What does sci fi tell us about feminism?

When I ran the Kickstarter project for the original Bikes in Space zine, it included some funny rewards. One of them allowed the backer to recommend a science fiction book or movie, and I would write a gender analysis. Three people took me up on this. I read two books and watched one movie and took a bunch of notes. I enjoyed this process. A lot. Even the parts where I was rolling my eyes (okay, maybe especially those parts). And then I used my powers of slowness.

That little volume of stories was so fun to produce and turned out so well that I’m now compiling a second one (more on that soon—but for now, please back Bikes in Space 2 on Kickstarter!). [Bonus: I've added this reward to this project again. It might not even take me a year to fulfill this time, but no promises.]

So better late than not at all, here’s some analysis of some pretty random—but telling—visions of alternate futures, all told by men, all revealing something about the public imagination about gender in its era (Big bad affiliate links included.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
What we have here is Vietnam in space, and it’s brutal, violent, and bloody. It covers three imaginary eras in the future, and each one is defined by its gender identity politics. In the first, it’s a sort of equitable future through a 1974 lens. Male and female soldiers are equals in the army (well, mostly). They all have hetero sex with each other equally… whether the women happen to want to or not. The men definitely have the greater privilege, but it’s hard to tell whether Haldeman and his contemporaries would have read it that way. In the next era, our main character and his lady fellow soldier find themselves in a mirror reality where homosexuality is mandatory and heterosexuality is perverted, shameful and weird. And then finally, in the far future, people have evolved to transcend both gender and war. This is written as the weirdest thing of all, and our hero and his date flee to a planet where they can live out their days in something resembling a 1974 California small town life, where men are men and women are women and you can settle down and raise kids and have a good life without getting involved in other people’s senseless wars.

All that said, I got really into this book. Maybe that’s in part because it’s problematic in a similar way to the Heinlein novels I was addicted to as a teenager. It’s a fascinating snapshot of one perspective on the relationship between geopolitics and gender. And it’s a well-written space adventure story, which always wins my heart.

Glory Season by David Brin (1993)
This book was tough to read. It has all the elements of an exciting puzzle adventure story, but they’re couched in a longwinded “what if gender power dynamics were reversed” narrative, and it really needed to be edited down to about half its length. But I slogged through it for you, dear readers (a bonus moment of hilarity was realizing about halfway through, during one of the interesting puzzle adventures, that I’d made this same slog before as a teenager when the book first came out—it’s that unmemorable). What did I find? A man’s vision of a planet dominated by women. Everyone’s obsessed with sex, everyone’s defined by their biological gender characteristics, men are oppressed, and a teenage girl who secretly thinks men are cool falls in love with a (male!) observer from outer space. She overcomes her shame and solves some cool puzzles to reach him, but he tragically dies in a spaceship crash fleeing the anti-male amazons who run the government. This would all be an awesome short story, but as a novel it turns into a completely tiresome longform straw man argument about the imagined perils of feminism. Because then women would oppress men! On other planets in the future! Argh.
[Update: David Brin responds! Read his comment below.]

Solaris (the 2002 Stephen Soderbergh movie)
This is a remake of a movie based on a book of the same name by soviet-era writer Stanislaw Lem, who wrote some of my favorite funny stories about robots ever. There’s nothing funny about this movie; it’s completely paranoid and creepy. I enjoyed it immensely, but… through a gender lens it sure sheds light on some unhappy cultural constructions.

We see a couple fall in love in one of those obsessive, at-first-sight ways where their obvious chemistry overrides all other considerations of compatibility. We see the wife putting up with a lot of crap like getting aggressively mansplained to at parties. When she gets upset about this, her husband, played by dreamboat George Clooney, gives her a bunch of pills, which she eventually overdoses on. All of this is seen from his perspective, and in his perspective, she’s just plain crazy.

A dismal voiceover throughout the movie provides philosophical commentary about the meaning of reality and perception. The narrator’s view is that we are all alone inside ourselves, a solipsism that in this case turns out to be decidedly anti-feminist. “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors” the voiceover tells us at the beginning. And the movie is a parable of what happens—to everyone, but especially to women—when we treat each other that way, not as unknown universes to learn about, but as reflections of our own egos.

There’s a piece of the plot that complicates this in a refreshing way. One of the first characters we meet in the movie is a woman of color. That’s, unfortunately, rare enough in science fiction that it’s worth remarking on. It’s also worth remarking that this character is foreshadowed to be the crazy one, but ends up being the only reasonable, rational person in the entire story. Is this carried over from the book, or is it Soderbergh’s contradictory contribution? I haven’t read the book yet, or watched the earlier movie, so I don’t know—frankly, I’m too creeped out.

Thanks, backers, for the fun reading and watching and thinking — and of course for making these projects possible and fun. If you like reading science fiction and want to see it continue to lose its steady male gaze, please consider backing the second volume of all new Bikes in Space stories.

14 Responses to “What does sci fi tell us about feminism?”

  1. David Brin April 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    Giving this screed roughly the amount of time and attention it deserves, I will be succinct. This writer strives hard to disprove her own assertions : which is pretty easy when so many of her assertions are diametrically opposite to fact.

    Ms. Blue begins by asserting that Glory Season is barely readable. A subjective judgement to which she’s entitled. Though objective evidence — the fact that the novel was runner up for a Hugo Award for best novel — beaten (fairly!) by the epochal Green Mars — suggests that readability might not be one of the novel’s validated flaws. If Ms. Blue had to “slog” let us consider the possibility that she entered the world of Glory Season with a hostile chip on her shoulder, skimming to seek grievances. (Given her past axe-grinding, that might seem plausible.)

    Seeking grievances, voila, she found them! I purportedly wrote a rant against feminism, portraying a future in which MEN! are PERSECUTED! by WOMEN!

    Indeed, nothing better proves that Ms. Blue decidedly did not read the novel. Males are not persecuted in Glory Season. They have some career options shut off from them. And indeed this was meant to allegorize what has been done to women for millennia, in a tables-turning that seems to have been all right to do… if performed by a female author. But indeed, their lives are far, far less cauterized or limited than males are in the feminist utopias by Charnas, Tepper, Griffith and so on, authors whom she presumably admires.

    Ignored… the truly oppressed caste in Glory Season (though not by law) are the vars or genetically variant women who are not members of a clan line and who have it much worse than the boys and men. Indeed, the novel is far more about a world in which self-cloning is the majority process of reproduction than it is about gender relations. Despite her outright fabulation to the contrary, sex and gender are not the core obsessions or interests of the novel. Ms. Blue’s interpretation reveals only her own obsessions.

    In fact, I have long been a fan of gender SF and subscribed to FEMSPEC for many years. Glory Season was an attempt to fill in a gap in the sub genre of separatist utopias and I had hoped that its balanced — and not actually unfavorable — exploration of a plausible methodology for alternative human reproduction might engender interested discussion, instead of reflexive hostility.

    Indeed, every single woman scientist I know who has read the book has expressed great respect and liking for it. And that tally runs close to a hundred. Many women ethologists, geneticists, anthropologists — such as Bettyann Kevles and the great Professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of MOTHER NATURE and THE WOMAN THAT NEVER EVOLVED. have written to me, eager to discuss the sexual-genetic gedankenexperiment. Meanwhile, almost every member of a narrow clade of polemicists seems to hate it — while parroting each others’ critiques down to individual words and phrases.

    If I must choose, I’ll take the comments and discussions I’ve had with the real article, over those who only chatter.

    What none of that clade has ever answered is the question of why nearly all separatist utopian fantasies — e.g. those of Charnas, Tepper, LeGuin etc — begin built upon mountains of corpses. Nearly all of the systems that they have extolled (many of them vastly harsher to males than anything in Glory Season) seem to have derived from apocalyptic downfalls of a previous (presumably unjust and oppressive) civilization.

    Not one of these utopias was built on purpose, with calm deliberation, by radical feminists equipped with both science and a Plan. That fact is bizarre. More bizarre is that it is never discussed.

    I — with no hostility, only an eager wish to experiment — decided to try to fill that gap. That Glory Season was received as a deliberate attack against feminism is a hallucination that is not my fault or doing. Ms. Blue might easily have chosen to appraise and discuss the many aspects of science and biology and speculative cause and effect that the women scientist readers all– universally — enjoyed.

    Ah, but axes must be ground.

    I’ve given this far more time than it deserves. In summary, I remain a liberal-minded person who has always favored and pushed for feminist advancement, across my life. My writings bear this out and do not in any way support the lazy, knee-jerk accusation of fervent sexism by a “critic” who could not even be bothered to read the work she intends to discuss. This is not a person of credibility. I suggest you give her none.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

    • seruko June 26, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

      You are one weird cat Brin.
      Glory season is a tediously long and bloviating tale, which cribs a huge amount from a short story from the late 60′s early 70′s about astronauts who stumble into a post apocalyptic future where there are no men and UK Leguinn’s the left hand of darkness. It’s boring and completely unoriginal. But congratulations for being an internet warrior and telling some poor scrub with a blog that you hate them, because… reasons.

