Excitingly, it’s at last getting close to time to publish a new volume of Bikes in Space. This year’s collection of feminist bicycle science fiction short stories is called Biketopia, and it’s live on Kickstarter right now.
This is the first year that I’m not offering a reward that gives you the chance to assign me a book or story to read and write a feminist analysis of. That’s because I’m working on a new project that will involve that… stay tuned. I do owe two feminist analyses to backers of last year’s Pedal Zombies project. I’ve included the first two of these in this post.
To fulfill this reward, I read the books, enjoyed them greatly, and took a bunch of notes. Then I thought about them for a while, and also thought about what I wanted to write. It’s easy when promising a “feminist analysis” to just page through the book and yell “gotcha!” at everything that might be interpreted as sexist or carry a whiff of patriarchal attitudes. This can be pretty fun when a book is in fact full of sexist stereotypes, but when my backers give me relatively progressive novels with complicated characters, what’s one to do? It actually makes my job a lot more fun.
Oh yeah: Spoilers contained within.
At Mason’s request: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
Here’s what I wrote right after reading this book:
This book is populated by a fascinating cast of mostly female characters, both humans and gods. They think, feel, steal, screw, make good decisions, make selfish decisions, act bravely and foolishly, and react to the events in the story in predictable ways based on established character traits. A sprinkling of male characters occasionally appears; most of their actions in the story are driven by sexual impulses, and their sexuality largely defines them. But the great thing about these men is that they actually demonstrate a surprising spunk and agency, given their supporting roles and underdeveloped characters, some of them even going so far as to step in and dramatically alter the course of the story at key moments.
Just kidding! Switch the genders and you’ll have this book. It’s a great story and I enjoyed it immensely. The female characters are way more interesting and self-actualized than in many novels of this genre. But it’s only refreshing until you switch the script, and then you start to think that you’re being thrown a bone, that the idea that women are humans is in fact a radical one and that beginning to figure that out takes a male writer of great, rare sensitivity.
And here’s my take with a little more distance smoothing over the edges:
This is a classic, and now that I’ve read it I can see why. It’s a huge, funny, trickstery story full of layers of meaning and unexpected plot twists. The gods themselves—literal gods, all converging in the USA around the turn of the millenium to play out old rivalries, fuck with humans, and generally act up in an epic manner—are all completely sexist. Of course. The male gods tend to be dysfunctional drunks, and at least one of the goddesses, of whom there are relatively few, actually eats people with her vagina.
The humans are more complicated, real people concerned with real people things. One of the main characters is the lead’s wife, who is mostly just jerked around by the gods, but does have a mind and personality of her own. There’s another young woman who appears in the plot later in the book for reasons that seem pretty extraneous… unless she exists solely to provide another female character with a different personality than the wife. Could be. Neil Gaiman, if you are googling yourself, maybe you’d like to chime in on this?
At Mark’s request: William Gibson’s The Peripheral
Argh, okay. Well let me start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book. It’s got an interesting scenario and an exciting plot. The author obviously made an effort to create a non-stereotypical female lead character. She’s smart and active and full of agency and motivation, and it works… right up until the last chapter where she ends up…
SPOILING IT NOW…
…. barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Literally. Turns out that’s all she wanted all along.
I was not expecting this ending. I guess it makes perfect sense in the logic of the book—what small town unsuspecting action hero wouldn’t want to settle down and lead the most ordinary and eventless life imaginable after living through what Flynne has lived through—the nonconsensual time travel, the drone chases, the melting starlets, the persecution by homeland security, etc. etc. But really? This is the reward for all her stereotype-defying badassery? More to the point, this is the audience’s reward for reading page after page of this book? For spending this many hours imagining such a different role for a woman in a science fiction novel? It’s just confusing, really.
This all got me thinking. The thing is, Flynne and her trajectory bear a striking resemblance to Gibson’s other heroines, and to Gaiman’s more androgynous other-female-human-character in American Gods, and to a number of other plucky, short-haired, quick-on-their-feet women that have arisen as a (delightful and much needed, but also may I point out overwhelmingly white) sci fi trope. They’re the tomboys, “one of the boys,” women who can drive, drink, and roll with whatever the plot brings without batting an eye or worrying about messing up their makeup, because they aren’t wearing any. Flynne settling down to be a good wife and mom is partly jarring because she’s stuck so close to this first type and then shifts gears, like at the end of the book she’s suddenly decided to become a different, more three-dimensional character from another genre.
Women in sci fi (until recently) were basically either girly girls… or this. And I think this brings us to the real feminist analysis here. The thing I think I liked about science fiction growing up is exactly one of the pitfalls the genre’s been criticized (fairly) for — it classically has no complex characters or emotions. The men were men and the women were women, the universe was divided between good and evil, human and non-human, the home planet and the other planets the humans were colonizing. Nobody talked about or were particularly motivated by their feelings. Situations and sometimes ethics evolved over the course of a book, but the characters didn’t. The whole genre is built around extrinsic motivation… the fantasy that your personality is fixed and you only react to events. You can change your circumstances and the world without suffering any internal shifts or conflicts.
That’s a patriarchal ideal, of course, built into the socialization of the white men who the genre was largely developed by and for. So when I read a science fiction book, I find this sort of unthinking aggression and two-dimensionality far less noticeable in male characters because of these internalized stereotypes. But when male writers create women, even when they write them as strong, stereotype-defying characters, instead of letting us share in that fantasy, it falls flat. Because when you read about women in other genres and types of novel, they’re three-dimensional, so our expectations are just higher and the failures of the genre are impossible to ignore.
That’s more than I planned to write, but apparently I had a lot on my mind. I may make another post like this, since one of these backers sent me three books to review instead of just one. So stay tuned!
Oh yeah — and please back the Kickstarter if you’d like to be one of the first to read the book!