Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[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.

{advertisement}
Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

23 thoughts on “Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

  1. 1

    Myeah, it’s a personal thing. I try to avoid reading about rapes and sexual humiliation, not because I think all those books are necessarily bad, but because it puts me off my own nice, happy, consensual sex life. I’m currently wondering whether it’s worth my while to read Angela Carter.

    But in principle, I agree with your last couple of paragraphs. If the society depicted is sexist/racist/whateverist, the author/narrator should appear to know that and work through the implications, one way or another. It’s possible for the society itself to be ignorant, but the contract between readers and narrators needs to somehow acknowledge that we’re not or we’ll just reject it. I tend to make an exception for historical literature, where I try to read within what I know of their understanding, provided I think it has something of value to offer.

  2. 2

    Well, as a fan of Hamilton’s work, I feel I must leap to…saying that I think your criticism is cogent and reasonable. We all draw the line where it belongs for us, and that’s as it should be. For similar reasons, e.g., I don’t read or watch Game of Thrones. I’ve read enough Martin works to know that we differ considerably, so I spew vitriolic feminazi hate at the evil rape-loving sexist simply choose not to consume. I tell people when it comes up (did you see the latest episode? No, ii don’t watch it. Why? Okay, this is why for me), but not to convince them to see it my way, rather to explain why I just can’t / won’t consume his work.
    Good post, Miri.

  3. 3

    I read “Pandora’s Star” and the sequel “Judas Unchained” and I was a little disappointed with these characters but I plowed through and found some good bits. I’m certainly not going to recommend them though. When I was done, I wondered if he had any other books worth checking out so I went to Good Reads to check out the reviews for “The Reality Dysfunction” (1st book in an earlier trilogy) and blargh, what a mess. To quote from a few positive reviews:
    4 stars:

    By the time the book hits one third there has been a multitude of uneasy things for the reader to digest. Rape; exploitation; satanic rituals; torture; murder and mutilation (where, in some cases, the victims are children); genocide; injuries inflicted to protagonists that will make the squeamish light-headed; demonic possession… to name but a few. It’s also clear by this time that Hamilton is only getting started.

    3 stars:

    And his sex scenes, gratuitously introduced whenever he feels the action is flagging a bit, make signally unpleasant reading. Women, in particular, may feel the need to take a shower after a few pages of being pleasured by Hamilton’s priapic heroes and villains.

    There is also a vast oversupply of pornoviolence, most of which I skipped.

    After that, and weighing the size of his books (metaphorically – ebooks FTW!) I figured I’d give the rest a pass. No reason to slog through that ickiness. There are far too many books to read in anyone’s lifetime, there’s no reason to waste time on books that are bad or upsetting.

  4. 4

    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?

    I think this is what bothers me about that piece: lying to criminals is totally common. Hell, many cop dramas display that tactic favourably. Even when they’re used against the protagonist, the anger and vitriol used in response isn’t usually that much.

    The responses here are unusually angry vitriolic, and they’re unusually vitriolic in a blatantly gendered fashion.

  5. 5

    My favorite thing about sci fi is where authors reveal what they are sexy for by showing a future where the thing that they are into has become accepted and normal. I’m fairly unread, but I did happen to catch Pandora’s Star, like, 5 years ago. At one point there’s some kind of powerful mature guy who has two sexy youths for sexing on his estate in spaceland. Where did these young adults come from? Why is their only reason for being there to service Mr. Cool? Kinda dystopian for them, even if Mr. Cool gets to show off how nobody gives him shit for being bi & poly… IN DA FUTURErrrr!

  6. 6

    I don’t want to be the male sci-fi fan jumping in to defend Peter F Hamilton, principally because I think there are some major issues with gender in his work, but the policewoman here is in fact one of the main protagonists in both this series and the subsequent Void trilogy and the character Sabbah vanishes forever almost immediately after that scene. I’m commenting more because the policewoman, Paula Myo, is my favourite character in the series than anything else. She is essentially Inspector Javert turned up to 11 but without the prejudices, and always struck me as being the moral centre of the series. One of the big downsides of Hamilton’s sprawling scattershot approach of throwing dozens of characters at you is it makes it really hard to know who or what you are supposed to be focusing on.

    Peter F Hamilton’s books definitely have issues with sexual and gender. It took about 9 giant sized novels for him to notice that, as the Great American Satan noted, maybe it was odd that so many of his high tech ‘advanced’ civilisations had lots of rich old men with harems of young women and think to address the fact, albeit perfunctorily. As to the gendered insults and sexually violent threats there might be a hand waving case to be made that highly extended lifespans and instantaneous travel could contribute to cultural stasis but it seems more like a failure of imagination and a willingness to just go with the current status quo.

    Looking at the reviews that tyro quotes I remember the queasy feeling reading parts of the Night’s Dawn series and wonder if I would still be able to enjoy it as much as I managed to as a teenager. Looking back there are a few books I wonder if I would try and slog through nowadays, the ones I definitely think I would have problems with are Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant and Gap series and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be any the worse if I’d just put them down and forgotten them.

