally enlivened by a "real" writer like Margaret Atwood; also, up until [a shifting moment, usually close to the present] there just hasn't been any science fiction that wasn't for losers". People were saying that in, like, 1965 when the New Wave broke. People were saying it in 1990 when I first started to have access to books about science fiction.

It's the eternal present of the genre. No one's fault that they think this (unless they're, like, active fans who willfully ignore anything that doesn't suit their argument) because this is the product of a political narrative about genre, "high" culture, who gets to be authoritative, mass culture, etc.

We're in a moment where science fiction may be figured as dumb junk for the masses, but it's profitable dumb junk for the masses, so there's more talk about it and cool people are into it. Will this last? Maybe. But there was a similar moment in the sixties/early seventies and that didn't.

Also also: if we were Russians, we'd take our SF more seriously. Russian/Soviet/Russian SF has always been recognized as much more significant from both literary and political standpoints. (An indicator - perhaps you have heard of Lenin's famous pamphlet "What Is To Be Done"? The title was taken from a social novel of the same name which is famous for its protracted (and explicitly feminist) future vision/SF sequence, "The Dream of Vera Pavlovna".)

We assume, in this country, at this time, that science fiction is dumb junk for the masses. We ignore every piece of science fiction that contradicts this idea. But it is not, as the poet said, necessarily so.
posted by Frowner at 7:18 AM on June 23, 2016 [30 favorites]


Star Trek: Everything works at the speed of plot.

I don't have the time to look it up, but I think either Hopkinson or Jemisin had a review that opened with an anecdote about how women of color in SFF are regularly quizzed on their knowledge of the "old farts" at panels and signing sessions.

On the science fiction vs. fantasy connection, Ursula Le Guin even did a similar Taoist parable as science fiction (Lathe of Heaven) and fantasy (A Wizard of Earthsea).

(As an aside, I see the SF fingerprints in Star Wars because socio-technical themes like cybernetics, galactic governance, technological warfare (bots vs. clones!), weapons of mass destruction, and totalitarianism are key parts of the narrative. Of course, Star Wars is incoherent, but so are all of the Marvel movies and a great deal of Star Trek. I think Roddenberry even wrote one time that the Enterprise was a plot device for getting the characters from conflict to conflict.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:20 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


gingerest: (Heinlein did have one of his characters self-deprecatingly refer to her breasts as baby-chewed, so at least he had the physiology right.)

He did this a number of times in several books, including Friday, Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil. In context, Heinlein was trying to portray the description positively each time -- although whether he was successful at it is questionable.

Heinlein was a weird case. In his later works, in books like Friday and Time Enough for Love he was clearly under the impression that he was creating women characters who were smart, savvy, skilled and capable -- and yet he repeatedly leaned on or described degrading anti-woman stereotypes, where they were either second-class citizens, chose to have limited agency in relation to male characters, or were simply bubble-headed sex-starved morons. If women in his stories were better at something than men, he usually went out of his way (thinking of the lady pilots in Starship Troopers here, among others) to lecture the reader against sexist assumptions, which de facto assumes the reader already has a low opinion of women.

He tried, I guess?

Mr.Encyclopedia: I didn't want to bring it up, but I had to digitally throw my copy of Peter F Hamilton's The Reality Disfunction against the wall after our heroic starship captain lies to, rapes, and impregnates the teenage daughter of his business partner.

Yeah. I think I got about 100 pages into that series before walking away from it for good.
posted by zarq at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Frowner: We're in a moment where science fiction may be figured as dumb junk for the masses, but it's profitable dumb junk for the masses, so there's more talk about it and cool people are into it. Will this last? Maybe. But there was a similar moment in the sixties/early seventies and that didn't.

We're currently going through a massive revival of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction, including zombie-related books and movies, the Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner books and movie series, tv shows like Walking Dead, Z Nation, Continuum, LOST, Fringe, Battlestar Galactica, the 100, Defiance, The Last Ship, 12 Monkeys, Falling Skies, etc.

It's been over a decade since that genre's popularity picked up again and it shows no sign of slowing any time soon, although at some point audiences will no doubt catch on and seek out something better.
posted by zarq at 7:53 AM on June 23, 2016


I read so many books as a kid and hung out with other girls who liked reading, too. We frequently swapped books, so when one person started reading Xanth and Star Trek books we all eventually read them, too.

It's been 20 years since I touched my last Star Trek book, and I can't remember most of the plots. However, for some reason there was a piece of strong, but not cliched female characterization that somehow stuck with me. I think it was in Imzadi; there is a scene where Deanna Troy hangs from a tree by one arm for the fun of it and uses her mental abilities to continue hanging there by ignoring the pain. It just struck the teenage me as something unexpected and badass.

I'm a grown woman and somebody's mom at this point and I still will hang using one arm from a tree branch or the monkey bars and see how long I can handle it mentally. I can't remember a single other passage like that from the tons of books I read at the time, but that tiny, almost throwaway scene just stayed with me years later. I want more books with that kind of badass character detail for female characters; it shouldn't be a needle in a haystack.
posted by Alison at 7:57 AM on June 23, 2016 [35 favorites]


I've been reading Zenna Henderson's The People stories this summer, on the recommendation of my librarian neighbor. I feel like an archaeologist, unearthing something long buried. There is nothing else quite like them that I know of. The closest is probably Octavia Butler's Parable books.

I'm kind of mad that I grew up with a house full of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Simak (my dad was in the Science Fiction Book Club when he was in high school) but no Henderson (or Russ or LeGuin or Bujold, but I think they all came later than most of my dad's collection).
posted by hydropsyche at 8:03 AM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I was never able to read Asimov because of all this. Plenty of other science fiction, yeah. Interestingly, my guy friends found Asimov off-putting as well.

I found his stuff really off-putting because of how poorly the women were written. He just can't write women that seem realistic and not marred by his own evident inability to fully empathize with them; they have the feel of props carved in wood. Even the character, Dr. Susan Calvin, whom I think Asimov meant to be some kind of pro-feminist, "strong woman" character (and whom I really get the sense he was pretty emotionally involved with as a character) feels more like a vessel for Asimov's unexamined misogyny/fear/resentment of women than a flesh and blood person.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:05 AM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I am working my way towards getting my SF to a publishable point, and I have honestly considered using a gender-neutral pseudonym because this shit STILL happens.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:08 AM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


Okay, I admit to harrumphing a bit in the past when I heard about people genderswapping characters in my favorite books (I'm down with fanfiction, genderswapped included, but altering the author's words in the source text felt BLASPHEMOUS).

However. Actually reading examples of it felt... really good. It's such a relief having females be the default, in control, and fleshed out. It's rather exciting having males be subordinate characters.

Well, off to go do some horrible sacrilegious things to my books.
posted by Baethan at 8:15 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Frowner, thank you so much for the huge amount of excellently written historical context you've contributed to this thread. It's scholarship like yours that I point to when saying "This! THIS is what I'm talking about!"

It's worth noting that when groups like the Sad Puppies talk about how people should read classic SF&F, it's almost always in terms of male writers. Similarly the milfic fans tend to ignore wipers such as Bujold.

This is related to the stated desire to have more "simple adventure yarns" like the days if old, at the same time calling for a return to the "literature of ideas". Though as pointed out repeatedly, there was a lot more going on in SF&F than optimistic pulp- apocalyptic and dystopian stories have as much of a presence in the literature as anything else.

Much of these arguments really seem to be a call to return to an imagined more masculine and white dominated past- a reactionary movement not dissimilar to what happened with the Cyberpunk movement.
posted by happyroach at 8:48 AM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


I didn't realize how much I missed reading SF/F until I started reading John Scalzi. I stopped reading it because I was so, so tired of the depictions of women and I was afraid to read new authors because I had been burned so often. And thanks to MetaFilter, I learned about Scalzi and have been devouring his books. Zoe's Tale, written from the perspective of a teenaged girl, is just so damned spot on and amazing and I'm going to make my own teenaged daughter read it. Anyway, now I have a new list of authors to read, thanks to this thread, and I'm excited for the first time in a long, long time about reading SF/F.
posted by cooker girl at 8:53 AM on June 23, 2016 [14 favorites]


I was one of those teen-age boys in the 1980s, and even when I did my book-buying in the sci-fi aisle of the campus bookstore for Macalester College ("The Oberlin of the Upper Midwest"), there was just...a lot of stuff that's now obviously sexist but then was kind of typical. Aside from Anne McCaffrey, I don't recall seeing female sci-fi or fantasy authors on offer, nor many books that had decent women characters, and that aisle was like fifteen feet of head-high shelving. Last year I re-read the Harper Hall books and really liked them, but some of the other ones I just know have Suck Fairy Dust all over them.

