Writing: Reading in Another Land

The following is an expansion of a piece I wrote for a Book Smugglers roundtable.

Recently — or perhaps not so recently — much has been made of women writing science fiction. Often it’s coupled with a complaint about “PC” behavior stifles creativity or how leftist writing “has no new ideas.”

Hmm. Speaking as an unabashed leftist and someone lacking a penis, which may bias me somewhat, in my experience the opposite is true. I find much more interesting stuff in those who are willing to question the status quo, rather than simply write fiction using the same old stories, but this time with lasers! or infinity drives! or whatever. As Patty Jansen put it recently in her blog post, “There are girl cooties on my spaceship — on women writing hard SF,” “There are many younger readers out there who do not want their SF with sauce of sexist golden age nostalgia.”

To talk about this, though, I need to mention a book I’ve been recently reading, David Zindell’s Neverness. It’s a terrific book with some amazing writing in it. Here, for example, is a passage from page 23, which I love for its ability to seed in information about societal structures while describing a crowd:

“We received our pilot’s rings late in the afternoon of the next day. At the center of Resa, surrounded by the stone dormitories, apartments, and other buildings of the college, the immense Hall of the Ancient Pilots overflowed with the men and women of our Order. From the great arched doorway to the dais where we journeymen knelt, the brightly colored robes of the academicians and high professionals rippled like a sea of rainbow silk. Because the masters of the various professions tended to cleave to their peers, the rainbow sea was patchy: near the far pillars at the north end of the Hall stood orange-robed cetics, and next to them, a group of akashics covered from neck to ankle in yellow silk. There were cliques of scryers berobed in dazzling white, and green-robed mechanics standing close to each other, no doubt arguing as to the ultimate (and paradoxical) composition and nature of the spacetime continuum, or some other arcanum. Just below the dais was the black wavefront of the pilots and master pilots. I saw Lionel, Tomoth and his brothers, Stephen Caraghar and others that I knew. At the very front stood my mother and Justine, looking at us — I thought — proudly.”

Great stuff, yeah? And at the same time, I find the book puts me, as a female reader, in an odd position. The women in the book so far are either relatives or love interest, and their defining characteristics seem somewhat odd: the male protagonist’s mother’s defining characteristic is that she’s chubby from eating too many chocolate candies, while much is made of his aunt’s sexual rapacity.

In a novel, often the main point of view is our lens for the book. If the book were a first-person shooter game, this is the character one maneuvers through the game. Women are used to having this male perspective imposed on them; we’ve been reading those narratives ever since we started reading.

And so we hit passages like this, a quote from the fictional A Requiem for Homo Sapiens, by Horthy Hosthoh, before Chapter Four begins:

In the beginning, of course, there was God. And from God arose the Elder Ieldra, beings of pure light who were like God except that there was a time before their existence, and a time would come when they would exist no more. And from the Elder Ieldra arose the Ieldra, who were like the elder race except they had substance and flesh. The Ieldra seeded the galaxy, and perhaps many galaxies, with their DNA. On Old Earth, from this Godspeed evolved the primitive algae and bacteria, the plankton, slime molds, worms, fishes, and so on until ape-Man stood away from the trees of the mother continent. And ape-Man gave birth to cave-Men, who were like Men except that they did not have the power to end their own existence.
And from cave-Men at last arose Man, and Man, who was at once clever and stupid took to bed four wives: The Bomb; The Computer; The Test Tube; and Woman.

That passage makes my mind explode a little, and not in a good way. Certainly one can argue that Zindell is simply replicating the structure of other creation myths from human history. But others have pointed out why things like using “Man” to refer to the human race overall is problematic (for an excellent overview of that and related issues, see Dale Spender’s Man-made Language) and those problems exist in this passage and are totally unquestioned.

Which is odd, because in many ways Zindell’s book is less obtrusive about this sort of thing than many examples. A few years ago, I read an Asimov story where the spacemen did various important things — and then returned to their white-picket surrounded houses on the moon, where their Stepford wives were waiting. That seemed like a crappy future to me. It still does. Other examples abound.

Why do we read? To escape, perhaps. To put ourselves in a different head for a while. To compare our experiences with that of others. To learn what it is to be human. And if those different heads, those experiences are narrowed down to only male ones, it seems…problematic at best.

My first “real” science fiction novel was a book my father brought back from a trip, Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers. I must have read that twenty or thirty times. In that book, there’s a female character I can identify with, Alter. There’s plenty of women, doing all sorts of things, including being a villain. It feels, if I might dare to use the word when talking about speculative fiction, more “realistic” than the Zindell world.

I’m reminded of a passage from Kelly Link’s “Travels With the Snow Queen,” one that I often use in class. Here it is:

“Your destination is North. The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh. Where you are, where you are coming from, it is impossible to read a map made of paper. If it were that easy then everyone would be a traveler. You have heard of other travelers whose maps are breadcrumbs, whose maps are stones, whose maps are the four winds, whose maps are yellow bricks laid one after the other. You read your map with your foot, and behind you somewhere there must be another traveler whose map is the bloody footprints that you are leaving behind you.

There is a map of fine white scars on the soles of your feet that tells you where you have been. When you are pulling the shards of the Snow Queen’s looking-glass out of your feet, you remind yourself, you tell yourself to imagine how it felt when Kay’s eyes, Kay’s heart were pierced by shards of the same mirror. Sometimes it is safer to read maps with your feet.

Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?”

That last line is brilliant. Because suddenly Link turns around and with that salutation, “Ladies,” directly calls out the fact that so many narratives presume a male reader. That line turns the convention on its head and puts male readers in a situation female readers are well acquainted it: provided a point of identification with the story that doesn’t “fit” the reader in terms of gender.

An interesting aspect of this discussion is the insistence that men don’t read books by women – which may or may not be true, depending on the factors you’re looking at. Is it that men are by nature unsuited to this demand that one put oneself in a skin that cannot, by its nature, actually belong to you? Surely that cannot be true of all male readers.

Women are not a monolithic group, any more than men are. You cannot pick out one individual and insist that they represent all human experience. This is in part the appeal of reading – that we are experiencing something other than ourself, that we are putting on a costume and seeing what it looks like to strut around inside that skin for while. Perhaps this is a second possible reason why some men refuse to read fiction by women — they find that particular costume so demeaning or one that they feel they have so little in common with that it’s not worth the investment of reading time.

Let me confess a guilty secret: when I was a pre-teen I read all the Destroyer books, a men’s adventure series written by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. You could find them easily in used bookstores, and by my estimate, I read over a hundred of the 145 in the series. They were awesome. They had great banter and interesting adventures, and their approach to sex was (and now that I think about it much later as a writer, this is actually a really interesting narrative choice) that Remo, a white practitioner of the ancient art of Sinanju, could drive women to absolute ecstasy with the equivalent of a touch to the elbow, a process that seemed to become increasingly boring to Remo over the course of the series. Due to the powers given to him by Sinanju Remo could, by my recollection, scale sheer walls, fake death, act as a human lie-detector, run silently (and faster than most humans) and, of course, kick utter total absolute ass in a fight. He was also rendered helpless by ingesting a hamburger, because his body had been purified by the brown rice and water diet of Sinanju to the point where it couldn’t deal with any other foods.

Much of the book’s pleasure was the dialogue, particularly the banter between Remo’s instructor in Sinanju, an ancient Asian man named Chiun, and Remo, who didn’t particularly appreciate things like not eating hamburgers or enjoying sex. Another was the crazy plots, which were as pulpy as they come. (I also read a great deal of Doc Savage, but will save the Man of Bronze for some other essay).

The point, now I have maundered fondly about the books for a bit is this: those books would seem to be the equivalent of a preteen boy enjoying Regency romances, which is something that, at least when I was growing up, would have gotten him heartily mocked by most of my fellow Midwestern teens. But that never bothered me, and I don’t remember ever feeling like I should feel embarrassed for reading them.

It seems to me there’s an odd thing that happens to male readers. We (all children) begin with a mix of viewpoints in the form of fairy tales. It’d be interesting to see what the gender breakdown is, reading level by reading level (think about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys for an example later on), because it seems to me that it skews more male when we hit what has been defined as the classics (See Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing for some reasons why this happens).

At the same time, there’s an age point — for me it was around thirteen — where there’s a lot of pressure to act (if not think, perhaps) as the “right” gender. A lot of that’s coming from mainstream media but there’s plenty of other sources and to my perception men get just as much pressure, if not more, in a way that denies them a lot of emotional structures while giving them a number of advantages.

So what’s the issue? Seanan Maguire puts it succinctly in a blog post: “It’s just that women get forced to understand men if we want to enjoy media and tell stories, while men are allowed to treat women as these weird extraterrestrial creatures who can never be comprehended, but must be fought.”

From an early age, women read protagonists with a male skin. Actually, we live in a world where the assumption of a male skin is pretty unrelentingly forced upon us: by electronic media like movies, television, and radio, by the Internet, by advertising, by education. And when we experience things aimed at us as women, often they seem to be there to force us into a particular definition of femininity.

Certainly men lose out on this social structure as well. Look at Raj in the Big Bang Theory to see what is marked as aberrant in a male: not just skin color, interestingly enough, but enjoyment/appreciation of fine cuisine, emotional sensitivity, and an non-sexualized appreciation of female company. The patriarchy is a structure that does advantage men, but it is a double-edged sword (Freudian overtones intentional) in that it denies them many things allowed to women: a greater freedom to express emotions (although that comes with implications that it’s a sign of weakness); appreciation of some of the sense-based aspects of life; the ability to be colorful in dress and wear make-up (though that seems to be eroding). And we’re all seeing body images that don’t match our own, particularly in a culture that teaches us bad dietary habits and offers plenty of cheap fast-food. Instances of young men with eating disorders have risen dramatically, for example.

Science fiction is the literature of “what if?” It seems bizarre not to realize that different viewpoints are going to have new and interesting what ifs that may have been overlooked in the past. I have hopes for speculative fiction: that it will continue to diversify, to expose us to new and interesting viewpoints in a way that makes them “us” rather than “other.”

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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