    1. 6.1

      I don’t want to be the male sci-fi fan jumping in to defend Peter F Hamilton, principally because I think there are some major issues with gender in his work, but the policewoman here is in fact one of the main protagonists in both this series and the subsequent Void trilogy and the character Sabbah vanishes forever almost immediately after that scene.

      No, I think that’s an excellent point, and would be good motivation for me to continue reading if I were willing to deal with the bad gender politics. A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that the author seems to be using sexism as a shortcut to characterize Sabbah as A Shitty Person, which bothers me slightly less than condoning sexism wholesale, but it bothers me all the same.

  7. 7

    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.

    I really really hate the “realistic” excuse. This is compounded in science fiction set in the distant future. So in this aspect, society didn’t advance much? In his vision of the future sexism seems to be just where it is now. In sci-fi and fantasy, the author gets to determine what’s real, and what they make “real” is more a reflection of the author than anything else (for better or worse).

    I got into annoying arguments about this regarding video games. But really, what is it about sexism that’s so very important that in a setting that’s already incredibly unrealistic by design, that is something they just have to keep in?

  8. Rob
    8

    Yes, much of Peter Hamilton’s treatment of gender relations is problematic. Paula Myo is the ethical centre of the series, in part because of her genetic selection. Much of her behaviour is therefore genetically determined, not a matter of ethical choice. In partial mitigation of your concern regarding the lack of societal development it is important to consider the fact that lifespans have been extended by generations.

    Perhaps PFH is arguing that unless we modify our genome we are doomed to repeat the worst aspects of our behaviour because of the inbuilt nature of the human condition? I don’t know.

    As for Stephen Donaldson, those can be confronting and at times unpleasant and disturbing. I’d never argue anyone has to read any book like this if they didn’t want to. His stories are all very much about exploring the rather grey and murky nature of humanity, ethics, freedom and redemption. You can certainly argue with the form, but they are powerful.

    1. 8.1

      Just to follow up on Rob’s comment about social development. In this series of books, the super-rich leaders of their family groups are people who would be rich adults right now in the early 21st century. The timeline, as anchored by the historical Mars expedition in the books, indicates that those few elite people are essentially the immortalized selfish super-rich of today. They’re not people of the future, they’re people of right now, who have lived their way into the setting of the book.

      Now, that said, neither of the two characters mentioned in the original posting falls into this category, they’re people born in their time, not simply aged into it carrying all the baggage of their early lives. I doubt, though, that I could imagine a society in which the most rich and influential people were 500 year old zero-sum-thinking billionaires of today while the vast majority of the citizens grew up in what amounts to a want-free setting.

      1. Well, I think that the idea that “old” people cannot change their views is also a pretty limited view. I know plenty of 50-year-old men who would never think to call a woman a “bitch.” I know many people twice my age who fight tirelessly for the same causes I do. Even if these novels are set in a future that actually has many of the people who would be alive today, why are these people acting in a way that’s becoming increasingly stigmatized even today?

        But maybe that’s just a natural consequence of what Rob said about Hamilton’s apparent bio-determinism.

  9. 9

    Arguably one of the worst sexism-as-story-ruiner examples in all science fiction is Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, a truly fascinating exploration of the physics and cosmology of the time it was written – horribly marred by the plot contrivances required to produce some human drama in a novel perforce set entirely within a single spaceship.

  10. 10

    At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. […] I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction

    I don’t have any problem with this. As other commenters said, it’s a personal thing: we all have our boundaries and it’s no one’s business to tell you that you “should” keep reading.

    I’m not sure about my own boundaries. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I can forgive the author a lot. But how exactly? Ah, what does it take for a piece of fiction to get under one’s skin, to make it impossible to stop reading? I find this question very hard to answer.

    Some negative replies are pretty easy: in my case it’s certainly *not* that I require the characters to be sympathetic, it’s *not* that the author has to be a moralist, condemning them whenever they do something wrong, it’s even *not* that the author has to be “on the side of angels”. Well, as I said, the negative answers are easy. How about the positive ones? Yeah, ask me again … maybe in ten years.

    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? […] Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? […] Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails?


    Your list of questions to be asked by the critical reader evoked a memory. Long time ago I read an sf story “Houston, Houston, do you read” by James Tiptree Jr. (the real name was Alice Sheldon). Up to this day I remember it as one of the strongest literary experiences of my teenage years. The story made me sick. I read it back then (all of this is just a memory) as presenting male sexuality as something essentially (biologically) fucked up, with exploitation and violence always lurking under the surface. I read it as stating that the extinction of men (this is what happened in the story) was fully deserved and that the three accidental survivors also deserved to be killed by the female crew. I remember imagining myself being killed with them, with the accompanying thought that “this is what should happen”.

