Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

Out of body experiences

Teddie, the hero of c3, lived in my head for years and I knew what she could do, but I didn’t know what to call it. The other members of my superhero family had easy to describe skills. We had a telepathic mom. Dad, a former athlete, could slow down the passage of time. This ability shows up in lots of stories; I went ahead and called him a time warper.  Big brother Zane learned to morph his own appearance, becoming something of a real life shape changer. Big sister Ariel could see into the future.

But what about Teddie? Well, I knew that she could become invisible, and teleport somehow. It was like she could be anywhere she wanted and no one would see her. The problem was that these are magical realism books, written so as to hopefully convince my readers that the stories I tell just maybe could happen in the world in which we live. How could I ever convince a reader that a character could both turn invisible and teleport to anywhere, I wondered, as I began to write the story.

Then it hit me.  Her body doesn’t have to go anywhere. Just like Edgar Rice Burroughs sent his hero John Carter to Mars via some sort of astral projection, my hero could do the same. So I began to study astral projection. It turns out that there is quite a lot of material written on the subject, and I soon learned that it wasn’t quite what I wanted either. Astral projection technically involves going to some other plane of existence, and I wanted my hero to stay right here on earth.

No, it was an out of body experience that I was after. In an OBE, as they are affectionately called, the traveler visits a plane that exactly mirrors our physical world. They are unable to interact with the solids around them, but under the right circumstances they can return with accurate knowledge of distant objects and events.

I discovered that there are quite a few books out there that claim to be able to train you to have an out of body experience, and the internet is full of people happy to describe their own adventures doing the same. I had run into something similar while writing x0 and researching telepathy. Once again, I asked myself — do I believe any of this?

I was a scientist before I retired, a geophysicist to be specific. It is not surprising that I default to a belief in the laws of nature and I approach anything else with skepticism. Thanks to my background, though, I also know that the universe naturally behaves in many strange ways that we can’t explain, and that the more physics you know, the stranger some of it gets.

true voice 1As I read of these OBEs, I do admit that a few of the authors came across as scam artists, and a couple others seemed out-and-out deluded, at least to me. But most fell into neither of those categories. From their writing at least, they appeared both rational and sincere. I decided that a lot of the folks describing their out of body experiences were just very imaginative people, and the secret lay in how they chose to see things. But did that describe them all? Reading through many of their stories I concluded that I had no idea how possible, much less how common, real OBEs are. Maybe the world has many real life Teddies. In fact, maybe an entire c3 organization exists.

You can see some of my own thought processes in this excerpt from c3, when Teddie first begins the training to turn her innate abilities into a well developed skill.

Lhatu swallowed hard. He had known before he ever agreed to do this that the next few sentences would be the most difficult part.

“Let me back up, please. Amy, you see the world from inside you, so to speak. What I mean is that even though human consciousness is not understood very well, we think that it comes from inside of our bodies, inside of our brains. Some people imagine that they leave their bodies behind and wander off while they sleep or even as they go into a trance, and quite a few books have been written on the subject.”

“Sure,” Amy said. “Astral projection. I’ve heard of it. You think it’s impossible?”

“No, I’m saying that in most cases the person is just experiencing a lucid dream, or a creative daydream—harmless and even somewhat consciousness-expanding. I’ve no quarrel with this, it just doesn’t involve really leaving their bodies in, well, in the way that I do.”

“Oh.” The sarcasm was back. “So most other people can’t really do this, but you can.”

“Yes.” Lhatu said it simply, without embarrassment or pride. “And I’ve been trained to do it better since birth. I work for the people who trained me. I serve as their chief scout and trainer.”

“Is this shadowy organization that sneaks around watching kids run by some kind of a crime organization by any chance?” Amy asked.

“No. It’s a sort of informal monarchy and it’s run by my grandmother.”

“Oh.” Amy honestly didn’t know what to say.

“Look, there aren’t a lot of people who can do this naturally,” Lhatu went on. “It’s not nearly as common as, say, telepathy, which of course isn’t all that common at either. Most travelers—and we refer to it as traveling—most travelers start to have out-of-body experiences some time in their teens. It’s not always the case, but often some sort of trauma, or a series of traumatic events, encourages this ability. Feeling powerless, being powerless, needing to escape and having no other means to do so can sometimes set this ability in motion if the young person is prone to it to begin with.”

Lhatu gave Amy a long hard look. “It shouldn’t surprise you that more females develop this ability than males. Not that there aren’t plenty of young males in this world trapped in awful situations, too. And obviously most young people of either gender can never do this, no matter how desperate they become. Like everything else human, this ability seems to come from a combination of genes, environment and the very essence of the person themselves.”

Lhatu turned to Teddie. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

Teddie looked down embarrassed, and Amy got it.

“Teddie? Is that what this is all about? Your dreams? Seeing Usha at the bus station leaving for Gangtok? Seeing her flee into Bhutan? You think now that this is all real?” Amy asked.

“I guess so,” Teddie said. “At least this good friend of my mom’s thinks it is because this guy here told him so, and now I’m supposed to stay here and be trained so that I can help them find Michelle and Usha both.”

“I’m scared, Amy.” The words popped out of Teddie’s mouth before she could call them back. “I’m not sure I want to learn how to be a freak.” She gave Lhatu a little bit of an apologetic smile. “No offense.”

“None taken,” he said. “This is absolutely your choice, Teddie, and it will continue to be so. You may quit or pause the training at any time you are the least bit uncomfortable.” Then he added with his own small smile back. “We are all kind of freaks already in our own way, you know? This will just make you a more talented freak.”

“Talented freak. I do kind of like that.” Teddie smiled back more confidently, and for the sake of her young friend, Amy decided to put her own skepticism on hold.

Like my character Amy, I too put my skepticism on hold as I did my research, and I did my best to treat the subject matter itself with an open mind.

No, I didn’t try the training to induce an out-of-body experience, and I’m not sure if I ever will. I may be a little like my character Amy in more ways than one. As Amy points out in my book, the state of not knowing is sometimes the best state to be in.

Here are two of my favorite sources of information on the subject:

Free on Kindle

c3 will be available for FREE download on Saturday Feb 15 and Sunday Feb 16 here.

Enjoy this tale of a young woman learning to trust and use the strange powers with which she was born.Kanchenjunga You’ll get to climb one of the world’s most dangerous peaks, take on a crime lord with no scruples and hide from his all-seeing super hacker. Marvel at sunrises in the Himalayas and beaches in Thailand as you flee those who would harm you with no second thought. Revel in developing the ability to outwit people who give you no respect, and learn to be stronger each day as you take them on.

Enter the world of c3, and enjoy the victory.


c3 is published!

Dalai 5This is the fourth time I’ve done it, and each time has been more fun than the last. Something about hitting that button to put your heart, soul and creative effort out where the world can see it  is more exciting than I ever would have expected.

C3 is my longest novel so far, and it was the most difficult to write. Some of the plot concerns the sex industry, and human trafficking. I learned more than I wanted to know about those topics while researching this book, but the seriousness of my subject matter seemed to warrant my going the extra mile to get my facts right. Other parts of the story, like climbing the world’s highest peaks, have always fascinated me. As to all the tidbits about animal sex in the book — what can I say?  It was kind of fun to research.

Now I start the necessary but far less fun task of marketing the book. It’s not my strength, but I believe in this story so firmly that I will do it anyway. Thanks to the Dalai Lama’s FB page for reminding me that there is magic and power in each new beginning.