Oh, now I can see what was missing then, but it was a dog-that-didn't-bark for me as a teen dork. And my older brothers let me read their sci-fi & fantasy paperbacks without first warning me that "real women aren't like this." I was young and ignorant, I guess.

I am positively delighted to be reading better stuff these days, and to not be wasting my time on junk like Heinlein's Number of the Beast or the Xanth books. And I for one don't want to go back to any purported Good Old Days, because I risk reading things like stories about Lazarus Long and his own mom in a parked car. *shudder*
posted by wenestvedt at 8:59 AM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


The interesting thing about the eighties is that there certainly were women fantasy and SF writers producing relatively mainstream work - Melissa Scott's work; Mary Gentle (Golden Witchbreed was a big deal and is pretty darn interesting for one of those doorstop books); Eileen Gunn's short stories; Joan Slonczewski's Door Into Ocean (also a doorstop; I couldn't get into it at all but it won the Cambell); Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After; several books by Lisa Goldstein; Pat Cadigan's early stuff...women were being published and were producing big name books.

I mean, Golden Witchbreed and its sequel are very mainstream worldbuilding! big! idea! stories with aliens. They're very good, very thought-provoking...and absolutely within the subgenre of doorstop paperbacks with tiny type, serviceable prose and epic sweep. If you are looking for that type of book but would like ones that center capable, complex women - well, they don't quite meet all of today's Feminism Standards, but I don't think they will offend or disappoint.

It's like the revanchism of the eighties ("revanchism" is such a useful word since it expresses desire for revenge and the retaking either of lost territory or territory that is believed "naturally" to belong to the revenging forces) was such that even the actual existence of mainstream women SF writers was occluded. Much of their work has been unjustly forgotten or dismissed.
posted by Frowner at 9:19 AM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


So I started reading SF about 1950-52 (age 7-9) and read it voraciously, everything my local library had (small Southern city) and I do mean everything. This means I read all the "greats" but I didn't care, I wasn't reading critically. Reading was my escape from family drama. The Heinlein juveniles were a lot of fun (esp. Star Beast), as was EE Doc Smith's Lensman series. When I got a little older, I began finding some women writers and devoured them, too. It wasn't until I was a English Lit. major in college that I began being able to step back and really look at these books and see their underlying attitudes that I started throwing books against the wall. Now, I read mostly women authors like Rosemary Kirstein and Mary Gentle and Tanya Huff etc etc, having read most of the big names already. I've really enjoyed this post/thread.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:23 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Boy, I'd hate to have been the guy who was arguing that women writers and fans didn't exist...;)

My point, however muddled, is that a lot of the sexism in old SF wasn't coming from a place of established patriarchal authority, but rather that the fantasies of power over future technology also extended to fantasies of power over the opposite sex.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 9:26 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


My book club is currently slogging through Neal Stephenson's Seveneves and while there's a lot I find questionable about it (there's a bit more orbital mechanics than plot development for my taste, and both male and female characters tend toward way too much expository dialogue) I did enjoy that it's very conscientious about gender tropes, and toward the end, one character explicitly calls out another for "belonging to a culture with an unhealthy obsession with policing female reproductive organs."
posted by psoas at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm quite a fan of Alistair Reynolds for modern space opera type sci-fi. His science is refreshingly hard and he pays attention to marginalized groups. For instance his Posidon's Children series is an epic tale of an African family that over generations leads humanity to the stars. He and Scalzi are examples of white guy authors that are making a concerted effort to do things right.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:32 AM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


In re women writers and fans and "oh those men didn't know anything about women back then": if you read any social history of writers' circles or fandom, you realize that a huge number of these people knew each other. Heinlein hung out with, if memory serves, Joanna Russ and that circle. These guys knew women. These guys knew women who pushed back at their attitudes. Some of these guys, like Theodore Sturgeon and (most memorably!) Michael Moorcock, listened up and made efforts to change what they wrote*. Many of them did not.

Science fiction fandom and cultural production never have been devoid of women or aimed at men who do not engage with women. The men in SF who choose to act as though women are gullible, malicious yet sexy aliens are doing that because it's their choice.


*Moorcock was buddies with Andrea Dworkin. He majorly rewrote a plot point in Gloriana so that it revolves around consensual sex rather than "she didn't want to do it but enjoyed it anyway" sex because of his conversations with various seventies feminists. I am still not the world's biggest fan of that book and I don't always like his depictions of women even now, but honestly it warms my heart and wins my fandom to see that he actually made meaningful changes in his work in response to feminism. That said, if you want a really wonderful novel with pretty good women characters, try his Mother London.
posted by Frowner at 9:40 AM on June 23, 2016 [35 favorites]


I got into Door Into Ocean after Brain Plague. It's one of those books I recommend reading for actual feminist "message fiction," as opposed to works that get called message fiction for tangentially dealing with gender and sexuality. (On my mind because I picked up The Infinite Loop with the LGBT Pride Month Humble Bundle which is unapologetically politically queer sci-fi message fiction.) See also the radical feminist (but not TERF) sensibilities of Tepper's Gate to Women's County and the Arbai cycle.

Note that it's only message fiction when Leckie's narrator uses "she" but not when Banks's narrator admits to arbitrary pronoun assignment. And certainly not when Chalker's protagonist introduces himself with a monologue about American divorce law and later monologues about American tax law.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:46 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


My point, however muddled, is that a lot of the sexism in old SF wasn't coming from a place of established patriarchal authority

This makes no sense to me. Awkward, socially marginalized men live in and benefit from the patriarchy just as other men do. You say you don't want to excuse them, but you want to separate them from this cultural context, strip them of their social power, and portray their unforgivable sexism as -- due to what, exactly?

Being socially marginalized? Because that has never been an adequate explanation for male sexism. It doesn't work even in the cases where the claims of social marginalization are true; they really aren't here.

but rather that the fantasies of power over future technology also extended to fantasies of power over the opposite sex

Even if we buy that this is an accurate characterization -- which I don't -- exactly how is fantasies of power over women, like you would have power over technological objects, not part of the same old bullshit patriarchy?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2016 [24 favorites]


Note that it's only message fiction when Leckie's narrator uses "she" but not when Banks's narrator admits to arbitrary pronoun assignment.

I really want to hear what the puppydom thinks of Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer -- a novel set in a utopia-ish future inspired by Enlightenment ideas where the narrator character assigns pronouns arbitrarily according to clique affinity, clothes or flirting demeanor.

(Which I still don't know if it's my favorite book of this year but it's certainly one of the most interesting ones)
posted by sukeban at 10:07 AM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Frowner: Moorcock was buddies with Andrea Dworkin.

WHAT? Oh, man, my head...
posted by wenestvedt at 10:10 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Being socially marginalized? Because that has never been an adequate explanation for male sexism.
There has been a long tradition of geeky introverts who happen to be white males trying to equate their perceived or actual status as social outcasts with the experience of being an oppressed minority or a woman. For example, Notch of Minecraft fame recently tweeted that his accomplishments should not be diminished just because he is a white male. Somehow these people manage to gloss over the fact that no one discounts their opinions out of hand just because of their sex and no one follows them around in stores because they're clearly there to steal.
posted by xyzzy at 10:11 AM on June 23, 2016 [20 favorites]


You say you don't want to excuse them...

Again, as one of those boys I am not asking to be excused, and I am glad to have learned better since then. It's just...those authors really should have just tried harder, and written better women characters.