    As to your questions: I think I was unclear about the literary purpose. I had no doubt that “sexist passages” were meant to characterize the male protagonists as sexist and bad. The female characters seemed pleased with the trend (the elimination of men). Flinging sexism around definitely brought repercussions: after all, in the end the men were killed. I sympathized with the most decent male hero but I wasn’t sure if the reader was meant to sympathize with him. Last but not least, I had no idea who succeeded and who failed.

    For me, it was a truly sickening piece of fiction. Strangely enough, I also loved every line of it. Short of Armageddon, nothing could have stopped me from reading.

  11. AMM
    11

    Re: “Houston, Houston, do you read”

    I read that a long time ago. It didn’t make me sick, even though I identified with the protagonist. The story’s depiction of “normal male behavior” didn’t bother me because it wasn’t a lot different from my own impression of masculinity in our culture. I didn’t see it as saying anything particularly about men’s _biological_ nature, so much as about what society was like back before all the men died out. I didn’t think the women were so much “pleased” with the elimination of men as not really thinking about it, any more than most of us think about what the Germanic tribes were like two millennia ago. They’d been getting along fine without men and didn’t miss them. It was more that those women who interacted with the accidental survivors decided that the extinction of men was no real loss (cf. “When It Changed.”)

    1. AMM
      11.1

      Oh, as for the “literary purpose”: like a lot of science fiction, it’s sort of a thought experiment.

      What would happen if men ceased to exist and the human race had to get along without them, and then they were reintroduced after humanity had adapted to them not being around? More generally, it’s about whether humanity actually needs “masculinity,” as we understand it.

    2. 11.2

      AMM:

      As to the biological/cultural aspect, you may be right (I read the story more than 30 years ago, so what I wrote here is more like recollection of old impressions than the analysis of the text).

      I don’t particularly like though this whole “thought experiment” approach. It sounds too clinical and detached. It may be suitable when you have a story containing not much more than working out the details of a conceptual plan – you know, start with a general schema of the jigsaw (“what would happen if …”), then move one piece here, one there … Surely, there are such stories. After reading them, I often admire the ingenuity of the author, but generally they leave me cold and unmoved. I just don’t think “Houston, Houston, do you read” was one of them. (By the way, the description of The Handmaid’s Tale as a “thought experiment” would strike me as similarly misguided.)

      1. My take is that some of these ‘thought experiment’ stories are intended to be intellectual bankrupt sensationalism. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the SF/F past as pulp, where authors simply tried to sell excitement, not insightful social commentary, often by appealing to common prejudices and stereotypes, or strawmanning current ideological or social trends into absurdity.

  12. 13

    If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

    Isn’t it amazing. They can always imagine whole technologies, civilisations, magic and alien or fantastical races*, but they cannot for the love of dog think up a world in which people of all genders get treated equally** and where people of all human races take part in human endeavour.
    The limits of their imagination are pretty telling, IMO. They think it’s more likely that we manage intergalactic space travel than for men to treat women as actual people.
    I just read an interesting article: How to write a sexist character without being a sexist author

    *Who are almost always racist because they get treated as a homogenous group where everybody has the same culture and values
    **Which may mean equally bad. If your villain needs to commit crimes against civilians to establish them as the villain, do so. Just don’t use violence against women, especially sexualized violence as your go to prop.

  13. 14

    Good post!

    I don’t have much to add, except 1. this definitely factors into my decisions whether or not to keep reading/watching a piece of media, and thus I never recommend A Song of Ice and Fire without qualifications despite those books being my absolute favorites — just because I’m willing to accept a certain level of grossness in exchange for Martin’s wonderful characters and worldbuilding doesn’t mean the person I’m talking to will be — and 2. China Mieville is great.

  14. 15

    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.

    While I’ve only read the first one so far, it’s instructive to compare the Radch to the Republic of Cinnabar in David Drake’s RCN series ; both societies are “deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist”, but both are ostensibly equal in terms of gender and sexuality. The Radch doesn’t even have gendered pronouns, and the protagonist regularly has to stop and conciously remember that the local language does have them, and guess which one is right in the situation. Gender and sexuality based epithets are rendered in exactly that type of language, because the language the protagonist thinks in has absolutely no equivalent. In Drake’s series, he does a good job of presenting equality on the face of it; women and men appear in the same roles a roughly equivalent amount of the time, and peoples’ sexual preference is only noted when, e.g. they are cruising or being hit on. Displaying active, explicit prejudice towards women and/or LGBT people is a sign of being an ignorant hick from beyond ‘civilization’. Despite this, assorted misogynistic and/or homophobic insults and epithets are tossed around with regularity (and without regard to the gender of the speaker or the target), and there are numerous subtle bits of existing gender roles salted about. I honestly think (Intent, not magic, etc.; I think that it’s worth noting for comparative purposes, though) that Drake is totally unaware that he’s doing this, and would likely defend his setting as being as egalitarian in that regard as Leckie’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *