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.

I know sexism when I see it?

When you read a book of fiction written decades ago, you steel yourself for possible sexism, racism and general intolerance. You accept that the hero will likely be a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male possibly assisted by inferior but lovable sidekicks from other demographic groups. I’ve listened to many a lively discussion about how much slack a writer from days past is entitled to before the enlightened reader of today gets tired of the stereotypes and throws down the book.

sustainable human 1I don’t have an answer. But I do know that there is a difference between writing that reflects cultural norms of its time and writing that has a mean spirit. It’s a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quote regarding obscenity. “I know it when I see it.” I think we can all agree that we would never all agree completely on what is obscene and what isn’t, yet the vast majority of people would reach identical conclusions on either side of a small fuzzy line. That is obscene. That isn’t. We know it.

I believe that the same sort of standard applies to older fiction. I just finished reading Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 science fiction satire The Space Merchants. I enjoyed it. But being female, I’m particularly sensitive to sexism in a story and, let’s face it, older science fiction often was as sexist as anything else of its time. On the surface, The Space Merchants suffers in this way. The hero is a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male. The women are called “girls”, every executive has a female secretary he orders around, and most of the rest of the work force is male.

As I finished the book, however, I decided that the authors’ failing was not one of prejudice, but rather an inability or unwillingness to see some parts of future society as significantly different than their own. In 1950, women were called “girls”, every executive did have a secretary, and most of the work force was male. This story was intended to focus on other changes in society. Even if the authors did consider it, reworking the common role of women was not necessary to the plot, and might well have distracted from the main messages of the book when was being read back in the 1950’s.

In the authors’ further defense, the love interest is a female surgeon, the main character’s compliant secretary is uncommonly capable, and one of the evil characters is a deranged woman who is an expert at torture. Women may play a fifties-style role in the book, but they are as three-dimensional as the males and as good at what they do. It’s hard to call that sexism.

I know that in the seventies and eighties Frederick Pohl went on to write Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, both excellent books filled with fully-developed and competent women. C.M. Kornbluth died at age thirty-four. We will never know what masterpieces he might have written as he aged.

I’m completely okay with giving this book a pass on its treatment of its female characters. Other science fiction books of that era? Well, that’s another blog post waiting to be written.

(For more about the Space Merchants, see my posts The Kinky of the Future, Through the Eyes of Another, and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)


My Secret Life

I know that when I arrive at the office in the morning, I look more or less normal. I’m a few minutes late, car keys still in my hand as I give the receptionist a half-apologetic wave and head back to the small cubicle that is my home for about nine hours a day, four days a week. I fire up my computer, get some coffee, and start to do the things I am paid to do. It’s not so bad. The work is mildly entertaining, the pay is good, the coffee acceptable. I do hate the windowless cube, but I’m luckier that most. I have a secret life.

I’m late because when I woke up this morning, a young man from Romania took time out of his own busy life to post a review of my novel z2. It was a very short review, with five stars at the top and the remark that my book was now “officially among” his favorite SF books. His favorites? Do you how many are out there? How many great ones? My whole life I’ve wanted to write science fiction and now somebody says this? I think they could put me in a cement box for the next nine hours and I’d survive on the joy alone, and I am really claustrophobic.

Green 1Yes, I know that reviews are meant for fellow readers, not for the authors. I do get it, and so I will keep the joy deep inside myself. Seriously, though, how can I not care at all?

I’m also late because a young woman in Indonesia won my novel c3 in a giveaway and took the time to write an almost 1000 word review and posted it this morning. She gave me five stars as well, and used my novel about young women who triumph over human traffickers as a spring board to look into the problem in her own country. Her research fills most of the review and it is impressive.I hear a possible advocate for better education and enforcement in her voice, and I am proud to have written something that has moved her to feel so passionately. I have tears in my eyes and I want to thank her for listening, for caring, for getting it, but of course I cannot do that.

Writers are not supposed to respond to reviews. It makes perfect sense. Reviews are to alert other readers about what is good and bad about a novel. Who in the world is going to write one if they risk getting in an online argument with the author for doing so? I certainly wouldn’t. So, no response.

Instead, I sit in my cube and sip my coffee. I check my office email then I move on to the project at hand. Few people here even know that I write books. Today, I’m smiling inside, thinking of two random people across the globe who I have managed to touch against all odds. It’s a secret life, but it keeps me very happy.