I mean, better characters make for a better story, and better stories should sell more copies, right? It's frustrating to learn that I was offered an inferior product, when I would have chosen something of higher quality if I had known it existed.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:12 AM on June 23, 2016


There has been a long tradition of geeky introverts who happen to be white males trying to equate their perceived or actual status as social outcasts with the experience of being an oppressed minority or a woman

I really don't need an explanation of this phenomenon; I'm well aware. However, it is not an adequate explanation for sexism among socially marginalized male nerds.

Do you know what you need to create an adequate explanation? You need those socially marginalized male nerds to be living in sexist society. You need that "established patriarchal authority" that people try to say they don't participate in.

Again, as one of those boys I am not asking to be excused, and I am glad to have learned better since then.

What is your point?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:15 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is so much excellent science fiction being written by women now (it seems like I tend to prefer fantasy written by men lately, especially that odd subgenre of mysteries in a magical world that is not a cozy mystery plus witches).

It is interesting to see how science fiction and fantasy authors differentiate, and I suspect that party of the problem is a backlog of women pushed into urban fantasy.

The other thing I like to follow is how different male authors respond or don't when people call their books out for sexism.
posted by jeather at 10:32 AM on June 23, 2016


Just dropping in to recommend reading the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie.

Turns out, if you outright decline to assign a gender to your characters, it ends up being Not A Big Deal.

[I've raved the series before on MeFi, and there's some good discussion over in that thread, but seriously, go read the books!]
posted by schmod at 10:33 AM on June 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


Aside from Anne McCaffrey, I don't recall seeing female sci-fi or fantasy authors on offer, nor many books that had decent women characters, and that aisle was like fifteen feet of head-high shelving.

Not even Marion Zimmer Bradley? Margaret Atwood? Andre Norton? C.J. Cherryh? Ursula K. Le Guin?

Also, James Tiptree, Jr., was actually Alice Sheldon, so if you subscribed to Omni or Asimov's Science Fiction in the 80's, chances are you probably read one of her many short stories. :)
posted by zarq at 10:43 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Been a while since I've gone back and read it, but I'm curious as to what people think of Dune in this light.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 10:45 AM on June 23, 2016


I reread Cadigan's Synners recently and it had not been visited by the Suck Fairy. I was startled at how much of the current social uses of communications tech she had despite the tech itself being not what we actually developed. (Instaparty and food porn...)
posted by clew at 10:52 AM on June 23, 2016


The Piers Anthony swap is from the first book of the Xanth series, which started in 1977 and is still going on today.

In case anyone is curious, the A.V. Club looked at the Xanth series a couple of years ago, noting how creepy and misogynistic it is. The article was posted to MeFi.
posted by zarq at 10:53 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


There is so much excellent science fiction being written by women now

Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is just delightful. At first I thought it spent too much time on the characters than the plot but boy, Chambers brings it all to a head by the last hundred pages.

I was one of those geeky (still am), introverted (still am), scared of girls (got over that) baby boomer males that cut my teeth on all those old sexist bastards when I was growing up. Even to someone with my small town background there was a nagging sense that something wasn't quite right. Why did princesses always need rescuing? Why were all those brave scientists men? Why did badass Bêlit have to die? And on and on and on. I can't read most of those authors anymore but I'm glad they got me hooked on the genre.

If we're bringing up current offenders, I'm told that the wretched Terry Goodkind is very much into dangling the threat of rape whenever he needs a woman to be in danger. Male characters, not so much.
posted by Ber at 10:54 AM on June 23, 2016


Been a while since I've gone back and read it, but I'm curious as to what people think of Dune in this light.

It ends with one of my great examples of missing the point: "While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine — history will call us wives."

...yay? You can imagine sandworms and Galactic Empires, Herbert, and that's the best you can do for a women's motivation?
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:59 AM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Awkward, socially marginalized men live in and benefit from the patriarchy just as other men do.

I actually don't think this is correct, but it doesn't matter because wrong is wrong. And personal bitterness is never a good defense or justification for generalized bigotry.

Patriarchy does very much marginalize, feminize, and other mentally ill and socially awkward males. Unfortunately those males often react to critiques of patriarchy and sexism with a healthy dose of identity loyalty and aspirational macho in their heads, in a way very directly analogous to the "temporarily embarrassed millionaire" cultural phenomenon in effect when working class people reject critiques of American style capitalism and exceptionalism. Patriarchy isn't really good or healthy for anybody.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:30 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Patriarchy does very much marginalize, feminize, and other mentally ill and socially awkward males.

This is true, and I have many Imprtant Thoughts about it, but I'm concerned that, once again, a thread about the depiction of women is becoming a thread about the feelings of men.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:37 AM on June 23, 2016 [28 favorites]


Has anybody raised the idea of Watsonian vs. Doylist analysis?

"It makes sense for the character to be that way because they live in an oppressive, sexist society" is Watsonian. "Why did the author choose to write the society in which this character lives as oppressive and sexist?" is Doylist.

It feels as though a lot of us would like to be having a more Doylist discussion, but as often happens it's getting mired down in Watsonian territory.
posted by Lexica at 11:51 AM on June 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


The problem with the "poor, ostracized nerds with poor social skills" argument is: this is the year 2016. The year in which "poor, ostracized nerds" control one of the biggest and most corrupt industries on the planet, are responsible for a massive hate group that regularly sends women into hiding or costs them their jobs, and have formed a potent right-wing movement that's at least partly responsible for the nightmare man running for president of the United States of America.

The extent to which the patriarchy hurts men is immediately turned back around again and inflicted tenfold upon women. Poor, sad men like Elliot Rodger.

But seriously, why are we trying to defend the so-called Golden Age of science fiction again? It's not gonna disappear just because we admit a bunch of men were asshole jerks who had problems with women.
posted by rorgy at 11:52 AM on June 23, 2016 [19 favorites]


I see someone mentioned Ann Leckie's books already, but I want to put in a strong plug for the works of Kate Elliott and Kameron Hurley (especially her Mirror Empire series). What both of these authors do so well is create fantasy worlds where there is true diversity. For instance, Kate Elliotts Crown of Stars series is basically a straight-up medieval world fantasy set in fictionalized ancient Europe. But she has subtly re-written history to make it feminist. There are tons of scenes where women talk about how natural it is for men to be overly emotional, that is why women generally rule kingdoms. Ancient figures are gender-swapped enough to make them 50/50 male/female, etc. Often the male figures are only prized for their beauty. It is simply brilliant and it is so natural and realistic. It never feels like a stunt. It just feels like how society exists in that world, and it feels real.

In Kameron Hurley's series, she does an amazing job of creating a diverse set of societies with a truly wide range of gender norms. One of her societies has extremely strong norms that you only ever touch someone after getting explicit permission. Again, she does this as just a part of the world-building and it makes the series so interesting. She is showing that one of the things that speculative fiction is perfect for is "speculating" on different societies and not just the old, what would happen if there was magic in ancient Europe.
posted by bove at 11:53 AM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Has anybody raised the idea of Watsonian vs. Doylist analysis?

Folding Ideas: The Thermian Argument
posted by sukeban at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


On another note: I found that I became much more interested in Golden Age science fiction after I'd read lots and lots of SF by women, SF by queer people, SF by writers of color, etc, and had become familiar with the contemporary SF context.

I read some Asimov, etc, when I was in my early teens - before I had access to anything much else - and never picked up any Golden Age stuff again until the past couple of years.

At this point, first off, I have a much stronger sense that there is science fiction I'd like to read in the present, so I don't feel stuck with Golden Age SF.

And as I've gotten more of a sense of the field, I can pick and choose what old SF to read, selecting stuff that is relevant, as it were, to my political interests. There's actually lots of very interesting Golden Age SF; it's just not what gets shoved down your throat by the puppies, et al.

One could read Venus Plus X, for instance.

Or The Space Merchants.

Or The Demolished Man.

Or Kate Wilhelm's "Baby, You Were Great". (Download) Have patience - the POV is the point.

Or Out of the Deeps.

Or The Jirel of Joiry stories.

All interesting in different ways and for different reasons, and while none are Full-Marks 2016 Feminism Which Itself Is Of Course Naturally 100% Perfect And Not Also Flawed In Any Way Or Anything, they're all classics of Golden/Silver age SF and none will make you cringe in total hatred and repulsion.
posted by Frowner at 12:02 PM on June 23, 2016 [16 favorites]


Jim has posted Part 2, with some responses to criticisms and some further exploration. For those interested.
posted by custardfairy at 12:10 PM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Dune: Strangely, not quite as creepy as some of Herbert's other science fiction. I got blocked on Helstrom's Hive due to a spectacularly ugly early rape. But on the other hand, Dune has that whole thing about the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as Dune's Illuminati-Frankensteins.

I wrote elsewhere that nerd masculinism sits at the intersection of class and patriarchy, with the assumption that money ~ status ~ sex underlying it all. Likely this leaks through to a fair bit of aspirational science fiction where the clever protagonist gets the status and the girl.

She is showing that one of the things that speculative fiction is perfect for is "speculating" on different societies and not just the old, what would happen if there was magic in ancient Europe.

N. K. Jemisin also, and Karen Lord have done some nice work exploring how different cultures construct gender in different ways. Tepper's Sideshow explored this also by having a world that's a human cultural "zoo" protected from both internal and external cultural revolution.

If we can imagine dragons, we can imagine different ways of constructing gender.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:13 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Is "It makes sense for the character to be like that because the author lives in an oppressive and sexist society" Watsonian or Doylist?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:36 PM on June 23, 2016


I liked Hines' semiconductor post better than the first. As I said up above, the problem with gender-swapping is that it encourages gender-swapping ploys which rarely go well. Furthermore, those three passages are pretty... smarmy... On their own, and, if you can't see that head on, you probably won't find the gender-swapped versions compelling, either.

However, as a tool (especially for male authors) to check themselves for problematic descriptions and dialogue, it seems like it could be very useful indeed, and the same technique could be used to check for other kinds of internalized -isms. Not a foolproof technique, but a ruler for checking oneself.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:36 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


> Or The Demolished Man.

I just twigged - Bester was a Jewish-born New Yorker. That must be what's informing the society of the espers, right? Necessary, highly skilled, vital, but separate. Kept at arms length. Not quite ostracised. Espers are an immigrant community. Can't believe I didn't see it before.
posted by Leon at 12:54 PM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "Nobody has developed reliable birth control that prevents aliens from impregnating you, which seems like it'd be a Federation top priority when they're putting women on starships."

Wow can you imagine the shit storm if it was made explicit that the Federation was forcing even 100% reversible sterilization on crew members as a condition of employment?

zarq: "Heinlein was a weird case. [...] He tried, I guess?"

No doubt about that. Books like Stranger in a Strange Lane were apparently seen as quite progressive at the time though I bet a lot of that was because of the free love rather than female empowerment.

A lot of his works that I really enjoyed as a 9-10 year old are just horrible now (Thanks Metafilter!). The Door into Summer was one of my favourite books in elementary school and now I can't even get through it because unlike The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where one can mostly skip over the relationship bits the relationship bits of TDitS are a primary plot driver. Much like Mad Men where everyone one of the characters is just a horrible, horrible human being. His juvenile stuff is better in a way in that it mostly doesn't feature any female characters so they can't be used badly.
posted by Mitheral at 12:59 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I actually don't think this is correct, but it doesn't matter because wrong is wrong.

You're right that wrong is wrong, but for me, why it's wrong is important. It's not just wrong because I feel personally insulted; it's wrong because it's a part of society's oppression of women. This is something that is happening within a larger context.

I don't understand the urge to distance male nerds from the benefits they receive from the patriarchy. Obviously, the patriarchy hurts men too, and the less you meet its expectations of manliness the harder it can hurt. But that doesn't mean that you don't also benefit.

An obvious benefit that we've been discussing in this thread--though in the converse--is opening a book or a comic book or watching a tv show and finding (more often than not) that the majority of the characters are men, who fulfill a wide variety of narrative roles, who aren't reduced to their physical attributes, who aren't written with the author's boner in mind.

That's a benefit of the patriarchy that you enjoy.

Nerd space is not a bubble of equality in an otherwise patriarchy-ridden world. It's often constructed with men in mind; see the prevalence of T&A for another obvious example. Women are actively erased; see the thread above for examples of this happening. Just because you're blind to these benefits doesn't mean that they aren't there.

And of course nerd space is not the entire world. I'm being really specific here. Being awkward and socially marginalized does not mean that you are going to be mommy-tracked, sexually harassed or assasulted, systematically underestimated and undervalued, at nearly the same rate women are.

In order to be responsible -- in order to really confront the problem, and do your best to right it -- you have to acknowledge that the patriarchy is at work here. To be honest, saying that awkward, socially marginalized men don't benefit from the patriarchy is just making excuses for them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:12 PM on June 23, 2016 [26 favorites]


"All interesting in different ways and for different reasons, and while none are Full-Marks 2016 Feminism Which Itself Is Of Course Naturally 100% Perfect And Not Also Flawed In Any Way Or Anything, they're all classics of Golden/Silver age SF and none will make you cringe in total hatred and repulsion."

And I don't think it's the sexism of the story/the author's world/the character's world per se that's offputting; part of what's extremely interesting and valuable about (say) Jane Austen, even as a modern feminist reader, is that she fully explores the lives of women living within these extraordinarily sexist, patriarchal structures. The struggle of her women to live fully-actualized lives as unique human beings, within this very limiting setting, is really interesting!

The problem is when authors can't be arsed to take women seriously as characters within these settings, either because they are totally uninterested in women as people (Eddings) or because they view women as objects (Heinlein) or because they just can't be arsed because they have a lot of other details to keep track of and so have never considered the ways in which their female characters might be specifically impacted by their gender (beyond boobs bouncing in tunics and periodic rape threats).

There is literally nothing stopping authors, past* or present, from writing interesting, fully-realized characters who are within either a Doyleist or Watsonian milieu -- whether the sexism is inherent to the author's life or the character's. Nothing except their own refusal to take women seriously as independent actors with unique thoughts, actions, and motivations. It's not the setting or the story that's the problem, it's the objectification and minimization. (And that's why you can't fix it just by sticking some Strong Female Characters in ... you're still just tokenizing and objectifying and refusing to engage with the female character as a rounded, whole, inherently interesting human being.) The thing that makes Hemingway feel increasingly gross, but not so much Fitzgerald, is that Fitzgerald took his women characters seriously as people (and he doesn't always do a great job of it, and they're not as present in the story as they could be, sure, but they come across as actual people with actual lives and motivations). Hemingway doesn't; women are devices and objects for him, who exist solely to further male self-discovery stories, and it's increasingly offputting as time goes by.

(Another way this manifests, beyond women-as-objects, or women-as-checkmarks-on-my-social-justice-cred-worksheet-strong-female-character, is the author who CAN write a realistic woman ... but just the one. So he just writes the same one over and over and over and over, while his male characters are varied and interesting and an ever-changing panoply of human experience, he can only imagine one fully-realized woman, and that's the one you're gonna get.)

Honestly and truly, I've said before and I will say again, I think a lot of this could be fixed if male authors read more female authors and particularly great classics of girlhood from female authors -- such as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables -- so they could appreciate and internalize the self-actualization stories of women going through adolescence the same way they do men. I don't think men are doomed to write terrible women; I think a lot of men choose to limit themselves and their ability to write well, because the alternative is taking women's lives and experiences seriously, and that just seems boring or hard to them.

*Okay, I suppose past authors are stopped from writing interesting new stories by deadness, but you get my point.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:15 PM on June 23, 2016 [43 favorites]


It's not science fiction, and it's a movie, but if you're interested in seeing a male character written by a woman that sheds light on how women are written by men, check out Maggie's Plan. It's directed by Rebecca Miller, and it has two very intelligent and well-written women (played by Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore) gaslighting a guy (played by Ethan Hawke) who thinks he's a lot smarter than he actually is. I loved it (self link to review) and have been recommending it to everyone.
posted by vibrotronica at 1:40 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is just delightful.

I swear that book is like getting a great big warm hug from SF.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:44 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


The novel, "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross has a really interesting execution of how gender roles advance a plot--the world in which the story is set allows people to upload their personalities and download them into whatever form of body they wish. It's an interesting read because you get accustomed to understanding the character's thoughts and principles, because their personhood is separate from their physical body and even creates some side challenges. In the book, one of the main characters ends up in an experimental isolated community in a female body (the character self-identifies as male) and hijinks ensue, including that said female bodies have not had their fertility deactivated and pregnancy is possible. This results in jarring, yet completely relevant-in-context sentences like, "Giving birth to one's own child is something I think all fathers should experience at least once."

It's a neat thought experiment and really does a good job of driving the idea that personhood isn't tied to the physical body as much as we think it must be.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:04 PM on June 23, 2016


> by Charles Stross

No fair, that's cheating!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:11 PM on June 23, 2016


Is "It makes sense for the character to be like that because the author lives in an oppressive and sexist society" Watsonian or Doylist?

Doylist, because it's taking the author's background/conditioning/cultural attitudes into account.

Wow can you imagine the shit storm if it was made explicit that the Federation was forcing even 100% reversible sterilization on crew members as a condition of employment?

Where did Eyebrows suggest that it be forced on anybody? What she said, which you quoted, was Nobody has developed reliable birth control that prevents aliens from impregnating you, which seems like it'd be a Federation top priority when they're putting women on starships. If I were a Federation crewmember capable of being impregnated, I'd sure like to be offered the option.
posted by Lexica at 2:13 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Ha! Didn't know he had a user profile.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:13 PM on June 23, 2016


Lexica beat me to it, but even if it was a requirement, provided you knew ahead of time it would be, what would be the issue? "While you're on active duty, you need to have this device implanted to prevent random pregnancies, especially with unknown alien species where it might conceivably kill you" seems pretty sensible. If you want to have a baby, you request a leave permission and do so. And per the one Enterprise episode I watched, there's no guarantee that just female crewmembers could be impregnated, so it would apply to everyone.

We know there were kids and families among the ships, so clearly getting permission was not that hard to do.

But mainly I would like to point out that sci-fi stories that even discuss, much less in detail, just these kinds of issues, are still too rare, because it's icky girl stuff, reproduction.
posted by emjaybee at 2:35 PM on June 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


One underappreciated part of literary science fiction and fantasy is that it's such a small corpus that it's very easy for young readers to find themselves reading explicitly feminist or otherwise radical literature and having all the genre literacy required to understand exactly what's going on. That certainly happened to me in my early adolescence. And it was a very good education for me in later years when I ventured into the wider world of literature.
posted by Kattullus at 2:37 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


One of my best friends in fifth grade was a really nice boy who was about as much of a nerd as I was. He was reading Wheel of Time, and told me I had to read them because I would LOVE THEM SO MUCH and there was a female character who was awesome in it so I'd really appreciate it. And ... she just spent a lot of time pouting? And tugging on her braid? And commenting on her breasts? Anyway, I didn't like the first book, so I didn't finish it, and I told him why. He was pretty annoyed with me and told me I was being too picky and too sensitive about it because they were SO GOOD. Why did I have to take it personally?

I suggested he try one of my favorite epic fantasy series - the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce - and he scoffed that they were Girl Books, they weren't meant for him. So I went back to my own little corner of the fantasy world, populated by Alanna and Kel and Daine, and by Cimorene and Morwen, and Meg and Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit, and dragonriders, and heroes and crowns. Onyesonwu. I spent most of my childhood convinced that Merry and Pippin were lady hobbits. I take steps out of my corner occasionally - Tiffany Aching and Granny Weatherwax (at least, in the most recent books) - have been adopted. I've taken Sansa and molded her in my mind into the awesome badass while traditionally feminine character George RR Martin doesn't know how to write.

So I miss out on some Hard Sci Fi classics. shrug. The men who are really upset that I call myself a fan of sci-fi and fantasy without having shuddered through Stranger in a Strange Land probably missed out on my personal canon because the books in it had a girl or woman as the main character who was more than a vehicle for carrying small high breasts around and being dandled.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:11 PM on June 23, 2016 [47 favorites]


Oh, come on. No one's given it a whack yet with someone more current? OK, fine, how about a little Rothfuss?

Denny finally untied the blue string and began to unfurl the braid, his quick fingers smoothing it back into his hair.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said. “I liked it better before.”

“That’s rather the point, isn’t it?” He looked up at me, tilting his chin proudly as he shook out his hair. “There. What do you think now?”

“I think I’m afraid to give you any more compliments,” I said, not exactly sure what I’d done wrong.

posted by gurple at 3:47 PM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Lexica: "Where did Eyebrows suggest that it be forced on anybody? What she said, which you quoted, was Nobody has developed reliable birth control that prevents aliens from impregnating you, which seems like it'd be a Federation top priority when they're putting women on starships. If I were a Federation crewmember capable of being impregnated, I'd sure like to be offered the option."

I'm not a Trekkie but is there any indication in the Cannon that such a thing isn't offered to crew members? And the people being impregnated elected not to take advantage?

emjaybee: "Lexica beat me to it, but even if it was a requirement, provided you knew ahead of time it would be, what would be the issue? "While you're on active duty, you need to have this device implanted to prevent random pregnancies, especially with unknown alien species where it might conceivably kill you" seems pretty sensible. If you want to have a baby, you request a leave permission and do so. And per the one Enterprise episode I watched, there's no guarantee that just female crewmembers could be impregnated, so it would apply to everyone. "

Even in the Federation alien impregnation has got to be an exceedingly rare occurrence; the stories of the personnel of the Enterprise/Voyager/DS9 notwithstanding.

I would have thought it would be problematic if say the US Navy was to have a "Birth Control or ask for Leave" policy even it only applied to ship based personnel. Wouldn't be the first time I was wrong on this kind of thing though.
posted by Mitheral at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2016


Turnabout is fair play. Did Riker or Kirk ever submit to temporary sterilization?
posted by Ber at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I wasn't thinking it would only be women who would be sterilized. If anything Starship Captains and XOs should be the first in line for the procedure. Kirk of course could obviously control his sperm count though shear act of will but any other Captain would need to be at the front of the line.

I really wish there was a reliable and reliably reversible birth control method for men. The existence for women and lack of for men is often blamed on patriarchy but that is hardly 100% of the reason; the male chain being short and simple and the female chain being long, complicated and evolved to be interrupted making it an easier to mess up is at least partially the reason. A male birth control pill has been a decade away at least since the 70s but it never seems to work out clinically and that is a serious problem for men and women. Here's hoping Vasagel makes it to the market.

Anyways, it would make a good hook for a couple stories. Though sadly the stories would probably be centred around failures or people leaving the ship to have kids. The need to not leave little Kirks at every port of call would probably be a non-starter.
posted by Mitheral at 4:09 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm not a Trekkie but is there any indication in the Cannon that such a thing isn't offered to crew members? And the people being impregnated elected not to take advantage?

You can't just make things up and say "well, there's no indication that it's not that way." That's not how canon works. Canon is
the conceptual material accepted the work is based on, being the overall set of storyline, premises, settings, and characters offered by the source work, and the specific incidents, relationships, or story arcs that take place within the overall canon.
Basically, if it doesn't happen on screen or on the page in the "official" material, it's not canon, it's headcanon.
posted by Lexica at 4:37 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


emjaybee: "But mainly I would like to point out that sci-fi stories that even discuss, much less in detail, just these kinds of issues, are still too rare, because it's icky girl stuff, reproduction."

The whole damn issue could be easily circumvented by the author using one of three approaches 1) don't put rape in your story in the first place! 2) if you absolutely have to have alien rape, recognize that impregnation does not occur between even fairly closely-related species, let alone alien species (and also rethink your story which absolutely requires alien rape), and my personal favorite (and I'm probably alone in this) 3) stop putting fucking in your stories! There's a whole world of smut out there to enjoy, from graphic video to sensual stories. People have lots of smut options to enjoy, you don't need to provide it. If you can tell a story without spending three paragraphs describing someone taking a wonderful shit or really enjoying a piece of music, you can tell a story without spending three paragraphs describing people fucking. There's nothing wrong with sex, just like there's nothing wrong with taking a wonderful shit or enjoying Beethoven, but, just like those latter two, it's not a key element that need to be included in every damn novel!
posted by Bugbread at 5:05 PM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


I have just gotten done reading all (I think) the books set in the Essalieyan universe, by Michelle Sagara West. There are 14 of them plus 6 short stories / novellas, and I believe there are at least two more forthcoming. They are cheerfully unapologetic doorstop epic fantasy, which is one of my favoritest things, all chock full of enchanted swords and gods who speak and magic trees.

