What does sci fi tell us about feminism?

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Update: The Kickstarter for the third Bikes in Space book, Pedal Zombies is live through August 4, 2015. (And yes, you can request a feminist analysis on this one, too.)

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. [Update: You can get Bikes in Space vol 2 here and you can back the third volume, Pedal Zombies, here.]

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.