    • Seruko June 27, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      Fill a gap? Glory Season heavily cribs from from both Leguinn’s “the left hand of Darkness” and Tiptree “Houston, Houston, Do You Read.” You might even owe Tiptree a freaking royalty. You’re like the poor man’s Ellison, but “A Boy and His Dog” Ellison with out the humor.

  2. Joe Biel April 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Wait. Did you just write an excessively long post to argue that your book is not longer than it should be?

  3. Elly Blue April 16, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    Hi there, David Brin. Thanks for gracing us with your presence. I’m a little baffled by your lengthy interpretation of my rather brief comments about your book. My goodness, you’ve read a lot into them. It’s true that I find the whole men-oppressed-by-women trope to be a little dull and overplayed, and I wasn’t totally enthralled by your take on it. But it didn’t strike me as anti-feminist; my critique really is just that your book is too long—your editors gave you too much rope. Just as you seem to have given yourself here. Best of luck with your thriving career. I hope you get to take a vacation or something soon. – Elly

  4. Jessie Kwak April 18, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for these great breakdowns, Elly! And, as usual, thanks for being a woman with opinions on the internet, and handling it with grace.

  5. Glenn Fleishman April 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    Brin: “the lazy, knee-jerk accusation of fervent sexism by a “critic” who could not even be bothered to read the work she intends to discuss”

    Blue: “This book was tough to read…I slogged through it for you…I’d made this same slog before as a teenager when the book first came out…”

    The lazy, knee-jerk critique of a short review by an award-winner writer who could not even be bothered to read the of the critique of the work he intended to rebut.

  6. Elly Blue April 18, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    My takeaway here is that we need to change the culture. A lot. Like, now. Not that we didn’t already know that, but this is as fine an illustration as one could ask for.

    If you haven’t already, please consider adding one small but satisfying piece to that puzzle by supporting the feminist science fiction project that inspired this conversation: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ellyblue/bikes-in-space-2-more-feminist-bicycle-science-fic

    Thanks, folks.

  7. Matt McIrvin April 18, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    About Solaris: Making that character a woman of color was indeed Soderbergh’s innovation; I think that person was a man in the novel, either white or of unmentioned race. The backstory about the couple’s life together was not shown explicitly in the novel, though we know that Kris blames himself for his wife’s suicide.

    Stanisław Lem was a brilliant writer but definitely not what we’d call a feminist by any means. In most of his serious work, with a few exceptions, women are barely present; and I recall a late interview in which he was asked about this and said it was because he didn’t want to introduce a sexual element where none was needed (and I doubt he thought much about the implications of that statement).

    • Seruko (Free Candy Inside Van) July 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      The Solaris Film with Clooney is superior to the Book in that it really cuts out a lot of 196o’s era techno-babel that ends of just being chaff.

  8. Michael Grosberg April 19, 2014 at 3:25 am #

    I have not read Mr. Brin’s novel but I believe that on general, reverse-racism (or any other ism) tales never work. They are supposedly written to allow the oppressing party to feel simulated oppression so that they can empathize with the oppressed party. You can already see the issue here: it assumes a man can’t empathize with a tale of women’s plight, or any kind of tale in which the oppressed party is not identical to himself, and that only if they read a tale in which the tables are turned they’ll be able to truly grasp how bad it is to be discriminated against. But the bigger problem is that these tales, instead of making the oppressing party understand oppression better, makes them resent the imagined oppressor (in this case, women), thereby achieving the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

    • Noelle May 3, 2014 at 9:38 am #

      You really hit the nail on the head! I’ve seldom read a “reverse -ism” story that worked for that reason. As a woman, it often makes me feel MORE alienated because it seems like male authors are against the advances in equality made by feminism, thinking they will lead to the oppression of men. In these stories, the author unwittingly ends up advocating the status quo instead of equality, because the narrative implies equality to be a stepping stone to reverse oppression. I can’t comment on Brin’s books, but there are some inherent problems with the reverse oppression narrative that authors have to carefully navigate, and even the most feminist, anti-racist, etc. author will stumble if they’re not careful.

  9. Parker Swanson April 19, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi Elly,
    I bike, I’ve read Bikenomics and I appreciate your columns. One sci-fi writer whose values are similar to mine is Joan Slonczewski. You might like her work. Pax.

  10. Elly Blue April 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks for the recos, thoughts, and context, all. I’ll check out Slonczewski.

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