You know what else they're full of, though? Women. Loads of them! Brilliant leaders with steely spines and conflicted hearts! Powerful mages! Ancient Matriarchs! Gracefully submissive chattel-wives who exercise what power they can gather to themselves in the minuscule spaces they are allowed, like Beatrix Kiddo punching through her coffin in Kill Bill! Orphaned ten-year-olds who possess hidden talents! Short-haired, battle-scarred warriors who strike fear into the hearts of everyone who crosses them! Powerful seers who can walk through time! Gods and priests! Serfs and merchants! Farmers' daughters and tailors' wives! And they are all people, people who have intention and direction and internal monologue that doesn't involve thinking about their boobs all the damn time!

There are very few romance plot points, there is very little -- albeit not none -- rape or sexual assault. And when that shows up, it's . . . I don't know. It's not icky, or at least not icky the way I often find it to be. It's not edgy, it's not lurid. The issue of consent in a society where women are chattel is very front and center, and discussed openly and from several nuanced perspectives, as though the women who live in that particular society were people who had deep ties to their culture and strong, if conflicted, feelings about their role in it, rather than a monolith of either the doe-eyed or or snarling variety.

They are not without flaw, but they are really enjoyable. I had somehow missed them in my first four decades on this earth and I really like them and I think many of you will also.
posted by KathrynT at 6:37 PM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Several other people have mentioned Ann Leckie, and I think her work is an especially good example- in that it is very much a rollicking space opera in the tradition of the golden age pulps, with super-intelligent spaceships, and zombie armies, and love-affairs with artificial intelligences, and shootouts and such, and yet the puppies and such don't seem to rate them. OH, I WONDER WHY THAT COULD BE.

I do enjoy Alastair Reynold's novels, particularly the Revelation Space cycle, in part because he writes complex, interesting, believable female characters who are also almost wholly unsympathetic, because everybody in his novels is almost wholly unsympathetic. Most of the conflict between characters in his stories reads like a particularly nasty and protracted academic dispute, and the women are no exception.



And, at the risk of being indelicate, I will say that, as a person with testicles, they do actually form a nontrivial portion of my internal narrative. As in, "It's like a god-damn swamp down there!" he thought to himself as he moved through the sweltering midday heat of the Grand Bazaar. Doc Banerjee's lectures on the variety and severity of fungal infections available to visitors on the Raaklarr homeworld came back to him with vivid clarity....

Or, Striding across the frozen courtyard, he cursed the Officiant of the North-East Winds. "Brenk's toes, it's cold! I should have taken Dremmah's advice about the underwear." By this time, however, it was too late- it felt like at least one of them had already climbed back up into his abdominal cavity...

As a runner, I always did wonder about all the discussion of perky breasts moving under tunics- is chafing simply not an issue in these worlds?

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:51 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I would have thought it would be problematic if say the US Navy was to have a "Birth Control or ask for Leave" policy even it only applied to ship based personnel. Wouldn't be the first time I was wrong on this kind of thing though.

Yeah, at present, women in the military have a difficult time accessing reproductive health care. Women in the military are already experiencing significant impact on their reproductive autonomy without "a shit storm", so I don't think that there would be a lot of hoopla if there was a clear set of policies that said that active military personnel, particularly those in fields of combat, were expected to temporarily surrender their reproductive autonomy as well as all the other aspects of personal autonomy they already give over in the interests of service.

I wasn't thinking it would only be women who would be sterilized.

Look, this is a reproductive-scientist tic I'm having, but please stop calling contraception "sterilization". Long-acting reversible female contraception is a current reality and similarly long-acting reversible methods will eventually exist for men (certainly by the 25th century.) Sterilization is the permanent removal of the capacity to reproduce. There is no such thing as "reversible sterilization" - it's either long-acting reversible contraception, or it's sterilization. There are surgical methods to reverse vasectomy and some female sterilization methods, but they aren't reliable and we certainly have no way, at the time of sterilization, to tell whether any person can expect a reversal to succeed.
posted by gingerest at 8:02 PM on June 23, 2016 [23 favorites]


In DS9 there's a scene where Sisko and Yates talk about Sisko missing his routine (monthly?) birth control injection. This flips a TOS episode where Kirk offers to give the women of a planet contraceptive medicine. DS9 also has a throw-away joke about buying one of the Starfleet crew a spawning pool for his forthcoming multiple offspring.

I think the singular bright spot of the TNG episode "The Child" (with alien pregnancy) involves Troi shutting down the rest of the bridge crew (especially Worf) during a rather frank discussion of abortion. The rest of the episode doesn't make a lot of sense, partly because it was originally drafted for the TOS cast in the never-produced Phase II, but mostly because it's a big ball of nonconsensual WTF. Assuming you don't ignore it entirely, it does suggest that Starfleet Medical has no problems with abortion, and the chain of command doesn't have a great deal of authority on the reproductive choices of the crew.

In Voyager, there's Ensign Wildman who announces her pregnancy in Season 2 and gets medical teleporter assistance during childbirth sometime later. Both developments strike me as a case of "technology moves at the speed of plot" in the Star Trek universe.

One of the major innovations of Bujold's Vorkosiverse is that she plays around with the ways in which technological control of the reproductive process from birth to fertilization is radically and culturally disruptive but still culturally constructed. Barrayar is the most conservative in adoption. Elsewhere we see experiments with biological transhumanism, eugenics, single-gendered cultures, clone families, and clone harvesting.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:42 PM on June 23, 2016


Been a while since I've gone back and read it, but I'm curious as to what people think of Dune in this light.

It ends with one of my great examples of missing the point: "While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine — history will call us wives."

...yay? You can imagine sandworms and Galactic Empires, Herbert, and that's the best you can do for a women's motivation?
Not only was this a super-lame line to end an otherwise epic story with, it seemed bizarrely out of character for Jessica to care whether history was going to call her a "wife". It's been a few years since I read Dune but I remember the way it showed her dealing with the constraints of her position in an extremely nasty feudal patriarchy as being about the best you might expect from the average male American SF writer in the 1960s.

Herbert did go off the rails eventually, though (the Honored Matres were terrible).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:59 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I didn't actually mean to start a debate about how the Federation should hand birth control, just that its elision is yet another failure to grapple with the mundane, everyday realities of adult women's lives because the authors haven't stopped to think about them because they consider them irrelevant or because they think it will be boring to the audience.

One thing the above-mentioned Tamora Pierce does really beautifully well is drop in casual, passing comments about menstruation and PMS and birth control and breastfeeding in (a diversity of) ways that are realistic to how women experience and live in their own bodies. Like her character doesn't spend three freaking paragraphs thinking about the glorious flower of her womanhood because she happens to be menstruating, but she finds herself a little unusually teary that morning, and frustrated with herself that she's extra-teary, and reminding herself to make sure she has enough menstrual cloths, in a couple of compact sentences. Her characters who are mothers have to figure out how to handle the limitations of breastfeeding on their activities or find a wet nurse. They think about boosting milk supply, or cutting it off as painlessly as possible. These are treated as mundane realities of life that are a normal part of the story.

It's not how any particular piece of fiction chooses to handle contraception/reproduction/menstruation/whatever that bothers me; it's that they so often completely refuse to handle it at all, in a literal unexamined privilege of maleness where you don't ever have to think about how those issues affect women, so it doesn't occur to you that 50% of the world does have to think about it, and probably your female characters CARE A WHOLE LOT about what, exactly, the Federation's arrangements for contraception on starships are.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:01 PM on June 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


Tamora Pierce, of course, is also well-known for super creepy age-disparate relationships as well as an incredible amount of unexamined racism. Also, all her YA heroines except one just cannot wait to pop out babies and put the rest of their lives on hold. Adventure? Who needs it when you can have kids!

