Society Magazine

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

Posted on the 07 February 2015 by Brute Reason @sondosia

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.


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