...But yes, she's great at portraying issues relevant to young white girls, right up until they get together with someone way older than them (or in the memorable case of Alanna's daughter, way younger than them, given that crow-dude is literally two years old) and end up preggers.
posted by adrienneleigh at 9:15 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


...okay, i may be misremembering slightly; i think there are two of her YA heroines who don't end up in a creepy relationship and pregnant.
posted by adrienneleigh at 9:18 PM on June 23, 2016


I'm not going to tell you to like something you don't like, but ONE of her nine YA heroines gets pregnant before 30 and two have age-disparate relationships; the other seven do not become permanently partnered in-book and have only age-matching relationships.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:07 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Nine YA heroines? Five, i think? Beka, Kel, Alanna, Daine, Alanna's daughter whose name i can't be arsed to remember. (The others are all MG heroines, as far as i know, unless there's someone I'm forgetting. I wouldn't expect any of them to end up partnered or pregnant.)

- Alanna gets married to George, who's six (maybe only five, i just looked) years older than her and has been grooming her since she was thirteen. She has kids.
- Daine ends up with Numair, who's twice her age and her teacher, and has at least one kid.
- Aliane - i just looked up her name - ends up with crow-dude who's two years old, and it's pretty strongly implied she's gonna be "nesting" and preggers as soon as she finishes saving the poor brown people who can't save themselves.
- Beka escapes an abusive relationship and i never read the last book so i have no idea if she ends up partnered or not.
- Kel is single at the end of Lady Knight.
posted by adrienneleigh at 10:21 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have in fact read all of Tamora Pierce's novels, to the best of my knowledge, except the last book of Beka Cooper. Some of them I've read multiple times. I never said i didn't like them, exactly; they're compulsively readable. I do think they've got really fucking pernicious messages for young women, but then, so does about 95% of YA.
(In fact, I just reread two-thirds of the first Alanna book in the last hour and change, because I wanted to check George's age and then decided to reread the book. Also Alanna blushes like six times by the beginning of chapter four, and i doubt a twelve-year-old boy would ever be described the way she is. So that ties back into the actual thread topic of how women and men are differentially written.)
posted by adrienneleigh at 10:33 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not how any particular piece of fiction chooses to handle contraception/reproduction/menstruation/whatever that bothers me; it's that they so often completely refuse to handle it at all, in a literal unexamined privilege of maleness where you don't ever have to think about how those issues affect women, so it doesn't occur to you that 50% of the world does have to think about it, and probably your female characters CARE A WHOLE LOT about what, exactly, the Federation's arrangements for contraception on starships are.

I think this ties right back to a thing that happens a lot when it comes to legislating female reproductive health, which is that male lawmakers claim that they just want women to have to think hard about consequences before making decisions. Said male lawmakers assume that their own blithe unawareness of consequences is the general human state, and fail entirely to recognize that most women have been thinking about how their personal bodies could result in babies for a minimum of a week out of every month from late puberty onwards. I think this incorrect assumption is shared by many a male writer. Because much of male privilege is, at base, the unquestioning assumption that everything men believe or experience is the general human state.
posted by gingerest at 12:23 AM on June 24, 2016 [21 favorites]


(Also I love watching two women throw DOWN about life choices in YA fantasy from a particular female author, cheers to geek girls everywhere addressing that shit as a refreshing break from the perfectly respectable but tired all-geek pastime of dissecting the technological minutiae of equipment, thank you)
posted by gingerest at 12:37 AM on June 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've now reread two and a third of the Alanna books tonight (I'm a fast reader, and i've read them several times). And holy shit i had forgotten just how rapey both George and Jonathan are. Just by way of example, the following.

Here's George:
“Here.” The thief pressed a glass of brandy into her hand, sipping from one he had poured himself. “I’ve been keepin’ this bottle by special. And what’s more special than now, the day before your Ordeal? Drink up, lass.”

Alanna obeyed, savoring the brandy’s rich taste. “This is really good!” she approved. “Normally I just drink this stuff to clear my head, but—this is quite pleasant. You didn’t steal it, did you?” she demanded, as suspicious as ever.

Faithful jumped down from her shoulder as George laughed outright. “Would I serve you or Jon stolen goods?” he asked. “No, don’t answer me. Look. There’s the tax stamp on it, as clear as day. Vintages like this are better than gold, and better watched.”

Alanna yawned. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, George.” She yawned again, and again. “So sleepy …” She looked at her friend through rapidly-closing eyes. “You—you drugged it!” she accused.

George caught her as she sagged, her eyelids fluttering shut. “Did you really think I’d let you fret yourself sick, with such an important night ahead of you?” he asked softly. Alanna muttered and stirred, sound asleep.
And here's Jonathan:
Jonathan stopped kissing her, only to start unlacing her bodice.

Alanna shoved him away, terrified. “No!” she gasped, grabbing her laces. “I was crazy to think—Jonathan, please!”

The Prince realized she was trembling, her hands shaking too badly for her to lace herself. He shook his head and did the work for her.

“You’re fighting what has to be,” he said, “and you know it as well as I do.”

“I—I know no such thing,” she stammered. “I promised myself once that I’d never love a man! Maybe I almost broke that promise just now because of moonlight and silliness—”

“Stop it,” he told her sternly. He made her look up at him. “We belong to each other. Is that silliness? Surely you’ve realized all along this had to happen.” When she did not answer, he sighed. “Go away, before I change my mind.”
posted by adrienneleigh at 12:46 AM on June 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


I am of an age only to have read the first two Alanna books before I pretty much aged out of Tamora Pierce (I looked at the last two years and years later just to see what happened). I read the first one when it came out and then waited and waited for the second one - I was in grade school, so I was 9 or 10.

It's very disappointing to read that the flaws in the first two books apparently reappeared as worse in the later ones.

My memory of experiencing the first two books as a young white AFAB person:

They were really exciting because there wasn't much like them available. A young girl protagonist who got to do swashy-buckley stuff! Magic! Someone in the books has purple eyes, don't they?

I vividly remember how queasily anxious the sexual stuff made me, but at the time it read much more as "these are real pressures and scary things that could really happen" rather than "it is completely okay that everyone is sort of rapey". Like, on the one hand it normalizes that stuff - but on the other hand, as a child in the mid-eighties I had already encountered rape culture stuff enough that it felt to me like a story about a young woman successfully negotiating these pressures rather than an affirmation of them. To read the story from her perspective and have her say no was a big deal.

Also, the constant body anxiety stuff that was necessitated by being in disguise felt very natural given the whole experience of being a pre-adolescent.

I clearly remember liking that there was a romance subplot where Alanna had two men interested in her and yet where the romance was (by the time I stopped reading) basically deferred. I liked that she was allowed to be sexual, even though even at the time Jon seemed pretty gross to me.

In sum, I'd say that at the time, compared to what else was available, the first couple of books were important and new because they centered Alanna, dealt with sex and menstruation, gave her agency (comparatively speaking) in her romantic and sexual lives and created a girl-centered alternative to the usual "boys learn to do important and exciting fantasy novel stuff" that was pretty much all that similar YA provided.

This illustrates more about the horizons of possibility of, like, 1983 than anything else. it's really disappointing to learn that the horizons of the series pretty much stayed in 1983 at best.

There was not a lot of YA available at the time. I really loved fantasy but what I remember was that most of what was available with girl protagonists was aimed slightly younger and was leftover "grim seventies realism"/social-problem fantasy. Some of which was excellent, actually, I think, maybe, if I am not totally misremembering - Anna to the Infinite Power, Hawk in Silver, the Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Norma Fox Mazer books. Those were really aimed at slightly younger people. The other stuff I read was about boys.

What was different about the Alanna books was that they didn't have to be novels that were also about divorce, or also about being a little fat girl, or also about working class issues in Britain with the social problems sort of metaphorized into the fantasy and SF. I remember that when I was little I was sort of exhausted by the social problem novels - they were very worthy, and I think many of them were probably better books as books than the Alanna books, but the fact that they were just about themselves made them exciting.

Other than that, I was moving into reading books for adults, and read a lot of....Piers Anthony. And really sexist Golden Age SF (I found the Susan Calvin story where she kids herself that she is not too ugly to be loved but then a robot tells her the truth to be particularly upsetting).

I also read The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air around this time, and they are genuinely good. I read The Hero and the Crown right around then, too, and adored it although it also has an extremely creepy romantic arc.

But I guess what I'd say is that IME the power of the Alanna books when they first came out was determined by how crappy everything else was. And at the time, the squick/rape culture elements read more like a critique of everything else because everything else was so lousy.

The thing is, a lot of the books of the time were so enmeshed in these bad ideas that just putting some kind of counter-narrative out there was powerful, even though the badness of the counter narrative also fucked you up. With The Hero and the Crown, for instance, it totally reiterates the Very Great Importance of Beauty - the book is obsessed with figuring out just how pretty Aerin was or was not. And the book totally legitimizes the idea that the default state of affairs if you are not pretty enough or of the right background is to be miserable and convinced that your life is worthless and to have everyone pick on you (like, there's no space for being ordinary looking but not actually having a horrible life because of it) - it's just that then you discover that you are actually heroic and that redeems you. But at the time, it felt like a relief to have that narrative at all.

My point isn't to say "well these books are fine after all because they were a product of their times" - obviously they're not fine. In order to understand how they are what they are, I think it's useful to understand how they fit into the book landscape of the time, and just how barren that landscape was.

That said, it really sounds like the Tamora Pierce books are pretty off the rails at this point.
posted by Frowner at 1:55 AM on June 24, 2016 [8 favorites]


And I can't remember any books except maybe a couple of the Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Norma Fox Mazer ones that had any significant characters of color. The only book with POC characters I remember from the library was about a group of Mexican-American kids who were [orphaned? separated from their family?] and had to work in the fields. I have no idea what the title was because I read it once but it was never available to check out again, but I do remember that the characters were really relatable - like, I experienced it both as a book about racism and field work and as a book within the "experience life through the eyes of a kid your age" parameters of kids' books. It really resonated with me because it had (in my memory) a strong justice theme, which was what I had liked in the ZKS books.

I know there were some books with characters of color available at the time, but I did not have access to them. In grade school, some of our readers were leftover 1960s/70s progressive ones and there were short stories in them with diverse characters, but that was about it. I think that it wasn't until I was a high school freshman, when I read Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla My Love, that I started to seek out books with protagonists of color (GML made a BIG impression on me) and even then I did not have access to a lot. (And the thing about GML was that it wasn't even assigned - there was a short story from it in a big reader that we used, and I read the whole reader because I always read the whole reader, and then I got the book.)

Honestly, despite the fact that we are not currently in an SF/fantasy literary utopia, things are so much better now. I literally own more YA with characters of color now (even though I don't read a lot of YA and mostly buy SF and fantasy aimed at adults ) than I had in my entire childhood.
posted by Frowner at 2:07 AM on June 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


Pierce's Emelan series holds up much better, which is understandable since it's written after a lot of the race, gender, and sexuality hash outs of the early 1990s. She's also written a bit about her changing perceptions of her early works on the Mark Reads threads associated with all of the books. I found it a fascinating insight into the relationship between and author and her creations.

There is some romance in the later Emelan books, but it's very different from her earlier books.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:06 AM on June 24, 2016


On how we portray women's reproduction in visual scifi/fantasy media: the scary vid "Stay Awake", by Laura Shapiro. (warning: violence against women, implied sexual violence, strobing effects)

This thread is reminding me of how glad I am to be a regular participant at WisCon, the feminist scifi/fantasy convention that just celebrated its 40th annual gathering. (The associated book, The WisCon Chronicles, is now at Volume 10.) (And if you'd like to come to WisCon but finances get in the way, consider applying for the member assistance fund.) WisCon is how I heard about a lot of authors and series I haven't read yet, like Sagara West, and Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series. It's where I bought Sisters of the Revolution, which was my first taste of a bunch of amazing feminist scifi authors like L. Timmel Duchamp and Angela Carter.

Separately: did any of y'all know that Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing is still available as print-on-demand from U of Texas Press? I didn't know until I just now looked it up; I'd thought it was completely out of print. It's $13.37. I have the urge to buy several copies.
posted by brainwane at 8:54 AM on June 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


Jo Walton was able to recommend H. Beam Piper's short story "Omnlingual" because it's classic SF about scientists and thought experiments, and "because it has nothing to be ashamed of or make allowances for." Thanks Frowner for related recommendations as well!
posted by brainwane at 9:25 AM on June 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


Separately: did any of y'all know that Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing is still available as print-on-demand from U of Texas Press?

I bought it from The Book Depository some years ago. A bit more expensive, but it's got free worldwide shipping and when you factor international shipping from UoT it's roughly the same. And, seriously, you have to read it. It's super depressing that a 30 year old book could have been written yesterday and it would still be on topic.
posted by sukeban at 9:51 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Piper's really surprisingly good on female characters for a writer of his sex and time. Lots and lots of issues on other subjects (I'm tremendously fond of the Little Fuzzy books, but I can't deny they are fundamentally a fantasy of colonialism where the colonized are always adorable, safe, and happy to be colonized by their Great White Fathers), but his women are recognizable as people with intelligence, interests and goals of their own, and are integrated as a natural part of the world he is writing in. The navy lieutenant in the Fuzzy books may resign on marrying, Piper didn't have enough imagination to get beyond that custom of his time, but she's not doing it to just keep house and have babies, she and her husband are continuing their scientific research together.
posted by tavella at 10:02 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Frowner, I do understand - I was born in 1977, myself, and read my share of really shitty fiction growing up. The thing that grates on me so fucking much about Pierce is that people are still recommending her to teen girls, and there is so much better work out there now. I personally am on a mission to get Kristin Cashore's Seven Kingdoms books into the hands of every pubescent girl i know, for instance - it's very much in the vein of Pierce only like a million times better.

Deoridhe - Emelan is middle-grade, though, too - NOT YA. Given that, it's not at all surprising that the romance is much less prominent and less awful.
posted by adrienneleigh at 11:00 AM on June 24, 2016


[Earlier comment deleted. I get the supportive intention, but let's avoid using homophobic hate speech to make a point. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 5:28 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Another highlight for me is the trope that childbirth has to hurt, which stands out particularly in television and movie sci-fi.

Gold standard for treatment of pregnancy in a hard science fiction context is still Lois Bujold for me. The uterine replicator isn't magic tech and its use is embedded in the same sort of sociological and philosophical concerns as the 'medicalisation' of child birth has had and still has in real life. Even on advanced worlds like Beta Colony not everybody uses it, let alone on Barrayar with its arch conservative society.

As Lucy Baker puts it in her examination of child birth in the Vorkosigan saga: Her depiction of medical intervention and the experience of pregnancy offers a philosophy to integrate the technological and the natural, manifesting a socio-cultural experience that does more than simply extrapolate from existing technological advances.

That's rare in science fiction, which mostly keeps child birth off screen.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:54 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


There's tons of interesting novels by women from about 1980 - 1995 that are substantially forgotten now, and there are in particular novels by queer and/or POC writers from the same period which have also disappeared.

SF Mistress Works is a review site that was set up to combat some of this invisibility of female writers from that period (and before), inspired by the lack of women in Gollancz' SF Masterworks series.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


So wait, mods, quoting Heinlein in response to a direct question about the homophobia of one of his books is inappropriate enough to delete? How fucking weird is that?

(It wasn't my comment, but only because someone beat me to it.)
posted by adrienneleigh at 3:40 PM on June 25, 2016


It wasn't a real quotation, though. It was a sarcastic précis in quotation marks. And it was not especially accurate, either - Time Enough for Love, Friday, Stranger and I Will Fear No Evil have implied gay sex and bisexual male characters. Friday has a couple scenes that read straightforwardly homophobic on first glance but considering that Friday herself is bi, and it's implied that some of her male lovers have long-standing sexual and romantic relationships with each other, it's not that simple (and if you think homophobia is the biggest problem with Friday as a book, I have a bone to pick with you about sexual assault narratives, but that is neither here nor there.)
posted by gingerest at 4:20 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Just poking my head in to make my regular observation that CJ Cherryh's gritty sci fi is the best gritty sci fi and she's basically the best ok that's me done, namaste
posted by Sebmojo at 7:47 PM on July 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


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